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Bucks DA: Several Warrington Supervisors Violated PA Sunshine Act

May 25, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: David W. Heckler, 215.348.6345

Bucks County District Attorney David W. Heckler announced today that four members of the Warrington Township Board of Supervisors had violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act by agreeing to hire a management consultant via a private e-mail vote.

Those four supervisors – Board Chair Shirley Yannich, Vice Chair Carol Baker, and members Millie Seliga and Fred Gaines – acknowledged that they had violated the statute during an interview last month with representatives of the District Attorney’s Office.

Warrington Township Solicitor Terry Clemons has assured the District Attorney’s Office that he is taking remedial steps to ensure that the elected officials receive more thorough training in the Sunshine Act to prevent any further violations.

Section 704 specifies, in part, that “Official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public…”

The private deliberation and decision to hire the consultant, and to direct him to solicit candidates for the position of township manager, was in violation of Section 704 of the Sunshine Act, Heckler said.

Supervisors Yannich, Baker, Seliga and Gaines agreed to retain managerial search consultant David Nyman over the course of a series of group emails beginning March 24 and ending March 29. The four also agreed to direct Nyman to advertise the manager’s position in the May edition of Pennsylvania Township News, a publication of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and to have the cost of the advertisement billed to Warrington Township.

A fifth supervisor, Matthew Hallowell, refused to participate in the online vote and criticized the action at a subsequent public meeting, where the supervisors formalized their private agreement with a public vote. Hallowell also brought the matter to the District Attorney’s attention.  

After receiving Hallowell’s complaint, Heckler initiated an investigation by members of his office.

District Attorney Heckler had the following comments concerning this incident:

This office takes Sunshine Act violations by elected public officials very seriously. One of the soundest principles of American public policy was articulated 102 years ago by Louis Brandeis, two years before he became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He wrote, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light is the most efficient policeman.”

The detailed investigative report prepared by Larry King of my office is attached to this statement and it speaks for itself.  Although I believe we could successfully prosecute at least one of the accused Supervisors, we have chosen not to prosecute the apparent Sunshine Act violation involved in this case for these reasons:

  1. The decision made secretly by e-mail vote was not to do something nefarious.  Rather, the Supervisors voted to hire Mr. David Nyman, who has an excellent reputation for assisting municipalities in finding suitable management candidates.  So – the objective of the secret vote was legitimate.

     

  2. Three of the four potential defendants are quite new to their jobs and may have simply relied on others.  The Sunshine Act provides that “Any member of any agency who participates in a meeting with the intent and purpose by that member of violating this chapter commits a summary offense…”  Intent and purpose arguably requires a certain level of awareness by the offender.

 On the other hand, we did not to elect to simply privately counsel these folks, as we have done in some other cases, for the following reasons:

  1. Mr. Hallowell, also a member of the Board, recognized that this course of action was wrong and spoke out repeatedly, but was ignored or put down. 

  2. “It ain’t the crime, it’s the cover up.”  Despite the relatively modest nature of the majority’s improper conduct, when called out on that conduct, Chairman Yannich in particular offered untruthful explanations at the public township meeting where the vote was “reenacted” for the public.

 When pressed by Mr. Hallowell on the issue of whether the placement of advertising had been dealt with by e-mail, Mrs. Yannich stated, “We did it in executive session and what we agreed to do as a Board, to advertise.  We didn’t hire Mr. Nyman to advertise.  We as a Board did the advertising.”

 A few moments later she further lied when she said, “Yeah, Mr. Nyman did something on his own.  That was his own choice.”

 I might not make such a fuss about this if Warrington Township had not given us every e-mail concerning this matter in response to our request, except the last one which proves Chairman Yannich to have lied.  That e-mail – March 29, 7:51 PM – is from Yannich to Nyman and others.  It confirms the four-person vote to engage Nyman’s services, covered revisions to the draft advertisement Nyman had prepared and directs him to place the revised ad in the PSATS publication.

Unfortunately, it is not a crime to lie to the public in a public forum or to omit to give my office one of a series of e-mails.  It is, however, conduct which needed to be exposed to public scrutiny – as Justice Brandeis would have it, the best of disinfectants and most efficient policeman.

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Office of the District Attorney
Bucks County Justice Center
100 N. Main Street
Doylestown, PA 18901 
Phone: 215-348-6344 
Fax: 215-348-6299

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