Attempt to block NL council goes too far

With the transition to a mayor-led form of governance from the former city manager-council system in New London disputes over responsibilities and authority were inevitable. Indeed they were frequent during the first year after the November 2011 election of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio. Now, after a period of relative tranquility, a new territorial dispute has emerged. This one is over, of all things, dogs.

Mayor Finizio is opposed to the use of "biting/patrol dogs" in an urban center such as New London. In June he said "that there is no demonstrable law enforcement need whatsoever for a police department in a diverse and progressive city to employ the use of biting dogs in law enforcement."

A debate on the topic has taken place in other cities as well. In New London, however, it has become particularly nasty.

Critics of these canine units contend that biting police dogs lead to costly lawsuits and that they can generate more fear than cooperation within the community, particularly the minority community. Indeed in 2008-2011 citizens filed a troubling high number of complaints about dogs being used improperly and aggressively by city police. There have been fewer complaints of late.

Mayor Finizio also contends that when the city needs the service of such specially trained dogs it can utilize mutual aid agreements with state and other local police departments.

Proponents of the use of the patrol dogs say they are vitally important for officer safety, are capable of doing things that an officer cannot, and when used properly are ambassadors to the community, with only criminals having to fear. It is fair for the mayor to insist the program is managed properly, wrong to eliminate it, they argue.

Under the direction of the mayor and Police Chief Margaret Ackley, the canine unit, which once had four dogs, is down to one patrol dog, a German shepherd paired with Officer Todd Lynch, who also is the union president and the subject of many of the past citizen complaints. That is the minimum canine "staffing" allowed under the police contract. The mayor said the department still plans to utilize a bloodhound, Bessie, placed in a kennel when her handler left the department.

This downsizing of the dog unit has generated great passion in some quarters and, as seemingly all things in New London, became entangled in politics and personalities. Meanwhile the police union is involved in contract talks with the administration. Everyone on both sides of this debate see ulterior motives in the actions of the other.

But as for the public debate, Mayor Finizio has not received much backing. Citizens upset with the reduction of the role in the canine program have dominated the Public Safety Committee meetings held on the topic and demanded council action. If many New London citizens share the mayor's concerns with the program, they have not bothered to show up and speak.

In response to the public's appeals, council President Michael Passero saw fit to introduce an ordinance requiring the department to maintain a minimum of four canine units. It's on the agenda for Monday's meetings - Public Safety at 6 p.m., followed by the council meeting. He says he has the votes to pass it, which brings us to the council-mayoral debate.

The city's law director, Jeffrey T. Londregan, has ruled the ordinance impermissible for trespassing on a role preserved for the mayor. Mr. Londregan points to City Charter language that "the police force shall be under (the mayor's) control" and that "neither the council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the mayor."

We agree with Councilor Passero that Mr. Londregan got it wrong. The language cited appears aimed at preventing council members from meddling in the department. But the issue here is not meddling, it's the policy-making authority of the council.

"The police force of the city shall consist of a chief of police and such number of other officers and patrolmen as the council may, by ordinance, prescribe," states the charter. While the passage does not mention canines, the council's authority in setting parameters for the department is clear. Another section gives the council authority to "distribute or abolish the functions and duties of departments."

The charter gives the mayor exceptional veto power. If Mayor Finizio feels strongly enough he can veto the canine ordinance and take his argument to the public, applying pressure to the council. It would take six votes on the seven-person council to override. It is best to conclude this debate through the legislative process, not with a dubious procedural ruling that truncates the discussion.

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