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    Saturday, November 26, 2022

    Montville Town Council passes police department ordinance

    Montville — For now, the question of whether the town will switch to an independent police department has been answered. 

    In a 5-2 vote Thursday night, the Town Council approved an ordinance that will move the department out of the state police resident trooper program and create an independent department, to go into effect following the swearing-in of a police chief.

    But the issue likely will be decided by town residents in a referendum, echoing a process that in 2002 stopped the plan for an independent department in its tracks.

    The council's five Democratic councilors voted on Thursday for the ordinance, which closely resembled a 2002 effort to create a department that was overturned in a public referendum later that year.

    The two Republican councilors, Kathleen Pollard and Joseph Rogulski, voted in opposition.

    The town has been divided since 2002 over whether the switch to an independent department is a good idea, even after a 2010 public referendum led to the construction of a 17,000-square-foot public safety building on Route 32.

    The facility was touted as the eventual home of an independent police department.

    Despite the construction of that building, and the growth of Montville's police force from 22 budgeted officers to 26, some continued to say it's still too early to leave the resident state trooper program more than a decade after the first ordinance passed the Town Council in 2002.

    Former Montville Mayor Howard R. “Russ” Beetham Jr., who vetoed the 2002 ordinance and lead the effort for the public referendum that eventually overturned it, spoke at Thursday's meeting against the 2016 version.

    He said the council — and a committee that released a report in November supporting an independent department — were not taking all the potential costs of the proposal into account, including potential insurance costs and retirement benefits.

    "You need to wait a little bit of time and get some new numbers," Beetham said.

    The ad-hoc Law Enforcement Feasibility Committee, which authored the November report on the issue, estimated that the switch to an independent department would add about $300,000 to the department's yearly budget, mostly due to a police chief's salary and additional dispatchers to handle police calls.

    Town Council Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Longton estimated Thursday that savings associated with switching to an independent force would make the effect on the police budget " a wash."

    Montville resident Donna Geary said in public remarks before the vote that hiring a chief and leaving the resident state trooper program would bring "strong leadership and accountability" to the Montville department.

    "The resident state trooper program was ideal years ago, when we had much fewer residents and no casino," she said. "Our needs are greater now, and much different."

    Montville Police Lt. Leonard Bunnell said an independent department would fix a "broken" system.

    Mayor Ronald McDaniel spoke at length before the vote in favor of an independent department, detailing the ways that state police oversight of Montville's police has been inefficient.

    "We've had some excellent resident state troopers, and we've been excellently served," he said.

    But, he said, four state troopers have been assigned to lead the department in the four years he has been in office.

    "Each time one comes in, they have their own way of doing things, and everyone has to adapt," he said. "A leader that's employed by the town...they don't serve two masters. They answer to the town, the taxpayers and the mayor's office, and that's it."

    Rogulski, one of two votes against the ordinance, said he was "torn" over the decision. While he trusts Bunnell's opinion and values public safety, he said, he wants more solid information about the potential effect of an independent department on the town's budget.

    "There's issues, there's things that still need to be vetted out," he said.

    "You can say that the idea of an independent department is great," he continued after the meeting. "But I just don't believe that everything has been made clear yet."

    The council's vote will be subject to a second opinion if, as expected, the issue is put to a vote in a townwide referendum. Town rules allow for a 20-day period following the vote in which residents can request a petition to call for a referendum on a Town Council vote.

    Many at a public hearing on the ordinance last week spoke in support of holding a referendum, and several councilors said at Thursday's meeting that they hope residents would get a chance to vote on the issue.

    Pollard said Thursday that she plans to request the petition calling for a vote first thing Friday morning.

    "I'll be there as soon as the doors open in Town Hall," she said.

    m.shanahan@theday.com

    Twitter: @martha_shan

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