Bethlehem City Council quickly moved a step closer to firing one of its police officers Tuesday night.
Council unanimously approved putting a resolution on its March 18 agenda to terminate Richard Hoffman, who has been a full-time police officer in the city since July 2003.
“I’ll make a motion that we terminate Officer Richard Hoffman,” said council member Michael Recchiuti.
Council president J. William Reynolds stressed that motion actually is to vote on a resolution to terminate Hoffman on March 18.
The 7-0 vote was taken in less than two minutes, in stark contrast to the Feb. 24 public hearing detailing why the city’s police department wants Hoffman fired, a hearing that lasted more than three-and-a-half hours.
While council members questioned the 11 witnesses who testified at that hearing, no one on the council expressed any opinions about the case before Tuesday night’s vote.
Atty. William Leeson, the city solicitor, said no legal restriction prohibits members of the council from sharing their opinions about the case before the March 18 vote. “That may happen at the next meeting,” he said.
The 35-year-old Hoffman did not testify at the Feb. 24 hearing, where the city’s case against him was presented to council.
“It’s an uncontested matter,” said Recchiuti after the meeting. “He’s not contesting being fired by the city. He didn’t challenge any of the evidence that came in, so we have to accept that as true.
“He has recourse under his contract through the arbitration process, which he’s electing to do. But before he can take the steps for that recourse under the contract, he has to be terminated.”
Shortly after 3 a.m. on Aug, 8, the off-duty police officer was in a car accident near the intersection of High and E. Broad streets in the city.
Hoffman was charged with careless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol, with a blood alcohol concentration of .16 -- twice the legal limit in Pennsylvania.
But the police department’s recommendation that City Council terminate Hoffman is not based solely on that accident.
During the hearing, council learned about other reprimands he received from the department and other incidents in which police officials said alcohol played a role in his belligerent behavior – including one where he allegedly grabbed a man by the throat and threatened a south Bethlehem bar owner and his bouncer.
Those incidents and reprimands sporadically occurred during most of the years Hoffman was with the police department, beginning in 2005 when he threatened a Philadelphia police officer who handcuffed and detained him.
“Our options are limited under the Third Class City Code,” said Recchiuti. “We can suspend him for up to 30 days. We can fine him. We can terminate him.”
Asked why council needs to go through a two-step process with a resolution to terminate Hoffman’s employment, rather than simply voting to terminate him in one meeting, Leeson said: “Council traditionally will take matters under advisement through a sequence of meetings. They are handling this one the same way.”
The city solicitor said council is following the same procedure it has followed in the past with contested termination hearings.
No member of the public expressed any comments about the Hoffman case during the City Council meeting.
Tuesday night's action on Hoffman's case went down a bit differently than announced at the Feb 24 hearing.
Atty. David Spengler, who served as City Council’s solicitor that night, announced a decision on the case would by made by council on March 4.
Specifically, he said council would vote on whether or not to find Hoffman guilty. He explained that vote would be followed by council passing a resolution on March 18 to support the March 4 decision.
Proposed hiring freeze
On another matter, council took no action on a proposed resolution to impose a money-saving hiring freeze on all city employees except police, fire and emergency medical services personnel.
The resolution was on Tuesday’s agenda only as an item under communications, to be considered for a vote at a future meeting or referred to a committee.
It was proposed by Recchiuti, who chairs the finance committee.
He proposed the resolution in response to comments by Mayor Robert Donchez who, on Feb. 18, told City Council snow that fell just during the previous week had cost the city about $300,000.
The mayor also said overtime and other costs associated with this winter’s snow plowing and snow removal will impact the city budget.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Recchiuti asked the mayor if he had a chance to review his proposed resolution “and do you have a position on it?”
The mayor did not give him a direct answer.
“My position is that this administration from day one has set the tone of fiscal restraint,” said Donchez. “I’ve charged my department heads with the task of evaluating all open positions and to find ways to make government more efficient.
“As mayor, I’ve set the tone myself by using my own car, paying for my own gasoline and paying for my own insurance. We are reviewing the city’s car policy with efforts to reduce costs.
“We are currently updating the five-year financial plan and, when this report is completed, I will share it with City Council and release it to the public.
“In June, the administration will provide City Council with a six-month financial report on expenditures and revenues.
“During the next few weeks I will be announcing a financial advisory committee to work with the administration in recommending initiatives to make government more efficient and to validate our five-year plan.”
Donchez said it’s been a difficult winter, but the administration has made necessary budget adjustments. He promised: “This administration will continue to exercise fiscal restraint.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Donchez declined to say if he supports or opposes the proposed hiring freeze. “My statement speaks for itself,” said the mayor.
Recchiuti said he thinks the mayor is against such a freeze.
After Donchez made his comments about his initiatives to ensure fiscal restraint, Recchiuti recommended his proposed hiring freeze resolution go back to the finance committee for further discussion. Reynolds agreed.
After the meeting, Recchiuti said he has questions about the administration’s plan to pay expenses with some borrowed capital funds.
The mayor said he presented council with a list of open positions in the city. “Every position will be evaluated to see if it’s something that we need,” said Donchez.