Honesdale charged with unfair labor practices

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/25/21

 

 

HONESDALE, PA — The Borough of Honesdale engaged in unfair labor practices with a recent policy change within the local police department, the Honesdale Police Officers …

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Honesdale charged with unfair labor practices

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HONESDALE, PA — The Borough of Honesdale engaged in unfair labor practices with a recent policy change within the local police department, the Honesdale Police Officers Association recently alleged.

The charges are the latest ripple in a years-long struggle to schedule officers when the Honesdale Police Department is severely understaffed. On top of having too few officers to cover the borough 24/7, it has been the department’s “decades-long practice” that at least two officers must staff each shift together; if only one officer is on duty during a shift, the officer must work exclusively at the station and not respond to calls.

On January 25, Honesdale Borough Mayor Sarah Canfield sent an order to Honesdale Police Chief Richard Southerton rescinding that policy.

“I am directing that you schedule shifts as manpower and officer safety dictates, taking into consideration the availability of other law enforcement departments to provide assistance to the borough, if needed,” Canfield wrote to the chief. “Officers are expected to carry out all of the functions of their position while on duty irrespective of whether one or two officers are assigned or are available to cover the shift.”

The police officers association, represented by Marc Gelman of the firm Jennings Sigmond, say that rescinding this policy, which was put into place for the safety of police officers, violated the PA Labor Relations Act. Gelman filed a complaint with the PA Labor Relations Board on February 9.

“The disruption of the status quo through unilaterally implemented changes brought about by the scheduling order negatively affects the safety of police officers represented by the association by creating unsafe working conditions,” the complaint alleges. “These changes were effected without negotiating with, or seeking approval of, the association.”

Honesdale Borough Council member Robert Jennings said that the mayor was acting under the guidance of the borough’s labor attorneys, though the River Reporter has not yet received confirmation of this. Canfield did not respond to a request for comment at press time.

According to documents filed with the complaint, on February 4, Southerton sent a correspondence to the mayor, asking her to reverse her order and expressing concern for his officers’ safety. The chief described a situation a few days before, in which only one Honesdale police officer was on duty and was dispatched to two domestic disturbance incidents “which in the realm of police work are ranked as one of the most dangerous calls to respond to,” Southerton wrote.

Southerton said that the police officer responded to the first domestic call alone because police in Hawley and Waymart boroughs were off duty and state police were unavailable. At the second incident, state police arrived a few minutes after the Honesdale officer got there.

“Fortunately, everything went smoothly, however, that could have changed in a second,” Southerton wrote. “I am concerned about officer and the public’s safety... We were fortunate that nothing terrible occurred this time when dealing with the above calls, but it only takes one misfortunate occurrence for that to change.”

Prior to making the order, Canfield attended the borough council’s meeting on January 18 and implied that she was planning to use her authority to help with police scheduling issues. She was cryptic about just what she had in mind, but wanted to make sure that she had the council’s support.

“[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 at that meeting.

The council approved a motion—with councilor James Jennings voting no—to “have the mayor’s back” with whatever decision she made. It’s unclear what weight this motion carries now that charges have been filed.

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