Published Date Written by Dan Miller
Middletown Borough Council voted 7-0 on Monday, Nov. 9 to reinstate Dennis Morris, whom council fired in 2014, as a patrolman on the borough police force.
The vote comes after a Dauphin County judge rejected the borough’s petition to set aside an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Morris.
According to court documents, the borough fired Morris for neglect or violation of an official duty, inefficiency, neglect, disobedience of orders and conduct unbecoming an officer. On Feb. 18, 2014 council voted 9-0 to uphold the decision to fire Morris.
But arbitrator James M. Darby, in a May 12 decision prompted by a grievance that was filed on Morris’ behalf by the Middletown Borough Police Officers’ Association, determined that “the borough has not established by a preponderance of the evidence that ( Morris ) committed the infractions for which he was charged and that it had a valid basis for discharging him.”
In sustaining the association’s grievance, Darby ordered that Morris be reinstated to the Middletown police force and be “made whole with respect to wages and benefits” lost since he was fired, minus interim earnings, including unemployment compensation. All references to Morris’ termination are to be expunged from the borough’s files, Darby said.
In June, borough solicitor Adam Santucci filed an appeal in Dauphin County Court seeking to “vacate” Darby’s arbitration ruling. Santucci in his petition contended that Darby exceeded his authority in that his decision was not sufficiently justified by the collective bargaining agreement between the borough and the police association.
However, in an order handed down on Monday, Nov. 2, county Judge Bruce Bratton denied the borough’s petition to set aside Darby’s order.
Mayor James H. Curry III, in his initial reaction to Bratton’s decision, said that both he and Santucci would be present at the Nov. 9 council meeting to brief council on Bratton’s order and to decide how the borough would proceed going forward. However, neither Curry nor Santucci attended the meeting.
Councilor Scott Sites noted at the start of the meeting that Curry was out of town and wanted to participate via a conference call, but that is not allowed by borough ordinance.
Reached by phone after the meeting, Curry called council’s action to reinstate Morris “a poor decision” and that the borough should have exercised the option to appeal Bratton’s order to Commonwealth Court.
Council President Chris McNamara told the Press And Journal on Friday, Nov. 6 that he had opposed appealing Darby’s arbitration decision as a waste of borough tax dollars.
However, Curry said McNamara did not oppose the appeal – no one opposed going forward with it, the mayor said. Minutes from borough council meetings do not indicate that a vote was taken in public regarding going forward with the appeal, which would have been discussed in executive session. However, Curry said he did not remember anyone voicing any objection to filing the appeal.
“The body as a whole voted to appeal. You believed in your position originally, you obviously believed in the position again on appeal,” Curry said. “I don’t understand why just because you lose the appeal that you don’t push for the next appeal. If you believe the facts and circumstances surrounding the termination, you go to the end, you finish the process.”
Nevertheless, Curry said that Morris will be “welcomed back to the force” by himself and by Chief John Bey, in accordance with council’s decision.
Council’s motion reinstating Morris calls for the date of his return to be worked out by the solicitor.
Morris will be returned to his previous position as a patrolman at his previous level of pay and benefits, McNamara said. He was unable to estimate how much money Morris is now owed in past salary and compensation based upon Darby’s ruling, or how the borough plans to pay the amount.