HONESDALE — A lawyer representing the Honesdale Police Officers Association says borough taxpayers could be on the hook should an unfair labor practices case go his way.
"Someone is going to write a check," said attorney Stephen Holroyd of Philadelphia.
That check would be written if the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) rules in favor of the police union.
The police union filed the action recently as a result of the borough council hiring a police commissioner rather than replacing the police chief.
The council voted last week to hire Rick Southerton as the new police commissioner in Honesdale.
Former chief Joe LoBasso resigned earlier this year and was replaced by Sgt. Ron Kominski, who the council named as the officer in charge of the department.
The council then advertised for the job of police chief and subsequently hired Southerton, who is not a certified law enforcement officer in Pennsylvania.
After the Honesdale Civil Service Commission refused to recommend Southerton, the council then reversed course by withdrawing his name as chief.
They then made the decision to recommend Southerton to be hired as police commissioner, though that job had not been formally advertised nor discussed publicly.
Southerton was sworn in last week as the police commissioner at a salary of $45,000 a year.
In the meantime, the police department is now down to just five full-time officers and with Kominski now on medical leave, it leaves just four full-time officers in Honesdale.
Southerton does not have the power of arrest because he is not a certified officer in Pennsylvania.
All of that led to the filing of the unfair labor practice action with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
The complaint alleges the borough violated the current collective bargaining agreement. It alleges that work which was agreed to under the contract is now being performed by Southerton and that is a violation of the contract.
Holroyd said the union believes that Southerton cannot do the work and that could lead to back pay for officers who should be doing the work under the terms of the contract.
"If we win before the labor board, they are going to say the borough had no business doing this and order the work be returned to the unit," said Holroyd.
Holroyd was asked if the union might seek an injunction against the borough to stop Southerton from working.
He said though it would be possible, it's not going to happen.
"You have to show irreparable harm," said Holroyd. "But there isn't any."
The attorney said this situation is "something that can easily be fixed and made whole with back pay. Nobody has lost their job as a result of this. Yes, they took their job. When they are right they are made whole."
Page 2 of 3 - A bigger question which looms is exactly how the borough came to create the position of police commissioner.
Holroyd said the union "can't stop the borough from creating the position. But he just can't do any of this work. You still need a chief or officer in charge to do the work."
He said the labor board could order the new commissioner to stop doing various tasks and order it back to the union employees.
He said the fact the borough created the position is "not the union's business," though he added members of the public certainly might have legal grounds to challenge.
Also at issue is exactly how Southerton is going to be trained by the police department officers.
"You teach him what you are told to teach him," said Holroyd.
However, he did acknowledge that when it comes to law enforcement matters, the bar is set higher.
Some question whether the police commissioner has the power to even look in the evidence room or get onto the computer system, which has sensitive data that is only to be viewed by certified law enforcement officers.
Holroyd did say that raises a lot of questions, however, the unfair labor practices action doesn't deal with that aspect of this situation.
"Even if he was lawfully permitted to do all of those things, the PLRB wouldn't care," said Holroyd.
But he added even if Southerton "got everything he needed (in certifications), it still doesn't mean he didn't violate the law."
Holroyd said should the PLRB rule in favor of the union, it could mean the taxpayers are on the line for all back pay due to the officers who should have been performing the work.
"The only end result is you will have an employee that is not allowed to do anything and he is getting paid for it," said Holroyd.
Here are the specifications of the charges filed on behalf of the union against the borough:
1. The Honesdale Police Officers Association is, pursuant to the provision of the Act 111 and Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act, the exclusive collective bargaining representative for all police officers employed by the Borough of Honesdale.
2. At all material times, the Chief of Police has been a member of the bargaining unit, and has been covered by the various collective bargaining agreements between the parties.
3. Several moths ago, the Police Chief retired, and was not immediately replaced.
4. On October 14, 2013, the Borough appointed Rick Southerton to the heretofore nonexistent position of Police Commissioner.
5. The position of Police Commissioner is not covered by the collective bargaining agreement, nor was the creation of this new position negotiated with the association.
Page 3 of 3 - 6. In addition, immediately upon his appointment, "Commission" Southerton began performing all of the duties that had been previously performed by the bargaining unit position of Police Chief.
7. Specifically, functions such as scheduling, reviewing of case files, assignment of officers and other duties had been traditionally and historically performed exclusively by the Police Chief, a member of the bargaining unit, were now being performed by the newly-created Police Commissioner.
8. This assignment of bargaining unit work to the Police Commissioner was not agreed to by the Association, nor did the Borough negotiate the assignment of such work with the Association.
9. By the above acts, the Borough has violated the aforesaid provisions of the Act.
Holroyd said the case will almost certainly not be heard before the PLRB until after the first of the year because of a large amount of cases before the board.
When the case is heard, he said the board will review the charges and make a determination if it should move forward.
If that happens, he said there will be a "mini-trial" before the board.
Both sides will present evidence, he said, and "a decision will be reached."