Sussex County Delaware

F.I. Council Fires Chief
As Hearing Concludes
 
Fenwick Island News

Panel Cites Insubordination,
Mismanagement for Firing

By KERIN MAGILL
SC Online Content Editor

A panel of Fenwick Island Town Council members voted 4-1 on Friday, Feb. 28, 2003, to fire Police Chief George Dickerson, nearly six months after he was suspended.

Council President Peg Baunchalk and Council Members Harry Haon, Peter Frederick and Theo Brans voted to fire Dickerson, while Council Member Vicki Carmean voted not to fire him. The vote came at the end of an 11-hour session, which followed two all-day sessions Feb. 12 and 14.

The four council members voting in favor of firing Dickerson cited the following reasons during their deliberations:

  • Failure to discipline his second-in-command, Major William Manning, for telling an applicant for police officer that there were no openings, when there were;

  • Failure to stem the tide of officers departing from the squad;
  • Disobeying an order not to bring a tape recorder to meetings with council members;

  • Failure to provide maximum coverage for the town during a manpower shortage;

  • Charging the town overtime for hours the three remaining officers were on call and not necessarily in Fenwick Island, while failing to document those hours; and

  • Allowing Manning to patrol the streets while out of uniform.

The deliberations consisted of each council member making a statement laying out his or her reasons for voting for or against firing the chief.

Baunchalk said she was most disturbed about Dickerson's handling of actions by Manning regarding an application from a man named William Boyden for a job as a police officer. She said when Mannning wrote a letter to Boyden stating that there were no job openings -- when in fact there were several -- he "left us open to a major discrimination suit," since Boyden was an "older applicant" for the job. "We were very fortunate that a lawsuit was not brought against the town," Baunchalk said.

Haon said Dickerson failed to provide as much police coverage as possible during a manpower shortage that began with the departure of three officers in January 2002. He called Dickerson's actions, including sometimes scheduling himself, Manning and Sgt. Michael Bruette on the same shift, "a serious breach of the chief's duties ... and his commitment to the town."

Haon also said he objected to Dickerson's handling of overtime the police department charged for himself, Manning and Bruette while they were "on call." Haon said he had a major problem with the $19,000 in overtime, and that there were no records to prove what the officers were doing during the on-call hours. "This scheme," Haon said, "falls apart ... in that nobody knew they were on call," so county dispatchers would not have been able to reach them quickly.

Frederick also had problems with the overtime issue, he said. According to his understanding of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Frederick said, "on call" means that "if you don't get called, you don't get paid." Dickerson had stated in his testimony that he felt the officers were so limited during their on-call times that they had to be paid according to the FLSA. "I don't know how we can say that being at home near a phone is an onerous restriction," Frederick said.

"This is indeed a very sad day in the history of Fenwick Island," Brans said during the deliberations. Brans said he felt relations between the chief and the council were strained even before the manpower shortage. In 2001, Brans said, nine out of 10 executive sessions held by the council involved discussions regarding the chief. "I often questioned the council on this," Brans said, adding that he felt "something is amiss."

In a Sept. 10, 2001 letter to the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, however, Baunchalk referred in glowing terms to Dickerson's service to the town, lauding his "attention to detail" and his "devotion" to the department and the town. The letter was written as the town's endorsement of Dickerson's appointment to a second term as chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council.

Carmean said that while "I'm glad we had this hearing," because it brought some issues to light that had previously not been discussed in public, she regretted the outcome.

She said the main problem between the council and the police department "seems to be a breakdown in communication," which began after Edward "Buzz" Henifin, the town's public safety commissioner, drafted a "very broad mandate," issued on Sept. 24, 2001, laying out duties and responsibilities for the chief.

At that time, she said, the relationship "switched from laissez faire to an autocratic, directive management style." The change, she said "marked the beginning of sort of a power struggle ... and lots of confusion." Unfortunately, Carmean said, the council chose to adopt an "I gotcha attitude" toward the chief.

Henifin and Richard Griffin, deputy public safety commissioner, did not sit on the panel. Instead, they sat with Vincent Vickers, the attorney representing the town in the hearing.

Much of Dickerson's testimony centered on his allegations that the town council misused $30,000 in federal community policing (COPS) grant funds. Dickerson said he told the council they couldn't use the money to supplant their regular budget -- and that they had to use it to fund an eighth and ninth officer. He said he asked Sam Beamon, a compliance from the U.S. Department of Justice, to come to Fenwick Island to explain the grant regulations to the council.

In his testimony, Griffin, the town's budget chairman, said he had never had the COPS grants explained to him, and that in fact "I tried to not know too much about the COPS grant." When Weir asked him why, Griffin said, "I have a distaste for federal grants." He said Henifin "tried to explain it to me on several occasions, but I refused to listen." Griffin said his function as budget chairman amounted to a "numbers cruncher," and that he had no "managerial input into the staffing of any town departments."

Under questioning by Vickers, Henifin countered Dickerson's earlier assertion that Henifin had told him, "don't even think about spending" $48,000 in the 2002-03 budget slated for two police officers. Henifin told Vickers that he told Dickerson he could only spend the money for COPS grant purposes, and only with council's approval.

In addition to the conclusion of Dickerson's testimony, which had begun on the second day of the hearing, Friday, Feb. 14, Baunchalk, former Fenwick Island police officers Michael Bruette and William Manning, Griffin, Henifin, officer-in-charge Glenn Hudson, and Martin Johnson, executive director of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, testified.

Bruette, now a corporal with the Bethany Beach Police Department, said he met with Baunchalk, Hudson -- then a consultant -- Henifin and Manning shortly after Bruette was named officer in charge of the police department. Bruette said he had "expressed concern about being named OIC, superceding Major Manning," who had been Dickerson's second-in-command, particularly if Dickerson were to return to duty. Bruette said Baunchalk and Henifin told him Dickerson "wouldn't be coming back."

Bruette also said Baunchalk remarked that she had been wanting to get rid of the Chief for years, but didn't have the backing of the council. Earlier in the meeting, when asked to recall the same meeting, Baunchalk replied, "I don't remember that," and repeated the same phrase when Weir asked her if she denied saying it.

Under cross-examination by Vickers, Bruette said he had a "good relationship" with Baunchalk throughout most of his five-year stint at Fenwick. But he said the relationship turned "a little bit" tense after Henifin requested information Bruette considered personal regarding a medical emergency in his family. "I think it went beyond the scope of policy and procedure," he said.

Weir also asked Baunchalk if anyone ever said in her presence that "we have to stick together even if we've done something illegal." Baunchalk replied, "I do not remember anything like that being said in my presence." Henifin later testified that he didn't recall Baunchalk being present at the meeting, and denied himself saying anything about Dickerson not returning.

Baunchalk also said she did not meet with Dickerson after he wrote to her regarding what he felt was an "oppressive" work environment because "I did not believe one existed." She also said she responded to another memo in which Dickerson asked to meet with her about "sensitive and legal matters" by asking him for more details in writing before she would meet with him. When pressed by Weir as to why she would do that, Baunchalk said that was the way she frequently handled such matters involving town staff members.

The fact that Baunchalk testified at all was the subject of a protest by town council member Vicki Carmean. Richard Weir, Dickerson's attorney, had asked at the beginning of the three-day, 24-hour hearing that Baunchalk recuse herself as a panel member because he planned to call her to testify. She refused to step down.

Carmean again brought up the matter after Baunchalk's testimony on Friday, and she again refused. Her decision was upheld by hearing moderator William Bowser, who asked her if she felt she could objectively deliberate. She said she could.

Dickerson said after the hearing concluded that he had not yet decided whether to appeal the panel's decision to fire him. He said he will wait until a written record of the decision is completed by Bowser, an attorney. Dickerson will have 90 days from the completion of the written record to appeal the decision to Delaware's Superior Court.

As he packed up his stacks of files from the hearing, Dickerson said, "I'm just glad it's over."

Still pending is Dickerson's lawsuit against the town council, in which he alleges he was dismissed in retaliation for his efforts to stop the town from illegally using federal grants. Also still to be resolved is an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into Dickerson's claims.

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