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Regional Report: Search Continues For Thetford Police Chief

The Selectboard and members of the police chief search committee Monday night revealed that Thetford had formally offered the position of police chief to two candidates, and both of them turned it down, at least in part, because of the compensation package.

“A lot of this is about money. ... Your top two people rejected partially because of money,” Vermont State Police Lt. Russ Robinson, a search committee member, said during the Selectboard meeting at Town Hall. “If you have the right person, you might have to pay a little more.”

Earlier, Selectman Donn Downey, the board’s liaison to the police department, had asked if the town would have to lower its standards to find the chief it’s looking for.

“We have expensive tastes,” he said. “We’re not willing to foot the bill.”

Near the end of the meeting, the board unanimously voted to direct the search committee to re-evaluate the existing pool of candidates, while also agreeing to allow others to apply and to spread word that more applicants would be welcome.

The process to hire a replacement for former Chief Jim Lanctot, who stepped down over the summer, hit a wall last week when the town’s top choice, a sergeant in the Ludlow, Vt., department, withdrew his acceptance of a conditional offer, which had been announced about a week earlier.

At the time of the announcement a week earlier, Downey told the Valley News that Richard A. King would make $62,880 a year, based on the town’s wage matrix, which calculates compensation based on an employee’s years of relevant experience.

Lanctot was making $60,445 annually when he departed in May, according to information from the town.

King has declined to publicly elaborate on his reasons for withdrawing his acceptance, and the town has refused to make his withdrawal letter public, arguing that it is protected as a public record because officials consider it a hiring document.

During Monday’s meeting, Downey said the wage matrix is “fairly strict” and the board is “trying to honor the framework,” but if the search committee comes back and says that the matrix has to be re-examined, the board could take that into consideration.

He said the town’s compensation offers run from about $54,700 for a chief with no experience to about $70,000 on the high end, a range that turned out to be about 10 percent to 20 percent lower than what candidates were seeking.

Another one of the top three candidates, Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson, who has been serving as interim chief in Thetford, said after the meeting that he was not one of the two people who was formally offered the job.

Robinson, who previously made public that he was one of the three finalists in Thetford but said he was not sure if he would leave Norwich, said that Thetford has not asked him to reapply and he is no longer interested in the position.

He said he feels embedded in Norwich and the public support there recently has been “overwhelming.”

The board took no action on its contract with the town of Norwich for Robinson’s services. The contract is set to expire Nov. 9.

Downey, who said Norwich was “amenable” to extending the contract, withdrew his motion to extend the contract after Town Clerk Tracy Borst suggested there should be more discussions about police officer shifts with the involved parties before extending any contract.

The motion to return the ball to the search committee, also made by Downey, came at the tail end of little more than 30 minutes of discussion in which board members said they had learned more about what they are looking for in a candidate, and some of the three search committee members in attendance underscored the need for all people involved in the hiring process to be on the same page.

“There has to be a pledge, an oath if you will, by anybody working on this committee that you do not advocate for one individual in the process,” said Bradford Police Chief Jeff Stiegler. “Everybody has to remain objective and, most importantly, close-lipped.”

Mark McMahon, chairman of the search committee made up of about 10 people, said he was in the search “for the long haul” and would check with other committee members to make sure they are still willing to be on the committee. If not, he will be seeking additional members.

He said there were about 10 of the initial candidates who probably could fit into the Thetford community. The search committee had previously narrowed a pool of 28 candidates down to six and then sent the top three to the Selectboard for interviews.

McMahon told the Selectboard he would “probably have to sit down with you guys one more time to try to clarify some things that created some bumps in the road at the end” and a “little bit of confusion,” so that applicants will be better prepared for the Selectboard’s questions.

Selectman Mike Pomeroy said in addition to talking to the current candidates and reopening the search, another option he saw was to “throw it all up in the air” and look at all options related to the department’s role in town.

Selectman John Bacon said the committee should try to move ahead with the search again before resorting to that option.

At the beginning of the Selectboard meeting, during public comment, resident Laurie Ingalls said she thought the town should prematurely end its contract with Robinson following an intentionally set fire that destroyed the town’s three police cruisers earlier this month. The fire, still under investigation, has some similarities to a blaze that destroyed Norwich’s three cars in 2012.

The 2012 Norwich fire was determined at the time to be accidental but is being reviewed by the investigator on the Thetford fire. Ingalls said if the fires are the work of somebody has a grudge against Robinson, she doesn’t want that to hurt Thetford, a sentiment that was seconded by another couple in attendance.

Another man spoke up to counter that Robinson is doing a great job and that ending his contract because of the suspicious fire didn’t make sense.

Maggie Cassidy is a reporter for the Valley News.

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