Louisa: Town in turmoil

The 1.88-square-mile town of Louisa dates from 1742. And in the past month, the county seat has had more casualties than it's seen since British commander Banastre Tarleton stopped there on his way to raid Charlottesville in 1781.

The town now has four vacancies in the 15 positions in its municipal government: police chief, town manager, town clerk, and public works driver. Only the latter vacancy has nothing to do with the recent conflicts surrounding Louisa's police department and its recently resigned town manager, George Morrison.

The bucolic town of 1,400 first hit the news in June when its new police chief, John Cetrulo, made headlines by suspending a member of the five-officer police force for not wearing a regulation undershirt. By September, the town had suspended and then demoted Cetrulo to lieutenant. His replacement, Stephen Irving, was suspended two weeks later.

The personnel shifts didn't stop there. On October 10, town clerk Tasha Barlow resigned, citing "harassment" from the town manager. On October 15, the town terminated Cetrulo; then, two days later, town manager Morrison abruptly resigned.

Is there something in the water up there?

"It's a bad joke," says Cetrulo. "In 30 years of law enforcement, I've never seen anything like this."

During his first week on the job, Cetrulo clashed with Morrison in making up a schedule and realized that there might be problems in his relationship with the town manager, whom he accuses of "micro-managing."

Cetrulo's tenure ended five months later when town council fired him. "I was blindsided on it," he says. He was on duty the night of October 15 and was surprised to be called into the council meeting at 11:57pm because action on his position wasn't on the agenda. "I thought maybe the town manager went crazy," Cetrulo says.

Instead, he says, he was told, "We're getting ready to vote on your termination. Justify yourself."

"What have I done now?" Cetrulo responded before walking out. "I was kind of upset," he says. Then, he says, he was given a letter indicating that he was being terminated for "not meeting expectations" that was stamped 11:59pm.

The former chief is convinced his termination is tied to his accusation that the town manager was involved in criminal activity, and his remark to a councilor that he was requesting that Virginia State Police launch an investigation.

Cetrulo alleges that Morrison violated state statutes regarding the confidentiality of police materials by going through records, computer files, and the mail.

"You have to be a sworn police officer to access those records," Cetrulo maintains. "I said that if I didn't take action, I could be charged with malfeasance."

While Morrison did not return repeated calls from The Hook, Louisa Mayor Charles Rosson denies Cetrulo was fired for threatening to blow the whistle, and says there's no merit to Cetrulo's claims. "When you've got a disgruntled employee like the chief, you have to take their charges at face value," says Rosson, adding that no investigation is planned.

Asked why Cetrulo was fired, Rosson replies, "I wish I could tell you," and then cites the confidentiality of personnel matters. "I can tell you it didn't have anything to do with those allegations."

"I think they're just trying to cover themselves," counters Cetrulo, who has retained a lawyer and says he's considering a civil suit for unlawful termination under the state's discrimination statutes. His grounds? "For being terminated by an employer after informing them of illegal activity."

Cetrulo is not the only employee who has had problems with Morrison. Tasha Barlow had been town clerk for six years without incident. "Then I started getting write-ups," she says. "I didn't start getting harassed until the problems with the police department." She thinks that stems from her friendship with an officer she's known since childhood. "Apparently [Morrison] had a personal vendetta against them," she adds.

One source of concern for Barlow was a police computer that Morrison removed from the police department. "Steve Irving would not hand over the computer and password because that's against the law," says Barlow. "That's why he got suspended." Irving, now acting police chief, did not return calls from The Hook.

Barlow says she was asked to be a witness when Morrison removed the hard drive from the police department. "I didn't want to be part of that," she says, explaining why she refused to go with him as he removed the hard drive.

Mayor Rosson doesn't see the alleged computer tampering as an issue. "The town manager," he explains, "wanted to monitor Internet use, to make sure [the computer] was being used properly."

Barlow also says she was uncomfortable when, in the past month, Morrison started opening all the mail that came to the town before it was distributed to the appropriate departments, including the police department.

"Anything to do with the police department and says confidential, comes from the Virginia State Police, and is addressed to one person, and someone else opens it that's breaking the law," Barlow says.

Several sources say Morrison was asked to resign the day after Cetrulo was fired. "No, that's not true," asserts Rosson. "He's probably pursuing a job with more money and less headache."

Rosson says he was taken aback by the suddenness of Morrison's resignation. "It's going to be a huge loss for us. And the timing really looks bad. It put us in a rough patch, but we're going to get through it."

Rosson also acknowledges that Cetrulo brought a level of professionalism to the police department that wasn't there before. And when Cetrulo was suspended, he notes, "All the officers weighed in heavily in favor of the changes he'd made to improve the professionalism."

The mayor denies reports that all the officers are ready to resign. "I spoke to Lt. Irving yesterday, and the stress level in the department is down to zero," he says.

Barlow regrets resigning from a job she loved. "But when your integrity is questioned," she says, "a person can only be pushed so far."

Claiming he was approached to take the chief's job, Cetrulo says he had reservations about doing so, adding, "I didn't know how deep-rooted the problem was." He quit a job as state magistrate that he'd like to go back to, but he concedes that's unlikely because of the state hiring freeze.

Residents are not thrilled with the publicity their tiny town has received. "They're upset," says Barlow. "It's very embarrassing. And it's not just in town. This had gotten abroad throughout the county and state."

Charles Rosson, who was sworn in as mayor in July, did not anticipate the myriad personnel issues that have bedeviled him. Despite the turmoil that's plagued his domain, the mayor remains a booster who'd prefer to discuss other issues, such as a plan to restore the 1907 Louisa High School and make it a town hall, which he believes will lead to the revitalization of Main Street.

"The long-term outlook for the town is positive," he says.

Read more on: louisa