CHESTER, Vt. – Sparks flew during Chester Selectboard’s July 7 meeting when discussion turned to Chester’s proposed police department assessment, after Board Chair Arne Jonynas read aloud a letter submitted by Chester resident Leslie Thorsen.
The letter included her recommendations for a community oversight committee participation in the policing policy process. In the letter, she mentioned a police officer by name currently under a “use of force” investigation in town. Once Jonynas read the name of the police officer, board member Jeff Holden, who is also a part-time Chester Police Officer, immediately objected, saying that the board should not be mentioning names when “nobody’s here to defend themselves.”
Holden then continued, referencing a past accusation Thorsen had made about him while on duty with the Chester Police Department, which resulted in an investigation over a period of 14 months. Holden expressed his outrage at how the board handled the issue because he was unable to defend himself since he was under investigation. “I could not open my mouth and you continued to allow her to slam me and the Chester Police Department.”
He also suggested this was why police officers don’t stay in Chester, since they don’t have an opportunity to defend themselves.
Board member Heather Chase, speaking remotely, attempted to interrupt Holden, but was unsuccessful as he provided details of the outcome of his own investigation, which found no fault with his conduct. He later added that after he was cleared, that information was never shared with the public.
Jonynas then clarified that in reading the Thorsen’s notes in her letter, she had indicated not to read aloud her statement that included the name of the police officer, but he had inadvertently read that section before realizing it.
Jonynas defended the need to let townspeople speak, however, for the sake of transparency regardless of his opinion about what they are saying. He later added that the board has to listen to public comments saying, “That’s how it works in a democracy.”
Board member Lee Gustafson suggested the board move on from the topic but that it was unfortunate that the damage had been done. He added later that at the end of an investigation, information should be shared publicly so the town will get the full story.
Town Manager Julie Hance used the opportunity to point out that this was one of the reasons for doing an assessment of the Police Department. She earlier had outlined the assessment was not about finding fault, but identifying things they do well and where they can improve. It would also include needs of officers, efficiencies, training needs, retention tools, and could lead to developing a community policing plan. A community oversight committee, which has been a topic surrounding the Chester Police Department, may also be part of the discussion.
Hance did mention the idea of holding a Citizen’s Police Academy, which could service as a great way to inform citizens about community policing and serve as a recruiting tool.
The conversation moved to discussing a change to the retirement program for the Police Department, from which Holden recused himself from that topic of discussion and left the meeting.
The board then set the 2021 tax rate, which jumped significantly due to sharp rise in education rates resulting in a nearly 13-cent increase for the residential tax rate for a total of $2.3595, and about a 9-cent increase for non-residents for a total of $2.454.
The next Chester Selectboard meeting will be held Wednesday, July 21 at 6 p.m. at the Chester Town Office.