MERIDEN — The chairman of the panel tasked with finding the city’s next police chief this week called for a public hearing to gather more feedback from the community before a hire is made.
Members of the newly formed Police Chief Search Committee met Thursday and were handed a timeline of the search and interview process, a job description and possible salary range.
“I want to get the public involved, in addition to what we have here,” Democratic City Councilor and Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, the chairman, told city officials.
City Manager Tim Coon told Cardona and other members of the search committee that a public hearing could be accommodated without interfering with the committee’s hiring timeline. Coon will make the final hiring decision.
The city begins its search to replace outgoing Police Chief Jeffry Cossette after Cossette announced his retirement a year ago. Cossette continues in his $132,000 post until August. He is also collecting a mothly pension of $8,825 or $105,900 annually.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati appointed nine members to the search committee from a large field of interested candidates.
The panel is comprised of Cardona, who is also chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, City Council Bob Williams, Kim Fisher, president of the Meriden-Wallingford chapter of the NAACP, John Wagner, a Meriden police detective, Rhea Highsmith, a central region community relations specialist for Hartford HealthCare, Democratic Town Chairwoman Millie Torres-Ferguson, former City Councilor Anthony Tomasetti and Efrain Valentin, owner of Valentin Karate.
“It’s important to have this body before the public, hearing their concerns,” Scarpati said.
Committee members were given a job description, drafted by Coon to approve and post before the public hearing. Coon, worked in law enforcement as the director of field services for the Connecticut Police Academy prior to becoming city manager. Many of those in Coon’s training classes are police chiefs or department leaders today, he said.
“The qualifications are pretty standard,” Coon said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble attracting a qualified chief to Meriden. A large community has far more demands on a police chief than a smaller community.”
The police chief will report directly to Coon.
Members questioned Coon’s suggested salary range of $110,000 to $125,000, which Coon said is flexible. City officials will research salaries in towns and cities sharing similar demographics.
Cardona also pushed for a 3- to 5-year contract that would give the city more flexibility to move on from a chief if needed, by opting not to renew the contract. Unlike other municipal department heads, state law requires the city to have “just cause” to remove the police chef, a requirement enacted to protect chiefs from undue political influence.
“It allows the city flexibility if a candidate does not work out,” Coon said last month. Cardona said the push to put future chiefs under contract isn’t directed at Cossette.
“This would just be another tool ... to have a strong incentive for a chief that has many years to continue to be innovative and look for efficiencies and not perform marginally," said Cardona, who noted other top-level executives in the city, including the city manager and school superintendent, also serve under a contract.
Without a contract, Cardona said, cities historically have had to offer a buyout or some sort of incentive to entice a chief to leave.
The city’s search comes at a time when three police departments in Connecticut are investigating recent incidents of officer-involved shootings. Locally, Meriden police issued a statement Friday announcing a higher than usual number of violent crimes committed by a small number of people. The department asked for the public’s help in providing information.
The Police Chief Search Committee will hold the public hearing on Feb. 12 at 5:30 p.m. to get feedback from the public before it begins the screening and hiring process.
Two members of the public addressed the committee asking that the police chief live in town and be a “member of the community.” Cossette lives in Wallingford.
They also ask that the city hire from outside the department to prevent personal grievances within the department and invite a set of “fresh eyes.”
According to a timeline outlined Thursday, the committee should have five to seven first round candidates by April, with second interviews in April and May. The committee will rank the final candidates with Coon making the final decision in May. If all goes according to plan, the new chief should be in place by July.