Shelburne residents have no legal right to inquire into the process used by town government during the departure of longtime Police Chief James Warden, according to a legal opinion issued by the town attorney.
Attorney Brian Monaghan made the comment in an email to town officials on why he thought the selectboard should avoid an independent review proposed by Town Manager Joe Colangelo and selectboard member Dr. Josh Dein.
“And it is incredibly dangerous to wade into those waters at this juncture,” Monaghan wrote in the Nov. 21 email obtained by the Shelburne News through a Vermont public records request.
The town’s treatment of Warden, who was Shelburne police chief for 30 years, has divided the community. The proposed review would have been an effort to understand what happened and if things could be done better by management the next time. Town officials had hoped the inquiry would help settle unrest among taxpayers.
Board Chairman Gary von Stange had begun a search for a qualified labor lawyer to do the independent investigation. However, the Monaghan email became public Nov. 28 when it was discussed in some detail at the selectboard meeting. Following that discussion, the board agreed to pull the plug on the inquiry.
The following day, Colangelo said, on the advice of the town attorney, he denied a Shelburne News request for access to the public record.
On the morning of Nov. 30, Colangelo provided the Shelburne News a copy of Monaghan’s four-paragraph email. The town attorney blacked out what appears to be a nine-line paragraph. Another paragraph has what appears to be half-sentence blacked out.
In the email to Vice Chairman Jerry Storey, with copies to von Stange and Colangelo, Monaghan wrote that Warden’s departure should be put to bed.
“Here are my two cents: This is a situation that these folks are going to need to put to rest. The situation has been resolved, and it is over,” Monaghan wrote.
He later noted, “Mr. Warden has left and he is riding out the terms of the agreement.”
The partially blacked-out sentence follows. The sentence picks back up with “having signed the agreement. He is entitled to privacy in his former employment. The members of the public in this situation have no legal right to inquire into the status or procedures as to how things occurred, and it is incredibly dangerous to wade into those waters at this juncture,” the paragraph ends.
The town attorney also wrote, “The town manager made many of the decisions in this matter, but at the end of the day it was the selectboard that actually agreed to the settlement agreement, after a substantial amount of consideration and discussions. And this was prior to the actual extensive executive sessions on the issue.”
He said if the residents are unhappy, they can change the town charter.
Taxpayers have questioned at several meetings how the settlement with Warden came together. While negotiations took several days, the selectboard conducted only a couple of meetings, so it remains a mystery who was directing the town attorney on a daily basis. No selectboard member has acknowledged being the point person with the town attorney for the talks.
Colangelo initially issued a three-day suspension to Warden from July 19 to July 21 for unspecified reasons. Warden, who had told the Shelburne News in June that he was looking to retire probably in September, never returned to the job.
The selectboard voted 5-0 on Aug. 9 to accept the terms of the settlement negotiated by the town attorney and Warden’s lawyer. As part of the settlement, the suspension was removed from the file. Warden’s lawyer said the suspension was unwarranted.
The chief’s resignation was effective Aug. 4, but he continues to be paid through Jan. 31 as a consultant.