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Turnley v. Town of Vernon

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 21, 2013

Kevin Turnley
v.
Town of Vernon

On Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Civil Division Katherine A. Hayes, J.

Sharon L. Annis of McCarty & Buehler, P.C., Brattleboro, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

John T. Leddy and Kevin J. Coyle of McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellant.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Burgess and Robinson, JJ.

REIBER, C.J.

¶ 1. The Town of Vernon appeals the superior court’s reversal of its decision to fire police chief Kevin Turnley. The Town Selectboard determined that the chief made inaccurate statements when asked at public meetings about when he learned of a low-level sex offender’s residence and about why he did not inform the community. Because the Board failed to make expressly the findings necessary to support its action, we affirm the superior court’s judgment.

¶ 2. The Board’s allegations center on two separate occasions in October 2009 when the chief responded to questions about his knowledge of a low-level sex offender’s residence in the town. The record reveals the following. At some time in October after the alleged misrepresentations, the Board sent an undated letter to the chief, accusing him of dereliction and conduct unbecoming an officer. The Board informed the chief that his employment was terminated immediately and that it had scheduled a hearing as required by 24 V.S.A. § 1932(a). The letter specified, in relevant part:

The Selectboard has concluded that you have been derelict in your official duty, and that you are guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, in that you knowingly and deliberately made false statements to the Board and to the public at two public meetings concerning your knowledge related to a potential public safety issue, in particular, the residence in the Town of Vernon of a registered sex offender.

¶ 3. At the hearing, the Board reiterated the charges it outlined in the letter and called a series of witnesses to describe the chief’s receipt of an e-mail from the state Department of Public Safety regarding the relocation of a sex offender and the chief’s subsequent public statements. The Board introduced a copy of an August 13, 2009, e-mail addressed to the chief and advising him that a man with a conviction for “criminal sexual misconduct with a minor” had moved into the town. A police administrator testified that the chief gave her a copy of the e-mail on August 14 and asked her to place it in the so-called “offender’s book.” The administrator did not herself have access to the e-mail account that received the notification. The e-mail did not provide any details regarding the offender’s previous address or whether he was subject to any ongoing correctional supervision. Blake testified that the e-mail’s contents did not require community notification. See 13 V.S.A. §§ 5411, 5411a (regarding sex-offender registration and law-enforcement duties). [1]

¶ 4. With regard to the first alleged misrepresentation, the Board called two witnesses, who testified that at an October 6, 2009, public meeting the chief was asked why his department had not notified the public about the residence of the man referenced in the August e-mail. According to these witnesses, the chief said the department did not do so because he did not receive the notice directly and had learned of the offender’s residence only a day or two before the October meeting.

¶ 5. The Board then called the Board secretary to verify the contents of minutes and a partial transcript she had prepared of the Board’s October 19, 2009, meeting, when the chief made his second alleged misrepresentation. According to the transcript, the Board’s chairman asked the chief about his October 6 statements. The exchange, as recounted in the partial transcript and minutes, went as follows:

[CHAIRMAN:] Now I’m confused as to when you knew when we had that meeting the other night you were saying that you hadn’t known for very long [about the offender’s residence]. When were you told about it as far as the sex offender registry [giving] you the notification?
[CHIEF TURNLEY:] Rebecca had an e-mail that she showed me, I do not recall getting the e-mail it did not have my e-mail address at the bottom of it. So as far as when he ...

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