SUNBURY - On a split vote Tuesday, the county prison board fired Warden Roy Johnson and replaced him on an interim basis with operations commander Brian Wheary.

During an emergency meeting held prior to the commissioners' session, District Attorney Ann Targonski, Sheriff Robert Wolfe and Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy voted to terminate Johnson, who has held the position for five years. Commissioner Richard Shoch and Controller Chris Grayson opposed the firing.

Bridy's motion to fire Johnson was seconded by Clausi.

The termination came after two unsuccessful attempts to fire the warden during regular meetings in July and earlier this month.

Johnson, who received hugs and well wishes from some of his employees after the meeting, reserved comment about his firing and future plans.

Wheary, who has been employed for 11 years at the prison, including the past several as operations commander, said it wasn't right for him to comment about the firing of his boss.

The 40-year-old Shamokin man, who was unanimously named acting warden, will be paid the same salary as Johnson, which is approximately $60,000.

He stated, "The job is definitely going to be a challenge. My top priority will be to maintain the care, custody and control of the inmates and the safety of staff. I will also attempt to improve the morale of the staff."

Wheary said he plans to apply for the warden position when the board advertises it.

'New direction'

The meeting featured accusations by Shoch, who supported Johnson in prior attempts by Bridy and Clausi to oust him, that Targonski and Wolfe were "bullied" or strong armed into voting to terminate Johnson. The district attorney and sheriff both denied those accusations.

Prior to the vote, Clausi, who is in Massachusetts but participated in the meeting by telephone, said, "I think we need to move in a new direction. The prison was going in the wrong direction under Johnson. He refuses to speak to me. I vote today to leave him go."

When asked if it was true that he refused to communicate with Clausi, Johnson said he invoked the county's policy of having another commissioner present whenever he spoke to Clausi, but never refused to talk with him.

Targonski, who took office July 3, chastised the prison board's behavior regarding Johnson and cited the lack of respect among members. She also claimed she was wasn't informed about some of the complaints made against the warden.

She said the majority of the complaints against Johnson were generated by inmates and one staff member.

The district attorney said the morale of the prison staff is at an all-time low and pointed out that the actions of the prison board control the operation of the prison.

Shoch resigns vice chair

When asked what was the basis for wanting to fire Johnson, Targonski was told by Bridy that delays in prison releases involving parole paperwork, concerns about not celebrating Ramadan, suicides at the prison and inaccurate statements allegedly given by Johnson regarding a visitation list for accused murderer Miranda Barbour were some of the reasons he and Clausi called for his firing.

Prior to the vote, Shoch received a round of applause from the audience after reading a lengthy prepared statement supporting Johnson and criticizing Clausi and Bridy for allegedly manipulating Targonski and Wolfe.

He asked, "How many of you will promise to forego doing what you know is right and instead succumb to the vengeful motives of a bully who you know can pump his money into the campaign of a rival in the next election? None of you, I suspect. But as they say, talk is cheap."

He added, "My one request is that before this comment period ends, each of you who plans to take away this man's livelihood and blemish his career record have the decency and integrity to look him straight in the eye and tell him what he has done or not done to make you vote the way you will, and explain to him and the citizens of this county why that particular thing, if there is any, rises to the level that he should lose his job over it."

Targonski said Shoch's statement illustrated the lack of respect among board members.

Wolfe added, "I previously explained my reasons for voting to fire the warden. I wasn't bullied or strong armed in any way. I will stick to my vote."

After the vote to fire Johnson, Shoch resigned as vice chairman and provided his reasons in a one-page prepared statement.

In his closing paragraph, Shoch stated, "I have no interest in having my name associated with the leadership of a board that has resigned itself to being less than the sum of its parts. You may now install the kind of leadership you recognize and choose to follow."

The appointment of a new chairman that was listed on the brief agenda was tabled on a 4-2 vote. Grayson, Shoch, Targonski and Wolfe cast affirmative votes. That vote followed a failed attempt by Targonski, Wolfe and Bridy to reject Shoch's resignation as vice chairman. Clausi and Grayson voted to accept the resignation. Shoch abstained. Four affirmative votes were needed to approve the motion.