CLEONA, Pa. (WHTM) – An overflow crowd of concerned residents brought their emotions with them to a Cleona Borough Council meeting on Monday evening.
Dozens who live in the small Lebanon County community gathered to voice anger, disappointment and frustration over the hiring of a new police chief. Jeffrey Farneski, a career law enforcement officer with New Jersey roots, was hired recently in a unanimous vote by council to replace Cleona’s outgoing chief of 20 years, Ray Barry.
Barry retired from the post in August and assumed a position with the county government.
“It’s a slap in the face,” shouted one resident.
Outrage over Farneski’s hiring was fueled by a local newspaper report which described various lawsuits and other incidents that Farneski has been part of during his career. Farneski’s previous employment has included stints as an undercover agent, work in a prosecutor’s office, as well as extensive crime scene and narcotics investigative work. Most notably, the article described a 2011 incident in which his then-wife called 911 claiming Farneski was going to kill her. Farneski was placed on administrative leave and deemed unfit for duty for a short period of time before he was reinstated.
“We have done our due diligence,” council vice president Jim O’Connor explained to the crowd, regarding Farneski’s hiring.
According to O’Connor and other council members, the borough hired a “Pennsylvania State Police approved” company to conduct a thorough background check of Farneski and he was shown to have a clean record.
“We talked with his ex-wife twice,” O’Connor added regarding the 911 call accusation. O’Connor and other council members said the woman verified multiple times that the story was made up and never resulted in charges against Farneski.
Others questioned whether Farneski’s wife lied about the details of the incident because she was a scared victim of domestic violence. Before long, Farneski, who’d been standing in the back of the room, worked his way to address concerns with the crowd.
“My wife had a mental breakdown,” Farneski said of the incident. “She lied. She’s admitted it and I stuck with her for two years after it happened. We’re great friends now.”
Farneski added that his ex-wife, who he has two children with, wanted to be at the meeting to support him, but he did not want to put her through it. Despite the explanation, one female resident questioned whether she and other women in the community would feel comfortable reporting a case of domestic violence to Farneski, given his past accusation.
Farneski addressed other lawsuits in which he’s been named or filed himself against others, dismissing them as a common part of the job for a law enforcement official with his level of experience.
The borough spent approximately $5,000 to advertise and launch a nationwide search for the small borough’s next top cop.
“We didn’t expect to have so much talent to choose from. We had some high-caliber applicants,” O’Connor added.
Farneski stood out among the pack of 18 applicants, which included two officers from the Cleona Police Department, several members of council said. Farneski attended the elite FBI Academy and has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Kean University.
Several residents voiced disappointment that the borough did not hire someone local and referred to Cleona as “Mayberry” when it came to the issues faced by police officers.
“You’re not living in Mayberry,” added on council member, who said the small borough faces increased drug activity and other serious crimes. The same council member reminded residents that Barry was working for another municipality when he was hired to lead Cleona in 1994.
“I love small towns,” said Farneski, who will leave a three-year post as a criminal investigator with the Freemansburg, Pennsylvania police department to be Cleona’s chief.
“I don’t punch a clock. I don’t sit behind a desk,” he added, touting a strong work ethic he vowed to prove to people in his new town. Farneski was applauded by many in the crowd when he indicated that he was considering beginning patrols an hour earlier than the current start time in order to “be out there when the kids are headed to school.”
Farneski, who will earn an annual salary of $61,000, revealed that he is also collecting a pension as a retiree from a previous police department.
“I’m not here for the money,” he said.