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Ackley sues, says city had 'scheme' to hurt her

By Kathleen Edgecomb

Publication: theday.com

Published June 26. 2013 8:00PM   Updated June 27. 2013 7:41PM
Lawsuit claims financial, emotional injury in excess of $15,000, seeks punitive damages

New London — The police chief has filed a lawsuit against the mayor, the city and a city attorney alleging they had a "plan or scheme" to intentionally violate the terms of her contract to hurt her, both monetarily and emotionally.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and attorney Brian Estep misled her when the parties negotiated her 2011 employment contract, Chief Margaret Ackley alleges in a nine-page lawsuit filed in New London Superior Court.

She is seeking damages for financial and emotional injury in excess of $15,000, punitive damages and attorneys fees.

Ackley referred questions to her attorney, Leon M. Rosenblatt of West Hartford, who called New London a dysfunctional town.

"When I was writing up the complaint ... I kept saying to myself, you can't make this ... up,'' he said.

The chief does not want to retire, he said.

"She agreed to stay on and she wants the benefits she was promised,'' he said.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of internal complaints surrounding the police chief and her department.

Tuesday night, dozens of current and retired New London officers lobbied the City Council to save the department's K-9 unit, which the mayor announced on Friday he was reducing from three dogs to one as of Monday.

But they also complained about a dysfunctional department with trained officers leaving for other jobs, a lack of leadership, and mistrust among the chief and the rank-and-file.

At one point, City Councilor John Maynard called for the chief to step down.

Neither the mayor nor the chief attended Tuesday's meeting.

On Wednesday, Finizio would not comment on the lawsuit but said the city is meeting all its contractual obligations with the police union and public safety is not in jeopardy.

He added that he takes all employee complaints seriously.

"Sometimes there's merit and sometimes not. ... I will examine these complaints and act accordingly," he said.

As far as the officers who are leaving to take other jobs, Finizio said he is grateful to them because now he will not have to lay anyone off.

"If we didn't have voluntary departures from (the) department, we would be laying off,'' he said. "So if someone wants to leave for another department, that is preferable ... to avoid layoffs.''

He added that he hopes to rehire officers and get patrol strength back up as the city's finances improve.

"We can't have it both ways,'' he said. "We can't have low tax increases and maintain the same level of officers in the police department."

In the lawsuit, Ackley alleges the city violated a three-year contract agreement that was signed by Finizio in January 2012. She was to be paid an annual salary of $110,725 and remain eligible for raises in subsequent years, and was to receive about $60,000 for 1,196 hours of unpaid compensation time she had accumulated since becoming chief in 2009.

She also was promised $25,000 if she did not pursue a pre-existing legal claim against the city over a councilor's alleged harassment.

But both agreements became moot when the City Council refused to ratify the contracts and provide funding for them.

Ackley says in the lawsuit that she changed "important life-plans" when she delayed her retirement and continued working for the city.

"The defendant (the City of New London) acted with bad motives and/or with a reckless indifference to the interest of the plaintiff ...'' the lawsuit says, "... causing her serious mental and emotional distress.

"The defendants combined and acted to cause unlawful injury to the plaintiff by unlawful means pursuant to a plan or scheme,'' the document states.

Ackley announced in August 2011 that she intended to retire that December because, she said, a former city councilor was undermining her authority in the department and was harassing her. But following the mayoral election that year, she agreed to stay on as chief at Finizio's urging. Negotiating the contract was one of Finizio's first official duties as the city's newly elected mayor.

The chief and the mayor, who were allies when Finizio was elected in 2010, have been at odds in recent months.

In April, the mayor asked for a special City Council meeting to discuss a retirement proposal from Ackley. But the meeting was canceled after one of Ackley's lawyers said there was no retirement proposal and chastised the mayor for calling the meeting.

In May, the chief appeared before the finance board and explained that she would have to cut 15 officers if a proposed $924,000 cut to the police budget was not restored. The next day, the mayor's office announced that the mayor issues layoff notices, not the police chief. Ackley's comments about staffing levels were "premature ... and the statements made by Chief Ackley do not represent the views of the Administration,'' the mayor's statement said.

This past Tuesday, police union President Todd Lynch said 11 officers are leaving the department in June. The city had paid about $1.1 million to train the 11 officers, he estimated. Lynch said that since 2009, when Ackley took over, 40 officers have retired or left the force for other jobs.

The Day has a request pending before the Personnel Office for information on historical turnover rates in the department.

According to the city's website, the department comprises 90 sworn officers, including 63 patrol officers, three captains, three lieutenants, 13 sergeants and six detectives.

In May, Ackley said there were 81 sworn officers in the department.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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