Cocalico Corner: Ain’t no sunshine since he’s ruled

By on May 22, 2017

There was an unwelcome chill in the air in the last couple of weeks.
You felt it, didn’t you?
I’m not just referring to the unseasonably cool weather. I’m talking about the frosty attitude some elected officials in these parts have exhibited to the rule of law and working in the open for their constituents.
And those office holders who elect to do their decision making in the shade just got the green light to continue operating in the shadows.
We’re talking about closing the doors on the very essence of democracy, the essential criteria that required elected officials do their jobs and make their decisions in front of the very people who placed them in those sacred positions of trust.
In Pennsylvania, our elected officials are supposed to act in compliance with the Sunshine Act.
The act requires public meetings to be advertised (three days notice in a newspaper of record, 24 hours notice for emergency meeting). When officials decide to call executive sessions in a formal meeting, it must be for one of the following reasons: personnel matters, existing or potential litigation, and the lease or purchase of property, bargaining unit negotiations. Decisions regarding matters of academic standing or admission at state schools are also permitted for higher institutional boards.
By now, if you’ve been following the saga of the hiring of the East Cocalico Township manager, you know the job was offered to him March 7, the day after an executive session in which he was interviewed and he accepted it three days later, the supervisors issued a press release in late March announcing his hiring, but did not publicly act on his hiring until their formal meeting of April 6. One, possibly two formal meetings occurred between the job offer and his acceptance and the meeting during which the appointment was an agenda item.
Residents of East Cocalico, especially those who attend the meetings were justifiably upset and filed complaints with Lancaster County DA Craig Stedman.
But Stedman, while euphemistically slapping the supervisors’ wrists, stood by their actions.
“On March 29, the township issued an ill-advised press release announcing the hiring of H. Scott Russell.” scolded Stedman in his statement. “The release could only have been perceived by residents as meaning Russell was officially hired. At that point, however, he was not actually officially hired under the law. Official hiring can only take place at a public meeting.”
“On April 6, at public meeting, a vote was held after public comment and Russell was unanimously selected as township manager.”
In his press release, Stedman stated the hiring offer was conditional (really? considering Russell gave notice to his prior company Rettew Associates in mid March) and that “any board member could have changed their mind at any time prior to the April 6 meeting when the hiring became official via public comment and subsequent vote.”
Do you think a professional would walk away from a great job without the certainty of another waiting? Really? Would you?
Following the investigation “by a team of Lancaster County detectives,” Stedman stated:
“It was determined that the board of supervisors did not breach any Sunshine Act law, nor did their actions show intent to do so. The board has indicated a March 29 press release on the matter was an ill-timed and misworded mistake. However, the investigation found Mr. Scott Russell, township manager, had not been officially hired at that time.
“Our role was to review the matter for breach of law, not to review the value of any public relations action which may not have been in the best interests of the township and was clearly misleading.”
And, so with the East Cocalico Township supervisors emboldened, much like the Manheim Township Board of Education was last December when their actions were cleared by the state attorney general’s office (which at the time remained in a turmoil of its own), don’t expect that you’ll see any sunshine any time soon.
Elected officials should, in a sense, police each other. As a Reading city councilor, I’ve stepped out of or refused to enter executive session when the subject matter was questionable. It’s part of my professional training and I’m always proud when any of my council colleagues do the same.
Most municipalities I’ve covered over the years have officials who do act within the parameters of the Sunshine Act and revere transparency as part of the public trust.
The action taken by Stedman is, I believe, a slap in the face of all those elective office holders who do the right thing. It’s tough enough to put teeth in the Sunshine Act, and with decisions like Stedman’s, what few there are continue to be knocked out.
This time the hiring practice of the East Cocalico supervisors did not come back to bite them, thanks to the goodwill of the DA.
Though the weather is finally getting better — this is not a decision that will ever likely make the East Cocalico constituents feel warm and cozy.
But elections do have a way of changing the climate. We will see.

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