Harrison judge criticizes commissioners for not coming to agreement with police chief |
Valley News Dispatch

Harrison judge criticizes commissioners for not coming to agreement with police chief

Brian C. Rittmeyer

An obviously exasperated District Judge Carolyn Bengel tore into Harrison commissioners in public Thursday night, taking officials to task for not reaching an employment agreement with the township’s long-time police chief that would facilitate his retirement.

In May, commissioners deadlocked 2-2 , with one absent, to approve a four-year contract with Klein that would have kept him on as chief and included a succession plan for his retirement.

Commissioners William Heasley and William Poston voted in favor. Robin Bergstrom and Charles Dizard voted against. Gary Lilly was absent.

Bengel began speaking after the commissioners adjourned their agenda meeting Thursday. Klein’s employment agreement had not been discussed. The commissioners remained at the table and largely listened as she spoke. Besides a reporter, only two others were in the audience.

Bengel said an agreement with Klein “should have been done a long time ago.”

“From May. You’ve known about this since May. From May,” she said. “You guys can’t come to the table and sit down with him?

“The man is on an island by himself. He’s on an island by himself,” she said. “Make it right. Sit down and figure out how you’re going to make this better. It’s not just about Mike Klein. You need to find somebody else.”

Bengel declined to elaborate on her comments or answer any questions following the meeting.

Heasley said they are working on an agreement with Klein. He said the same in June , when Klein said he was no longer considering retiring.

“I think everybody is frustrated it hasn’t been settled yet,” Heasley said Friday. “It’s not a dead issue. We’re trying to get something put together that can be accepted by Mike and accepted by the commissioners as well.”

Last year, Heasley said commissioners concentrated their efforts on replacing former township Secretary Faith Payne, who retired. A protracted process followed, ending in the hiring of township Manager Rich Hill .

Heasley said he’s hopeful a deal with Klein will be done no later than February.

“Mike has done a great job. He’s looked at highly,” Heasley said. “I just want to get this thing done so he’s satisfied with it and we can move forward.”

Klein did not attend Thursday’s commissioners meeting, and could not be reached for comment Friday.

A Harrison native, Klein has been a township police officer for 35 years, 25 of those as chief. He has not had an employment contract and is not a member of the police union.

He could have retired about five years ago.

The four-year agreement commissioners considered nearly a year ago would have increased his pay each year — 2 percent, 1.5 percent, 1 percent and 0.5 percent. It could not be renewed, and Klein would have retired at its end.

For 2019, commissioners increased Klein’s salary by 3 percent, from about $96,400 to $99,300, along with pay increases for other township employees .

Still, Bengel argued that Klein is underpaid, and emphasized his contributions to the township and community.

“I live in this town. I dedicated my life to public service as well,” she said. “You know what, just sit down and try to work something out. That’s all I’m asking. I just can’t figure out why it hasn’t happened.”

She said commissioners have not been fair to Klein.

“The public statements that many of you have made, it’s an absolute shame and it’s an absolute disgrace to everybody in this township,” she said. “You need to get somebody else in here that can lead this township after Mike Klein.”

Bengel said Klein is “worth every dime that he would get.”

“You’re paying somebody whether Mike Klein sits in that seat… or John Doe,” she said. “I know what goes on. I know what’s going on and it’s absolutely ridiculous. Whether you pay Mike Klein or whether you pay John Doe, that salary is going to be there.”

Brian Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.