Ossipee – August 13, 2008 – A seven-person hiring board, made up of Ossipee citizens and outside police, but no selectmen, will choose the next police chief, rescinding a decision made two weeks ago by selectmen to hire an out-of-towner.
All five candidates previously interviewed will be considered for the job, although the obvious top two candidates are Ossipee’s Lt. Don Grow, a long-time veteran of the police department, and Kevin Smith, a highly-qualified veteran from Massachusetts who selectmen hired in a controversial vote that set off a public outcry.
Smith was hired by a 2-1 margin in a non-public session two weeks ago, only to have the offer rescinded after two selectmen took a public bludgeoning over the move last week. Grow, a Massachusetts native, toiled his entire 19-year career here and was expecting to be chief after Rick Morgan retired.
But Grow was passed over, along with Ossipee’s Sgt. James Eldridge, an 18-year veteran, in favor of the reportedly more highly credentialed Smith. Admitting the hiring had turned into a fiasco, selectmen pulled themselves from the re-interview process “In light of the political upheaval that has occurred,” said selectmen’s chairman Peter Olkkola Monday.
Instead, they set up a three-man board of Morgan, Terry Cotton and Morton Leavitt— all from different villages in the sprawling rural town. The trio will appoint the seven-person hiring panel, but are prohibited from sitting on it.
Joined in the initial decision to go with Smith by selectman Kathleen Maloney, Olkkola said the set up, approved by the town’s lawyer, would head off accusations that selectman “manipulated” the seven-member panel. The panel’s choice will be revealed to selectmen on the second Monday in September, and the board unanimously vowed to hire the winner.
At a second packed-house meeting in so many weeks, a row of police Monday stood watch in a show of unity as citizens applauded the board they had lambasted just a week earlier. Lingering feelings of bitterness and disappointment over Grow’s snub were swept over by gratitude and satisfaction over the official concession.
Monday at least effectively ended the tenure of Smith before it ever began.
“Mr. Smith is in agreement,” said Olkkola. “We all want the same thing.”
Weeks earlier, Smith leapfrogged the two longtime local police in a search that was conducted by selectmen almost entirely out of the public eye. When it was sprung on the public, the decision to hire Smith sparked an immediate negative reaction at town hall.
It also landed Smith in an uncomfortable spot, forcing him to introduce himself to droves of citizens as they were hammering the hire as “demoralizing” and reeking of impropriety.
It didn’t help to soothe raw nerves that Morgan, who spoke passionately in favor of his men, has a running feud with Olkkola. Further casting a pall of skepticism, was the revelation that Olkkola sits on the Huggins Hospital board of directors with Smith’s brother, Shawn.
“I applaud the board for taking a step back,” Morgan said Monday, proclaiming 291 had signed a petition calling for a “fair” new process.
“I said the first decision was town politics at its worst,” he said paying homage to the power of the people. “This is town politics at its best.”
Morgan has said police were “heartsick” over the Grow snub. Former state Rep. Mark McKonkey and others last week called it “cruel” to plunge an innocent Smith, the police department and the town into such a boiling morass of bad feelings, blaming Olkkola, the chairman.
But selectmen Monday were hailed by the citizenry, who endured a week-long wait for the decision allowing the panel to take a deeper look at not just Grow and Smith, but all five candidates previously interviewed.
“You’ve given a lot, I admit it,” Mike Nason said. “I appreciate it.”
Roy Barron said, “I’d like to thank the board for putting the train back in the station and restoring a lot of confidence.”
The process, to begin immediately, will include record keeping of the meetings of the hiring panels, at least some of which could be made public. The seven-member panel will be represented by three distinct areas of town, Center Ossipee, West Ossipee and Ossipee Corner. Complaints have arisen from the latter two that police aren’t doing enough to target speeders and other thoughtless lawbreakers in these outlying areas.
The panel will be filled out by a lawyer, a business person, a non-Ossipee police officer and a state trooper or county sheriff. It will come down to Smith’s top-notch resume pitted against Grow’s experience and deep respect within the community.
Olkkola and Maloney have said Smith has the most training and education and is a sure fit for the town. Even selectman Harry Merrow, who ultimately cast the lone vote for Grow, saying he wanted to preserve years of experience and police morale, said Smith looked best on paper.
Morgan has said local judges and the county prosecutor will testify that Grow is up to the task.
“It was a no brainier, we thought,” resident Joe Sargent quipped, backing Grow.
How did Grow and Eldridge handle the heady competition? No problem, Morgan said.
“There has never been an in-fight in my agency about the job,” he said.
Eldridge “fully supports” Grow, but would take the job if it was offered, leaving the town in the “extraordinarily luxurious position” of fielding two qualified in-house candidates.