SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT – Borough council’s vote to transfer authority of the police department from the mayor to the borough manager was purely budgetary, council members say, trying to dispel concerns raised by seven police officers on the night of the vote.
The decision came during council’s monthly meeting on Monday, Oct. 14. According to the Pennsylvania borough code, authority over the police department lies with the mayor and council can only transfer authority if the mayor gives it up voluntarily, which Mayor David Lechniak said he did.
Seven of South Williamsport’s eight police officers voiced their concern with council’s decision to make the transfer, specifically with regard to the position of chief of police. The officers present were Daniel Boyd, Seth Stropp, Gareck Esposito, Jacob Summers, Det. Devin Thompson and Sgt. Jim Taylor. Officer Michael Samar was not present but also disagreed with the vote.
The vote ultimately puts council in charge of selecting, or removing, a police chief for the borough as well as appointing or suspending officers, a responsibility previously held by the mayor. The seven officers showed their support for the current chief, Carl Finnerty, saying they did not want his position to be in jeopardy.
Concerns also were raised about keeping a level of checks and balances within local government and the ability for one branch to hold the other accountable.
Monday was the first public discussion borough council had about the issue.
Other than hearing the officers’ concerns, council barely discussed the proposal. Within five minutes, the measure had been promptly approved by a 6 to 2 vote.
In a separate vote, borough Manager Steve Cappelli was named director of public safety. The new position brings with it a pay raise, according to Councilman Daniel Cupp, but council did not release that dollar figure.
Cupp added that the officers’ concerns are not warranted, saying, “I think they were overreacting … nobody likes change.”
South Williamsport Police Chief Carl Finnerty said he believes his contract, which is set to expire at the end of December, will be renewed.
Lechniak also agreed that Finnerty will remain in the position but added that it would be reassessed at the end of the year.
“As it stands right now, council did not revoke his contract,” Lechniak said. “He’s still chief, probably until the end of the year, and then we will go from there.”
Lechniak said he is happy for the transfer of responsibilities but added that he doesn’t believe he is relinquishing authority, simply gaining help with running the police department.
“I still have my hands and my fingers in there, I just have some help, that’s all,” Lechniak said. “We’re just getting an extra person to help with paperwork.”
The vote did not specify that the mayor would regain any control over the department.
Lechniak said he and Cappelli will make recommendations about the police department, but council has the final vote. The management change is a way to “ease up the tensions,” he said.
He said he understands the officers’ concerns but insisted there is nothing to worry about.
Cupp agreed that the move to transfer authority from Lechniak to the borough manager is a “way to save a little bit of money.”
Adding Cappelli to the management of the department allows him to do a lot of the paperwork normally meant for the chief, Cupp said. This, he said, will give Finnerty time to be out of the office and patrol the street, effectively eliminating the need to add a new police officer position next year.
The move offers some “considerable cost savings,” Cupp said.