Two Tisbury special police officers are being sent to the Police Academy in Plymouth next month, but only after a spirited debate among members of the board of selectmen.
In a 2-1 vote Monday, with selectman Jim Rogers opposed because he wants the town’s new police chief to be able to pick his or her own officers, the board approved spending $6,000 to pay the tuition for the officers.
The town is in the process of interviewing applicants for police chief. Finalists could be presented to selectmen as early as next month.
Meanwhile, the town has a shortage of police officers, with several having moved to other towns and one retiring. The department has seven full-time officers and is budgeted for 14.
“The bad news is we’re so understaffed. The good news is we’re so understaffed. [Waiting] would allow a new chief to build their own department almost from ground up, because that’s how short-staffed we are,” Rogers said. “We’re so close to that process. We should ride it through.”
But Police Chief Daniel Hanavan, who is retiring himself, told the board Pierce Harrar and Nick Sidoti, who were in the meeting room during the sometimes uncomfortable discussion, have been good employees. Both have ties to the community and want to stay in Tisbury.
“It would be nice not to penalize them,” he said. “They stayed with us for two years, and worked all summer.”
Several times chairman Tristan Israel apologized to the officers, saying the discussion wasn’t about them, but about the process. “It’s about our incompetency as administrators,” Israel said.
Ultimately, Israel said the town should support sending the officers because a commitment had been made to them. “We gave the impression we were going to do something,” he said.
Both were signed to conditional employment in January, Hanavan said. They were accepted to the academy and passed all the prerequisites, which include physicals and mental health checks, he said. The next academy after the one that begins next month is in May, and there’s no guarantee they would have seats, Hanavan said.
Rogers proposed paying the academy tuition, but with no guarantee of employment. Israel and selectman Melinda Loberg didn’t like that idea, because the town could be paying to train officers who would then go and work for another town.
Instead the officers will sign an agreement saying they will stay with Tisbury for three years. If they don’t, they have to pay back the tuition at a prorated amount, Hanavan told the board.
Both Sidoti and Harrar thanked the board after the vote. “We appreciate it,” Harrar said as he got up to leave after the vote.
A third officer, John Goeckel, is in the State Police Academy in New Braintree. He is due to graduate next month, Hanavan said, and will help ease the crunch of losing Sidoti and Harrar to training for six months.
The board first discussed the possibility of paying the tuition of the two men in April and then again in June, during a discussion on overall department staffing. Paying for academy training appeared on the agenda last week, but was removed without explanation before the meeting.
“We just weren’t ready,” Israel told The Times Friday.
With a deadline looming, selectmen scheduled a rare Monday meeting. The board posted an executive session Monday night prior to the open meeting, “to conduct strategy sessions in preparation for contract negotiations with nonunion police personnel.” On Friday, Israel told The Times that the closed-door meeting would be to discuss the tuition and housing of the officers, though it’s unclear how that constituted a contract negotiation. That executive session was abruptly canceled on Monday, and the discussion about tuition was held in the open.
Also on Monday’s agenda was a separate item to consider paying for housing for Harrar and Sidoti while they are at the academy, but that was never discussed. Town administrator Jay Grande said at the outset of the meeting that he could not support spending the money to house the officers off-Island for the six months they’re at the Plymouth training site.
He estimated it would exhaust 65 percent of the budget for training, and would “tie the hands” of the new chief moving forward. After the meeting, Grande said that housing would have cost the town in excess of $10,000. He said the town has not paid for Police Academy housing during his time in town.
Septic grant sought for IHT
Selectmen unanimously authorized Grande to apply for a state grant that would benefit the Island Housing Trust (IHT) project proposed on Greenwood Avenue.
The town will seek a Housing Production Grant for $98,500 for a nitrogen-reducing septic system for the six-unit townhouse affordable development that’s under town review for permits.
The proposal is to use a NitROE system that’s already being tested in Tisbury and has been successfully used on Cape Cod, Philippe Jordi, executive director of IHT, told the board.
Jordi said the septic system has been approved by the board of health and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. If the town is awarded the grant next month, construction could begin on the project in November and be completed by the summer, Jordi said. Homeowners will be picked by lottery, with Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs residents getting at least three of the units.
In answering a question from Loberg on what would happen in the event the septic system doesn’t work properly, Jordi said IHT would be on the hook.
“We’re being held to the regulations,” he said, noting that they are in place to protect Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re not a developer that walks away.”