AOAA protest cost Coal Twp. $1,504
COAL TOWNSHIP - A May protest at the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area didn't draw a crowd, but it did cost Coal Township $1,504.23 to have eight officers on scene.
Township commissioners point the finger at protest organizer Matt Reidinger. They say he encouraged others to join him in committing the crime of defiant trespass, creating a need for police to be prepared for a large turnout.
Commissioner Gene Welsh said at the June 5 board meeting that the township will review the situation, "and hopefully we can do something there." He expanded further Wednesday, saying that while he didn't think the township could charge Reidinger to cover the cost, the commissioners should work with the township solicitor to see how they could respond if the situation were to arise again.
Reidinger, 31, of Coal Township, said Friday his message all along was that the May 3 protest would be peaceful, and that he was in "constant contact" with township police leading up to the protest.
He believes the township went "overboard" with the police presence, and that he regrets the cost incurred by taxpayers.
"They were turning this into something it wasn't," Reidinger said. "I don't want to see taxpayer money wasted."
Eight township officers spent a combined 40 hours at the AOAA - 10 hours for two officers on duty and 30 hours of overtime for six other officers. They were backed by a sheriff's deputy for about 6 hours - an estimated cost of $150 including mileage and insurance, according to the sheriff's office. A state trooper on duty was on scene a short while and left because there was no protest to monitor.
Reidinger attempted to organize a protest in opposition to the county government's control of the 6,500-acre park. He turned to Facebook to rally others in the community who were like-minded. A stretch of land at the park was designated for protesters - a safety precaution, officials said. Reidinger said some planned to peacefully cross the line onto the AOAA property and comply with officers if placed under arrest for defiant trespass. He likened it to civil disobedience.
Police Chief William Carpenter didn't see it that way, saying Reidinger invited people to break the law.
"Matt Reidinger made it clear he was going to defiantly trespass onto that property. He wanted to be charged. That's not a peaceful protest, that's committing a crime," Carpenter said during the June 5 meeting.
The protest never materialized. Reidinger thinks the police presence contributed.
"They went out to intimidate people, that amount of police presence, and it worked," Reidinger said.
John Burd, a Coal Township resident and chairman of the Susquehanna Valley Civil Libertarian party, supports Reidinger. Despite the criminal act being phrased as "defiant trespass," he said Reidinger's intent was not to behave outrageously.
"Nobody said anything about any violence or anything that would require a $1,500 expenditure from the township," Burd said during the meeting.
Carpenter said no one could predict the behavior of any protesters assembled that day, and the police presence was justified. Township manager Rob Slaby said even if a group were peacefully disobedient, such as sitting in a line across the park road, if the group of protesters was large enough, it would take more than two officers to handle the situation.
Commissioner George Zalar said citizens have a right to protest, but if defiant trespass is threatened the police department has to "prepare for the worst."
Both Welsh and Zalar said the money could have been spent for better purposes.
Reidinger agrees. Further, he said the township commissioners must move to enact a proposed amusement tax on the AOAA to cover anticipated road maintenance costs. The AOAA authority has asked for the tax to be delayed at least one year to allow it to get up and running, but the township will have to maintain the road in the winter.
As to wasting money, Reidinger sees the commissioners' unwritten policy allowing township employees to use equipment for personal purposes as a serious waste that should be stopped.
Welsh said such practice is on a case-by-case basis.
"If someone goes the extra mile for us, I don't think it's totally wrong to go the extra mile for them," he said.