Council Meets Police Chief Designee: City Hiring Practices Discussed

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Thursday March 15, 2018

On the day after the March 6 election, the city council gathered for a special meeting to reorganize, establish their meeting schedule for the next year, and make annual appointments. Helen Riehle and Meaghan Emery were re-elected to their respective seats and will also retain their positions on the council as chair and vice chair. After the housekeeping business of a new year was completed, the council had the opportunity to meet and ask questions of City Manager Kevin Dorn’s pick to replace retiring Police Chief Trevor Whipple in January 2019. Burlington’s Deputy Police Chief Shawn Burke is set to begin the transition in August, after a successful reference and background check have been completed.

Burke introduced himself to the council and provided information on his extensive experience and training in policing, revealing a long standing commitment to the field of law enforcement and enthusiasm for the opportunity to lead the city’s police department as its new chief. He faced questions from councilors regarding topics such as fair and impartial policing, use of force and ticketing.

After Burke departed, Emery continued the dialogue with fellow councilors and the city manager, returning to a theme she had pursued at the February 20 council meeting, when she asked questions around the hiring process and expressed disappointment about the lack of public input in making this decision. At that time she had pressed for public participation as well as the opportunity to consider applicants from outside Vermont, saying that South Burlington would be well-served by a chief with big city perspective and experience to lead the city’s police department as it continues to face big city problems.

At the February 20 meeting, Dorn defended his position unequivocally, saying that according to the city’s charter the hiring decision falls squarely under his jurisdiction as city manager, and added that given the number of qualified individuals with the necessary Vermont certification, he did not feel the need to expand the search beyond the state’s borders. “I know what the city needs,” he said. In addition, he said, it could take months for an individual from out of state to acquire certain licenses a Vermont officer would already have.

At the March meeting, Emery presented fellow councilors with a handbook regarding how various local governments choose police chiefs and said she was acting on behalf of residents who had asked about the process. She noted that last spring, during the school lock downs, Whipple acted as our “moral leader” since there was no one else to take the role. She emphasized the important role a police chief plays in a community and lauded Whipple’s skill at providing a sense of security and compassion during that trying time. Emery suggested finding a way to have finalists meet with community members in the future since it would “create a sense of ‘this is our police chief’ right from the start.”

Dorn responded by reiterating that during his five years serving as city manager, he has done his best to keep the council informed of his hiring decisions and process. “Every hire is different,” Dorn explained, “you can’t create a cookie cutter approach.” Dorn said that he came to the council in a December executive session to make them aware that Whipple would be retiring in January 2019 and that he would be starting the search process via advertisements and reaching out to potential candidates. He said he updated the council in an executive session in January, making them aware he would be pursuing a few specific individuals. There was not any push back from the council at the time, he said.

“I went out and got the best ... I talked to three people at the pinnacle of their careers and there was no opposition to doing that from the council,” Dorn said. “My view is, I will happily come to the council for every senior manager hire to let you know my process.” Dorn stressed that with three finalists, in order to protect their current job positions, he did not want to reveal them and have their names in the media. potentially jeopardizing their careers if they were not chosen for the position.

Although there were few community members present, resident John Dinklage spoke up in favor of a strong city manager form of government. Dinklage said he supported the city’s experience and history and didn’t think any change was needed. Tim Barritt took note of both perspectives and discussed possibly opening up the process to community feedback in the future, because citizens could potentially open Dorn’s eyes to facts that he didn’t know beforehand and which the public didn’t feel comfortable sharing up until the moment they were asked. Barritt said, there’s the notion that, “If something’s not broken, don’t fix it, but you don’t always know what’s not broken.”

Tom Chittenden said he had spoken with a number of individuals on this topic including former City Manager Chuck Hafter and said while he liked the idea of community input and potentially engaging the charter committee, this time, he was comfortable and confident with the decision that was made.

Pat Nowak, who was participating in the meeting via phone, agreed, noting Dorn’s experience in launching the mental health initiative to embed mental health counselors in public safety departments and his close work with Whipple. Nowak said she was not opposed to the method that was used.

No action occurred on this item in the moment, amd Helen Riehle suggested the council continue the discussion at a future meeting.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent