Town of South Bethany, police share paperwork in dispute

Date Published: 
Sept. 15, 2017

After the Town of South Bethany rejected claims from some its police officers of unfair pay and promotion practices, both sides have now released legal paperwork in the matter.

Of the SBPD’s 10 employees, the six fulltime officers sent a June 30 demand letter, centered around lack of holiday pay for all officers, as well as promotions and pension issues for some. They demanded $66,861 in all, plus reasonable attorney fees. That includes $40,011 for holiday pay; two promotions; and about $26,850 and two promotions for certain officers; and three years of pension for one.

The police officers have not indicated what their next step will be, although their demand letter threatened further legal action.

The police are being represented by John LaRosa of LaRosa & Associates, who threatened to file suit in U.S. District Court, “as I recently did on behalf of police officers and against the City of Rehoboth Beach and its mayor in a similar case.”

Meanwhile, South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris said she was just glad to have the issue out in the open, as the town council has remained close-lipped on the subject, except to say they found “no merit” to the police officers’ claims.

“I think our response was well done. I’m glad to have had that word on the street,” Voveris said. “We, if anything, are employee advocates.”

The Town has hired human-resources attorney Peter Frattarelli of Archer Attorneys at Law.

Holiday pay on the way

The police alleged that they have not been paid correctly for holidays off (which earns regular pay) or for working holidays (which earns double pay). That includes the six fulltime officers (Sgt. Alfred “Lee” Davis, Cpl. Mark Burton, Cpl. Patrick Wiley, Cpl. John Jenney, PFC Nate Hudson and Ptlm. Megan Loulou).

After receiving some complaints this spring, the council agreed to compensate police staff up to two years of back pay for working holidays, which averaged about $1,760 for those six officers.

“Despite the debatable nature of the claims, the Town paid them additional sums to cover those holidays worked (although some of your clients refused to pick up those checks),” Frattarelli wrote.

Perhaps more importantly, the step chart was updated in 2008 to include holidays in police salaries, according to an internal chart.

“Pay for twelve holidays is incorporated into the salary levels for all members of the Police Department. Thus, your clients have been paid in full for all holidays they have not worked,” Frattarelli wrote.

However, the police officers have said they weren’t aware that holiday pay was built into their salary when they took the job. The policies should have been updated, and the town council paid two years’ back pay to make up for it. But, ultimately, Frattarelli said the step chart supersedes the older policy.

Payments and pensions

Police can receive “Step-in-grade advancements as a reward for continuing education and satisfactory performance … [which] is achieved every two years … and includes a 2 percent raise with each step … in addition to the regular annual raise.” They can also advance to a higher rank, or grade.

The police said Loulou and Davis are both entitled to pay raises and promotions this April, but were denied them. LaRosa suggested that decision was made unilaterally by Voveris, not the town council, although the Town did not respond to that assertion.

In 2014, there were two lieutenants and one chief in the SBPD. After some retirements and promotions, then-Lt. Troy Crowson became chief, but the two lieutenant positions were left vacant. But the SBPD still needed a second-in-command, so Davis performed those duties without receiving the title or major pay raises.

Because he was promoted to sergeant in October of 2015, the Town said he’s not yet eligible for the two-year increases, although his base pay has increased in the last few years.

“While it may be true that Sgt. Davis has taken on additional duties as a second-in-command officer, that does not grant him an automatic promotion to the rank of lieutenant” which requires council approval, Frattarelli said, and Town policies say that officers can be assigned extra duties without receiving additional compensation. Additionally, the Town argued that there are steps, plus four other grades for him to advance to.

Similarly, the officers said they felt that Loulou was entitled to a promotion to patrolman first-class, since “It has been the policy, custom, and practice of the Town that all officers have been promoted to Patrolman First Class after two years in the rank of Patrolman,” which the officers said occurred in May 2017. But the Town said she had not reached the two-year mark yet either. She did receive pay increases over the years, though.

“The Town has no statutory obligation to create new, more senior-level positions simply because an officer has passed a qualification threshold,” the Town wrote. “If everyone was entitled to automatic promotions upon reaching minimum qualifications, the Town could end up with a force consisting of a Chief of Police and 6 members of equal rank.”

Pension disputes also arose for Davis, who said he believes he was owed another three years’ worth of credit. But the Town suggested this was incorrectly based on rumor. When the Town purchased pension plans for employees, police were offered seven years’ credit, while regular Town employees received five years’ worth. Frattarelli suggested Davis was mistaken in his belief that other Town employees had received 10 years’ worth of pension.

Although some people have complained that the Town hired Frattarelli before the town council’s public vote to do so, Voveris said that action was legal. South Bethany already has a budget for legal costs, which only requires a vote to change. They wanted to be transparent for the public, but don’t need a vote to hire an attorney, she said.

Reviewing

the police policies

In the past few months, many citizens have praised the police department, both verbally at town council meetings and visually, with yard signs around town.

They’ve also shared displeasure at rumors of possible outsourcing. As a group, the town council has not discussed outsourcing of police duties. The item has not appeared on an agenda for public meeting. As of late August, Voveris also said she had had no discussion with other nearby police departments about possible outsourcing.

Instead, the council hired an outside agency for $8,000 to review the police department operation, policies and procedures.

Councilman Tim Saxton said that has been a long time coming, not just the result of recent disagreements. There are multiple conflicts within the policies and procedures, which ICMA Center for Public Safety Management (ICMA/CPSM) will help the Town identify and fix.

The contract is being finalized for what exactly ICMA/CPSM will provide to the Town. The scope of the project just increased, as the council just approved another $9,500 to continue.

“In our first authorization, it just got them working and looking at the job and understanding the nature of the work,” said Saxton.

“This issue has been going on for several councils. This has nothing to do with the demand letter,” Saxton said. “The major goals in this are to make sure we have good policies … that don’t conflict.”

Some citizens said they didn’t like spending extra money, but others said they approved of the expense if it would bring more cohesiveness to the policies.

The goals of that contract will be made public. The work is expected to be completed by Oct. 31. Voveris would not confirm that the report itself will be made public, unless the Town gets approval from its attorney. But any policy changes must be approved publically by the town council.