Police Postpone Picketing

By Marianne Apfelbaum
Observer staff

Concerned about public perception, the Williston Police Officers Association has decided to postpone its plans for informational picketing until after a fact finder’s meeting next month.

After reaching an impasse in contract negotiations with the town, police union steward Bart Chamberlain indicated officers were planning to proceed with picketing as a means to inform residents of officers’ complaints, which center on pay and benefits. “We’d be in front of Town Hall, at Taft Corners, and other high traffic areas,” said Chamberlain in August. “Most residents support us and have no idea we’re the lowest paid department in the county.”

Now, union officials are recommending a wait-and-see approach. “Based on experience, (picketing) might be perceived as negative while we are waiting for the fact finding process,” said Chamberlain, a sergeant with the Williston Police Department. “We are not trying to embarrass the town.”

A fact finder will meet with both town and police union representatives on Nov. 1. Information will be presented by both parties, after which the fact finder will analyze the data and produce a report with his recommendations.

Town Manager Rick McGuire notes that the process could essentially end with a contract resolution at the meeting if there are just a couple of areas where there is still disagreement. The fact finder can act as a mediator to resolve the issues during the meeting itself. The Williston Selectboard has to approve the final contract, however.

In any case, McGuire sees a light at the end of the tunnel. “I am confident that the process will end in a solution that is fair to both the town and the employees,” McGuire said.

Chamberlain is less optimistic. Waiting to decide whether to picket until after the fact finding meeting “gives us an opportunity to see if they will put a good faith effort into the process,” he said. “But if the town has a preset idea of what they are willing to do for raises, and if the fact finder’s report is higher, then I think they’ll refuse to honor it.”

McGuire would not comment on specifics of the pay increase requested by the union, or on what the town is willing to pay.

At issue is not just agreement on annual pay increases, but also on a one-time “wage adjustment” to get Williston officers’ pay in line with that of other Chittenden County departments. “Once you hit the three year mark, Williston officers are the lowest paid of any police department in Chittenden County,” Chamberlain said. He also emphasized the high cost to the town in losing officers to other departments where he says the pay is higher. “We’ve become a training facility. The town is spending tens of thousand of dollars on training, and it makes the officers look very attractive to other departments,” he said. “The town is being very shortsighted.”

Currently, there are three openings in the department, which has been advertising for the positions for several weeks. There are 19 candidates, but none of them are certified. That means anyone chosen from that pool of applicants would have to attend the 18-week Vermont Police Academy before they can start patrolling Williston.

Part-time Williston police dispatcher Karen Hulbert, who also works for the Essex Police Department, is frustrated with what she sees as the disparities between Williston and the rest of Chittenden County. “I work in Essex also and there is no comparison. The other (police) departments think Williston is a joke,” she said. “If Williston residents could really see what goes on, they wouldn’t be impressed.

“There are some specific symptoms, like fear, anxiety, and loneliness that tend to affect the children of deployed soldiers. So we try to arrange morale-boosting events,” Klein said. “We have movie nights in Camp Johnson’s recreational room, and nights where the kids can just hang out. It’s especially difficult on these kids, because they don’t live at the base. They live all over, some as far away as Rutland, St. Albans, or Addison, so they don’t see each other much. This was arranged to get these kids together so they could have some fun and enjoy the bond they share.”

“This is awesome—it takes your mind off things,” said Jamie Hackley. Her father, Mike, was in Louisiana for three weeks, and has just returned to Camp Johnson. “It’s really easy to connect with the other kids, because we all know what it’s really like:sad, frustrating, just very hard at home. But here, we can give each other pointers on how to deal with things,” she said.

Ben Kelley’s dad, Mike, has finally returned after serving 13 months in Iraq. Ben, whose family lives in Orange, says, “I missed my dad a lot. He was gone so long, it was hard to get used to having him back. And if he goes now, it’ll be hard to get used to having him gone again.”

John Boyd, Jr.’s father has been in Afghanistan for three months now, and he and his family won’t see John Sr. until his two-week leave in January. “It’s a nice thing just to have fun like this,” John admits. “It lets us relax.”

Despite these difficulties, it was clear they were having a great time at the challenge course. Most of the kids sported new watch-bracelets which read, “Proud to be a military kid!” The coordinators on the Pine Ridge side were also pleased with how the day turned out.

“We used to offer our challenge course as an extensive program for lots of local schools in the area, as well as groups and companies who wanted the experience,” Bruening said. “Over time, we found that our own students were being left out of this process, and so we focused it on them. But it is a wonderful tool to offer to these kids, and our students leading the group are getting their first chance to teach others how it’s done.”

“For four years now, I’ve been playing out here every chance I get,” said senior Wes Bell, waving his arm to indicate the beautiful wooded surroundings, a peaceful vision of nature, despite the various cable, rope and wood obstacles. “This is a great character-building experience for a great group of people. And you just can’t compare the service that we are doing here with the service that these kids’ parents are doing overseas.”

The course offers a unique opportunity: a chance to climb without danger, and fall without pain.

“The premise of the program is to help people feel good about who they are,” Bruening said, “and my hope is that their experience on the course takes them to a place where they can challenge themselves, take a risk and conquer a fear, and then transfer what they learn