WEST MIDDLESEX – Borough officials announced plans to advertise for bids on a new police protection contract, but pulled back because a planned advertisement might have violated the state’s Sunshine Law.
West Middlesex Councilman Ron Preston said he learned that Solicitor Bob Tesone had directed the borough secretary Monday to place a legal advertisement in The Herald. The notice was a solicitation for proposal to take over West Middlesex’s police protection services.
The borough is nearing the end of a five-year contract for Shenango Township police to patrol the borough.
Council held an executive session, closed to the public, June 23 to discuss personnel matters, primarily the need to hire an administrator to oversee West Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department. Council members did not mention any other topic discussed immediately before or after the session.
Preston said Monday that he learned Tesone gave the go-ahead to place the police advertisement.
Council voted, 4-1, at its June meeting to seek proposals for police protection services, but Preston, the sole “no” vote, said council never approved spending money for an advertisement.
“At our executive session there was a lengthy discussion about the details that should be put into the proposal,’’ Preston said. “It was never discussed how to get that information out.’’
Taking out the ad would require using public funds. In order for the ad to be placed requires council to have a public vote at a regular meeting, Preston said.
“I contacted Tesone and he admitted he was wrong,’’ Preston said.
A message left for Tesone Monday wasn’t immediately returned.
A version of the advertisement was displayed for a few hours on the borough’s website but was taken down.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said Preston was correct.
“Using public funds should be authorized at a public meeting,’’ Melewsky said.
Also, West Middlesex Council might have violated the state’s Open Meetings Law if it discussed either the police or fire department at the executive session.
“Personnel applies to specific people, not an entire department,’’ Melewski said.
West Middlesex’s police contract expires Dec. 31.
Preston said he previously held an informal meeting with Tom Hubert, president of Shenango Township supervisors, about a new contract.
“What he was asking for in the new contract was extremely, extremely high,’’ Preston said. “I knew that it wouldn’t sit well with the rest of council.’’
He declined to give any figures of what Shenango Township was seeking.
Preston served for 25 years as Shenango Township’s chief of police and retired from that post in 2004. Hubert acknowledged he met with Preston and gave “some numbers’’ on what the township wanted to charge in the new contract.
Hubert did not disclose how much money Shenango Township is asking for, but said the figure would be an increase over current costs. Under the existing contract, West Middlesex pays the township about $140,000 a year.
“The offer we gave is a starting point,’’ Hubert said. “We’ll begin actual negotiations soon. We just want a fair agreement.’’
The outcome of those negotiations could affect the school resource officer position at West Middlesex Area School District, a position now filled by a Shenango Township police officer.
West Middlesex School District’s campus and all of its schools are in the borough, but Shenango Township residents attend West Middlesex schools. Lackawannock Township also is part of West Middlesex Area School District.
The school district pays most of the resource officer’s wages, with the township paying benefits.
“If Shenango Township doesn’t have the police contract with West Middlesex, the resource officer will have to come from whoever the borough gave the contract to,’’ he said.
West Middlesex and Shenango Township have been involved in disputes on multiple issues. The two communities share a sewer system, which is mandated to undergo an upgrade.
The township and its residents are going to bear most of the cost for installing new sewer lines, but both municipalities share a treatment plant, so they will share the expense for upgrading the facility.
Initially, Shenango Township officials said West Middlesex is required to pay 48 percent of the costs for improving the treatment plant. West Middlesex council balked at the percentage and the two sides still are still without a cost-sharing agreement.
In 2018, Shenango Township Volunteer Fire Department and West Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department began talks about merging. But the discussions broke down over details in getting the merger completed. Justin Barnes, Shenango Township Fire chief, said he has no interest in continuing merger talks with the current officers of the West Middlesex Fire Department.
Hubert said he was taking the latest uproar over police in stride.
“This is just something to add to the list,’’ he said.