My Turn: The buck stops with the mayor 

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

Published: 11/22/2022 9:37:50 PM

On May 6, 2022, when Patrick Buchanan won his case against Greenfield for racial discrimination, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner told the Recorder that she needed to “sit a little while with the facts,” because “it’s fresh information for me.” Nothing that happened at Buchanan’s trial should have been “fresh information” for Wedegartner. Her own decisions were at stake: her promotion of four white officers over Buchanan and her failure to settle the case before trial.

In ruling on Buchanan’s claim against the city for the 2020-2021 sergeant promotion process, the judge instructed the jurors that, they may “only consider the actions of Chief Haigh and Mayor Wedegartner.” After deciding whose testimony was credible — including the testimony of Buchanan, Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. and Wedegartner — the jury found that the city “discriminated against [Buchanan] or retaliated against him in connection with the 2020-2021 promotional process.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the evidence the jury could have believed on this claim. Patrick Buchanan, of African-American descent, has a bachelor’s degree from UMass and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Western New England University. He began working at the Greenfield Police Department in 1999. As of 2020, when he tried for the fourth time to be promoted to sergeant, Greenfield had a history of racially discriminating against him. That history began in October 2014, when Buchanan and several others took the Civil Service exam for two new sergeant positions, and Buchanan scored the highest. Chief Haigh did not want to promote Buchanan, his only Black officer, and he asked Sgt. Todd Dodge to work with the Civil Service to find a way to get around promoting him. Haigh told both Dodge and Deputy Chief Mark Williams that Buchanan “didn’t fit the bill” because he was “lazy.”

At trial Greenfield relied on this classic race-based slur to justify its actions, yet no documentation given Buchanan over all his years with the GPD suggested that his performance was anything but satisfactory, and his production statistics were among the department’s highest. The jury could well have concluded that Haigh’s remark was proof of racial animus in all of his later decisions.

The jury found that three of those decisions, all scuttling Buchanan’s dream to make sergeant and all made on former Mayor William Martin’s watch, were motivated by racial discrimination. Each time there was evidence that Haigh treated Buchanan differently and more harshly than similarly situated white officers. For example, Haigh investigated, demoted and suspended Buchanan for giving a teen driver a break and telling the kid to buy something for his mother, yet imposed no discipline at all on a white officer who repeatedly worked and drove his cruiser under the influence of alcohol.

In late 2020, when Wedegartner was mayor, three new sergeant positions opened up. Of the 10 officers who applied, Buchanan was the sole Black candidate. These positions were no longer under Civil Service rules. Instead, the city set up scoring metrics, allocating 20% for education and experience, 40% for oral interviews with the Public Safety Commission, and 40% for the chief’s assessment.

Buchanan scored second on the education/experience component and fifth on the interviews. Haigh, however, rated Buchanan ninth of the 10 candidates, thus ensuring that he had an overall rank of fifth and was ineligible for the three promotions. The candidates Haigh selected, all white, ranked first, third and fourth. In December, a fourth sergeant position opened up. Again Haigh bypassed Buchanan, this time picking a white candidate who scored below him.

Wedegartner rubber-stamped and promoted all four of Haigh’s selections. Haigh testified that he didn’t tell her that he was recommending against Buchanan, and she admitted that she didn’t ask — that she relied solely on what Haigh told her. Despite Buchanan’s long-pending lawsuit about his seven-year quest to become sergeant, the mayor did no due diligence or independent investigation of these promotions.

It’s time the mayor owned up to her role in that process.

When Wedegartner took office, the facts were well-developed through discovery, the case was ripe for settlement, and a responsible mayor would have looked hard at those facts. Instead, by the time trial rolled around two years later, Buchanan had yet another claim — based on the mayor’s own actions. The result was a million-dollar judgment, including $281,000 in prejudgment interest. Wedegartner should have settled this case, and the post-judgment interest now accruing while she pursues what is likely a losing appeal is on her, too. She alone is responsible for prolonging this shameful chapter in our history.

Wendy Sibbison is a retired lawyer. She has lived in Greenfield for 45 years and served for 13 years on the Greenfield Town Council.


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