Elizabeth Township police chief put on leave, manager terminated
Police and personnel issues persist in Elizabeth Township where, in the past two weeks, the police chief has been placed on paid administrative leave and the township manager has been let go over a residency requirement.
Township police Chief Robert McNeilly was placed on leave on July 15 after a decision by the township's personnel committee. Parties familiar with the situation say the action was taken after the chief responded to a subpoena ordering him to testify in a criminal case in which a township commissioner was an alleged victim.
However, that commissioner, Claire Bryce, on Wednesday said the subpoena was not behind the committee's decision to put the chief on leave, though she would not say what was.
“It had nothing to do with the subpoena issue,” said Bryce, who serves on the three-member personnel committee. Bryce said she was not at the meeting where the action against McNeilly was discussed but said claims by McNeilly and an attorney representing him through the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs' of Police Association are “incorrect.”
“That's not what this is about at all,” she said.
McNeilly said then-township manager Richard Janus — who has since been let go from his position over a residency issue — gave him a letter that said he was being placed on leave.
The chief said the letter was vague but indicated the action stemmed from an appearance he made in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to testify in a criminal case against township resident Emil Burak, who had been accused of assaulting Bryce at a township meeting last year.
McNeilly said he'd been out of town prior to the June 3 hearing and returned to find several attempts had been made to serve him with a subpoena to testify at the trial and that he spoke by phone to a court official prior to the date of the trial about the order.
The subpoena had been requested by the Allegheny County Public Defender's office, which represented Burak. The defender's office sought McNeilly as a character witness and the chief said he only answered a few questions in court.
“I wasn't even at the meeting that night,” said McNeilly, referring to the evening of the incident.
The case was heard by Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski and Burak, who was represented by public defender Art Ettinger, was found not guilty of simple assault and guilty of harassment. Burak was fined for the harassment charge and sentenced to 90 days probation, a decision he is appealing to Pennsylvania Superior Court.
McNeilly said he has since been contacted via email by township Solicitor Pat McGrail asking him to explain the subpoena. McNeilly said he wonders if the township is trying to make an issue over the fact he didn't have the physical notice to appear in court in hand when he went to the trial.
“I'm not going to duck a subpoena that a judge issued,” the chief said. “The fact is I knew it existed. I'm not going to tell a judge they didn't put it in my hand. That would be contemptible. That would be contempt of court.”
McGrail said she couldn't discuss McNeilly's situation because it involves personnel issues. McGrail did say that, in his absence, command of the police department has reverted to the most senior officer in command during a given shift.
McNeilly's attorney Mike Colarusso described the situation as “a little bit of a mystery.”
“We don't know what they're claiming he's done that's improper,” said Colarusso, who through the chief's association, represented McNeilly in the spring of 2013 when the chief was placed on paid leave for about a week after two department officers ran in a primary election.
In this latest matter, Colarusso said township officials appear to be retaliating against McNeilly for testifying in a criminal case. He said efforts to get information from attorney Shon Worner, who is representing the township in the matter, have been unsuccessful, with Worner telling him he's not at liberty to discuss the situation until a review of the matter is completed by the township.
Worner did not respond to a request for comment.
Neither did commission president Eugene Francesconi, who serves as an alternate member on the personnel committee.
Colarusso said whether there was a subpoena or not, the chief has a right to testify in court.
“I think he could go down on his own and testify for this guy,” said Colarusso. “I don't think there is anything his employer could do about it.”
Colarusso said it's up to the township to make the next move.
“We'll see what action, if any, they choose to take and we'll have options at that point. That could be an appeal or a federal civil rights case,” Colarusso said.
Commissioner Joanne Beckowitz said she is opposed to the committee's action against the police chief and said it should have been voted on by the whole board of commissioners.
“I really believe that should have been voted on. I don't see how you can put somebody on paid administrative leave and not have a board decision,” she said.
In addition to Bryce and alternate committee member Francesconi, commissioners Paul Saxon and Chris Evans serve on the panel.
In 2008, Francesconi and Saxon — who were at the time members of the township police department — and three other police officers filed suit against McNeilly and the police department claiming their civil and equal protection rights had been violated in a case that started over a parking ticket detail. The officers sought $10 million in damages but a federal court judge found in favor of the defendants in March 2010.
Regarding Janus, McGrail said the township manager's last day was July 20. Janus was hired last May and McGrail said his dismissal wasn't related to his performance.
“Everybody liked him,” she said, noting Janus had to be let go because he hadn't moved into the township as local code requires. For now, she said township employee Lauren Zang is overseeing matters typically handled by the manager.
Township officials said Zang has been with the borough for several months.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.