Honesdale rehashes public safety

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 4/12/22

HONESDALE, PA — With warmer weather approaching, more people will soon be out and about in downtown Honesdale. As residents and visitors prepare to shed their winter layers, local officials are …

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Honesdale rehashes public safety

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HONESDALE, PA — With warmer weather approaching, more people will soon be out and about in downtown Honesdale. As residents and visitors prepare to shed their winter layers, local officials are preparing with some conversations about public safety.

Pedestrian safety

Mayor Derek Williams came to the March 28 Honesdale Borough Council meeting with ideas about pedestrian safety downtown. With a number of pedestrian fatalities in the borough’s recent history, it’s a clear issue with no obvious solution.

There are several flashing beacons at certain crosswalks downtown, alerting drivers that somebody is actively crossing the street on foot. But since they are only placed at a few of Honesdale’s numerous crosswalks, and would be costly to make uniform, Williams is in favor of finding some more consistent, cheaper methods of keeping drivers alert. Some simple signage at each crosswalk could be a first step, he recommended.

“While I find the flashing beacons really helpful, they are expensive,” he said. “And they kind of focus [drivers’] attention to the most noticeable instances of somebody crossing the street, and it isn’t necessarily building recurring [caution at all crosswalks].”

Councilor David Nilsen said that the borough’s two-lane, one-way traffic patterns on Main and Church streets are at the root of the issue.

“When someone stops for a pedestrian, the driver in the other lane says, “Hey look, that guy stopped,’ and that’s about as far as it goes, until you see a human coming,” he said. “The one-way is a big problem… I don’t know how much we can do.”

It’s not the first time the one-way traffic pattern has been regarded as unsafe. Back in 2011, Ruth Ann Malti was fatally struck by a vehicle in Honesdale on the corner of Church and Seventh Streets. Her family sued the borough, PennDOT and the engineers who planned the new traffic pattern for her wrongful death. The family’s attorneys reached a $2 million settlement after engineers concluded the intersection was “unnecessarily dangerous for pedestrians.”

Council president Jim Hamill suggested some kind of signage at the north and south corridors of the downtown area, which would direct drivers to slow down for pedestrians as they cross the bridge onto Main Street or enter Fourth Street from either direction.

“Potentially we could even discuss maybe having something that lets drivers know there are going to be a lot of pedestrians, and it’s not a game of ‘Frogger,’” he said. “There’s a real important need to get [their attention] as they’re entering that corridor of traffic, because eventually we are going to have another fatality… and that’s not what I think this borough wants to see at all.”

In the summer of 2019, an 85-year-old resident named Josephine Crossman was struck by a vehicle while crossing Eighth Street. She died the following day.

Councilor James Jennings said that when signage isn’t enough, enforcing a strict ticketing policy is a surefire way to get people to follow the rules.

“Unfortunately, one of the few ways that people start to really pay attention is if you ticket them, and there’s not a really good system for us to ticket them at this point, especially when you have an incredibly long, straight shot without any need to stop,” he said. “It’s a wide street, there’s two lanes of traffic, there’s no stop [signs]… the only way outside of these measures which cost the borough a ton of money… is to ticket people somehow and have the word get out.”

He acknowledged that more tickets could lead to a less pleasant experience for drivers in the borough, but that Main and Church streets are currently “extremely dangerous” for pedestrians.

Nilsen wondered if placing more traffic lights along the way was possible. Borough manager secretary Judith Poltanis said that option would take a long time to implement, as it would require surveys and a good deal of paperwork through PennDOT.

“It won’t be popular, but it might save somebody’s life,” Nilsen said.

Police candidate confusion

Later in the meeting, councilor Bill McAllister asked police chief Rick Southerton about the status of the local police force. The department has been struggling to maintain a full staff for years, but now the borough has allocated more than $80,000 in the 2022 budget to hire two additional full-time officers.

Hiring a full-time officer, however, requires a lengthy application process through the borough’s civil service commission. Southerton said that, as far as he knew, the commission currently did not have any candidates to pick from.

“Even if you started it now, it would be before the end of the year before the civil service process would be complete,” the chief told the council. “I don’t know if everybody grasps how bad the summer’s going to be. The contracts have changed, now some of the officers have to take leave that they used to not have to take. We’re down to three officers and there are no part-time officers hired; you’re going to have days when we’re just shut down.”

Part-time officers could help fill in the gaps, and they don’t need to be hired through the cumbersome civil service process. However, there don’t seem to be many potential candidates interested in a part-time position. Southerton blamed the lack of interest on a “very toxic work environment” due to “past practices,” as well as recent rules in the county sheriff’s department that prohibits deputies and detectives from splitting their time between the two forces. Sheriff’s deputies were once the borough’s main source of part-time officers.

Southerton mentioned that there is currently a candidate for a part-time position who has been waiting about two months for a response from the borough.

“You have a candidate right now you’re not hiring,” Southerton said. “So people are wondering what’s the sense of putting an application in.”

It seemed to be news to the councilors that there was a part-time candidate awaiting their decision. There was also some confusion on the council about whose authority it was to hire new officers. The police chief has no hiring or firing power; only the council can do that.

Typically, the borough’s public safety committee would receive an application, review it, and make a recommendation to the council about the hiring of the candidate, at which point the council would vote to hire the candidate or not. Yet Councilor McAllister, who serves as the vice chair of the committee, was not even aware of this candidate whose application was apparently now a couple months old.

The council attempted to sort through the confusion and locate where the break in the chain occurred. Councilor Nilsen asked some pointed questions of Poltanis regarding what she did with the physical application once it came into her possession. But this did not yield much clarification, and Hamill was quick to rein things in as frustration among councilors became evident. Without any clear answers, the council moved on.

“We need better communication here,” McAllister said.

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