Former Greenfield police chief warned of legal action over raise

STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-26-2024 6:05 PM

Modified: 03-04-2024 11:25 PM


GREENFIELD — Prior to his sudden retirement this month, former Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. demanded Mayor Ginny Desorgher fund a pay increase he negotiated prior to November’s city election or he would take potential legal action, according to recently released letters.

After consulting counsel, Haigh, who abruptly retired Feb. 16, wrote in a Jan. 31 letter that he was demanding the city pay out the educational incentive laid out in a memorandum of understanding he negotiated with then-Mayor Roxann Wedegartner prior to Desorgher’s electoral victory, which would have given him a 20%, or $33,901, pay bump. Haigh’s letter, as well as Desorgher’s response, were posted on the city’s Public Records Request Portal at greenfield.nextrequest.com.

If his memorandum was not honored, Haigh wrote that he would consider filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, which could then lead to the filing of a lawsuit.

“I believe that the city is in violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act … by failing to pay my wages. If I am correct, the city will owe me three times the unpaid wages plus my attorney’s fees and costs of suit under the Wage Act,” Haigh wrote. “Please respond to my demand so that I may proceed to file a claim with the Attorney General’s Office, if I need to take that route.”

It was unclear Monday if Haigh filed a complaint or a lawsuit. A voicemail left on his phone was not returned.

In her response, Desorgher wrote that she received a legal opinion explaining the “contract addendum is likely void and, therefore, not legally binding” based on public policy grounds, which means Haigh cannot provide “a valid basis for a Massachusetts Wage Act claim.”

Haigh, as well as Deputy Police Chief William Gordon, negotiated education incentives and a $750 fitness incentive with Wedegartner in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 city election with signatures on the memorandums of understanding dated Oct. 31. The educational incentives, which were voted down by the City Council last week, were in line with similar incentives included in the Quinn Bill, a 1970 law incentivizing police officers to pursue higher education. Gordon was to receive a 25%, or $35,255 raise.

The state used to fund a portion of the Quinn Bill, but state funding was eventually eliminated, although education incentives are still built into union-negotiated contracts for patrol officers in Greenfield. The chief and deputy chief positions, however, are negotiated separately.

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In 2022, both Haigh and Gordon negotiated 3-year contracts that were set to expire on Dec. 31 of this year. Wedegartner previously explained contracts for the police chief and deputy police chief, as well as the fire chief and finance director, are typically 3-year appointments and negotiations may be opened at any time. Negotiations for Fire Chief Robert Strahan and Finance Director Diana Schindler, who also negotiate on a calendar year basis, began in the fall.

Desorgher cited Santos v. City of Fall River (2013) and White v. Board of Selectmen of Holbrook (1989), in which she stated “a contract made by municipal official in circumstances indicating an unconscionable effort to bind a successor board or officer is contrary to public policy and invalid.” In the Holbrook case, a new 3-year appointment and contract for the police chief were negotiated with nine months left on the contract prior to the establishment of a new appointing authority, which “in the ordinary course would have come up for consideration in the term of the new appointing authority,” according to the letter.

“Your contract addendum was entered into on the eve of last year’s election. It also accelerated the negotiation of a new and substantial economic benefit which in the ordinary course wold have come up for consideration during my term as mayor,” Desorgher wrote. “This is clearly evidenced by the fact that its contemplated effective date is Jan. 1, 2024.”

Haigh also noted the incentive was not honored “even though the current mayor has chosen a funding source different than selected by the previous mayor to fund the new wages.” The original funding source, as revealed in Desorgher’s letter was American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money, which she wrote was “not appropriate.”

Despite this, Desorgher said she did not want to remove the financial orders for the two incentives, which totaled $54,904 between Haigh and Gordon, because she wanted to follow the language in his contract, which states his “compensation and benefits provided herein are subject to appropriation.”

“As you know, the 20% salary increase and $750 annual physical fitness incentive payment called for by your contract addendum was not included in the fiscal year 2024 budget, which the council approved. In fact, as you further know, the council was not even aware of this contract addendum and its provisions until I submitted it for a vote on appropriation last month.” Desorgher wrote. “I intend to follow the provisions of your original employment contract, which makes your compensation and benefits subject to appropriation, i.e., approval of funding by the City Council.”

While Haigh retired, the City Council unanimously rejected Gordon’s education incentive on Feb. 21, with At-large Councilor Wahab Minhas saying the vote was a reflection of the changes the November election has brought.

“I think it is important for the public to know the vote we will have today corresponds with the change of administration,” Minhas said at last week’s meeting. “I think it was a resounding opinion from the public to move in a certain direction and today we’re going to go forward in that direction.”

That same day, Desorgher appointed Lt. Todd Dodge as acting/provisional chief until the city appoints a new police chief, which will likely have to wait until the Legislature removes the Greenfield police chief position from Civil Service.

“The quicker we can get stable, the better it is for everyone … I took this on because I wanted to be permanent and I want to start making some lasting changes,” Dodge said in an interview last week. “I can hopefully prove to this city how absolutely fantastic the men and women of this agency are.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.