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Answers to Chief Ackley's accusations still critical

Published November 22. 2011 4:00AM

Three weeks before the Democratic primary in the New London mayoral race, Chief Margaret Ackley tossed a political hand grenade into the process. She confirmed that she had negotiated a secret agreement with the administration outlining the terms of her pending retirement. At an Aug. 24 special City Council meeting to discuss the severance deal, negotiated without even the council knowing, the chief in dramatic fashion pointed the finger directly at Councilor Michael Buscetto III as the reason she was probably leaving.

She alleged that Mr. Buscetto, head of the Public Safety Committee, was guilty of "unethical conduct, discriminatory treatment and improper systematic interference in the police department." The administration had known of her concerns about Mr. Buscetto and done nothing, she said. The chief also accused the Democrat of "making defamatory remarks to members of the police department about me" and said "he created an environment of hostility."

Chief Ackley, through her attorney, notified the city she was considering legal action for its alleged failure to deal with Mr. Buscetto's conduct. The man who was opposing Mr. Buscetto in the Sept. 13 primary, Daryl Justin Finizio, suggested the accusations were so serious that perhaps FBI involvement was appropriate. Mr. Buscetto, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing and said he welcomed an investigation.

Mr. Finizio went on to defeat Mr. Buscetto in the Democratic primary and won the Nov. 8 general election. How much influence the controversy had on the results is impossible to say. It certainly did not help Mr. Buscetto.

Last week Mr. Finizio, who takes office Dec. 5, announced Chief Ackley would exercise an escape clause in her severance deal and remain police chief after all.

But what of the accusations that perhaps changed the course of a critical election and certainly benefited Mr. Finizio's candidacy? The public has the right to know whether the charges had substance. The incoming mayor has pledged his will be a transparent administration. This is his first test.

The current council, the last under a city-manager system, has never released the letter detailing Chief Ackley's allegations against Mr. Buscetto and the city. How exactly did Mr. Buscetto allegedly act in a hostile manner, interfere, defame and discriminate? The public still does not know.

Mr. Finizio should make it one of his first orders of business to release that letter. The Day has filed a complaint with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission to obtain it. We are convinced it is a public record. Mr. Finizio's administration should not await the hearing.

Faced with a potential lawsuit, the outgoing City Council, including Mr. Buscetto, voted to hire former Superior Court Judge Beverly Hodgson to investigate Chief Ackley's allegations. The incoming administration must make public the report that the investigation produces. There may be sections or names that the city can justifiably expunge under exceptions to the FOI Act, but we see no provision that should keep the entire document closed.

It would be a mistake for the next administration to pull the plug on the investigation, ending the matter and leaving critical questions unanswered. At the press conference announcing that Chief Ackley will stay, Mayor-elect Finizio refused to comment on the matter or say how he will proceed.

Chief Ackley has already withdrawn an ethics complaint alleging that Mr. Buscetto, because of a conflict of interest, should not have participated in closed council discussions concerning her allegations. With Mr. Buscetto not returning to office, her attorney said the matter is moot. But that complaint was a technical detail when compared to the meat of the allegations that Judge Hodgson is digging into.

If Mr. Finizio's administration does not come clean on what this was all about, it will leave a troubling impression for many.

The incoming mayor also has internal matters to consider. Shortly after Chief Ackley leveled her allegations against Mr. Buscetto, the union leadership published a paid advertisement in The Day. The letter referred to morale problems and a department facing a "managerial crisis" under Chief Ackley's direction.

"She has now put our agency on the front page of the paper for what I think is either political or her own selfish goals," said union vice president Todd Lynch at the time. The union had endorsed Mr. Buscetto.

Those union concerms make it all the more important that the next mayor clear the air by disclosing the results of the investigation.

Alternatively, consider this sequence: The chief raises serious, but vague accusations against a candidate and threatens to retire; the accused candidate loses and his opponent becomes mayor; as mayor he keeps the chief in his administration and buries the investigation delving into the validity of her claims.

We trust the public, in the end, will not witness that scenario. Mayor-elect Finizio has promised his will be an open administration and we take him at his word. But words can be easy and actions difficult.

Take the right actions, Mr. Finizio; level with the public. Only then can the city truly move on from this troubling episode.

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