SUNBURY — Northumberland County Commissioner Kymberley Best sued Commissioners Rick Shoch and Sam Schiccatano in county court on Monday for allegedly violating the state's open meetings laws.
The minority commissioner filed the lawsuit through her law partner, Timothy Bowers, against the two majority commissioners for allegedly violating the Sunshine Act, which requires that elected officials deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. Best specifically takes issue with a petition to declare Northumberland County Drive, at the Northumberland County South Campus in Coal Township, as a public road. Best, in a separate filing, is also asking a judge to delay the hearing scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Friday and dismiss the county's petition to declare the road public.
The road is located where Parea BioSciences, a medical marijuana grower/processor, is planning to purchase county land for $1.5 million near the new Northumberland County Prison in Coal Township, a real estate agreement that Best opposed. In a public statement, Best said she believes the road being declared public is a vehicle for a 2-mill tax increase and additional borrowing — two actions that the county code authorizes when roads are declared public.
"Filing suit against the majority commissioners was a dire and last step. However, the culture of secrecy around Commissioners Shoch and Schiccatano has grown so severe that Kym is not even notified when the county institutes proceedings in court," Bowers said. "As (former) chief clerk, Kym risked her job for the sake of transparency in government. As a lawyer, this firm and she went to court against the last administration to make it operate in the Sunshine. Because of the majority commissioners, we must do so again."
Best said Parea needs a subdivision of the proposed site from the prison to proceed. A subdivision is not possible unless the property has access to a public road not less than 25 feet away.
"Therefore, majority seeks to aid this for-profit company by having the road deemed public," she said.
Additionally, Best in the lawsuit takes issue with work sessions and staff meetings. Best says that decisions are made at work sessions and staff meetings are often attended by both Shoch and Schiccatano, making a quorum of the commissioners.
She is asking a judge to require minutes be kept at all county work sessions and staff meetings, that votes taken at work sessions be recorded and that all commissioners be provided with 20 hours advanced notice of the business at work sessions.
Such meetings should be advertised and open to the public, according to the court documents.
Bowers said the lawsuit is not about damages and Best requested no money.
"Rather, this is an effort to reform a broken system that cannot be fixed from within," Bowers said.
Schiccatano reserved comment. Shoch, who referred to Best as former county Commissioner Vinny "Clausi's underling," said county Solicitor Frank Garrigan will handle the attempt "to thwart the sale of county property that will benefit taxpayers by $1.5 million."
"I have not read the actual complaint filed, and I doubt I'll have time to do so anytime soon, but our solicitor has assured me it is entirely baseless and meritless, as all of her past allegations against us have proven to be," Shoch said.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said there are exceptions in the law that allows for non-public executive sessions, such as discussion about a specific employee and their job performance, or administrative acting, such as the implementation of policy already discussed and making payments according to contracts.
"It's difficult to say whether there's an issue here, but the fact that one commissioner is saying there is, it's obviously problematic," Melewsky said. "The bigger point is that it doesn't matter what you call a meeting. You can call it a staff meeting, a work session, or a dinner at OIP, what matters from a Sunshine Act perspective is if there's a quorum present, if they are deliberating agency business or taking official action. If the answer is yes, it has to happen at a public meeting."