Sussex County Delaware

Dickerson Testifies at
Termination Hearing
 
Fenwick Island News

Says Problems Began
When Henifin Named PSC

By KERIN MAGILL
SC Online Content Editor

Photo: Suspended Fenwick Island Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr. (seated) listens as his attorney, Richard Weir Jr., addresses the panel determining Dickerson's fate.

In the second day of a hearing on whether he should be fired, suspended Fenwick Island Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr. recounted the events leading up to his August 2002 suspension from the force.

After testimony concluded at approximately 3:30 p.m., council went into executive session and then came out, announcing that the chief's termination hearing would continue at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, in Fenwick Island Town Hall. Council said the panel deciding Dickerson's fate would continue the hearing that day until it made a decision on whether to fire or reinstate Dickerson.

Fenwick Island Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr. and his attorney, Richard Weir Jr.That panel consists of Council President Peg Baunchalk and council members Theo Brans, Vicki Carmean, Peter Frederick, and Harry Haon.

Dickerson said on Friday, Feb. 14, 2003, that he was suspended after he tried to record meetings he was required to have with two town council members, Edward "Buzz" Henifin and Richard Griffin.

Dickerson said the bi-weekly meetings had been required as a result of an April 22 order apparently authorized by the town council.

Dickerson said he had never had so much as a reprimand in nine years on the force, until March 2002, when he backed a Freedom of Information Complaint filed by his second-in-command, Major William Manning, against the Fenwick Island Town Council.

According to Dickerson, the meetings were part of Henifin's "micromanagement" of the police department after his election to town council in August 2000.

Shortly after the election, when Henifin was appointed public safety commissioner, Dickerson said, "He told me about our relationship -- how he wanted it to be. He was going to be the captain; I was going to be the XO," citing Navy parlance for second-in-command, Dickerson said. Henifin is a retired Navy commander.

"I knew there was going to be a problem subsequent to that," he said.

Those problems, according to Dickerson, included a new evaluation form tailored to the chief's position that he felt was "subjective" and "did not include issues I was familiar with" in other evaluations during his law enforcement career. Dickerson said no other department heads were evaluated in the same manner. He added that prior to 2001, the town council had never evaluated him during his then-eight year stint as chief.

Still, Dickerson said Henifin told him in January 2002 that he would give him the 4.0 -- the highest rating given to a Navy officer. Dickerson's attorney, Richard Weir, said in his opening statement on Wednesday, Feb. 12, that prior to March 2002, his client's personnel file fit in a manilla folder. After that point, the file began to grow -- even to include documents with dates prior to March 2002, Weir said.

Dickerson spent much of his testimony on Feb. 14 detailing the process the town went through regarding federal grants obtained to add new officers to the police force. In 1997, he said, the town was approved for COPS (Community Oriented Policing) funds for two officers. The grants would be used to pay a portion of the officers' salaries over three years, and the town would be required to keep them on for at least one additional budget cycle after that.

Dickerson said there was no problem with the town's COPS funding -- which was, in fact, used to hire two officers. In 2001, however, Dickerson said he put in a request to increase the force to nine officers from seven. He said he told the council at a budget workshop that Fenwick Island was eligible to receive $30,000 in COPS grants to help fund two positions -- but that the council had to fully fund the other seven positions.

But the council decided to strike two of the proposed positions and use the $30,000 to fund the existing seven positions, he said -- meaning the council was illegally supplanting its budget with the federal funds. "They knew it, absolutely. They knew it and they still did it." Dickerson said he objected, and that "I was never invited to another budget workshop session."

He said that after he wrote a memo again warning the council about the COPS funding, Henifin was "angry with me -- just absolutely angry."

To remedy the situation with the COPS funding, Dickerson said, the council added two $24,000 police positions to the budget. But then, he said Henifin told him, "Don't even think about spending that money. You can't spend it." Dickerson said the council "never intended to provide the two positions." In addition, he said, Henifin told him if he pursued the issue, it "could be a career buster for you."

Nevertheless, Dickerson said he told council president Peg Baunchalk he planned to report the COPS situation to federal authorities. "My life turned very sour, because at that point Mr. Henifin was after me every five minutes," Dickerson said. He added that he doesn't care what the outcome of the terminination hearing is. "It's about doing the right thing," Dickerson said.

Dickerson's suspension initially began as a one-day suspension Aug. 21, then became "suspension pending termination hearing" five days later. At first, the only reason he was given was his attempt to tape record the meeting with Henifin and Griffin. He was later given other reasons, including insubordination, abuse of public trust and obstruction of justice.

He said he asked, when he was told not to tape the meetings, for a legal reason why he couldn't, but one was never given. Dickerson said he wanted to tape the meetings because then "it wouldn't be based on their recollection or mine."

The "abuse of public trust" charge apparently centers around the chief's use of $25 in town funds to mail documents relating to the FOIA complaint filed by Manning, and relating to Department of Labor complaints regarding town labor practices. Dickerson contends those constituted "matters of the public trust."

Also at issue was Dickerson's alleged handling of a situation involving a job applicant and a raise for one of his police officers. Dickerson said he had no knowledge of a letter apparently written by Manning to a job applicant in January 2002, telling the applicant the town had no job openings when there were in fact several.

Dickerson said he was disciplined for not giving Officer Pete Brennan a $500 raise when he completed his Delaware certification. Dickerson contends he thought the raise was "automatic" and would be handled by the town's finance office. Brennan never complained about the raise, Dickerson said, and he received it a month after his training was completed.

Of a meeting with Henifin that turned into a shouting match, Dickerson said, "I'm certainly not proud of my actions." He said he apologized to Henifin and to council member Theo Brans, who had to referee the argument, and to the council as a whole.

The council contends there is no proof that they actually worked those hours. Dickerson said what the council didn't know is that he often came to work at 1:30 a.m. to patrol the streets when he was "on call."

"I am very much offended that Mr. Henifin would infer that I did not work any of those hours," Dickerson said.

He added that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires that if an officer is on call and is "so narrowly restricted they could not go about their everyday lives, they have to be paid." Dickerson said he explained this to Henifin. "I don't know how he could become confused" about the on-call designation, Dickerson said.

Dickerson was also reprimanded for handing out a report on current police manpower at the May council meeting. The reprimand came, according to testimony from Henifin and Griffin, because Dickerson referred to two hires that had not been approved by the council. Still, Dickerson said, "I saw this as being a great help. This would explain exactly what was going on."

Dickerson said he was placed on probation in June 2002, allegedly for his "lack of an effective recruiting program," which the council cited as a "major factor in the personnel shortage" in the police department.

But he said a comprehensive analysis of the department's manpower problems, which he prepared, was virtually ignored by the council. The problem, Dickerson said, was that the department's salaries were lower than those offered by most other departments.

"I always asked for a step plan," said Dickerson. He said a step plan would assure new hires that if they stayed, they could depend on a certain income level after a specified period of time.

He also said he had approached the council with the idea that Bruette had identified two officers in neighboring departments who would be willing to transfer to Fenwick Island for salaries of $29,000. But when they learned Bruette would not provide the names of the officers -- because they feared their current employers would find out -- they refused to talk to Dickerson about "stealing" officers from their neighboring town councils.

The final wedge between the council and the chief appeared to be Dickerson's refusal to turn over files for the federal investigation into the COPS funding. Dickerson said at the Feb. 14 hearing that he was told town administrator Helen Torres needed to "inventory" his files -- which he believed meant she, and possibly others -- would have access to police files including those that contained sensitive information on criminal cases.

He said he did not refuse to supply information required by the Department of Justice subpoena, and offered to meet with Torres to go over what was required.

After the day's testimoy and executive session, council also announced that a previously scheduled town council meeting and a budget workshop have been rescheduled from Friday, Feb. 28, to Friday, March 7.


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