Tempers flared in South Bethany Town Hall this week as some members of the public worried over the future of the South Bethany Police Department. Although the town council emphasized last month that they’re working on a new plan, some property owners demanded more information at the Dec. 14 council meeting.
Those concerned about the issue said they feel there is a discrepancy between the town council and police department regarding staffing. The police department has already been authorized to seek candidates for two vacancies. But months had passed before the chief proposed a single candidate, citing few applicants. The council unanimously rejected that candidate, which some town citizens said they see as a “red flag.”
Some of them this week flat-out accused council members of intentionally gutting the police department. And some of those who said they do trust the council said they are also still tremendously upset about the lack of public discourse.
“It seems like the oxygen is being turned down, little by little, incrementally, for the police department,” said resident Dan Cowell. “Transparency is missing in this case. We’re hearing what is at odds with reality.”
But council members said they were frustrated that rumors are flying.
“I don’t know any other way to say we’re going to keep a police department, but to say, ‘We have the intention, of every member here — we’re going to keep a police department,” said Mayor Tim Saxton. “You can choose to believe this council member and the mayor, or you can choose not to.”
In November, Saxton announced that Town Manager Maureen Hartman had been assigned to work on a new plan, “but it’s not ready to bring out. … 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.”
“We’re trying to do our job,” Saxton said this month. “Yes, I can understand why you may feel we’re not transparent, but I can assure you we are working on this … very hard and as fast as we possibly can. But there are certain things you don’t take into the public until you have it figured out. … I’m just asking for time.”
But people said they want more transparency.
This autumn, the council had opted not to fill one SBPD vacancy, and Police Chief Troy Crowson said the lack of applicants for the other two vacancies is due to the new rank structure and lack of written pay scale, under changes approved by the council earlier this year.
Saxton stood by his refusal to publically discuss specific personnel, including the rejected candidate: “I don’t think anyone in the public would want your name being drug through the mud in a personnel issue. … I can’t go into why an individual was not hired in this Town — I’d get sued! Come on, guys — I can’t talk about it.
“I assure you we went through the appropriate process as defined by the personnel policies of this Town,” Saxton emphasized.
“I’m not doubting that you went through the process. I just don’t understand,” property owner Larry Budd said.
“I’m 100 percent law-enforcement,” said Councilman Jerry Masiello, who retired after a lifetime in that field. “There is not one member of this council — not one — who is not exerting a conscientious effort to resolve the situation. … I would ask that, as citizens, please just sit back and wait ’til we come up with a decision. And, believe me — it’s not going to be to dump the police department.”
Asked if that plan will include their existing chief of police, Saxton answered, “It’s a personnel issue.”
Rumors fuel citizen concerns
Budd said he feels both sides need to work together and increase public engagement. Many attendees at the council meetings are not fulltime property owners yet, but some drove several hours from their homes to express their concerns publicly. Councilwoman Sue Callaway said the council appreciates that time spent and said she believes everyone has the same goal.
“This issue with the police has gone on for almost two years. There have been tremendous amounts of emotional and thought-provoking conversations going on [toward a] cost-efficient, well-managed police department,” Callaway said. “When I go to bed at night, I like knowing there’s a police car running around at 2 a.m. … We’re working toward that. We’re not laissez-faire about it.”
“Rumors are rampant,” property owner Dennis Roberts said. “It was nice to hear that [Callaway said] there’s no intention to get rid of the police. But, to the residents, the optics don’t look good.”
And despite the council’s protestations, many people left the meeting saying they still feel as if the town council wasn’t listening.
“All the while, South Bethany’s residents and property owners are left in the dark. The tension and contempt felt last Friday was unreal,” property owner Billy Bonbright said afterward.
Community policing was important to some of those residents, especially its proactive enforcement and personal attention.
They also mentioned a 24-hours-a-day fast-response time — especially for calls that may feel important to the individual but which the Delaware State Police might not prioritize.
Property owner Darren Donohue recalled an incident in the 1970s in which a child was hit and killed by a car — which he said is something that can be prevented now by having local police run radar speed enforcement on Route 1. That speed enforcement has decreased since summertime’s low staffing.
“There’s a lot of people upset. … You’re not showing us that you’re doing anything” to support the force, Donohue told the council. “It’s a big deal, and there’s a lot of people that are going to rally behind this police department. … We’ll do what we have to do to keep this department and the town the way it’s been.”
He suggested raising property taxes to support the police, which garnered some applause.
‘Disturbing’ email sent to council
There was also argument on Dec. 14 over what some described as a “very disturbing” email sent to town council members, which suggested blood would be on their hands if they don’t keep a municipal police department.
Robert Callaway accused the police of instigating those emails.
“When emails go out, when your henchmen do that … when you threaten law-abiding citizens — that is not law-enforcement,” Robert Callaway said.
“Nobody has sent an email from the police department to threaten anybody, nor was it done at our direction,” said Crowson, later adding, “You have not been threatened by law-enforcement. You got an email from a private citizen — not at the direction of the police department.”
Crowson emphasized his mission of public safety, while Robert Callaway insisted the police stop people from making such threats.
After all the rumors, property owner Jimmy Oliver encouraged people to read the recommendations from the Warren report and CPSM report, which were commissioned in 2017 and inspired the town council’s overhaul of employee policies and procedures, leading to the changes in the police department rank and pay structures.
“We paid $55,000 last year to have consultants come in here and tell us how to run the police department,” Oliver said.
There has been debate about whether the reports truly reflect the size and style of the SBPD.
“They both agreed that there may have been too many ranks,” Crowson said, but the Warren report suggested public input on a new rank system, while CPSM proposed a bare-bones scale, which the town council adopted.
But, directionally, both reports pointed to the same issues, Saxton clarified.
Meanwhile, the Town’s Finance Committee will propose a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for employees in the 2020-fiscal-year budget — particularly since the federal government recently awarded a COLA to its workers, retirees and Social Security recipients, due to inflation, according to council Treasurer Bon Boteler in his written reports.
The South Bethany Finance Committee will conduct its first review of submitted and compiled budget requests on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, at 9 a.m. at town hall.
The South Bethany Town Council does not typically meet in January, so their next regular meeting is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m.
By Laura Walter