NEWPORT CITY — Defense attorney David Sleigh of St. Johnsbury and The Caledonian-Record have filed freedom of information requests for communications between the City of Newport and the local police union concerning Police Chief Seth DiSanto.
City Manager Laura Dolgin announced last week and The Record reported that she put DiSanto on administrative leave effective March 18. She declined to explain why. She appointed Lt. Travis Bingham as acting chief.
Sleigh said Tuesday he heard that the union had a vote of no confidence in Chief DiSanto and told the city.
On the weekend, WCAX reported that they asked Dolgin about communications with the union. Dolgin had no comment, saying it was a personnel matter.
Royce Lancaster, a city police officer and chairman of union Local 2413 AFL-CIO, declined to comment when asked by The Record if the union local held a vote of no confidence in DiSanto.
David Van Deusen, president of Vermont State Labor Council AFL-CIO, also told The Record he could not deny or confirm that and had no comment.
Dolgin put DiSanto on administrative leave on March 18, the same day that the city council held a special meeting about a personnel matter, but did not say who was the topic of the discussion.
On Tuesday, Mayor Paul Monette and Alderman John Wilson said they had no comment about the contents of the executive session or whether there had been a vote of no confidence by the union.
The city council on March 16 reappointed all of the top department heads in the city, except for DiSanto. The issue of the appointment for one year of a police chief was tabled until the next meeting on April 6.
Sleigh told The Record Tuesday that he regularly seeks information on behalf of his clients that may provide evidence in cases involving law enforcement officers.
On Saturday, Sleigh sent an email to Dolgin requesting the communications.
“This is a formal public records request pursuant to 1 VSA sec. 316 for any and all correspondence between the City of Newport and the union representing Newport police officers relating to their confidence in Chief DiSanto,” Sleigh wrote.
Sleigh had not heard back from Dolgin early Tuesday morning and sent the request to city clerk James Johnson.
At mid-morning Tuesday, Dolgin responded to Sleigh and his associates and sent a copy to Johnson. Sleigh shared the communications from Dolgin with The Record.
“I have just sent Attorney Sleigh a response confirming my receipt of this request effective March 23, and I am considering it,” Dolgin wrote.
“I will respond with a more formal response no later than Thursday of this week.”
On Tuesday, The Record filed a similar request for communications between the union and the city.
Sleigh told The Record he has heard rumors “which may or may not be set forth in the union’s purported no-confidence letter.”
Any letter written to the city and received by the city manager is not privileged and protected under personnel matters, he said.
“That’s a document or correspondence sent by a third party to the city. I just don’t see any exclusion in the Public Record Act that would shelter that from public view,” Sleigh said.
He said that comments to the city manager or council by individual employees about their working relationship with the chief would be considered personnel discussions and could be heard in executive session to protect the chief’s rights.
However, he said, “if the union in some sort of unsolicited way - or even solicited - sent forth a position of the union vis a vis DiSanto, I think that’s public.”
Sleigh said he needs to know for his clients.
“Any time a police officer or chief is placed on administrative leave creates the question as to whether there are aspects of dishonesty or mis- or malfeasance that would be valuable in cross examining them when they are testifying about my clients,” Sleigh said.
“I’m allowed on my own to try to discover that sort of evidence.”
“I routinely try to discover information that looks like there is potential evidence of illegal or unethical behavior attributable to officers who are going to testify against my clients,” Sleigh said.
“When I see a public story that the chief has been put on administrative leave, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable conclusion to think that they think there has been a mis- or malfeasance … committed by him and if so that may help my clients defend themselves.”
Sleigh said that the statute requires Dolgin to respond not more than three business days from the day she received his request for information. He expects her to respond by the end of business Thursday.
“On the third day they have to produce it or tell … why it’s shielded from production,” Sleigh said.
If Dolgin responds by saying that she will not produce the communications, then Sleigh said he will file a lawsuit across the street from the Newport City Municipal Building in the Orleans Superior Court - Civil Division.
“If the court found that the document was in fact public, they could order it produced and I could recover attorney’s fees and costs for their refusal.”