Hampden to regionalize emergency dispatch, discusses interim chief

Jan. 7, 2021 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN – After nearly a year of discussion and controversy, the Hampden Select Board voted on Jan. 4 to partner with the Town of Wilbraham to provide emergency dispatch services.

Select Board Member John Flynn initially suggested the board delay the vote of regionalization. With the upcoming departure of Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth, Flynn said the board may want to get the next chief’s point of view. Fellow Board Member Mary Ellen Glover and Chair Donald Davenport objected to this, however, saying that all the pertinent information had already been hashed out by the board.

Glover acknowledged that most residents wanted dispatch to stay in Hampden. Flynn agreed.

“If money wasn’t an issue, we’d probably leave it in town,” Flynn said, but he emphasized that many residents are on a fixed income and taxes are increasing.

Glover motioned for the town to join WestCOMM, the Chicopee-based dispatch company which already counts East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, and Monson among its member communities. Glover noted those neighboring communities were one of the reasons she favored WestCOMM, as well as state-of-the-art equipment, the lowest cost and that the agency is seeking national accreditation. WestCOMM provided “the biggest bang for our buck,” she said.

“I think we’ll get a better bang for our buck by sticking with our neighbors in Wilbraham,” Flynn said of the other choice for regionalization. He contended that dispatchers in Wilbraham know Hampden better and are physically closer.

Davenport weighed in and noted that WestCOMM would not be able to take on Hampden calls for a year while the dispatchers move to a new facility in the former Salter College building.

Glover brought up school regionalization and the hard feelings that have resulted from some Hampden residents feeling marginalized in that partnership. Saying she knows the “thought processes” regarding regional partnerships with Wilbraham, Glover asserted that Hampden would not have an equal voice.

Davenport countered that, explaining that the draft agreement laid out the chain of command in decision making – if a decision can’t be reached by the two towns’ police and fire chiefs it moves to a decision by the six select board members, three from each town.

Glover opined, based on the select board members who have been elected over the past few years, that the town wants a change of direction. “Going to Wilbraham is the same-old-same-old,” Glover said.

The vote on joining WestCOMM failed with Glover being the only affirmative vote. The option of joining Wilbraham was then put to a vote and passed. Again, Glover was in the minority.

“I am extremely disappointed that this was not taken to the Town Meeting,” Jim Smith later posted on Facebook. Smith is a member and the main voice of the Citizen’s Regional Dispatch Committee, which was created by four residents to attempt to put the question of regional dispatch to the voters at the Annual Town Meeting. The committee succeeded in placing a non-binding petition article on the warrant.

Flynn said that details, such as limiting the number of hours that the police station is “dark” or unmanned, will be worked out with the police chief. Davenport instructed Interim Town Administrator Bob Markel to iron out the formal contract with Wilbraham by April 1.

The board also took up the question of appointing an interim police chief until the permanent position can be filled. Markel said that three people in the Hampden Police Department were interested in the position, the “fairest way” is to appoint someone who is not interested in the permanent position, so that no one would be felt to have an unfair advantage.

Former Longmeadow Police Chief Richard Marchese has also expressed interest.

Markel interviewed him earlier on Jan. 4. Marchese has a degree in law enforcement from Springfield Technical Community College and degrees in business administration and criminal justice from American International College. He is a 35-year veteran of the Longmeadow Police Department, retiring as chief in 2004. More recently he has worked in the private sector and as interim police chief in Greenfield.

“I would welcome the opportunity to work alongside the dedicated people in Hampden,” said Marchese at the meeting.

The appointment would begin on Jan. 11 and Farnsworth would work with Marchese for a week to smooth out the transition.

Residents in the Zoom chat voiced opposition to the board selecting someone from out of the department. Davenport reiterated that while there are “excellent” candidates within the department, choosing an outside person allows the Hampden applicants for the permanent position an equal footing.

A final decision was not made, though Markel said he will put together a short-term contract for the position before the next meeting.

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