Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press
In this Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 photo, Mayor Rick Hoffman poses for a portrait in front of the borough hall, in Macungie, Pa. First-term mayor Hoffman wants to clean up a police department he portrays as out of control. To do that, he says, he needs access to all of the department's files. The police department says Hoffman, as a civilian, has no business looking at sensitive investigative materials. The case has landed in court, with Hoffman winning the first round. With a state appeals court set to hear arguments, law enforcement officials worry that a bad precedent will be set.

MACUNGIE, Pa. — The mayor of this small eastern Pennsylvania town says he needs access to the police department's files so he can investigate citizen complaints about the force and make changes as necessary.

Macungie's police chief says the mayor, a civilian with no law enforcement experience, has no business looking at sensitive investigative materials or telling officers how to do their jobs.

Their dispute has landed in a state appeals court, and the outcome could have a ripple effect on hundreds of Pennsylvania boroughs.

At issue is the balance of power between mayors and the police departments they oversee. The Pennsylvania Borough Code, the 1966 law that governs the operations of the state's 958 boroughs, says the mayor "shall have full charge and control of the chief of police and the police force," and "shall direct ... the manner in which the chief of police and the police force shall perform their duties."

As clear as that seems, the provision has spawned questions through the years about who's exactly responsible for what — and it has created conflict between small-town mayors and their police departments.

"Power struggles and interpersonal conflicts sadly exist, such as in the case of Macungie, where it seems that cooler heads cannot prevail on behalf of the community," Courtney Accurti, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said via email.

The association has been working on an overhaul of the Borough Code for nearly a decade, including a clarification of the mayor's role in the police department. A bill was introduced in the House in June.

Law enforcement officials say mayors are welcome to exert administrative control of the police, but should not have the right to make decisions about how officers fight crime. Those who side with the mayors say it's their duty to make sure police are accountable and effective. They point out that civilian control of military and law enforcement agencies is a bedrock principle of American democracy.

Most mayors "understand there's a fine line between 'full charge and control' of the police department and getting involved in police duties," said Al Chelik, mayor of the Lackawanna County borough of Mayfield and a vice president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association.

In Macungie, a town of 3,000 about 55 miles north of Philadelphia, Hoffman's clash with the police department began soon after he took office in January of 2010.

Hoffman said many residents told him they had been mistreated by borough police.

"When I started to run, I told people I would look into these accusations," Hoffman said. "As soon as I opened my mouth, (the police department) shut the door."

Hoffman, a welder who worked for nearly three decades at now-defunct Bethlehem Steel, said he has no interest in running the police department, but needs to be able to examine investigative reports and other records if he's to exercise oversight.

"If I have no right to look at any records, then I have no oversight. Can you imagine trying to run a company without access to the records? You couldn't do it," said Hoffman, 58. "It's checks and balances. Everybody's accountable to somebody, and that's the way it's got to work."

Police Chief Edward Harry Jr., who has nearly four decades of law enforcement experience and formerly led the Hazleton city police department, said he has never had a problem with civilian oversight. But he contends that Hoffman is trying to exert day-to-day operational control in an age when police departments are more professionalized than ever before and the training is more rigorous and specialized.

As an example of what he views as Hoffman's meddling, he cited a directive from the mayor that officers enter Macungie's two banks at least once a shift. Harry said it was an impractical demand.

"For him to come in and tell us how to do our jobs is ludicrous," said Harry, "because he has no idea how to do this job. That's like taking a plumber and putting him into an operating room and having him tell a surgeon how to perform surgery. Would you do that? Of course not."

The chief also denied Hoffman's claim that the police force has run roughshod over residents, citing survey data in which residents give the department high marks. Harry said the few complaints that Hoffman has investigated since taking office nearly two years ago involved traffic stops and were found to be without merit.

"It's a power trip, that's all it is," Harry said of the mayor.

Hoffman denies ego has anything to do with it. And he has won a preliminary legal victory in his battle to get access to the records.

The Borough Code clearly invests the mayor with "final responsibility" for the police force, Lehigh County Judge Michele Varricchio ruled last month. She said the mayor is the chief law enforcement officer of the borough and is entitled to see police records, files and schedules.

The decision alarmed law enforcement officials.

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said Varricchio's ruling is overbroad and that her interpretation of the Borough Code conflicts with the mandates of more recent state laws, including the Commonwealth Attorneys' Act, the Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act and the Criminal History Record Information Act, which regulates the dissemination of sensitive law enforcement materials.

Mayors simply don't have the necessary training, experience or background to run the day-to-day operations of a police department, nor do they have a legitimate need to inspect sensitive police files, he said.

"The potential exists for a lot of mischief to be done," said Martin, who has intervened in the case on the side of the police department and is appealing to Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

If the judge's decision is allowed to stand, Martin warned, state police could decide to eliminate the borough's access to CLEAN, an extensive statewide database of driver's licenses, motor vehicle, criminal background and other sensitive information that's restricted for use by law enforcement agencies.

Some say Hoffman simply has a vendetta against the police because they pulled over his youngest son for drunken driving. Hoffman said the incident took place less than two weeks before the November 2009 election, deep into his campaign for mayor.

"I was campaigning for six months on telling people I would look into the allegations and the problems we had with the police," he said. "If it's retribution, it's the police against the mayor, not the mayor against the police."

Despite racking up a $40,000 legal bill that Hoffman is trying to force the borough to pay, he doesn't plan to back down. He said he takes his oath seriously — and that includes making sure the police department is doing its job.

"This little town has a big problem," Hoffman said. "And the more I look into it, the more they fight me, the bigger the problem I think we have."