Sugarcreek Borough Council Sends Public, including Two Senior Citizens, into 20-Degree Weather to Hold Executive Session About Street Lights
SUGARCREEK, Pa. (EYT) – Despite a second room in the Sugarcreek Borough building, Sugarcreek Council elected to send the public out into 20-degree weather on Wednesday to hold an executive session about street lights in Sugarcreek Village.
The decision sent six members of the public – including two senior citizens – into the cold winter night.
The ostracized group included Diane Shields, who has been advocating for the street lights for over year; former council member Linda Turner; Faye Baughman; Reno Fire Chief Mike Garbacz; and two other member of the public; as well as reporters from exploreVenango.com and The Derrick.
The executive session lasted for 25 minutes, from 7:27 p.m. to 7:52 p.m.
No action was taken concerning the street lights when council resumed the regular meeting, meaning council elected to put in the three street lights in the Village as elected at the December 7 meeting. The fact that no action would be taken was announced by solicitor Brian Spaid, who is not an elected member of the council, instead of any of the five elected council members or mayor Jeff MacKenzie.
The street lights will be placed at the corners of Causeway Drive and Sugarcreek Drive, Wilson Street and Sugarcreek Drive, and Buttermilk Hill and Sugarcreek Drive.
After Spaid made the announcement, councilman Larry Baughman advised Shields to talk to the school district about the lights, and councilman Bob Resinger asked if there were lights going back into the school on school property, which Shields said there was.
Sporer then said he would talk to PennDOT about the lights Thursday, which pleased Shields, who has been working on getting street lights into the village since at least November 2015.
Shields – who said PennDOT told her it’s the borough’s responsibility to put the lights up – came to Wednesday’s meeting to question council after it was mentioned at the December 21 meeting that the lights might not go in. Council was concerned of the potential for someone to sue the borough over the fact the money for the lights was being taken out of the general fund instead of the street light fund that is funded via street light taxes in the Reno and Rocky Grove portion of the borough.
It was that potential threat of litigation that prompted council to believe it had the right to call the executive session in the first place.
After Shields spoke, Spaid said he didn’t believe it was a legal question but a political one.
“I think it’s up to the discretion of council,” Spaid said. “It’s not a legal question but a political one. Is it fairer for everyone to have a street light tax or to fund it from the general fund where the folks in Rocky Grove and Reno are paying extra? It’s more political than legal.”
At that point, council president Bogan Goughler said it would be discussed in executive session.
When exploreVenango.com questioned why the council was going to go to executive session to discuss street lights, Spaid answered that it was because of the potential for litigation. When exploreVenango.com then asked if any litigation was pending, it was told that it didn’t matter, just the potential for litigation was enough for the executive session.
That ruling by Spaid appears that it could be the correct one according to the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law which states that the fourth reason an executive session can be called is “(for the legislative body) to consult with its attorney or other professional advisor regarding information or strategy in connection with litigation or with issues on which identifiable complaints are expected to be filed.”
It was mentioned during Wednesday’s meeting that Resinger had heard back in December that someone might sue the borough over the funds being taken from the general fund. The person or entity from whom Resinger got that information was not disclosed to the public at either the December 21 meeting or Wednesday’s meeting.
Details of the Sugarcreek Borough Meeting
Some routine legislation was discussed that included the following:
– Authorizing Goughler to sign the Automated Red Light Enforcement Program Project Funding Agreement that was passed in December.
– A motion to authorize May & Company to perform the borough’s annual audit for the year ending December 31, 2016, not to exceed $3,850.00 (the same price as last year).
~ A motion to authorize the borough to enter into a Cooperative Agreement with the County of Venango for the County to administer the borough’s CDBG funds.
It was then announced that council would go into executive session to “discuss agency business, which if conducted in public, would violate the lawful privilege of information or confidentiality by law and any action to follow.”
It was not immediately mentioned that the street lights would be discussed in the executive session, but Shields questioned council if they were going to be discussed, and she was told they were.
Council then sat at their seats expecting everyone else to vacate the building.
When exploreVenango.com asked if there was a warm place that the public could go during the executive sessions, the reply was, “No, there wasn’t.”
Turner asked why council wasn’t going to use the room behind the council chambers to hold the executive session.
Once outside, Turner told exploreVenango.com that when she was on council, the council would hold executive sessions in the room behind the council chambers.
After the meeting adjourned, exploreVenango.com approached Goughler to express concern that the public, including Turner and Baughman, both senior citizens, were asked to stand out in the cold weather while the executive session was held.
Goughler responded that it was council’s room and that in his 11 years on council they had never vacated it for an executive session. It should be noted that at the December 7 meeting held at the Rocky Grove Fire Department, council left the main room when it called an executive session.
Councilman John McClelland was more sympathetic to the concerns expressed by exploreVenango.com saying he believed the concerns were valid.
The meeting started with Turner questioning council as to whether the reserve fund was a capital fund or an operating fund.
Borough manager Joe Sporer said that council on December 1, 2004, passed a motion to set up a capital reserve account meaning the account could only be used for capital improvements.
“When I took over in 2010, there was $900.00 in that fund,” Sporer said. “There is now $750,000.00 in it. We need to have a capital fund in case there is a major problem with a sewer or water line.”
Sporer said an example is the water tank on Route 417.
“The point is, we have a water tank that is 10-years old on Route 417,” Sporer said. “Tanks are said to last 20 to 25 years. We have had three leaks in the last four years. We have to have a reserve account if we have a major issue, in case we need to have money available for an emergency situation.”
Baughman then questioned council as to why it didn’t hire part-time police officer Joe Highfield as a full-time officer after raising taxes one mill this year.
“It’s not in the budget,” Goughler said.
It was also announced at the meeting that the local fire departments have informed Venango County that they will no longer respond to down trees, meaning that if it’s on a state road, PennDOT will need to take care of that, and if it’s on a borough road, the borough. Because of that, Venango County 911 has requested a 24-7 contact from the borough to handle issues on borough streets.
Both Rocky Grove and Reno Fire departments had made repeated requests to council at both December meetings for extra funding to come out of the one mill tax increase or for the borough to enact a fire tax. Nevertheless, the fire departments were turned away despite over 50 citizens showing up at the December 7 meeting in support of both the fire and police departments and over 40 showing up for the same reason at the December 21 meeting.
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