Tired of the public asking about police-department challenges, the South Bethany Town Council finally made an announcement: They’re working on it.
“Activity has been going on since July of this year, but it’s not ready to bring out,” said Mayor Tim Saxton on Nov. 9. “The chief knows that, and we are working desperately to come up with something. A directive was given to the town manager [Maureen Hartman] to work on. … The council hasn’t even seen it yet. When she’s ready to present it, we will present it to council, and we will present it to the chief.”
Saxton emphasized that council does not want to be in the middle of the police department, which is why the town manager was placed administratively over all staff, including that department.
The announcement came after weeks of public debate, from the public and in the press, on internet forums and two anonymous mailers.
Previously, when asked about the first mailer and the council’s seeming inaction on the issue since summer, Saxton and Mayor Pro-Tem Sue Callaway gave no substantial comments.
Finally, at the council meeting on Nov. 9, after several people had asked about plans for the SBPD, Saxton broke the silence.
“I’m trying to make sense among what I hear of rumor, newspaper articles and whatnot,” said resident Dan Cowell, asking why the town council and relevant committees hadn’t discussed police issues. “There’s too much ferment for it not to show up in the committee reports, or at least the agenda. So I want to know what your plans are for the police department.”
“I agree that it would be nice to know what’s going on, but I kind of also trust the town council to do the right thing,” said resident Linda Lewis.
Some people took issue with an anonymous mailing being sent out to property owners across town. It criticized the seeming lack of council action since a new administration was elected this summer, and it encouraged people to demand the council share their intent toward the SBPD.
“People ought to sign their complaints,” resident Joan Marini scolded, to applause from some other in attendance and several council members.
(Contrary to some suggestions, property owner addresses are not solely accessible to government officials and staff. Property tax lists are publically accessible on the South Bethany and Sussex County government websites, which means they are available to anyone wishing to send out a mailing, without necessitating cooperation from a Town employee or official.)
Once again on Nov. 9, the town council was also refuting rumors about outsourcing police department duties to another agency.
“There is no initiative in this town to remove the police department. I don’t know who’s saying it, but it is incorrect,” Saxton said. “Look guys — it is our job to look at all options and look at everything. We would be remiss not to do our job. But our first concern is the safety of the people of this town.”
Currently, the South Bethany Police Department only has three officers, plus the chief. One year ago, there were six officers. The council chose not to fill the first vacancy in winter. Then two more employees left, in May and September.
Police Chief Troy Crowson has repeatedly stated that a new, barebones rank structure and other changes have prevented South Bethany from getting ideal candidates to fill vacancies. After months of searching for qualified and Delaware-certified officers, Crowson proposed one candidate this autumn, and the town council unanimously rejected that person.
The Freedom of Information Act allows the town council to discuss personnel issues in closed sessions, and they have not spoken publically about the reason for rejecting the proposed candidate.
“I agree with [Cowell]. There is a ton of misinformation out there in the newspaper, and I think it’s improper that misinformation gets into the newspaper. … I do want to assure this town that things are being worked on,” Saxton said.
“I think we have a management problem. You should have headed that lawsuit off at the pass,” resident Kent Stephan told the chief. “To me that was your job — not to support it, not to be their speaker…”
“I was not their speaker,” Crowson interjected.
“You gave those guys cover to do it, and the stuff that’s going on now with the newspaper and badmouthing the town over what seems to me to be trivial matter about titles… I think we turned a bunch of molehills into mountains, and it shouldn’t be done.”
Discussion of the issue is expected to continue at some point in the future. Saxton could give no timeline of when he expects the town council to see a draft proposal.
By Laura Walter