Despite objections, Select Board votes Chester officer 3 months insurance after resignation

By Shawn Cunningham and Cynthia Prairie

Over the protests of a number of town residents, the Chester Select Board Friday night voted to extend three months of town employee health insurance and to pay accrued vacation time to Paul Larochelle as a condition of his resignation from the Chester Police Department. The agreement was negotiated by Chester town attorney James Carroll of Middlebury and Larochelle’s attorney, Stephen Ankuda of Springfield.

His resignation is effective Friday, May 23.

The special meeting, which was called for the Friday night of a national holiday weekend was attended by 11 residents, three members of the press, Chester Police Chief Rick Cloud, a Vermont State Police officer and a Chester officer who appeared to be acting as security for the hearing.

The proceedings centered around two documents – a hand written note of resignation and a letter dated Wednesday May 21 outlining the agreement between the attorneys.

Larochelle was put on administrative leave on Nov. 18, 2013 following a complaint from a Chester family concerning his behavior toward a minor.  This was the second time in a little over three years he was put on administrative leave. In the latest issue, the Vermont State Police conducted a criminal investigation, passing its findings to the office of the Attorney General. After a review of the case, the AG’s office decided not to bring criminal charges and – in February 2014 – passed the case back to the Chester Police for a review to determine if the complaint warranted action short of charges.

During the intervening six months, Larochelle has collected about $22,000 in pay, kept his health benefits and accrued vacation time. While his pay won’t continue, with the Select Board’s approval, his health benefits – for two people – will extend to the end of August and he will collect $4,301.44 in vacation pay. Larochelle agreed to sign a release and waiver “in favor of the Town of Chester” as well as return his badge, gun, uniforms, keys and other items belonging to Chester.

As Friday’s meeting began, Select Board chairman John DeBenedetti explained the proceedings and asked for a motion to accept the terms outlined in Carroll’s letter. Members Derek Suursoo and Tom Bock moved and seconded and as soon as DeBenedetti called for discussion, hands were raised in the audience.

Board members began by saying that they had no knowledge of the complaint and investigation and that they were voting on the advice of attorney James Carroll. DeBenedetti noted that the Select Board had deliberately “stayed in the dark” about the situation “if he should come back for a hearing.” He was referring to the fact that if Larochelle had challenged any decision by town manager Pisha concerning his employment, the Select Board would have acted as the Judicial Review Board to decide the case.

“You can say you don’t know about this,” said Shannon Burbela, “but you do.” The Burbela family brought the complaint back in October 2013.

Audience members asked that the documents be read aloud and for the particulars of the investigation to be disclosed. Pisha skimmed points of the documents aloud but said that attorney Carroll had said that the investigation is “sealed.” Sealing records is generally a judicial procedure and there is no indication that either the town or Larochelle has petitioned for sealing the records of the case. The confusion may result from Carroll’s assertion that the documents relating to this matter are “exempt” from public records laws. In light of recent changes in state law and a Supreme Court decision in a case involving the internal investigation and subsequent disciplining of police officers in Rutland, this contention may not hold water. The Chester Telegraph has made formal requests for documents relating to this case under Vermont’s Public Records law and will be testing Carroll’s assertions.

The Telegraph asked if Larochelle had been a contract employee or an at-will employee with the town. Chief Cloud said he was at-will. In the case of the former, the town could have been required to fulfill certain requirements. But as an at-will employee, no reason or justification would have been necessary to dismiss him. The Telegraph then asked if the town considered simply firing Larochelle.

Pisha and members of the board responded that termination was an option, but that acting on the advice of counsel, they went with the terms of the agreement. Bock referred to the proposal as “a deal” but quickly walked back his comments. Mary Jane Miles asserted that the arrangement between lawyers went beyond what any other employee could expect. “He should not be getting additional benefits because he is resigning,” said Miles. “Would we do this for any employee who tenders a resignation. If Julie (assistant to the town manager Julie Hance) resigned would we be giving her extra benefits?”

Suursoo responded, “I’m going to do this because my attorney tells me to do this.” Addressing the Burbelas, Bill Lindsay said, “You are never going to get closure. This could go on for 30 years.”

Mark Burbela countered, “So the person who is under investigation gets to negotiate the terms of what he is going to get?” Lindsay said, “A negotiated settlement is a way to get closure. … (and) the police department needs to have a full-time (completely filled) staff.”

But Miles said, “There is a party here who is not getting any closure. I want the public to hear this. I want them to know what is going on.” In closing, Mark Burbela was adamant, saying, “I refuse to let this drop. This gentleman has plenty of safeguards for his rights but my family was the victim here.” The Select Board then voted unanimously to ratify the terms of the resignation agreement.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Mary Jane Miles says:

    I am in full agreement. This town needs a citizen oversight committee.

  2. Randy Miles says:

    It is a very sad day for the people of Chester who are shut out of information that they should be able to hear. It is even sadder for the way our town officials handled this situation! From the police department to the town manager to all of the Select Board: What were you thinking? My hope is that good reporting can be of help now. I think it is time to have a panel of town citizens be involved with the hiring, discipline and management of, firing and resignation of our police officers. I am very sorry to see any of my tax money go to the officer who made a deal and handed in his resignation. Why is it that we the taxpayers have no say?