A North Huntingdon police detective will become a member of the Attorney General’s Drug Task Force, serving as the only officer based in Westmoreland County.
The deal, which township officials approved this week, will see North Huntingdon continue to pay the detective’s salary. The state would cover any overtime pay.
The detective won’t start with the drug task force for a few months due to personnel issues within the police department, said Mike Turley, the township’s acting superintendent. There is no end date for the agreement, but the township has the right to terminate the contract at any time, Turley said.
Because this is a personnel matter, Chief Robert Rizzo has not publicly identified which detective will fill the role. Although the detective will work with the Attorney General’s task force, Rizzo has previously said he will be assigned to the North Huntingdon Police Department.
The attorney general’s office said it was integrating local officers in the task of providing local departments with additional resources to help stop drug trafficking in their communities.
“The addition of a detective from the North Huntingdon Police Service to our North Huntingdon regional office through our LOFT program will strengthen our collaborative effort to build safer communities and tackle the opioid crisis,” said said Jacklin Rhoads, spokesman for the attorney general.
While the deal was unanimously approved, Commissioner Richard Gray complained that the commissioners approved the contract during a closed executive session in December. It was never discussed in a public meeting, nor put to a vote until Wednesday.
“To me, it was a failure of leadership,” Gray said.
Rizzo said he signed the agreement and then sent it to the attorney general after the executive session with the commissioners, which the attorney attended to make sure it was legal.
The board acted on the attorney’s advice, Commissioner Ronald Zona said, adding he does not believe the Sunshine Act was violated.
Township attorney Bruce Dice could not be reached for comment.
The township commissioners’ decision to approve a deal in a closed session “is problematic from a Sunshine Act perspective,” said Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media lawyer for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, an organization commercial based in Harrisburg.
“Before making a decision, they (commissioners) are supposed to hear from the public,” Melewsky said, which could lead the council to overturn a decision made in secret.
“It can’t happen if they make a decision behind closed doors,” Melewsky said.
Gray also again raised his objection that “we pay personnel to work for the state” and have no control over the officer.
Local police work part-time with the AG Drug Task Force and several officers from North Huntingdon have participated, said Zona, a retired police officer and Westmoreland County Chief of Detectives.
“The task force works every day with the local agents. It can’t work any other way,” Rizzo said.
The selection of a North Huntingdon detective for the LOFT post is an indication that department officers are working hard to crack down on drugs not just in North Huntingdon, but
but all of Westmoreland County and are recognized for their efforts, Rizzo said after the meeting.
“The Attorney General’s LOFT position will allow us to take a more active full-time role in the fight against narcotics,” Rizzo said.
The Drug Task Force is having an impact in North Huntingdon and there are no municipal boundaries when it comes to dealing in illegal drugs, Rizzo said.
“Information is gathered from everywhere,” with patrol officers taking what they’ve learned and detectives working the case, the chief said.
Police department staffing was addressed when commissioners approved the conditional hiring of Erik Berg and Troy Pecina, as trainee police officers. They must undergo a physical and psychological medical examination as part of the hiring process.
Officers will undergo a 14-week field training program and a one-year probationary period, Rizzo said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .