VERNON -- An aging Ford Crown Victoria has become the symbol of an ongoing, worsening battle between this town's Selectboard and its Police Department.
In the most recent incident, the board took the cruiser off the road for a week, leaving police Chief Mary Beth Hebert "furious" and frustrated with what she characterizes as a counterproductive power struggle.
"Communication, in my opinion, between the Police Department and the Selectboard is at critical failure," Hebert told the Reformer on Thursday.
Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell sees things much differently.
"The Selectboard has never closed its doors to any department," O'Donnell told the Reformer, also on Thursday. "But as a Selectboard, we have decisions to make, and they are not always popular."
The board and police administrators have been at odds all summer over whether the town should replace the department's 2005 Crown Victoria. It is the oldest of the department's three cruisers and has logged nearly 140,000 miles.
Town Meeting voters authorized funding for a new vehicle, and the Selectboard in May voted to buy the cruiser pending approval by a volunteer finance committee.
But the finance committee advised against that plan, saying the current cruiser has not reached the end of its useful life. Furthermore, officials say a new, nine-year vehicle-replacement policy also was approved at Town Meeting -- and the Crown
The Selectboard has backed the committee's findings, while Hebert and police Sgt. Bruce Gauld have warned of high mileage, mechanical problems and potential liability issues.
It was Gauld who suggested an evaluation by a second mechanic. But the manner in which that evaluation occurred -- and what happened afterward -- is causing controversy.
On Thursday, Aug. 23, Selectboard member Christiane Howe and a member of the finance committee took the car to a Brattleboro mechanic. Police officials contend that was inappropriate and possibly illegal, adding that they were offered no input on when and where the cruiser was taken.
Hebert said O'Donnell rejected an earlier service appointment and set up an evaluation by her personal mechanic.
"Conflict of interest?" the chief asked.
O'Donnell scoffed at that, saying the mechanic was chosen "because he works on cruisers and he works on Crown Vics."
Selectboard members said the mechanic's subsequent report was troubling: The car had worn front tires, no emergency brake and faulty brakes, O'Donnell said.
"We really had no choice but to ground the car," she said.
With Hebert out of the office due to illness, Gauld was informed of that decision later that night. But Hebert claims the cruiser's issues have been greatly exaggerated.
She is keeping the cruiser's since-replaced front tires in her office as proof. She claims that they were nowhere near "bald" as officials have stated, and she says the car's brakes did not pose any danger.
"It is a blatant distortion of the facts," Hebert said.
The Crown Victoria was repaired -- to the tune of several hundred dollars, officials said -- and returned to service Friday, Aug. 30. With two other cruisers available, Hebert said the car's absence did not pose a public safety problem.
But she said the incident sheds light on a larger pattern of behavior aimed at undermining her authority as chief.
"If I'm not allowed to run the Police Department, then why am I here?" Hebert asked.
At a Tuesday meeting, a majority of Selectboard members voted to retroactively authorize their actions regarding the cruiser. O'Donnell said that, due to the car's mechanical issues, "The board felt that this was a decision that required immediate attention" before a formal vote could be held.
Town attorney Richard Coutant attended the meeting and said the Selectboard had authority to take action on the cruiser.
While the department is supervised by the chief, Coutant said, the police force also is "concurrently and ultimately subject to the authority of town government."
Added Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee: "These are the taxpayers' vehicles. The departments don't own these vehicles."
The Selectboard had been presenting a united front on the matter, with O'Donnell repeatedly saying officials simply are acting in a fiscally responsible manner.
"We are not going to be buying a car until the car that we have is at the end of its useful life," she said Tuesday.
But Selectman Bob Miller now is dissenting. He walked out of Tuesday's meeting before the police vote and, in a later interview, said he supports purchasing a new cruiser and does not condone the board's actions.
"I strongly disagree with what they're doing," Miller said. "And we're not going to save any big money (by waiting to buy a cruiser)."
For Hebert, the dispute has reached beyond the question of whether to purchase a car.
"Police work in general is a very stressful job," Hebert said. "When you are being undermined and micromanaged, it just adds to the stress."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.