Three weeks have passed since, in a non-public session on Jan. 13, the Winchester Board of Selectmen voted not to renew Mike Tollett’s contract as the town’s police chief. Tollett, whose two-year contract expired in December, says he was given no reason by the board. Nor were Winchester residents, and the board continues to keep the town in the dark.
Tollett was elevated to the chief’s role and awarded a two-year contract in a celebratory selectboard meeting in December 2018 at which congratulatory cake was served. He was a popular choice at the time — the town’s citizens “have definitely been behind Mike 100 percent,” board Chairman Ben Kilanski said then — and he was Winchester’s first police chief to have a contract, according to Kilanski. And to judge by social media comments since Tollett was let go, he remained popular with many residents and the board’s decision to end his contract came as a surprise.
Nevertheless, the board members have remained mum about their decision and any reasons for it, hiding behind, as is too often the case when governing bodies abruptly end relationships with key officials, legal advice from the town’s lawyer. Further muddying the situation, Kilanski told The Sentinel that the selectmen had been “reviewing details within [Tollett’s] contract” for a while, yet thanked Tollett for his efforts as chief and said he had done “a lot of very good things for the town.”
This situation shows once again that when officials refuse to explain a major decision, speculation about the reasons becomes rampant and ends up raising questions — in this case among townsfolk, about both the selectboard’s judgment and motives and Tollett’s record and reputation — even if such questions aren’t warranted. Kilanski acknowledged as much when he said he understands the public concern as shown in social media comments, but insisted his hands were tied based on legal advice, a view seconded by Selectman Jack Marsh at the board’s Jan. 15 meeting.
Despite the public information vacuum and the easy shield of “legal advice,” the Winchester board can and should do better in keeping the town informed. Even if its members are legitimately constrained from explaining all the specifics of Tollett’s situation, they can certainly discuss what their vision is for the town’s police department and what qualifications they’re particularly seeking in finding its next leader. Also, if Tollett was the first to have a two-year contract and the decision not to renew was made while “reviewing details” within it, did the board even try to renegotiate it or has the board concluded the town is not well-served by a multi-year arrangement and, if so, why?
One noteworthy initiative of Tollett’s tenure was his advocacy for a social worker position within Winchester’s police department. It’s an innovative proposal for a small, rural community, and one that has gained momentum nationwide amidst a reexamination of policing roles. He presented a proposal to fund such a position for $25,000 to the board at its Nov. 11 meeting, asking that it go before voters. At last month’s meeting, at which Tollett’s contract was not renewed, the board voted not to recommend the spending. But as it seeks a new chief, shouldn’t the board also be telling town residents its view of the idea or how, in its absence, the issues it’s meant to address will affect the department’s functioning and the new chief’s handling of them?
Given the cautiousness of legal advice in personnel situations, it’s easy to get a lawyer’s advice on what not to say. But the board answers most of all to its residents, and it also ought to determine what it can say so that they will understand the direction of public safety in their town.