Schuylkill County Commissioner Boots Hetherington has established a pattern since being installed at that office a few years ago. If you don’t vote for his plans – typically done in the back room behind closed doors – he’ll bully you and call you names.
Last week was just the latest example of this as he took aim at his political rival in next week’s Primary Election, Commissioner George Halcovage.
At the Commissioners meeting on April 26, Hetherington went on another tirade, attempting to shred Halcovage for not going along with his plan to unload two parcels of land in western Schuylkill County.
This is just the latest plan that the public only knew about when it was basically too late to question. It was first proposed back in early March but even before it was brought to the public, it seemed the fix was in to sell these plots (in Porter and Tremont townships) to a non-profit organization that allegedly wants to turn them over to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Last Wednesday, Hetherington and Commissioner Gary Hess suggested this deal was done in the public view and there was time to discuss it openly. However, if that were the case, as many people that showed up as they did to debate this with the Commissioners would have never happened.
And despite many voicing opposition to it, it appears the Commissioners are moving forward with an agreement to sell the land to this non-profit, The Nature Conservancy, pending that organization getting grant funding to complete the deal.
But when we say “the Commissioners” we do not mean Halcovage. He opposed the deal from the outset because of a lack of information. He continued his questioning of it last week, which really boiled Boots’ blood.
First, a motion to rescind the deal approved in March died for a lack of a second during the course of the meeting. After that, Halcovage persisted in voicing opposition.
“We voted on something that we did not have full understanding of what there was,” Halcovage said. “As far as transparency, we have a lot of information that has been provided to us on both sides of this issue. I think that we really need to step back. I believe we’re going into something that we owe to the citizens to make sure that we are doing the right thing. After we have full information on the effects of what this decision is. I think that’s what we should be doing rather than pushing something through without the full knowledge of everything that’s going on.
“I always like voting on something that we have full understanding that we have the money, that we’re able to do this and even if we put this off until we know that that funding is available and we have full disclosure what is going on. We have townships that said they’re not for this. We have other groups that are for it,” he continued.
“We’re public servants. We’re supposed to be representing what the public wants us to do. I think there’s much more that we have to discuss on this. We did not have all the information in front of us to make an intelligent decision.”
That opened the floor to Hess, who backed Hetherington’s stand on this deal. He claims the proposed land deal was discussed publicly and that it’s apparently just an agreement to sell the land, provided this non-profit gets its money in order to buy it.
“They needed to know, are we willing to sell it. I think that was clear,” Hess said.
Schuylkill County Commissioners Solicitor Paul Datte confirmed that the board will have to approve the actual sale when and if The Nature Conservancy comes forward with the deal.
“You approved the proposal that was being submitted by the Conservancy with the understanding that we would be back to the board with a definitive agreement of sale,” Datte reminded the board, namely Halcovage.
Halcovage continued to press his points in this argument, that the Commissioners are rushing into the deal without having done “due diligence” and exploring all possibilities for the land in question.
That certainly seemed to be the case last week when numerous people voiced their opposition to the proposed sale, indicating they could use and/or preserve the land without turning it over, eventually, to the state.
“This is county land. We can’t make any more land. It’s being hunted. There’s a possibility for people in the coal industry to possibly strip mine it to get valuable resources. I think we’re being hasty in our doing this,” Halcovage said.
During the initial discussions that were held in view of the public (after it appeared Boots and Hess seemed to have already backed the idea), Boots presented alleged evidence that all the land was basically useless for purposes other than hunting. He said there was no coal and the County needed the money it could get for the land.
After Halcovage persisted in backing his stance, Hetherington took the floor and did what he’s become known to do when someone disapproves of his plans. He bullied and started name-calling.
First, he referenced an article that appeared in the Republican-Herald newspaper indicating that there’s a possibility of mining coal on one of the parcels of land in question.
In a condescending smackdown of that article, he said, “Where I’m at, folks, the word ‘possibility’ keeps popping up (mentioning that article, specifically). OK, there’s a possibility to recover coal where we’re sitting under the courthouse. There’s a possibility to recover coal under Paul Datte’s house. There’s a possibility of recovering coal at the airport. There’s a lot of possibility. There’s a lot of hypotheticals. I based my decision on the facts and information we had and I believe we did the right thing.”
Now, that’s a perfectly fine stance to take, even if it’s rather degrading to anyone who may believe this land deal was cooked up and approved behind closed doors and then presented to the public. It’s his vote and he’s entitled to it.
But then Boots decided to do what he typically does when he doesn’t get total compliance with his pet projects. He tore into Halcovage.
“Mr. Halcovage, we had it up for a vote one time, it failed. We had it up a second time and it died for a lack of a second. It’s time to stop being a dysfunctional Commissioner and help us get the work done,” Hetherington said.
Halcovage again persisted in fighting Boots on the issue, apparently not taking that slap kindly. He tried asking a person in the board room gallery to present more information about the items Hetherington addressed during his condescending remarks.
Hetherington tried to stop that from happening and said the person Halcovage was speaking to already had his 3 minutes of public comment time.
As Halcovage tried explaining that this wasn’t a public comment period and he was soliciting information from a member of the public, Hetherington said, “You’re out of order, Mr. Halcovage.”
“Paul …,” Hetherington then said against a feisty Halcovage, looking to get Datte to step in to provide … something, not sure.
Datte said, “We had public comment.”
“And you already gave about a half an hour of your comments, so unless you have something else to give, we’re moving on,” Hetherington chimed in.
“George, it came up for a vote, it failed. It came up for a vote, it died for lack of a second. How much more do you want to drag this out?” Hetherington said in an increasingly bullying tone.
Halcovage attempted to respond and Hetherington jumped in and said, “You’re being dysfunctional and you’re being disruptive, OK?”
Halcovage stated that he’s a “public servant” and attempting to do due diligence.
Hetherington then started arguing, “You’re worried about getting a couple hundred thousand dollars more in royalties? How much money has the county spent on your legal fees? Wanna guess? It’s close to a million dollars, sir.
“You’re worried about another (garbled numbers)? You’re a hypocrite. You’re a disruptive Commissioner. How about helping me and Gary get some stuff done once in a while instead of being disruptive, OK?”
That Legal Fees Comment is Rich
Now, if Boots wants to start picking the fly poop out of the pepper on how much we’ve spent on lawyers as it relates to Halcovage’s legal issues, he may just want to eat the pepper.
While the County may have spent close to a million dollars (odd that he picks this time to be somewhat transparent about finances, though) on Halcovage legal fees, let’s not forget that we’ve spent quite a bit of money on Hetherington legal fees as they relate to the same issue.
Boots is accused of acting in a retaliatory manner to some of the Jane Doe plaintiffs suing Halcovage for sexual harassment.
It was Boots that led the charge on their allegedly improper use of LexisNexis that led to their continued suspension from the Courthouse. And how much did Boots approve spending on a so-called “independent investigation” into that matter after his motives were questioned?
After all that, the County is currently paying gobs of money to settle the US Dept. of Justice’s claims against the entire County government that it acts in a vindictive and retaliatory manner toward employees who don’t get in line.
So, that’s probably not the brightest argument to make at this time. No one wins that whizzing contest (Note: we can’t curse or the article gets demonetized) and the general public certainly loses.
Mess with Boots’ Bull, Get the Bully’s Horns
The real irony of Hetherington’s comments last week were that he and Hess were working together. Boots attempts to indicate that while he and Hess are working together for the better of the County, Halcovage is just being a big disruption at the Courthouse when it comes to moving forward with a legislative agenda.
That got The Canary thinking and digging through the archives. Sure enough, what Boots is saying is a laugh. It wasn’t that long ago that Hess was the target of Boots’ salty and demeaning tone.
Again, if you mess with Boots’ bull, you’re going to get the horns. This behavior started almost immediately after Boots was installed as Commissioner following the passing of Frank Staudenmeier in 2020.
The Giant Deal
This isn’t the first land deal Boots has cooked up in the back room. And it’s not the first time he’s gotten beaten up for it.
Back in September 2020, the Commissioners were trying to jump on the former GIANT supermarket in downtown Pottsville. Rumors persisted that the County was going to use the property to build its long-sought-after pre-release prison.
While the deal never materialized, the events leading up to it gave us a sense of how Boots would operate as a Commissioner and, clearly, things haven’t changed.
When Hess questioned how the deal was brought up, Hetherington tried to call Executive Sessions to discuss the matter (more like berate Hess) behind closed doors.
- Schuylkill Commissioners Authorize Purchase Of Former Pottsville GIANT In Literal Backroom Deal
- Secret Agenda: Schuylkill Commissioners Voting Wednesday On Former Pottsville GIANT Grocery Store
The 9-1-1 Project
The next month, Boots again sparred with his part-time buddy Hess when the Democrat Commissioner disapproved of an ever-changing price tag on a 9-1-1 project. This was again one of those projects that the public only heard about when it was time to approve it.
Hess voted against it and got slapped around, figuratively, by Hetherington. After Boots again tried to call an Executive Session to take Hess to the proverbial wood shed over his lack of conformity with his Agenda, Hetherington berated Hess for voting against another one of his secret projects.
We try to put these things together. Mr. Hess, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t always say you’re in favor of something and then vote ‘No’,” Boots said.
Tax Claims Office Shake-up
In 2021, the Boots administration decided to move forward with plans to shake-up and overhaul its Tax Assessment and Tax Claims offices, despite that being the epicenter of some of the ongoing legal issues.
Hess routinely voted against any motion to that effect and he opposed any hires done afterward, specifically when it came to hiring consultants who were allegedly tasked with completing that overhaul.
Hetherington eventually smacked back at Hess as he continued to vote against motion after motion.
Boots said once in October of 2021, ““We have to run the tax office,” and “We have to run the Courthouse.”
The LexisNexis Debacle
It was about that same time that Boots started leading a charge to get 2 of the 4 Jane Doe plaintiffs in the Halcovage lawsuit fired for alleged improper use of LexisNexis software. At first, they were suspended from their jobs and remain so to this day.
But in March 2022, a move was made to terminate them as County employees. However, only Boots was on board with it.
Halcovage abstained, on the advice of his attorney, for fear it would appear as retaliatory against those employees.
A frustrated Boots reminded Halcovage that he could come back and approve the firings.
“On the advice of my solicitor, under ethics law Commissioner Halcovage, you can could have an opportunity to come back and vote on this to break the tie. That’s your choice,” he said at the time, in a very benevolent dictatorial way.
Later, Hetherington scolded Halcovage and Hess for not going along with his plan to can the employees over their alleged LexisNexis use.
He told Halcovage to “resign immediately” as Commissioner.
“He has assured me on multiple occasions over the last 2 years that he can conduct himself as Commissioner despite the pending federal litigation that he is facing. His abstention twice today is evidence that he is incapable of discharging his duties of the office as he swore to do so. He is not able to put aside his personal issues and properly act on behalf of the citizens of Schuylkill County. He needs to resign immediately,” Boots said in that March 2022 meeting.
He didn’t hold back on Hess, either, in that same meeting. Hess voted against the firings when he wasn’t impressed with the results of the so-called independent investigation Boots approved into the matter.
He said it was an “absolute disgrace” what he witnessed from his colleagues at that meeting.
“We delayed proper action twice and we engaged the independent law firm to conduct and view the matter,” Boots said. “As I previously stated, this entire investigation was viewed and supported by the independent law firm. I am greatly disappointed in both my colleagues for their lack of action today. This is an absolute disgrace.”