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Safety already on minds of area municipal leaders

First Posted: 7:41 pm - June 24th, 2015

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First Posted: 8/6/2013

The deadly shooting at a township meeting in the Poconos has government officials in Luzerne County reacting with shock and sadness and some said they are concerned the same could happen locally.

“It hits very close to home,” said Gale Conrad, a supervisor in Plymouth Township, which held its monthly meeting Monday night, the same night supervisors in Ross Township, Monroe County, held their public meeting.

Authorities say 59-year-old Rockne Newell, of Saylorsburg, Ross Township, fatally shot three people — including a supervisor from neighboring Chestnuthill Township — during Monday night’s meeting amid a dispute with the township over his property. Three others were also shot, as was Newell.

Conrad, who said that without a local police force or security at the township meetings, officials — and residents in attendance — are “sitting ducks” for any person with wants to harm them.

“It’s troublesome,” Conrad said, adding this sort of incident has been in the back of her mind for years.

She said she will talk to fellow supervisors about the possibility of hiring an armed constable to attend meetings.

Some meetings protected

Ron Filippini, a Plains Township commissioner, said the Monroe County incident spurred the board to have an armed township police officer attend Thursday night’s meeting and it might become a permanent request.

That’s the norm in other municipalities including Wilkes-Barre, Nuangola, Swoyersville, Shickshinny, Wyoming and elsewhere.

Maryanne Petrilla, a former Luzerne County commissioner who now serves as manager in Butler Township, said a township police officer is at each monthly meeting. She said there’s always a concern because the day-to-day realities of keeping laws and ordinances enforced anger some constituents.

Petrilla said sometimes decisions or actions lead to making irate people verbally attack officials. What happened in Monroe County, she said, “was taking it to the extreme.”

Property disputes are common in townships, she said, and when the municipality has to step in, those involved are pegged as bad guys.

“Hopefully, this will make a person calm down and realize that no property or neighborhood dispute is worth going to this extreme,” Petrilla said.

Al Lackulonis, president of Duryea Borough Council, said the chief of police is at all meetings.

“Am I going to be more afraid? No. Am I going to be more aware? No. I think I’m already pretty aware,” Lackulonis said, noting he tries to scan the room during council meetings to gauge who’s there, the facial expressions and any suspicious movements.

Conrad: Fear factor

Conrad said the fear that will seep into the minds of officials and residents attending municipal or school board meetings could “steer good people from running for these positions, and that’s disappointing.” For a paycheck of $75 per month — the going rate in many townships for supervisors — Conrad said the reward is not worth the risk.

To serve on council is his “civic duty” Lackulonis said, and these sorts of incidents shouldn’t discourage people from performing those duties.

In Wilkes-Barre, the county’s largest municipality, city council meetings are sometimes unruly and but always attended by armed police officers. Sometimes they are asked to step in to remove attendees from chambers.

Drew McLaughlin, Wilkes-Barre’s municipal affairs manager, said police attending meetings on a regular basis began shortly after the January 2011 shooting in Arizona of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, her staff and constituents, though officers were asked to attend meetings previously when contentious matters arose.

“In recent years, we have taken proactive steps to ensure the safety of everyone attending a city council meeting. … We will continue to have police officers present for public meetings to mitigate any safety risks. We take our responsibility to protect those people exercising their constitutional rights very seriously,” said Mayor Tom Leighton.

“Public service by its very nature invites criticism and dissent. There are very important fiscal and policy decisions that are made here, which have a real-world impact upon people’s lives and property. You will always have people who disagree with those decisions, but it is essential for a healthy democracy, and society, for those disagreements to be aired through civil discourse and not violent acts,” Leighton said in an emailed statement.

Filippini said he will continue to act in the interest of the township and put any worries about his own safety to the side.

“You can’t let it affect you,” he said.

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