By Dave Rogers
---- — SOUTH HAMPTON — After five years leading South Hampton’s Police Department, former West Newbury police Chief Jonathon Dennis announced Tuesday he would be stepping down for health reasons.
Dennis, 59, who made his decision public during Tuesday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, will be leaving the post on March 11.
Before coming to South Hampton, Dennis spent 33 years as a member of the West Newbury Police Department, serving as its police chief for 17 of those years.
In 2007, at age 53, Dennis retired from West Newbury to accept the South Hampton job.
“I’ve been having some medical issues and after consulting with my doctor and my family, we thought it was time. I had to get out of 36 years of public service. It’s time to change careers or at least spend time with the family,” Dennis, who is married to Newbury Town Administrator Tracy Blais, said yesterday.
During his time in West Newbury, Dennis was also a member of the town’s Fire Department. He found himself in that same position in South Hampton, where he was tapped in July 2012 to lead both the police and fire departments in the small New Hampshire town that borders Amesbury.
Dennis, who was scheduled to earn $60,000 next fiscal year in South Hampton, still collects a pension from West Newbury for his years of service there.
His ability to maintain a yearly salary in New Hampshire while receiving a pension from a Massachusetts community has served as the blueprint for other retired Massachusetts officials garnering two sources of income. Over the years, multiple Massachusetts police chiefs have retired and started collecting pensions, then taken jobs in small New Hampshire towns, collecting a salary on top of their pension — an arrangement that’s allowed under the state’s pension system.
Yesterday, Dennis said he was proud of revitalizing South Hampton’s Fire Department, which was on the verge of collapse two years ago. Since then, his close to 25 volunteer firefighters have made great strides in creating training routines, conducting maintenance on the department’s fleet of vehicles and reestablishing the town’s mutual aid pact with Amesbury’s fire and police departments.
South Hampton’s Police Department has been staffed by Dennis and one other full-time officer along with eight part-time officers. Dennis said during his time as chief, the department was able to modernize its fleet of cruisers and maintain its high level of service to the town’s 800 or so residents.
“I’m very proud of both organizations. I regret my body kind of gave out on me,” Dennis said.
Dennis said he did not know who would be taking over for him as police and fire chief, saying the decision is up to the South Hampton Board of Selectmen.
Dennis’ long tenure in West Newbury was marked with periodic battles with selectmen, prompting some to question his leadership.
In 2011, following Dennis’ retirement, former West Newbury Selectman Tom Atwood released a trove of internal documents containing numerous complaints of overly aggressive police behavior under Dennis’ watch. Many of the complaints were directed toward former Salisbury police Chief David L’Esperance, who served under Dennis in West Newbury for several years before becoming chief in Salisbury. L’Esperance resigned as Salisbury’s chief in January 2011 during an investigation into allegations of illegal conduct.
In 2007, current West Newbury police Chief Lisa Holmes sued Dennis, claiming, among other charges, that he discriminated against her, violated her civil rights, humiliated her in front of her fellow officers and made sexually inappropriate jokes. Selectmen were also named in the suit because Holmes alleged that they failed to investigate her complaints.
In the weeks leading up to Dennis’ decision to announce his retirement, word of possible conflict with South Hampton’s Board of Selectmen began to surface.
Yesterday, Dennis refuted any notion his decision to step down was based on anything political.
“It’s time for me to take care of my family and my health. It’s been a good career in West Newbury and (South Hampton). This is a decision I made with my family and my physician, that’s all,” Dennis said.
South Hampton Selectman Pamela Noon declined to comment on Dennis’ decision or whether his announcement caught the board by surprise.
“He’s retiring because of a health problem,” Noon said.
Blais — who worked as finance director in West Newbury before going to Newbury — said yesterday she was looking forward to seeing her husband more.
“From my perspective, I’m elated,” Blais said.