South Bethany to announce plans for police department

Date Published: 
Dec. 8, 2017

After working on the issue just outside of the public eye for the past month, the South Bethany Town Council is ready to unveil proposals for the future of South Bethany Police Department.

For the town council meeting on Friday, Dec. 8, the agenda includes the results of a police department study; possible lump-sum payments for overtime and vacation time; and possibly giving the town manager more power over the police department.

Afterward, town hall will be closed, as council members will meet privately with all town hall and SBPD staff to review changes as recommended by CPSM, a company contracted to review the police department.

“I can report, since our last meeting, the Council and I have given careful consideration and deliberation on the CPSM recommended changes to our Town policies and procedures to set a course of operation that is sound and financially sustainable for a town of our size and budget,” Mayor Pat Voveris wrote in her Dec. 8 report.

“Details of their recommendations will be posted on our website after a meeting takes place with our staff after the Dec. 8 council meeting,” Voveris wrote. “This meeting will be led by two council members and myself, and town hall will be closed for the duration of the meeting.”

After meeting behind closed doors twice in November, the council has posted a detailed agenda for Dec. 8.

The police review

Earlier this year, the council hired the ICMA Center for Public Safety Management (ICMA/CPSM) to perform a comprehensive review of the police department.

By Oct. 31, they would analyze policies, procedures, overtime and other pay structures, and recommend updates for clarity, consistency and improvement.

“Where the reporting structure and management policies are found to be less than optimal, [they would] recommend changes that will enhance to ability of elected officials and the town manager to exercise more effective supervision of the agency.” They reviewed the ranks and promotional process to make “any proposed improvements that may better reflect the needs of a town the nature and size of South Bethany.”

They would also review and suggest improvements where policies have been written piecemeal over the years and may overlap or even disagree.

But since CPSM has finished its work, the council has kept everything behind closed doors. They instructed CPSM to deliver the reports to their lawyer, so they could discuss the results in executive session under “attorney-client privilege.”

“It’s under attorney-client privilege just to allow us to work in private on sensitive matters. … It’s HR policies. It’s having to do with pay and promotion. It was just a matter of prudence,” said Councilman Don Boteler of the need for closed sessions on the matters.

They cited a rule that excludes certain documents from public disclosure “by statute or common law.”

Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act also permits executive sessions for “strategy sessions, including those involving legal advice or opinion from an attorney-at-law, with respect to collective bargaining or pending or potential litigation.”

At the Nov. 10 meeting, Boteler said the three-hour discussion was general, and that the council did not discuss individual employees.

At the Nov. 30 meeting, the council voted to “accept the recommendation that was made in the executive session by Tim Saxton.” Councilwoman Sue Callaway gave the dissenting vote in a 6-1 approval.

But the wait is now over. After Friday, the public will find out during public session just what laws and employee policies will be changed.

Holiday pay

Friday’s discussion may also hearken back to a June demand letter that six full-time police officers (excluding the police chief) submitted to the town council, alleging unfair pay, promotion and pension.” At the time, the town council hired a labor attorney to help them respond that they found “no merit” to the claims, especially since they had offered employees two years of back-pay for holiday pay.

Now, the council has scheduled a possible vote on “paying Town employees lump-sum payments for accrued excess compensatory time and excess vacation time as established in revised Town Personnel Manual.”

The cost of (reviewing) business

Guiding South Bethany’s elected officials has been labor attorney Peter Frattarelli of Archer Law. First hired this summer to help respond to the demand letter, he remained to review the CPSM study.

So far, South Bethany has paid $17,575 in costs of responding to the police demand letter — $10,000 for the CPSM study and $7,532 in legal expenses related to the CPSM review. Regular legal expenses have cost $19,000 more.

The unexpected policing debates and reviews have weighed on the town budget, prompting the town council to approve several budget amendments at the Nov. 17 public meeting.

When they pulled funding from the Town’s reserves, the overall legal budget leapt from $25,000 to $65,000, and another $17,000 was set aside for CPSM costs.

Charter changes

The Dec. 8 discussion will include possible vote on a resolution “approving proposed legislation to send to the General Assembly to amend the town charter, … to amend the charter to give the town manager responsibility for all departments in town, including the police department.”

A resolution to make charter changes can be passed on the same day it’s introduced. After that, the town council must persuade state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. and state Rep. Ron Gray to sponsor the changes in the state legislature, which must pass the measure by a two-thirds vote in order for the requested changes to become official.

Currently, South Bethany’s charter gives the police chief “operational control of the police department,” but “the chief of police shall be answerable to the town manager for all administrative duties and responsibilities.”

Ultimately, both individuals are answerable to the town council.

South Bethany’s town code states that the town manager has the power to “direct and supervise the administrative services to all departments, offices and agencies of the town, except as otherwise provided by law, … to develop the annual budget, … to recommend to the Town Council a standard schedule of pay for each appointive office and position in the town’s service, … to consolidate or combine offices, positions, departments or units under his jurisdiction, with the approval of the Town Council.”

Every town has different rules for police department management. In some municipalities, the police chief reports directly to the mayor and/or town council. In Dagsboro, the chief runs daily operations, does scheduling and proposes pay raises, but he works with the town manager, who proposes any budgets or policy changes to the council. Fenwick Island is similar, in that the chief manages day-to-day operations but the town manager is consulted for major decisions and budgeting.

In September, Town Manager Maureen Hart attended an ICMA/CPSM workshop titled “Asking the Police Chief the Right Questions to Make the Right Data Driven Decisions,” which she reported “discussed how police departments can schedule employees and function more effectively (cost-wise and shift-wise).”

Pro-police public

For months, some property owners have endeavored to remind town council members of the importance of community policing. Some community members have said it’s embarrassing and concerning for the town council and police department not to be on the same page, and they urged continued mediation.

“This police department business is very embarrassing,” said property owner Ed Nazarian. “They can’t tell us what’s what because attorneys are involved. We don’t know what’s what. … It’s not out of hand, but it’s not in hand, so to speak.”

“I am a council member that does agree with you. … I think we have a different strategy. … It is something I’ve looked at,” Callaway said.

The station itself

In the meantime, the SBPD is part of the way through a “repurposing” of the police station. Recent studies showed that the small police building could be inviting lawsuits because of the many uses overlapping each other in a small space (such as detainees being too close to evidence, staff, the public and each other).

After construction estimates for a building expansion came in far above the expected budget, the council changed course, and Chief Troy Crowson has overseen a reshuffling of existing features and some new security features. New keycards and evidence lockers have arrived, and a new prisoner bench is coming. Approximately $16,000 of work has been completed, and Crowson will review the other expenses and projects at the Dec. 8 meeting.

As the Town prepares for the next budget-writing season, Friday’s agenda also includes a possible vote on proposed changes to the Town of South Bethany’s purchasing policy and committee initiatives.