Vernon, former chief talk 'next steps' in legal dispute
VERNON -- Four years after the town officials fired their police chief, the matter of Kevin Turnley vs. Vernon is far from settled.
With the Vermont Supreme Court having ruled in June that Turnley was wrongfully terminated, the town and the former chief are in negotiations over what should happen next.
Vernon Selectboard recently met with its attorneys in an executive session. Afterwards, one of those lawyers said discussions are focused on "the next steps in the case."
Sharon Annis, Turnley's Brattleboro-based attorney, agreed with that assessment. But she was unequivocal about what her client wants.
"My client's position remains clear in that the Supreme Court ruling reversed his termination and that he is still employed by the town of Vernon," Annis said.
"We have demanded Kevin be immediately reinstated to his position and be paid all back pay and benefits, plus damages for what he has been put through," she added.
The case has its origins in October 2009, when Turnley -- who had become chief in 2006 -- claimed he had no prior knowledge of a sex offender moving into Vernon. But an earlier e-mail from the state appeared to contradict him.
The Selectboard fired Turnley, accusing him of "conduct unbecoming an officer."
But Turnley took legal action against the town on two fronts.
First, he argued that Vernon owed him for more than 1,000 unpaid overtime hours. Both the Superior Court and the state Supreme Court ruled against him in that matter, saying Turnley was working as a manager and was not entitled to overtime.
The courts were more sympathetic to Turnley's claim that he had been wrongly fired. A judge in Windham Superior Court Civil Division agreed in March 2012, and the Supreme Court upheld that ruling in a June decision.
While there apparently was no disagreement that Turnley's statements in 2009 were inaccurate, the appeals court found no evidence that the chief "knowingly and deliberately" tried to mislead Vernon Selectboard.
"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 court wrote.
The case was remanded back to the town for further proceedings. But how that will happen still is up in the air.
Following the closed-door executive session with attorneys on Monday, Vernon Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell and Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee were named as an ad hoc committee to serve as a liaison between the board and attorneys in the Turnley matter.
Citing the litigation, O'Donnell referred comment to the town's legal representatives. Burlington-based attorney John Leddy, who along with attorney Richard Coutant has represented Vernon in the case, said he was "limited in what can be discussed" at this point.
"The attorneys for both the town and Mr. Turnley are discussing the next steps in the case," Leddy wrote in an e-mail to the Reformer.
"These next steps may include scheduling a new hearing date before the Selectboard and/or scheduling a mediation session with a neutral mediator in an effort to reasonably resolve the matter," Leddy said. "Beyond this, I am unable to comment further at this time."
While arguing for immediate reinstatement for Turnley, Annis confirmed that she has discussed both a Selectboard hearing and a mediation session.
"Our position is that, if the town chooses to set a new hearing, it must follow the court rulings and respect Kevin's rights in the process," Annis wrote in an e-mail.
However, she added that "any new hearing does not change the fact that the Supreme Court's ruling definitively establishes Kevin was wrongfully terminated and has thus been continuously employed by the town and due back pay, benefits, damages and immediate reinstatement."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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