The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Gary Grossman

May 11, 2014

Things weren't picking up

I once belonged to a Rotary club that adopted a few miles of busy highway in an anti-litter campaign. Wearing luminous vests and work gloves, we would wander the roadside, wrestling Styrofoam cups from brambles and pitching cans and bottles into giant orange plastic garbage bags.

Passers-by concluded that we were performing court-ordered community service. You could see it in their eyes and hand gestures. This was New Jersey.

I begged my fellow Rotarians to let me wear a whistle and occasionally stand importantly with my hands on my hips. I could look like the walking boss. But then, others wanted turns pretending to be the walking boss. After only a few contentious outings, we return our miles of roadside to the orphanage.

Community service is designed to be humbling. It is the 21st Century version of stocks in the town square.

So when the story surfaced last month that Northumberland County’s probation department allowed individuals to buy their way out of community service for $5 an hour by supplying gift cards, that did not compute.

Northumberland’s get-out-of-jail-free(ish) gift cards seemed like a work around.

Either the county A) had no community service to be performed (unlikely), or B) the probation folks were too few or too lazy to manage the system (possibly), or C) this was another improvisation that started out well and went off the rails.

Pick C) Off the rails.

If community service was being doled out for non-payment of alimony or child support, then accepting gift cards from Weis, Giant or Wal-Mart or “wherever” may have had some minimal logic. Instead of getting the miscreant to clean the park, have him or her come up with something that would help out or keep him or her working for the family he or she had or left behind (or who left him or her).

Michael C. Potteiger, who was the chief of adult probation for Northumberland County from 2002-2008, explained his invention to pennlive.com. Writer John Beauge reported that Potteiger said: 

Only those on probation with a full-time job and a family were eligible. They did not buy their way off supervision because they remained on probation. Those whose sentences consisted solely of community service were not eligible. 

The goal was to keep the offender working so he or she could support a family and pay off fines and costs while also giving back to the community. 

Those eligible were permitted to buy gift cards at Wal-Mart, Giant and Weis that were given to the probation office. The cards then were given to a homeless shelter and a church to buy needy families clothing and toys at Christmas and meals at Thanksgiving. 

The idea for the program came from staff, but Potteiger said he got permission from then President Judge Robert B. Sacavage to implement it. An offender could buy his way out of community service at a rate of $5 an hour.

Still, gift-card currency had a whiff about it — like that police chief in Hartleton who offered drivers a choice between a speeding ticket and a fine or a contribution to the town recreation program.

People who apply and enforce laws are not supposed to make it up as they go along. “Equal Justice Under Law” is engraved on the Supreme Court. There is no crying in baseball — and no inventive choreography for law.

Sure enough, when a new president judge and a new head of probation took office, the gift card project had devolved. 

There were some $4,300 in undistributed cards. 

There were untraceable allegations of gift card misuse by former government employees. 

A state senator introduced legislation outlawing the gift card arrangement. 

A donnybrook broke out between retired President Judge Sacavage and County Commissioner and attorney Richard Shoch who, coincidentally, belong to opposite political camps.

Michael C. Potteiger has moved on. Two years ago, Gov. Tom Corbett named Potteiger chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, a $122,309 annual political appointment — demonstrating how government work can be rewarding if you leave your litter for others to pick up. 

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.

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Gary Grossman
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