George, Brown Disagree On Safety In City
WILKES-BARRE — Mayor Tony George contends that the city is safe and his anti-crime initiatives are working, but his opponent in the primary election, George Brown, disagrees.
Public safety is one of the chief issues for both candidates seeking the Democratic nod for city mayor at the polls on Tuesday.
“The current mayor ran a campaign on law and order, and I and several residents I’ve talked to don’t believe there is law and order. Crime is high,” Brown has said.
George contends the idea that parts of the city are unsafe is a false perception.
“People love living downtown, they love walking downtown … People aren’t afraid to come downtown,” as evidenced by packed evening shows at the Kirby Center and crowded downtown restaurants after those shows, George said.
“Besides that one week of shootings that we had in the past four years, what have you heard happening in Wilkes-Barre? … You go to Scranton, go to Hazleton, we’re not even close compared to the problems they have, but it’s the perception,” he said.
Brown also has criticized George for one of his choices in police leadership.
“Let’s go back to the hiring of a police chief that wasn’t qualified … and that was hired by the mayor when he took office. You have to hire people in those senior level positions that are skillful enough to do the job,” Brown said.
Brown pointed to a review and report by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association that found former chief Marcella Lendacky, whom George hired shortly after taking office, did not have adequate education or qualifications for the position.
“You have to appoint people to positions that have the skills, knowledge and ability to do those jobs and not appoint them and then hope they gain that knowledge on the job training. … I will make sure those people are qualified to do the job they’re appointed to,” Brown said.
George said two people applied for the chief position — Lendacky, then a lieutenant, and the chief at the time, Robert Hughes.
“Lt. Lendacky was the better candidate. I went by what people did (and) what they could do. Chief Lendacky ran the night shift and that was one of the best platoons in the city because they were disciplined,” George said, adding that the police department is a paramilitary organization and must be treated as such.
He said Lendacky might not have had the education recommended by the chiefs association, but she did nothing different than he, Bill Barrett and Joseph Coyne did as police chiefs. Yet, the police union fought every initiative she put forth.
The union “filed a grievance because she had them do hot spots, which is you sit in (a high-crime area). They were fearful that they put themselves in danger. … They filed a grievance because she made the detectives wear ties, things like that. They said if I hired her, they would file a grievance for everything she did, and that’s what they did,” George said.
George said he thought “friction” between the police union and Lendacky would “smooth out over a couple months,” but it didn’t, so Lendacky decided to retire.
As for police and fire staffing, George said the current numbers — 78 police officers and 54 firefighters — are appropriate and affordable for now. He has said he’s postponing the hire of more firefighters until an arbitrator decides on contract provisions so he knows how many hires the city can afford.
George said Hazleton, with a population of about 25,000 and similar square mileage as Wilkes-Barre, has 23 firefighters; Williamsport, with 30,000 residents, has 32 firefighters.
“We have a population of 40,000, we have 54, 55 firemen, so we’re way above the normal for this area,” George said.
“I’d like to see it at 70, but each fireman (costs) $145,000 (in salary and benefits), so 10 firemen cost $1.5 million — that’s 20 mills (in property taxes). They asked for 100 people in arbitration. … That’s $7.5 million — 100 mills, which would be doubling their city tax, and I can’t have that.” he said.
George said Brown claimed he would hire more firefighters and police officers and pave all the roads. “I’d like to do that too, but who’s going to pay for it? Are you going to triple the taxes? … He said we’d get grants and aid. The state doesn’t have any money, the federal government doesn’t have any money.”
Brown said he couldn’t provide appropriate numbers for police and fire staffing without first sitting down with the police and fire chiefs and their top staff to get their input. He said he would do so if elected.
“The funding (for more hires) may not be there now the way that the city is being run. I want to run this city on fiscal responsibility, I want to run city hall that way, and I want to evaluate how the city is run with the budget that … we’re running with now. First of all, I don’t have faith in the numbers that are in this budget,” Brown said.
While community activist Angel Jireau has called for the creation of a civilian review board to address complaints against police officers, George doesn’t think one is necessary, doubted the police union would agree to it in contract negotiations, and questioned how to determine who would make qualified board members.
Brown said he doesn’t have enough information to answer yes or no, but he would meet with any citizen group to discuss the idea and evaluate the pros and cons.
Jireau has alleged that complaints made to city officials over the years about former community policing officer Robert Collins, whom state police charged in January with forcing suspects to perform sexual acts, were dismissed as rumors.
And while George has touted the use of an anti-crime unit, saturation patrols and working with county, state and federal authorities to address crime, Brown said he would add a neighborhood strike team into the mix and employ the “broken window theory” to address nuisances crimes
“The neighborhood strike team was in effect, but chief Lendacky eliminated it. … If you have problematic neighborhoods, the neighborhood strike team deals with that neighborhood, deals with those issues. … We don’t have that now,” Brown said.
Contact the writer:
email@example.com 570-821-2110, @MocarskyCV
This is the first of three stories focusing on Wilkes-Barre’s mayoral candidates’ views on issues facing the city. Today’s story focuses on public safety. The candidates’ views found in this story were shared at meetings with The Citizens’ Voice Editorial Board earlier this month and in other recent forums.