Are local leaders using tax dollars for themselves?

lower_paxton

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – An abc27 investigation uncovered large, taxpayer-funded food expenses and questions about transparency for Lower Paxton Township supervisors.

Township financial documents, receipts, and credit card statements obtained through a right-to-know request show supervisors William Seeds, Robin Lindsey, Bill Hornung, Gary Crissman, William Hawk, and township manager George Wolfe gather together privately for meals in the township building before public meetings.

Tax dollars pay for those meals, which are typically charged to the township credit card.

Food Roundup

img_20160727_122604_299The documents show that on a typical meeting day, a township employee makes several food stops, usually to Costco, Giant and Central Dauphin Pizza. This employee is in a township car and on township time; tax dollars pay for both.

The meals often include five 18-inch subs, large salads, rolls, snack foods, fresh fruit, and several varieties of soda and bottled water. The purchases are so consistent that when abc27 placed an order for the same meal, a food employee asked if it was for Lower Paxton Township.

Sources tell abc27 there are typically between five and seven people who meet in the township building to eat the meals and leftovers are offered to other employees. The sources told abc27 about times when there was so much food that some leftovers eventually were thrown out.

img_20160727_120414_517Public records show that from 2010 through 2015, Lower Paxton’s manager and supervisors spent at least $11,573.66 on food for themselves. Factoring in the township employee’s time and mileage brings that number over $20,000.

Public works employees tell abc27 that $20,000 could patch more than 100 potholes or resurface a neighborhood road the length of nearly two football fields.

abc27 did not include other township food expenses – such as cakes for retirement parties or pizza for crews during snow storms – in the above calculations. Rather, the focus was on how much township leaders spent on themselves.

So, what’s the big deal?

img_20160727_122211_212$20,000 does not sound like much when compared to the millions of dollars Lower Paxton Township supervisors oversee, but people who live in and work for the township tell abc27 they are concerned about the overall pattern of spending, especially since the supervisors have been raising taxes in recent years.

Instead of cutting back on food spending during that time, public records show the supervisors increased their food spending by 73 percent over a five-year span to feed the same amount of people.

These discoveries led abc27 to investigate additional township spending.

Lobster, Lenscrafters, and Hibachi

img_20160727_120405_269Lower Paxton’s procurement policy has two sentences about credit card use. Nothing in the text prohibits using the township card for alcohol, there is no requirement for receipts to be itemized, and there is no price limit set on meals.

 abc27 went through all the township’s food documentation and found large purchases made by various departments at sit-down restaurants.

For example, an unitemized receipt accompanied a $305 charge at The Progress Grill with no proof of what as actually purchased with tax dollars.

img_20160801_111854_921A $384 bill from Mount Hill Tavern did have an itemized receipt, listing six alcoholic beverages that were crossed out with a handwritten notation that the township was reimbursed for the drinks. The receipt shows that tax dollars paid for three orders of crab cakes, four orders of crab chowder, one order of sea scallops, one lobster entrée, and one lobster ravioli dish.

abc27 also found several food charges for “road tours” for Lower Paxton supervisors, during which they visit and receive information about various sites and projects in the township. Financial records show tax dollars paid for food during those road tours, including a $123.39 bill at Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet on Jonestown Road.

Township credit card charges revealed several questionable non-food expenses, as well. For example, when abc27 asked about a $178 charge at Lenscrafters, the township manager could not produce receipts, financial documentation, or proof that the purchase was for township purchases.

Transparency Concerns

“Based on the research I’ve conducted, pizza doesn’t help you become a better public servant,” government reform activist Eric Epstein said.

Epstein lives in Lower Paxton Township and is concerned about a “spend first, ask questions later culture.” However, he says he is more worried about the fact that the supervisors are gathering in private.

img_20160727_125820_379“People are disheartened,” Epstein said. “They’re losing faith in the system because, in order for the system to work, it has to function in an open, transparent fashion.”

“This isn’t just a technicality,” attorney Craig Staudenmaier said of the Sunshine Act, which regulates open meetings.

“The public not only has a right to see the final vote,” Staudenmaier continued, “the public has the right to see the process, the discussion, the deliberation where a particular commissioner, council person stands on a particular issue and why they voted the way they did.”

Staudenmaier says under the law, Lower Paxton’s supervisors would not be permitted to discuss township business during their meal gatherings.

He says public boards are allowed to meet in private for executive sessions, which must be specifically and publicly announced immediately prior to or immediately following the meeting. Executive sessions only apply to specific subjects such as lawsuits and personnel issues.

Public boards are also permitted to meet in private outside of executive sessions to receive information about certain topics. However, in those cases, the board members must act like “sponges that only absorb the information.” There can be no discussion or exchange of ideas about township business during those meetings.

img_20160727_121042_170If Lower Paxton supervisors are not discussing or exchanging ideas about township business during those meals, Epstein says he is even more skeptical about why tax dollars would pay.

abc27 has received several complaints from Lower Paxton residents about the supervisors’ behavior as it relates to the Sunshine Act. However, violations of the law are difficult to prove because those meetings are not recorded.

“A lot of times when those problems happen, it’s because they just don’t understand the law,” Staudenmaier said about public boards in general. “However, there’s sometimes when they’re intentionally trying to avoid the requirements of the law.”

Holding Elected Leaders Accountable

Elected leaders from other townships said they did not want to go on camera because they did not want to start trouble with Lower Paxton Township. However, several told abc27 they usually eat at home before public meetings or bring their own meals. They also said they try to avoid getting the board together in private because even the perception of or temptation to violate the Sunshine Act can create problems.

abc27 called, left messages for, and sent emails to Lower Paxton Township’s manager and supervisors to get their side of the story. No one responded so reporter Amanda St. Hilaire approached them at a township meeting. Bill Hornung, the chair of the board, was not present. The following includes transcripts of the exchange:

giantSt. Hilaire: Excuse me, Amanda St. Hilaire with abc27. I’ve been trying to reach all of you—

Supervisor Hawk (walking away): I have to go to the bathroom.

St. Hilaire: –about tax dollars used to fund the meals that you eat before the meetings. Do you have a response to that?

At that point, township manager George Wolfe, Supervisor Gary Crissman, and Supervisor Bill Hawk had walked away from St. Hilaire and the camera, going into a private part of the township building. Supervisor Lindsey was in the process of doing the same as St. Hilaire continued to ask questions.

St. Hilaire: We’re trying to get answers for taxpayers. Don’t you think they deserve a response to how their money is being used?

Supervisor Lindsey was silent as she walked away. The only person left was Supervisor Seeds.

St. Hilaire: Do you have a response to the tax dollars that are being used? Don’t you think that taxpayers deserve some kind of response to how their money is being used? We’ve been trying to get in touch with you.

Seeds: They certainly do, we just had a wonderful report just a few minutes ago of where the taxpayer dollars go.

Seeds appeared to be referring to a presentation during the board’s public meeting, showing how much money was left in Lower Paxton Township’s general fund.

St. Hilaire: Yes, but right now I’m asking you about the meals the supervisors eat prior to public meetings. Tax dollars pay for those. Do you have any response to that?

Seeds: No response.

St. Hilaire: Do you plan to respond to these questions —

Seeds: No, no.

St. Hilaire –and give taxpayers information about that money?

At that point, Seeds had walked into the private portion of the township building.

Community Change

abc27 will continue to go through records and hold leaders accountable. However, community activists say the real change will come from the public.

“What aids abuse of government power is non-participation by the community,” Epstein said. “You know, people not showing up to the polls, people not showing up to meetings, people not following through. Part of your civic duty, part of your obligation is when you see something happen that you believe to be wrong, you need to report it.”

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