— The liaison between Honesdale Borough council and the police department thinks the council is heading down a slippery slope when it comes to choosing a new police chief.
"They need to seriously think about the road they are going down and what it could cost the taxpayers of the borough," said Mayor Ed Langendoerfer, who acts as the liaison between the two groups.
The issue arose at a recent meeting of the council when Magistrate Ted Mikulak requested and was granted an executive session to discuss the police department, including officer in charge Ron Kominski.
The mayor says the executive session was illegal and Kominski should have been warned ahead of time.
In fact, he pointed out it was not even on the agenda. The only executive session item on the agenda was for police negotiations.
"They requested an executive session while in executive session," he said.
The mayor says the judge immediately began to be critical of the police department and Kominski in particular.
Councilman Bob Jennings, chairman of the safety committee, said he was unaware there was going to be an executive session of that nature.
"I really don't know how it happened," said Jennings. "Which is another mystery."
The mayor's statement has drawn the wrath of some on the council, saying what is done behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors.
But an attorney who specializes in media law says Kominski should have been given notice about the meeting and should have been allowed to have it in open session.
The law specifies that 24 hours notice has to be given.
Melissa Melewsky, medial law council for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said Kominski "should have been given notice so that he could request a public meeting."
She said the statutes are "implicit," saying "how else would they request a public meeting? Employees are permitted to request that personnel executive sessions concerning their employment happen publicly."
"Personally," said Kominski, "I would have asked that it had been done in an open council meeting."
"I feel it is inappropriate and unfair to one of our employees," said Langendoerfer.
Kominski said he did meet with representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police union last Friday and this matter was discussed.
Whether a grievance will be filed, he is not sure, saying it is going to depend on what happens with the actions of the council.
Langendoerfer called the situation "completely inappropriate," and said there could be major ramifications against Kominski simply because he was not able to respond to the allegations made against him behind closed doors.
This comes while the borough is in the process of taking applications to hire a new police chief. It was announced that night there were nine applications for the position.
Council president F.J. Monaghan called for a special meeting this Wednesday to conduct interviews. However, the legal notice placed in this newspaper last week is not specific, rather, it says "... discussing personnel matters in executive session."
Langendoerfer, on Monday morning, said he has yet to be notified how many interviews might be conducted or who will be interviewed.
Kominski said on Monday he had not yet been notified by the council to come to the meeting on Wednesday though he will be there in his capacity as officer in charge because one of the items on the agenda is hiring of a part-time police officer.
The real reason?
Langendoerfer further stated he believes some on the council are seeking to hire someone from outside of the force.
In fact, he said during a previous executive session, a resume was distributed to the council from Monaghan and that resume was of Texas Township supervisor Rick Sutherton, a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Jennings confirmed what the mayor said, noting he was handed the resume of Southerton. That information came from Monaghan, said Jennings.
"Bringing that up and handing out that resume should not have occurred," said Jennings. "We were in there for something else."
The mayor said this is not the proper way to handle such an important decision as hiring a new police chief. He believes it could lead to grievances being filed by the Honesdale Borough Police Officers Association (HBPOA).
"I'm saying they will file grievances," said Langendoerfer.
Kominski confirmed that was discussed with the union lawyer but a decision has not been made, much of it hinging on what happens with the council this week.
The mayor stressed he is not saying anything bad about any of the applicants, only that the system which has been used is not proper.
"I have all the respect in the world for the applicants," said the mayor. "But the process has not been proper."
Bump in the road?
This all comes amid ongoing contract negotiations between the police union and the borough.
That is one of the most frustrating aspects for Langendoerfer.
He said the negotiations process has "been going well," giving credit to both the police association and members of the council.
"I'm sure it will set it back," said Langendoerfer of the current negotiations process between the police department and the council.
The current contract expires on Dec. 31.
For the mayor, all of this is frustrating, he said, because the police department "has been very good working with the borough."
He also pointed out the department has been involved in many drug arrests over the past year and said it has "been a long time" since any lawsuits have been filed against the department, something he says is unusual. Langendoerfer says this shows the department has been doing its job well.
The mayor also said that over the past few years, the number of police officers "has been dwindling," and feels it could impact the residents.
He said when a chief left the department a few years ago, the position was not replaced. Now, he said, Sgt. Don Bishop is retiring and the borough has very few officers.
"They have dwindling manpower and dwindling morale," said Langendoerfer. "That makes it a reactive department, not a pro-active department."
The mayor said that was one of the reasons he has been encouraged by the progress of the current contract negotiations, saying both sides have been willing to discuss the key issues.
At a recent meeting, he praised finance committee chairman Scott Smith for working with the police and he also said the police union "has been very good with working with the borough."
Now, however, he feels that could all change because of what has taken place in recent weeks, especially in the two executive sessions, both of which he feels were inappropriate and should have not happened.
Langendoerfer's biggest fear is if the union starts filing grievances related to what has happened and how much it could end up costing the taxpayers of the borough.
"I think we need to sit down and talk and try to work this out," said Langendoerfer.
Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.
A special meeting of the council is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday.
On the agenda is hiring a part-time police officer, fire company approved activities, discussing a contract for stormwater engineering services and the executive session for "personnel matters."
The legal expert says even the wording on the legal notice is questionable.
Said attorney Melewsky, "... the board is permitted to interview candidates during an executive session, but the board should be more forthcoming about the reason for the personnel executive session. The reason given doesn't allow the public to understand the reason for the executive session."
Another possible factor in all of the conflict could have to do with an administrative order signed by President Judge Raymond Hammill in March which directs all borough police matters to go into the magistrate court of Judge Ron Edwards.
Why that has happened remains shrouded in mystery, but the cases are now out of the court of Judge Mikulak, who had the executive session with the council.
The file at the courthouse contains very little information on why this took place. Only the order from the president judge and an order from the state supreme court which changes the makeup of the districts effective in 2018 were in the file.
Wayne County District Attorney Janine Edwards would not comment on the situation.
It remains unclear how the matter was even presented to the president judge or if there was a hearing which was conducted before the decision was made.
The order does remain in effect and all new cases pertaining to borough matters from the police department are now in the court of Judge Ron Edwards.
It is also known that an investigator from the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania was in Honesdale recently and talked with several people.
But investigator Charlie Snyder said on Tuesday he could not "confirm or deny" any investigation or its nature. That's the only comment he had when contacted by this newspaper on Monday morning.