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Council accused of holding secret meetings

By Staff | May 20, 2020

MONTGOMERY-Allegations of unannounced, secret meetings involving directions on how to vote and how to respond to questions were made at Montgomery Borough Council’s meeting last week.

Councilwoman Shawn Coles resigned at the meeting, but not before saying that Council President Susan Andrews instructed her prior to an August decision on a new police officer to not vote to hire Ray Kontz.

Kontz was hired, however, in a 6-1 vote at the time in which Andrews cast the lone “no” vote without elaborating on her reasoning.

More recently, a search warrant was served on another council member, Laurel Green, and the search was completed by Officer Eric Winters on May 2. No charges have been filed as a result of that search. After that incident, an unannounced executive session for a personnel matter took place, according to Coles. At that meeting were members of borough council and the solicitor, Jonathan DeWald.

Coles said that at this meeting action was taken to put Winters on paid administrative leave and to have Mayor Fae Herb contact Winters about his leave.

The action was not announced at a subsequent public meeting of borough council.

According to the Sunshine Act, which governs open meetings in Pennsylvania, local government agencies may discuss personnel matters in a closed executive session but any official votes must be made in a public meeting.

The law reads: “The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. 701-716, requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and that the public can attend, participate, and comment before an agency takes that official action.”

Coles also added that she warned council about not being in compliance with the Sunshine Act but the information was “brushed under the rug.”

“It raises Sunshine Act compliance issues,” Melissa Melewsky, in-house counsel with the Pennsylvania News Media Association, said. “Official action or votes on agencies can only take place publically and only after there has been opportunity for public comment.”

She added that the borough could be subject to civil or criminal penalties but only if a judge determines that a violation has occurred.

Coles said that she would typically only vote for positive things for the community which then caused council members to no longer bring her into “secret” meetings, use her past against her and push her away from council decisions.

“It is just a mess,” Coles said. “I am not doing this to be malicious. I have a purpose, not an agenda. Our town has so much potential. I want this to stop; it is my goal to move forward.”

Coles was not the only person to resign during Tuesday’s meeting. Council also accepted the resignations of Herb and Officer Ken Flewelling of the borough police force. Reasons for the resignations were not disclosed, though at least one member of the public asked that the letters of resignation be read aloud. Council declined.

Upon accepting the resignations, Andrews stepped into the role of mayor until a new mayor is appointed to fill the unexpired term.

“When a mayor resigns, president of council is then left to discharge the mayoral duties until a new mayor is appointed,” DeWald said. “Council has 30 days to fill the vacancy.”

DeWald also said that council has 30 days to fill the unexpired term created by Coles’ resignation.

The borough will be placing an advertisement for the two positions alongside putting the information on their website once the website is completed.

Interested residents can submit a letter of interest explaining their interest in the position and any other information they might want to add.

“There is no strict requirement,” DeWald said.

He also added that the letters can be sent to Donna Miller, borough manager, over email or they can be dropped off at the borough building drop box.

Council already has received letters of interest for both seats.

Once all of the letters are compiled, council will interview residents and appoint new members at the next council meeting.

These appointees will take over the roles of mayor and council person until the election of 2021 when a new person is elected and will serve until the reorganization for the 2022 year.

In addition, council also approved appointing Officer Mark Cassel as interim police chief in a 4-1 vote. With the leadership role within the borough police department due to a “pending investigation,” Officer Cassel was voted to be the interim police chief not exceeding 20 hours a week in the borough. Council member Andrew Onufrak voted no on this decision. Council members did not comment on that “investigation.”

In other police business, the borough council also unanimously accepted the retirement of Officer Jeff Houseknecht.