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The rough road to Chief Denmark’s early retirement

The news that Police Chief Ed Denmark gave the town his 30-day retirement notice on June 10 surprised both residents and town officials. The factors that pushed Denmark to the point of early retirement were dissatisfaction with his salary and what he saw as a lack of cooperation from town officials and the Select Board regarding time off for his yearly overseas training assignments.

Denmark told the Press he typically takes two or three weeks off each year for anti-terror training assignments for the State Department. But last year, the training sessions were canceled due to COVID-19. As a result, the State Department was offering back-to-back assignments this year so attendees could make up last year’s missed assignments.

During his contract negotiations last winter, the chief tried to work additional training time into his contract. He offered to lower his yearly increase from 2.5% to 2% in exchange for 15 training days. Denmark said he was told that request was excessive; instead, he received a 2.5% increase and three training days. Those were in addition to the 35 days of paid time off that he receives annually.

Assistant Town Administrator Marie Sobalvarro told the Press that on Feb. 4, Denmark asked to use eight weeks of his accrued paid time off for training assignments in Tunisia, Bahrain, and Georgia (in Eurasia). The dates would have been from Aug. 2 to Sept. 23. Sobalvarro said Select Board approval is required for extended vacation requests, typically anything over three weeks.

Board members told the Press that the chief’s request was discussed during an executive session in the spring. Chair Stu Sklar said the board was uncomfortable with the amount of time Denmark would be away. In the past, he had never been away more than three weeks, and the board had never had a problem with that. Board member Kara Minar told the Press that although August tends to be quiet in Harvard, September is another matter, especially with school starting. Ultimately, the board thought eight weeks without Denmark would be a public safety issue.

The board counter-offered six weeks. It also asked Denmark to provide a written plan for coverage during his absence. Bragan said when he relayed the board’s decision, Denmark “wasn’t happy.” Denmark told the Press he had planned to put Sgt. James Babu in charge while he was away, as he has always done. He said he supplied Babu’s credentials to Bragan but didn’t see any reason for a written plan since Babu had been in charge before. Minar said the board wanted more information because they had no idea what powers an “acting chief” had.

The final straw

In any case, Sklar said the board expected Denmark to come back with a counter-offer through Bragan. But negotiations broke down before that happened. Denmark said the final straw came when one of the board’s stipulations for granting the six-week leave was that he agree to not take any extra State Department assignments for the remainder of his three-year contract. Bragan said Denmark eventually “went silent” on the back-and-forth negotiations, which Denmark characterized to the Press as “not friendly.” On June 10, he delivered his resignation letter to Town Hall.

Denmark will turn 54 in September, and he would have been eligible for his full pension at age 55 next year. But, he said, he made the decision to call it a day after talking with his family and calculating how leaving a year early would affect his pension. Bragan said Denmark’s pension, which would have been 80% of his salary had he stayed another year, would drop to about 78%.

Denmark said if town officials weren’t fully on board with his request to use his accrued time off to attend the overseas training sessions, he didn’t want to stay and possibly reach a level of resentment that would make it difficult to continue to work for the town.

The overseas training sessions supplement Denmark’s salary, which he thinks is too low given his years of experience. Sobalvarro told the Press Denmark’s hourly rate is $64.36, which is in the 65th percentile for his pay grade. Denmark told the Press he believes he should be in a higher percentile, especially since he has been chief here for almost 18 years.

Sobalvarro said Denmark also receives Quinn payments, a result of the 1970 Quinn Bill created to encourage police officers to earn advanced college degrees in criminal justice. Those with advanced degrees receive a percentage of their base salary each year depending on the level of college degree earned. Denmark receives 25% of his salary based on his master’s degree in criminal justice. In 2020, his salary, including Quinn payments, was $165,590.

‘It was just time to go’

Denmark said he wasn’t angry or upset about the decision. “It’s a contractual relationship, and it was just time to go,” he said.  He added that he did receive messages from a few Select Board members, saying they were disappointed that the town couldn’t work something out with him. Bragan said of the negotiations, “It was rough. I think Ed is a fantastic police chief.” He added that their relationship goes back to when they worked together in Sterling.

A few board members asked for Denmark’s input on his replacement, which he told the Press he’d be happy to provide. His last day on the job will be July 11; after that, he will begin using up his eight weeks of accrued time off. His official last day will be Sept. 17. Police Sgt. Babu will be in charge during Denmark’s absence, but the chief said he will be reachable by phone, even when he is overseas. “I can’t stress enough that there’s no sour grapes,” Denmark said. “I’m so grateful for everything I’ve gotten from residents, the town, and the schools. It’s one of the most difficult career decisions I’ve had to make.”

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