Chester police move to unionize

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The New England Police Benevolent Association has filed a “petition for election of collective bargaining representative” with the Vermont Labor Relations Board on behalf of members of the Chester Police Department. The petition is a first step toward Chester Police officers being represented by a regional union headquartered in Chelmsford, Mass., that already represents nearly three dozen of Vermont’s 54 municipal police departments including Springfield, Bellows Falls, Ludlow, Windsor and Woodstock.

The Chester Police Department’s new home in the recently finished Public Safety Building. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

Sean McArdle, NEPBA’s director for Vermont, told The Telegraph on Tuesday that members of the Chester Police Department  approached the union, which then made a presentation to them.

“It’s for more protection in case of a critical incident or if there was a termination or a grievance, ” said McArdle. “It’s the environment that’s out there in law enforcement now.” Examples of critical incidents, according to McArdle, would be discharge of a firearm, cruiser accident or the hands-on use of force. The union maintains relationships with a number of attorneys to represent its members in such cases.

McArdle said that the move to unionize is not about benefits or wages and that department members feel the townspeople are treating them pretty well. Chester Town Manager Julie Hance concurred saying that said the move came as a surprise to her because Chester police officers — like Chester employees overall — are fairly paid and have an excellent benefits package, which includes health care without premiums or co-pays.

The Telegraph attempted to contact several members of the Chester Police Department. One who responded had no comment and the others had not returned voicemail messages by publication time.

The Chester Select Board will be looking at its options under the process laid out in state law in an executive session on Wednesday, Nov. 3.

A process laid out in law

According to Judith L. Dillon, executive director  of the Vermont Labor Relations Board, the Chester Select Board has four options. It can decide to accept the “bargaining unit determination,” which is the description of those workers covered. In this case, according to the NEPBA’s petition,  the union would represent “all full-time and regularly scheduled part-time employees of the Chester Police Department to include but not limited to, Patrol Officers, Detectives, Corporals, Sergeants, Dispatchers, and Admin Secretaries, employed by the Town of Chester, Vermont.” The total number of employees in the bargaining unit would be six.

If the Select Board took that option, the NEPBA would be certified as the Police Department’s union without an election.

Options 2 through 4 are: The Select Board could challenge the makeup of the unit determination (who’s covered) or it could accept the unit determination and challenge the specific union. And it could opt to not accept any of the petition. In those cases, the Labor Relations Board would hold a hearing with the parties to work out any disagreements and set up an election. Those who would be members of the unit would then have to vote on the question: “Do you chose to be represented for exclusive bargaining purposes by the New England Police Benevolent Association?”

Dillon said that by recent amendments to the statute, the timing is fairly rigid although there is some wiggle room for small towns that may not be able to work through the process as rapidly as larger towns and cities. This is especially true when select boards need to meet to make decisions.

Unless there are some extenuating circumstances, the law says that the election for representation must happen within 23 business days. To succeed, the question must get yes votes of at least 51 percent of those voting.

Assessment and advisory committee

The move comes on the heels of Chester reaching a settlement with Obadiah Jacobs on allegations of racial discrimination during a traffic stop in which a Chester officer pointed his firearm at Jacobs. In addition to a $50,000 payment, the town issued a statement of apology that said that the town would “improve the delivery of its public safety services” by reviewing and updating its policies and procedures.

It also notes that the town is looking at establishing a “citizen’s advisory committee” to improve “accessibility, communications, accountability, public awareness, transparency and best practices.” An advisory committee won’t be set up unless its need is established by an independent assessment of the police department. Hance wants to conduct that assessment early next year. Some residents have called for going a step further and having an oversight panel with more power behind its decisions.

Calling the assessment “very much be an open process,” Hance said, it will include the community, the Police Department and the Select Board. “I want a real look at the department, the officers want a real look,” said Hance in an interview before the union petition was submitted.

Hance said that public input would not be confined to one meeting. She envisions a series of discussions with multiple avenues for public input that may include surveys and workshops. “I don’t want 10 people showing up, I want a hundred.”

Hance is currently looking – with the help of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns – to find a consultant who recognizes and understand both police and civilian concerns and will be able to provide insights specific to Chester.

Hoping to start in February, Hance said that the assessment would run for four to five months with implementation of the plan that comes out of the assessment starting next summer. It is unclear what effect a vote to join the union will have on that project.

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  1. Matthew Gorsky says:

    So… an outside review board says an officer screwed up, they get upset, so they move to leverage a Police Union (Who notoriously don’t even attempt to hold bad actors to account)?
    I lived around this area most of my life, I was not shocked at the State review board’s findings. Not because I know the officer, but because I know too many of my neighbors.
    I’m not anti-union, but I can’t think of a single thing that a police union has done that’s good for the public at large.

  2. I don’t blame Chester PD for wanting to stand up for themselves, when the town they serve did not


  3. Lee Herrington says:

    Tim. I suspect the talk about a police review board or something of the sort is what has pushed our officers to look at unions and the protections they offer. High end legal defense insurance is a huge benefit officers are often promised by union membership. Officers are keenly aware of stories of officers who make deadly mistakes and are then charged with serious crimes. Unions looking to up their membership numbers use these cases to promote the benefits they offer. Look at the cases of the officers who have been overcharged by overzealous prosecutors in recent years. For example the transit officer who who grabbed his gun instead of his Taser and shot Oscar Grant and was charged with murder rather than the more appropriate crime of manslaughter. The case of the Minneapolis officer who was startled by a 911 caller who appeared at his patrol car window and shot her, charged with and convicted of murder rather than some lesser crime that doesn’t involve malice. There’s a political move at hand to treat officers who make mistakes much harsher than other professionals whose mistakes also kill.

  4. Tim Roper says:

    What a shame for our friendly little town to be put into this position of having to choose sides between local management or inviting in a powerful union to represent six well paid town employees who are paid well, are provided good benefits and have a good working environment. Over what, the settlement of a law suit? Or is there some other issue? I really don’t understand this.

    Where can we find the “petition for election of collective bargaining representative?”

  5. Ken Bergmann says:

    If it’s good for the police, let’s do it!

  6. Arlene Mutschler says:

    SO? IT’s come to this? Even in “little” Chester? sad, really. Many towns cant get LEO any more. Many are leaving the profession. Burlington had cut its force and now, realizing its mistake, wants to hire more back and cant get them. Can you blame them. Really a shame.