Honesdale: gerrymandering, guns and a lawsuit

HONESDALE, PA — Not even Nor’easter Skylar’s first flakes could keep people away from the March 12 Honesdale Borough Council meeting. A gallery of more than 40 turned out to protest a lawsuit filed by council candidate Juanita Pisano and council members Bob Jennings and James Brennan against Honesdale borough and its council. The lawsuit contends that Travis Rivera’s appointment was unlawful because improper parliamentary procedure was followed during the vote for rival candidate Juanita Pisano.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, the borough will incur a minimum $10,000 cost to defend against it. Moreover, the borough could lose its professional liability insurance, secured from the only insurance company willing to take on such a high-risk client. Numerous lawsuits against the borough council in the past few years have made it a pariah to the insurance industry; the result is an inordinately high premium cost to the borough paired with an inability to shop for less expensive coverage.

Rivera, who has already demonstrated unusual competence and initiative during his two months in office, is an unwitting victim of the lawsuit. Brennan acknowledged as much, saying he regretted that Rivera is caught up in a situation not of his making. But both Brennan and Jennings maintain that Pisano is also a victim and that rule of law is on her side.

To the council’s credit, it moved past the emotional issue of Rivera’s appointment, and addressed two high-profile public issues: police department use of deadly force and gerrymandering.

Police Chief Rick Southerton said that in the past few weeks his department has had to deal with an unusually high instance of crimes involving gun use, which led to his discovery that the borough has no policy regarding police use of deadly force. He recommended that the council adopt guidelines developed by the Police Chiefs Association (PCA), presented to the council as Special Order #1.

The order contains a use-of-force continuum authorizing police to use deadly force only for lawful objectives and only when less lethal methods and weapons fail. Providing criteria for when and how deadly force may be applied, the order also stipulates actions to be taken following use of deadly force, such as removal of officers from line duty pending administrative review of their actions. Use of weapons approved by the PCA and mandatory weapons training are also specified.

Vice President Bill Canfield noted that the council would need time to read through the lengthy document, but said the council could vote to accept its guidelines on a temporary basis, which it then did.

Tim Lauffenburger tackled the gerrymandering issue when he introduced a motion to support a resolution presented by the Fair Districts PA group at the council’s February 12 meeting. That resolution endorsed Pennsylvania Senate Bill 22 and Pennsylvania House Bill 722, both of which would “create an independent citizens commission to draw voter district lines in a fair, impartial and transparent way.”

Saying he didn’t see how a council resolution could affect an issue being decided at national and state levels, President Mike Augello refused to support that resolution. Fair Districts PA spokesperson Micki McDonnell had said at the February 12 meeting that one purpose of the resolution would be to convince Rep. Jonathan Fritz and Sen. Lisa Baker to support the bills before their respective government bodies.

The council voted 5-2 in favor of the resolution; Augello and Brennan were opposed.

 

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