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Mayor hopes for less tension in '03

December 23, 2002|by STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Mayor Tom Newcomer believes he still can have a positive impact on the Chambersburg Police Department, despite the discontent of the past year.

As his first year as mayor winds down, Newcomer recently outlined key areas he plans to tackle and said he hopes to see an improvement in his relationship with the police department.

"What there has been between Chief (Michael) DeFrank and I is hopefully behind us, and I hope we can make it better," he said.

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Newcomer said his primary focus is to get more officers on the street in the next year, and he wants to work with an ad hoc committee of officers to look at how that can be achieved with different scheduling.

"I would like less overtime, with fresher men on the streets than we currently have," he said.

Newcomer said a three-person advisory committee he appointed earlier this year, including retired law enforcement officers from Maryland and Pennsylvania, has looked at different schedules, including overlapping shifts that would allow for more officers on duty at the critical period from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Currently, officers rotate through three eight-hour shifts.

Newcomer said if an additional officer can be scheduled in a way to offset overtime, he will ask the Borough Council to amend the Borough Code.

"I'm not going to say there isn't going to be overtime. There will be time we have officers sick, on vacation or training," he said.

He said he hopes to see some results in 2003 as far as a new schedule.

Despite Newcomer's optimism, DeFrank is less certain any changes would benefit the department.

"There is always a possibility there is a better work schedule out there, something other than what we are currently doing," DeFrank said. But he said the department has operated on the current schedule for at least 15 years, and none of the alternatives he has examined are as fair.

"My main concern is still we want to do what is right for the community, but keep in mind my police officers are people, family people, and we need to try and help them where we can to be with their families when they can," DeFrank said.

"The schedule we are working we have found to be a schedule that is very fair and gives all officers equal time off, regardless of rank or seniority," he said.

Due to certain variables - including sickness, vacation and injury - DeFrank said he was reluctant to put a number on how much overtime could be avoided if an additional officer were used.

He said the dollar figure for overtime has risen every year as salaries increase. He said the driving factors of the overtime need to be determined and addressed before it can be reduced.

Since he took office in January, Newcomer has traveled a rocky road.

The Chambersburg Police Officers Association filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state this summer accusing the mayor of interfering with labor negotiations and attempting to intimidate officers after the police negotiating team announced it wanted to move into arbitration.

The matter was resolved in October when Newcomer read an approved statement before council.

Then a directive Newcomer issued limiting DeFrank's contact with council, and prohibiting him from attending an executive session of council where overtime was discussed, prompted one council member to stage a protest outside Borough Hall in November and drew criticism from the community.

Newcomer said he did not intend it to be a "gag order" as many have referred to it, and that he felt it was not appropriate for the chief to speak to council about some internal issues while contract negotiations are ongoing.

"It was basically a directive that said the communications between the police chief and council will go through me," he said. "I am the liaison through council.

"There was never anything that was a gag order that eliminated officers to communicate with the public."

Borough code gives the mayor administrative power over the police department, and Newcomer said that is precisely what he is using.

"I've never said I intend to be involved in the police department as far as police matters," he said.

The borough is also footing the bill for Newcomer and DeFrank to meet with a facilitator to work on their relationship. Borough officials have not revealed how much that will cost.

Newcomer said they have met once, and he and DeFrank will not discuss what was said or how the session went.

Newcomer said he does not know what the future holds for him politically.

"Unless being mayor becomes a lot more pleasant than it has been, I will not seek re-election," he said.

Newcomer said the year has been difficult with the change in leadership and union negotiations.

"Hopefully with a new contract we can work as a team to make a good department better," he said.

Newcomer also said he supports an in-depth study of the department, which has not been done since 1974. Earlier this month, the council voted 6-4 against hiring a consultant to conduct such a study.

"I think the study would support what we're doing and give us recommendations as to ways we can make the Chambersburg Police Department better than it is now," he said. "I'm hoping council has a change of heart down the road."

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