Friday, July 27, 2012

Semantics in play?

As part of its legal justification for stonewalling board member Beverly Beal's request for information regarding payments to a Pittsburgh law firm, the Fayette County Housing Authority is apparently relying on a state law that has us scratching our head.

Here is a passage from the most recent article ("Beal will not withdraw appeal to see housing authority records," July 26):

According to a state statute that governs non-profit corporations, members of such organizations must specify in a letter to that agency, why the review is necessary.

Our question is this: When did the Fayette County Housing Authority switch from being a public agency to being a non-profit corporation?

As a public agency, the housing authority is bound by the state Right-to-Know Law, which clearly prohibits them from asking a person the reason they want information.

If the housing authority is relying on a statute that governs non-profit corporations, and the housing authority is not a non-profit corporation, how can that particular statute apply?

Non-profit corporations have to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service. It would be interesting to ask if the housing authority has done that for its entire operation, because the answer would provide a big clue as to whether it really is a non-profit corporation or not.

Some examples of non-profit corporations operating in Fayette County are organizations like Uniontown Hospital, Fay-Penn Economic Development, and the United Way.

We highly doubt that the Fayette County Housing Authority has morphed into a full-fledged non-profit corporation. Although it may have started one to operate the Heritage Apartments in downtown Uniontown (we seem to recall that being the case), unless the Pittsburgh law firm of Cohen & Grigsby is doing all of its housing authority work through that non-profit, the law being cited by the housing authority would not seem to apply.

Someone should probe this rationale a little further.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some questions

Now that Al Ambrosini is the only Fayette County commissioner empowered to give county solicitor Ken Burkley instruction, per a 2-1 vote this week, we got to thinking of some logical questions.

1. How come former solicitor Joe Ferens could juggle many different work assignments at one time, while simultaneously taking direction from and answering to all three commissioners, but Burkley apparently cannot do either?

Burkley, it is argued by Ambrosini, needs his plate cleared of all but one item, that of restructuring the county's solicitorship system to install a lawsuit-prevention posture. And this task is so important that he can't be bothered with anything else.

Yet for many, many years, Ferens oversaw all manner of thorny county legal issues, often at the same time. We don't recall anyone ever saying, "Joe needs to focus on just one thing," or, "Only I shall be the one to tell Joe what to do."

2. Why is commissioner Vince Zapotosky, who provided the second vote to make Ambrosini the point man in dealing with Burkley, so willing to give up his power as a county commissioner?

Zapotosky must be supremely confident in the Ambrosini-Burkley arrangement. Perhaps he is trying to keep the peace with his Democrat colleague, or just doesn't care to be involved. Maybe he is just too weak or worn out, politically or personally, to say no.

But it can be a dicey situation to turn over the keys to running one of the county's key offices to someone else. If you were a county commissioner, elected by the people to run county government, how would you feel if the guy sitting next to you asked you to take a back seat?

3. If endowing a single commissioner with the power to give instruction to a county office is such a good idea, why isn't it being replicated for all other county offices?

Commissioner A could be assigned offices D, E and F; Commissioner B could be assigned offices G, H and I; and Commissioner C could be assigned offices J, K and L.

We don't think there would be two votes for such a setup, which would mean Ambrosini and Zapotosky would be asked to give up a chunk of their power.

4. Finally, commissioner Angela Zimmerlink, who objected to giving Ambrosini the lone authority to tell Burkley what to do, has an ongoing lawsuit against Zapotosky and former commissioner Vince Vicites, alleging that they basically kept her from doing her job by freezing her out of county business and decision-making.

Wouldn't this week's vote, which basically strips Zimmerlink of the ability to have an equal say in dealing with the county solicitor, only serve to reinforce (if not prove) her point?

Is it not possible that this particular vote might end up as part of a lawsuit (new or ongoing) against the county -- the very thing that Burkley is tasked with preventing?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tightening the noose

Fresh off their joint decision to annoint Chairman Al Ambrosini as the only one who can give instruction to the county's chief solicitor, Fayette County commissioners Ambrosini and Vince Zapotosky are taking aim at imposing another restriction.

Now they want to attempt to funnel -- and thus restrict -- the flow of official information through newly hired chief clerk Amy Revak, whose ever-evolving job description would be augmented yet again, this time to include the duries of "public relations officer."

If Ambrosini and/or Zapotosky are too lazy or lack the confidence to deal with the press directly, there is nothing that prohibits them from asking Revak to be their mouthpiece. But what they cannot -- and should not be allowed -- to do is force the third commissioner, Angela Zimmerlink, to be party to this abrogation.

Here is the key passage from Wednesday's story on this ("Fayette Co. commissioners table public relations job,", July 18), which was thannkfully read aloud by Zimmerlink and reported by Steve Ferris:

The parts of the job description she objected to included requiring all departments to report to the officer before any information is released to the public; requiring a majority of the commissioners to sign any information before it is released to the public; a directive that all media inquiries regarding the county’s point of view, direction, policy or intention should be directed to the officer; requiring all printed material bearing the commissioners’ signatures shall be directed to the officer for approval; making the officer responsible for all printed material designed to influence public attitudes toward the county and its officials; making the officer responsible for coordinating the release of the suggestion of any county news story and requiring the officer to approve all news releases written by the commissioners or department heads.

There are plenty of reasons why Zimmerlink is justified in saying, "There is absolutely no way I’m approving this" -- starting with the fact that she voted against hiring Revak. But the larger issue concerns how this change, like the one involving making Ambrosini the only one in charge of the county solicitor, serves to restrict the flow of information.

"Requiring a majority of the commissioners to sign any information before it is released to the public." So if there is a report, or a letter, or a request for comment from the media or a citizen, Ambrosini and Zapotosky want two at least two of the three commissioners to sign off on that? Exactly where to they expect Zimmerlink to get a second vote?

"All media inquiries regarding the county’s point of view, direction, policy or intention should be directed to the officer." So what happens if there is a difference in the point of view? If one of the three commissioners disagrees with the other two, which "point of view" will Revak disseminate to the media? Would it be that of her benefactors, Ambrosini and Zapotosky; or that of Zimmerlink, who did not want to hire her? Beyond that, reporters are free to call anyone they want for comment. Shouldn't Revak, the former reporter hired partly for her media knowledge, be telling Ambrosini and Zapotosky that?

Making the officer responsible for all printed material designed to influence public attitudes toward the county and its officials. This is a good one. Does it mean that the county's PR machine will create printed material designed to influence public attitudes? If not, does it mean that someone says, "This (report, letter, etc.) will make us look awful bad. Let's pretend it does not exist"?

Requiring the officer to approve all news releases written by the commissioners or department heads. This one may actually have some merit as concerns releases from department heads, who may or may not have the skills or background to write them effectively. But if a single commissioner has the confidence and desire to pen and distribute a news release, there is no logical reason to require Revak to approve it. The concept is called Freedom of Speech.

We see this as a further attempt to marginalize the opposition, in this case Zimmerink, by laying down a set of rules that really aren't needed. If Ambrosini and Zapotosky want to utilize Revak as a public relations officer, they can do that without passing a resolution.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ask around

Here's the question that needs answered: If it's a good idea for the Fayette County commissioners to designate chairman Al Ambrosini as the only one of them who can issue directives to the county's chief solicitor, how many other counties have deployed this strategy?

Do the neighboring counties of Greene, Washington and Westmoreland find it necessary to grant one -- and only one -- of their three county commissioners the power to tell the solicitor what to do?

The answer is, "Probably not." And it's a pretty fair bet that if anyone in those counties tried to do such a thing, the other two commissioners probably wouldn't stand for it.

Why? Because three commissioners are elected to run the county. Not just one. They may have different vote totals on Election Day, but in the eye of the law, once they take office they are equals, entrusted with the same job responsibilities and the same powers.

You can read more about this debate here:

We find it interesting that the rationale (some would call it excuse) being given to support this restriction of involvement is that interim solicitor Ken Burkley of Greensburg needs to be able to focus on devising the litigation-avoidance strategy he was hired to develop.

According to's Friday story, Burkley was hired in March to work three to six months, with this task being his focus.

It is now July. He has worked for the county four months. Can we expect to see the fruits of his labor within the next eight weeks? If his plate needs cleared of clutter, why is that necessary now? Shouldn't that have been the case right after he was hired?

Here are a couple of interesting paragraphs from the story, regarding Burkley's job duties:

Those preparations include interviews with job candidates.

Ambrosini said any new solicitor the commissioners would hire would come from the pool of "exceptionally good" attorneys in the county and Burkley won’t be considered.

So as the time grows near for Burkley to apparently help choose his successor, it becomes necessary to give Ambrosini -- and only Ambrosini -- the power to instruct the solicitor?

When county commissioner Angela Zimmerlink says, "I have that right and authority as a commissioner" to assign work to Burkley if she wishes, she is correct.

Only in Fayette County would such an idea fly. But don't take it from us. Ask the commissioners in the surrounding counties. If it's such a good idea, they would be doing it, too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fike versus the Office of Open Records

Who ya gonna believe?

In this corner, responding to fellow board member Beverly Beal's written request for public information, is Harry Fike, chairman of the Fayette County Housing Authority, who writes that she must "provide the authority with a written statement clarifying the purpose for which you seek the requested information." ("Beal seeks to review authority documents,", July 8)

And in this corner, straight from the website of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the definitive authority on the state's Right-to-Know Law, comes this question and answer:

Can a public body ask why a person wants (to) obtain the information? [Section 1308]
No. The law prohibits a public body from requiring a person "to disclose the purpose or motive in requesting access to records."

"No" sounds like a pretty clear answer to us, when it comes to whether or not a public agency in Pennsylvania can ask a person what they intend to do with the public information they are requesting.

It doesn't matter what Beal (or anyone else) wants to do with such information. They can laminate it for posterity, make copies to distribute as gifts for Christmas, or use it for toilet paper in a pinch.

We wonder why reporter Patty Yauger didn't take three seconds to search the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records website, under "FAQs" to find the answer we got. It certainly would have added an interesting -- and important -- perspective to her story. (She can still call Terry Mutchler, the executive director of the Office of Open Records, to verify if Fike is right or full of you-know-what.)

Instead, readers were treated to a verbal regurgitation of the circumstances behind the other four board members' "censure" of Beal arising from a packet discovered in a restaurant, one that Fike says contained some "scary" stuff.

That was May 30. It has now early July. It has been five weeks, which seems plenty of time for state police to either charge Beal with a crime, thus supporting the need to censure her and initiate action to remove her from the board, or exonerate her, thus exposing all this hulabaloo as the political witch hunt she says it is.

This isn't exactly the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, so it shouldn't take too long to wrap up the case.

None of that, however, has anything to do with Beal's request to see all the payments made to Cohen and Grigsby, the Pittsburgh law firm that the housing authority retains in addition to its regular solicitor. It is also the firm that the FCHA reportedly instructed to hire a private investigator to snoop into Packetgate.

Beal, as a citizen or a board member, is entitled to see those financial records and to get copies if she wishes. That is the law in Pennsylvania -- and the law says you don't have to state the reason for asking for public information.

We would love to see everyone in Fayette County who cares about open government make a formal written request to the housing authority, asking to see all of the Cohen and Grigsby payment vouchers for the past year. Would Fike send each of them a reply, asking them to state the reason?

And If he did, how could anyone even remotely construe that as openness?

As an aside, you may remember the last time the Fayette County Housing Authority had one of its critics investigated, and how that one turned out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

New publisher takes helm

Newly christened publisher Robert Pinarski says one of his goals is to "make this organization the premiere information resource for our readers with all our platforms." (, July 1).

If this is true, he might want to start by linking his website to several blogs, including the one operated by Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink.

That's where inquiring minds can find news such as the fact that Dave Madison, the long-time head of Fayette County Children and Youth Services, is resigning next month. And that Jim Hercik, the county's long-time Tax Assessment Office director, is also resigning next month.

Two key department heads submit their resignations weeks ago, that seems like a pretty good story. Or at least something worth mentioning. The search for their replacements is also newsworthy, as Zimmerlink points out in her latest blog post:

So how is it that no action has been taken on the recent resignation notices of CYS Director and Tax Assessment Director and how is it that yet again, Dominic Carnicella, Felice Associates, ignores my inquiry?
Case In Point: Dave Madison via an email on June 4th submitted his resignation with an effective date of August 3rd. Jim Hercik via a memo on June 18th submitted his resignation with an effective date of August 17th. Despite my direction to our HR Department to begin the recruitment process, here it is July 5th and nothing..not even a response from Dominic Carnicella to me. Well perhaps their replacements are quietly being made within the selected political circles.

Astute readers will recall that the recent news of county judge Ralph Warman's announced retirement did not go without notice. It was greeted with a news story and a highly complimentary editorial. Hercik (for sure) Madison (probably) have served in their current capacities at least as long as Warman has been a judge. So what's the difference?

Pinarski might also want to ask if he defines a "premiere information resource for our readers" as one that runs a story on his hiring on page 1, but relegates the story that U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who one day after providing the swing vote that upheld the constitutionality of the national health care law appeared at a legal conference at Nemacolin Woodlands, to page 3 of the same edition. ("Chief Justice appears at conference,", July 1)

And it was an Associated Press story, to boot!

If the Associated Press knew ahead of time that Roberts was coming to Nemacolin Woodlands the day after what is widely held as the most important decision of the current Supreme Court term, and had the wherewithal to send a reporter, why didn't the local newspaper?