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Tamaqua mayor's police powers examined by Senate group

  • 20091002-132144-pic-503109878.jpg
    JOE PLASKO/TIMES NEWS Tamaqua Chief of Police David Mattson testifies before the Senate Local Government Committee on Thursday at the Lisa Jane Scheller Student Center at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Tamaqua. Sitting behind Mattson is Tamaqua Mayor Christian Morrison.
Published October 05. 2009 02:55PM

A state Senate committee convened in Tamaqua Thursday to hear testimony on whether the Pennsylvania Borough Code should be amended regarding the powers of mayors and how they relate to borough councils.

Specifically, the public hearing centered on disputes between mayors and councils who enter into litigation.

The hearing, requested by state Sen. David Argall (R-29), was held at the Lisa Jane Scheller Student Center of Lehigh Carbon Community College's Morgan Center, and precipitated by a dispute in Tamaqua involving Mayor Christian Morrison, Chief of Police David Mattson and the Tamaqua Police Department, and borough council.

The Senate Local Government Committee is bipartisan and includes Republican Chairman, Sen. John H. Eichelberger, Vice Chairman Elder Vogel, Jr., and Democratic Minority Chairman, Sen. Raphael J. Musto.

Argall said the hearing was originally scheduled for the summer but was postponed due to the state's budget deliberations.

The Tamaqua situation evolved from a disagreement concerning scheduling for the Tamaqua police. Morrison, citing powers of the mayor under the borough code, eventually started making the schedule, which was disregarded by Mattson. As a result, Morrison suspended Mattson for 10 days for insubordination and threatened to suspend other officers who refused to follow his schedule for the department.

Tamaqua council, however, revoked Morrison's suspension and reinstated Mattson.

On March 20, 2008, Tamaqua police filed a charge of unfair labor practices with the Pa. Labor Relations Board, alleging the borough violated the state Labor Relations Act, of which the borough, through the mayor's action, was found to be in violation.

Argall said the legal fees from the Tamaqua unfair labor practices lawsuit were in excess of $10,000.

Argall stated that the section of the borough code regarding the powers of the mayor is "a serious topic of confusion, not only in Tamaqua, but in other boroughs. We hope to move ahead with a piece of legislation to resolve this."

Those offering testimony at the hearing were Alexander J. Chelik, mayor of the Borough of Mayfield, Lackawanna County, who was representing the Pa. State Mayors Association; Chief Mattson; David R. Everly, financial secretary, Schuylkill-Carbon Lodge No. 13, Fraternal Order of Police; and Micah Gursky, president of Tamaqua Borough Council.

Morrison attended the hearing but did not testify, deferring to Chelik.

"The lawsuit is not Mattson versus the mayor, it was between the police department vs. Mattson, the mayor and council," Morrison told THE TIMES NEWS following the hearing. "I can't make a decision to spend $10,000 on litigation. That's council."

Morrison added that once he was "neutered" when council sided with Mattson and voided the suspension, the suit should have stopped there.

"There was nothing more that needed to be done," he said.

Burgess powers

Chelik explained that at one time, when the first general borough law was enacted by the state in 1835, boroughs had a governing body consisting of a burgess, who was the president of council, and five councilmen. In 1887, the burgess was given jurisdiction of a justice of the peace as well.

In 1893, council was given the power to elect its own president and the burgess was no longer the presiding officer, nor a voting member of council, although he was given the power to veto legislation. In 1911, the direction and control of the police department was transferred to the burgess, explained Chelik.

In 1966, the title of burgess was changed to mayor under the borough code, and in 1968 all judicial powers were removed from the mayor under the Pa. Constitution.

Chelik noted the mayor's powers over the police department have been retained, but that the office has become largely ceremonial in many boroughs.

"It is the mayor who often leads the way or champions the cause as the Chief Public Relations Officer for the municipality," he said.

Section 112 of the borough code gives the mayor of the borough full charge and control of the chief of police and the police force and empowers him to direct the time during which the chief and the police shall perform their duties, noted Chelik. While in most cases, council does not interfere with these duties, it is council which does the hiring and firing and also controls the purse strings.

"Unfortunately, the relationship of the mayor and council in a number of boroughs reflects the classic confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of government," said Chelik, who added that councils have used their powers in collective bargaining negotiations to undermine the authority of the mayor and even the police chief.

Chelik advocated strengthening the position of mayor and providing a better means of enforcement under the borough code, so that councils would have less opportunities to take advantage of the mayor.

"Is it possible that a mistake was made in 1893 and we never should have separated the office of mayor from council president?" asked Argall.

Chelik said the government needs to keep a system of checks and balances in place for its branches.

Civilian in charge

Mattson testified that the police are a paramilitary organization and a mayor, as an elected civilian, may not be qualified to head the department.

"You have a civilian in charge of the chief," said Mattson.

"In most boroughs, the mayor yields to the chief's knowledge and experience," continued Mattson. "The mayor's position is politically appointed and can be used for political gains or reasons. The chief has to do his duty without consideration of politics."

Mattson said that under the current code, the mayor can disable the entire police department.

"Having any one person with that power in a community is dangerous," he suggested.

Mattson advocated having the mayor as a liaison between the department and the community but having the chief retain control.

Everly felt the powers that mayors have over police departments are too broad, considering the advances made in police training and duties that exist today.

"I find it unbelievable that in 2009 the borough code allows mayors, even on a whim, to exercise control over police departments," said Everly.

Wrestling for control

Gursky mentioned that during the labor relations board suit, he was thrust into a position that he had to testify against his own borough, and the borough had to bear the brunt of the fiscal and legal responsibilities for the mayor's actions in this case.

Argall asked Gursky, who once served as his legislative aide when Argall was state representative for the 124th District, whether the positions of council president and mayor should be separated.

"I don't think they should be separated," said Gursky. "Right now, it's like WWF (World Wrestling Federation) Wrestling; it's designed to create conflict.

"I ask that this committee take a new look at the borough code and make the changes that will either limit a mayor's ability to tear apart a police department, or make changes to ensure that the mayor's office is held responsible if he or she chooses to do so," said Gursky, who added that Morrison's action left "borough council feeling like the parents of a rogue teenager."

The committee will review the testimony and consider what changes, if any, might be needed to the borough code regarding mayoral duties and powers.

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