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Selectboard rules on police sergeant grievance

Disciplinary letter will remain, with redactions

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Sgt. Bart Chamberlain. (File photo)

Roughly two months ago, Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain sat in a stiff-backed chair in the Town Hall meeting room and testified before the Williston Selectboard in protest to a written disciplinary warning issued to him by Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire.

At Monday’s Selectboard meeting, Chairman Terry Macaig delivered a summary of the Selectboard’s decision, which granted the grievance in part and denied it in part.

McGuire’s written warning, dated Oct. 26, 2011, asserted that Chamberlain circumvented the town’s chain of command by not consulting with McGuire prior to meeting with Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan regarding several departmental issues – including Police Chief Roy Nelson allegedly notarizing documents without a notary commission; a bag of cocaine that went missing from police evidence and inexplicably reappeared; and an incident involving a 73-year-old Williston resident who died from injuries sustained in a traffic accident after previously passing out at the wheel of his car in the Shaw’s supermarket parking lot and being awakened on two occasions by members of the Williston Police Department, including Officer Joshua Moore.

McGuire’s letter specifically addressed the latter incident by stating that Chamberlain made allegations that “Officer Moore had lied in his report relating to that incident and that he had been derelict in his duties.”

The letter also states that Chamberlain “intentionally undermined Officer Moore’s credibility by accusing him of not being accurate or honest” regarding an April 2009 incident involving the arrest by Moore of the son of Dispatcher Deborah Davis on suspicion of DUI – an allegation investigated by town-appointed attorney Colin McNeil, who found the claim to be “without merit,” per McGuire’s letter.

SELECTBOARD FINDINGS

The eight-page, single-spaced Selectboard decision letter summarized by Macaig at Monday’s meeting is dense and refutes much of the case law cited by Chamberlain’s attorney, John Franco, who asserted at the Feb. 6 Selectboard hearing that his client acted as a whistleblower and was protected under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

In summary form, it contains the following conclusions:

  • That the legal arguments made and “whistleblower” protections cited by Sergeant Chamberlain do not apply literally to the circumstances of this grievance.
  • That the Town’s issuance of the Oct. 26, 2011 written warning was not unlawful in any way.
  • That the warning letter did contain several factual inaccuracies.
  •  That Sergeant Chamberlain’s communications with the State’s Attorney appear to have been motivated substantially by his desire to fortify his position vis-à-vis his disputes with other members of the Police Department.

That public policy reasons support the concept that police officers should be able to communicate with the State’s Attorney directly where necessary in some circumstances.
The “factual inaccuracies” referenced in the summary conclusions were primarily informed by testimony provided by State’s Attorney Donovan at the Feb. 6 Selectboard hearing.

Specifically, the Selectboard found that it was Donovan – not Chamberlain – who requested an in-person meeting, and that Chamberlain’s revelations regarding the missing cocaine and the traffic fatality were prompted by Donovan’s question to Chamberlain about “what else is going on” in the police department besides Chamberlain’s assertions regarding Chief Nelson’s improper use of a notary stamp.

Therefore, the board ruled that “it is most appropriate on balance to strike reference to chain-of-command issues from the warning letter.” Further redactions include the assertions that Chamberlain didn’t tell Donovan that the missing cocaine had been recovered (Donovan testified that he did) and all references to Chamberlain allegedly trying to discredit the reputation of Chief Nelson.

However, the board concluded that because of the several months that elapsed between the incidents Chamberlain reported to Donovan and their actual meeting – plus the fact that at the time of Chamberlain’s meeting with Donovan he was involved in “personal disputes with other officers and the Chief about charges and counter-charges regarding the working environment at the Police Department” – that “we cannot conclude that Sergeant Chamberlain genuinely acted as a ‘whistleblower’ in the circumstances at issue in this matter, or that the warning letter’s criticisms of him were unjustified in all respects.”

COUNSEL’S RESPONSE

Attorney Franco told the Observer on Tuesday that he sent a letter to Jeffrey Nolan, attorney for the Selectboard, and Kerin Stackpole, attorney for the town, requesting additional redactions from the warning letter.

Specifically, Franco objected to the letter’s concluding paragraph, which sets expectations for strict adherence to the town’s chain of command and doesn’t include whistleblower provisions – although Franco acknowledged that whistleblower issues are uncharted territory in Vermont case law.

“One of the problems is that the Vermont courts haven’t addressed this (whistleblower) issue,” Franco said.

But Franco added that regardless of the form of legal dispute, personal motive shouldn’t discredit salient facts presented to the state’s attorney’s office.

“In none of the case law I’ve seen is bad motive really relevant,” he said.

Removing his attorney’s hat for a moment and speaking as a well-informed observer of the Williston Police Department, Franco commented: “I hope what comes out of this is that everybody takes a deep breath, because there have been a lot of bad feelings in the department. So hopefully the department is on the mend.”