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Blairsville police chief axed

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 3:12 a.m.

Blairsville Borough is in the market for a chief of police after council Tuesday dismissed Donald Hess, who served in that role for nearly six years.

Hess was fired by a 4-1 vote following an executive session for personnel and legal matters. The closed-door session was preceded by an extended debate among borough officials and citizens about crime and nuisance issues in the town.

During the debate, complaints were aired criticizing borough police for not being visible enough in town, faulting the scheduling of officers and opposing a policy that reportedly has required officers who are present in the borough but off duty to check with the police chief before responding to calls.

Hess, who wasn't present at Tuesday's council meeting, could not be reached for comment.

Council member Mary Ugoletti complained that Hess had not complied with the panel's requests for increased policing of the park behind the Blairsville Community Center.

Later at council's regular monthly meeting, she moved for Hess' immediate termination, a motion that was seconded by Joe Caugherty and supported by Chuck Lydic and Andy Baker. Council President Ron Evanko was opposed; Jeff Marshall was absent.

Following the meeting, Ugoletti declined to elaborate on what motivated the firing, citing the need for confidentiality in personnel matters.

Although Hess was working under a contract with the borough, Ugoletti said he was an at-will employee subject to dismissal. Other borough police officers are represented by a union.

Ugoletti said her goal is "that the Blairsville police department become a community police department," with officers walking the streets and interacting with young people.

Speaking briefly after the meeting, Caugherty said, "You will see a police department that's out and more visible after the first of the year, guaranteed."

Caugherty, who is retired from service as previous police chief of the borough, won both party nominations in last month's primary election to unseat current Blairsville Mayor John Zedick.

In supporting the motion to dismiss Hess, Lydic said, "I don't think he's doing a correct job. As a council member, and for all the people who live in Third Ward, I vote we get rid of him."

Lydic argued that it's not feasible for police to patrol on foot, given their need for mobility and the amount of equipment they must keep close at hand. But he later acknowledged that a lack of visibility of officers patrolling in the community in vehicles played "a very large part" in his decision to fire Hess.

He objected to the practice of having the chief and a second officer both remain at the police station during daylight shifts -- a view expressed by others at Tuesday's meeting.

Lydic -- whose wife, Janelle, is a borough police officer -- also took issue with the policy requiring off-duty officers to receive clearance from the chief before responding to a call. "They have to play 'Mother may I,'" he said.

Zedick said later that policy was set by the chief for the protection of borough officers, to make sure they are covered by insurance during an incident response.

But, at the meeting, Borough Manager Tim Evans said police officers should be covered by borough insurance at any time they take a call.

Zedick, who was present at Tuesday's meeting, said he believes council acted unfairly in dismissing the chief and he refused to convey the news to Hess -- a task that fell to borough Solicitor Pat Dougherty.

"I was totally against what they had done," Zedick said. "The least they could do was have him come before them, all six council people," before deciding his fate, the mayor said of Hess.

Evanko cited a similar concern in his vote Tuesday against firing Hess. "I feel it was not the time and the place," Evanko said, indicating council should "give him a chance to present his side."

Police department concerns

At the meeting, Evanko did express concern about scheduling of police officers, as did Evans.

Evanko said he would like one of the officers who currently begins a 7 a.m. shift during the week to start later in the day in order to beef up police coverage during evenings.

Evans indicated that "2 p.m. to 10 p.m. is the worst time of day," when offenses are more likely to occur. "So I think we have a scheduling problem." He indicated that no borough officer was on duty during Memorial Day weekend.

"They key shifts are not being covered, or they're being covered by only one person," Dougherty concurred.

While noting that scheduling officers is not up to council, Evanko initially suggested Tuesday that the panel's police committee meet with the mayor and police chief to address the concerns.

But, after the vote to fire Hess, the committee -- Ugoletti, Caugherty and Evanko -- instead was charged with overseeing advertisements for a new chief.

In the meantime, council appointed Evans to serve as administrative chief for the police department. He will have the power to schedule officers but will not respond to police calls, Ugoletti said.

Hess launched a Crime Watch program in the borough, with participants meeting monthly in council chambers. Members of the group were encouraged to serve as extra eyes and ears for the police, remaining alert for and reporting suspected criminal activity.

A Crime Watch meeting had been scheduled for 7 p.m. this coming Monday. Zedick said the meeting would be cancelled unless Hess suggested it continue.

With Hess' ouster, Zedick noted, the police department currently is staffed with three full-time officers and two part-time officers who recently were hired.

Earlier at Tuesday's meeting, resident Earl Jefferson asked why council has not used money it budgeted this year to hire an additional full-time officer.

Dougherty said the borough civil service commission is currently advertising to fill the position. He noted council decided to time the hiring in hopes of taking advantage of new federal funding that could be available later this year to cover the cost of the position for several years.

Caugherty said there has been little response to borough advertisements for additional part-time officers.

Tuesday's discussion of police matters began after Zedick's daughter, Mary Murphy, and her husband, Coleman, asked council to address a complaint they initially made last year. They said their privacy has been invaded and they've been deprived of the enjoyment of their backyard and pool due to noise and crude language at an adjacent skate park that opened last year behind the community center.

"It's been a nuisance," Mary Murphy said, adding that she is concerned about alleged drug use in and around the park. "Would you want this in your backyard?" she asked council.

"It sounds like a construction zone," with "yelling and screaming," her husband said.

Council members said they had been unable to reach an agreement to plant a proposed tree barrier between the Murphy property and the park and that they had asked borough police to step up enforcement at the park.

"The problem is we can't tell the police what to do," Ugoletti said.

She suggested hiring a private security firm to keep order in the park around the clock, but Lydic rejected that idea as a costly and unnecessary duplication of services that police should be providing.

Evans said his own observations and those of drug task force members who have visited the community park don't show a level of drug activity there to match the public outcry about the issue at recent meetings.

"It's the only place in town kids have to go," he said of the park. "We can't close everything."

Resident Mike LaMantia agreed and commended Blairsville's recreation department, which operates the community center and park. "They're trying to offer recreational opportunities for the difficult ages of 12-18," he said. "Do we want to give up on that age group?"

In other business Tuesday, council agreed to seek bids for the sale of a small, steep section of borough property located between Ridgeview Circle, the former public swimming pool and Norfolk Southern railroad property. The parcel, which is less than an acre in area, is not suitable for building.

Borough officials indicated a neighboring resident has expressed interest in purchasing the property for the scenic view it affords. But, Evanko pointed out, "Anyone who wants to can bid on it. Whoever bids the highest gets it."

Council also agreed to pay $10,000 to the Pittsburgh architectural firm of LaQuatra Bonci Associates for recent completion of design drawings for a proposed housing redevelopment project on a section of the former Vale Tech automotive school campus on West Market Street. The cost is being covered by a grant from an area foundation.

Council will hold a special meeting next Tuesday to consider forming a new Blairsville Community Development Authority to take over operation of the town's Main Street program for downtown improvements and its proposed Elm Street program that would target improvements in residential areas.

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