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Hooksett voters will decide if Police Commission should go

HOOKSETT - The town finally has a new police chief with the recent hiring of Peter Bartlett, formerly a lieutenant with the Manchester department, but it may no longer have a police commission if a petition is passed by voters this spring.

The petition, submitted to the town Wednesday by former police commissioner Henry Roy, will put a question on the town ballot to abolish the commission, one of the town's most controversial agencies.

The petition says it seeks "to abolish the Hooksett police commission by rescinding the action of the Hooksett special town meeting, held on September 16, 1975." It goes on to note that "if this article shall be adopted, the Hooksett Police Commission shall go out of existence 15 days after its passage."

A bill (SB 11 2011) passed the state legislature on Feb. 15, 2011 that provides the town with the option to rescind the action that created the police commission with a warrant article.

The law calls for "25 or more registered voters or 2 percent of the registered voters in town, whichever is less" with no fewer than 10 ever being sufficient. The petition has 147 signatures, though the Town Clerk is still verifying that all of the signatories are registered voters in the town.

The Police Commission and its performance were points of contention in 2012. Town councilors accused the commission of micro-managing the department and lagging in the hiring of a new chief. The position was filled in December, after a 15-month vacancy. Some members of the council also expressed concerns about the commission's transparency and use of non-public sessions. These tensions came to a head in September when the commission directed Public Safety Strategies Group to cancel a meeting with the council in September and the council in turn issued a vote of no confidence in the commission.

Later in September, a letter was presented to the Town Council which claimed to represent the opinions of "the vast majority of HPD employees," accusing the commission of "hindering" officers and staff from performing their jobs. Specifically, the statement referenced micro-managing, delays in necessary promotions and the payment of vendors, the slowing of day-to-day business for the commission's insistence on approving all expenditures, and employees being "left hanging" on questions of pay and benefits.

Supporters of the commission argue that the commission was met with a challenging task after former chief Stephen Agrafiotis' 2011 suspension and the November 2011 Public Safety Strategies Group Audit, and that the commission met that task well, having since put in place most of the audit's recommendations and hired a police chief in December.

David Pearl, a school board member, and Marc Miville, chairman of the Budget Committee, requested that the Town Council rescind its vote of no confidence and issue a vote of confidence in the commission. They expressed concerns that the council's standing vote could give voters the perception that the council tacitly endorsed the petition. Both have been strong supporters of the current commission while critical of the previous commission members.

"You have a currently standing vote of non-confidence in the police commission, and [yet] welcomed this commission just this Saturday and the new police chief, and you were very polite, and by the way, you recommended their entire budget and didn't cut anything," said Miville. "I would ask that you rescind your vote of no confidence with a vote of confidence. ... You've already stated an opinion and now you have marred the perception of how this petition should operate."

The Police Commission, which includes Chairman Joanne McHugh and commissioners Kenneth Scherer and Clark Karolian, could not be reached for comment.

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