I must admit, I don’t generally get all fired up about local politics… and I’m not involved much, so I guess I really have no big voice in complaining until I get off of my ass and vote next local election. From what I read in the papers, the Patch, & the quarterly newsletter it’s all some sort of goofy circus in Dormont anyway. (Does that quarterly thing live online anywhere?) If you’ve read a paper (in print or online), I’m sure you’ve seen the chaos in the little borough on the hill just outside Pittsburgh proper.
It’s a very odd pissing contest between the mayor, the borough manager, the city employees, the police, and the counsel. I’d love to know where/why/how it all started. A comment on a recent article from the Dormont-Brookline Patch sparked local editor Erin Faulk to reply with some links to try & help me sort things out.
I’m going to try & ignore all of the comments, as they appear to be mostly inflammatory statements. (The dates are article dates, not event dates.) Let’s see if we can all follow along…
- March 7th, 2011 – Dormont Counsel demotes the police chief Phil Ross to Sergeant without explanation. Ross was on “sick leave” at the time. Dormont mayor Thomas Lloyd publicly disagrees with the decision. This is an alarming quote form the article: “Residents and business owners asked for an explanation, but got none.” Perhaps some more insight is gained here: “Fire Captain Bryan Taylor followed up, saying that since council did away with minimum shift requirements, two officers are tied up on each call.” So, the counsel tightened the budget for the police? Maybe this caused some tension. How long had Ross been on sick leave at the time?
- March 8th, 2011 – A “no-confidence letter” signed by 29 (if my math is right?) city employees is presented to counsel that calls for the resignation of Dormont Borough manager Gino Rizza. This seems to be a theme already: “Several residents questioned Rizza’s experience during the public comment section, but got no answers.”
- April 27th, 2011 – I wish I could, but really can’t say it any better than this:
“If this were a case about whether or not Phil Ross is a nice guy or a good man or someone people like, we wouldn’t be here … But being chief of police is a big job,” he said.
Within Ross’ first year as chief, he said, council began noticing problems.
Testimony by Rizza, Assistant Manager Ian McMeans and council President Kim Lusardi painted a picture of man who didn’t have control of his department.
Rizza testified that during a meeting with him and Lusardi in November 2010, Ross said he didn’t want to be chief, but others in the department wanted him to be.
Ross, Rizza said, “felt they threw him under the bus” and wouldn’t listen to him.
Lusardi testified Ross had told her his men wouldn’t listen to him and that he was unhappy.
According to testimony:
- Ross couldn’t control overtime, which exceeded the 2010 budget of $93,000 by about $50,000. This was in part because Ross would not use his ability to deny officers from taking comp time in some cases. At the time, the borough had a minimum shift requirement of a sergeant on all shifts and at least one officer.
- Ross did not notify Rizza of an attempted child luring in October. Instead, Rizza said he learned several hours later from the school superintendent. The delay, he said, prevented prompt notification to borough residents using the borough’s reverse 911 system.
- Rizza learned from another officer in November that police cars weren’t being well-maintained and that cameras in two of the cars hadn’t been working for about a year.
- Officers were also not walking beats as required by borough code. In 2009, officers walked 126 foot patrols, and 83 in 2010 and one in the early part of 2011.
Lautner also suggested the police may have had reasons for not coming forth with information about the attempted child luring. Rizza and McMeans said public safety should take precedence.
Lautner also said vehicle maintenance wasn’t in Ross’ job description. And, he suggested, police were walking more beats than those that were logged.
In his cross-examination, Lautner asked Rizza why he sought to demote Ross by holding a Loudermill hearing—essentially a due process hearing at which a public employee facing discipline can present his or her side—on Feb. 18, just six days after council had given Ross 60 days to comply with its latest directives.
Rizza said that was because Ross’ reactions during the hearing indicated he had no intentions to following council’s instruction, saying “Bull—-. Council is not my boss.”
At the end of the hearing, Rizza said, Ross complained of shortness of breath. He left the meeting and was taken by ambulance to the hospital and went out on sick leave until about early April.
Gabriel characterized that as a “panic attack,” to audience groans. Lautner objected and was sustained.
Heh, “under the bus” thing.
- May 3rd, 2011 – Councilwoman Joan Hodson questions the intentions of Gino Rizza’s GPS unit monitoring, citing excessive time logged on to the system.
- June 9th, 2011 – Dormont Borough Manager (apparently unaffected by letter from nearly all employees calling for his resignation in March) is cited for trespassing at the police station. I believe that all borough offices are in the municipal building. It seems that Rizza used a non-civilian entrance to the police station to go in & complain about a parking ticket. Surprise! Then Sgt. Phil Ross made the citation, apparently after several warnings to Mr. Rizza & his sidekick assistant manager, Ian McMeans, to not use that entrance. Apparently Rizzo parked in a space set aside for LifeSpan (a company that serves senior citizens) to earn the ticket. It is noted that Ross did not write the ticket or citation. Really, at this point… everyone involved is starting to look like an ass. Rizzo paid the $15 ticket and made this statement: “This unfortunate incident is an example of what the Borough Council and Administration have been trying to change: a Police Department that sees itself as unanswerable to the elected Borough Council and officers who are willing to go so far as to file inappropriate criminal charges to keep it that way.“
- June 10th, 2011 – Rizza calls the trespass charge “Utterly Ridiculous”. Of course. I can’t make this stuff any clearer/funnier:
Ross said the area Rizza walked through contains sensitive police documents and file cabinets and also a juvenile holding cell.
Ross denied that the citation and ticket were in retaliation for his demotion, which he is appealing.
Sgt. Jim Burke, who issued the trespassing citation to Rizza, was placed on paid administrative leave for an unspecified amount of time Thursday afternoon by Assistant Borough Manager Ian McMeans, Ross said Friday.
However, Mayor Tom Lloyd said he reinstated him.
Asked if he had that power, Lloyd said, “I think I have more power to reinstate than the assistant manager had to suspend him.”
Placing Burke on administrative leave was authorized by council.
Ross said Burke was on his regular day off Friday.
- June 14th, 2011 – Sgt. Ross suspended. Of course. Still amidst his appeals of demotion from Police Chief, apparently. The reason? “…for directing officers to disable GPS units installed in patrol cars earlier this year.” The article later refers to this as “The GPS incident”. (Great name for a band.) Ross ordered the disconnection of the units under the direction of Mayor Lloyd. Can we see a Dormont flow-chart of the seats of power here? Who’s in charge of who? Apparently no one knows. Again, I quote directly as this is unintentional comedic gold:
Lloyd and others have suggested the GPS units were installed in the five cars so Rizza could spy on police.
“They were installed for safety purposes and they were not used that way,” Lloyd said Tuesday. “The way I look at it is, (management has) abused the use of them.”
Rizza has denied using the units to spy on police.
Lloyd said as mayoy he is in charge of the police department and that the order to disconnect the units is within his powers.
Rizza and council maintain that the police ultimately answer to them because they set policy. The struggle over who has authority over the police department has been ongoing.
“They’re certainly not in charge of a lot of things they think they are,” Lloyd said of council and management.
“I just believe they’ve gotten some bad advice,” Lloyd said. “I don’t know how it’s ever going to get resolved. But it’s got to because we’ve had an excellent department for years and years and years. And they’ve done everything they can to destroy (police) morale.”
But Councilman Drew Lehman said Lloyd has been giving bad guidance and said ordering the GPS units to be disabled wasn’t the mayor’s call to make.
These are grown-ass adults. This is not a prime-time drama plot line. The last line of the article makes me giggle; “Rizza contends he is entitled to use the door.”
- July 6th, 2001 – Sgt. Burke (the guy who issued the citation to Rizza) is demoted to patrolman. Counsel approves. Lloyd annoyed.
- July 6th, 2001 – Sgt. Ross (former police chief) also demoted to patrolman. For real. “The decision followed June hearings regarding the job performance of Ross, who has been on paid suspension since last month for previously telling officers to disconnect GPS units installed in patrol cars, according to previous reports. Ross said he gave the order at the direction of Mayor Tom Lloyd, who suggested the navigation devices were being used by borough Manager Gino Rizza to spy on police.”
- July 6th, 2011 – Hey, where’d all our money go? Apparently all of these demotions, hearings, legal proceedings, suspensions, etc. had fees, and in July Dormont was already $6000 over budget. A quote from Mayor Lloyd: “All problems of this borough will go away the day council has enough nerve to terminate the borough manager.” Rizza countered: “Council has the ultimate authority in the borough. Council does the hiring and firing.” In other words, “nanny-nanny boo boo.”
- June 21st, 2011 - Richard Dwyer hired as acting interim police chief, while he helps look for a new one. Article tries to recap the insanity:
Disagreements over who has ultimate control over the police department have festered for some time, with both Lloyd and Rizza—through council—claiming authority.
Tensions escalated after Rizza was ticketed last month for parking in a spot at the borough building lot designated for another tenant.
Officer James Burke issued the ticket. After getting the ticket, Rizza entered the police department through a door inside the building for which he has an electronic key pass, Burke cited him for defiant trespass.
Ross contended Rizza wasn’t allowed to enter that way, saying sensitive materials were in the area and a juvenile holding cell was visible. Rizza should have waited for an officer to meet him at the door and escort him, according to Ross.
Burke was suspended, then demoted to patrolman instead of being fired over the incident. The trespassing charge has also been dropped.
Rizza said he needed to get to a meeting and all other spots were taken, and that he only intended to park there until another spot opened up. He has paid the parking ticket.
A related statement signed Thursday by a police union representative and a police union attorney acknowledged Rizza is permitted to enter the station, the trespassing charge was inappropriate, and that council has the “ultimate authority to hire and discipline its police officers, subject only to the collective bargaining agreement and the Pennsylvania Borough Code.”
The statement also acknowledged the mayor cannot direct police officers to disconnect or damage the GPS units or other equipment the borough owns.
Dwyer will not have arrest powers, but can carry a gun.
Heh. Nice line there at the end. It would look great on a movie poster.
- July 27th, 2011 – Now the civil service commission is involved? Wait, what the hell is the civil service commission? At any rate, this 3-person commission decides to overturn the demotion of Phil Ross, but I’m unsure if that makes him a sergeant or the police chief.
- July 28th, 2011 – Dormont borough (of course) appeals the commission’s ruling. You knew it was coming, right? The meat of this article: “The appeal is the latest round in an ongoing battle over who has ultimate authority over the police department. Council claims it does, but Ross and Mayor Tom Lloyd say the mayor is in charge.” Contains another quote from Ross pre-dating my fancy timeline: “But on Feb. 11, Ross told Rizza and Ian McMeans, the assistant borough manager, that ‘council is not my boss’,’ I don’t care who hired me, council can’t tell me what to do’ and ‘council can’t terminate me,’ according to the appeal.”
- August 2nd, 2011 – The borough solicitor (whatever that is?) says Mayor Lloyd has no power to dismiss tickets. (I see an article form January about it.) The mayor says it’s tradition. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the cops or the GPS units, but it certainly has to do with the chain on authority in Dormont…
Lloyd provides no accounting to council of dismissals and and his reasons.
“Nobody but except a few people here have even brought it up as a question,” he said of council members who’ve questioned the practice. “I’ve been doing it 18 years and most people have understood that process.”
The issue has come up several times this year. In February, council said it was looking into the matter, and recently, acting Chief Richard Dwyer told officers that certain tickets should be issued as state violations, not borough violations.
Lloyd defended his practice during Monday’s meeting when Manager Gino Rizza asked him how many tickets he thought he dismissed. More than 300, Rizza said.
Lloyd pressed on with an example of tickets issued during street sweeping on July 11. During holidays, street sweeping is postponed. Lloyd said they shouldn’t have been written.
“Now, if you come in here and say, ‘Look, I wasn’t around, I wasn’t aware of it.’ What would you do?” he said. “I’m not asking you to give me an answer, I’m saying, ‘What would you do?’”
“We should be the protector of the residents,” he said after the meeting. “We should also be showing compassion to the residents.”
- August 4th, 2011 – Color me confused. Did the commission’s ruling not stand? Was it all for show? These people call for a vote to overturn a ruling in favor of Ross.
- August 23rd, 2011 – I’m sorry, you just have to read this one: “Mayor Tom Lloyd told Richard Dwyer on Monday that he was suspended for seven days without pay beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday over the incident, though council quickly reinstated him as of 8:30 a.m.” should get you started.
- August 30th, 2011 – Residents are wondering what exactly the new police chief is doing… and mentions that the Mayor suspended Dwyer for 7 days… on no authority? Wait, what was the the new guy suspended for?
- November 1st, 2011 – Phil Ross is suing the already over-budget Dormont. For obvious reasons, I guess.
- November 16th, 2011 – (Acting) Chief Dwyer reflects on his accomplishments. This poor bastard just seems like he was trying to do his job despite the pee flying in at all angles.
Despite the numerous issues swirling in the borough, Dwyer has tried to stay focused on his mission of improving the police department.
“He has exceeded all of the goals we set when he was originally hired, and he helped to implement and correct many things we were told were lacking in our police department,” council Vice President Laurie Malka wrote in an email to Patch on Tuesday.
Dwyer detailed some of those changes he feels have benefitted the borough.
Walking the beat
In an effort to make officers more responsive to community needs, Dwyer has instituted walking patrols.
“I’ve got them out of the cars, walking in the business district,” he said. “The average officer probably walks two times on each shift. It gives you an increased feeling of security when police are visible in the community.”
In addition, the officers check on bars at closing time and, when pharmacies in Castle Shannon and Mt. Lebanon were hit by robberies, Dwyer asked them to talk to Dormont pharmacy managers to let them know there would be additional patrols.
Dwyer said to make Dormont’s patrol cars more visible to the community, he changed the color on three of the five vehicles to a classic black-and-white paint job. He also has put a new police car in next year’s budget as two of the cars are “in bad shape.”
Dwyer said, upon his arrival, police overtime pay was “out of control.”
In an effort to cut those costs, which have resulted in some officers having annual incomes of more than $100,000, Dwyer implemented a 12-hour schedule. He has the officers split into three-man platoons working the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift or 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
Within a 14-day period, the 12 officers will work seven days and have off seven days and the shift length results in less overtime pay. The average officer has 182.5 pass days and, with sick and vacation time added in, that adds up to about 208 days a year.
“Every second weekend, you have a three-day weekend,” Dwyer explained. “What this tends to do is cause less sick time abuse.”
He had told police that if the new scheduling didn’t work out, they could switch back. Since the new schedule has been in effect, a few officers who were turned down for overtime have filed grievances, Dwyer said.
But when he sent an email to officers last week asking if they want to return to the old schedule, half replied that they want to keep the 12-hour schedule, he said.
Officers carried their weapons certification cards with them, but Dwyer felt that police should have a Dormont Police Department identification card.
“All public employees should have ID cards,” Dwyer said, including school and hospital staffs and all borough employees.
Though the cost is generally about $35 a card, Dwyer was able to have cards made at the county police academy at no cost to the borough.
Council voted on Monday to overturn Lloyd’s veto of the new parking ticket ordinance. Dwyer said he discovered that citations for state violations were being written up as borough tickets so the borough obtained the revenue. He accused Lloyd of supporting the practice.
Early on, Dwyer was shocked to open the trunk of a police car and find it empty, devoid of safety equipment he said should be standard in all police vehicles—flares, fire extinguishers, gas masks, helmets and safety vests.
“I’m not faulting previous people, but that’s what you’re supposed to have,” Dwyer said. “You’ve got to be prepared.”
Since then, the department received a federal grant to purchase all new bulletproof vests for each officer.
“Nobody was worried where the safety equipment was in the police car,” Dwyer said. “But they were worried about badges?”
While no one knows the outcomes of Ross’ suit against council or the final ruling on his civil service case in Common Pleas Court, Dwyer has his future planned.
Because his wife still works, he’ll go from being interim chief to the “house guy.” But he plans to spend more time fishing, meeting up with friends and spending time with his grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 21.
And while he might have taken the heat in Dormont, it won’t deter him from vacationing in tropical Jamaica next year.
For real. So he expects Chief Ross to be reinstated?
- December 12th, 2011 – James Burke is now also suing the borough. Clearly, this will drag on to the end of time.
I’m not picking any sides… I just would really like to know the whole story. I’m sure most residents would. The whole ordeal seems like a waste of time & resources for everyone involved, the losers ultimately being Dormont residents & business owners. I also find it odd that a police blotter isn’t published regularly with easy access & complete information for all citizens.
Sadly, to me, all involved look like fools at this point. It appears that no one involved has taken the high road, and any further defense of their position will just sound more ridiculous. I’m amazed that there is no clear-cut chain of command outlined anywhere for the local government.
I don’t like parking tickets. (On-street parking is such a royal pain.)
I do like the strong visible police presence in the neighborhood. It makes me feel safe, & like there will be a very quick response should I ever need them.
I don’t care if the cars have GPS units. Isn’t Dormont less than square mile? What reason other than monitoring the cars would they have for installation?
I do care that Dormont is wasting money on these counsel meetings, demotions, appeals, and comparing pee-pee sizes. I’m sure the money could be better used elsewhere. (Almost anywhere else – like defining — in writing — a clear Borough chain of command.)
Am I missing anything? Is this the whole ordeal?
Can someone make an info-graphic or Lifetime movie about this, please?
- A Cristmas Story in Dormont (aixelsyd13.wordpress.com)
- Movies I’d like to see at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont (aixelsyd13.wordpress.com)
- Four Short Films by Pittsburgh Filmmakers – Sat. Dec. 3 (iheartpgh.com)
- This Weekend, Party Like its 1984 (iheartpgh.com)