Towns mum on troubled police chiefs

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It started June 15. St. Johnsbury Police Chief Clem Houde suddenly got suspended after 25 years with the department.

A WCAX News public records request of the chief's cellphone messages revealed after-hours conversations with a female subordinate officer, and Houde told a local newspaper he "made some mistakes" after submitting a "resignation by retirement." But the town has remained mum, citing it as a "personnel matter" which is exempted under the state's public records law.

It's the same response we received when we asked similar questions about longtime Shelburne Police Chief James Warden.

"I'm not going to comment publicly on any personnel matter," Shelburne Town Manager Joe Colangelo told us.

Emails obtained by WCAX show Warden was suspended for three days starting July 19. But the town has refused to shed any light on what happened.

Warden has been the department's police chief since he was hired in 1987, but internal documents show his leadership position was taken with his sudden suspension. So far, there has been no public explanation given.

At a public meeting Tuesday, the Shelburne select board announced they had signed a separation agreement with Warden. It "converts" his role from chief to a temporary department consultant but it keeps his current compensation and benefits until his permanent departure at the end of January 2018. He will also be allowed to cash out on more than 250 hours of unused vacation time. And his three-day suspension will be erased from his personnel file, limiting town officials from ever commenting on what happened.

Reporter Tyler Dumont: With such few answers, how can the public keep its trust?
Chloe White/Vermont ACLU policy director: It's very difficult.

White says when it comes to police chiefs, with great power comes great responsibility.

"When you're held to a higher standard like that, the public has a greater interest in knowing what's going on," White said.

And a higher standard of enforcing the law. But just last week, Randolph Police Chief Daniel Brunelle was accused of breaking it. He was charged with two misdemeanor counts of domestic assault against his estranged wife. He remains on paid administrative leave.

The former Shelburne chief's attorney told us his suspension was "completely unjustified" and his departure was for medical reasons.

We attempted to get comments from Houde and Brunelle but their phones have been disconnected.