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Delaware Senate Democrats

Legislation clearing the way for police union in Delmar slated for Senate committee hearing

June 15, 2021

DOVER – Legislation clearing the way for officers in the Delmar Police Department to unionize is slated to be heard by the Delaware Senate Labor Committee on Wednesday.

Filed by leadership from both the Senate and the House, Senate Bill 181 would resolve a multi-layered jurisdictional dispute that has prevented Delmar’s police officers from forming a collective bargaining unit since at least 1997.

“Delmar may be the town too big for one state, but that should not prevent the dedicated men and women who keep its residents safe from being able to collectively bargain for better pay and safer working conditions,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, the prime sponsor of SB 181.

“Three times over the last three decades, officers in the Delmar Police Department have attempted to unionize and been turned away – not because their petition was flawed or they didn’t have signed union cards, but because Delmar is chartered separately in both Delaware and Maryland,” he said. “We cannot allow a fluke of geography to negatively impact the livelihoods of a police department that deserves all of our backing at this difficult time. Let’s do right by these men and women, and give them the right to negotiate for better compensation and working conditions.”

Under the Delaware Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Employment Act first adopted in 1986, police officers in the First State have a right to form a union to collectively bargain with a municipality that employs 25 or more full-time workers.

Delmar, however, is actually two different towns – one in Delaware and one in Maryland. Since 1954, those separate jurisdictions have operated under a cooperative agreement in which the residents on the Delaware and Maryland sides each elect their own mayors and town councils, who jointly approve a unified budget, maintain unified bank accounts, and employ a unified police department that reports to a unified police chief. The police chief, in turn, has reported to a unified town manager since 2014.

The mayor and town commissioners on the Maryland side passed a police department labor code in 2009 that set out the process for Delmar officers to unionize and collectively bargain but the mayor and town council on the Delaware side never followed suit.

The Delaware Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), a quasi-judicial agency charged with mediating public employee labor disputes in the First State, has repeatedly determined it does not have the authority to certify a Delmar police officer union because the Delmar Police Department exists only under a joint venture between one political entity in Delaware and a separate political entity in Maryland, which does not fall under its jurisdiction.

“Unless and until there is some change to the jurisdiction of the Public Employment Relations Board under the Police Officers and Firefighters Employment Relations Act, this issue is settled,” the PERB’s executive director wrote in the board’s latest ruling on the matter, handed down just three weeks after Delmar Police Cpl. Heacook’s tragic death.

Both Cpl. Heacook’s wife Susan and Maryland Delegate Carl Anderton, who served as mayor of Delmar, Maryland until 2015, have been critical of the chronic understaffing at the Delmar Police Department, which they claim contributed to the corporal being the only officer on duty the night he was killed.

Senate Bill 181 would eliminate any lingering doubt about whether the PERB can certify a Delmar police union by stating clearly in the Delaware Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Employment Relations Act that the Town of Delmar, Delaware, is a public employer.

The prime House and Senate sponsors of SB 181 include Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, House Majority Whip Larry Mitchell, Senate Labor Committee Chair Sen. Jack Walsh and House Labor Committee Chair Rep. Ed Osienski. Another 10 Democratic Senators and 13 Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors.

“This bill rights a wrong that has been present in the Delaware Code for many years and recently became highlighted by the brutal attack on Cpl. Keith Heacook,” said Paul Thornburg, the secretary/treasurer of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 325, which recently petitioned the PERB to represent police in Delmar. “The citizens on both sides of the state line in Delmar have been asking their leaders to help right this wrong since the PERB decision was announced and the leadership in the Senate and House stepped up. The citizens and union could not be happier someone is taking on this issue. I only hope other legislators see this as a fairness issue and vote for the legislation.”

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