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Police chief's actions decried

Craig S. Semon
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ASHBURNHAM- A tremendous waste of taxpayers' dollars, a decrease in police service, substandard background checking, a disregard for an officer's privacy, and morale at an all-time low were all cited as reasons for the Ashburnham police union's decision to vote no confidence in Police Chief Roy A. Bourque.

Todd C. Parsons, union president, submitted the vote results in a letter to selectmen yesterday.

The letter said union members unanimously approved the no-confidence measure Wednesday. Sgt. Robert C. Brennan Jr., who has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 19, and Officer Thomas Thomann did not attend the meeting.

The no-confidence vote focused on three specific matters, referred to as the "tip of the iceberg," according to the letter.

They were:

the way an internal investigation of Sgt. Brennan has been conducted;

the hiring and screening practices in connection with former Officer Gabriel P. Nutter, who was convicted of drunken driving and drove an Ashburnham cruiser with a suspended license for almost a year;

and a "blatant disregard for the medical privacy" of Officer Robert Siano, who was put on medical leave in February.

After reading the letter, Chief Bourque said he had dealt with all the issues. He said the allegations were "old news" and the union has "missed the mark."

"Ashburnham is a great town. It's got great people and there's nothing that I want more than to lead their police department," Chief Bourque said. "We have some fine officers but I don't agree with any of their points."

Chief Bourque said he thinks the vote actually stems from a notice he gave the police union in January on a reorganization of the department.

The letter said the union has made several concessions at the request of Chief Bourque so he can maintain community programs and services. Despite these concessions, the letter said, the union believes the department has "failed to progress" and it is "abundantly evident that morale is at an all-time low."

On April 29, Sgt. Brennan - who has been on paid administrative leave for more than five months - was handed a letter saying he had been put on leave because of "insubordination" and "failure to perform certain duties." Town Administrator Katherine H. Nunez has yet to issue a decision on the Sgt. Brennan matter.

According to the letter, Sgt. Brennan was barred from contacting any employee of the Police Department or the emergency dispatch center, including the union steward, when he was placed on paid leave.

In addition, the letter said, officers and dispatchers were issued gag orders prohibiting them from discussing the investigation and speaking with Sgt. Brennan. These orders forced officers to write reports whenever incidental contact was made with Sgt. Brennan, the letter said.

In March, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the department.

The letter said there has been "a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars spent on this internal investigation" involving Sgt. Brennan, while "officers have been forced to work alone and the townspeople have suffered a decrease in services."

In addition, the letter said, Chief Bourque has been filling Sgt. Brennan's vacancy with overtime, thus adding to the cost of the investigation.

Chief Bourque is also accused of having done a "substandard background check" when he promoted Officer Nutter. Officer Nutter began working for the department as a full-time dispatcher in May 2003, and in July 2003 he became a reserve, or part-time, police officer.

In October 2002, Mr. Nutter was pulled over on Route 119 in Rindge, N.H., and charged with drunken driving. In January 2003, he was found guilty of the charge and his license was suspended. He was ordered to complete a counseling program, which he did not do, and his license was never restored.

Chief Bourque's discovery of the officer's license status prompted the chief to fire Mr. Nutter as an officer on May 3. At the same time, the chief put Mr. Nutter on paid leave from his position as a dispatcher, but that disciplinary action became moot when Mr. Nutter resigned two days later.

"Essentially Mr. Nutter violated Massachusetts General Law every time he reported to work and drove a police cruiser," the letter continued. "The dereliction of duties by Chief Bourque in conducting that substandard background check placed the town of Ashburnham in the path of serious liability and in the minds of the public has created concerns about a lack of credibility and even worse, corruption within the Ashburnham Police Department."

As for Officer Siano, Chief Bourque is accused by the union of releasing to news media in March a confidential medical report on the officer.

The letter said such a public announcement of Officer Siano's injuries has "opened the door for his future injury should a criminal suspect choose to exploit this area of injury."

In addition, the letter claimed that this omission is a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, as well as the officer's right to privacy.

"Chief Bourque through his inability to perform in the administrative capacity as police chief has placed the town of Ashburnham and its police department in the path of civil liability," the letter said. "Furthermore, this violation of privacy has caused us to worry that we can no longer trust our police chief."

To end this "nightmare of negative media attention and public outcry," the letter said, selectmen have the power "to erase the black marks" caused by Chief Bourque and to ensure that "another black mark never be noted."

In addition to the no-confidence vote, a residents' recall petition for Selectman Charles N. Packard was submitted this week to the Board of Selectmen, with 612 certified signatures, 57 more than the 555 needed to make it official.

According to the petition, Mr. Packard did not respond adequately to Ashburnham residents who asked why Sgt. Brennan had been put on paid administrative leave.

Mr. Packard announced Monday night that he would not resign, waiving the five days he had to make an official decision on the matter. As a result, a special recall election, in which Mr. Packard can run, has been set for Sept. 9.

Also Monday night, the grass-roots community group known as Concerned Ashburnham Residents Evaluate Situations presented the board with a non-binding vote of no confidence in Town Administrator Nunez and Chief Bourque.

In addition, Chris Conrad, the union steward for the Ashburnham emergency dispatchers, said he plans to deliver no-confidence letter regarding Chief Bourque to the selectmen sometime today.
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