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Hempfield to review past votes, but supervisors balk at state audit | TribLIVE.com
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Hempfield to review past votes, but supervisors balk at state audit

Megan Tomasic
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Despite claims by one of its own, state investigators will not examine whether Hempfield supervisors have voted on issues outside the public eye — including on reaching a $125,000 union settlement agreement and other matters.

The Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office can only audit a township’s pension funds and use of the state gas tax, said spokesman Gary Miller. Hempfield officials would have to invite the office to look into other matters, he said.

Township supervisors this week voted against allow that after one member of the board questioned how the group had been conducting business.

During Monday’s public meeting, Supervisor Robert Ritson listed four instances between 2016-18 where the board allegedly took action on items without the public’s knowledge – the union settlement agreement, a $4.3 million firefighter grant, an agreement with a design company for a monthly newsletter and a volunteer firefighter fund.

Ritson cited the incidents, hoping the board would agree to invite investigators from the Auditor General’s office to examine the township. His motion failed 3-2, with supervisors John Silvis, Tom Logan and Doug Weimer voting against the proposal.

“I don’t see the purpose of an audit,” Silvis said. “Why are we investigating ourselves? Why wasn’t this brought up at the time?”

Weimer said he would agree to the audit if it spanned from 2002-18, a time when at least one member of the current board previously sat as supervisor.

Ritson said he requested the audit to determine if there were any other instances in the three-year span like the ones he cited, saying a third-party review would be more objective.

“I want to know if the township is exposed legally in any way with binding agreements that were not done within the parameters of the second-class code,” Ritson said by email.

Township Manager Jason Winters directed Scott Avolio, the township’s solicitor, to review the discussed items upon the direction of Supervisor George Reese, sitting chairman.

Ritson said he plans to wait to see what staff finds in terms of legal ramifications with past agreements. If they find any issues, Ritson said he will reopen the discussion of an audit with the board.

Teamsters Local 30

In 2017, Teamsters Local 30 , a manufacturing union, filed a grievance against Hempfield, Ritson said. To settle, Hempfield officials allegedly paid the union $125,000. Ritson believes the vote took place in executive session, though he was not a member of the board at the time.

According to Melissa Melewsky, media law council at Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, official action cannot be taken in executive session; rather, it must be done during a public meeting.

Avolio, who was not the attorney for the township on these labor matters, said he is looking into the process of the settlement.

Several members at Monday’s meeting said they recalled having a public vote, but Avolio and Winters plan on reviewing the minutes to double check.

Online minutes from 2017 cite one conversation with union members who expressed concerns over a possible misinterpretation of a contract. During the March 2017 meeting, Weimer said the concerns would be reviewed by the board. Supervisors did not publicly discuss the union again in 2017, according to meeting minutes.

If the settlement was not voted on publicly, the township can go back and publicly vote on it, Avolio said.

“The process to rectify the administrative oversight (if it exists) will be to suggest to the board to vote in February at the public meeting to ratify the execution of the settlement agreement,” he said.

SAFER grant

According to Ritson, a public vote to apply for a $4.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant , or SAFER, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, did not take place. The money was granted in August 2017 and is meant to be used to improve retention within fire departments across Westmoreland County.

But, Ritson said, the public process was not in place for proper funds to administer the grant and to approve the application.

According to Avolio, the grant was put into motion by a former public safety director.

“He did get ahead of himself by applying for the grant and then ultimately pushing along paperwork to accept the grant by the township,” he said.

Avolio said an article announcing the money was granted to the township brought the mistake to the attention of township officials who then worked to ratify the acceptance.

Apollo Design, Community Foundation

Ritson claimed that an annual agreement with Apollo Design for a community newsletter was signed by the past and current manager without the board’s approval. Avolio said the contract is set to renew automatically if the township does not notify the company of termination, but that a renewal contract is sent out each year.

Ritson also cited an agreement between Hempfield and the Community Foundation over the creation of a separate fire services fund.

The agreement acknowledges the township as a beneficiary of a third-party charitable donation, Avolio said. This means the fund was set up independently from the township, making any contracts between the donor and the Community Foundation.

Avolio said the township was asked to list an officer who would make suggestions to the Community Foundation Board for donations.

“The township neither owns the funds nor has the ultimate authority to distribute funds,” Avolio said. “These items appear to be administrative functions that had been previously delegated to the township manager by the prior board.”

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter @MeganTomasic.