Local officials discuss safety

The day after a disgruntled resident opened fire on a Monroe County municipal meeting, killing three people, local officials in Blair County reflected on a widespread lack of armed security – and a strong sense, particularly in townships without their own police, that a violent but isolated incident elsewhere won’t change the way they do business.

News reports Tuesday named Rockne Newell, 59, as the man who picked up a rifle Monday evening and approached a Ross Township supervisors meeting, firing through windows into a municipal office containing at least 15 people. Newell killed three before an official tackled him and wounded Newell with his own gun, reports stated.

“Oh my gosh, what a tragedy,” Frankstown Township Secretary-Treasurer Beverly Henderson said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m sure that’ll be a conversation at our township meeting tonight.”

Like many municipal officials, Henderson said she’s experienced her share of dissension at township meetings.

But in 14 years on the job, she’s never seen the Frankstown supervisors call the police on an angry guest.

“It’s just a freak thing out there,” she said.

Juniata Township, like Frankstown, lacks a local police force. State troopers attend meetings only when they need to update officials on their work, veteran Supervisor David Kane said. But there’s little call for added meeting security in the township of little more than 1,000, Kane noted. Few guests even attend their gatherings, he said.

“You look at last night – how many townships had meetings? And that was one of them,” Kane said. “It’s just one of those freak things.”

The Ross shootings weren’t totally out of the blue, according to reports: Newell, now in police custody, had a history of disputes with officials over his supposedly trash-filled property. Verbal battles with troublesome residents are hardly uncommon in many boroughs and townships, as representatives will attest.

But it’s nearly impossible to predict which battles will spill over into violence.

“When things happen, people come along and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do something,'” said Dorothy Stahl, secretary-treasurer in Huston Township. “But I don’t think that’s going to cause any of our supervisors to come to a meeting with a gun.”

Nevertheless, municipal authorities can take steps to defuse arguments and secure their offices, said David Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors and a former director of the state Emergency Management Agency. Sanko, who issued a somber statement Monday calling local officials “the foot soldiers of democracy,” recalled a township that recently mulled installing bullet-resistant glass in its offices.

“The residents just screamed and said: ‘We’re not paying for that. That’s ridiculous. That’s a waste of money,” Sanko said. “I dare say that would be different today.”

Security is a delicate balance, Sanko stressed, with local governments’ sense of openness and availability often serving as their greatest asset. In a 2004 article in the township association’s magazine, sources pressed municipal officials to calmly defuse arguments and listen to citizens’ protests.

But the article also mentioned the benefits of a police presence.

“You can’t tell day to-day what’s going to make someone angry,” Sanko said.

Among Blair County municipalities, Martinsburg Borough has come down on the side of caution in recent years, with electronic security systems and cameras included in the office they’ve used since 2011.

Borough employees can lock the doors remotely and maintain video footage of guests outside, Borough Manager Randy Stoltz said Monday. The police department is headquartered in the building, and Chief Kerry Hoover attends almost every monthly council meeting, armed and in uniform.

“It never gets violent. People try to discuss [issues] reasonably,” Stoltz said. “But we try to think ahead a little bit. … Times are changing.”

Many small boroughs and townships with their own police departments include armed officers at their meetings, in many cases to report on their work more than to provide security.

But the mere presence of a uniformed officer is often enough to keep guests calm, officials said in the 2004 township association article.

“You hope that civility is alive and well in today’s society,” Sanko said. “At the end of the day, the good news is there are more good people than bad people.”