Ackley's union standoff handcuffs city
For the good of the city and its police department, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio needs to persuade his police chief to step down.
Chief Margaret Ackley may have had the best of intentions to reform the police department when she assumed her command in June 2009. Her vision of community policing for New London is the right one and her high visibility at numerous civic events in the city was, in the short term at least, good public relations. The chief cut spending and addressed overtime abuse.
But the biggest challenge she faced was internal, persuading or finding a way to require a seemingly intransigent police union leadership to work with her. In that regard she failed.
Certainly the task was a difficult one complicated by insider city politics and an historic mayoral election. Yet that was the job, difficult or not.
Frustrated by the situation she faced, Ackley began to send emails to political activist Kathleen Mitchell, complaining about some of the personnel she had to deal with, what she saw as a lack of support by the council and city manager, and eliciting Mitchell's help in publicizing alleged bad behavior by members of her own department.
The decision to discuss these internal challenges in that manner showed very poor judgment. The fact that the chief would choose as her confidante Mitchell, one of the most outspoken political malcontents in the city, is mind boggling.
Now the city faces a series of lawsuits and complaints from the police union and its leadership. Even if the city prevails, the cost of litigation will be significant and the dispute a continuing distraction.
Indeed, some of the Mitchell emails are referenced in a lawsuit Officer Todd Lynch filed against Ackley last week, alleging they show a pattern by the chief of trying to intimidate and punish him for disagreeing with her, associating with people she does not like and being an outspoken critic.
And in a complaint filed with the state Labor Department, the police union accuses Chief Ackley of undermining union business and harassing its leaders. The union's contention is that the chief overstepped her bounds in sharing such information with someone outside the department.
The irony is that, by seeking outside help to attack Lynch, elected union president in November, Chief Ackley played right into his hands, leaving an electronic record in the process.
The work environment at the New London Police Department now appears so toxic it is hard to envision it moving past these problems without a change at the top.
Back in August Ackley seemed to be awaiting the cavalry to arrive and help with her departmental problems. On Aug. 14 she wrote to Mitchell that the council needed to make a choice.
"Council is either going to stand up to the police union/Buscetto union and let it be known that they are not going to permit the constant threats as a means to take control, and let it be known that they are not happy with the treatment by the union towards the chief," stated Ackley.
Buscetto is, of course, former City Councilor Michael Buscetto III, who at that time was involved in a Democratic mayoral primary with Finizio and endorsed by the police union. Chief Ackley would soon go public with her accusations that Buscetto was working with the union to undermine her authority, a contention Buscetto has steadfastly denied.
In an email correspondence, the chief also suggests the council play hard ball with the police contract.
"Until the union straightens up and starts showing the respect the city requires of its employees, the new contract (the council must vote on in executive session over the next couple of weeks) will not be signed. They have a really sweet tentative agreement that must be voted on by the entire union and then approved by council. That will take away some of Buscetto power and put union vice president Lynch in his place, but who knows what the entire council will do," she wrote.
The discussion of labor strategies appears particularly inappropriate. (On Sept. 6, the council approved a two-year police contract.)
Also in August Chief Ackley suggested that Mitchell use the Freedom of Information Act to get dirt on Lynch.
"FOI all 'citizens complaints' and 'lawsuits' that Lynch is named in, that will tell everyone what he is all about till I put him in check," wrote Chief Ackley. She also suggests an FOI request to obtain "supervisor complaints" about other officers.
(Mitchell filed FOI requests, but did nothing with the information.)
On Aug. 24, Chief Ackley announced her plans to retire, after it was revealed that she and the administration of former City Manager Denise Rose had reached a severance agreement, one that gave the chief the option to reconsider depending on the election's outcome. (When Finizio won, she stayed.) The chief also threatened legal action against the city for its failure to stop Buscetto's alleged interference.
A former judge, hired by the council to examine those allegations, concluded that Ackley could not sustain her accusations at trial, but suggested a modest settlement to reduce legal expenses and because of the remote chance Ackley would prevail. The council, however, has refused to approve the $25,000 that Mayor Finizio recommended to settle the matter.
The chief should reconsider retirement.
Mayor Finizio continues to defend his chief, promising to provide the support Ackley felt she did not get from the prior council and administration. But it's too late. The chief has made too many bad decisions. There is too much bad blood on the floor.
If the mayor does select a new chief, I would suggest a disciplinarian, preferably with a record of cleaning up a troubled department and dealing with challenging union issues. Someone who might make the union regret they were so tough on Ackley. And whoever the next chief is, he or she should be careful about using email.
Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.
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