VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Tuesday looked down the road to Middlebury to find a new police chief, but inside its own highly regarded fire department for a new leader to replace retiring longtime chief Ralph Jackman.
The city’s new police chief will be New Haven resident George Merkel, 55, a Middlebury patrolman who is an 11-year member of that department and also a Vermont Army National Guard veteran.
Addison resident Jim Breur, a 31-year Vergennes Fire Department veteran who has served in recent years as its first deputy chief, becomes the city’s first new fire chief since Jan. 1, 1954, when Jackman took over the department. Jackman recently stepped down, effective Nov. 1, because of health concerns.
Aldermen announced the choices after a brief closed-door meeting on Tuesday night. Merkel was recommended by a search committee that included City Manager Mel Hawley and former city police chief Ted Minall. Minall has been serving as a department consultant since former chief Mike Lowe resigned this fall because of his ongoing medical and legal issues. Hawley said he recommended Breur after consulting with Jackman.
Hawley said several factors worked in Merkel’s favor in a field of four finalists.
“George has a tremendous work ethic. He’s also highly recommended by a lot of people in the Middlebury area,” Hawley said.
Hawley said Merkel also understands that the nature of Vergennes job — being the head of department with four other full-time officers in a small community — will require him to be a working chief.
“The chief not only has to provide the administrative work but also has to take calls,” he said. “He fully understands that.”
Hawley also said Merkel will follow “community policing” policies that aldermen believe can be effective in Vergennes.
“George recognizes it isn’t all about fighting crime. It’s about people getting along and quality of life issues,” he said. “He’ll fit in this community. I’m sure of that.”
Merkel pledged on Wednesday that residents would see a responsive and professional police department, and said he is a “big believer” in community policing tactics.
“I believe in officers getting out in the street and interacting with people,” he said, adding, “It’s also interacting with the citizens, the schools, and civic organizations. And when you have that kind of relationships with all those different elements of the community, you’re going to have a more effective police department.”
Merkel, who will start in either two or three weeks and hopes to remain on the job for “a while,” said the Vergennes job appealed to him because of the patriotism of the community, because he saw backing for police despite the troubles of its former chief, and because of the quality of its officers.
“Everyone seems to be supportive of the department, and that’s a good way to start,” he said. “There’s some work to be done, but it’s a good department.”
Merkel acknowledged that the department will have to work to regain the trust of some residents after the legal issues which came to light this year, which led to the resignation of a patrolman as well as the chief. But he is confident that goal can be reached.
“There’s always some residual fallout from situations like that. It’s been a tough year, but that can be quickly overcome, or overcome over time, by us doing our job and being responsive to the community,” he said.
Merkel may also be a package deal: He owns a fully trained police dog named Akido. He said some budget details have to be worked out, such as altering a cruiser, for example, but that it is his hope to have a canine program in Vergennes.
“Akido’s a proven performer. He does a great job, and it will work up there quite well, too,” he said.
As well as traditional police dog work, such as finding illicit drugs and supporting officers in the field, Merkel said Akido is a friendly animal who is good with children and can accompany him to meetings and into schools.
“Akido is a great ambassador ... He’s a community-policing dog,” he said.
MOVING UP THE LADDER
As for Breur, Hawley noted that more than half of Breur’s 31-year tenure with the fire department had been spent as either a captain or deputy chief. In recent months, Jackman’s medical issues have often left Breur in charge, Hawley said, and Breur has met the challenge.
“Obviously, Ralph, because of his health, has not been able to be 100 percent at the department, and Jim, in his absence, has done a really nice job filling in for him,” he said.
Hawley also praised Breur’s efforts in a series of recent critical equipment purchases. Hawley also said that as well as meeting with Jackman in the hospital recently to discuss the decision, he also talked to firefighters.
“I made it real clear to folks I needed to hear from them, and a number of the firefighters did contact me and express their support for Jim,” Hawley said.
Ultimately, even with another solid candidate available, Hawley said Breur was the top choice to replace the longest-serving fire chief in the nation.
“Jim is really dedicated to the work of the fire department,” he said. “To me, he’s the best qualified to take over that post.”
Breur said he’s aware he has a tough act to follow.
“There’s no way I’d be able to fill the shoes Ralph had. It’s going to be impossible for anyone to,” he said. “He’s taught me an awful lot, and I hope he’ll be around an awful lot longer.”
Breur spoke to Jackman on Wednesday.
“He told me this morning, there will be two chiefs, and I said absolutely,” he said.
In general, Breur said he would try to follow Jackman’s footsteps in emphasizing the best service possible for the least cost possible. But his first impression of being appointed was that it was a dual honor. Not only will he be following Jackman, but also leading a great department.
“You have one of the best, if not the best, fire departments in the state,” Breur said. “It’s a fabulous honor to be at the helm of the department. I just hope I can live up to everyone’s expectations.”