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Snow emergency decision heats up Mahoning meeting

Published February 10. 2010 05:00PM

Last weekend's snowstorm heated up Monday night's Mahoning Township meeting as Chairman John Wieczorek took exception to a member of the board declaring a snow emergency in the township, allegedly without consulting anyone. But Supervisor George Stawnyczyj, who is currently in the process of becoming the new township Emergency Management Coordinator, felt it was within his power to do so, and made the decision last weekend.

"From the information I was able to collect, Mr. Stawnyczyj took it upon himself (last Saturday) to call the comm center and declare a snow emergency," said Wieczorek.

Stawnyczyj admitted he called a snow emergency, to which Wieczorek questioned, "On what authority?"

"On the authority that any supervisor can declare a snow emergency," Stawnyczyj responded.

"Who did you consult with before you called an emergency?" Wieczorek asked, querying whether he called the police or road crew or anyone else before doing so.

Stawnyczyj told Wieczorek that Lehighton had declared an emergency, but Wieczorek countered saying that Mahoning Township was the only one to initiate a snow emergency and it had done so at 10:30 p.m. Friday night, with about a half inch on the ground. Stawnyczyj told him it was after midnight when the emergency was declared.

A check Tuesday morning with Carbon County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Nalesnik verified that Mahoning Township was the only municipality in Carbon County to declare a snow emergency. He said the form was on his fax machine on Saturday morning having been faxed in at 1:19 a.m. According to Accu-Weather's weather history by 11:59 p.m. Friday 1.1 inches of snow had fallen, and the entire accumulation by the conclusion of the storm was 6.6 inches.

Wieczorek's frustration was more that Stawnyczyj had not consulted with anyone before taking it upon himself to declare a snow emergency. He told the board that a check with Lehighton revealed that municipality's officials refer to the police and road crew before making any kind of declaration.

"In some ways this makes us look like a laughing stock of Carbon County and may have some implications when you declare a snow emergency," Wieczorek said. "If that's the case, every time there is a snowfall we should be declaring an emergency. It has serious implications when you are calling for an emergency that does not exist."

Wieczorek said the declaration states the supervisors feel there is a disaster or threat of disaster that could threaten the safety, health and welfare of the residents, and emergency management is required to reduce the severity of the disaster. He said there was nothing in last weekend's storm that rose to the level of disaster.

"We had no disaster. We had no emergency. I think it's irresponsible to declare one without any consultation of anyone on the board," Wieczorek said.

"Well John, the last time I did it we got thousands of dollars from PEMA, and no one else bothered to do so," said Stawnyczyj referring to the massive flooding that occurred in the township a few years ago. Mahoning, along with other municipalities, became eligible at that time for cleanup and repair funding after that incident which closed roads for days in some parts of the township.

Wieczorek asked if he was chairman at the time and Stawnyczyj said no, he was not. Stawnyczyj said when he returned from Allentown late Friday evening "there was more than three inches of snow on the ground at that time and there was a distinct possibility we would proceed into more snowfall or hazards."

Stawnyczyj told the board that by declaring the emergency it gives the township police the authority to ticket people who are out on the roads without proper tires or equipment.

Wieczorek countered that his objection was not to the emergency as much as to the fact that it was done without any consultation.

"The declaration says 'We declare', 'We authorize' and we didn't do anything. Again, I think it's totally irresponsible. Did I have any input in it?"

At that point Wieczorek and Stawnyczyj began talking over each other until Wieczorek gaveled him out of order and said that he wanted to institute a policy in which any individual supervisor cannot independently declare a snow emergency when there is none.

Supervisor Travis Steigerwalt then asked to speak and said, "In all fairness we did appoint George the township's emergency coordinator, but I do think maybe we need to come up with a job description or something like that. But along with that you are going to have to work along with the county to see how the county EMA handles issues."

Stawnyczyj said, "Yes and the declaration states it is a disaster or threatens one and the snowstorm that was coming, if it had shifted, we would have been clobbered hard. I'll tell you what, you deal with Tuesday and I will go out and plow snow."

Wieczorek said, "I don't think you should put the township at risk by declaring an emergency when there is none."

The TIMES NEWS spoke with Nalesnik Tuesday morning and he said there is no negative implications for declaring a snow emergency in a municipality.

"It never hurts to make a declaration and put it on file and I don't think it's wrong. It puts you in a better light with PEMA and it provides several benefits, including being able to bypass the bidding process for snow removal," said Nalesnik. "There are no negative consequences to making the declaration and it does not have to be enforced (if it's declared and later not needed)."

Nalesnik said he had no official word there was a replacement of the coordinator for Mahoning Township, although at a meeting last month supervisors did appoint Stawnyczyj. Nalesnik said the official appointment must be done through the governor before he can officially recognize a coordinator for the township.

Meanwhile, Wieczorek told the board in the future he wants consultation among the road crew, the supervisors and the police before an emergency is declared again.

"We don't have a procedure. It can't be one person making that decision," said Wieczorek.

Supervisor Linda Benner said she didn't feel the township was in any kind of state of emergency, pointing out that today's snowfall may be a totally different story. She said in northeast PA, people should be able to deal with a few inches of snow.

Steigerwalt asked if there was any formality to declaring the emergency previously. No one responded, but Wieczorek said he felt it made them the laughing stock of Carbon County. Wieczorek said he wanted a procedure in place in which the township would check with neighboring municipalities, the road crew, the police and chief as well as the county.

Supervisor Franklin Ruch said they could adopt it at the next meeting and Wieczorek said they would need it by Wednesday, referring to the upcoming blizzard scheduled to hit this area.

Ruch lightened the mood by quipping to solicitor Tom Nanovic, "How fast can you type?" which elicited some chuckles.

Wieczorek said, "I think we can remember this for tomorrow night."

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