The Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office will provide law enforcement coverage for all Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport departing flights, a county council majority decided Tuesday.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screens passengers and baggage but requires that the airport provide officers with arrest powers at a podium near its checkpoint. Airport officials asked county DA Sam Sanguedolce to handle the law enforcement, saying Avoca borough opted to stop providing that coverage.
Eight of the 11 county council members ultimately authorized the contract during Tuesday’s special meeting called solely for that purpose, but a few raised a myriad of concerns focused largely on Avoca’s withdrawal.
Councilman Stephen J. Urban said he visited the Avoca borough building Tuesday to obtain a copy of Avoca’s contract with the airport and was informed there was only one agreement from 2014. That agreement says it automatically renews annually unless either party provides written notice within 30 days. Borough council did not formally vote to terminate the agreement, he said.
Urban also released borough council’s July 8 meeting minutes referencing changes that were made to Avoca’s airport coverage contract verbally instead of in writing, a borough councilman’s questions about reimbursement figures that did not appear to match, and the possibility that Avoca could be forced to repay $10,000 the airport advanced to the borough several years ago to cover police payroll reimbursement delays.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck asked if Avoca’s contract was terminated through a text message.
County Acting Manager Romilda Crocamo said airport Executive Director Carl Beardsley informed her he had received a text message from the Avoca police chief terminating the contract.
County Councilman Walter Griffith said the police chief has no authority to terminate the contract on the borough’s behalf, let alone by text. He said he supports the DA contract but does not believe the county should step in until it’s guaranteed the contract between Avoca and the airport is severed.
Sanguedolce told council he was informed Avoca officials told Beardsley they would no longer be participating in the contract when the airport director attended the borough council meeting.
The DA said he is trying to address an urgent need. The airport and TSA were temporarily permitted to operate without law enforcement present as long as local police are on call as needed, but Sanguedolce said that reprieve expires this week.
Urban also said he detected issues with other documents that had been presented to council.
“The bottom line is that something stinks,” Urban said.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley replied, “Nothing stinks. It’s straightforward.”
Councilwoman Sheila Saidman said Sanguedolce supports the agreement and that Urban is not council’s solicitor.
“There’s nothing sneaky going on,” Saidman said.
McClosky Houck ended up approving the DA’s request.
“In spite of the process followed, I don’t want to see the airport shut down,” McClosky Houck said.
Urban abstained, citing “legal conflict.”
Council members Harry Haas and Griffith provided the lone no votes, with Griffith pointing to the lack of a termination agreement from Avoca.
According to an online TSA posting, its screening officers don’t have authority to arrest passengers. They require law enforcement assistance when travelers try to evade or interfere with the screening process, carry prohibited or illegal items or are on a “Be on the Lookout” list, unruly or suspected to be in danger or traveling against their will, it said.
Sanguedolce said a mix of existing DA task force officers and new part-time police officers will be assigned to provide the daily coverage on two shifts from 4 a.m. to noon and noon to 8 p.m., with additional hours required if a flight is delayed.
Some municipal police officers have expressed interest in filling shifts, he said. No new officers assigned under the DA’s office will be permitted to work more than 1,000 hours per year or be eligible for county health insurance or pension benefits, he said.
The airport has agreed to cover all county staffing costs with “very limited liability” to the county, Sanguedolce has said.