Secrecy a ‘chief’ concern

Regardless of how the situation involving longtime Hollidaysburg Police Chief Jeffrey Ketner plays out, borough officials have provided a horrific example of how not to handle a sensitive issue.

As the result of an executive session last Thursday, Ketner, who has been part of the police department for three decades, ended up on paid leave and suspended from his law-enforcement responsibilities.

Since Ketner’s removal from his duties, not one elected borough official would come forward with any hint about what had precipitated the action.

None would say if Ketner did anything wrong while he was on duty or off duty (but reflecting negatively on his position), or if the “leave” was a result of an allegation against the chief.

Then there’s the question of whether the “leave” was even legal; the state’s Sunshine Law prohibits official actions in executive session.

Prior to council members beginning a closed executive session after completing Thursday’s meeting agenda, they indicated they would not return to the council chambers for a vote or discussion regarding the non-public deliberation.

A personnel issue pertaining to a specific employee is a legal topic for an executive session, but a session like that must remain within the parameters that the law establishes – one of the main ones being no official action takes place during the closed meeting.

What the impact on Ketner’s situation might be if the council failed to abide by the law is unclear.

The only certainty that existed through Tuesday was that the council had wronged Hollidaysburg residents by its shoddy response to whatever had occurred.

Had the council been immediately upfront about its decision, the confusion about Ketner allegedly having been fired rather than put on leave never would have occurred.

It’s puzzling why the council did not have its labor lawyer, Dave Andrews, present Thursday night, or at least available, to handle the sensitive announcement that such a longtime, respected individual had been removed from his duties.

It took until Saturday for Andrews to disclose that Ketner had been put on paid leave, not terminated.

It’s understandable that Andrews would not disclose specifics of why the chief no longer was on duty, but it wouldn’t have been outside the bounds of confidentiality for him – or another borough spokesman, like Mayor John Stultz – to have indicated whether an on-duty or off-duty infraction was being alleged.

On Monday, a new development became part of the aura of mystery when Ketner’s attorney, Michael Wagner, said he believed “improper political considerations” might have been an element in the situation.

Wagner also revealed that Ketner’s leave had started immediately Thursday evening, which would indicate that the council either made an official decision during the executive session or reneged on its announcement that it would not return to the council chambers for a vote.

Wagner termed the council’s action outside the bounds of due process and beyond the bounds of any legal advice.

Regardless, borough residents have been wronged.

From the start, they had the right to a reasonable window into what’s going on, and whatever might occur in the hours or days ahead won’t change that.