WILKES-BARRE — The city continues to fight to keep private a recently completed review of its police department, and it will now appeal a court order directing the report be released for a pending civil case.
The move comes after Luzerne County Judge Lesa Gelb on Tuesday shot down the request by city attorneys to stay and appeal her order of April 27 directing them to provide the report prepared by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.
City Attorney Tim Henry said “procedurally the next step is to appeal to the Commonwealth Court.” Henry, who is not representing the city in the civil case involving injuries to a driver in a crash caused by a police pursuit, said the appeal would be filed immediately.
Henry pointed out the city’s position in the civil case is unrelated to its decision not to make the report public under the state’s Right to Know law. Nonetheless, the 103-page report produced at a cost of more than $26,000 in taxpayer funds has been available online from the local newspapers for nearly a month.
Attorney Neil O’Donnell, of Kingston, raised the issue of availability in his argument to the judge to compel the city to provide him an authenticated copy of the report that said Chief Marcella Lendacky and Commander Ron Foy were unqualified for their senior-level management posts. O’Donnell said the documents he filed related to the report speak for themselves and declined further comment.
“The odyssey continues,” O’Donnell stated in his opposition to the amend the judge’s order. “In a truly remarkable filing, the City of Wilkes-Barre now saunters before this Honorable Court, seeking Pennsylvania Appellate Court review of a routine discovery order that warrants no further judicial analysis.”
“The City’s position in this litigation, a publicly available document is now somehow ‘privileged,’ belies reality,” O’Donnell added.
O’Donnell asked for the report to substantiate his claim that the Wilkes-Barre Police Department failed to train its officers in general and specifically on its pursuit policy. He maintained the officers did not know they had the authority to terminate a chase for public safety reasons. In addition, O’Donnell referred to Lendacky’s rebuttal in the report that said “problems with police policies ‘date back to previous administrations.’”
The civil case filed by O’Donnell in 2016 is seeking damages for injuries suffered by Donna Jackson, of Swoyersville, in a 2014 crash caused by a police pursuit of another driver that began in Hanover Township and ended in Wilkes-Barre. The municipalities, their police departments and Douglas Johnson, the driver who caused the crash, are named as defendants.
‘Protected personnel issues’
The city, represented by attorney John Dean of the Elliot Greenleaf law firm, opposed the release of the report, saying it’s irrelevant to the civil case.
“The accident which is the subject matter of the Plaintiff’s complaint occurred prior to the appointment of Marcella Lendacky as the City’s Chief of Police,” Dean said in court documents. He added that it contained “privileged information regarding protected personnel issues.”
Lendacky, who was appointed chief by Mayor Tony George in March 2016, notified him she will retire June 3. She delivered her notice the same day city officials were provided copies of the report that listed 30 recommendations to improve the force. The report did not call for her or Foy to step down, however.
Earlier this week, George said about releasing the report to the public: “I don’t see any reason to release anything.”
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.