A number of city councilors have said they would like the council’s Public Safety Committee to begin hearing from members of the to get a better sense of several issues and complaints that have arisen in recent months.
The New London Police Union recently released a political update critical of Police Chief Margaret Ackley and Mayor Daryl Finizio. The city is facing two lawsuits, one from the union president and one from a former captain. And several officers have left the department.
Council President Michael Passero said little information regarding these issues has come before the City Council.
“It’s getting to the point where there are so many reports that the whole thing is dysfunctional, that the chief has lost control,” said Passero. “At some point the council is going to have to weigh in, and the only way to do that is to call a Public Safety Committee meeting.”
In a recent update to the police union website, political director Chuck Flynn accused Finizio of “lack of support and contradictory actions” regarding the department. Flynn said Finizio has continued to support Ackley at the expense of the union.
“From a mayor who proudly recalls family members who were union workers and openly sought union labor endorsements for his candidacy, it is troubling he has failed to reach out with our union leaders to investigate the problems or start a dialogue on what's wrong and how to fix it,” said Flynn.
The union has cited Ackley’s strained relationship with Michael Buscetto III, a former city councilor who after , as part of the issue. Ackley prior to the election and said his actions had convinced her to retire at the beginning of this year. The details of her grievances later revealed that she felt Buscetto was in the department.
Finizio has publicized e-mails between himself and Ackley as well as community activist Kathleen Mitchell showing his support for Ackley during his campaign. In an e-mail to Mitchell on Aug. 10, Finizio declares, “I hope the chief will stay on and I think she will after the conversation I had with her.” On Oct. 5, Ackley wrote to Finizio suggesting caution in any meeting to discuss police matters since there were rumors that they were “socializing to plan Buscetto’s demise.” Ackley also warns Finzio in this e-mail, “Stay strong and don’t underestimate the good ol’ boy system in New London.”
Finizio said in a sworn affidavit included with the e-mails that he met with the chief to discuss police matters in January of 2011 and informally on two other occasions. He said he did not meet with her again until the election, when he asked her to stay on as police chief.
“At no time during the campaign did the chief and I directly, or indirectly, discuss conspiring to use government authority against then Councilman Buscetto,” said Finizio.
Todd Lynch, in a lawsuit filed against Ackley in her individual and municipal capacities as well as the city of New London, alleges that Ackley has retaliated against him in part for his support of Buscetto. The suit charges violations of First Amendment rights as well as libel and makes a claim for over $15,000.
Lynch says he has had numerous disagreements with Ackley, including a 2010 suggestion that the union look into a vote of no confidence against her, an open letter critical of her appearance before the City Council on the same evening as a , and his . He said Ackley has taken a number of retaliatory actions including removing compensation hours from his K-9 unit, suspending his K-9 for an incident it wasn’t involved in, requiring him to download his cruiser camera at the end of every shift, and affirmatively removing Lynch's responsibilities with regard to the K-9 unit via a number of restrictions.
Lynch also says Ackley suggested that Buscetto has an undue influence on the union, and so the actions were also “casually related to [Lynch]’s protected activities of association and speech.” The lawsuit includes several e-mails between Ackley and Mitchell, including one on July 28 in which Ackley says, “Citizens of NL have no idea the threats Mike has sent to me and the non stop attempts to try and hurt me. He will not have control of law enforcement as long as I’m chief, I will not turn my head and allow he and his ‘lynch’ squad to show favor for the chosen few at the expense of those he considers less than himself.”
Flynn said in his political update that he does not think Finizio has taken the union complaints against Ackley seriously. He said he feels that Finizio has shown support to Ackley, including an employment contract and settlement offer that were , and blamed the union for the strained relationship within the department.
“If the chief refuses to abide by the collective bargaining agreement, won't honor past practices or stipulated agreements, bargains in bad faith, is hostile to all grievances, retaliates against union members and upholds different standards of accountability than yes, there is institutional resistance to her,” said Flynn.
Finizio says he and Ackley have a professional relationship and do not meet socially, but that he considers the chief a capable administrator. He said he would hold Ackley to the same standards as the union, but also felt the department will need to abide by the operational policies.
“The policies are staying, and I hope that in time the entire department will come to understand that this is the new reality and we can move beyond this transition,” he said.
Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran said she does not have any firsthand knowledge about the relationship between Ackley and the union, but that it appears improvements need to be made.
“I know that for community policing to be effective the relationship between any chief of police and the officers on the street must be one of trust, respect and cooperation,” she said. “I do not see that we have the level of trust, respect and cooperation that is needed considering all that is going on in the city today.”
Councilor Adam Sprecace described the relationship as “strained.”
“I’m guessing that Chief Ackley feels that only a handful of union members represent the root of the issues and if they are removed from the police department, everything will be fixed,” he said. “I would caution against this belief because my impression is that the morale problem is more widespread than what the chief or administration believes.”
Another lawsuit facing the city has to do with the . Finizio approved the agreements, but the funding required for them through the end of this fiscal year has been .
Dittman has sued Finizio, Ackley, Personnel Coordinator Bernadette Welch, and the city of New London for a demand in excess of $15,000. Dittman charges breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealings, negligent misrepresentation, liability of the city, fraud, civil conspiracy, and unjust enrichment.
The lawsuit states that the relationship between Ackley and Dittman was “acrimonious” and that Ackley “desired and intended to remove…Dittman from his employment.” Dittman says the city paid him $106,495.87 for accrued vacation, holiday, and compensatory time in January but that he was informed in February that the city would not be able to fulfill the rest of the agreement.
Dittman said he was relying on assurances from Ackley, Finizio, and Welch that the city would meet its obligations. He said Finizio also made a false representation by neglecting to mention that the City Council would have the final say over funding for the agreements.
“The defendant city refuses to make payments under said agreement as it claims that the defendant Finizio did not have the sole right and exclusive authority to execute the agreement on behalf of the defendant city," the lawsuit states.
In its most recent votes, funding for the agreements failed in a 3-3 tie. Councilor Anthony Nolan, the potential tiebreaker, has been recusing himself from the votes since he is a police officer.
“It is unfortunate that so many lawsuits have been filed, and I am extremely disappointed that contracts, signed in good faith with employees who have served the department for 25 plus years, have not been honored,” said Ackley. “These employees deserve the right to retire with pride and dignity, and it is disgraceful that they have not been able to.”
Sprecace said he does not believe the contract is enforceable since it was made without City Council approval. He said it is “troubling” that the settlements have been before the council twice after their rejection, but that one resolution could be delaying the payments until the 2013 fiscal year when they can be budgeted for.
Passero also said he felt the agreements should have been brought before the City Council as a first step.
“The damage has been done. Our ability to fix it is pretty limited,” he said. “The mayor did not have the legal authority to enter into those settlements without the council’s approval.”
However, Passero and some other councilors have expressed the opinion that approving the funds for the settlements would be less costly than fighting the matter in court.
“It seems that honoring the agreements may have been the least expensive way to proceed,” said Councilor Donald Macrino.
Finizio said he did not find it out of the ordinary that the City Council would review the issue on different occasions.
“Legislatures can always go back and revisit an issue…I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that," he said. "I just think it shows the City Council has been diligent in attempting to resolve this issue."
There are currently 11 vacancies in the police department: six patrol officers, two captains, and one dispatcher, a crimes and computer-aided dispatch analyst, and the deputy chief. Since Finizio took office, one officer has been and one has been .
Flynn said the departures and intradepartmental difficulties are not affecting public safety but that the issues need to be resolved.
“Despite these difficulties our members continue to suit up and show up 24/7 everyday to ready to help, serve and protect the public while we also endure this sideshow of distractions,” he said. “Unless and until serious intervention into the problems associated with this administration are undertaken these problems will only worsen since the issues before us are not able to fix themselves.”
Sprecace said he trusts that staffing levels per shift will remain steady.
“This may require more overtime than what was originally expected, but I’m hopeful the situation is temporary in the short term,” he said.
Macrino said the issue of public safety as it pertains to the operations of the department is one he would like to hear more about.
“I really have to rely on the professionals. I have to rely on the chief of police to make that determination,” he said. “I honestly have not heard her opinion on that.”
Passero said he had “complete faith” in the department’s officers. However, he also said he would like an update on operations given the departure of Dittman, Lacey, and Segar.
“We’ve certainly decimated the administration over there are at the police department, so we wonder how it’s operating,” he said.
Friess-McSparran said she feels the matters need to be addressed to improve the department’s operations.
“These ongoing issues have a tendency to distract the fine men and women of our police department who need to be completely focused in keeping the community safe,” she said. “The sooner that all of this is resolved the better off New London will be.”
Finizio said he has supported police policies that aim to focus on community policing and building trust. He said these .
“The reality is I approach these decisions solely from the standpoint not of what is best for Chief Ackley or the union but what is best for the city of New London,” he said.
Ackley said she accepts responsibility for the department’s actions, and that safeguards have been put in place to reduce human error when mistakes are found. She said she believes officers are meeting modern standards and that the city is safer as a result.
“It is my hope that with a focus on community policing, and with the work of the entire department that made possible our , that the city might recognize the hard work, the excellent policing, and the positive relationships being built between officers and citizens,” she said. “Sadly the present hostility prevents the community from recognizing the outstanding work of the many.”
City Council relationship
Passero said the City Council's role in the operations of the police department is limited and relates mostly to funding levels. He said meetings include a section for reports from the mayor’s office, but that it has not often been used.
“It would be nice if [Finizio] showed up for City Council meetings, or at least if he addressed some of these issues that are coming up,” said Passero.
Friess-McSparran agreed that the Public Safety Committee would be a good forum to address the issues.
"The relation between the city administration and every department can always be improved upon. We always strive to improve the operation of the city,” she said.
Sprecace said improvements are needed in the relationship between the police department and city administration, and that a plan should be developed to do so. However, he said this action would be largely out of the hands of the City Council.
“Any improvements regarding the operation of the police department rest solely with the police chief and the city administration,” said Sprecace.
Finizio said he has been meeting with Council President Pro Tempore Wade Hyslop, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, on a regular basis to discuss matters in the police department. Finizio said he would discuss the police matters with councilors if they request to do so.
Finizio also said he considers that the department is in a state of transition and that the changes that have occurred so far have been necessary.
“If you’re going to address problems that you have in any government, people get weary,” he said. “They don’t like negativity, they don’t like conflict, and change is never easy in any government. But if you’re going to make it better, you have to do it.”