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Police division: Death, drugs divide department

Police Sergeant Bart Chamberlain testifies before Selectboard

Feb. 9, 2012

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

 

Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain appears before the Williston Selectboard on Feb. 6 to request that a disciplinary letter issued by Town Manager Rick McGuire be removed from his personnel record. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

A missing bag of cocaine and a fatal traffic accident were among the subjects discussed Feb. 6 at a Williston Selectboard grievance hearing that had all the earmarks of high courtroom drama.

Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, a 19-year veteran of the Williston Police Department, appeared before the Selectboard to request that a disciplinary letter issued by Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire be removed from his personnel record.

The letter, dated Oct. 26, 2011, maintains that Chamberlain circumvented the town’s chain of command by not consulting McGuire before emailing and subsequently meeting with Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan regarding his concern about several police department matters — including his belief that Williston Police Chief Roy Nelson notarized documents when he wasn’t commissioned as a notary public.

Chamberlain and Burlington-based attorney John Franco argued at the hearing that by notifying the state’s attorney of suspected wrongdoing, Chamberlain was performing his duty as a public servant and that his actions are protected under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

According to records obtained by the Observer, Chamberlain sent an email to Donovan on Dec. 29, 2010 requesting his “professional opinion” about the notary matter.

Donovan, testifying at the hearing, said he and Deputy State’s Attorney Mary Morrissey subsequently met with Chamberlain at Donovan’s Burlington office, where they discussed the notary issue and other departmental matters.

“Another part of this conversation was what sounded like a very toxic environment at the Williston Police Department, that I was frankly surprised by,” Donovan said. “What was disclosed and what was discussed were what appeared to be two warring camps within the police department.”

A BAG OF COCAINE

Also discussed at the meeting between Donovan and Chamberlain, according to testimony by both parties, was a September 2010 incident involving a bag of cocaine that disappeared from the top of Detective Michael Lavoie’s desk on a Friday afternoon. After an extensive — and ultimately fruitless — search on Friday that included drug-sniffing dogs, the cocaine was discovered the following Monday sitting next to Lavoie’s desk.

According to Chamberlain’s testimony, upon the discovery of the cocaine, Nelson declared the matter resolved.

Nelson testified that he was on the telephone with Donovan when the cocaine was discovered. When asked by Kerin Stackpole, the attorney for the town, if he explained to Donovan during the telephone conversation that the cocaine had been found, Nelson replied affirmatively.

Donovan testified that he first learned of the missing cocaine from Chamberlain.

“I know at some point I talked to Chief Nelson, but the first I heard of the cocaine was by Bart,” Donovan said.

Pressed by Stackpole on whether he remembered receiving a call from Nelson on the day the cocaine was found, Donovan responded: “I recall talking to Chief Nelson about it; I don’t recall whether or not it was that day.”

Donovan said he talked to McGuire after the meeting with Chamberlain and that he was satisfied with the town’s response to the incident of the missing cocaine.

“I was troubled, but after an explanation was given, I was satisfied with the response,” Donovan said.

THE HOLCOMB INCIDENT

Another topic raised by Chamberlain during his meeting with Donovan involved an incident that occurred on the night of Oct. 18, 2010 — when 73-year-old Dale Holcomb, after two interactions prior in the evening with Williston police officers in the parking lot of Shaw’s supermarket in Williston, struck a telephone pole on Vermont 2A near Hurricane Lane and was killed.

According to records obtained by the Observer, Officer Joshua Moore stated in a police report that he and Officer Keith Gonyeau responded to a call at approximately 10:13 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2010 regarding an elderly male (Holcomb) who was “slumped over the steering wheel of his vehicle” in the Shaw’s parking lot, and that, per dispatch, Officer Travis Trybulski had “dealt with this individual earlier in the evening for a similar complaint.”

According to an officer’s report and summary letter sent to Nelson by Chamberlain (both dated Oct. 21, 2010), Chamberlain alleged that there were discrepancies between Moore’s report and the police cruiser video from the evening of the incident — including the omission of a conversation between Officers Moore and Gonyeau regarding the presence of pills in Holcomb’s car, and a debate between the officers about whether Holcomb had medical issues or was “96” (a person with mental disabilities).

Nelson, when questioned by Stackpole at the hearing, said he reviewed Moore’s Oct. 27, 2010 response to Chamberlain’s report and was satisfied by its contents.

“I reviewed the response, as related to the questions that Sgt. Chamberlain had brought up,” Nelson said. “I was satisfied with the response, and I didn’t consider the matter (needed) to be looked at any further.”

McGuire told the Selectboard that he made Donovan aware of the fact that former Deputy Chittenden County State’s Attorney Colin McNeil had independently investigated the Holcomb incident, and that he provided a copy of McNeil’s report to Donovan.

Donovan told the Selectboard that he reviewed McNeil’s report and didn’t think further investigation was warranted.

“After I read Mr. McNeil’s report, I was satisfied by the department and the town’s response,” Donovan said.

CLOSING ARGUMENTS

The decision before the Selectboard is whether or not to uphold the disciplinary action against Chamberlain.

Prior to adjourning the hearing, Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig gave attorneys Franco and Stackpole the opportunity to argue their respective sides.

Franco spoke first.

“Bart’s concerns were reasonable. He is not required by law to exhaust all communications; he may go through the chain of command if he elects to, but he is not required by any case law,” Franco said. “The bigger problem here is you don’t have any clear standards here about what somebody in Bart’s position is supposed to do. You don’t have anything in your personnel policies or in your ethical policies to specifically address a situation like this.”

Franco concluded: “You cannot have a rule that prohibits people with reasonable concerns about wrongdoing in a (town) department to prohibit them, as a matter of personnel policy, from going to an enforcement authority with those concerns.”

Stackpole followed.

“There is no whistleblower statute in Vermont that covers this particular situation. The federal whistleblower statute that (Franco) continues to talk about is not applicable in this situation,” Stackpole said.

She summated: “The bottom line is, (Chamberlain) stepped outside the chain of command, not just for the purposes of, ‘I’ve got to discharge my duty,’ but because he had an ax to grind with Chief Nelson, and he had an ax to grind with other individuals who in fact had claimed a hostile work environment from him.”

Macaig closed the hearing by informing all present that the Selectboard will meet in executive session to deliberate on the matter, following receipt of formal written responses from both attorneys.

The Observer will post updates on its website as more information becomes available.

 

How to watch Monday’s Selectboard meeting

Monday’s Williston Selectboard meeting will be broadcasted on Channel 17/Town Meeting Television at the following times:

  • Saturday, Feb. 11, 8 p.m.
  •  Sunday, Feb. 12, 1 a.m.
  • Sunday, Feb. 12, 7 a.m.

The meeting is also available via a webcast, in two parts, at the following addresses:

http://www.cctv.org/watch-tv/programs/williston-selectboard-part-1-1

http://www.cctv.org/watch-tv/programs/williston-selectboard-part-2-1