Search for Hollidaysburg chief leads to turmoil

Council president calls on state’s Ethics Commission, Attorney General for help with leaked details

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Disagree­ments are not uncommon among elected officials when they’re making important decisions like hiring a new police chief.

But in Hollidaysburg Borough, the search for a new chief has led to more than dissenting views.

Discussions made during legal closed-door meetings were leaked, and community members have made accusations of ethics violations and meddling by an elected official who allegedly discouraged a candidate from accepting the role.

“It has to stop,” said Borough Council President Joseph Pompa. “It just has to stop.”

In January, Police Chief Dave Gehret retired after 34 years with the local police force. He had been chief since 2014.

Now, council members must hire a replacement. Applications have been received, and interviews were conducted.

And throughout the process, community members and Holli­days­burg Mayor Joseph Dodson have been vocal in supporting Acting Chief Rodney Estep.

In Hollidaysburg, the mayor oversees the police department.

Council members met in closed-door executive sessions to discuss the position. Closed-door meetings are permitted when considering personnel matters like hiring a chief.

In the days after those closed sessions, members of the Hollidays­burg Community Watch­dog group claimed that someone had leaked information about the executive sessions to them.

That included information about a straw poll of council members allegedly taken during a closed meeting. The results of that poll showed that a majority of council members supported Tyrone Borough Police Chief John Romeo for the role, according to the Watchdog group.

The Watchdog group supported Estep.

“Rodney Estep is a man of rare competence and integrity who loves this community and knows it extremely well,” the Watchdogs wrote in a letter to council members.

“We believe council’s stated arguments for hiring an outsider with no local roots are specious,” the letter stated.

“The actual reasons appear rooted in vindictiveness, cronyism and an ongoing attempt to weaken public oversight of borough governance,” the letter continued.

In the letter, the Watchdogs — PJ Frederick, Cory Hartman, Richard Latker and Lou Mollica — called out Councilman Jeff Ketner and Borough Manager James Gehret.

They insist Ketner, a former Hollidaysburg police chief, should have recused himself from the search for a new chief and accused the manager of attempting to steer a vote for political gains.

“We have reports from several individuals that Mr. Gehret has repeatedly attempted to overstep his authority with respect to the Hollidaysburg police force, which is overseen by the mayor, and has frequently sought control over other spheres of governance in which he has no legitimate role,” the letter said.

Ketner said he could not comment on the search for a new chief, citing the protection of the executive sessions.

Similarly, James Gehret declined to comment on the search for a chief.

As for the Watchdogs’ letter, James Gehret said he could not comment because accusations against him were too vague.

“If I had specifics, I’d give you something, but I don’t have specifics,” he said.

In the days after the Watchdog letter was issued, others in the community, who also claim to have been given information about the hiring process, said Romeo had declined the Hollidays­burg role.

The role now is to be offered to Estep, according to the leaks.

On Wednesday, those leaks were confirmed by councilmen Brady Leahey and Sean Burke.

Both said the job was initially offered to Romeo, who later declined the role. There were conflicting reports about whether or not Romeo had originally accepted.

Romeo’s decision led to rumors from multiple community members, who suggested that an elected official may have contacted Tyrone’s chief to discourage him from accepting the Hollidaysburg position.

On Wednesday, Romeo, in a short voicemail message, declined to comment on the issues, referring all questions to Hollidaysburg officials.

While Hollidaysburg Borough Council members were reluctant to comment on the search for a chief, many of them spoke freely about their frustration with information leaking from their closed-door meetings.

All council members denied leaking the information.

Council members Joyce Lowe and Patrick Plummer said they could not comment further.

On Thursday, Council­man Mark Shawley expressed his disgust, but he was unwilling to speculate “on the record” about who was releasing the closed-door information.

“Somebody is leaking something, and we need to find out where it is coming from and plug it,” Shawley said.

Pompa said he is working to thwart further leaks.

“I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I’ve contacted the state’s Ethics Com­mission and the Attorney General’s Office,” Pompa said.

Pompa said he was unaware if penalties could be imposed for breaching the privacy of executive sessions, but, if so, he plans to seek them out.

“I just want somebody to help us find out,” he said.

The state’s Sunshine Law, which regulates executive sessions and protects transparency, does not include penalties for disclosing information about closed-door meetings, said Erik Arneson, executive director of the state’s Office of Open Records.

The law also does not prohibit officials from disclosing executive session talking points, he said.

However, Arneson admitted that the disclosure of that type of information is not common among elected officials.

“We do see cases from time to time when a member or two are at odds,” he said.

The hiring of a new police chief is likely to take place at Borough Council’s next public meeting, James Gehret said. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 12 in the borough building at 401 Blair St.

According to Burke and Leahey, the job has been offered to Estep, who has accepted it.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.