Early in the Maidencreek Township supervisors monthly meeting Thursday night, Nov. 12, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope that the imperiled Northern Berks Regional Police Department could be saved.
Supervisor David Franke asked for a show of hands in support of keeping the regional force intact.
Practically every hand in the standing-room-only crowd of about 100 was raised in support.
An hour-and-a-half later, chances of reconciliation evaporated when the meeting was adjourned amid chants of "Remove her, vote now" by supporters of Northern Berks Regional Chief R. Brian Horner.
The chants were intended to pressure the supervisors to recall Heidi Fiedler, Maidencreek’s representative on the Northern Berks Regional Police Commission.
Fiedler, who chairs Maidencreek’s board of supervisors, recessed the meeting. On advice of solicitor Eugene Orlando Jr. it was adjourned.
The contentious meeting followed the 2-1 vote by the police commission on Nov. 9 to disband the regional police force, which serves Maidencreek and Ontelaunee townships and Leesport.
Gary Hadden, Ontelaunee's representative, and Mayor Granville W. Sandridge, Leesport’s representative, voted in favor of disbanding. Fiedler opposed the breakup of the 13-officer force, set for May 10.
Ontelaunee will form its own police force, Hadden announced on Nov. 9.
Sandridge, who did not attend the Maidencreek meeting, said Thursday, Nov. 12, that Leesport will be served by the newly-formed Ontelaunee department.
Franke, a retired police chief of Douglass Township, said Maidencreek’s options are to form its own department, contract with another department for service or rely on state police coverage.
"We’re in still water right now," he said.
Maidencreek has set aside $1.3 million in its proposed 2021 budget to possibly underwrite a police department.
Searching for answers
Previous Berks Regional Chief Scott W. Eaken urged Maidencreek’s solicitor to contact Ontelaunee’s solicitor to see if something could be worked out to save the regional department.
"Speed is of the essence if we’re to decide to stay with Ontelaunee," warned Eaken, noting that six months is an aggressive timeline for Maidencreek to form its own department.
Eaken said he received a note from Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams, who expressed concern about the impact of the breakup on police services in the affected communities.
Contacted Friday, Nov. 13, Adams said he has no immediate plans of intervening in the dispute, but it's possible he might attend the police commission meeting in December.
Adams, a staunch advocate of regional policing, said he was caught off guard by the move to disband the department.
"To have fractured service reduces the effectiveness that larger departments can offer," he said. "The investigative function of the police departments will suffer."
The crux of the matter
As the meeting proceeded, the depth of division between Maidencreek and Ontelaunee officials became apparent.
Hadden and Fiedler sparred over legal costs incurred during a 2019 internal investigation of the department and other matters.
"This is 100 percent financial. Heidi cost the department tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. We’re done," charged Hadden, who walked out of the meeting.
Fiedler said the internal investigation was based on a complaint brought to her by an officer in the department. It was pursued, she argued, to bring transparency to the department.
Horner took a voluntary leave of absence during the investigation, which involved allegations of unfair labor practices, labor grievances and misconduct complaints. He returned to duty in January.
Responding to allegations that the investigation proved fruitless, Fiedler said three officers were reprimanded this week as a result. Details of the investigation have not been made public.
Horner told the meeting he had not intended to speak, but left no doubt about where he stood on any possible reconciliation.
"I will not work for Maidencreek Township if that woman is on the commission," he said, pointing to Fiedler. "I don’t think there is any way of saving the department."
Fred Harrison, an Ontelanuee Township resident, rose to say that he felt the regional department was beyond repair unless Fiedler resigns from the commission.
"To save it, I’m asking Heidi to resign immediately," he said, "and be replaced by either Supervisor Claude Beaver or David Franke."
Beaver expressed reservations about removing Fiedler from the commission.
"Legally, you can’t remove an appointee to a commission unless they’ve broken the law," Beaver said. "If you do, you’ll face a lawsuit."
Franke acknowledged that he will not vote to reappoint Fiedler to the regional police commission at the annual township reorganization in January.
Beaver, a former member of the police commission, confided that the bitterness between the municipalities is taking a toll on him.
“This whole thing is making me sick,” he said.