Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Muzzles, please

We’re not averse to dishing out praise to HeraldStandard.com when it’s warranted, so we highly recommend that everyone read Sunday’s editorial, "Troubling – Is communication policy really needed?"

The paper has some real concerns – as should you – with the desire of Fayette County commissioners Al Ambrosini and Vince Zapotosky to funnel official county comment through the county’s chief clerk (who happens to be former HeraldStandard.com county government reporter Amy Revak).

We’ll let the first three paragraphs of the editorial speak for themselves:

World War II veteran Ralph Mazza compares the Fayette County Commissioners’ new communication policy to the Joseph Goebbels propaganda machine back in the Nazi days of the 1940s.

While we think Mazza may be reaching a bit on this comparison, there’s no doubt that the commissioners’ new policy is a bit troubling and could well be the first step on a very slippery slope.

In a 2-1 vote, the commission agreed to update its outside communication policy to have only the three commissioners "make public comments on policy issues or activities involving the county."

(We love Ralph Mazza, by the way. He’s got more moxie than most people half his age.)

On this issue, HeraldStandard.com (perhaps grudgingly) even agrees with Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink, who provided the lone vote against this policy. Zimmerlink has vowed to continue dealing with the media and public on her own, and the paper says it "couldn’t agree more with her stance."

That’s because anyone who has followed government for more than an hour knows that rarely are things unanimous. No one "official" position can cover a dissenting or alternate view – and any elected or appointed official who would abrogate his or her right to speak out on any issue or activity, at any time, is doing the public a tremendous disservice.

More worrisome, though, is the potential chilling effect that such a policy could (and likely will) have on county department heads and other employees. HeraldStandard.com is surely aware that its reporters can learn a lot by talking to those who work in courthouse offices other than the one occupied by the commissioners.

With this new policy in effect, what’s going to happen when Reporter A drops by the office of Department Head B, to get some background on Subject C? Will the reporter be told to funnel his or her request to the chief clerk, so the answers to any questions can be filtered and formulated into the county’s "official" policy?

We’re betting that’s exactly what will happen. This new policy may even make county department heads and employees reluctant to talk to reporters at all. If you worked for the county now, would you want to be the one with a reporter in your office asking questions?

Zapotosky, according to Sunday’s editorial, supports the new policy because, "It keeps the commissioners on the same page as the department head, and that the statement (issued) is formulated not just by the commissioners but also by the department head. And, that everyone is in agreement that it is the position of the county."

Before anyone swallows that philosophical pill, they should be aware of one thing: County department heads are generally much more knowledgeable about the departments that they run, and what goes on in them, than are county commissioners. If a commissioner wants to be on the same page as a department head, can’t he or she pick up the phone, send an email, or ask for a face-to-face meeting?

We would bet that any reporter or member of the public would get a faster, more thorough, more honest and more accurate answer from a department head than from a line of communication running through Revak, Zapotosky and Ambrosini.

A bigger problem, of course, will be who defines "the position of the county." If there is disagreement among the three commissioners, do they draw straws to decide what will be the official position?

If there is disagreement between the commissioners and a department head, does the commissioner point of view trump that of the employee, just because of the hierarchy involved?

The commissioners and department head certainly can’t vote on the matter, because that could be construed as a violation of the Sunshine Law.

Most department heads are acutely aware that the commissioners are their bosses, and as such are likely to be very careful in what they say for publication anyway. We have yet to read a story with the headline, "Department head calls commissioner decision stupid," even though many have probably had that thought through the years.

The Tribune-Review also weighed in on this new communication policy, and they are also among its critics:


We’d like to see someone call around to find out how other counties in the area handle communications, and if they too place such a great emphasis on formulating an "official" county position.

We’re backing the position of HeraldStandard.com, the Tribune-Review and Zimmerlink on this one.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Full disclosure, Part II

Fayette County commissioner Vince Zapotosky's comments about "full disclosure" at last week's commission meeting had us thinking this weekend about that concept.

Zapotosky tooted his "full disclosure" horn regarding a meeting appearance by Leonard Maharowki, a private investigator hired by the Fayette County Housing Authority. Maharowski clearly came to the meeting to put fellow commissioner Angela Zimmerlink on the spot, in the housing authority's never-ending quest to turn "Packetgate" -- or should we call it "Restaurantgate"? -- into a political liability for its own board member Beverly Beal, as well as for Zimmerlink.

Exactly what the housing autthority expects Maharowky to uncover that the Pennsylvania State Police have not, or cannot, remains to be seen.

But if Zapotosky is an ardent devotee of "full disclosure," there are better places for him to toot his horn.

The county commissioners appoint the five board members of the Fayette County Housing Authority. Beal, as one of those board members, is trying to shake loose information on how much taxpayer money the authority has paid to the Pittsburgh law firm of Cohen & Grigsby. She believes that it is in excess of $500,000 -- but her fellow board members are making her jump through hoops to get access.

Where has Zapotosky uttered one word about "full disclosure" in the Beal matter? How does he -- and how do his fellow commissioners -- feel about the other four housing authority board members' censure of Beal?

Those four board members approved a motion that said this of Beal:
"She has violated our trust and violated her fiduciary responsibility by improperly discussing ongoing litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the authority, as well as discussing an ongoing federal case."

Shouldn't "full disclosure" include some specifics to back up these charges? What "ongoing litigation" has Beal discussed, and with whom? Where is the proof of this? Who are the accusers? None of these facts have ever been revealed, at least to the public.

Same thing for the "ongoing federal case." Who does the housing authority believe Beal has been talking to, and where is their proof of it? Who provided this proof? If Beal has been talking to someone from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or from the FBI, is that something worthy of censure?

In the interest of "full disclosure," how does Zapotosky feel about the housing authority authorizing (and probably paying) Maharowski to come to last week's commission meeting, to give the same report that had previously been put forth at a housing authority meeting?

Although the five housing authority board members, once appointed, act autonomously (at least in theory), the fact remains that they are installed by the county commissioners -- and it is the county commissioners who ultimately bear responsibility for their actions.

In the interest of "full disclosure," how do Zapotosky and his fellow commissioners feel about the housing authority's use of taxpayer money to pay a private investigator? That's a rare and odd circumstance, isn't it? The county of Fayette has been beset with lawsuits over the years -- so many, in fact, that the current chief solicitor is only taking instruction from commission chairman Al Ambrosini, so he can concentrate on drawing up and implementing litigation-reduction strategy.

Yet we don't recall the commissioners ever hiring -- or feeling the need to hire -- a private investigator to layer on top of any police or detective action. Even when there have been reported thefts of money from offices inside the courthouse that went unsolved, no one fett the need to shell out taxpayer money for a private investigator.

We're all for "full disclosure." But its application shouldn't be selective, or limited to one private investigator's attempt to question one commissioner at a public meeting. Someone should start asking the county commissioners whether they support all that is going on at the housing authority. Finding out how they feel would constitute more of the "full disclosure" that Zapotosky stands for.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Full disclosure of what?

Somehow, Fayette County commissioner Vince Zapotosky believes that the appearance of private investigator Leonard Maharowski at Tuesday's meeting, to recite the same supposed findings already publicized at the Aug. 9 meeting of the Fayette County Housing Authority, an appearance made at the direction of those at the housing authority not named Beverly Beal, constitutes "full disclosure" of county activities.
We see it as the use of taxpayer money to carry out character assassination on Beal and her friend, Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink. Seriously, when is the last time ANY public agency in Fayette County felt the need to hire a private investigator to snoop around regarding the activities of a board member (Beal) and her friends? We challenge Zapotosky -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to come up with the answer. (We also think it would be a great idea for Zapotosky or anyone else to ask the housing authority chieftains and Maharowski if the Beal matter is the first time they've employed his services.)
But at Tuesday's commission meeting, where Ralph Mazza of Vanderbilt -- a bona fide World War II veteran -- invoked the name of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in describing the desire of Zapotosky and Commission chairman Al Ambrosini to utilize a public relations person, Zapotosky kept the Nazi references flowing when audience members objected to Maharowski addressing the commissioners.
“You just got done talking about Joseph Goebbels,” Zapotosky said. “You can’t have it both ways. Either full disclosure, or not. No Joseph Goebbels. No Herman Goering. Full disclosure.” http://triblive.com/news/fayette/2451023-74/county-commissioners-zimmerlink-department-authority-zapotosky-heads-information-investigation-posit?printerfriendly=true

The question we have to ask Zapotosky is: Full disclosure of what?
Of the housing authority's use of money that's supposed to go toward housing poor people for hiring Maharowski to perform work above and beyond that of the Pennsylvania State Police?
Of the housing authority's willingness to instruct Maharowski to attend the commissioners' meeting for a second bite at the publicity apple, in what thus far shapes up as a case long on innuendo and short on evidence of criminal activity? (Just who are these three restaurant waitresses who allegedly saw Beal, Zimmerlink and Sonya Over having lunch, anyway? If Zapotosky believes in "full disclosure," shouldn't their names be the first to roll off Maharowski's tongue?)
Of an obvious attempt to discredit Zimmerlink by having a hired gun show up at one of her meetings?
We wonder how Zapotosky would react if a private investigator hired by someone else showed up at a commission meeting to lob an innuendo bomb his way.
If someone said, "I'm Ben Matlock, the private investigator hired to find out what you ever did to 'get to the bottom' of what happened at Fayette County Children and Youth Services, back when two children died. Would you kindly step over here for a private meeting with me, Commissioner Zapotosky?"
We're sure his answer would be, "Absolutely. I believe in full disclosure, and while some people might think you're here just to embarrass or humiliate me, or score political points, I'll gladly talk to you. Can we please adjourn the meeting for a while, so I can chat with this nice gentleman?"
Or if someone said, "I'm Columbo, the private investigator hired by Highlands Hospital to find out exactly what the commissioners knew -- and when they knew it -- about the new inpatient psychiatric contract with Uniontown Hospital. Commissioner Zapotosky, would you let me interview you?"
We're sure Zapotosky would reply, "In the name of full disclosure, I'll meet with you any time, any where."
And our favorite scenario: “Hi there, Commissioner Zapotosky, my name is Barnaby Jones. I’m investigating Commissioner Zimmerlink’s allegation that in the prior administration you conspired to keep her out of county decision-making. I’d very much like to talk to you privately about this, but I came to a public meeting to make that request. OK with you?”
Do you envision Zapotosky saying, “No problem, Mr. Jones. I’ll go against the advice of the county’s legal counsel and speak to you, because I’m all for full disclosure.”
In the parlance of Fayette County politics, what happened at Tuesday's Fayette County commission meeting was nothing but a good, old-fashioned dog-and-pony show. It's the type of thing that usually happens in the months leading up to an election.
Maybe somebody has decided to get an early start.

Yesterday's meeting

It's rhetorical question time:
If you were getting a divorce, and a private investigator hired by the other side -- i.e., your estranged spouse's attorney -- showed up at your place of employment, wanting to meet with you privately to ask questions, what would you do?
Unless you were a complete buffoon, you would realize that this private investigator has no real legal authority or power, that he is bought and paid for by your adversary, and that he certainly isn't out to do you any favors. And you would promptly show him the door.
So when
Leonard Maharowski, the private investigator hired by the Fayette County Housing Authority, walked through the doors at yesterday's Fayette County commission meeting, did you not think that Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink instantly knew what was coming her way?
According to the Tribune-Review, Maharowski gave a report similar to the one he delivered to the housing authority board on Aug. 9, involving his so-called probe into a folder left behind at a restaurant where Zimmerlink had joined bousing authority board member Beverly Beal and former housing authority finance director Sonya Over for lunch on May 30.
(As we recall, news stories indicated that "Maharowski, P.I." presented a two-page preliminary report on Aug 9, so we hope he's made progress and perhaps there are now three pages.)

You can read the Trib story here: http://triblive.com/news/fayette/2451023-74/county-commissioners-zimmerlink-department-authority-zapotosky-heads-information-investigation-posit?printerfriendly=true
It has now been nearly three months since the other side starting making poltiical hay over this particular lunch meeting. The state police have investigated and thus far turned up nothing. District Attorney Jack Heneks keeps saying the matter is still under investigation. Now, we have Maharowski giving the same report at multiple public meetings.
The question everyone should be asking is, "Why?" (We're also curious to know if housing authority funds were used to pay Maharowski to give the same report at a second public meeting. We know Beal would like to know that, too, but she's having a dickens of a time getting full disclosure.)
The longer this drags on, with no tangible result one way or the other, the more we are inclined to side with Zimmerlink's assessment, as published in yesterday's Trib: "To imply there was criminal activity because I went to lunch with two people there, it’s the dark side of the political machine coming out in Fayette County," Zimmerlink said.
The state police and Heneks have an obligation to clear this up sooner rather than later. It appears to be an open-and-shut case, so why is it taking so long? If there's enough evidence to criminally charge Beal, or Zimmerlink or Over, or anyone at the housing authority for the release of a proprietary document, they should do that and get it over with. Or they should clear everyone's name by saying that nothing warrants criminal charges. Wouldn't they want that for themselves, if they were in the thick of this controversy?
Until either of those things happens, the charge of "playing politics" is the only one that appears to be sticking.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What is the difference?

Here in the patch, we're glad to see HeraldStandard.com weigh in on the controversy involving Fayette County Commission chairman Al Ambrosini and his alleged role (or lack thereof) in Uniontown Hospital getting a piece of the Medicaid in-patient psychiatric services pie, which has ruffled the feathers of competitor Highlands Hospital.

Sunday's editorial, "Come clean: Time to substantiate or drop charges," can be read in its entirely here:

Editor Mark O'Keefe and Co. have assessed the situation thusly, regarding Ambrosini:

As happens all too often with Fayette County politics, he’s also become fair game for all sorts of personal attacks and innuendos. ...

Ambrosini was adamant that he had nothing to do with the contract and denied even talking to (county MR/MR director Lisa) Ferris about the contract. ...

(Highlands Hospital CEO Michelle) Cunningham must also either come forward now with proof that Ambrosini "pressured’’ Ferris or admit that she was wrong. It’s unfair to have Ambrosini linger under this cloud of suspicion and doubt, and it’s also a disservice for county residents to have them left in the dark about such an important matter involving the county’s top official.

We find it supremely interesting that in another controversy, the one involving Fayette County Housing Authority board member Beverly Beal, the same editorial logic and standards apparently do not apply.

The Beal flap involves a folder allegedly left behind at a local restaurant, which resulted in her fellow housing authority board members censuring Beal.

If HeraldStandard.com recognizes that Ambrosini is fair game for "all sorts of personal attacks and innuendos," must the same standard not also apply to Beal's lunch companions, Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink and former housing authority finance director Sonya Over? There has been no stronger innuendo than the one tying them to this restaurant folder -- yet HeraldStandard.com has uttered not a peep in their defense.

If HeraldStandard.com is willing to editorially recognize the fact that Ambrosini has "been adamant that he had nothing to do with the contract" and "denied even talking" to Ferris about it, should it not also accept Zimmerlink's position that she knew nothing about the restaurant folder? And should it not accept Beal's position that she did nothing wrong and the case against her is politically motivated?

And finally, if HeraldStandard.com believes that someone should finally "come forward with proof," lest Ambrosini continue to "linger under this cloud of suspicion and doubt," should the newspaper not also call upon the state police and district attorney Jack Heneks to do the same regarding the police investigation into the restaurant packet?

We commend HeraldStandard.com for not wanting to let Ambrosini twist in the wind, and for challenging his accuser(s) to either put up or shut up.

But the same standard should apply to the accuser(s) of Beal, Zimmerlink and Over.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Free speech -- sometimes

"I have a constitutional right to speak freely ... When I received this letter, I was shocked that she (Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink) would demand $25,000, but equally as shocked to censor my right to free speech, a right that brave men had fought and died for. I believe this demand for money is wrong and the public should be informed."
-- Harry Fike, chairman of the Fayette County Housing Authority board of directors, as quoted in "Zimmerlink seeks monetary restitution," Herald-Standard.com, Aug. 5.

So Fike believes in: A. Free speech, and B. The public's right to be informed. Hmmm ...

"She has violated our trust and violated her fiduciary responsibility by improperly discussing on-going litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the Authority, as well as discussing an on-going Federal case."
-- Text of the Fayette County Housing Authority motion, supported by Fike, to censure fellow board member Beverly Beal.

Apparently, Beal's right to free speech isn't as important as Fike's. Or maybe those brave men who died for it said, with their last breaths, "Don't let the right to free speech apply to anyone named Beal. If they try to speak freely, censure them!"

"The law makes clear that certain types of documents are protected and thus not available for public review."
-- Taken from "Board responds to Beal's commentary," Herald-Standard.com, July 29, a guest column submitted by Fike and three other housing authority board members, regarding Beal's quest to obtain information about payments to the Cohen & Grigsby law firm.

So Fike firmly believes that "the public should be informed" about a letter from Zimmerlink marked confidential, but concurrently believes that "certain types of documents ... are not available for public review" when it concerns how the housing authority spends tax money.

It is worth noting that just because the state's Right-to-Know Law contains several exemptions that permit a public agency to shield information from the public doesn't mean that the agency has to do that. It doesn't have to invoke one of the exceptions if it does not want to.

So when someone signs off on a commentary that says certain documents are "not available for public review," what they are really saying is, "We are choosing to invoke one of the exceptions, and keep that information from public view."

Beal believes that Cohen & Grigsby has been paid $500,000 by the housing authority. If that's true, we certainly hope that she is successful in finding out adequate details on how that money was spent. To that end, we hope she that in addition to refiling her information request using the Right-to-Know Law form (which she should have done in the first place) that she also seeks the information as a board member.

Beal may have to state the reason why she wants the access while wearing a board member's hat, thus meeting a condition laid down by the authority, but she may also get to see more complete information.

In the interim, we wonder why in the past few weeks the intrepid reporting staff of HeraldStandard.com hasn't asked for the same information as Beal. It would take all of five minutes to fill out the form.

Simply put, no one needs to wait for Beal to shake this tree.