It's in the details: Road work is center of Auburn fight
Auburn voters will weigh in on how their police department should be managed and by whom at the upcoming town meeting as a petitioned warrant article to abolish the Auburn Police Commission is set to appear on the ballot.
The petitioned article asks "Shall the town rescind its action of March 12, 1996 entrusting the Government of the Town Police Department to a Police Commission?"
Only 13 communities in New Hampshire have police commissions, with varying legal standings and responsibilities. Unlike communities such as Hooksett, which established their commissions through their town charter and as a result required a 2011 bill out of the state General Court to have the ability to abolish them, Auburn's commission was formed through a 1996 warrant article and can be abolished with one.
Part of the debate in Auburn is over the merits of a divided government managing the department. The Board of Selectmen maintains budgetary authority over the department and some of the liability responsibility. Responsibility for personnel and the budget management rest with the commission.
"It sets up a divided government," said Town Administrator Bill Herman.
"The Police Commission, by statute, is not totally autonomous from the town. And the two boards don't always see eye to eye. ... It's not a great way to run an operation, particularly in a small government structure like the town of Auburn."
The commission's supporters, however, say it is precisely that division which makes the commission important.
"I would hope that the people would see that they should vote no on it, because I feel that the commission provides great checks and balances on the town government," said Auburn Police Captain Gary Bartis. "It's an extra layer of town government to ensure integrity. I'd also like to stress that if there were no police commission, it would tax an already overburdened board of selectmen with another task."
When asked if he felt the commission was an effective way to manage a department, Bartis said "absolutely."
The petition has 27 signatures; 25 are required for the article to appear on the ballot. Of the 27, many of the signatories are members of the town government or town boards. These include Police Commissioner Dennis McCarthy, Fire Chief Bruce Phillips, Road Agent Michael Dross, member of multiple town boards (including highway safety and zoning) Michael DiPietro and Planning and Zoning Board Secretary Denise Royce
Beyond differences in the philosophy of government, however, the selectmen, commission and the young Auburn Police Union have been involved in a number of political disputes. The most recent disagreement stemmed from the passage a road work ordinance that allowed contractors to hire private traffic flaggers rather than a police detail, which is more expensive.
Before the ordinance passed, the police department attempted to have detail pay raised by $3. The attempt failed, but it was able to reach an agreement with the town that certain roads require a detail.
The new ordinance exempted town work from that requirement.
The commission issued a letter in August criticizing the ordinance and asking the selectmen to repeal it, arguing that its language on "officer conduct" was an inappropriate encroachment on the responsibilities of the department and the commission.
The Auburn Police Union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the ordinance in November. In January, however, as a "sidebar negotiation" during the union's first contract negotiation in the town, it was agreed that the complaint would be suspended for 90 days while the town and the union attempted to come to some mutual agreement.
The issue came to a head when a contractor, Advanced Excavating and Paving, was issued a court summons by Auburn police in September for using private flaggers on Rattlesnake Hill Road. A Circuit Court judge dismissed the case earlier this month.
Many of the petition's signatories, Dross in particular, are connected to town planning and road work. Several of the signatories, including Steve Vanni, Dan Carpenter, and Dross, were on the committee which developed the ordinance.
The deliberative session of the Auburn Town Meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Auburn Village School. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 12 at the same location.
The town of Hooksett will also place a petitioned warrant to abolish its own police commission on the town ballot in May. Detractors allege department micromanaging and a lack of transparency; supporters say the commission has brought a once-troubled department back onto a positive path.