Reade Township action may have violated state law

Supervisors might have agreed to appoint Phillips to board prior to public meeting

BLANDBURG — Before Bill Phillips was appointed to a seat on Reade Township’s board of supervisors, he was already sitting in it.

On Monday, Phillips appeared at the front of a meeting room beside Supervisors John McElheny and Jim Igou, but he was not yet a supervisor.

However, Phillips’ presence in that seat, as well as a prior posting of his name to a state website, suggest he knew he’d be appointed to the role.

And those factors seem to suggest supervisors likely agreed to his appointment prior to a public meeting — a decision that would be prohibited by state law, community members, an attorney and a state Office of Open Records employee said.

“We’ve asked Bill Phillips to come onboard with us,” McElheny said at the meeting before a vote. “I make the motion to approve him for being the other supervisor.”

That is a motion that Igou supported, and a vote to appoint Phillips to the board was 2-0.

The action was taken without any type of nomination process and with no other clearly specified candidates for the role.

Supervisors are not required to advertise for candidates to fill a board vacancy, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Phillips will fill the remainder of a term previously held by Don Rickard, who resigned last month. McElheny and Igou also approved Rickard’s resignation Monday night.

It is unclear when McElheny and Igou “asked” Phillips “to come onboard.”

Messages seeking information about the appointment left for McElheny and Igou early Tuesday afternoon were not returned by early evening.

Supporting the notion that a decision to appoint Phillips was made prior to Monday’s public meeting is information posted to the state Department of Community & Economic Development’s municipal statistics website.

On Monday evening, Phillip’s name appeared on the site. According to the site, his name had been added at 1:47 p.m. Jan. 30 — six days before Monday’s public vote.

That posting and Phillips’ sitting on at the board table prior to an official vote seem to “illustrate that discussions were had and decisions were made outside of a public meeting,” Melewsky said.

“The entire process of filling a vacancy in an official office should be public,” she said, explaining public action is required under the state Sunshine Act.

Nathan Byerly, deputy director with the state Office of Open Records, said he spoke with a Sunshine Act expert who shared the same suspicions.

The state Sunshine Act is in place to ensure “the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies.”

In most cases, it prohibits official votes and discussions from being held behind closed doors.

The Sunshine Act allows some executive sessions — closed-door meetings — in cases when municipal leaders must discuss sensitive topics prior to conducting a public vote.

Those topics are defined in the law, and appointing a new supervisor is not among them.

A copy of the Sunshine Act posted to the state Office of Open Records website explains executive sessions cannot be held for “any meeting involving the appointment or selection of any person to fill a vacancy in any elected office.”

Still, Melewsky and Byerly said they could not say with certainty that the Reade supervisors violated the act.

A message left Tuesday afternoon for township secretary Judy Fudrow also was not returned by early evening. Fudrow was not at the Monday meeting.

Reade Township’s solicitor, Aimee Willett, also was not at the meeting. On Tuesday, Willett said she could not comment on the Monday vote because she was unaware of the specific details of the events that came before the decision.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.