The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office reviewed and investigated citizen reports of alleged Sunshine Act violations stemming from actions taken by the East Cocalico Township board of supervisors in hiring a township manager.
Our office has completed that investigation and is announcing the findings and information relevant to our determination, including applicable state law.
A team of Lancaster County detectives, operating under DA Craig Stedman, investigated the reports. The investigation consisted of review of what reportedly took place in public and private meetings; independent interviews with the entire board of supervisors, the new township manager, and other individuals; and consideration of all other relevant materials submitted and gathered in recent weeks.
It was determined that the board of supervisors did not breach any Sunshine Act law, nor did their actions show intent to do so. The board has indicated a March 29 press release on the matter was an ill-timed and misworded mistake. However, the investigation found Mr. Scott Russell, township manager, had not been officially hired at that time.
Our role was to review the matter for breach of law, not to review the value of any public relations action which may not have been in the best interests of the township and was clearly misleading.
Here are some key points from the investigation:
- On March 6, the board held an executive session to discuss the position of township manager. Prior to the session, as is common practice, Board Chairman Doug Mackley read aloud to the group the Sunshine Act as it relates to personnel matters.
As it applies here, the law reads:
“The discussion of personnel matters is a legitimate reason for holding an executive session. Personnel matters include issues involving employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of performance, promotion or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the agency, or former pubic officer or employee employed or appointed by the agency.”
The law has clearly established that the above cited personal exemption applies to deliberations on filling vacancies in non-elective offices. It does not apply to deliberations on filling vacancies in elective offices or to the hiring of independent contractors.
In the March 6 session, the board expressed interest in offering the position of township manager, a non-elective office, to Russell.
- On March 7, Chairman Mackley verbally offered Russell the position.
- On March 10, Russell verbally accepted the offer. At that point, Russell was not officially hired. Any of the board members and/or Russell could have changed their minds. The hiring, in this capacity, is not official until a public vote is held.
- On March 29, the township issued an ill-advised press release announcing the hiring of Russell. The release could only have been perceived by residents as meaning Russell was officially hired. At that point, however, he was not actually officially hired under the law. Official hiring can only take place at a public meeting.
- On April 6, at public meeting, a vote was held after public comment and Russell was unanimously selected as township manager. Russell was not present at the meeting.
- On April 17, Russell worked his first shift as township manager.
In conclusion, our investigation showed the March 7 offer to Russell was conditional and consistent with a previous court decision in which a board can choose one candidate for non-elective office in executive session as long as the final vote takes place at a public meeting.
As in that case, any board member could have changed their mind at any time prior to the April 6 meeting when the hiring became official via public comment and subsequent vote.
Our office will not be filing any charges in the matter.
One of the law’s primary functions is to ensure residents transparency in local government, and my office takes that very seriously. Whether deliberately or not, for certain non-elective positions, the law also allows for individuals to explore, and be considered for, municipal employment opportunities without the entire hiring process being discussed in public forum, which could in turn create detrimental circumstances to the candidate’s current employment situation.
All things said and considered, upon receiving the citizen reports in this situation, I immediately directed county detectives to take the appropriate investigative steps, which I am confident they did.