Faced with the spring dissolution of the Northern Berks Regional force, Maidencreek Township supervisors have decided forming a new township police department is the best option for ensuring local coverage.

The board will begin interviewing candidates for the position of police chief next week, Township Manager Diane Hollenbach said this week.

The advertisement for the chief’s position states the township of about 10,000 residents will create a department in early May with a staff of seven officers.

Maidencreek has a little more than three months to arrange local police coverage because Northern Berks Regional Police Department, headquartered at the Ontelaunee Township building, will cease to exist May 10.

Maidencreek hasn’t had its own police department for three decades. It joined Ontelaunee Township in 1991 to form a joint force. The Northern Berks Regional department was established eight years later when Leesport came aboard.

The Northern Berks Regional Police Commission decided by a 2-1 vote in November to disband the 13-member department following 18 months of acrimonious meetings.

The department’s chief, Brian Horner, repeatedly clashed with the Maidencreek Township representative Heidi Fiedler, a township supervisor. Their discord centered on Horner’s assertive personnel-management style and his vigorous objections to Fiedler allowing officers to bypass the chain of command and go to her with their grievances.

Legal costs mounted as the commission was faced with lawsuits from some of the officers.

In late 2019, the commission hired an outside counsel to conduct an internal investigation of undisclosed allegations, during which Horner took a nearly four-month leave of absence. The allegations were determined to be without merit, and Horner was reinstated.

Following the commission vote to disband, Maidencreek supervisors hired a consultant to study the costs of staffing, equipping and housing their own police department.

They also explored other options, including contracting with Mount Penn-based Central Berks Regional and the Fleetwood and Muhlenberg Township police departments, Hollenbach said.

"Based on the study and all the information gathered, the supervisors decided it was best for us to start our own department," she said.

The 2021 budget includes nearly $1.3 million for police services, which is the township’s share of the regional department's budget.

The estimated annual cost of operating a township police department is slightly lower at nearly $1.2 million Hollenbach said, but that figure could be even lower if the township is able to house the police department in the township building rather than paying for building space elsewhere.

Officials are looking at renovating the municipal building to accommodate the police department.

Hollenbach said Maidencreek officials still hope that Ontelaunee Township supervisors will reconsider their decision to dissolve the regional force, but that appears to be a long shot.

Ontelaunee supervisors issued a public statement in December explaining why they are moving forward with starting their own police department to take over coverage from the regional force. The statement said officials believe they can operate more efficiently without Maidencreek, citing expected savings on fuel and lawyers.

Leesport officials said they plan to pay for coverage from the Ontelaunee Township Police Department when it is formed.

Ontelaunee has advertised for applicants for police officers to staff the Ontelaunee force.

Ontelanee Secretary-Treasurer Kim Berger said the supervisors have retained a consultant to assist them in setting up a police department, including appointing a chief. At this point, the chief's position has not been advertised, she said.

Horner declined comment.

Theoretically, both new departments could compete for experienced officers who will lose their jobs with the Northern Berks force.

However, the Northern Berks Regional Police Association, which is the collective bargaining unit for the officers, has expressed dismay that Ontelaunee Township didn't give its own officers a heads-up that applications were being accepted before alerting other potential candidates.

"That was a punch to the stomachs of the officers," according to a post made last week on the association's Facebook page. "Common courtesy would have been for the administration to notify us at the same time or before the general public."

This occurred while the union was trying to engage the police commission in bargaining to protect the rights of the officers.

Ontelaunee responded to the police association's criticism in a public statement that accused the association of making inaccurate statements on its page.

"Emails were sent to current officers who are employed by the Northern Berks Regional Police Commission," the statement read in part. "Emails were also sent out to other individuals who had tested previously but were not hired by the Northern Berks Regional Police Commission. These emails simply advised all individuals that Ontelaunee Township will be advertising for officer positions for its new police department."

The township is advertising for applicants who are currently employed as officers with the Northern Berks department as well as those who have Act 120 certification that qualifies them to work as a police officer in Pennsylvania, according to the statement.

For its part, Maidencreek Township will probably give preference to the Northern Berks officers in hiring for its department, the township manager said.

"For the officers and their families, this has been heartbreaking," Hollenbach said of the impending breakup of the regional department. "We're going to do our best to make sure this is as smooth a transition as possible."

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