Washington solicitor: Current lack of police chief does not violate city code

Solicitor: Lack of current police chief does not violate city code

February 22, 2013
Mayor Brenda Davis

The Washington solicitor denies a councilman’s claim that the city is in violation of state law because it designated an officer-in-charge while the mayor waits to appoint a chief.

Washington Councilman Matt Staniszewski said Wednesday the city is technically in violation of the state’s Third Class City Code, which requires it to have a police chief. However, solicitor Lane Turturice pointed out the code permits Mayor Brenda Davis to appoint extra policemen – or in this case create a new position – if she deems it necessary for public safety or to preserve order.

“It’s not a violation of the Third Class City Code,” Turturice said Friday. “It’s a temporary personnel decision that was necessary to maintain the continuity of the department and to make sure there was clear chain of command.”

At its Feb. 7 meeting, City Council unanimously approved a motion to designate Washington police Capt. Robert Wilson as officer-in-charge pending the appointment of a new chief. The motion also allowed former Washington police Chief Robert Lemons Jr. to return to his previous rank of lieutenant. In late January, Lemons announced he would take up his former role as shift supervisor of a patrol unit for personal reasons.

Before the meeting, city and police officials met with an arbitrator regarding a grievance related to the police department’s promotion board, which makes recommendations for council to approve all promotions, with the exception of the position of chief, who is appointed by the mayor.

“There are some personnel issues that I can’t discuss that really need to be sorted out,” Turturice said.

Davis said she is in no hurry to appoint a new chief until the grievance is settled. She explained her issue with the current promotion system is that all the members of the department – from the chief on down – are members of the union, which creates a conflict of interest for those in administrative roles.

Staniszewski disagreed with the mayor’s approach, stating, “Unless there is an apparent red flag, we respect the recommendations from the promotions board, as the individual is selected by their peers and through a rigorous process.

“There is, however, a lack of communication from the mayor’s office with all of City Council,” he asserted.

Davis said it’s not her fault if Staniszewski isn’t up to speed on the issue, pointing out the councilman was not present during an executive session to discuss personnel held earlier this month.

“For him to say it’s ‘a lack of communication’ is a fabrication,” she said.

Washington police Officer John Hritz, president of FOP Lodge 95, said the union does take issue with the temporary officer-in-charge role since it is not a position found in the bargaining agreement. He said the department is ready for the appointment of a new chief, but he did not know if any officers had approached the mayor for the top job. Wilson, the department’s highest-ranking officer, could not be reached for comment.

Staniszewski said one officer initially expressed interest in serving as chief but later withdrew from consideration.

Turturice pointed out the Third Class City Code is what governs the police department, not the union contract. He said Lemons was unwilling to delay his resignation to permit the city to name a replacement before he stepped down, and the mayor does not want to be rushed to make a decision.

While the city may not be in violation of the Third Class City Code, it appears the clock is running for the mayor to make a decision since the section that addresses extra police positions states that appointees “serve for such a period as council may designate, not exceeding thirty days.”

Andy McNeil has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2011 as a general assignment reporter. He covers courts and education, and also serves as a photographer and videographer. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University, The Behrend College, with a degree in English; Duquense University with a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, and Point Park University with a graduate degree in journalism and mass communication.

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