NORTHFIELD — The town manager in Northfield has denied a public records request from The Times Argus seeking documents about a crash that totaled a police cruiser last November.
The Times Argus has appealed Town Manager Jeff Schulz’s decision to the Select Board.
According to the town, Officer Christopher Hoar was driving on Union Brook Road Nov. 28 at about 6:30 p.m. when the 2017 police cruiser he was driving crashed. No other vehicles were involved and no other property was damaged. Hoar suffered minor injuries. The town recently bought a new cruiser for $34,000 to replace the totaled one, according to minutes from the Select Board’s Jan. 28 meeting.
According to the crash report, obtained by The Times Argus through an open records request, Berlin Officer David Rhoden responded to the crash. Rhoden said in his report Hoar told him he was speeding and took his eyes off the road when he drove off the roadway and hit a retaining wall.
Northfield is in the process of investigating the crash, though it’s unclear what the investigation is focusing on and why it is ongoing over two months after the crash occurred. To assist in the investigation, the town has hired private investigator Daniel K. Troidl, a retired Vermont State Police detective who now operates a private investigation firm out of South Hero.
The Times Argus filed a public records request with Schulz Monday seeking documents related to Troidl’s work, including any bills from Troidl to the town. Schulz had three business days to respond to the request, as required by state law, but he did not respond in any manner.
After the Times Argus sent its appeal to the Select Board, Schulz responded saying, “As we have discussed previously, and as you should know, your requests are exempt from the public records laws because they relate to personnel matters and internal investigation. I have mentioned this to you several times. Also, you should not be pushing the Town of Northfield or Berlin to violate VT statues. I have not received any invoices regarding the investigation.”
There is no specific exemption in the state’s public records law regarding internal investigations. The city of South Burlington is among the municipalities that believe internal investigations by police are not exempt from public record. It recently released an internal investigation regarding a corporal who resigned after complaints were made alleging he was acting inappropriately towards women.
It’s unclear how much the town has paid Troidl because Schulz said he hasn’t received any invoices for his work. It’s unknown if Troidl is being paid by another department of the town, such as the police department, because Schulz has not provided that information.
The Times Argus filed its first public records request with Schulz Jan. 13. He responded later that day providing documents about the crash. Schulz did not say any documents were withheld from the request due to an exemption.
Schulz did withhold at least one document from the Jan. 13 request. A request for public records from the Berlin Police Department revealed an email Police Chief John Helfant sent to Berlin Police Chief William Wolfe asking for video footage of the crash. It’s unclear why that email was not provided by Northfield as it does not appear to contain sensitive information about Hoar, but instead sought information about a piece of equipment owned by the town.
It’s unclear what other documents the town has not provided. When a records request is denied, state law requires the denier to identify the records that are being withheld and to include the statutory basis for the denial as well as a brief statement for the reasons and supporting facts.
Steven Pappas, publisher and editor of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald, said, “We think there is more to this story, and we feel the taxpayers in Northfield need a better answer.”
Justin Silverman is an attorney based out of Massachusetts and the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. Silverman said the public needs to know why and how a police officer is involved in a crash. He said there may be some parts of the investigation that are exempt from being public, but not all of it.
“You have a police officer who was found to be at fault for the crash. All the more reason that we should have details about the investigation to make sure that police officer was held accountable as any other citizen would be if they were involved in a similar crash,” he said.
Silverman said the town is “stonewalling.” He said the town can’t “cloak an entire incident in secrecy and just call it a ‘personnel matter.’ The town should be going out of its way to shed as much light on this situation as it can.”
Silverman said it’s also a problem that the town manager doesn’t have any information about how much the private investigator has been paid using tax dollars.
“They are paying an investigator to conduct this investigation and there’s no record of payment? There’s no record of charges? I mean, this is like basic public records information. … It’s inconceivable that there wouldn’t be any invoices documenting how much this investigator is charging for his services. And if there actually aren’t any invoices that’s a problem in and of itself. The problem being a lack of transparency and a lack of an opportunity for the public to know how its tax dollars are being spent on this investigation,” he said.
The Select Board has five business days to respond to the appeal, as allowed by state law. The Vermont Secretary of State’s office has been made aware of the appeal, but there was no one available to discuss the matter Thursday.