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Arbitrator’s ruling details Weare officer’s contested departure

Last modified: 10/19/2014 11:27:04 PM
Nearly one year ago to the day, police officers in Weare gathered to meet the man who had just been appointed to lead them out of years of disparaging lawsuits, questionable tactics and a still all-too-raw drug bust gone deadly.

One officer was tardy: Frank Jones.

Jones, a retired police chief and part-time officer, wasn’t scheduled to work the afternoon of that Oct. 16 meeting, and he only learned of it a day earlier, according to an arbitrator’s findings obtained this week by the Monitor. When he later showed, Jones congratulated new Chief John Velleca and said something to the effect of, “I look forward to working with you over the next two weeks that I’ll be here.”

Those words, and the puzzling sequence of events that occurred in the days after, set off a firestorm that is just now coming into focus. Jones was discharged from the department two weeks later, and for months the union that represented him has been privately clashing with the town over whether he was fired or had effectively resigned through his statement.

Three weeks ago, an arbitrator in Massachusetts reached her verdict: Jones had been fired – without just cause. Weare officials were directed to offer him reinstatement and full backpay.

“Officer Jones’s statement cannot be incontrovertibly interpreted as an actual notice of resignation, by which he was permanently bound, particularly in the circumstances in which it was made,” wrote the arbitrator, Mary Jeanne Tufano. “Officer Jones did not say he resigned or quit, and his words should have resulted in confusion, not clarity, over what he meant.”

Jones, who started in Weare in 2010, has not yet returned to the department, and he declined to comment for this story. He has been working part time for the Barnstead police since his departure and continues to teach at New England College, which he has done since retiring from full-time work a decade ago.

The ruling comes during an especially unstable period for the town. Velleca tendered his resignation Thursday, after it surfaced that he had been having an affair with his secretary and had erased the memory on her department-issued cell phone following a heated exchange. The secretary remained on paid administrative leave through Friday.

Meanwhile, in an unexpected move last month, town officials rescinded the termination of Joseph Kelley, the former sergeant who oversaw a deadly officer-involved shooting last year and who was fired shortly after, accused of falsifying documents. Kelley was returned to medical leave.

As the town scrambles to find new leadership for its long-beleaguered department, one detail from the arbitrator’s ruling could prove particularly relevant: Jones had applied for the chief’s position along with Velleca and believed he was a finalist for the job.

By early October, though, nearly two months after the shooting, Jones learned he was no longer a candidate, according to the ruling. In the days that followed, he told fellow Officer Kim McSweeney that he had applied for a position with another agency and was “just waiting for the money to come through,” the ruling said.

Velleca was appointed chief Oct. 14. He was sworn in nearly two weeks later, and started work at the office Nov. 1.

He and Jones might have had a tense relationship from the outset. According to the ruling, Jones “was aware of certain information that was being distributed that contained negative comments about Chief Velleca.”

On Oct. 17, the day after Velleca’s meet and greet, Jones learned of a rumor circulating that he had given his two-week notice. As Velleca had yet to start, Jones met with interim chief Mike French and said his remark had been misconstrued, according to the ruling. He believed French would relay the message to Velleca.

A week later, Kelley directed Jones to turn in his gear on Oct. 30, his last day. Jones met again with French and reiterated that he had not resigned. A few minutes later, he called Velleca’s phone and left a message requesting a meeting. Velleca never returned the call.

According to a footnote, Velleca didn’t want to “usurp his delegation of duties to the sergeant who was seeing the resignation through.”

Jones made other attempts to clarify his position, the ruling said, including speaking with Town Administrator Naomi Bolton and sending an Oct. 30 letter to Bolton, French and the chairman of the board of selectmen, Tom Clow, in which he asked about his employment status.

But that same day, French signed a standard resignation form. Jones responded with a grievance petition to the department’s union, AFSCME Council 93.

At a hearing in February on the case, Velleca testified that he had wanted to rid the department of part-time positions, as they in part added to overtime expenses, according to the ruling. Jones had been working 32 hours per week at an hourly rate of $18.54. He received no health insurance benefits.

“Officer Jones’s actions, in renouncing the interpretation that he had resigned as soon as he learned of it the following day, and his persistent attempts to ensure that management knew he had not resigned, constitute sufficient evidence that he had not resigned by his statement at the Oct. 16 meeting,” Tufano wrote.

“What the evidence does show is that Chief Velleca seized upon the statement made by Officer Jones at the meeting as an opportunity to terminate his employment with the Town.”

Tufano was appointed arbitrator by the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board. Before news of her decision, it was understood that Jones had resigned from the department after the Aug. 14 shooting, which resulted in the death of an unarmed drug suspect.

The attorney general’s office said in a report in April that Jones had arrived at the scene the night of the shooting and had claimed that one of the shooters, Sgt. Ken Cox, might have told an informant to lie about elements of the incident. Jones tried and failed to corner Cox in a recorded conversation, according to the report. Cox has denied the claims.

Investigators said in a footnote that Jones had since resigned from the department.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, 
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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