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Hooksett voters to decide fate of police commission

HOOKSETT - Supporters of the Hooksett Police Commission were relieved in April when a petition warrant to abolish the body was amended to allow them an additional 240 days to "finish the work" of reforming the department in line with a 2011 audit, should the warrant pass during next week's voting.

As the final May vote looms, however, the question remains for many: should the commission dissolve, what will take its place?

Hooksett is one of 13 communities in the state with a police commission - including Rochester - more than twice Hooksett's size, and Auburn, about a third of its size. Tasked with overseeing and helping manage the department, the administrative body handles everything from hiring and firing, to wage setting, to drafting of a budget, to the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements.

In most towns, however, such work is split between the chief, selectmen (or equivalent body), and, if they have one, town administrator. Chiefs draft the budgets. Collective bargaining negotiations are held between the unions and the town administrator. Grievances move from the department chain of command to a town administrator and ultimately to selectmen.

For many of these towns, the system works well. Windham is about the same size as Hooksett, with a population of 13,592 to Hooksett's 13,451, according to the 2010 census. The difference: Windham has no police commission.

"We don't have a commission, and frankly, even having one has never been discussed," said Windham Town Administrator David Sullivan. "The system we have works seamlessly. We've got good people in all the places, and we've got checks and balances as needed, no different than the fire department, or any department in town, frankly."

Sullivan said that he sees the Windham chief weekly - if not daily - and the chief regularly attends board meetings to give updates and seek approvals.

One of the main arguments that supporters of the commission offer, however, is that the commission provides independent citizen oversight that shields the taxpayers and insulates the department from town politics.

"The police commission is separate, so what they say is true, but our system has worked," he said. "We haven't had the controversies or any controversies that would break out anything that says 'well, we need an independent group.' So the pro-comment is absolutely correct, that's what the commission would do if that's the necessity. We just haven't found the necessity."

Ultimately, the exact arrangement Hooksett will develop is unclear. One of the provisions of the amendment to the warrant was the ability for the town to form an "advisory police commission," similar to Manchester's, should it be found "necessary," a possibility Town Administrator Dean Shankle said was "on the table." Shankle is adamant that voters understand, however, that no matter how the vote comes out in May, they need not fear the loss of quality police work in town.

"The important thing from my point of view is whether the commission is there or not, I don't think people should concern themselves with whether or not they're going to continue to get good police service," said Shankle.

"Either way, the police department's going to continue doing its job, the chief is going to continue doing his job, and I don't think there should be scare tactics on either side that something's going to change radically.

"Even most of the things that've happened over the last few years, at least from my perspective on the outside, it's been more or less administrative issues rather than operational issues," he said. "I've never had anybody say 'oh, the police didn't show up at my house because they're fighting amongst themselves.' It's been inside stuff, rather than outside stuff.'"

The Hooksett town election will be held on Tuesday, May 14, at Cawley Middle School.

The polls are open from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.

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Christine Heiser, Executive Editor
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