Monroeville's issues unresolved
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 11:50 p.m.
Monroeville residents made it clear when Ron Harvey ran for borough council in the fall: Push to bring back Doug Cole as police chief, and Harvey would have their vote.
“I campaigned on that issue,” said Harvey, a retired police officer and one of four incoming council members who will form a new majority on the seven-member board when they take office in January. “I don't believe Doug Cole deserved to lose his job. I think it was political, and I think the ammo for it was made up.”
Municipal Manager Lynette McKinney dismissed Cole in September, the most recent salvo in a yearlong political drama that has engulfed local leaders in the suburb of about 28,000.
It began in summer 2012, when now-police Chief Steve Pascarella filed a federal complaint that medical privacy rules might have been broken under Cole's watch. The Department of Health and Human Services is investigating the accusation.
A letter last week from the state Office of Attorney General revealed confidential Monroeville 911 Center records were compromised from August 2010 through February 2013.
Still, incoming Monroeville Council members said they would probably agitate for Cole's reinstatement as a police department leader if he isn't rehired by their swearing-in. They called his treatment a hurried injustice to a well-respected community pillar.
“As far as I'm concerned, put him back in right now,” said Linda Gaydos, a councilwoman-elect representing Ward 1. “We want to bring Monroeville back to a neighborhood, not a separated town. We're going to work very, very hard at that. That, I promise.”
McKinney declined to comment, classifying the matter as a personnel issue. Outgoing Councilwoman Lois Drumheller, who supported McKinney's appointment as manager, said the police chief has a documented responsibility to maintain confidential information and that council members “should be prepared to act in accordance” with the law.
“What was ‘hurried' was fixing (the security breaches), nothing more,” Drumheller wrote via email.
Cole did not respond to a message relayed through his Downtown-based attorney, Michael Colarusso. Colarusso said he could not comment on the plans of incoming council members.
But he questioned why Monroeville officials have yet to reinstate Cole since arbitrator Ronald Talarico determined on Nov. 1 that the former chief could return immediately to the department. Talarico ruled that McKinney acted “without cause” when she demoted Cole to a sergeant rank in February, several months before she pulled him from the department completely.
After Talarico issued his decision, McKinney told council member members that Cole would remain fired pending two separate arbitration hearings on Jan. 24. Those hearings will center on appeals filed by the police union, which contests Cole's demotion and his firing.
“I presume it will cost (the borough) more and more money the longer they fight,” Colarusso said. He said Cole might try forcing the borough to rehire him by asking the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to enforce Talarico's order. Talarico did not respond to a request for comment.
Cole, an instructor with the FBI, could expand a lawsuit against Monroeville to include more charges, Colarusso said. The pending civil litigation asserts the borough violated Cole's contract and the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
“We're weighing the options,” Colarusso said.
As much as council members might argue to bring Cole back, local rules could limit their practical options. Monroeville's home-rule charter says the selection of a police chief rests with the manager and cannot be dictated by the council, according to an interpretation by Cole's legal team. It alleges some sitting members illegally conspired and hired a new manager —McKinney — who would remove Cole.
“They may not be able to direct or request the hiring or firing of anyone, but they certainly have jurisdiction over the manager. If they don't like the way the manager is performing — including the people the manager is hiring or firing — then they can fire the manager,” said Joseph McGrory Jr., a municipal solicitor based in Montgomery County.
Drumheller and Bernhard Erb, another sitting Monroeville Council member, said they acted within the law. A provision in the borough home-rule charter allows the advice and consent of council in the manager's promotion of a police chief, Drumheller said.
“I support the new manager in her desire to make Monroeville a better place and to take actions that she believed were appropriate,” Erb said. While he never would have directly advocated the demotion or removal of the police chief, he said, he believes McKinney made the right choices.
Cole supporters say he was wrongly faulted in the 911 Center privacy matter, though McKinney has said the borough administration “held those responsible accountable.” She said that effort prevented Monroeville from facing sanctions from the state.
A state audit found generic user names and passwords allowed Monroeville firefighters to access sensitive police information documented during 911 calls — including individuals' criminal history — that could harm police or residents, Executive Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Cherba wrote to the borough.
He said the audit found specific violations of state privacy standards and Monroeville's rules. Prosecutors would not take action against Monroeville because it took “suitable action” to address the problem to “deal appropriately with those individuals who were determined to have engaged in improper conduct,” according to his letter. It does not identify Cole by name.
Forcing Cole to take a fall smacks of a campaign to hurt his reputation and his family, councilman-elect Tom Wilson said.
“In my opinion, it was all done politically, and he never should have been demoted, harassed and treated the way he has been for the last 10 months,” said Wilson, who will represent Ward 7. “I never had one person say to me, ‘Do not rehire Doug Cole.' Everyone said we want Doug Cole back.”
Staff writer Kyle Lawson contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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