VERNON -- The town's former police chief was unjustly fired after making inaccurate statements at public meetings in 2009, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The court determined that there is not enough evidence to show that former Chief Kevin Turnley "knowingly and deliberately" misled the Vernon Selectboard and the public about the relocation of a sex offender to the town.
However, it remained unclear on Friday whether Turnley now could be reinstated to his old job or whether town officials have other options to resolve the matter.
"I think it's fair to say there are options available, and what options the town chooses to take are up to the town," said Sharon Annis, a Brattleboro attorney who handled the case on behalf of Turnley.
Burlington attorney John Leddy, representing Vernon, could not say much until further reviewing the Supreme Court's ruling as well as an earlier decision upheld by the court.
"We're still reviewing the decision, and we must also review the Superior Court's March 2012 ruling," Leddy said. "We haven't had the opportunity to confer with town officials just yet."
The issue dates to October 2009, when Turnley said he had no prior knowledge of a sex offender moving into Vernon. But an earlier e-mail from the state contradicted that claim.
The Selectboard fired Turnley that same month, accusing him of "conduct unbecoming an officer."
Turnley subsequently initiated two legal battles with the town.
First, he had claimed he was owed back pay for as many as 1,335 overtime hours. The state Superior Court ruled against Turnley in that case, and the Supreme Court last summer upheld that ruling.
But Turnley also had pursued a wrongful-termination lawsuit, and he found support in the courts for that stance. Windham Superior Court Civil Division sided with him in March 2012, and the Supreme Court on Friday agreed that Turnley was wrongly fired.
There apparently is general agreement that Turnley's statements were inaccurate. But what matters, the court said, is Turnley's intent when he made those statements.
"We have no difficulty agreeing with the town's reasonable argument that lying and a reputation for dishonesty would compromise a police chief's ability to carry out his official duties," the Supreme Court decision says.
Additionally, the court acknowledged that "a reputation for dishonesty also would diminish public respect in a way that would bear on departmental morale."
But the ruling says there is no "specific finding that the chief knowingly and deliberately lied or that his actions provoked -- or would provoke -- those types of consequences."
Therefore, "because the (Selectboard's) findings or lack thereof with respect to the allegation that the chief knowingly and deliberately misled the public are ambiguous, we conclude that they cannot support the board's determination to fire the chief for conduct unbecoming an officer under our officer-tenure statute."
The Supreme Court also noted that the Superior Court, in its 2012 decision on the matter, concluded that "termination of (the chief's) employment on account of these two false, but perhaps simply mistaken statements is so disproportionate to the misconduct that it cannot be sustained as a matter of law."
What happens next is uncertain. The lower court's ruling had reversed Turnley's termination but also "remanded" the matter back to the town for further proceedings.
Annis said she does not know whether the former chief will want to return to his job as a result of the Supreme Court decision.
"I can tell you for sure he has gone through a lot over the past few years," she said.
Annis added that the ruling could set a precedent.
"I think this case will be a very important one going forward in cases where an officer wants to appeal a dismissal," she said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.