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Tamaqua chief: Limit powers of mayor

Published October 06. 2009 05:00PM

Tamaqua Borough Chief of Police Dave Mattson was one of the participants to testify at a hearing by the Pennsylvania Senate Local Government Committee, held last Thursday, Oct. 1, at the Lisa Jane Scheller Student Center on the campus of Lehigh Carbon Community College's Morgan Center, Tamaqua.

The committee hearing was called at the request of state Sen. David Argall (R-29) to review the power of the position of mayor under the Pennsylvania Borough Code, particularly in regard to disagreements between the mayor and council that leads to litigation.

One such situation occurred in Tamaqua when Mayor Christian Morrison suspended Mattson for insubordination after Mattson declined to follow a department schedule made by the mayor. Making the schedule for the department is a right granted to mayors under the borough code.

Tamaqua council later revoked the suspension and reinstated Mattson. A subsequent lawsuit filed by the Tamaqua police department against the borough, mayor and chief with the Pa. Labor Relations Board upheld council's action. Legal fees from the case were in excess of $10,000, said Argall.

A report on the Senate hearing appeared in Friday's edition of the TIMES NEWS.

Mattson, however, wanted to further clarify his position in regard to his testimony at the hearing.

Mattson noted that police departments are paramilitary organizations that are under the direction of an elected official who is a civilian. He recognized that section 1121 of the borough code gives the mayor "full charge and control of the chief of police and the police force," and that section 1124 gives the mayor power to "suspend any police officer for cause with or without pay until the succeeding regular meeting."

In his written testimony submitted to the committee, Mattson said that "it is this officer's opinion that 'mayors' should not have the power to disarm a police department.

"A better solution would be for the mayor to call an emergency meeting with council and the council determine if a suspension is appropriate," Mattson wrote.

"This officer is also opposed to the mayor directing the police department. The reason for this is mayors generally do not have the knowledge, education or experience to qualify them to make the critical decisions necessary in running a police department."

Mattson explained that, at one time, when the borough code was adopted, the mayor might have been the most qualified individual, but now police have undergone much more education and training in order to become officers.

Giving a police chief the responsibility for the safety and welfare of his officers and citizens but giving the mayor the power to override or change the operation of the department by suspending and/or threatening to suspend or fire officers when they do not follow his directive is a major contradiction, testified Mattson.

The chief also said there is information with regard to the operation of the department that he cannot share, even with the mayor, due to the chance of jeopardizing confidentiality of investigations.

"The mayor generally does not know the officers as well as the chief and therefore does not understand the need for taking personalities, experiences and family issues into consideration when scheduling officers, and when assigning officers to special assignments and investigations," Mattson testified.

Mattson wrote that problems have not occurred in some boroughs, generally due to the fact that the mayors in these communities have, in his opinion, yielded to the knowledge and expertise of their chiefs and have chosen not to engage in a struggle over the operation of the department.

"Under the present borough code, the chief of police is often placed in situations where he must not follow the mayor's schedules or directives to protect the rights, safety and well being of the officers and the citizens that we serve," he testified.

Mattson also noted that he was not given any funds to defend himself in the situation, while the mayor had $2,500 to defend his office. He related he gave back his 10-day vacation to make up for the 10 days he was suspended with pay by Morrison.

Mattson said that Morrison's schedule did not meet the needs of the department and the community, which was upheld by the Labor Relations Board with the unfair labor practice suit.

"It could have been avoided if he sat down with the guys and negotiated," he added.

Sen. Raphael Musto, the committee minority chairman, asked Mattson if he thought he should have total control.

"Should there be some oversight?"asked Musto.

Mattson said that public safety is a concern, and there are times he can't always reveal what he's done due to ongoing police investigations.

Mattson further testified, "I would not take a position as chief of police when I wasn't totally responsible for the entire department, with checks and balances."

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