[Update: The Town just released several related Executive Session minutes (with someredactions made by Town Counsel). These include sessions where the stated reason for exemption from public session was “contract negotiations with non-union personnel”.]***
This morning, the Select Board issued a press release. It announced that Chief Kenneth Paulhus is no longer Southborough’s Police Chief.
In keeping with past refusal to share any details, the announcement was quite brief:
The Southborough Select Board and Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus announced today a mutual agreement that his employment with the Town would not continue beyond May 31, 2022. The Board and Mr. Paulhus have reached a written Agreement to address the balance of certain contractual benefits under his existing Employment Contract with the Town.
The timing of release of this statement was agreed to by the parties.
Paulhus had just entered his 8th year of serving Southborough when he suddenly went on/was placed on leave. The action immediately followed his participation in a closed emergency Executive Session on February 28th to:
discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.
The Town refused to comment at that time, but I was able to confirm and report that on March 2nd that Southborough Police Lieutenant Ryan Newell was the Acting Chief. (Although there are still some references to Chief Paulhus on the Town website, the Staff page has been updated to remove Paulhus’ name and list Newell as the Chief.)
At the Annual Town Meeting last month, the Select Board refused to explain the Chief’s leave.
Questions were raised by residents prior to voting on the annual budget for the Southborough Police Department. Treasurer Brian Ballantine confirmed that it included the Chief’s salary. The Board wouldn’t clarify whether the Town was still paying Paulhus or answer how long the situation might continue.
Upon repeated questioning, officials referred to Executive Session as the reason they couldn’t comment on the situation. Chair Lisa Braccio said commenting wouldn’t be fair to the Chief.
This past Tuesday’s Select Board agenda ended with a closed Executive Session for two items. The first was “to discuss a Police grievance”.
Given the final statement of the press release about pre-determined timing, it is possible the grievance didn’t directly relate to the Chief. (The term has been used in the past, including for an Executive Session on January 4th.) Another Executive Session earlier this spring that may have been related was on April 5th. Confidential topics included an “ongoing personnel matter”.
The most recent employment agreement for Paulhus was approved on February 25th, covering employment through July 1, 2023.
It appears to have been an extension of the prior agreement, which included the following termination clause:
The Chief may be suspended or discharged for just cause, upon proper notice and only after a hearing at which time the Chief shall have the right to be present, to be represented by counsel, and to cross-examine witnesses and to provide witnesses to speak on his behalf The Board or its designee shall, upon notice of an alleged infraction or occurrence giving rise to possible disciplinary action of the Chief, initiate an investigation as to the facts surrounding said allegation. The Board shall endeavor to complete said investigation within a reasonable period of time. Upon completion of the investigation, the Board shall determine whether further action is warranted. The Chief shall be notified forthwith of the results of the Board’s determination. If the Board finds that a hearing is required, the Chief shall be duly notified in writing of the date, time and location of the hearing, and the reasons for calling the hearing and make findings, conclusions and recommendations. To the extent allowed by law, the Chief shall have the option of choosing whether any such hearing shall be closed to the public or be held as an open hearing. The Board of Selectmen shall render decisions as soon as possible after the close of the hearing. A decision to discipline, suspend or discharge the Chief shall require a majority vote by the Board.
Minutes specified the extended agreement would include the following raises for the period from February 11, 2020 through now:
The first year includes a 3% increase in salary, an Accreditation Stipend of $7,300 and the $400 longevity per the Salary Administration Plan. The second year includes a 3% increase on salary, an Accreditation Stipend of $7,500 and the $400 longevity per the Salary Administration Plan. The third year includes a 3% increase in salary, an Accreditation Stipend of $7,800 and the $400 longevity per the Salary Administration Plan.
The agreement’s ratification was unusual. It was voted on in a Closed Executive Session on February 25, 2022* with no contract ever publicly posted. The minutes weren’t publicly posted until October 22, 2020.
In 2015, resident Desiree Aselbekian alleged that the Board of Selectmen hid a raise for Town Administrator Mark Purple by voting on it in Closed Session. The Attorney General’s Office agreed that the Board violated Open Meeting Law. In that instance the AG’s office focused on the Board conducting the evaluation in closed session. (Though, at the time the determination letter was written, the AG was aware that the Board had tried to rectify violations by voting again on the contract agreement and raise in open session. I can’t find any record of a follow up public vote on Paulhus’ raise.)
Paulhus’ evaluations didn’t take place in Executive Session since they were contracted to be conducted annually by Purple. How consistently those were taking place is unclear.
At Candidates Night this April, former Personnel Board Chair Betsy Rosenbloom raised her concern that Purple may not be filing annual reviews of his employees. She asked member Sam Stivers if the practice had changed since a July 2020 meeting.
In the 2020 discussion, Purple told the Board of Selectmen he sometimes he prefers conversations to written evaluations. He stated that could vary by employee, year to year. He specifically cited Paulhus as an example. Referring to frequent conversations they had, Purple indicated they negated the need for a formal annual evaluation of goal related performance. At that time, Stivers responded that he saw the value in having some of that in writing as a baseline.
This spring, Rosenbloom noted that if you have a problem employee, it’s difficult when there are no written reviews marking progress. She asked if formal reviews were now being done. Stivers agreed with her assessment and responded he believed they were being done.
Paulhus came from the Woonsocket Police Department. At the time of his hiring, there was a vocal contingent in Town pushing for an internal candidate. He was initially hired at a salary rate below his predecessor. The Board sought to address that in 2016 when they approved a 15% raise.**
Some readers will likely contrast the Select Board’s secrecy around Paulhus’ probation this spring with the handling another Executive Session matter with overlapping timing this year.
In January, the Board issued a letter to then-Chair of the Historical Commission requiring him to meet to discuss ethics charges. Circumstances around posted materials led to him publicly acknowledging their accusations. His comments included calling the timing of Board’s complaint “highly suspect”. In response, the Board publicly commented defended their actions. From there, both parties continued to air grievances in public despite talks also taking place in Executive Session.
In the case of Paulhus, up until the joint release, there appear to have been no public statements made by the now former Chief. Still, it’s notable that the Board never issued a statement publicly acknowledging that Paulhus was on leave and an Acting Chief serving in his place. They also avoided making any references in their public meeting.
***Updated (6/2/22 4:59 pm): I’ll need some time to read and digest the newly released minutes from this year’s Executive Sessions. But I can point you to the links for now: February 28, April 5, May 5, May 9, May 17,