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Hooksett Police Commission walks away

HOOKSETT — Hooksett residents who voted this week to abolish the town's Police Commission as of next January were trumped Thursday night when the entire board resigned.

"It was totally unexpected," said At-Large Town Councilor Leslie Boswak who, like other members of the council, received an email from Town Administrator Dean Shankle that Chairwoman Joanne McHugh and Commissioners Kenneth Scherer and Clark Karolian had resigned. The commission was working to implement a final round of recommendations developed from a police department audit conducted by the Public Safety Strategies Group.

"I have not received anything official from them yet," said Shankle, who learned of the resignations through a phone call from Police Chief Peter Bartlett after a special meeting Thursday night.

"I would definitely be interested in hearing what they have to say," he added.

None of the three commissioners could be reached for comment.

Shankle said the Police Commission is charged with overseeing the department through Jan 9, 2014.

"I will have to check with the town attorney to see if there is any possible plan B," he said, adding it would be up to the Town Council to appoint three new commissioners for the remainder of the term.

"The greatest problem is the police chief is only authorized to spend up to $2,000," said Shankle.

Any spending beyond that must be approved by the Police Commission, which provides administrative oversight for the police department. And as Shankle pointed out, $2,000 isn't enough to fully equip a new officer if Bartlett needed to add someone to the current department.

"And it's the same thing with hiring, and disciplinary matters," said Shankle. "All those are the bigger problems."

Over the past year, the Hooksett Police Commission had come under fire for what some residents and officials saw as a tendency to micro-manage the town police force. Commissioners were also criticized for taking more than a year to hire a permanent replacement for former Chief Stephen Agrafiotis, who officially resigned in February 2012, after years of controversy marked by paid administrative leaves, a no-confidence vote from some of the department's officers and a three-day suspension over a budget issue that was ultimately overturned by a Merrimack County Superior Court judge.

Those problems led to the independent audit by PSSG and a long list of recommendations for overhauling the department's structure and management.

Although there were complaints about the Police Commission, the three commissioners also had the support of some residents and town officials.

"They stepped up and did what needed to be done," said District 1 Councilor Todd Lizotte. "It takes people with integrity to get a department back on track."

Lizotte said the commissioners showed they had the strength not to become prey to internal pressures.

"They put a structure in place that has allowed the department to drive their own success," said Lizotte. "They did an outstanding job."

Still, Lizotte said government moves on and he is looking ahead to working with fellow councilors on the next phase of the commission. He said he had complete confidence in any decisions from Shankle, who hopes to recruit three new commissioners as quickly as possible

Boswak said she was not sure how much work the Police Commission had left to do, or when decisions would be made.

"Whatever happens, the police department will continue to function," she said. "It will be totally seamless."

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