POLICE: Debate over Taser guns continues
By Jenny Cox, Ridgefield Press Staff
The anonymous gift of five Tasers to the police department has prompted outraged protests from both public officials and private citizens, some of whom say the gift points to a lack of transparency in town government.
“I’m opposed to this having happened the way it happened — quite frankly it feels like a violation,” said Selectman Joan Plock. The matter boils down to whether the Police Commission decided to use the donation “to make an end run” around the selectmen’s decision to cut Tasers from the proposed budget for four straight years, she said.
“Can people who are giving gifts override the electorate?” she asked. “We decided this is not the right thing. The minutes make it very clear that a check was given and it was decided by the Police Commission on the advice of the police chief to use the money for Tasers. It is questionable whether that should have happened, certainly ethically.”
Both town and police officials agree records of the $9,000 donation for the Taser purchase would have to be made available to the public under the state’s Freedom of Information law.
But First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he is unwilling to reveal the source of the donation without a formal written request. “This person donates a lot,” he said last week. “She wants to remain anonymous. I’m not willing to jeopardize her donations to the town.”
Assistant Town Controller John Mannuzza, whose office is next door to Mr. Marconi’s, said he was familiar with the donation, but he would not supply records.
He said, “I know who it’s from, it’s from someone who wants to remain anonymous.”
The Press filed a formal request for documentation on the donation with Mr.a Marconi’s office, and was able to obtain the name.
Selectmen Di Masters and Barbara Manners both said they were “very concerned” about the way the Tasers were bought.
“Private funds are leading public policy that influences the whole town,” Ms. Masters said. “A lot of people are very concerned.”
When the Tasers came before the selectmen as a budget item, they voted it down after some board members said they felt Tasers were not appropriate for Ridgefield.
Ms. Manners said that is why the commission’s choice to use the anonymous donation for Tasers bothers her. “There’s a difference between a donation to social services and helping the police purchase equipment that there are many concerns about,” she said.
“I would actively encourage anyone who has concerns about Tasers to make their concerns known to the Police Commission,” she said. “I also feel that this was an end run, that private dollars are driving public policy, and that’s not a good thing.”
John McNicholas, who ran for a seat on the Police Commission in last month’s election, went further.
“The more serious matter is the lack of transparency at the Police Commission,” he said. “It is so important for total transparency in town government, because it’s the people’s government,
it’s not the Police Commission’s government. Private citizens using private money to dictate public policy in this town is absolutely unacceptable.
I think it calls for immediate elimination of anonymous gifts to any agency in this town if we cannot account for where the money is coming from and where it is going.”
Ed Tyrell, who filed a request with the police department for all documents related to the anonymous donation, agreed. “I think the notion of an anonymous donor is deplorable in light of the selectmen having been against this last year,” he said.
Mr. Tyrell plans to file a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Agency if he does not receive documentation from the town on the donation, he said.
“I think there is a real public relations problem at the police department,” Ms. Masters said. “I think the Police Commission needs to take note that there’s a very big disconnect. There is some damage control the Police Commission needs to do.”
But Police Commission Chairman Susan Craig said the commission was just doing its job when it voted to use the anonymous gift for Tasers.
“I don’t think we did an ‘end run’,” she said. “In terms of the propriety of getting Tasers, that’s a decision that’s vested in the Police Commission. By state statute, Town Charter and town ordinance, decisions in terms of the general police department and equipment rest with the Police Commission.”
She said people are welcome to contact the Police Commission at any time. “Call 438-6531, and ask for the Police Commission voice mail,” she said.
“When you hold elected office, you try to do what is right — it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is popular,” she said. “I’d rather see an issue about someone being Tasered than somebody being shot.”
But for Daniel Hudson of Silver Spring Park Road, that argument is unconvincing.
“I guess what really made me most unhappy was the idea that this anonymous person gave the money to the police so they could get Tasers,” he said.
“Granted it went through the Police Commission, but it still seems to me that it was subverting what should be the democratic process. I really don’t like the way this seems to have been accomplished. Plus all this in fact happened before the election, and this came out after the election, which is something else that is problematic for the democratic process. It may not be the biggest issue since the invasion of Iraq, but I don’t think it was handled properly.”
Ms. Plock said she thinks the matter should be revisited. “
We need to clear this up, because there may be bigger things,” she said. “Really the most important question is, who makes the policy? Can the electorate be overrun?”