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Close sideshow, focus on serious matters

Published January 10. 2012 4:00AM

As we sort through the strange turn of events the past few days in New London, the most significant and troubling news concerns alleged corruption and improper behavior in its police department.

On Friday Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced the firing of Officer Joshua Bergeson for his apparent attack on an intoxicated man. Officer Bergeson was supposed to help assist the transfer of the drunken man to the hospital Dec. 14. Instead, he allegedly beat him. Officer Bergeson, with the department four years, had a history of misconduct, said the mayor.

Also Friday, Mayor Finizio announced the city had placed K-9 Officer Roger Newton on administrative leave. A video from the October 2010 arrest of a man on drug charges appears to show the officer planting drugs. An investigation, involving state police, is underway. Potential corruption in a police department concerning illegal drugs is about as serious and troubling as it gets.

These revelations surface while the department is in the midst of a major personnel overhaul. The Finizio administration decided not to renew the contract of Deputy Chief Marshall Segar. The mayor also announced the retirements of captains William Dittman and Michael Lacey. This is a house cleaning of the first order.

This shakeup should not be too much of a surprise for those who listened to the mayor's comments during his campaign. He backed the leadership of Chief Margaret Ackley, but warned that she was facing "institutional resistance" in her efforts to run the department more professionally and efficiently. He vowed to "call her in some back-up" if elected as the city's first strong mayor under the charter change.

This kind of institutional overhaul was very unlikely to take place under a city manager system, in which the manager's inclination is to keep councilors happy and avoid controversial actions. Mayor Finizio has made the calculation that Chief Ackley, in her third year as chief, can be an effective leader and clean up a troubled department (how troubled, we're not sure), but could not successfully do so without the right team of supervisors in place.

Mayors are called upon to make such hard choices. Mayor Finizio will own the consequences, for good or ill. Only time and the department's performance will tell whether Mayor Finizio's faith in Chief Ackley is well placed.

The settlement

Unfortunately, looming over these important matters is the ongoing sideshow - the letter of complaint the chief filed against former Councilor Michael Buscetto III last August during the campaign. It charges Mr. Buscetto with interfering in the chief's department and faults the prior administration for doing nothing about it. Last week Mayor Finizio announced the city had reached a settlement to pay Chief Ackley $25,000 in damages.

Both the prior administration and new mayor have mishandled this soap opera. The mayor and council have to figure out a way to get past it and on to more important matters.

The past administration and legal staff overreacted in advising the council to launch an investigation into the allegations without Chief Ackley ever filing a formal intent to sue. The subsequent investigation report, released Saturday by Council President Michael Passero, concludes the conduct the chief complained about "constitutes political animosity but is not actionable by law." The city would almost certainly prevail at trial.

It is not uncommon for cities or companies to pay off nuisance suits that have little chance of success simply to avoid added legal costs. It is inappropriate, however, for New London to pay off its sitting police chief in this manner. The council should move to block the settlement. If it does, Chief Ackley should drop her action against the city and move on. If she feels she has a legal beef against Mr. Buscetto, she can try to make that case.

The sooner the city can cancel this soap opera, the better.

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