Police chief report to town hall? No, Charter Revision Commission decides
A tightening of the police chief’s reporting obligations to the first selectman was rejected by the Charter Revision Commission after a parade of police officials opposed the idea.
“A lot of this stuff has to be kept confidential,” Police Commission Chairman Charlie Knoche said, “whether it’s domestic stuff or juveniles.”
The charter commission voted unanimously Monday, March 12, against requiring that both the police chief and the town planning and zoning director “should report on a day to day administrative basis to the office of the first selectman” — as suggested by the Board of Selectmen.
“The townspeople — you — elect the Police Commission. The Policie Commission appoints me,” said police Chief John Roche. “I have to answer to the people. It’s a direct conduit to the people.”
Appropriate channels of communication should be kept clear, Knoche said.
“The police chief is under our direction. … There is wording in his contract that he’ll keep the first selectman up to date in a timely manner,” Knoche said. “To switch that around, he’s got — basically — two masters.”
Two members of the public — both veterans of former charter revision efforts — joined police officials in arguing against the proposal.
“The police department is not only responsible for the safety of citizens in the town of Ridgefield,” said Lynn Marie Weiland. “It is their job to protect the rights of a victim, the victim’s family, the accused, the accused’s family.”
She had more faith in the discretion of the police chief than in other town officials.
“He knows to keep his mouth shut about official business,” she said. “Town Hall does not.”
John McNicholas said the 2010 Charter Revision Commission had looked into the same question.
“We thoroughly investigated it,” he said. “There was no legitimate reason to have it changed from the way it was. The system works.”
Chief Roche pointed to the national controversies over police conduct as examples of how politically touchy police matters can become.
“Look at what’s going on in law enforcement today — whether the shootings are right, or the shootings are wrong,” he said.
The potential for controversy in police work makes it more appropriate to have the chief’s direct reporting responsibility be to an elected commission, he said.
“There’s five people, five diverse individuals of different backgrounds, who are elected by the people,” Roche said.
The proposal for daily reporting to the first selectman was among 12 suggestions in eight different realms of governance — ranging from term limits to reducing the size of the Youth Commission — which the Board of Selectmen had suggested in a Feb. 5 letter be considered by the Charter Revision Commission.
The selectmen noted that the 2014 charter revision had required direct daily reporting to the first selectman by the parks and recreation director.
Adding the police chief and the planning and zoning director would include all three department heads — except the school superintendent — who have independent agencies they report to: the elected Police Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission, which is appointed by the selectmen.
“This seems to be a communication problem,” said Charter Revision Commission member Chuck Hancock.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi is not kept in the dark, Roche replied.
“If I call up the chair of the commission, my next call is to Rudy,” he said.
“If Rudy has a problem and says, ‘I need more information and John is not sharing it’ — his next call would be to Charlie.”
Communication goes both ways, Roche said. The first selectman had called to let him know about demonstrations students planned in Ballard Park as part of the national protests against gun violence. The chief said he promptly assigned officers to be in the park for the event.
“It was a coordinated effort,” he said.
The chief said he often sits beside the first selectman at the emergency operations center during major storms, and they have no problem communicating.
“When he get his ‘Rudy’ up, I give him a little poke and I say, ‘Keep Nano in check,’” Roche said, referring to the first selectman’s late father, Nano Marconi.
Charter Revision Commissioner Ellen Burns noted that the suggestion for direct reporting had been made as far back as 2000 — when there was a different first selectman in office.
But she — and the rest of the charter commission — felt the police officials had made a strong case to have the chief’s direct reporting responsibility remain with the Police Commission, which she said is like a “civilian review board” in function.
“What they just represented is a very compelling argument,” said Burns.
“Open lines of communication and directly reporting — there’s a vast chasm between them,” said Police Commission member George Kain.
“I’d say the way we do it in Ridgefield is the national model,” Kain said.