The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 30, 2013

Politics proving costly for county

Daily Item

---- — Another decision has gone against Northumberland County's prison management, this time to the tune of $95,000 in back pay for a former worker who was fired after being accused of theft almost four years ago when it was alleged that he had removed building materials, sold them and had not reimbursed the county.

After a jury verdict found him not guilty in July, the former maintenance worker and corrections officer, Shane Hoffman of Sunbury went to arbitration and was given the option last week of getting his old job back, as well.

Whether Hoffman will take that or take some other recourse toward the county remains an open question. Hoffman has maintained that his arrest was "politically driven," claiming former warden Ralph "Rick" Reish was looking for a reason to fire his father-in-law and former deputy warden John Conrad.

Conrad made similar statements regarding his separation from Northumberland County prison, linking his termination to the action against his son-in-law.

Because personnel discussions and decisions are exempt from open meeting requirements, root causes for these significantly expensive administrative missteps are difficult to pinpoint. Asked to produce minutes from the prison board meeting where the Hoffman decisions were made, the county could find no such records.

From the public's perspective, the Hoffman-Conrad personnel decisions and subsequent legal entanglements cannot be counted in the usual run of magnetic nuisance lawsuits that attach themselves to every institution of incarceration.

Northumberland County's prison has a mounting record of lawsuits that pivot around institutional management, notably mistreatment of inmates and unwarranted termination of personnel. The legal entanglements are expensive to defend and even more expensive to resolve when associated judgments go against the county.

Northumberland County Prison is governed by a board consisting of the county chief judge, three county commissioners, the district attorney, county sheriff and county controller. If anyone should be able to identify sustainable misdemeanor charges or a conspiracy to commit theft, you are looking at them.

It would be virtually impossible to assemble seven other people with more experience and knowledge for management and justice than Prison Board members.

And yet, here the people of Northumberland County are, on the losing end of a lawsuit that took four years to uncork and went sour anyway. Maybe the other professional skill common to that board -- politics -- is more in evidence behind closed doors than it ought to be.