Calling All Cars -- All One Of Them

COMMENT

January 17, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Crime took a short holiday in Chesapeake City last month, which was fortunate for the Cecil County town of 750 residents because their only police officer was at home. Suspended from duty. Without the controversial police car that had gotten him into trouble.

The three-day suspension of Sgt. John Paolantonio, however, has won him newfound admiration and respect from the community. According to some irate citizens, his services are more valuable than those of Mayor Findlay McCool.

So as the peace officer returned to work after Christmas, petitions were circulating to call for the resignation of Mr. McCool and to establish the officer's right to take the municipal police vehicle home at night.

Mr. McCool, a lawyer, originally fired the officer, after two reprimands, for disobeying orders to keep the car at the office overnight. Too much wasted gas and wear and tear on the vehicle during the commuting trip, said the mayor, who has concentrated on cost control since taking office last July. "It's a budget problem," he explained. After all, Sergeant Paolantonio lived in Elkton, a half-dozen miles down the road.

At a special town meeting called that same night, the city council changed the firing to a three-week suspension, obviously upset by the mayor's cavalierly leaving the town unprotected. But on encountering a crowd of angry burghers after concluding their closed session, the council quickly reversed field and made it a three-day furlough.

The town fathers promised to establish policies and procedures for the police department. Last week, they approved his commuting in the police car.

Before this, everyone sort of took Chesapeake City's policeman for granted. Some thought he was hired only to patrol within town limits, others felt he had a broader range. The rest of the county was covered by the sheriff's department and the State Police.

But some of his most important duties lie outside the city. The Veterans of Foreign Wars post warned the municipality that its generous civic contributions might cease if Sergeant Paolantonio did not continue to include its premises in his rounds. The Army Corps of Engineers pays the city for patrolling land along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the council was reminded. And the high school itself lies outside the town limits.

According to people who attended the town meeting this month, when they call the Cecil sheriff's department, they are told to call their own policeman instead, whether he is scheduled on duty or not. That was a good argument for taking the car home at night, since he is virtually on call 24 hours a day, they noted.

Of course, that raises the question of just how much one officer can do, especially if the county and state forces are trying to pass the buck when they can. Mayor McCool insists that the Chesapeake City Police Department does not operate around the clock.

Understandably, Officer Paolantonio wants to stay out of the political cross-fire. "I only want to serve the people. I want to give them my best," says the lone ranger of Chesapeake City, who's held the job for two years now.

"I've handled a lot of calls while I'm off duty," he explained about the car. "I don't use it to go grocery shopping or something."

Robert Nixon was his predecessor, and recently helped out the town department. He says the town has had a policy for many years allowing the officer to drive the police car home, with no record of excessive tire wear or engine failure.

"Firing or suspending the town officer for such a trivial infraction is an embarrassment to the town, not to Sergeant Paolantonio," he said. "I'm not sure what is going on in the minds of our elected officials, but destroying and undermining morale from within seems to be a sort of cancer that has taken hold."

Meanwhile, Mayor McCool is involved in a fight for his political life. Muriel Battersby is a leader in the petition drive for hizzoner's recall. It isn't just the bullheaded stand on use of the police car, she says, but the heavy-handed way he has used his office.

"People have lost confidence in Mayor McCool's decision-making ability," she said.

Former Mayor James E. Kirk, who hired Sergeant Paolantonio, is one of them. "John's a good man, I'm behind him 100 percent," he said. The town council is the main ruling body, even if the mayor is the top official, he noted.

Mr. McCool remains determined to hold on to his office, despite the mounting criticism. "I'm not resigning, I'm here for four years to do my job," he said. Other residents have phoned him with their support of his efforts, the mayor said. "After four years, I hope people can say about me, 'He did a good job.' "

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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