East Lyme selectmen approve ordinance for independent police force

East Lyme — In what was dubbed a "historic vote," the Board of Selectmen unanimously voted Wednesday for the town to move toward an independent police department. 

The selectmen approved an ordinance that will establish a Board of Police Commissioners, which will be responsible for hiring a police chief and setting policies for the town's police force. 

"We're going to see some excellent, innovative police work coming up here. I'm very excited," Selectman Kevin Seery said during the meeting, which was attended by several current and former members of the police department.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson called the vote historic and thanked those who helped the town reach this point.

Both a task force studying the issue of an independent police department and Nickerson made recommendations last month that the town form its own police department for reasons that included better management of the town's 22 police officers and local control of costs and procedures.

East Lyme's decision follows other towns in the region that have either established, or worked toward establishing, independent police departments.

In September 2015, the Ledyard Town Council approved an ordinance to form an independent police force.

The Montville Town Council approved in January an ordinance for an independent police department, but residents ultimately voted it down during a March referendum. 

Under East Lyme's ordinance, expected to go into effect Nov. 15, the Board of Police Commissioners would consist of the first selectman and six town residents appointed by the Board of Selectmen.

The six appointees cannot hold any other elected or appointed office in town and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms on the commission, according to the ordinance.

The selectmen discussed advertising that they are accepting applications for the positions and notifying the town committees of both parties, and then potentially reviewing them for the selectmen's first meeting in December.

A specific timeline has not been announced for when the town is expected to hire a police chief and leave the resident state trooper program. The town will have to give the state 30 days' written notice when it intends to leave the program.

Under the town's charter, the selectmen have the authority to enact ordinances, but residents have the option to follow a process to petition to send the matter to a town meeting.

During last month's public hearing, residents supported an independent force, but some said the Board of Police Commissioners should be elected, rather than appointed.

On Wednesday, the selectmen discussed those comments, but ultimately favored appointed positions, for reasons including that appointments would increase the pool of applicants, since unaffiliated voters could apply. They pointed out that the members will have term limits.  

Selectwoman Rose Ann Hardy said a survey from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities of 54 police commissions from communities across the state of comparable size to East Lyme showed that 39 of them were appointed and 15 were elected.

Residents also had recommended that the police chief be required to live in town. Nickerson said it will be up to the Board of Police Commissioners to determine residency requirements during the hiring process.

Last month's hearing included a presentation on the costs to the town under both programs.

The resident trooper program costs about $212,000 annually, with the town likely to pick up more of the costs in the future, while the independent department's operational budget would be about $206,000, Nickerson said at a public hearing last month.

To switch to an independent department, the town also would pay an initial cost of $5,000 for dispatcher training and $68,000 in capital costs to cover a used car for the police chief and upgrades to the police station and vehicle computer system, he said during the hearing.

Under the resident state trooper program, the state charges municipalities in arrears for services. This means that the town would be expected to pay both the police chief's salary and the trooper's salary, for work the trooper did the previous year, during the transition. 

k.drelich@theday.com

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