Winchester police chief sues town after selectmen impose three-day, no-pay suspension
Winchester’s police chief is suing the town after he was suspended for three days without pay for allegedly threatening one of his former officers. Police Chief Gary A. Phillips filed a civil lawsuit against the town in September. In it, Phillips alleges selectmen violated state law by voting in nonpublic session to suspend him without pay before first giving him their reasons in writing. He also claims in court documents that selectmen acted without cause.Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ADandreaKS.
In the lawsuit, he asks the court for a hearing on the merits of the board of selectmen’s decision and for reimbursement of attorneys’ fees.
The parties will face a Cheshire County Superior Court judge Jan. 29 for the first time since Phillips sought legal action.
Attorney Andrew B. Livernois of Concord, who is representing the town, confirmed the board of selectmen suspended Phillips without pay for three days. Town officials allege in court documents that this was after Phillips had made a retaliatory threat against Officer Brooke Sharra during a nonpublic meeting Aug. 19. Sharra was not at the meeting; rather, selectmen held it with Phillips to discuss his work performance.
Phillips said, “Officer Sharra will be on the Laurie list before I’m done with her,” according to an affidavit prepared by Town Administrator Shelly Walker.
The Laurie List is a record of law enforcement officers whose credibility could be called into question if they testify in criminal trials.
Sharra is the daughter of Winchester Land Use Administrator Margaret Sharra.
Phillips threatened Officer Sharra because he believed selectmen’s recent negative evaluation of his performance was the result of feedback he thought Sharra gave to them during her exit interview, Walker wrote. However, selectmen told Phillips that their evaluation of him was completed before they met with Sharra, according to the affidavit.
Officials were troubled by his comment given his history in Winchester, Walker wrote. Selectmen had previously disciplined Phillips in 2011 after he threatened to retaliate against Officer Fred Ziegler, who told selectmen he was concerned about how Phillips was running the department, according to the affidavit.
The board of selectmen appointed Phillips, who is a resident of Swanzey, to the position of chief in January 2005. Prior to that he was acting chief in Winchester.
Phillips’ interactions with selectmen this past fall set in motion his decision to sue the town, alleging wrongful suspension.
After the Aug. 19 meeting, the board met without Phillips, in nonpublic session, on Sept. 9 and voted 4-0-1 to suspend him for three days, according to court documents.
The next day, Walker met with Phillips to inform him of the board’s decision, which was spelled out in a letter, Walker wrote.
Phillips met with selectmen Sept. 16 and tried unsuccessfully to appeal the decision, according to court documents. He was suspended without pay Sept. 21 through Sept. 24.
Even if a judge determines the selectmen had reason to suspend Phillips, “... it remains undisputed that (he) never received the written specification of reasons before he was suspended,” wrote Phillip’s attorney, Joseph S. Hoppock of Keene.
N.H. RSA 105:2 states that: “Such chief, superintendent, or city marshal shall be subject to suspension without pay or dismissal only for cause, and after he or she has been presented with a written specification of the reasons.”
The town’s attorney argues that Phillips did have notice of his three-day suspension well before it began Sept. 21, as Walker met with him Sept. 10 and provided him with written notice. Livernois said selectmen did not need to give that notice prior to their vote, whereas Phillips argues they did.
“So long as the notice was provided to the chief before the discipline was actually imposed, the statute is satisfied,” Livernois wrote.
By phone Tuesday, Phillips declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Roberta A. Fraser, chairwoman of the board of selectmen, said the town has no comment and does not discuss personnel issues.
Officer Sharra could not be reached for comment.