HONESDALE – Borough council members in 2015 improperly exercised their managerial discretion in firing officer Keith Colombo, an arbitrator said.
“I direct the (borough) promptly to reinstate Sgt. Colombo with full seniority, back pay and benefits,” Stanley L. Aiges, of New Jersey-based American Arbitration Association, wrote in his ruling.
Council in December 2015 voted to fire Colombo based on charges of misconduct.
The allegations, documented by Chief Rick Southerton, included that it took Colombo 41 minutes to respond to a 911 call and that he assaulted a DUI suspect.
Southerton suspended Colombo for 10 days and the council subsequently fired him.
The Honesdale Police Officers Association then filed a grievance on behalf of Colombo, seeking reinstatement and to be made whole for all lost income and benefits.
The arbitrator doesn't dispute the allegations against Colombo, but says the borough punished him twice for the same offenses, which constitutes double jeopardy and is a violation of the officer's due-process rights.
“In my judgment, the council erred,” Aiges wrote. “(Arbitrators) nearly universally rule that if an individual is punished twice for the same offense, the second punishment must be set aside. I share that view. Any other ruling would be contrary to basic concepts of due process.”
He added, “In sum, I am obliged to rule that the (borough) council improperly voted to discharge Sgt. Colombo. It had no right to discipline him a second time for the same offenses.”
Council members have scheduled an executive session for Monday to “get a handle” on the situation and discuss it with their solicitor, said President Mike Augello.
Executive sessions are not open to the public.
It's unclear how much back pay is owed to Colombo, but it will likely be covered by the borough's insurance carrier.
The borough, in turn, is entitled “to credit for any of his outside earnings against the amount of back pay,” the arbitrator wrote.
The council members who voted last year to fire Colombo were James Brennan, Bill Canfield, Bob Jennings, Juanita Pisano and Troy Johnson.
Scott Smith cast a dissenting vote and Dan Barnes abstained.
Council took the vote after Solicitor Richard Henry said, “I would just suggest I don't believe it's appropriate to take action at this time.”
The solicitor added he believed an executive session should be held before a vote.
Brennan, who was council president at the time, stood by his decision when contacted Tuesday.
Citing how it took Colombo 41 minutes to respond to a call, Brennan said, “He was endangering the lives of the other patrol officers. I'm just appalled (by the decision).”
Colombo refused to comment when contacted Tuesday.
His lawyer, Marc Gelman of Philadelphia, said in an email, “The arbitrator’s decision serves as absolute vindication for Sgt. Colombo.
"He was wrongfully accused by the borough and improperly disciplined. Through the arbitration process, Sgt. Colombo was, for the first time, afforded an opportunity to offer his side of the story and present evidence on his behalf.”
In addition to the grievance, Colombo had filed a federal lawsuit against the borough stemming from his termination.
It wasn't immediately clear how, or if, the arbitrator's ruling would impact the lawsuit.