Borough amends police hiring policy
By OWEN WALSH
HONESDALE, PA — The Honesdale Borough Council has made it easier and quicker to hire part-time police officers to help fill in the gaps …
HONESDALE, PA — The Honesdale Borough Council has made it easier and quicker to hire part-time police officers to help fill in the gaps in the local department’s schedule. It’s good news, on paper, for police chief Richard Southerton, but he’s still not optimistic about staffing issues within his department.
It’s been a while since the borough has been able to have 24/7 police coverage. Southerton recently told River Reporter that out of 21 shifts throughout the week, the department usually covers about 10. Last year, the borough allocated around $12,000 to look into hiring more officers, but since then, the number of officers at Southerton’s disposal has been dropping, not rising. Two part-timers recently resigned, leaving the borough with three full-time officers and one part-timer who works one day a week.
Civil service hiring
During its January 18 meeting, the council addressed a gray area surrounding part-time officers. A PA Supreme Court case in 2019 found that part-time police must be given the same civil service protections as full-timers. Since that ruling came out, Honesdale Borough had been acting under the guidance from its labor attorneys that, if it wanted to hire more part-time police officers, it would need to do so through the civil service selection process, which requires examinations and months of waiting just to be placed on an eligibility list.
Throughout 2020, the borough’s civil service commission had been working on getting a list of eligible candidates together for the council to choose from. Ideally, a list should have about 10 candidates, allowing the council to choose from the top three as needed. But as of December 2020, there were only two candidates interested in getting on the list, and neither of the two showed up for a scheduled agility test—the first step of the process.
With no prospects for hiring either full- or part-timers, council president Michael Augello said that the borough’s labor attorneys have now advised that it might be worth the legal risk of not hiring through the civil service selection process if it would simplify things and get more candidates quickly onboard.
“We have zero [new] people available for part-time work, we have zero people available for full-time, which is a major concern,” Augello said. “While there are risks in hiring part-time officers without going through civil service, you have to weigh that against the fact that we are now in a dire strait [sic] of not having any part-time officers even to consider to hire.”
The council voted unanimously in favor of hiring part-timers without going through the civil service process.
Southerton has wanted the part-time hiring process simplified ever since the PA Supreme Court ruling came out, but now that the council has voted his way, he remains dubious that he’ll have more officers to work with.
“The borough’s reputation has really taken a hit over the years,” he said. “Between all the lawsuits we have and the budget issues, I don’t see anyone wanting to work here anytime soon.”
Mayoral scheduling powers
Onto a related—if more opaque—matter, the council heard from mayor Sarah Canfield, to whom the PA borough code grants the authority of scheduling police officers. She implied that she intends to use her authority to try and help sort out some of the issues facing the department. But before taking any action, Canfield wanted assurance that the seven-member council would support her with whatever decision she makes—though she was tight-lipped about just what she had in mind.
“[I need to make sure that] if I do something one way or the other—since I have to be generalized—if there is backlash, that I have your support and your blessing for whatever does, or does not, happen,” Canfield said.
The borough code already ensures that the mayor has the power of scheduling officers, but the council entertained a motion essentially affirming the fact that they all would have Canfield’s back with whatever she decides to do with that power. Augello made clear that the motion had no real bearing on what the mayor is allowed to do.
“The council really has no control,” Augello said. “Even though the council could make a motion one way or the other, it really doesn’t have authority over the mayor’s decision.”
Between the dearth of detail the mayor provided about her own intentions, and the motion for the council to support the mayor—despite the fact that it had no actual power in the situation—at least two council members were confused.
“Whether we vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on this motion, the mayor still has the authority of scheduling the police,” councilor Jim Brennan clarified.
Councilor Jim Jennings cast the only “no” vote on the motion, citing his confusion and that it seemed “redundant” to him.