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Insurance costs soar with lawsuits

| Saturday, March 1, 2003

HARMAR: The township's police professional liability insurance will be canceled this summer, and it could cost an additional $12,500 to replace the policy.

Arrowhead General Insurance Agency of California has sent Harmar a notice stating its insurance will be canceled effective July 1 due to "loss history."

Board Chairman Robert Seibert Jr. said the company has told him that to replace the policy will cost the township six times as much as it currently pays.

Arrowhead is asking Harmar to pay $15,000 per year for a new policy, compared to the township's current premium of $2,500, Seibert said.

The cost of Harmar's deductible also will skyrocket from $2,500 to $15,000, he said.

As a result of the pending hike in insurance prices, Seibert said the board has approved several cost-cutting measures and might not be able to afford purchasing a $25,000 new police car as it had planned.

"We have to take a good look at our capital expenditures," he said. "We will not raise taxes regardless."

Seibert blamed the policy cancellation on three federal civil rights lawsuits pending against the township's police chief, Rick Toney, which he said have cost the township more than $15,000 in legal fees.

Of the three lawsuits pending against Toney, two are claims filed in federal court last October by Harmar police officer John Uhring of Pittsburgh and former Harmar police officer Phillip McKinley Sr. of Arnold. Uhring and McKinley have accused the embattled police chief of defamation and violating their rights to free speech and due process.

Toney also has been sued by Cheswick residents Cynthia and Andrew Zlacki, who have accused the police chief of violating their civil rights.

A fourth lawsuit filed against Toney in 2001 by Oakmont businessman Kenneth Dehus was settled out of court in January for a confidential amount to be paid by Arrowhead.

Seibert said the lawsuits resulted from poor management of the police department by Harmar's board when it was under control of former member Michael Liberati and what is now the minority faction made up of Supervisors Jack Burns and Donald Muse.

"Had (Burns, Muse and Liberati) made the right decisions as public officials, they could have controlled the police department better," Seibert said. "The department has been in a state of turmoil for the past several years because management failed."

In response to these allegations, Muse said the lawsuits against Toney didn't begin until Seibert's faction assumed control of the board.

"Until they got in charge, we never had any lawsuits," Muse said. "The year they've been in charge of the board, we have all of these suits."

But the lawsuits against Toney may not be the only problem the township faces when it comes to obtaining police liability insurance.

A letter obtained by the Valley News Dispatch indicates that problems with Harmar's police procedures manual may also have contributed to Arrowhead's decision to cancel the township's policy.

In the letter dated Sept. 6, 2002, and addressed to Arrowhead, Ronald Traenkle, a police practices expert, writes that there are "glaring weaknesses" in the manual, which he calls "a recipe for a federal civil rights claim" and a "liability time bomb."

For example, he cited Harmar's policy that allowed for cavity searches and the use of chemical agents to remove an illegal protestor, practices Traenkle deemed unconstitutional.

Traenkle informs the insurance company that any the flaws in the manual "should weigh heavily when quoting any policy renewal" and recommends a "total rewrite."

An Arrowhead representative refused to discuss any client matters, and Traenkle could not be reached this week for comment.

Seibert and Muse said it is unlikely the manual had any effect on Arrowhead's decision to cancel Harmar's police professional liability insurance policy.

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