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July 30, 2010

Linesville Mayor Seeley resigns, cites 'hostility'

LINESVILLE — Linesville Mayor Christopher Seeley — who was among the youngest mayors in the United States when he was voted into office soon after turning 18 in 2005 — sent a letter of resignation dated July 27 to Linesville Borough Council.

At a special meeting Tuesday, council approved Seeley’s resignation and appointed former council member Ronald Harper as the new mayor.

In the letter, Seeley says his resignation was due to “hostility” within the borough’s organization, which has taken on an “environment of mistrust and strife,” and that his office has suffered “sidelining and marginalization” by council.

In a phone interview Thursday, Seeley said borough government “is being run more in an almost military fashion as opposed to how good open government should be run.”

He added, “The decorum at the meetings has completely broken down. The loudest voice is the one that runs meetings.” He also said the “tenor in the borough government is one of fear, frustration and anger.”

Council President Pete Fizer, also contacted on Thursday, disagrees with Seeley’s characterization of the borough government’s atmosphere.

“No, I don’t see it that way,” he said.

Fizer said he doesn’t “hold anything personally against Chris. I think he’s an intelligent person and I think he did a good job.

“When we would question him about certain things, he had this thing that he would say, ‘I like to stay above the fray.’ And I’d tell him, ‘Sometimes you have to get in the fray.’ And I think he was reluctant to do that.

“There is no animosity between me and him, or him and the rest of the council. It’s just a difference of opinion.”

According to Seeley, the bad vibes between him and council had been building for months. It reached a boil, it seems, when Linesville Police Chief George Davis retired on June 29.

Davis was with the department since 1977 and had been chief since 1990.

“It was just time (to step down),” Davis said Thursday. “I thought 30 years was enough.”

Davis said he didn’t retire because of a contract dispute with council, which had been rumored.

“No, I’ve gone through plenty of contracts,” he said. He added, “that was all negotiable.”

However, the retirement ended up spawning a dispute over who was in charge of the police department.

According to the Linesville borough code, duties of the mayor include management and maintenance of the police department. But the situation called into question just how much power the mayor does or does not hold. As a legislator, the mayor holds what is termed an advisory position. He can break tie votes in council (which Seeley did on occasion) and can also veto ordinances passed by council (an opportunity that was never exercised by Seeley).

“The mayor of a borough has very limited powers,” said Seeley. “But they are vested in plain, legal English.”

As Davis put it, “the mayor, according to the borough code, is in charge of the police department. He’s the head administrator of the police department.”

In Fizer’s view, that meant, “Basically, the council makes policy of what they want, how they want it and when they want it. And the mayor, as immediate supervisor to the police department, makes sure those things get carried out.”

Boundaries — real or perceived — started to get crossed. Seeley says he wasn’t informed of Davis’ retirement. And he states he was also left out of the loop when a council member called a meeting with the police department to discuss the chief’s retirement.

“I was kept uninformed by the council of the developments in that case,” he said. “It was a complete surprise to see that the police department had been convened, but that also the chief was retiring. It made me uncomfortable.”

Fizer disagreed with Seeley’s view that he did not know about Davis’ retirement. And as for being left out of the meeting with the department, Fizer said, “No, that’s not entirely correct. I’m not going to comment on any more of his accusations.”

The incident came to a head when, according to Seeley’s letter, he was told by a council member that as mayor he was a government official with “no legal status.” It’s a claim Seeley writes was made “erroneously and extra-legally.”

Fizer says he got that information from a lawyer representing the Pennsylvania State Borough Association. “The mayor disagreed with this attorney’s explanations of the duties of the mayor and duties of the council,” he said.

And so, Seeley resigned.

“There was a lot of personal anguish over the decision,” said Seeley. “I never in a million years thought of resigning. But I didn’t feel it was prudent for me to stay in this position.”

Council member Thomas McGrath also resigned. Whether it’s connected to the dispute between the mayor and council is unknown. McGrath didn’t return a message left on Thursday.

Also, two members of the Linesville Police Department resigned during this time. Their reasons are also unknown. Both are reportedly now working for Conneaut Lake Regional Police Department.

Those resignations left the Linesville Police Department with a force of three part-time officers. A fourth was recently hired, according to Fizer.

Pete Chiodo can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at pchiodo@meadvilletribune.com.

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