Two-town shared chief plan advances
Tisbury, Oak Bluffs now look at details of possible pact to share a police chief
The Tisbury and Oak Bluffs selectmen stepped up their discussions about possibly sharing a police chief at a joint meeting Tuesday night at the Oak Bluffs Library. Despite announcing a few weeks ago that such talks were only in the preliminary stage, the selectmen agreed Tuesday to start the process of examining the pros and cons now.
"The devil is in the details," a phrase many uttered repeatedly throughout the evening, proved the 50-minute meeting's theme.
Taking a first step, the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury selectmen nominated two members from each town to serve on a new joint police chief committee that will examine all of the issues involved in a shared arrangement. They also formally asked Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake if he would be interested in serving as chief of both towns, and he indicated his interest and willingness to discuss it.
Tisbury selectman chairman Tristan Israel ran the meeting, which was attended by all of the Tisbury selectmen and Oak Bluffs selectmen except Roger Wey, who was recovering from eye surgery.
Providing some background as to why the boards were discussing sharing a police chief, Mr. Israel explained that Tisbury Police Chief Ted Saulnier will leave his post on June 30 and that the town is in the process of choosing his replacement. He said that the search for a new police chief provides Tisbury with a "window of opportunity" for considering a shared arrangement with Oak Bluffs and putting the idea "out there on the table."
"If we decide to explore this further, we won't be able to work out all of the details tonight," Mr. Israel said. "The police chief search committee has been meeting, and we need to be forthcoming with them. We will allow them to continue their work, but if we are going in a different direction, we need to let them know."
He suggested two options look promising - having a police chief who would oversee both the Tisbury and Oak Bluffs police departments or putting a Tisbury police lieutenant in charge of the Tisbury department under the supervision of the Oak Bluffs police chief.
Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico cut right to the chase. "There are two questions to ask. Are both towns interested, and is the chief interested?"
Chief Blake said he definitely is. He announced he will resign from his seat on Tisbury's police chief search committee to avoid any conflict of interest, now that the selectmen are seriously considering a shared arrangement that would involve him.
In comments made after the meeting, Chief Blake said, "We have a close department. The issues that some of the officers have brought up are more about let's figure out where this is going. Although I can't speak for them, I think they will be glad to be no longer dealing with rumors."
He said he believes he could serve as police chief for both towns "in a way that would not take away from the flavor of either town." Chief Blake said he has known officers in both towns during his 19 years in the Oak Bluffs department, and hopes he is well respected throughout both departments.
"I don't blame anyone for having concerns and fears. When this all comes to light, I think officers will see what we're talking about may not necessarily affect their day-to-day operations," Chief Blake said.
Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Dutton recalled that past discussions about regionalization never came to fruition partly because of the complexities of creating a regional police district. He agreed that sharing a police chief should prove less difficult to arrange and merits consideration.
The two main issues as Mr. Dutton sees them are deciding how to structure the framework of an inter-municipal agreement for a joint police chief, and how to structure a framework to guide the towns through contract negotiations with Chief Blake.
After listening to the other selectmen's generally favorable comments about sharing a police chief, Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott expressed her skepticism. "I'll be waiting to hear about the details. I'm not as convinced as everybody at this table that this is a good idea. It's an opportunity, but it would be unfortunate to do anything this groundbreaking with a deadline or a rush."
"I don't see it as a rush job," Mr. Pachico responded. "We can appoint an acting lieutenant and an acting chief. I don't like rushing into something either."
In considering past inter-municipal agreements between Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, Ms. Scott said she thought "Oak Bluffs has gotten the short end of the stick." Her comment caused one Tisbury resident in the audience to mutter, "Ouch!"
She said she favors a true regionalization plan over an inter-municipal agreement to share a police chief. Her concern is that Oak Bluffs taxpayers would be short-changed by paying for a full-time police chief who would only serve half-time. Mr. Pachico assured her the police chief would continue to serve full-time, but would be responsible for overseeing a bigger territory.
Recalling past Island-wide discussions, Mr. Israel said, "Looking back at what we have discussed before about regionalization, with six police chiefs, umpteen sergeants and a large amount of money spent to run separate departments, any attempt to try to move in the direction of regionalization, even on a smaller scale, is worth a look."
Oak Bluffs selectman Gregory Coogan agreed. "The reality is for this to work, we need to take a small step. If it is well done, it may open up other opportunities."
One opportunity might include pooling resources. For example, on days when the Steamship Authority diverts all ferry traffic into Vineyard Haven because of bad weather, some Oak Bluffs police officers could provide extra manpower. Conversely, when Oak Bluffs experiences heavy pedestrian and traffic volume, particularly late at night, Tisbury officers could assist.
Mr. Pachico proposed a trial shared police chief arrangement for a year, with a six-month review to examine how well it is working. "I have full confidence your chief could handle both towns, but if it becomes too cumbersome for the chief, I don't think it would be fair to have him locked into it," he said.
Mr. Israel suggested nominating two members from each town to a committee that would sit down and hammer out the specifics. He nominated Mr. Wortman and Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee. Mr. Coogan nominated Mr. Dutton and Oak Bluffs town administrator Casey Sharpe, who recently resigned but will remain on the job for 60 days.
Mr. Bugbee already has done some of the new committee's homework. In a memo to the selectmen he prepared for Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Bugbee outlined talking points such as a term of agreement, possible legal obstacles and issues, hours of work, compensation, oversight concerns, and shared resources.
In response to an invitation for public questions and comments, Ann Margaretson of Oak Bluffs chided the Tisbury selectmen for bypassing the voters in seeking to change the structure of the police department. "I'm appalled you would be sitting here discussing this. Have your voters even been informed of this?" she asked.
Mr. Israel told her he felt comfortable investigating the idea at this point in time. Deacon Perrotta, who serves in a regionalized position as the water superintendent for both towns, defended the selectmen. "Not everything has to be micro-managed by the populace," he said.
Deborah Medders, Tisbury's town moderator, cautioned the selectmen, "Because we are a town that two times saw inter-department issues played out in the Island newspapers, I would ask that you confer with both towns' police departments and staff. Start canvassing the respective departments internally and give them a chance to respond privately."
She also suggested, "As an aside, you might confer with teenagers for their input. It might be fun."
The selectmen did agree it would be important to hold discussions with Chief Blake and the officers and staff members in both police departments. Mark Santon, a Tisbury police officer who attended the meeting, told the selectmen, "I know members of our department would be interested in knowing how these proceedings go."
Mr. Pachico said he has broached the subject with most of the Tisbury police officers one-on-one. Mr. Dutton said he thought it also would be helpful to talk to the Oak Bluffs police officers one-on-one as well, because a public session could dampen their discussions.
"I urge as many sessions to be held as possible in open session. The more input, the better," said Ms. Scott.
Looking ahead, Mr. Israel reminded all of the selectmen that in the next six weeks Tisbury has to make a leadership decision about its police department. "I think we wouldn't be here if we didn't know your timing. We're all aware the timing is now," said Mr. Coogan.
The two boards agreed to Mr. Israel's request for another joint meeting in two weeks to continue discussion and hear a report from the newly formed joint police chief committee.