Egremont likely to face lawsuit from ex-police chief Bucknell

by John Sakata, published in Berkshire Eagle

EGREMONT — The town is likely to face a lawsuit over its decision to fire suspended police Chief Reena Bucknell, according to Bucknell’s attorney.

In a blistering statement on behalf of his client, attorney Michael Akerson, of Worcester, denied the town’s claim there was a deadline of Friday, Sept. 20 for Bucknell to sign the agreement. The Board of Selectmen cited the missed deadline as a primary reason to terminate Bucknell.

The agreement, which was acquired Tuesday by The Eagle, would have compensated Bucknell with about $65,000 through the end of the year.

Akerson did not specify what damages the lawsuit would seek, but he said his client “would own the new police station” — referencing a facility being constructed in town.

The board voted unanimously on Monday night to terminate Bucknell, who was placed on paid administrative leave in February following a vote of no-confidence by the department’s officers. In a closed-door session on Aug. 12, the board and Bucknell negotiated an agreement regarding her future role in the department, but the agreement was rescinded following Monday’s termination vote by the board.

“No DEADLINE was discussed, proposed, dictated or suggested, save for the creative yet arrogant mind of the board,” according to Akerson’s statement. “Once again, the BOS has, over the last 7 months, acted rashly and in bad faith in its dealing with the chief and unfortunately, to the financial peril of the taxpayers of the town of Egremont — to think that the new police station cost the town a lot of money; stay tuned.”

Town officials on Tuesday stood by their assertion that the agreement included a Sept. 20 deadline.

Following Bucknell’s suspension, consultant Robert Pomeroy, of Pomeroy Resources Inc., conducted an independent review of the department. Pomeroy’s report was critical of the department’s management practices and provided recommendations to rectify the problems. The report identified high turnover, training issues, antiquated police procedures, and improper follow-through on grant-application provisions.

Bucknell has accused the Selectmen of harboring grudges against her, and during a public meeting in July, she defended herself against the report’s findings.

Throughout discussions between Bucknell and the town, there’s been the looming threat of a lawsuit, which led to the agreement.

The Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 to offer the agreement in the closed-door session Aug. 12, with Selectmen Bruce Turner and Mary Brazie in support the agreement and Selectman Charles Flynn opposed.

The agreement would have paid Bucknell roughly $65,000 through the end of the fiscal year in exchange for her relinquishing the right to sue the town. She would also retain her health benefits through the fiscal year.

The total would include salary through the end of the year, plus $17,155 in the form of 50 vacation days, 15 sick days, and six personal days that could be cashed in, according to Brazie. These benefits that would be cashed in also would add to her pension, Turner said.

Bucknell has collected approximately $34,000 since being put on paid administrative leave on Feb. 19, according to Brazie.

In an interview on Tuesday with The Eagle, Akerson dismissed what board members called the town’s “good faith” efforts to negotiate a settlement with Bucknell.

“The board has violated her rights more times than those people have hair on their heads,” he said.

Turner said on Tuesday the board ordered the town’s attorney, Jeremia Pollard, to provide evidence of the deadline. He said the request was made more than a week prior to Sept. 20.

Akerson said he received the agreement on Sept. 12, but there was no deadline attached to it.

“I don’t know what happened between the lawyers,” Turner said. “That’s still a week and a half” to sign the agreement.

Turner said he was comfortable with the decision to fire Bucknell.

“In our terms, it should be very simple” for her to sign the document, Turner said.

Timeline

Feb. 15: The town’s seven full- and part-time officers sign a letter of “no confidence” concerning Police Chief Reena Bucknell “after countless meetings, complaints, and internal debate regarding Chief Bucknell’s behavior,” according to the letter. The letter is submitted to the Board of Selectmen.

Feb. 19: The board votes to put Bucknell on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of the complaints.

March 5: The board hires Attorney Robert J. Pomeroy, of Pomeroy Resources Inc., based in Plymouth, for $9,800 to conduct a review of the police department. Pomeroy was the police chief in Plymouth from 1992 to 2008 and subsequently interim chief in the towns of Hamilton and Sandwich.

April 12: Following a monthlong review, Pomeroy issues a report citing “financial oddities,” high turnover, training issues, and “antiquated policies and procedures.”

May 8: Voters approve at special town meeting the hiring of Brian Shaw as interim acting police chief and the allocation of $15,000 in salary. The department had been run by Officer Jeremy Pilone.

Late June: The board fires Pilone on the recommendation of Shaw, citing a “leadership conflict.” Selectmen originally agree to accept Pilone’s resignation, but then fire him after he pulls the resignation back and requests re-instatement.

July 8: Bucknell goes before the board and defends her leadership of the department in a point-by-point rebuttal of the report. Retired Pittsfield Police Chief Anthony Riello defends Bucknell.

Aug. 12: The board and Bucknell enter negotiations on an agreement that would avoid a town lawsuit and allow for the two parties to part ways.

Aug. 25: The board votes to offer the police chief position to Shaw.

Sept. 24: The board votes to fire Bucknell and rescind the agreement negotiated at the Aug. 12 session.