East Washington in turmoil

Three resign from council, take exception with secret meeting to discuss police force

July 7, 2014
Councilwoman Lisa Crosier reads a statement at Monday night’s borough meeting before she, Council President Bill Adams and Councilman Robert Dunn announced their resignation from East Washington Council. - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Three East Washington councilmembers abruptly resigned their seats Monday night complaining of a “fundamental split” in the borough and accusing the new mayor and three recently elected members of abusing their positions by planning a secret meeting without them to discuss the future of the police department.

Council President Bill Adams and members Lisa Crosier and Robert Dunn each read brief statements at the start of the borough’s workshop meeting before announcing their resignations and immediately leaving the council chambers.

“It seems to be forgotten that we are seven people, but need to work as one,” Crosier said. “I believe what you’re doing is wrong, and I’m removing myself from the situation.”

The three accused Mayor Michael Gomber and councilmembers Mary Taufer, Guy Tucci and Tamara Chacko of trying to plan a secret executive meeting on short notice to discuss the borough’s embattled police department without going through Adams for final approval as required by borough code. Councilman Blake McCandless, now the longest tenured member, said he was not invited and unaware of the meeting. Gomber said they had the authority to call the meeting last week because they weren’t able to organize a time for everyone to attend. The meeting was canceled at the last minute with no reason given.

Adams said there is a “fundamental split” within the council over various issues and he could no longer serve under those circumstances.

“It’s apparent that the difficult work ahead for this council can be best accomplished without me,” Adams said. “Too many times these meetings have devolved into shouting matches.”

Dunn, who took office earlier this year, said discussions became “combative” in recent months and questioned the council’s ability to work toward long-term goals.

Crosier also complained Gomber took it upon himself to organize a “youth group” to cut a borough park’s grass without consulting all of council. She said he overreached his authority as mayor on multiple occasions and she was concerned about legal ramifications by Gomber and other members for not following borough code at times. A mayor elected in a borough the size of East Washington cannot vote on motions before council and is only assigned to oversee the police department.

“I don’t want to be guilty by association,” Crosier said.

Gomber said the group selected to cut the grass is made up of teenagers from the county’s juvenile probation program and the borough would not be charged for the work. Council voted 4-0 during the meeting to use the group.

Reached for comment after the meeting, both Crosier and Adams said they are concerned about the future of the borough, but unsure what they will do now that they are no longer serving on the board.

“We have little recourse but to say something and get up and leave,” Adams said. “We don’t think it’s going to change.”

The resignations leave the board inexperienced with three freshmen members and the one incumbent in McCandless. Tucci was elected council president and Taufer was selected to become vice president. The council will have to appoint three new members, although they are still debating whether to advertise for the openings or select from a pool of internal candidates that is yet to be determined.

All action items regarding the police department’s personnel situation were tabled and part-time Officer Robert Caldwell will continue to fill out the patrol schedules now that former officer-in-charge Mark Griffith’s retirement took effect just before midnight Monday.

Caldwell said during the meetings he’s come to an “impasse” on filling out the schedule over concerns from officers that their jobs might be jeopardy with the previous plan to reorganize the department by adding a full-time patrolman while cutting several part-time positions.

“A lot of the officers have voiced concerns about the security of their current positions,” Caldwell said.

The police department reorganization, a plan put forward last year by Adams and Crosier, appears to be all but dead with their resignations. The remaining members spent more than an hour in executive session at the end of the meeting to discuss police personnel.

Council voted to hire Lisa Sowden, Robert Vaughan and Bryan Farkas as part-time officers to bring the roster to 14 patrolmen. Caldwell was also appointed officer-in-charge effective immediately.

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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