Monday, December 2, 2019

OPINION: Why is the Police Chief moving out of town?

By Jennifer Mahr, Chair of the Westfield Residents Association
On the agenda for tonight’s Common Council meeting is an ordinance to amend Section 74-31 (“Waiver of Residency Requirement”) of the City of Middletown Code of Ordinances. Section 74-31 amends Section 74-30, which requires 12 exempt, non-bargaining unit personal to become permanent residents of the City of Middletown as a condition of their employment as city employees.  The full ordinance reads as follows:

[Added 5-2-1994; amended 12-5-1994; 1-3-2000; 8-7-2006 by Ord. No. 18-06; 5-2-2013 by Ord. No. 11-13]

The following exempt, non-bargaining unit personnel, Police Chief, Deputy Police Chief(s), Fire Chief, Deputy Fire Chief, Director of Health, Director of Public Works, Director of Water and Sewer, Director of Human Resources, General Counsel, Deputy General Counsel(s), Director of Parks and Recreation, Director of Finance and IT Coordinator, not having membership in any municipal union, are required to become permanent residents of the City of Middletown within one year of their appointment. Said residency requirement shall only affect individuals hired for those positions enumerated herein after the date of the adoption of this section. "Permanent residency" is hereby defined for the purpose of this section as being domiciled within the City of Middletown and actually residing within the City, and this requirement is not met by maintaining a mailing address or post office box within the City. The Common Council, by a two-thirds vote, may extend the compliance period not to exceed one year upon showing hardship. Failure of the appointed candidate to follow this section shall result in immediate termination.

The proposed ordinance under consideration at tonight’s meeting as Agenda item 12A reads as follows:

ORDINANCE: Approving an amendment of Section 74-31 (“Waiver of Residency Requirement”) of the City of Middletown Code of Ordinances, adding Paragraph E, waiving the residency requirement for Police Chief William McKenna.

Paragraphs A-D of the current Section 74-31 offer a glimpse into the four other times residency requirements have been waived, and all four examples were for new hires moving INTO Middletown, not out of it. Police Chief Brymer was allowed to stay living in Wethersfield, a deputy fire chief was given extended time past the one year requirement to move into Middletown, Fire Chief Ouellette was given extended time to move into Middletown, and Director of Human Resources Tokarz was allowed to stay living in Cromwell. 

So what gives? Why would it be a good idea for the long time Police Chief to move OUT of town?
Let’s consider the prevailing rumor: the Chief’s ailing mother lives in Old Saybrook and he needs to move there to take care of her. According to, his house has been on the market for 43 days (as of 12/1).

When you consider the past exemptions, there is a striking difference between those and this one. First, all were new hires moving into Middletown. Second, two of the exemptions only offered additional time for the city employee to comply with the regulations. Third, the other two exemptions allowed employees to continue to live in their current, long time residences that were remarkably closer to Middletown than Old Saybrook. 

Let’s look at the timing: the Chief’s house went on the market BEFORE the results of the November 5th election were known. Why would that be if the ordinance clearly demands residency as a condition of employment? Why would this waiver be on the agenda the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, in the second month of a young and inexperienced Common Council?

Forget I even mentioned the last paragraph - let’s talk about the general concept of a Police Chief who lives more than half an hour away from the city he’s charged to take care of. Mayor Florshiem’s most outspoken campaign supporters (his treasurer as a specific example) made police accountability a major tenant of his campaign. Yet all of a sudden, it’s OK for the Chief to move out of town, leaving more than 120 sworn officers and staff to fend for themselves?

I’m not being harsh: the Mayor and the Common Council are not charged with doing what’s right for Chief McKenna. They were elected to do what’s right for the 45,000+ residents of Middletown. It may be that the Chief’s personal family issues require him to be a caregiver, and all of us can understand that. However, he’s not Joe average citizen, and there are serious reasons why the Police Chief needs to live in Middletown.

If the Chief’s mother is ill enough that he needs to move to take care of her, his focus will not be on managing the department. There is no personal judgement here. He has not suddenly lost his management skills, he simply has a more important issue to consider. No one faults him for this decision.

However, it raises a most critical question: is it time to retire? He’s not asking to move to a neighboring city, he’s asking to move to another world. Connecticut is a small state, but the shoreline is a whole other world different from Middletown. He would be commuting with traffic on Route 9, not against it. This is a tough reality to add to the burden of taking care of an ailing parent.

From the perspective of the police department, an absent leader is not a good choice. I say this with specific personal knowledge of wearing a military uniform and being in a chain of command. What happens when a decision is made to not “bother” the Chief who lives far away and who is taking care of his sick mother? How is police accountability, transparency, and reliability enhanced by out-of-town supervision?

It’s not. This is not a good idea. The ordinance exists for a reason, and a new Mayor and new Common Council should not support this request. Middletown isn’t a sleepy bedroom community. It’s an urban center, surrounded by far-reaching rural areas, that routinely experiences significant crimes. A distracted, out-of-town Police Chief does not make these issues go away.

Let’s pause and seriously consider our options. The Common Council should delay voting on this ordinance until the general public has an opportunity to comment and to make its will known.


Steven Fajole said...

Who wrote this opinion piece? There is no byline. Your readers should know who wrote this.

Bill Flood said...

There is a byline:
By Jennifer Mahr, Chair of the Westfield Residents Association

Bill Flood said...

It also says who posted with a link to their profile at the bottom of the article.
"Posted by JAM at 5:30 AM"