Regional Report: Turmoil Continues In Thetford Over Interim Police Chief Hiring

Aug 1, 2014

Turmoil involving some town officials and the town’s police force has continued to roil this month.

Sgt. Bridget Tweedie filed a written complaint with Selectboard member Donn Downey earlier this month, accusing him of “blatant disregard” for Vermont’s public records law when he discussed emails between himself and the interim police chief during a public Selectboard meeting.

Tweedie also took issue with Downey providing the emails to the Valley News prior to the meeting.

Tweedie, who wrote in the July 14 complaint that she was seeking a public apology, asserted that the emails between Downey and Doug Robinson, the interim police chief, should be exempt from public disclosure because they included “an evaluation of my performance with intent to smear my reputation,” among other complaints.

“This evaluation email was only based on limited information that Interim Chief Robinson took out of context without allowing me any chance for an explanation,” Tweedie wrote. “I was following, and continue to follow, orders given to me by my Chief and to that end, I was punished for doing my job.”

Meanwhile, a written response by Downey on July 21 asserted that Tweedie was misinterpreting the public records law.

“To be clear, (the law) defines ‘a public record’ as ‘any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business,’ ” Downey wrote. “Accordingly, the Town’s perspective is that those emails, and the accompanying spreadsheets, are public records under (the law).”

The incident stemmed from the town contracting with Norwich, where Robinson is the full-time police chief, to bring him to Thetford as interim chief for several hours a week until a permanent replacement can be found.

Thetford residents — including former chief Jim Lanctot, who departed in June to run a pizza restaurant — have raised concerns about the process the Selectboard used to enlist Robinson’s services. The board discussed the contract in executive session and announced its decision in public session.

Downey previously told the Valley News that Selectboard Chairman Stuart Rogers, whose son is a Thetford officer, negotiated the contract with Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton.

Downey, who generally speaks for the board on police issues, said the board was exercising its right to executive sessions to deal with personnel, contracts and hiring.

In an interview on Tuesday, Downey defended the town’s decision to share the emails publicly, saying that although the emails contained information such as how many traffic stops officers were making, it was not a personnel document.

He said he reviewed his response with Selectboard members and the town attorney before sending it to Tweedie.

“This is strictly department organizational operations,” Downey said. “This is a discussion of what our officers are doing. Not only is that a document that can be legally shared and should be ... but the activities of officers are supposed to be very transparent.”

Tweedie provided a copy of her complaint to the Valley News Tuesday afternoon.

She subsequently could not be reached for comment.

Secretary of State Jim Condos said that correspondence between public officials related to public business is public record, and any exemptions — such as whether a document qualifies as a personnel record — is to be determined by the municipality.

“My point would be all records acquired in the course of doing agency business are considered public, but some public records have exemptions that prevent disclosure,” he said. “From there, it’s up to the public body to decide if something’s exempt.”

Tension has been so high in town that some residents alleged at a Selectboard meeting and in email listserv postings that Downey and former Selectboard member Tig Tillinghast, who are business partners, exchanged a cake as part of some kind of bet related to Lanctot’s departure. It’s an allegation Downey denies.

Downey said the men had a bet, but it had to do with sales within their business.

“But of course the story that has been construed from this is that Tig and I had a bet … (over) who would be on the board when the chief left, or who, quote, ‘got rid of the police chief,’ which is obviously nonsense.”

In a listserv post titled “cake gossip half baked,” Elise Tillinghast, who is married to Tig, also denied the rumors.

“As this appears to be a matter of public concern,” she wrote, “let me state for the record that it was chocolate, with chocolate frosting. I volunteered to bake said cake because I was trying to keep toddlers busy, and, frankly, wanted to eat chocolate frosting. ... It was worth it. I regret nothing.”

Maggie Cassidy is a reporter for the Valley News.