East Cocalico supervisors won’t face Sunshine Law violation charges

By on May 10, 2017

Lancaster County’s top prosecutor has cleared elected officials in East Cocalico Township of any wrongdoing in the hiring of a manager, saying there was no violation of the Sunshine Act.

“It was determined that the board of supervisors did not breach any Sunshine Act law, nor did their actions show intent to do so,” District Attorney Craig Stedman announced on Friday.

The decision closes one chapter in a controversy that has swirled for weeks in the northeastern Lancaster County municipality of 10,000 residents. At least five citizens lodged complaints with the district attorney’s office about the nature of H. Scott Russell’s hiring at a salary of $95,000.

One of those citizens, Ken McCrea, said he was not surprised at Stedman’s decision given the rarity of Sunshine Act prosecutions here and across the state.

“They have declined to prosecute any violation by other groups around the county. The Sunshine Act doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by anyone,” he said.

The township supervisors — Doug Mackley, Alan Fry and Noelle Fortna — did not return calls for comment.

The supervisors voted to hire Russell on April 6. Russell told LNP, however, he was offered the position on March 7 and that he accepted the offer on March 10.

The township also stated in a March 29 news release it had hired Russell as its new manager, even though there had not yet been a meeting at which the decision was discussed or a vote taken.

Stedman, in announcing his decision not to prosecute, said the board members told him the news release was “an ill-timed and misworded mistake.” He said the investigation found Russell “had not been officially hired at that time.”

Of Russell’s acceptance of the offer on March 10, Stedman said: “The hiring, in this capacity, is not official until a public vote is held.”

Melissa Melewsky, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which LNP is a member, said the district attorney’s interpretation is flawed.

“Saying (Russell) wasn’t really hired until the vote took place misunderstands the intent of the law. Yes, you can have the interviews behind closed doors but you can’t make a decision on the candidate before a public vote,” she said. “That process is followed in virtually every other agency across the state. I don’t know why it’s a problem here.

“Hiring happens when you have offered a job and someone has accepted to become an employee,” said Melewsky. “Making a decision on a candidate without public overview and treating the vote like it’s a formality is not what the Sunshine Law allows.”

Stedman said his office takes the Sunshine Act and transparency in government seriously.

He added, however, that “for certain non-elective positions, the law also allows for individuals to explore, and be considered for, municipal employment opportunities without the entire hiring process being discussed in public forum, which could in turn create detrimental circumstances to the candidate’s current employment situation.”

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