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Townsend: A police department in turmoil, and a revolving door of chiefs

Former Townsend Police Chief Erving Marshall’s retirement began a period of questioning in Townsend, which has since had two interim chiefs.

Part of an occasional series on the issues surrounding the Townsend recall.

TOWNSEND — Issues at the Police Department have been a flashpoint in the effort of a group of residents to recall Selectmen Carolyn Smart and Gordon Clark.

Interim Town Administrator James Kreidler recently revealed a host of budgetary problems in the department. Lapses in applying for and accessing E-911 grant funds and paying for services that were no longer being used have helped to create a deficit.

Much of the upheaval has occurred since September, when Erving Marshall Jr., a 38-year veteran and chief since 2002, retired in September. Two interim chiefs have served, and a permanent chief is imminent.

Former Fitchburg Police Chief Robert DeMoura came first, then resigned early from his contract in December. Former Gardner Deputy Police Chief Rock Barrieau became interim chief Jan. 1, and discovered many of the issues revealed by Kreidler.

Dave Mazza, communications supervisor/information technology manager for the department, also resigned in December. A new IT manager, Steven Couture, was appointed recently.

Barrieau pointed to heavy turnover in the department as the source of many financial issues. He was able to secure this year’s $35,000 E-911 grant on short notice, but other issues are still being resolved.

Marshall’s retirement questioned

The recall targets Smart and Clark, though Clark is most heavily involved in the group’s complaints surrounding the Police Department.

Recall group representatives Steve Sheldon and Kelly Kelly question the circumstances surrounding Marshall’s exit. They stem largely from a letter they obtained, sent by Marshall to the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund. In the Aug. 13 letter, Marshall discussed a conversation in which Clark suggested Marshall could give up his contracted severance pay in lieu of continuing to receive health insurance from the town for two years upon retirement. Townsend is one of only a handful of Massachusetts towns that do not offer health-care benefits for retirees.

“(Clark) had no authority to offer retiree health benefits, whereby now he has set precedence for the rest of the retirees in our town,” Kelly said.

Marshall, negotiating with selectmen in executive session, agreed to give up $24,753 in severance pay to stay on the town’s health insurance plan until age 65.

In working an agreement out with the board and then-Town Administrator Andy Sheehan, concerns were raised about possible tax implications. Marshall also questioned the “rush” he felt from Clark to form this agreement and retire before the end of his contract. At the recommendation of Sheehan, Marshall sought legal advice and representation.

To the recall group, Marshall appeared to be forced out. But Clark said Marshall had been looking to retire for some time, so they met to discuss that and Marshall’s concern about health insurance.

“At no point was he forced out or pressured,” Clark said.

Kelly and Sheldon said the language of the Aug. 13 letter gives the appearance that Clark and Smart discussed the offer outside of a posted meeting, which would be a violation of the state Open Meeting Law. Clark and Smart deny the accusation.

Who should be chief?

Sheldon and Kelly also have questioned how selectmen hired an interim chief, and said they believe Boxboro Police Chief Warren Ryder was offered the job before it was formally posted.

Ryder said he’d heard the position was open and asked Clark, a reserve officer in Boxboro, about it. Ryder said he began asking Boxboro selectmen for permission and was interviewed for the job, but as the process dragged out, Townsend decided to go with DeMoura.

Ryder participated in the Police Chief Screening Committee that chose finalist Robert Eaton, current police chief of Stockbridge, with the help of hiring firm BadgeQuest.

Sheldon and Kelly — who were part of an informal residents committee that participated in the screening — have taken issue that Lt. Mark Giancotti was not considered for promotion to chief, and said Clark told him it was “not his time.”

Clark said he had discussed the matter with Giancotti but that it was a mutual decision. Clark said he told Giancotti he will support any effort to further his professional development.

Barrieau recommended a leadership training program for Giancotti that was recently approved by selectmen through a weekly warrant. Barrieau said the program, sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Southern Police Institute, is training all command staff should receive.

“When you promote someone, I think it’s incumbent on the community to then obtain the correct training for that person to be able to succeed,” he said.

The Hartford-based program will cost the town $1,500 after a $2,000 scholarship, Barrieau said.

A conflict of interest?

During his time in Townsend, DeMoura placed Clark’s wife, Patty, an administrative assistant at the department for 27 years, on paid leave for an allegedly threatening text sent to a dispatcher. Clark declined comment on the situation involving his wife. Patty Clark has not returned to work.

Under the state conflict-of-interest law, a public official is prohibited from participating in matters in which an immediate family member has a financial interest.

Clark recused himself from the meeting at which the board met Eaton. Kreidler read a letter from Clark that stated he did not vote to appoint Barrieau in December. The Sun/Nashoba Valley Voice reported Dec. 30 that Clark did participate and Kreidler apologized to him for saying at a previous meeting that he could not.

Clark said he has obeyed the varying opinions he has received from legal counsel,

The recall group has submitted ethics complaints against Clark to the state for instances in which they believe Clark overstepped his bounds.

Marshall and DeMoura could not be reached for comment.

Follow Alana Melanson at or on Twitter and Tout @alanamelanson.

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