High Court sides with fired Vernon police chief
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | June 22,2013
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday the Vernon Select Board had inadequate justification when it fired Police Chief Kevin Turnley in 2009.
The high court didn’t order the reinstatement of Turnley, who had been chief for three years when he was fired in November 2009. But it said police chiefs deserved protection from “personal dislike, political disagreement or reasons of that nature.”
The Select Board claimed Turnley had knowingly lied to the board about when he knew a low-level sex offender had recently moved to Vernon.
But both the Vermont Supreme Court and the Windham Superior Court ruled that the town did not make a case for firing the veteran police chief.
While Turnley was found to have made “inaccurate” statements regarding the sex offender’s move to Vernon, the court said there was no evidence in the record “to confirm that the statements were made with knowledge of their falsehood.”
“Nowhere in its report does the board make an explicit finding regarding the chief’s mental state or intent with respect to those inaccurate statements,” the high court ruled.
Lawyer Sharon Annis of Brattleboro, who argued Turnley’s appeal before the Supreme Court but is no longer his attorney, said Friday the decision would establish precedent for firing a police chief.
“I think this decision provides police chiefs in Vermont with significant protection,” Annis said. “The decision says you have to have a good, substantial reason to fire someone.”
“He didn’t ever lie, he just didn’t remember when,” said Annis. “Does that make him dishonest? The Supreme Court says no.”
The ruling could set a precedent, she said, because there is little Vermont case law on the issue, she said.
According to court records, Turnley received an email from the state Department of Public Safety on Aug. 13, 2009, stating that a low-level sex offender — someone who had “criminal , sexual misconduct with a minor” — had moved to Vernon. The chief on Aug. 14, 2009, asked a police clerk to put the email notice in the department’s “offender’s book.”
But at a public meeting Oct. 6, 2009, Turnley said he had only learned about the offender’s residence a day or two earlier. In a followup meeting, Turnley said he did not recall getting the August email. Turnley declined to comment on his future plans, or whether he would seek reinstatement. Since his firing, he said, he has been unable to find employment anywhere.
Mary Beth Hebert is Vernon’s police chief now, and it is unclear how Turnley could be reinstated if he were to seek that.
“We still have a long ways to go; I can’t speculate,” he said. “I’m very happy with the Supreme Court decision and I feel vindicated.”
Annis said the town of Vernon had engaged in “character assassination” of Turnley. She said that Turnley would be entitled to 3½ years of lost wages, plus damages.
The Vermont high court quoted a New Hampshire case, and wrote: “Our standard is not whether we would have ruled differently, but whether a reasonable person could have reached the same decision as did the (board) based upon the evidence before it.”
There must be “substantial” evidence to warrant a chief’s firing, the high court ruled.
And while the Select Board “seeks to enjoy the deference accorded to a quasi-judicial body, it must comply with the requirements imposed on other judicial organs,” the ruling said.
Turnley, who had been a Vernon police officer for 15 years before he was made chief in 2006, said Friday he felt exonerated by the high court’s decision, which affirmed a decision by Windham Superior Court Judge Katherine Hayes.
Hayes said Vernon did not properly make a case for firing the chief and did not follow Vermont law concerning a police chief’s dismissal.
Annis worked for the McCarty Law Office at the time of the Turnley case. William McCarty, who represents Turnley now, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
John Leddy, an attorney with McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, a Burlington law firm, who represented Vernon in the suit, said he hadn’t been able to talk to Vernon officials and declined comment.
Patricia O’Donnell, the current chairwoman of the Vernon Select Board, but who was not on the board in 2009, didn’t return a call for comment.