Columbia Borough Council met in an unannounced executive session last week and appointed police chief Jack Brommer its second interim borough manager in as many months.
The Feb. 18 meeting raised compliance issues under Pennsylvania’s Sunshine act, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Two Columbia residents who filed separate complaints in 2018 and 2019 arguing borough council violated the Sunshine Act now lead the board. Their terms began in January.
The Sunshine Act requires government agencies like school boards, local governing boards and authorities to deliberate and take official action on matters in an open and public setting.
Council president Heather Zink confirmed that council didn’t advertise or publicly announce last week’s meeting. She said all seven council members and a contracted labor attorney were present, adding there was not a formal vote.
Action taken behind closed doors
Zink said the unanimous administrative action taken at last week’s meeting “was necessary for the uninterrupted functioning of the borough.”
“We do have a regularly scheduled meeting tomorrow night where all information will be announced and formal votes taken,” she said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline on Monday.
If an agency doesn’t comply with the law, courts generally don’t find a violation if they come out at a subsequent public meeting and do it right,” Melewsky said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline.
But, she said that “does not allow agencies to routinely violate the law and then ‘ratify’ actions at a later date.”
“It should be rarely used, and in my opinion, accompanied by a full explanation, an admission of guilt, and a pledge to follow the law in the future,” Melewsky wrote.
Brommer’s appointment was posted on the borough’s website and Facebook page by Feb. 20 with a one-sentence statement: “Effective immediately, Chief Brommer will take over as the interim borough manager.”
On Friday, Brommer said he was contacted after council members met on Feb. 18.
He expects the position to last only a few weeks until a permanent manager is hired, he said, does not have a contract for the role and any additional compensation he would receive for filling it has not been discussed or finalized.
“Right now the only thing I’m getting is my salary for chief of police,” he said.
‘I struggled to reconcile this’
Zink and council vice president Sharon Lintner both filed Sunshine Act complaints against borough council in 2018 and 2019.
Lintner filed her complaint in 2018 after she said council voted on a funding matter in executive session. The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office declined to investigate the complaint because it could not prove there was an intent to violate the act.
Lintner declined comment on last week’s unannounced meeting, saying Zink was the council’s designated spokeswoman.
Zink filed her complaint in 2019 after council voted that June to award a contract she said was never discussed in a public meeting. The district attorney’s office cleared council of violating the act a few months later.
In Monday’s email to LNP | LancasterOnline, Zink wrote that she understands “the concern that I had filed a Sunshine complaint for seemingly the same thing.”
“Believe me, I struggled to reconcile this myself,” she wrote. “We did not operate in a vacuum as both the solicitor and labor attorney were advising us along the way.”
The labor attorney who attended last week’s executive session, Michael McAuliffe Miller of Eckert Seamans, said in an email, “I do not comment on attorney-client communications.”
Evan M. Gabel of CGA Law Firm, who became the borough’s solicitor in January, said he did not know there was going to be a meeting that day and was not there.
Past and future of position
Former borough manager Rebecca S. Denlinger resigned to become manager of Elizabethtown Borough.
Denlinger's last day was Jan. 16, and just prior to that council voted publicly to contract Candie L. Johnson as interim borough manager at $40 an hour while it sought a permanent replacement.
Zink wrote that Johnson’s contract with the borough ended, but did not provide details on when or why that occurred or which party ended it.
Asked for a copy of Johnson's contract, Zink directed LNP|Lancasteronline to file a Right To Know request, which it did Monday morning. It had not yet received a response by 4 p.m. Monday.
The agenda for council’s upcoming public meeting Feb. 25 indicates it will consider a motion “to ratify decision to end the contract for interim borough manager services effective Feb. 19,” and to hire Mark Stivers as permanent borough manager at a salary of $90,000 a year, with start date to be determined.