VERNON -- After a few weeks as Vernon's interim police chief, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark said he has found no "major issues" that must be addressed within the small department.
But Clark, in his first report to the Vernon Selectboard, also acknowledged that he has stepped into a complicated situation as the department's temporary leader.
Vernon's officers "are working with me. They're not pleased," Clark said. "There's a little confusion about who their chief is and what their roles are. I can understand that."
With Vernon Chief Mary Beth Hebert out on medical leave, the Selectboard earlier this month appointed Clark to fill in until she returns. Clark has said the Vernon job, for which he is paid $35 per hour, is not full-time and will not interfere with his duties as sheriff.
Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said the move was necessary to keep the department running smoothly and to curb overtime due to a lack of manpower.
But the appointment was controversial, spurring an open-meeting-law complaint from a resident and a grievance from Vernon police Sgt. Bruce Gauld, who contends he was unfairly passed over by the Selectboard.
Also, Hebert has criticized Clark's hiring as "unnecessary," saying Gauld was handling administrative functions in her absence.
So it follows that Clark would open his appearance at Monday's Selectboard meeting by saying, "I assumed you would want me here for a
He began with a recommendation that's sure to spark even more discussion: The department's aging Crown Victoria cruiser, Clark said, should be replaced.
"I do think that needs to occur soon," he said. "It's going to really start to nickel-and-dime you."
The cruiser has been a contentious issue. Though money has been allocated for a new car and Hebert has lobbied for replacement, a majority of the Selectboard -- acting on a recommendation from the town's finance committee -- has maintained that the Crown Victoria has not reached the end of its useful life.
O'Donnell stuck to that viewpoint on Monday, saying the board is "no different from where we were three months ago."
"If it doesn't need to be replaced, we're not going to replace it," she said.
Marylynn Scherlin, who chairs the finance committee, said officials soon will begin hashing out the new capital plan that Vernon voters will approve in March. The cruiser will be part of that discussion.
"We're going to be reviewing the capital plan to see if the expenditures and the value warrant replacement," Scherlin said.
Clark told Selectboard members on Monday that the town's policy on buying new police vehicles needs more clarity.
"The police department needs to work with the board and the finance committee to come up with something in writing that defines ‘useful life,'" he said.
Vehicle issues aside, Clark said he has been reviewing the department's operations, including the types of emergency calls officers receive. The most common calls are for trespassing and animal complaints; the latter category has spurred more than 70 calls this year.
Vernon police also are busy making traffic stops: Since Jan. 1, police have issued 306 warnings and 30 citations, Clark said.
"That can be looked at from different perspectives," he said.
On one hand, the high number of warnings could be seen as a "community-policing approach" in which officers don't always resort to punitive measures.
On the other hand, Clark said, "it's not necessarily always the right thing to do to just issue warnings."
While he is providing administrative guidance, Clark reiterated Monday that the department is Hebert's and that he plans no big changes.
"Overall, the department doesn't have any major issues I can see at this point," Clark said.
In assessing Clark's role, O'Donnell said the sheriff will work only "what hours he needs to work" in Vernon and will depart upon Hebert's return. She also said Clark's time in Vernon is "kind of an opportunity to look into the police department and get a new perspective."
That new perspective could involve new initiatives such as leasing cruisers, an idea floated at Monday's board meeting. Clark said he has not heard of departments using that arrangement but would check into it.
"I think that's a really different idea," O'Donnell said. "I certainly think it's worth looking into."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.