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Firestorm erupts at meeting during discussion to hire 2 part-time officers

Published September 13. 2011 05:01PM

What appeared to be a routine discussion about hiring two part-time police officers for Mahoning Township erupted into a firestorm Monday night that saw Chairman John Wieczorek storm out of the meeting after attempting to adjourn it.

This occurred amid angry accusations by Supervisor Travis Steigerwalt, who claimed Wieczorek was usurping his authority and attempting to shut him out of police committee meetings and manipulating the board.

"There is no foundation to his accusations," Wieczorek said in a phone interview after the meeting. "I have never called a meeting without obtaining the consent of the majority of the board ahead of time." Wieczorek indicated he emailed Steigerwalt about the latest meeting a day and a half in advance as he had done with the police department, although Steigerwalt was away on military assignment at the time.

Steigerwalt's point of view is different in that he claims that he has informed the board when he is slated to be on active duty, as he was during the month of August, and states that Wieczorek is purposely using those periods to hold meetings without his consent as a member of the police committee, a body to which Wieczorek does not belong.

Supervisor Linda Benner belongs to the police committee, and during the exchange, she indicated that she was informed of the meetings and consented to them while Steigerwalt was away.

The trigger for this angry exchange was set at the beginning of the meeting when Wieczorek asked for additions or corrections to the agenda and Steigerwalt stated that he would like the hiring of two part-time police officers added to the slate. Wieczorek said he would add this to the agenda, but that he preferred to wait for at least one other supervisor, indicating that he did not know whether Supervisor George Stawnyczyj would be attending. He was aware that Supervisor Frank Ruch said he would be a bit late.

The hiring issue was added to the agenda, but was not reached until rather late in the meeting, well after Stawnyczyj and Ruch arrived to participate. During the official portion of the meeting, Steigerwalt made a motion on the recommendation of the chief, who interviewed the candidates, to hire Peter Swann and Maria Lesinsky as part-time officers. Stawnyczyj seconded the motion, but immediately upon the second, Wieczorek requested an executive session which included Chief Kenneth Barnes, to discuss the personnel issue.

While there was no indication as to the nature of the discussion, the board resumed their public session after about a half-hour and there seemed to be some tension. Barnes left the meeting at that point, without returning from the executive session. Steigerwalt rescinded his previous motion and followed it with a second motion to hire Officer Peter Swann at $15.50 per hour and place Officer Maria Lesinsky's application on file. This was seconded by Benner and passed 5-0.

At that point Wieczorek mentioned adjourning, but before a motion was made, Steigerwalt stopped him and said he was not finished with his official report. Wieczorek gave him the floor and that was when the heated discussion erupted.

Steigerwalt said he wanted to clear up some issues he had with the way the board was running, especially with regard to the police committee.

"Someone arranged a meeting of the police committee while I was away on military duty. I asked that it be rescheduled. A second meeting was scheduled and again I asked that it be rescheduled and I was refused."

Steigerwalt became more direct with his statements.

"Twice John you scheduled meetings (of the police committee). You don't have the right as chairman to schedule a meeting with police officers while I was away," said Steigerwalt. "I wasn't informed about one of the meetings and you didn't let me know what you were planning. When I looked to reschedule it, you refused."

Furthermore, Steigerwalt said he didn't want to accuse Wieczorek directly, but pointed out that Wieczorek seemed to make a pattern out of scheduling meetings with police when he was not available due to his military duties.

When Steigerwalt concluded his statements, Wieczorek said he wanted to respond. At that point, Steigerwalt got out of his chair and moved over to the opposite side of the table where Wieczorek was seated, placed his hands on the edge and leaned down and into Wieczorek's face.

"I have never acted alone to call a meeting," Wieczorek said at that point. "This was a group decision being that the board was already together on the 24th, I suggested that we hold the meeting then to kill two birds with one stone so we could follow up. I sent the notice to you at the same time I sent it to the police officers with a day and a half notice. It was short notice for everyone, yet they were all there."

"I will give you that one, but what about the one before? You scheduled that meeting as well without consulting the police committee and then I insisted the part-timers be included and you refused," shouted Steigerwalt.

Benner spoke up and tried to state that Wieczorek had consulted a majority of the board, but Steigerwalt turned and pointed at her saying, "You shut up! I don't want to talk to you."

This was greeted with boos and disapproval from the audience as Steigerwalt continued his verbal accusations at Wieczorek, who stood up and said, "I will not be spoken to like this and be accused of things I did not do," and stormed out of the meeting.

At that point Benner told Steigerwalt that he was wrong about his accusations, but Steigerwalt refused to listen and the argument continued between Benner and Steigerwalt with Steigerwalt accusing the chairman of overstepping his boundaries and shutting Steigerwalt out when he was away on military duty.

Benner said she did no such thing, but Steigerwalt did not want to listen to her. Ruch took the gavel and asked for a motion to adjourn which was made by Stawnyczyj and seconded by Benner. The motion carried 4-0.

After the meeting Solicitor Tom Nanovic stated that the committees are formed by the board at the organizational meeting and none of the supervisors, including the chairperson, can appoint members.

"They are agreed to as a body. The chairman has no power over the committees, which by regulation can only contain two people."

As such Nanovic pointed out that Wieczorek was not a member of the police committee, but as one of the supervisors he is able to call a meeting. The chairman's power is limited to running a meeting and being a signatory for the township. Other than that the supervisors are equals and are able to request meetings if the majority agree.

After the meeting, Steigerwalt claimed Wieczorek, acting as chairperson, called the police officers for a meeting before he notified supervisors. Wieczorek said after the meeting during a phone interview, that he polled the board that was present and made sure they could attend a meeting before he set it up, and when the majority of the board agreed they could meet, he let Steigerwalt know via email as well as the officers.

One other issue that was mentioned by Steigerwalt is that while he was away, he asked Stawnyczyj to fill in for him on the police committee, which Stawnyczyj did. But Wieczorek pointed out that this was done outside of a meeting and the board had not agreed to that provision, although no one objected to it.

"In the past, we voted on stand-ins. I was the alternate the first time Travis was away on extended military duty and the board voted upon it. This time he just asked George to do it and none of us were told."

The other member of the committee, Benner was not available after the meeting for comment.

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