The Canton Police Union says it has “no confidence” in the leadership of Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner and First Selectman Richard Barlow and has called for the termination or resignation of Skinner and the latter for Barlow.
A press release issued by the Canton Police union indicates the town's recent settlement of sexual harassment complaints against Skinner by executive assistant Michelle Schroder was the catalyst for the action but also lists several other complaints. As worded in a release sent to Patch by union president Mark Penney, the other main points are:
- Violation of contractual obligations creating unnecessary and costly grievances
- Elimination of career progression within the department, as evident by the recent hiring of an external candidate for the second in command position
- Creating a situation that calls into question the ability to effectively perform the CAO’s administrative duties, especially those that call for disciplining members of the police department.
- Overall destruction of morale within the department
“It is clear that the priorities of these two gentlemen are not where they should be,” the release states. “It is embarrassing and, as evidenced by the $55,000 dollar payout, costly to the taxpayers of this Town. In contract negotiations we are constantly reminded that finances are tight with the economy. The Canton Police Union understands this and feels that the Town of Canton cannot afford another situation like this. The Canton Police Union therefore calls for the immediate resignation or termination of CAO Robert Skinner and the resignation of Town First Selectman Dick Barlow.“
The town’s labor attorney, Michael C. Harrington of Murtha Cullina LLP, has said the town was willing to defend Skinner but took an opportunity to settle and save the town money from what a court case would have cost.
On Friday night he said the timing of the union’s release made it difficult for a full response but countered many of the arguments. Although the release states the union vote was unanimous, contends that the action is part of a “personal vendetta” from Penney.
“Mark Penney is quite unhappy that Bob Skinner has actively managed the town and the department since he arrived,” Harrington said.
The union contends the process with Schroder should have involved an investigation with police oversight and that she and Skinner should have been placed on administrative leave during it.
The police union contends that no action was taken against Skinner but that a similar complaint would result in a harsh reprimand and possible termination if it were a member of the department. It also states two Canton officers were forced out or fired for “less severe” incidents.
Harrington said administrative leave in these cases is done when there is a fear of evidence destruction or an ongoing complaint but that Schroder’s allegations involved a past period of time. He also said it was not a police matter.
“A municipal department is never the appropriate agency to investigate administrative charges in another department,” he said.
The union also alleges Barlow did not take enough action.
“According to [Schroder's] complaint Barlow only acknowledged receiving her e-mails and never met with her to discuss these issues,” the release states.
Harrington said Schroder’s complaint in fact acknowledges that Barlow met with her. The first selectmen then referred the matter to Harrington’s firm and that included an investigation, partially conducted by a female attorney, officials said.
“We certainly took it seriously,” Barlow said.
With the union allegations of contract violations, Harrington said he is not aware of any. There have been no arbitrations in the union's favor, Harrington said. Since Skinner was hired, there have been 14 union grievances, 13 from the police department and 1 from the dispatcher’s union against the department. No other unions have filed any, he said.
According to Harrington, what Skinner has done is eliminate practices such as purchasing items without prior approval and “double dipping” by police, such as an officer calling in sick on a holiday and collecting sick and holiday pay.
He said six grievances are pending but contends the union’s attorney has resisted consolidating them. The union also filed one contending it should not have to sign the town’s ethics policy, Harrington said.
The union’s letter references a speeding ticket to Skinner and his complaint that he was targeted. Harrington said he believes an investigation was inconclusive but said it came three hours after Skinner told the union their contract did not support the double dipping.
Hiring outside the department has been an issue in town, especially after Lowell Humphrey retired as police chief in 2009.
The town first hired John Murphy, who only stayed on the job for three months, and the town eventually hired current chief Christopher Arciero.
The selection process predates Canton Patch but according to this May 2010 Canton News article and others, there was strong community support to appoint long-time Canton veteran Deputy Chief Donald Hull to the position.
“Barlow was also instrumental in the decisions to look outside the department on two separate occasions to hire a new police chief and overlook a solid internal candidate,” the union’s release states. “A petition signed by Canton residents insisting that this candidate be given the chance to perform a job he had been trained for was ignored by the Board of Selectmen under Barlow’s oversight. That candidate eventually retired and was hired as a Police Chief in another police department.”
This year, the town hired an outside candidate to replace Hull after he took a job as chief of Stowe, VT. Penny was one of the candidates for what is now the position of captain.
Harrington said it’s clear no one was overlooked. In each case, the internal candidates were among those considered in a comprehensive process, he said.
“The town absolutely has as a priority hiring the most qualified candidate,” he said.
The union has also stated that morale is at an all-time low and several candidates are pursuing jobs elsewhere.
Barlow, who said he was disappointed with the no confidence action, said he was also shocked by the contention. The department is at full strength, a town resident was recently hired as an officer and another came from a different town to work in Canton.
“It seems there are individuals willing to come work in our police department,” Barlow said.
He also said the police union amicably agreed to a 2-year extension of a contract with minor modifications.
Friday night Skinner said he also was disappointed by the vote but said he will continue to work with police.
“I’m disappointed in the vote of no confidence but it will not deter me from working with all members of the department to make sure we have a successful police department,” he said. “I do think the department is headed in the right direction.”
Saturday morning Penney called the town's responses "smoke and mirrors" and issued the following statement.
"I’m sure anyone reading the press release issued by the Canton Police Union and who is familiar with the town would have expected no less in a rebuttal from First Selectman Dick Barlow, CAO Robert Skinner, and the Town Attorney, Mike Harrington. And by that I mean smoke and mirrors. In an effort to draw attention away from themselves and their shenanigans they are casting the blame on someone else. Someone had to say something and the Canton Police and Dispatcher Unions both did. We stand resolute in that action. I think the taxpayers can read between the lines on this."
The union's full release is attached to this story as are several of the documents related to the Schroder complaint released to Patch and others after Freedom of Information requests.