By John E. Usalis
Republican & Herald.
MAHANOY PLANE, Pa. — Gilberton police Chief Mark Kessler was suspended for 30 days without pay Wednesday night for his use of borough weapons without permission in videos he filmed and posted on YouTube.
The 5-1 vote came during Wednesday's borough council meeting at Borough Hall, which was filled to capacity with members of the media and borough residents.
The 7 p.m. meeting was preceded by a 55-minute executive session to discuss what action would be taken, if any, against Kessler. When the executive session began at 6 p.m., Kessler, who was dressed in a suit and not in his police uniform, was also inside with the council and his attorney, Joseph Nahas, for about 20 minutes, came outside for a time, and then was called in again.
There were more than 100 people outside borough hall, many arriving before 5 p.m. Many were supporters of Kessler and wearing "Constitutional Security Force" and other patriotic shirts, some with the Greek phrase "Molon Labe," which means "come and take," an expression of defiance. Some of Kessler's supporters also carried semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pistols.
During the meeting, after a short explanation about the executive session by borough solicitor Karen Domalakes, council President Daniel Malloy requested a motion.
"After review of the circumstances, it is my recommendation that a motion be made to discipline Chief Kessler for the use of borough property for non-borough purposes without prior borough permission, incurring no expense to the borough," Malloy said.
"This action would be 30 days (suspension) with no pay."
The motion was made by Councilwoman Susan Schmerfield and seconded by Vice President Eric Boxer. Voting in favor were Malloy, Schmerfield, Boxer, Robert Wagner and Michael VanAllen. Lloyd George voted against the motion and William Hannon was absent.
The uproar over the police chief began when Kessler posted a homemade video July 15 on YouTube that criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for pledging to sign a United Nations treaty that requires ratifying countries to begin controlling the international arms trade. Kessler's position is that the treaty will eventually lead to restrictions on gun ownership in violation of the Second Amendment.
In the video, Kessler used profanity and also fired a fully automatic rifle. Due to criticism from some viewers about his use of profane language, Kessler posted another video the same day responding to the critical comments made against him. The second video also included profanity and the firing of two fully automatic rifles and an automatic pistol.
As of Wednesday, 284,562 people had viewed the second video, up from 3,280 on July 22.
As public opinion grew against Kessler's videos, Gilberton Mayor Mary Lou Hannon stood by the police chief in a statement to the press, explaining that what Kessler says and does during his personal time is his right under the First Amendment and he would not be censured for his political views.
The following day, a statement was released by the North Schuylkill school board — of which Kessler is a member — that its members "do not condone or agree with his actions or communications as produced in his online videos."
With an increasing number of irate telephone calls to Borough Hall last week, the borough council canceled its July 25 meeting and rescheduled it for Wednesday.
Lawyer makes case
After the vote, Nahas was allowed to make a statement, with Kessler standing by his side.
"Mr. Kessler is a very big activist when it comes to our Constitution, the First Amendment, the Second Amendment — the entire Constitution," Nahas said. "Mr. Kessler shot a video. He used some profane language and shot a weapon during that video. There is a very big difference in what Mr. Kessler did on YouTube as to what a person would do in society at this board meeting."
Nahas said that those people who searched out the videos on the Internet had a very good idea what they would see and hear.
"Was profanity used? Absolutely. Was a gun used, which you (Malloy) described as borough property? Absolutely," Nahas said. "But they were used for shock value to call people's attention to our country and to constraints that our government may be putting on the citizens of the United States. The bottom line is that Mr. Kessler did not do that in his capacity as a police officer. He did not do that in his capacity as a school board member. He did it in his capacity as an individual who is fighting for your constitutional rights. If you don't like the video, don't watch it. Don't click on it. There is nothing more to it than that."
As for the council's decision, Nahas said he and Kessler would discuss it in private today but that the decision will be followed.
"We'll follow the council's recommendation. He has to, since you are his supervisor," Nahas said. "We'll decide if we're going to take any further action."
The Public Speaks
Domalakes then asked for public comments, limiting the time to one minute. The first speaker was Peter Kostingo, a Gilberton native who lives in Frackville.
"I do support the Constitution, the First and Second Amendments, but the only problem with what Chief Kessler did and what his attorney fluffed it up and said it was only about profanity, but if you look at those videos, he (Kessler) threatens Nancy Pelosi, he's wearing a Gilberton chief of police badge and he should be fired, not a 30-day suspension," Kostingo said. "The attorney put a good spin on it but he used and abused his position, saying he's the chief."
Gilberton resident Mark Keirsey told the council that there could be liability issues involving Kessler.
"I ask the mayor and this council to consider calling on an outside agency, such as Schuylkill County's district attorney's office or the state police, to investigate Mr. Kessler's actions," Keirsey said. "There is his conduct as a police officer and his ability to perform his duties as a law enforcement official with regards to his contractual obligations, not to mention the fact that he poses a major liability to this borough and its residents. God forbid that an unfortunate incident should occur, the borough could be sued and it would be a major liability issue."
Other comments were made, both in favor and against Kessler's actions, during the public portion, which concluded the meeting.
Gene Stilp, Marysville, presented the council with eight pages of the standard Right-To-Know request form asking for copies of the borough code of conduct requirements, written policies for dismissal and other information. Before the meeting, Michael Morrill, executive director of Keystone Progress, submitted a petition of more than 20,000 names demanding that Kessler be fired. The names were received through the Internet from Pennsylvania and other areas of the country.
Kessler went outside after the meeting and was surrounded by his supporters.
"The support has been overwhelming, not only from here in Gilberton borough but from all over the country and internationally," Kessler said. "I respect council's decision and will follow it. It's shameful that they chose to bend because of political pressure but it is what it is and I'll deal with it."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Republican & Herald