to Resume Feb. 28
Steps Down from Force
SC Online Content Editor
The panel determining the fate of suspended Fenwick Island Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr. heard opening arguments from attorneys representing the Town of Fenwick Island and Dickerson and from the town's Public Safety Commissioner, Edward "Buzz" Henifin.
Vincent Vickers, the attorney representing the town in the hearing, was flanked by Henifin and Richard Griffin, deputy public safety commissioner, during the 8 1/2-hour hearing.
The quasi-judicial proceeding at Roxana Fire Hall is being moderated by William Bowser, who sat amid the remaining five council members.
The panel agreed to resume the hearing on Friday, Feb. 14, at 8:30 a.m. at Fenwick Island Town Hall after the first day's testimony stretched into the evening hours.
At the start of the hearing, Richard Weir Jr., the attorney representing Dickerson at the hearing and in his lawsuit against the town, said he had identified council president Peg Baunchalk as a "potential witness" -- and suggested that she step down from the panel.
"I see no reason to recuse myself from this," Baunchalk said, and she remained seated with the other members.
Vickers, in his opening argument, said Dickerson failed to solve the problems created by the departure of half of the police officers on the force in January 2002. Vickers said Dickerson developed "an attitude of resistance" toward the council.
In his opening argument, Weir said the town council wants to fire Dickerson as a retaliatory measure.
"Our position is that Chief Dickerson resisted actions that were illegal," said Weir. Weir said the official reasons given on Sept. 4, 2002, for Dickerson's suspension were insubordination and mismanagement.
Weir went on to say that until Dickerson and Major William Manning -- now retired -- filed FOIA complaints against the town in March 2002, Dickerson had received no reprimands from council in his previous nine years as chief.
After the opening arguments, Henifin testified that Dickerson refused to comply with numerous memos he gave the chief.
Weir said the problem was that Henifin tried to micro-manage the department without the authority to do so.
Both men referred frequently to a Sept. 24, 2001 document which laid out the police chief's responsibilities. Vickers focused on what he said were failures by Dickerson to live up to his stated duties.
He said the chief did not provide information requested by the council in relation to recruiting officers for the depleted police force, and that he failed to inform the council on how the three remaining officers -- himself, Manning and Cpl. Michael Bruette -- were staffing the department.
Henifin said Dickerson failed to provide "activity sheets" he requested, showing each officer's daily activities, and that he did not clearly explain how the officers were each scheduled to be "on call" during specific periods each week.
Henifin testified that Dickerson submitted $19,000 in "on-call" hours for the three men during the manpower shortage, and that the council never authorized pay for officers while they were not on duty, but were on call. "We authorized overtime," he said.
Henifin also said Dickerson failed to use "imagination and innovation" to solve the manpower shortage. He said the council expected the three men to provide 120 hours of coverage -- by each working their shift alone -- but that Dickerson and Manning often worked simultaneously.
In addition, Henifin said, Dickerson ignored a number of memos from him directing Dickerson to make changes in department operations, and he repeatedly tried to tape meetings between himself, Henifin and Griffin.
Although Dickerson said he did this on the advice of his attorney after he filed a complaint with the federal Department of Justice over alleged misuse by the town of COPS grant money, Henifin said he and Griffin "both stated that was not proper procedure and wouldn't be allowed," when Dickerson appeared with his tape recorder on Aug. 21.
Henifin said Dickerson was placed on disciplinary probation on June 20, 2002 and was subsequently suspended with pay, pending a termination hearing. Dickerson was initially suspended on Aug. 22, and again Aug. 26 after a letter was drafted listing insubordination, mismanagement and obstruction of justice as causes for the council's decision.
Weir said the suspension letter did not reference any progressive discipline measures, nor did it mention an April 22 memo from Henifin laying out changes the council wanted in the department's management.
Henifin said Dickerson was first suspended Aug. 21, before all the reasons could be drafted, "because we felt that it was best that he be out of town as soon as possible."
Henifin said he felt Dickerson "was having an influence on the remaining officers ... and he was not providing us with information regarding (the federal investigation into the town's use of COPS funding)."
About a dozen police chiefs from other municipalities around the county -- including Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Milton and Selbyville -- were on hand during Wednesday's session to lend moral support to the chief.
Also in attendance were several former town employees, including Sherry Jordan, the police department's administrative assistant whose position was eliminated by the council in October; June Truitt, the former financial administrator who was fired last month in the wake of revelations of financial irregularities during the past four years; Peter Brennan, who recently resigned from the police department; and William Manning, Dickerson's former second-in-command, who retired in January.
After all testimony has been given, council will deliberate publicly and vote on whether to fire Dickerson or reinstate him.
Since Dickerson's suspension, the police department has been under the guidance of Sgt. Michael Bruette, Henifin and Glenn Hudson.
Bruette resigned as officer in charge on Oct. 24 and Henifin took over the department for 11 days. Council then hired Hudson, who had initially been hired as a consultant, as officer in charge.
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