Malvern Borough Council meetings rarely draw more than a handful of attendees. But with possible closure of the borough police department on the Tuesday night agenda, the crowd was big enough to necessitate a larger venue.
About 100 borough residents filled the seats and lined the back wall of First Baptist Church of Malvern, the majority of them there to express opposition to the council's proposal to replace Malvern officers with contractual coverage from East Whiteland Township.
At the start of the meeting council president Woody Van Sciver laid out council's motivation for possibly closing the department, which accounts for the biggest piece of the borough's $2.8 million annual budget.
"We're investigating this because we believe we may be able to spend the same money in a more efficient way to get a stronger complement of police services," he said.
Over the next two hours, residents ran down a litany of concerns: that out-of-town officers would be unfamiliar with the borough and its residents; that expansion on East King Street and elsewhere would increase the need for a local police department in coming years; that, once disbanded, a borough police force would be difficult or impossible to rebuild.
Some residents expressed skepticism or confusion about the rationale behind the proposal. They suggested the council considers it easier to close a department in which officers are filing complaints against and suing each other than to deal with the personnel problems directly.
Councilman Duane McCrory said he planned to vote against closing the department, but resented any implication that the council was doing anything other than its duty and trying to serve the borough's best interests.
Mayor Gerard McGlone said the exploration process was in its infancy, and any contract would mandate one full-time officer in the borough at all times, with no increase in response time.
"If we were to move forward with this—and again that’s a big, big 'if' ... —my expectation would be Malvern's current officers would be encouraged to become officers of these other departments," McGlone said.
Judge Chester Darlington, who lives in the borough and works with Malvern and East Whiteland officers, was in attendance. State Rep. Duane Milne, a Willistown resident, also showed up, curious about how the meeting would play out.
During the two-hour discussion, more than two dozen residents stepped to the microphone to express support for the department, recounting anecdotes about its effectiveness and warning of electoral reprisal if the plan to close it moves forward.
Resident John Kohler said most residents have had positive interactions with the police force, and noted his home was one of the farthest points from East Whiteland Township.
"I say this with all due respect to everybody in the room. If we need to shake anything out of the rug, I don't think our patrolmen is the place to start," Kohler said.
"If you take away our police department, you’re cutting off one of our limbs," former mayor Dominic Pisano said.
Syd Baglini, a recent arrival to Malvern, recalled watching multiple borough officers patrolling the night of Hurricane Irene through her window when she was too nervous to sleep. The police force was a factor in her decision to move to the borough 14 months ago, she said.
"This was a community where everything seemed to work just right here, we were safe and well protected. We had fire and police within moments of us and a nice, big hospital down the street. I’m old," she said, drawing light laughter.
Tom O'Dwyer, a representative of Raintree Condominiums, said he spoke for 200 borough residents when he said, "Do not disband our police force."
Resident Vicki Sharpless said that when she lost her husband last summer, the Malvern Police were the first ones there.
"I believe they do a really good job," she said. "And I'm also told it won't save us any money, correct?"
Van Sciver replied that yes, there wouldn't necessarily be a cost savings.
"Then why are we even talking about this?" Sharpless said.
Tempers rise over allegations
The meeting grew heated near the end, as the council president bristled at allegations of backroom deals and alternate agendas. He asked the first public commenter of the night, Joyce Pettitt, to return to the microphone and restate her earlier accusations.
"I said, apparently, there is—allegedly—our mayor and borough officials entered into a backroom deal, which is legal, with East Whiteland, due to an apparent personnel conflict," Pettitt said.
"Who is making those allegations? Please raise your hand. Is it you, ma'am?" Van Sciver said.
No, Pettitt, responded. It's the word on the street, said voices in the crowd.
"We are the street," Van Sciver said, motioning to the council members. "We are all residents of the borough, everybody up here."
Responding to calls for more transparency, Van Sciver said council meetings are open to the public but poorly attended, and all meeting minutes are posted on the borough website. He could not discuss police personnel matters, he said, but he could guarantee one thing: "There's no backdoor deal. No side agreement. No deal."
After the meeting, Mayor McGlone said he didn't know how the council would vote, but if he was responsible for breaking a tie, he would vote against closing the Malvern Police Department.
Asked whether personnel-related turmoil was behind the decision to explore closing the department, the mayor said it wasn't. The possibility of closing the police department has been raised publicly many times in recent years, pre-dating the personnel investigation that took place last year, he said.
"I think everybody feels that decisions have been made behind the scenes. That just is not the case. Every single person up here is a volunteer giving of their time, trying to do the right thing by this borough. They're evaluating. They're learning about it just as we all are," McGlone said. " ... We wanted to see where the borough stood on this. I think it was pretty clear."