The “backroom deal” in politics is usually just a metaphor. But what happened at the Schuylkill County Commissioners meeting Wednesday is about as close to a literal interpretation as you’re going to see.
Commissioners were split on the idea but ultimately approved a motion to let Schuylkill County Administrator Gary Bender make an offer to purchase the former GIANT grocery store property in Pottsville.
The two Republican (in name only) Commissioners Boots Hetherington and George Halcovage approved the motion. Democrat Gary Hess voted against it.
Actually, Hess, in responding to a Yea or Nay roll call, voted “Absolutely not!”
Schuylkill County Commissioners Formally Approve Motion to Pursue Former Pottsville GIANT Grocery Store Property
Hess’ emphatic vote of disapproval is one of the few things you could actually hear from the board of Commissioners at their Sept. 23 meeting. Once again, the meeting was plagued by inaudible audio.
The meeting was held via the Zoom virtual conference platform. And instead of buying even a set of cheap microphones so they can be heard by the public, Commissioners continued to speak at one general mic in the board room, making it nearly impossible to hear much of the meeting.
Despite the lousy audio, it was clear that Hess opposed to this open-ended deal to go after the former GIANT grocery store property. The store closed for good over the summer and just a few weeks after it did, we first reported that the County government was interested in buying it for one of a variety of purposes.
The Backroom Deal
But one of Hess’ biggest issues with the arrangement is where this was all arranged … in total secrecy.
In fact, if it weren’t for our report on Tuesday evening that this issue was going to come up at the Commissioners meeting Wednesday, the public would have had no idea it was going to happen.
Hess revealed that he only learned of its spot on the meeting agenda at 4:50 p.m. Tuesday. It didn’t appear on the meeting agenda released to the public earlier in the day Tuesday either.
“I’m very disappointed in my colleagues,” he said on Wednesday. “No discussions were taken, except for the one we just had in the back room.”
We published our report on Hess finding out about it about an hour after he learned about it. After we noted that it didn’t appear on the agenda and the public wouldn’t have one last shot at swaying opinion on this matter during Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners rushed out an amended agenda on Wednesday morning, at about 8:30 a.m.
This amendment to today’s agenda was posted on the Schuylkill County government website Wednesday morning:
New, New Business Motion for 9-23-20
“I walk in my office this morning and this is in my packet. It wasn’t in my packet the day before,” Hess said of the document you see above.
He added that in his 8 years as Commissioner, business was never handled this way. Hess believes this matter should have been brought up at last week’s Work Session meeting to allow a week of deliberation.
“That’s where I’m very displeased,” Hess told his fellow Commissioners. “No talks.”
Instead, he got the above document the morning of the meeting. And it’s clear that document is totally rushed.
It’s got all the marks of a total rush job, too, lacking any formality.
“New, New Business” … unnecessary comma. Also, there’s no such thing as “New, New” or “New New” Business on a public meeting agenda anywhere, ever. It’s turned into a device to sneak items through without prior public scrutiny. An example might be: approving an open-ended deal to spend taxpayer money to purchase a large commercial property against the will of the people and numerous other elected officials.
Secondly, the Motion as it’s spelled out here on today’s agenda update fails to properly identify the property the County wants to pursue. “The former Giant Building property in Pottsville” is not how to list a property on an agenda. There are countless pieces of evidence to show that when Commissioners are identifying any property up for discussion, they at least use the Parcel Number but often include a physical address.
Finally, this motion, as written, doesn’t even identify who the County Administrator will make an offer to to make the purchase. It’s all a big secret and is basically a visual representation of this deal on the whole.
This agenda amendment looks like someone got busted not doing their homework, showed up early to school the next day, slapped some words on a piece of paper and then turned in a load of garbage.
It’s not just what the Commissioners released to the public on that sad agenda amendment that stinks about this deal arranged Wednesday. It’s the off-the-paper details that still – even in approving it – haven’t been discussed in public.
One big mystery: How much will this cost the County?
At no point in today’s discussion and the lack of discussion on it prior to today did the subject of a dollar figure come up. Not once. And it still hasn’t. Basically, the Commissioners approved a deal Wednesday to give the unelected County Administrator a blank check to negotiate an unpopular land deal.
The public doesn’t know what the property is worth even after we paid $1,500 for an appraisal of it a few weeks ago. We don’t know if Bender has a limit in these negotiations.
Another big mystery: From where is the money coming?
If it weren’t for Commissioner Hess peppering his own administration with questions today, we wouldn’t have known how the County government plans to pay for this property.
“How are we paying for it? Can I ask that question? I think as a Commissioner, I should get an answer,” Hess badgered. “How’s it going to get paid?”
Bender replied that money would come from the County’s General Fund.
“Either that or we have to borrow,” he added.
More mystery: What will the County do with the property?
On Wednesday, the County had the opportunity to come clean about its intent for the former GIANT property. But, they didn’t. If you check the agenda rider above, you’ll see the goal is to use the property for “general County purposes”.
The Commissioners and Bender offered up no more details on what that means in today’s meeting. Could that mean the idea of using the property for a proposed pre-release prison is still on the table? Or will it be used for office space, storage, and parking?
Very mysterious: How are we paying for the renovations?
Whatever the County does with the property, it does us no good as an empty grocery store. It’s going to need extensive renovations. And since this is one County land deal to this point that’s missing its trademark crony capitalism, wait until you see how much those estimates are coming it at.
“How much is going to cost to renovate? We don’t even have a feasibility study to know what this thing is going to cost,” Hess wondered. “And where are we getting the funds?”
What Happened in the Back Room?
Those four mysteries have been in place for a couple months now. But on Wednesday, another mysterious occurrence happened. And it happened literally in a back room.
Right before Commissioners ultimately conducted their vote, Hetherington hastily called for an Executive Session. But in doing so, Hetherington seemingly violated several portions of the Sunshine Act.
For starters, no vote was taken on the Executive Session, a portion of a public meeting held out of the public light. These sessions are often held to discussion any personnel or legal matters before continuing with the meeting agenda.
Normally, a quick roll call vote is taken before breaking into an Executive Session. On Wednesday, it wasn’t. If it was, no one in the public could hear it.
Further, when an Executive Session is adjourned, the governing body that takes it reports on the basics of it. An example would be, “During the executive session, we discussed a personnel matter,” or something to that nature. No details, more of a formality.
But the public didn’t get that either.
So, we don’t know what happened in that back room. Based on Hess’ mood following it, however, they weren’t swapping fantasy football tips.
MORE SCHUYLKILL COUNTY NEWS:
- PUA Fraud Uncovered at SCI-Mahanoy, Other State Prisons
- Burglary Charges Tacked On for Pair Who Led Police on Overnight Manhunt
- Progressives Express Concerns Over Partisan Election Bureau in Schuylkill County
- Schuylkill County Will Pay $125 an Hour to Interim HR Firm
MORE ON THE GIANT LAND DEAL:
- Secret Agenda: Schuylkill Commissioners Voting Wednesday on Former Pottsville GIANT Grocery Store
- Pennsylvania Senate Committee OKs Bill to Protect Pottsville GIANT Property from Schuylkill County Government Purchase
- Pottsville Councilman Demands Schuylkill Commissioners Pay Up
- EXCLUSIVE: Pre-release Prison Definitely the Plan for Former GIANT Property
- Argall Plans Legislation to Prevent Deals Like Schuylkill County Buying Former Pottsville GIANT
- Schuylkill County Denies Right to Know Request on Pottsville GIANT Appraisal
- Pottsville vs. Schuylkill County in Fight Over GIANT Property
- Schuylkill County Administrator Says Appraisal Price on GIANT Property is “Privileged” Information
- Halcovage Suggests GIANT May Be Used for County Office Space Because of COVID-19
- Pottsville Officials Clap Back at Schuylkill Commissioners Over Prison Plans
- Argall Calls Pre-Release Prison at GIANT Site a “Major Setback” to Revitalization
- 500+ Sign Petition to Stop County Purchase of GIANT Supermarket to Build Pre-Release Prison
- Source: Schuylkill County Eyes Former GIANT Supermarket in Pottsville for Prison Pre-Release Center