PORTSMOUTH�� Retired police investigator Thomas P. Hart and attorney Joe Plaia were selected as finalists to fill a vacancy on the Police Commission.
The vacancy was created by the resignation of Jim Splaine, who ran for City Council and was elected assistant mayor. The two finalists were chosen from a field of four Thursday night, by a seven-member committee tapped by Mayor Rick Becksted. The two finalists have been forwarded to the City Council, which is expected to name one finalist during its Feb. 18 meeting.
The Police Commission is comprised of citizens charged with overseeing the Police Department and by city charter, cannot meet without a full quorum of the three-member committee.
The mayor’s selection committee was comprised of current Police Commission Chair Joe Onosko, downtown business owner Joanna Kelley and residents Lenore Bronson, Dick Bagley and Manny Garganta. Becksted also selected Police Chief Robert Merner and patrol officer Eric Krans to sit on the selection committee, he said, because he thinks �police should have a say� about who they�ll be working with.
Splaine objected to the chief and officer voting to pick police commissioners because the Police Commission manages the Police Department. Onosko told the Portsmouth Herald Friday that Merner and Krans did not cast votes for the commission finalists.
Jacqueline Cali-Pitts, a Democratic state representative, and retired Massachusetts officer Mark Mulcahey had also submitted interest in serving on the Police Commission and were interviewed Thursday night.
During his interview with the committee, Hart said he was born in the City Hall building when it was a hospital, is a fourth generation Portsmouth resident and retired after 28 years in law enforcement, most recently as an investigator for Strafford County. He said he began his career as a Rochester police officer, then worked for 17 years with the Strafford County Attorney’s office conducting case investigations for the 13 police departments in the county.
Hart said he “always took a non-biased look at every case investigation I did” and transparency was paramount. He said he thinks the Police Commission could benefit from his law enforcement background because the role is to oversee a police agency.
Plaia resigned from the Police Commission in 2017 citing family reasons. During his interview with the selection committee Thursday, he explained how those issues have been resolved.
During his interview, Plaia said his prior experience as a commissioner is an asset, particularly because it was “during the Webber-Goodwin scandal” when the commission was focused on changing the culture of the Police Department and gaining public trust. He noted he wrote bylaws for the commission, negotiated union contracts and served on promotion boards.
As a former prosecutor and now a defense attorney, Plaia said he has two current cases involving Portsmouth police but would opt out of them, and future Portsmouth cases, if selected to be a police commissioner again.
In August 2015, the New Hampshire attorney general�s office ruled a vacancy on the Police Commission must be filled by the city�s governing body, the City Council. The attorney general�s ruling about Police Commission vacancies came in response to a request from the Portsmouth Herald after the resignation of Gerald �Jerry� Howe. City charter at the time said the vacancy would be filled by the runner-up in the last election, but the attorney general overruled that and a footnote was added to the city charter to reflect that.