Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Public progress, private intrigue in Tarentum

The Tarentum Borough Council met Monday evening, April 17, 2006 at 6:30. In the public part of the meeting, the Council discussed a number of ways in which the borough can deal with some of its challenges. I'll get to the private part of the meeting later.

Solicitor Strellec described three different proposed ordinances that will help the borough solve some ongoing problems. The Council voted to advertize a proposed ordinance that would increase the parking fine to $25 for those who do not pay the fine on time.

The Council also voted to advertize a proposed ordinance to establish a surtax to the land-owner for excessive police calls. This ordinance would be a way to make landlords and homeowners responsible for what goes on at their property. It was stated that the ordinance was intended to be enforced against property owners where the excessive police calls are nuisance calls. The ordinance calls for a sur-tax of $50 per call for the excess calls and if the surtax is not paid on time there could be an additional $250 fine when the borough takes the landowner to court.

The Council is also developing an ordinance based on one used in Millvale to address the problem of absentee landlords. This ordinance would require landlords who live more than 15 miles from the borough to name a property manager residing within a 15 mile radius of the borough. This would make it easier to resolve landlord-tenant issues. This possible ordinance will be presented to the Council next month and may be advertized after that meeting.

Solicitor Strellec also reported that that he had received a petition from an estate to abandon real property in Tarentum. The fire department is concerned that the structure on the property is in such disrepair that it poses a fire risk to the whole block. The Council voted to attempt to take the property if the taxes and liens owed to about 15 other parties can be exonerated.

Councilman Bill Rossey reported on plans to hold a town meeting at the Grandview Elementary School auditorium on May 5 to discuss possibilities for redevelopment in Tarentum.

At the end of the meeting. Council President Carl Magnetta stated that there had been a request from four members of the Council for a meeting in executive session following the regular meeting. Council President Magnetta stated that he had not been informed of the purpose of the executive session. Councilwoman Mary Newcomer stated that it was a personal matter, and no one disputed it. The Council adjourned. The public left the room, believing that all that was going to happen was something personal. The public was not told that the Council would reconvene in public after the executive session. It sounds like the public was misled. Read the next day's Valley News Dispatch to learn what happened.

I have a lot of problems with this private meeting.

First of all, if what was going to happen in the executive session was actually a personal matter, then there was no need for the Council to be holding an actual meeting because they were not going to be transacting business. If the Council members wanted to iron out differences, ask about each other's health and families, or give each other a big group hug in private they could do that without holding an official meeting.

Secondly, "a personal matter" is not on the list of permissible uses of executive session under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. No one told the public even which category of permissible purposes for an executive session applied to this meeting, nor was there any indication that the Council actually intended to conduct any borough business in the executive session. I wish that when the Council President heard the offer of an invalid reason for an executive session that he had simply ruled the request out of order. Doing so would have preserved the public's right to know what was being handled behind closed doors.

The story I am hearing is that in private the Council members wanted to reorganize the local government of Tarentum. That is something the public had every right to know. In fact, the public had a right to comment on it before any action was taken. But when elected officials prefer to work in the shadows, this is the kind of thing that happens. And in my opinion, the actions taken in the shadows under those circumstances are voidable.

They say that Louis XIV said, "L'État, c'est moi." (I am the state.) To consider the reorganization of the government of the borough as a mere "personal matter" completely ignores the distinction between public and personal. It astonishes me that Tarentum council members who stood for public election, and received a public trust to lead and govern would so quickly treat their public responsibilities as a "personal matter." Tarentum is not a monarchy. Honest.

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Anonymous said...

With the past president of council nothing else is more true than the word monarchy. Mr Magnetta ran meetings like he was King Carl of England, only his family could speak (royal court of thugs), anyone else with a comment that king Carl did not like was told to basically shut up.

Stewart said...

Dear anonymous,

I suspect that my comments may fall on deaf ears when people are caught up in a personal feud.

But assuming for the sake of argument that what you say about the previous council president is true, nothing is gained by substituting one leader with a poor sense of boundaries between personal matters and public matters for another person with the same disability.

What is needed is for whoever holds that position to show more concern for keeping the public informed.