Why did the Rehoboth Beach Patrol's top lifeguard resign?
The Rehoboth Beach Patrol has lost its captain after the city manager made the chief of police his boss.
Captain Kent Buckson resigned Dec. 18 after continuously protesting the change. He had been a lifeguard for 34 years and captain for 21.
“I hated to leave. I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “But the patrol that I know, that I’ve been involved with for 20 years as captain, has been taken away from me. I just felt it was the right time to stand up.”
Buckson’s discontent began in late April, when the beaches were still closed.
Rehoboth Beach City Manager Sharon Lynn approved the hiring of a handful of lifeguards to assist police with enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. She delegated supervision of the beach patrol to Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks.
It was the first time Buckson had served under anyone other than the city manager, but he knew COVID-19 was a special circumstance.
“It was my understanding that this arrangement was temporary and necessary due to the COVID-19 restrictions and I complied with your request,” Buckson wrote in an email to Lynn and the commissioners.
Then the governor reopened beaches for Memorial Day weekend. With lifeguards resuming their normal duties, Buckson was surprised to find that the beach patrol would remain under Banks’ supervision.
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According to Buckson, Lynn said she was “too overwhelmed to handle it,” but assured him it was a temporary situation.
Banks took over many aspects of the beach patrol, Buckson said, including payroll, hiring and firing, restricting work hours and budget issues — all formerly Buckson’s responsibilities.
“It resulted in a stressful and confusing environment for me and my entire staff,” Buckson wrote.
He called the police department’s involvement “counterproductive,” citing payroll mistakes, the scrutiny of salaries and unprofessional emails.
In a letter to Lynn and the commissioners, Buckson wrote, “Most concerningly, you and Chief Banks directed a criminal investigation based on an anonymous, defamatory letter against my character and contacted former and current lifeguards without my knowledge.” He said he was later exonerated of any wrongdoing.
Rehoboth Beach spokeswoman Krys Johnson declined to comment on any investigation against Buckson. Chief Banks said he could not comment on personnel matters.
Things came to a head for Buckson when he met with Lynn and Banks Oct. 15. According to Buckson, at that meeting, Lynn indicated the police chief’s supervision of the beach patrol would continue in 2021.
Buckson filed an appeal with the commissioners Oct. 27, requesting a hearing on Lynn’s transference of authority without their approval.
The commissioners heard his request at the Nov. 20 commissioners’ meeting, which was held remotely. Buckson was not present; the request was read to the commissioners by city solicitor Glenn Mandalas.
While the commissioners were aware Lynn had indicated to Buckson that she planned for the police chief to continue supervision of the beach patrol in 2021, they focused on the fact that, thus far, Lynn had operated in accordance with city policies.
“How I view this is that there is no dispute right now... Under emergency conditions, the Rehoboth Beach Patrol can be under control of police department,” said Mayor Stan Mills. “In my view what this is asking is something about the future that hasn’t happened yet.”
Commissioner Ed Chrzanowski had a different viewpoint.
“I struggle a little bit with not ... giving an opportunity for employees to be heard when they have an issue, whether it’s current or future,” Chrzanowski said. “I don’t think there’s any value in waiting until (Buckson is) rehired in April to deal with an issue that could be dealt with beforehand.”
However, the other commissioners concurred with Mills and they declined to hear Buckson’s appeal.
“She punted her responsibilities of supervising the beach patrol and me as captain,” Buckson said. “And then when I pushed back nobody supported me on it.”
Charter change proposed
At a Dec. 7 commissioners’ workshop, city solicitor Glenn Mandalas proposed a charter change to clarify that the city manager may delegate supervisory authority over city employees and departments.
“In consulting with our labor attorney, we both thought it might be worthwhile to seek a charter amendment to remove any question,” Mandalas said.
Commissioner Jay Lagree took issue with the proposed change.
“My opinion is the people who wrote our charter must have felt very strongly about the status and the importance of the iconic position of the beach patrol, and indeed, the beach patrol is an important part of our brand,” he said.
“To put this under the chief of police or another department ... is a demotion for the beach patrol. If I was the captain... I would fight for the status of my organization, like the one that we have now who has been doing that.”
Lynn said she was not questioning Buckson’s performance.
“This is an assignment for the police department to supervise the beach patrol captain, that’s all it is,” she said. “Any city manager should be able to delegate authority on a continuous basis ... That’s why you hire a professional manager with the expertise to do that.”
Buckson called in to the meeting, but rather than give his opinion on the charter change, he insisted his appeal be heard.
“Since this proposed bill directly impacts the operations and structure of the beach patrol, I cannot support this bill without first having the opportunity to be heard at a full hearing before the commissioners,” Buckson said.
The commissioners ultimately decided to continue discussing the charter change at their January workshop, but not before Commissioner Chrzanowski said, “The fact that all of you refused to listen to a 30-year employee’s input ... is a problem.”
After some reflection, Buckson sent a letter of resignation to the commissioners Dec. 18.
“I was hopeful that the issues that gave rise to my request for an appeal hearing would have been discussed and resolved amicably,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I was denied an opportunity to be heard.”
Speaking by phone on Dec. 29, Buckson said, “I just wanted to talk about this and tell them why it wasn’t it a good fit, and they didn’t even give me the common decency to hear my appeal. Then three weeks later, what do they do? The city manager drafts a change to the charter ... on what they were to hear my appeal on.”
According to Buckson, when Banks took over Lynn’s position as supervisor, he also took over most of Buckson’s duties as captain.
“I asked for roles and responsibilities time after time,” he said. “Maybe a new captain, who doesn’t understand what they’ve lost, can work in this forced relationship.”
Buckson hopes to lifeguard again in another beach town, if the opportunity presents itself.
“I love lifeguarding, I love the community, the environment,” he said. “It’s been in my blood for 30 years."
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When asked about his future plans for the beach patrol, Chief Banks said, “The city has recently opened up the process for hiring a new captain of the beach patrol. Once that process is over and someone has been chosen for that position, I look forward to discussions and formulating a plan for 2021.”