Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Northampton County Council Kicks Off New Year With Sunshine Act & Charter Violations

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Rev. J. Michael Dowd implored the Heavenly Father to give Northampton County Council "new agendas" and "new priorities." He asked God to give council insight and courage to help do what is right.

But when the dust had settled, council was still mired in back room shenanigans. This time, in addition to a blatant Sunshine Act violation, council thumbed its nose at the Home Rule Charter.

The fix was in, bippy. Yesterday afternoon, they were just going through the motions.

As I told you before the meeting ever started, council had already decided to reelect an increasingly unstable Wayne Grube as council president. No surprise there. But the real shocker was its predecision to replace veteran Ann McHale with newcomer Diane Neiper.

The meeting was actually rescheduled to midafternoon just so Tony Branco could attend. You see, his vote was needed to make sure Neiper was elected.

Before the vote occurred, I approached council to tell them I'm an idiot. You see, I recently withdrew Sunshine Act litigation over its preselection of Lamont McClure and Tony Branco as council members. I actually believed council was seriously interested in open government, and that they were reading a manual prepared by Solicitor Zito concerning the Sunshine Act. Silly me.

I also told council neither Grube nor Neiper should be elected. Grube has been a powerful force in Northampton County and certainly works hard. But he's never been able to control a council meeting. Neiper simply has no experience.

During the short meeting, Council Prez Grube actually admitted the deal. He defiantly told a complaining Ron Angle that what they were doing was "no different than the deal you made with the county executive over open space."

Excuse me?

There's a big difference between a commitment from an individual councilman to a county executive and a closed door arrangement by a quorum of legislators. The latter is governed by the Sunshine Act.

Branco, when confronted with the reality that the cat was out of the bag, could only say he's "sick and tired of Angle talking out of his rear end." He then seconded Dertinger's nomination of Diane Neiper, stating sarcastically he may as well do that because the decision has already been made.

So for yet another year, Wayne Grube is council prez. He explained that 2006 was a fiasco and he wants to get rid of all the divisiveness and return to the days when council got things done. In other words, he likes fifteen minute meetings. He then proceeded to excoriate his critics and bumbled his way through the meeting.

Diane Neiper is now VP, and will get Grube's salary if he is forced to step down. In fact, Neiper laughingly voted for herself, violating the conflict of interest provisions of the county's Home Rule Charter in the process. No council member may consider or approve any matter in which she has a direct or indirect financial interest. Neiper really should read that Home Rule Charter. Unlike Neiper, McHale at least had the class to abstain.

Although McHale has shielded Grube from egregious errors as prez, Neiper says it's her turn now. She claims her 34 years in the classroom and her union work qualify her.


At council's budget meeting on December 14, I heard a far different Neiper. That one acknowledged her unfamiliarity with the county's Home Rule Charter, saying she was new and this was her first budget. Boy, she sure has learned a lot in two weeks! Too bad she didn't get to the Home Rule Charter's section on conflicts of interest.

One county employee who witnessed this travesty told me he's "embarrassed" to be part of the county.

"Democracy dies behind closed doors." What a way to start off the year!

Update:Both The Morning Call and Express Times have well-written and objective accounts of yesterday's little sideshow.


Anonymous said...

That bunch is a pack of losers.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Actually, two of them are losers. McClure and Branco both lost when they ran for county council. They only sit there because they were appointed after two members resigned.

Anonymous said...

correct me if i'm wrong, but the sunshine act does not prevent behind-the-scemes discussions and lobbying, so long as a quorom is not sitting in one place at one time doing it?

not that that excuses what happened to annie. i always liked her despite our differences.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Aonon 8:33, You are not wrong. The Sunshine Act does not prevent one on one discussions. But arriving at a decision by a round robin or daisy chain among a quorum over the phone and via email is the same thing as a backroom meeting. And that's exactly what happened.

Anonymous said...

it does not, however, violate the letter of the sunshine law, does it?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 1:35, Whenever an "agency," and that term is defined to include a governing body like county council, takes official action or deliberates, it must do so in the sunshine. Thus, telephone meetings and email exchanges that arrive at decision behind closed doors, are governed by the Sunshine Act and must occur publicly or not at all.

Anonymous said...

gotta agree to disagree there Bern. The act only precludes a quorom from doing so. it might violate the spirit of the law, but i always had a hard time finding the "spirit of the law" codified anywhere.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 6:08, I'm talking about a quorum. Five members are making decisions outsiee of a public meeting. They're doing it via telephone and emailk exchange. Every court that has constued that situation has found it a Sunshine Act violation.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 6:08, Agreeing to disagree is fine. Sorry for coming on again, but perhaps I don't understand you. Is your argument that it's OK to arrive at official action among a quorum so long as it is only done two at a time? In other words, are you saying that the only way a quorum can violate the Sunshine Act is by having an actual meeting behind closed doors? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

it can in fact be done that way, at least last time i checked. for example, one person (an elected or not) working/lobbying the electeds, one at a time, securing votes on a particular issue.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 1:23, I don't see a problem with a person who tries to get 5 votes on an issue. I see your point. But what I'm talking about is a bit different. I'm talking about deliberation and official action among a quorum behind closed doors. Deals are cut, and the public is excluded. I'm talking about a round robin among a quorum to decide public policy without the benefit of public imput. This certainly violates the spirit of the Sunshine Act, as you yourself concede. I believe it also violates the letter of the law. Every jurisdiction that has construed this issue has found a Sunshine Act violation.

But no Pa. court has decided this question, at least none to my knowledge. So if you're an anonymous judge, I'm in a world of hurt.

Anonymous said...

i'm less likely to get elected than you are.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:43,

That bad? Then you must be in a world of hurt, too. What many folks don't realize is that in a working democratic republic, a citizen can be pretty powerful. I like the office of citizen.