East Cocalico Township supervisors unanimously hired a new township manager Thursday evening, but not before officials were criticized by several residents for conducting interviews and making decisions behind closed doors.
H. Scott Russell, an engineer with Rettew Associates, was hired for an annual salary of $95,000.
He fills a post that has been vacant since February 2016. Steve Gabriel, who works under Russell at Rettew, has filled the position on a part-time, interim basis for the past 14 months.
However, more than 20 people attended the meeting on Thursday with concerns that Russell’s hiring was announced in a press release on March 29, several days before the board voted publicly to hire him.
According to Russell, he was interviewed by supervisors on March 6, he was offered the job by board chairman Douglas Mackley on March 7, and he accepted the post on March 10.
That’s nearly a month before supervisors held a public vote on the offer.
In fact, supervisors at a March 16 public meeting announced they had made an offer to a candidate, but said they were waiting to hear back from him. Gabriel also said he didn’t know Russell had interviewed for the job until it was announced at Rettew that Russell was leaving the company on March 17.
Several township residents complained Thursday that the decision violates the state Sunshine Act, which requires government bodies to deliberate and vote at public meetings.
Their complaints follow an article in LNP Thursday morning in which Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said hiring is an official action “that can only take place at a public meeting, and only after there’s been an opportunity for public comment.”
“There’s no collusion,” Mackley insisted Thursday. “We made an offer, and Mr. Russell accepted the offer.”
Mackley read a letter from township solicitor Tom Goodman, who said in his professional opinion the board did not violate the Sunshine Act with its actions.
Board secretary Noelle Fortna said she’s excited to hire Russell for the post, but conceded the announcement in March “may have been premature.”
“Wouldn’t the process be to vote on hiring the manager before putting out a press release?” asked resident Steve Brubaker .
“Looking back,” Mackley responded, “that probably would have been a better thing to do.”
“Who drafted that press release?” resident Jeff Mitchell asked.
Mackley said he isn’t sure.
“I think Scott did,” Gabriel responded.
Jed Kensinger, an LNP editor who specializes in open meetings law, made a plea to supervisors for future transparency by East Cocalico officials.
He criticized the board for making an unlawful decision to spend public funds behind closed doors.
Personnel matters, such as hiring a new manager, may be discussed at an advertised executive session, Kensinger said. But the decision to hire someone must be made in the public’s view.
“You went ahead and offered Mr. Russell a job and didn’t put it on an agenda — as if hiring a public servant to the township’s top post is a private deal,” he said. “Simply put, you broke the public trust. You have a precious opportunity tonight to make things right.”
Board vice chairman Alan Fry said Russell knew the job wasn't official until a vote was taken. Several residents objected to the statement, saying a person in his position wouldn't give notice to his employer without a concrete job offer.
Fortna, asked if Russell's announcement wasn't premature, said "I applaud him for his optimism. He has to do what he needs to do and what he feels comfortable with."
"That sounds like nonsense to me," Mitchell said. "Nobody gives notice on a well-paying job based on a maybe."