In retrospect, all lines leading to the eventual special recall election of Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado can be seen in February. During this month, the process of hiring Police Chief David Clark first came under scrutiny, and when tensions between the public and Alvarado first came to a head, which led to the eventual submittal of the first formal petition to recall Alvarado from office.
In the aftermath of the heated recall election that attempted to pull Vanessa Alvarado from the Select Board, it may be difficult to remember how it all started. The inciting incident occurred in a February 11th Select Board meeting, in which Board members argued over the handling of the hiring process of the new Chief of Police for the town.
“The discussion began with a public comment period highlighted by support for leaked finalist Deputy Chief David Clark. ‘He has performed more than adequately,’ one officer and resident declared. ‘We cannot continue to operate under these conditions [of having no established leader].’ Concern was also expressed by former Select Board member John Arena stating, ‘There is no reason to delay this for one more second,’” reported Kevin Vendt.
The meeting grew more contentious as Board members blamed one another for not putting enough emphasis on community input in the hiring process.
“Select Board member John Halsey then laid the failure to have community listening sessions on chair Vanessa Alvarado’s failure to schedule them. Halsey also stated that he had asked for the discussion regarding the chief to be on the agenda since the middle of January. ‘I was denied by the chair”, Halsey declared. Halsey then asked the board to consider the stress that not having a settled chief was placing on the department and asked them to affirm LeLacheur’s candidate. To this, the assembled crowd mostly made up of police officers in civilian attire, applauded,” reported Vendt.
Later in the meeting, the Select Board formally performed their review of Town Manager Bob LeLacheur.
“Generally, LeLacheur was favorably reviewed, though a few areas of concern were highlighted in the areas of communications and employee retention. He was rated highly on his financial management and emergency management plans. Though Alvarado stated that there should never be any surprises in a review, LeLacheur did indicate that there were a few comments that he did not understand, and asked members of the board in the future to keep open lines of communication,” reported Vendt.
On February 13th, Carlo Bacci, Andrew Friedmann, and Karen Gatley Herrick, the three candidates competing for the two seats on the Select Board, faced off in a forum moderated by Town Moderator Alan Foulds on RCTV. Although each candidate sought to show how his or her unique perspective would aid the Select Board, the conversation often drifted back to each candidates’ opinion on the new police chief’s hiring process.
“Incumbent Andrew Friedmann spoke of his apologies to the police department regarding his comments at the most recent Select Board meeting where he stated that he was ‘intimidated by all the police officers in this room. I have to live in this town, and you all carry guns.’ He suggested that he has always been a big proponent of the police and fire departments, citing his support of the 2018 override because ‘the police needed five more officers and schools were going to have to cut programs.’ He continued that he ‘supports the Reading Town Charter’ and that the Town Manager went through a ‘hard and detailed process’ to choose a police chief candidate. He says he heard the police last Tuesday night regarding their concerns and frustrations. However, he supports Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado’s decision to have a discussion and not a vote on the issue,” reported Kevin Vendt.
“Carlo Bacci is the former owner of local business and the current owner of a small business located in Swampscott. He stated that serving on the Select Board is ‘all about leadership’ and ‘working within its parameters.’ He believes that the Town Manager did his job in the “detailed and professional” police chief hiring process, and he fully supports the selected candidate for the job. He believes that the plan was to not have a vote on the new chief before the election and that this was a ‘flagrant misuse of power by the [Select Board] chair.’” reported Vendt.
“Karen Gatley Herrick is a five-year member of the Finance Committee and the committee’s liaison to the Reading Municipal Light Department. She is a local real estate broker who would like to implement more green and clean energy projects in town while maintaining fiscal responsibility. She believes that the police chief is one of the most important positions in town, and the current deputy chief is nothing but professional’”, reported Vendt.
Police Chief David Clark was greeted with a standing ovation on February 19 as he was sworn in during a specially-called Select Board meeting.
“The meeting was called by the board to solicit public comment regarding the appointment. The listening session came after a tumultuous discussion at the February 11 Select Board meeting. After Town Manager Robert LeLacheur described the process used for selecting a new chief, Select Board Member John Halsey stated that he believed the process for confirming a chief had been delayed by chair Vanessa Alvarado. The town charter stipulates that the police chief is appointed by the town manager and is subject to confirmation by the board. Halsey’s statements were followed by Select Board member Andrew Friedmann’s comments, that some residents found disparaging, regarding the assembled police officers who attended the meeting. Friedmann has since apologized for his remarks,” reported Kevin Vendt.
“Town Moderator Alan Foulds was asked to conduct the public comment portion of the meeting, which asked residents to answer three questions, ‘What qualities would you like to see in our new police chief? What has your experience been with the Reading Police Department? What kinds of community/police initiatives would you like a new chief to pursue?’ Close to 150 residents attended the meeting, with 24 offering comments to the board. The overwhelming consensus was favorable both to the police department and the candidate under consideration, current Deputy Chief David Clark,” reported Vendt.
A considerable pall had been cast over the event for some members of the Select Board, however, as calls for a special recall election to remove Vanessa Alvarado from the Board were beginning to circulate.
“Select Board member Mark Dockser stated that he was disappointed in several aspects of the process, including the board’s lack of opportunity to interview the finalists. He also expressed disappointment that recalls are now being circulated and disappointment in himself for not getting into the process earlier. ‘I have learned about the support of the force for Dave Clark and of their frustration.’ Dockser shared. He also indicated that after personally speaking with the deputy chief, he ‘now has full-confidence in Dave Clark.’ He continued that he hopes to learn from the experience as the town moves forward. Alvarado concluded with a statement directed to Clark, “Thank you for your leadership over the past two years. You have risen to the top,” reported Vendt.
On February 20th, the effort to recall Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado from the Select Board completed its first phase as former Select Board member John Arena submitted a recall petition with the appropriate amount of signatures to start the recall process formally.
“ An affidavit requesting a recall of Select Board chair Vanessa Alvarado was submitted on February 20 with 397 signatures, 147 more than the required 250 per Reading Charter needed for the first phase of the process. Town Clerk Laura Gemme released a copy of the affidavit without the signatures and confirmed verification of the first phase of a recall,” reported Kevin Vendt.
The recall petition came one day after David Clark was confirmed by a 5-0 vote by the Select Board to be the town’s next Police Chief.
“The recall petition, submitted by former Select Board member John Arena states ‘Ms. Alvarado has reportedly acted to block police force ratification discussions following the Town Manager’s selection of the Police Chief candidate on January 11’ and continues ‘The Select Board is not empowered to select, assist or interfere with a candidate appointed for Police Chief; It may only vote to ratify the Town Manager’s selected appointment.’” reported Vendt.
This marked the first formal attempt to remove Alvarado from office and the official start of the second phase of the recall process.
“The second phase also requires a petition, which must be returned to the town clerk within 21 days and needs to contain the signatures of ten percent or 1,988 signatures, of the town’s registered voters. If the second phase is completed, then the Select Board must call for a recall election not less than 64 days, and not more than 90 days, from receipt of the phase-two petition,” reported Vendt.