Thursday October 4, 2012

VERNON -- Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark now has an additional job title -- interim police chief in Vernon.

Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O’Donnell said the move was necessary and temporary: Clark will fill in on a part-time schedule and only until Chief Mary Beth Hebert, who is out on medical leave, returns to duty in perhaps a few months.

"We felt we really needed to get somebody in there," O’Donnell said.

But Hebert protested, saying the department has been running smoothly under the leadership of her second-in-command, Sgt. Bruce Gauld.

"This is so unnecessary," Hebert said. "I’m just at a loss as to what it is they’re trying to accomplish."

Clark, who is in his sixth year as sheriff and formerly served as Bellows Falls police chief and as a state trooper, said his job is to "provide some management and administrative oversight" in Vernon.

Clark said he plans no major changes in Vernon, and he said his service there will not interfere with his full-time job as sheriff.

"I just feel as though I can, in the very short term, manage this in a way that benefits the town of Vernon and the police department," Clark said.

He will be paid on an hourly basis. O’Donnell on Wednesday said details of Clark’s contract still were being finalized.

He actually was the Vernon Selectboard’s second chief appointment this week.

The board on Monday had named Richard Guthrie, a longtime local police officer who served a stint as Brattleboro’s chief, to run the town’s department during Hebert’s absence.

But officials learned on Tuesday that Guthrie, in order to update his state certification, likely would need to attend a training session that was not available until December.

"That wasn’t going to help us," O’Donnell said.

So Vernon officials on Tuesday afternoon contacted Clark, who said he was "caught completely by surprise" by the inquiry.

"I was not aware that Chief Hebert had been out," he said.

The Selectboard met with Clark Tuesday evening during what officials termed an emergency meeting. O’Donnell said the board had legal authority to conduct such a session to address the chief appointment.

"The statutes do provide for an emergency meeting," O’Donnell said.

Christiane Howe, the Selectboard’s vice chairwoman, sent out an e-mail notification of the emergency meeting a few hours before it started. She cited a Selectboard handbook rule allowing those sessions without normal public notification provided that "some sort of notice must be made as soon as possible before an emergency meeting."

In response to a request for clarification from the Reformer, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos cited a similarly worded rule. The statute also says such meetings "may be held only when necessary to respond to an unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention by the public body."

Condos added that, in his interpretation, "there is very little reason for an ‘emergency’ meeting short of an act of God."

But O’Donnell said Selectboard members thought it was important to quickly address the police matter.

"It was either that or wait another two weeks" until the next regular board meeting, she said.

Those issues aside, Hebert said she was frustrated that she was given no indication that the board was going to address the matter at all this week. Hebert said she first learned of Guthrie’s appointment via e-mail after it had happened Monday evening.

"I wasn’t asked about any of this," she said.

She also does not understand why Gauld’s leadership is not sufficient.

"He is always in charge of the department when I’m out," Hebert said. "Suddenly, they’ve decided that’s not going to happen."

O’Donnell, however, said Gauld’s status as a police union leader means he should not also serve as a department head.

"You can’t wear two hats," she said. "You can’t be a union member in the process of negotiations and also lead the police department."

She said Clark was recommended by Guthrie and is the right choice to provide short-term leadership in the department.

"We’ve had the sheriff’s department fill in from time to time when we’ve needed it in Vernon," O’Donnell said. "So it seemed like a perfect fit."