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Letter to the editor: Majority commissioners work to keep me, public in the dark

To the editor: When I campaigned for the office of Northumberland County commissioner, I promised to do everything I could to bring greater transparency to the public about the way our county government conducts business. As the minority commissioner, I regard it my duty to be the watchdog who holds the majority commissioners accountable for activity conducted in secret.

As Northumberland County taxpayers know, I have recently been highly critical of deals that majority Commissioners Richard Shoch and Samuel Schiccatano have struck in private with TrueCore, a for-profit company, to give it tax breaks, rent breaks and seemingly free carpet. Shoch retorts that I have missed the overwhelming majority of meetings, or I would have known about all of this. Let’s do some simple math. The Sunshine Act requires that meetings at which official action is taken and public business deliberated take place in public. In Northumberland County, our monthly public meetings are where this happens. They occur once per month. In the 23 months I have been in office, I have admittedly missed two. Even so, my math gives me a 91-percent attendance rating. There have been a few specially called meetings, all of which I have attended.

In the same time period, I have been to all but three prison board meetings, equalling 86 percent attendance. When Shoch says I have missed the overwhelming majority of meetings, he must be referring to something other than these.

In Shoch’s own statement to the press, he alludes to “publicly advertised work sessions” where “we could discuss concerns … prior to entering into contracts.” He continues that it is “(his) understanding that this is how official business is conducted in every other county in Pennsylvania.”

Let’s test this in light of Shoch’s claims that, if I came to these, everything in his dealings with TrueCore would have been out in the open. As we move through the test, you don’t have to take my word for anything. I have pulled documents and provided them to the press along with this letter. I encourage the press to publicly post them. Shoch and Schiccatano claim that their tax breaks, rent breaks and subsidized carpet were all discussed at public work sessions. In fairness to the majority, I pulled the agendas for every work session this year. The County Code requires that each commissioner receives 24 hours’ notice of the subject of special meetings like these. Accordingly, the agenda for each work session is emailed to the commissioners the day before. Not one work session agenda for 2017 contains any reference to TrueCore, its predecessor G4S or any of its officers. While there was clearly no advance notice that TrueCore was being discussed at any work session, there is always the chance that the matter came up during the course of the meeting. Accordingly, I requested the minutes of all of these work sessions. To my shock, and contrary to the requirements of the Sunshine Act, no minutes of these supposedly public work sessions have ever been kept. It would seem that there is no proof whatsoever that Shoch and Schiccatano ever discussed their sweetheart deals with TrueCore at a public work session.

I didn’t rest here. Every week, a schedule of events and meetings for the commissioners is circulated by our administrative assistant. I pulled months of these schedules and no meeting with TrueCore was ever mentioned. I even checked the sign-in sheets from the front door to see whether any of TrueCore’s officers came to the building to meet with commissioners. None have. The evidence shows that TrueCore’s real estate tax breaks, rent reductions and carpet deals were never, as claimed by Shoch, discussed in public work sessions. We can only wonder where these discussions were secretly held and why.

Sadly, this behavior is not limited to the TrueCore debacle. The commissioners’ schedule for Nov. 28 indicated a 12:30 p.m. meeting to discuss the 2018 budget. As few things are more important, I planned to attend. Hoping to look into other things, I arrived at the administration building at 10 a.m. only to find Shoch and Schiccatano already holding the meeting with county personnel. It seems they wanted to have a dry run on dire budget news before I could find out about it.

I will continue to fight to uphold the Sunshine Act and bring information to the public. Unfortunately, in Northumberland County government, there is little sunshine, and the majority commissioners are putting on quite an act.

Kym Best