New London mayoral hopefuls backing police chief, but she isn't talking

New London - After the man who allegedly made police Chief Margaret Ackley's working life miserable was knocked out of the race for mayor in a primary Tuesday, what happened to the chief's retirement plans?

That remains to be seen.

Through her attorney, Ackley declined comment. But all five remaining mayoral candidates support the chief and said Thursday they want Ackley to stay.

"I think she's doing an excellent job,'' said City Councilor Rob Pero, the Republican candidate for mayor. "I definitely would want her to stay."

Last month, Ackley told the City Council she wanted to retire, saying she was unable to do her job because of Councilor Michael Buscetto III, whom she accused of systematic interference, undermining her authority with subordinates, creating a hostile work environment and making inflammatory remarks.

Buscetto was defeated in Tuesday's Democratic primary by challenger Daryl Justin Finizio.

Ackley is scheduled to retire sometime after Dec. 31, according to a memorandum of understanding she signed with City Manager Denise Rose on April 6.

That memorandum allows Ackley to opt out of the agreement in December, a caveat that many have interpreted as meaning the chief might change her mind if Buscetto was ousted.

Martin Olsen, the city's ceremonial mayor who is a petitioning candidate, said he would leave the decision up to Ackley rather than press the issue.

"My take is, the job is hers, so if she decided to stay, I would welcome that," Olsen said. "If she decides she would like to retire, that would be her prerogative."

Pero said the chief has saved the city about $1 million in overtime since she took over in 2009 and has underspent her budget for two years, allowing the city to cover increased costs in other departments without raising taxes.

Pero also pointed to the police department's recent accreditation as a Tier One Accredited Agency, one of 30 law enforcement agencies statewide to have met the standards for accreditation.

Andrew Lockwood, a petitioning candidate, also said he supports Ackley.

"This is one person we need to keep here in the city," Lockwood said. "She's doing a tremendous job, she's leading by example; we should follow that lead and build on the positives."

Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh, another petitioning candidate, said she came away from an introductory meeting with Ackley a couple of months ago impressed by Ackley's knowledge and compassion.

Hopkins-Cavanagh said she believes Ackley was under duress for a long time before making her allegations, which she said she doesn't view as solely political.

Hopkins-Cavanagh said that, if elected, she would ask Ackley to remain as chief for at least two years and would ask Ackley to be part of a leadership team in the city that would tackle, in part, moving the police station to a new location.

"I need her, I need her experience and her compassion for all people, to be able to put together the right strategy for New London going forward," Hopkins-Cavanagh said.

If Ackley stays, the new mayor would have to contend with the chief's ongoing issues with at least some members of the police union, whose nine-member executive board voted unanimously to take out an ad in The Day last Saturday with an "open letter" to the public, criticizing Ackley's managerial skills and demanding that she be immediately removed as chief.

The union had endorsed Buscetto for mayor but said the timing of the ad was not linked to Tuesday's primary. Union President Darrin O'Mara could not be reached for comment.

Finizio said Thursday that Ackley has encountered "institutional resistance" to reforms she's made within the department.

"I think now that the political dynamic has changed, and I think once people realize that those policies are here to stay and perhaps the chief is here to stay, that we might be able to enter into more constructive dialogue about how we move forward," Finizio said, "instead of some (people) resting on the assumption that they can merely outlast the chief or resolve this through the political process, because I believe the political process has moved its course and the people spoke, and now we move forward from here."

Lockwood said he supports the idea of an independent agency investigating the variety of grievances - both Ackley's and the union's - rather than the City Council or city attorney. After its findings, he would better understand how to proceed, Lockwood said.

None of the candidates said they knew if the chief has changed her mind about retiring, nor have they spoken to her.

Ackley stopped in at Finizio's celebration Tuesday night after the polls closed and gave him a hug, but Finizio said he hasn't spoken to her since and doesn't plan to talk politics or policy with Ackley before the election, a conversation that he said wouldn't be appropriate.

Ackley has also threatened a lawsuit against the city. She has not publicly detailed her allegations against Buscetto but gave the city law director, Thomas Londregan, a list of her claims; Londregan did not provide The Day with a copy of those claims. The Day has appealed that decision to the state Freedom of Information Commission.

Day Staff Writer Kathleen Edgecomb contributed to this article.

k.crompton@theday.com

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