HONESDALE—Victim's Intervention Program (VIP) Executive Director Michele Minor Wolf raised concerns about the police department during public comment at the June 5 Honesdale Borough Council meeting.
The topics raised centered on ongoing issues with police department staffing.
Wolf asked why some part-time officers receive as few as two shifts per week when demand for filled shifts is so high.
Borough Council President Mike Augello responded that issues arose with officers' availabilities.
Wolf asked if returning scheduling authority to Police Chief Rick Southerton would alleviate the issues.
In response, Augello said the chief has had the same officer availability issues in the past.
Southerton interjected, stating, “I think [Wolf] is talking about one person in particular ... I have a problem with why he was moved on day shift.
“The problem with me not doing the scheduling is … It affects my disciplining, my ability to discipline people...
“Although I truly believe the mayor has the authority to do what she's doing and I'm not questioning it.
“I think it's creating issues ... that are making the problem that much worse.
“And to think that it doesn't effect my ability to discipline is just crazy.”
Mayor Melody Robinson was not present at the meeting, but when asked for comment via email, she stated, “The comments are extremely vague.
“Therefore I cannot speak to his exact concerns.
“To my knowledge, nothing should stand in the way of disciplining any member of the [Honesdale Borough Police Department (HBPD)].”
In emailed correspondence, Robinson stated, “I was elected to make these types of decisions and sometimes the best decision isn't always the most popular.
“I made a promise to always do what's right.
“In order to exhaust all avenues to achieve full coverage, the Chief will be given sole responsibility of scheduling effective immediately.”
During the meeting, Augello responded to Southerton's comments regarding scheduling issues.
Augello reiterated that the mayor has the authority to schedule police officers by state statute and that council does not have the power to take that away.
Southerton mentioned the first instance of the mayor's decision to handle the scheduling in October of 2016.
He said he had first received an email which said he would be involved in the meeting to set scheduling along with the full-time officers.
The chief added he received a second email shortly thereafter saying the schedule had already been set between the mayor and full-time officers.
He said, “I never had a meeting with [the mayor], she never explained to me why she's taking the schedule away from me – I feel it was a morale issue but nobody's ever explained that to me.”
Southerton added that he receives the scheduled after it is completed, “... and every time I get the thing, I've given suggestions to her of what I think is wrong with it, she ignored every one of them and [I] never got any feedback and it was out.
“I had no input in that schedule,” he said. “I had no input in that schedule, period.”
When asked about this via email, Robinson responded, “I wholly disagree with the premise of the chief's statement as it pertains to his assertions that he was not informed of the reasoning behind my decision.
“Any and all input from the chief has been welcomed throughout this entire process.
“To suggest anything different is misleading.”
At the meeting, Augello again lamented the lack of communication.
“It's not about the council, it's not about the mayor, it's not about the chief, it's not about the police, it's about the borough and its citizens.
“I don't know what the solution is but we [have to] find something.”
Open shifts persist
Another topic during public comment was the subject of open shifts.
Wolf asked how many shifts went uncovered during May.
Southerton said roughly one third of the shifts were uncovered last month.
Augello added that the root cause is a lack of available personnel.
When asked by Wolf if the department is now fully comprised of part-time officers, Augello said it is, and has been staffed this way for a while.
He added, “fully staffing the borough would be another, what, let's say $700,000 to our budget.
“Our budget is $2.5 million, we'd need roughly 30 percent increase in taxes.”
Wolf inquired about a number of recent full-time officer retirees and what became of the money used to pay their salaries.
Augello responded the funds pays those officers pensions.
He said, “... if we close our police department today, the financial responsibility of this borough to our retired police officers, until they unfortunately die at some point, is substantial.
“There is no hidden money.”
The president elaborated that the borough has been in debt for roughly 10 years due in part to past councils' refusal to vote for a tax increase.
“We need the councilors to all stand up and do what they know is right,” he said.
“We also cannot, in one year, raise taxes for taxpayers by 50 percent, or 40 percent, or 30 percent. That is not right.
“So if you come up with a financial solution for us that will raise that kind of money, that is incredible.”
Wolf's next question addressed a morale issue within the department.
She asked if a full culture of the department had been done to get everybody's opinion on the matter, or whether the reports were coming from just a few officers.
At the meeting, Augello stated he as a council member could not provide an answer.
“I personally choose not to take sides as best I can,” he said.
When asked for comment about this issue, Robinson stated, “Morale was low before I took office and has been a chief concern of mine.
“All members of the HBPD were made aware of my open door policy in regards to morale and scheduling.”
Wolf's last question was, “I know that one of the solutions is to have some of the full time officers stay on for half of the next shift, but if you're paying for overtime, isn't that an awful lot more that what it costs for a part-timer to cover those hours since they get paid so much less to begin with?”
Augello responded, “I repeat, we have no part-timers to bring in.”
Wolf reiterated her question about why the available part-timers could not work more.
Councilman Mike Dux responded, “The chief was explaining [earlier during the meeting], if they work for the Sheriff's department, they can't work, what did he say, eight hours before.
“...If they're working for the Sheriff's Department at 8 a.m., then they can't work the 12-8 shift.”
Southerton added that, per union contract, “[overtime] has to be offered to the full time officers before it can be offered to the part time officer, so they do take most of the overtime.
“It's a contract issue.”
In light of all the discussion that evening, Augello stated, “All I can tell you, Michelle, is all your concerns are very valid and concerns that we have had and we are answering to the laws and any council member here can tell you that.”