More detail on Police Chief’s leave and leaving (Updated)

Right: Released, redacted minutes shed more light on Chief Paulhus’ departure. (2019 photo by Beth Melo)

Yesterday, I shared news about the Southborough Police Chief’s “mutually agreed upon” resignation. Related minutes were posted two hours after the press release was issued. (Which is why they weren’t listed when I began working on the story. I didn’t realize they were posted until late yesterday afternoon.)

I’m now following up based on the details they reveal.

For most of the posted minutes, the subject of the investigation is redacted along with some other text. However, given all of the circumstances (including that Chief Kenneth Paulhus was the only attendee whose unredacted name never appeared in the minutes), it’s easy to fill in many of the blanks.

Prior to Chief Paulhus returning from his vacation at the end of February, the Board learned of allegations made against him by multiple, confirmed sources. (It appears members’ knowledge of the specifics was limited.) He was placed on leave while an investigation was conducted

Labor Counsel recommended that the Board not discuss the situation until the investigation was complete. The Board initially believed that would take about three weeks.

The initial inquiry led to more staff needing to be interviewed than expected. (Paulhus and 16 other employees.) On the morning of May 5th (the 2nd day of Town Meeting), the Board learned the independent investigator found enough cause to conclude they should “separate from service” from Paulhus.

Although the Board was provided more detail, the nature of the accusations and investigation findings were redacted. Recommendations from the independent investigator did include developing a town-wide policy on “discrimination harassment”, re-issueing “policies that may have non-intentional discriminatory intent”, and immediately training police supervisors on reporting policies.

Minutes stated that, according to the investigator:

no supervisors but one knew of the XXXXX conduct.

The Board followed guidance to limit the Town’s liability by negotiating a separation agreement. As recently as May 17th, the termination was to be announced as a retirement.

Recent drafts referred to in minutes would have paid Paulhus for five months beyond his last official date. However, the agreement hasn’t been posted and the final version may have been altered in the final two Executive Sessions for which minutes have also not yet been posted.*

The minutes issued yesterday appear to have been redacted by Labor Counsel at the Board’s request. May 17th minutes indicate that when minutes relate to Police disciplinary action, publicly posting them is required.

[Note: In an Update at the bottom, I also have details on the executed agreement and payout.]**

Below are more details from the meetings February 28th – May 17th.

The Board posted the emergency Executive Session for the Monday morning that Chief Paulhus was due to return from vacation. Paulhus learned about it when he flew in from out of the country the night prior. Minutes paraphase him telling the Board he was blindsided by the message that night, and shocked and saddened by the chain of events.

The minutes didn’t explain what the charges were about. Labor Counsel told the Board that Paulhus was “not aware of the allegations”. An investigation was required to determine if the charges were credible. However, she could say that allegations were specific, from multiple confirmed sources, “and if proven true, could require discipline”.

An experienced investigator had already been engaged and the process was estimated to take three weeks. Paulhus would likely be the last person interviewed.

It was determined that the second in command, Lt. Ryan Newell, should be Acting Chief during the investigation, a designation he already had during Paulhus’ vacation.

Labor Counsel, Attorney Kate Feodoroff, told the Board they shouldn’t discuss the allegations until the investigation is closed. Board members asked if they had to make a statement. Counsel told them it wasn’t required and they could simply tell people that the Chief is on leave.

When member Sam Stivers asked about any public announcement about the Paid Annual leave, minutes show:

Attorney Feodoroff said none was necessary, and reiterated that the comment should be that the XXXXX is on approved leave.

(Though, they don’t show the board ever pressed on what was the most they could say or do if they wished to be more open with the public.)

At an April 5th meeting, under the Open Meeting Law exemption to “discuss ongoing personnel matter”, the Board got an update from Mark Purple on why the investigation was still ongoing:

some new issues have arisen outside of the XXXXXX concerns which have extended the list of employees that have been interviewed.

At that time, the investigator had interviewed 16 employees and would be soon concluding by interviewing Paulhus. The report was expected by late April or early May. The Board pushed for a quicker conclusion.

No written report was issued. Instead, on May 5th, the Board received a verbal report from Attorney Feodoroff and the investigator, Jean Haertl. This set of minutes was highly redacted.

Redactions included the nature of accusations, investigation findings, and Heartl’s reason for reporting verbally rather than writing a report.

The recommendation was that the Board Paulhus’ separation be “with some additional terms”. Haertl recommended a settlement to avoid “legal liability and long term litigation, as well as fluctuating morale in the police department”.

In the meeting, Haertl discussed her background including “over 300 public safety and municipal investigations, as an MCAD certified investigator.”

She then summarized a list of redacted facts:

discovered during interviews with 16 employees, including two females and several protected classes. Her goal was to remediate the issue and ensure no retaliation claims. . .

It was further noted that admitted to some of these incidents and XXXXXXXXXXX gave no credible reason why the interviewees would embellish their responses. Many XXXXXX said they did not report because of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXX . None of the XXXXXX indicated they wanted to file any XXXXXX.

Though partially redacted, it appears that Haertl stated she would return her payment if any of the employees she interviewed filed a claim against the Town.

In that meeting, the Board learned that Paulhus’ attorney was asking for him to remain on the roster through mid-September, have his contract paid out through June 2023, and that they not contest his ID card to carry a weapon.

The Board’s documented reactions included:

[Mr. Healy] wanted the employees to know quickly they will be out from under this environment. Mr. Stivers felt there was no room for doubt and is supportive of the settlement route. Mr. Dennington spoke about the nondisclosure agreement. Ms. Malinowski commented she is taken aback by the initial proposal from the XXXXX and feels it is detrimental to keep him on the rolls. She is not comfortable paying the balance of his contract. Ms. Braccio did not anticipate this case and emphasized the Town must protect present employees who feel uncomfortable within the workplace.

The Board’s discussed settlement offer was redacted. An updated, unredacted list was included in May 9th minutes. In that meeting, the Board agreed to a statement that announced the Chief’s resignation as a retirement. That was to be released on May 13th if an agreement was secured in time. The union would be informed at that time or “slightly earlier” than the public release.

The draft agreement included 5 months of pay, payment of accrued vacation, the “mutual release of claims”, and the chief’s “Ability to receive an identification card pursuant to the Law Enforcement Officers Safety 13 Act of 2004 upon request”.

It also included a request for the Board to provide a letter of recommendation. The Board asked to replace that with “response to reference requests.”

The May 13th deadline wasn’t met and the Board continued to deliberate on the agreement on May 17th. Minutes confirmed that no written report was ever issued to the Board and that the investigator’s notes would be kept in Labor Counsel’s files. They also noted that Kathy Cook, newly elected between those meetings, decided to not participate based on not having a prior role in the separation decision.

Two subsequent meetings were held on May 31st and yesterday morning which likely also included more related discussion. Minutes have not yet been released for those sessions.*

*I know that I’m not the only one to have filed a related public information request. So we’ll have to see what the results of those requests are.

**Updated (6/3/22 1:53 pm): The final two Executive Sessions apparently didn’t contain more negotiation. The termination agreement was posted to the public records database in response to a request. The agreement was signed on May 25th and considered irrevocable after 7 days. Some highlights:

  • The payout was $68,658.33 for five months base wages plus $3,802.56 for 48 hours of vacation leave.
  • It states that the agreement is based on Town’s and Paulhus’ “wish to avoid the time, expense, inconvenience and uncertainties of litigation”.
  • An attached confirmation of employment confirms Paulhus tenure of employment and states: “On May 25, 2022 he advised that he was retiring from his position.” There is also a letter from Paulhus with that date stating that he was resigning to pursue retirement.
  • There is a confidentiality clause preventing the Board from sharing details of the agreement or the circumstances, outside of the agreed upon statements, except as required by public records requests.

My public records request came back with a statement from Town Administrator Mark Purple that “All records that are public and responsive to your request have already been released” under other specified public records request responses.

That would seem to indicate that the following items in my request that weren’t posted either don’t exist or were considered not public:

  • Communications about the origin of the investigation into Police Chief’s conduct
  • The notice issued to Chief Paulhus of the February 28th meeting
  • Communications about any Non-Disclosure Agreements made with Paulhus or any other police department employees.

Additionally, I asked for the approved 2020 employment agreement with Paulhus. That also wasn’t provided. The records requests I was pointed to included #22-55 which had the 2020 Payroll data for Paulhus, but that wasn’t what I requested.

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BAD LEGAL, INADEQUATE POLICIES?, AND PURPLE REIGN
27 days ago

This Town needs to move beyond its 1950s inadequacies, including a long history of inadequate and bad legal services, inadequate policies (including legal, BOS recall, DPW oversight, and town administrator, and many other needed anti-corruption policies), and cover up mentality (which is different from privacy protection). Residents have been paying for bad and inadequate legal services long enough. This town government works AGAINST the residents. Time for change and accountability on all fronts.

There is so much troubling and wrong with this entire sad situation that it’s almost too much to address here. However, all sides involved have rights that must be protected, and this saga and tale of “don’t put anything in writing” and “oral” reports is most disturbing. In any situation anywhere, an ORAL report by an “investigator” hired by opposition counsel is NOT “independent.” If something illegal or so egregious happened that there should not be another day of employment, PUT IT IN WRITING. THAT INCLUDES THE BREACHED LAW and POLICY. What NO POLICY? Get better legal counsel from a multi-service firm with experience, lots of eyes, (not ONE set) and checks and balances.

Purple’s ORAL employment review for one of the most important employees in town is simply unprofessional and unacceptable, putting the TOWN at legal peril. That goes without saying. The more important question is WHY WAS (IS) PURPLE NOT DOCUMENTING AN EMPLOYEE’s REVIEW? How did this even be allowed to happen? Where are the POLICIES and MANAGEMENT OVERSIGHT of the Town Administrator position and PURPLE? He absolutely should be fired.

Ms. Burns-Fiore in other posts described her efforts in public records requests. Purple’s contract does not state his SALARY. Nor does Galligan’s. What the hell are we the taxpayers paying for, how much, and are their OUT of SCALE salaries plus bonuses compared to services elsewhere actually be interpreted as bribes? Could that question be asked by an auditor or outside reviewer? Why isn’t what they are paid PUBLIC? The Governor’s salary is public!

Also, PURPLE is the RAO, Records Access Officer for the town. He routinely sanitizes or does not respond AT ALL to PRRs, Public Records Requests. For example, the St. Marks $1m Park and Parking Lot Sweepstakes Giveaway of public monies to a PRIVATE landowner. There have been multiple requests for all communications to and from St Marks with ZERO response. All instances can and should be reported to the state records office to COMPEL answers. Also, the state ethics commission. Enough is enough. Time for changes. It’s not the 1950s any more.

Al Hamilton
26 days ago

So, can we safely assume you will be taking out papers to run for the Selectboard next spring.

WHO WOULD SIT NEXT TO THIS?
25 days ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, sometimes you should take your own advice.

However, in the meantime, the lack of transparency and accountability that you called out on town meeting floor, rightfully so, along with many others, needs fixing first. Who would sit next to people who have, for the most part, no common sense, no legal sense (in spite of their own opinions and poor legal advice that adds to fiascos) and have no ability to listen, allowing all kinds of mistakes to happen? And ignore the town floor votes? Ignore the voices of those they represent? The recent votes of town meeting floor were unanimous to send a message to the five person BOS. And they still don’t get it. It’s not unreasonable to expect these elected officials who put their hand up for the job in the first place to do it right, with transparency and accountability.

Al Hamilton
23 days ago

Who –

I have offered my services to the electorate twice and both times they declined. I am afraid I am a little too fiscally conservative and my libertarian leanings do not find favor with a majority of voters in our community.

Michael Weishan
25 days ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, just to let you know, the above comment is not from me. I will say though, in most towns, the chief records officer is the Town Clerk, and I would support an immediate move to codify that for the next Town meeting. Purple is corrupt, and corrupting, and he needs to go in order for us to get past this.

Mike
27 days ago

Who really knows what happened here? If you google town of Southborough police chief search or police department, there are articles in Worcester and Framingham papers describing decades of power struggles over a department that has seen its share of departures and lawsuits. If mistakes were made, they should be documented. Is this a history of problems with one person, one chief? More than one chief? Or officers out of line? Or a union actually trying to get rid of a chief? Or wrong outside influences stirring up trouble to get a new chief? One thing is for sure: this process seems off and flawed. Is there a back story here and more to meet the eye? Because if this is a one off woke mistake versus a chief struggling for some reason, history is likely going to repeat itself. Take a look at local articles about the last police chief search and see who is commenting. A town of 10,000 people and the same uninspiring names weigh in on who should be the next chief. Given how recent matters have been handled by BOS, this crazy process and regrettable outcome is not inspiring confidence. This BOS has low to no credibility. This s mismanagement and arrogance does not inspire confidence.

Resident
25 days ago

Still nothing on the fact that if he “retired” is he eligible for pension and health benefits from the town? These would remain in effect for the remainder of his life. It would be a HUGE expense to the taxpayers for an employee that was really, factually terminated.

John
24 days ago

Beth, you asked for public records on the three bullet points above, including the notice of the February 28, 2002 meeting provided to him, however you did not receive any response from Mark Purple.
It is interesting to note that the Open Meeting Law Guide (can google for PDF copy) states the following on page 11:
“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 individual to be discussed in such executive session shall be notified in writing by the public body at least 48 hours prior to the proposed executive session; provided, however, that notification may be waived UPON WRITTEN AGREEMENT of the PARTIES. . .”

Were these rules followed by the town’s attorney, Ms. Feodoroff and the BOS? The February 28, 2022 BOS Executive Session Minutes reflect little to no notice received by Chief Paulhus. He probably felt compelled to show up to find out what the complaint was about and to cooperate, but unaware he needed more time to address this serious session with attorney. Locating an attorney takes time. A competent, reputable attorney cannot typically be called upon to appear in a day or so. So the short to no notice is in effect a denial of rights to be represented by counsel for that critical first meeting.

Did anyone read the Chief this state law or make him aware of his rights? No matter the situation and outcome, even to date, all parties have rights. The Chief seemed unaware of complaints and the process didn’t give him time to address this important meeting with an attorney present before it kicked off. This wreaks of bag job, even if it isn’t. It all seems concerning with nothing in writing and little reasoning given to even to the BOS per this special town counsel who is supposed to be experienced in these matters. Seems rushed and odd, given the seriousness. Also, Beth, can you link these articles for reference purposes. Thank you.

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