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The Public and the Government

An interesting exercise in government transparency is coming up soon. Based on the 1992 JFK Records Act, October 26th is the final date for the United States government to release about 3,000 never-before-seen documents also with 34,000 previously redacted files related to President Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. The investigation into the causes of that tragedy and the subsequent suspicion of a cover-up (and a cottage industry of conspiracists as a result) gave birth to a move for more openness in government. The first action was the Freedom of Information Act that was passed on July 4, 1966 and then the Government in the Sunshine Act in 1976. Pennsylvania subsequently passed its own such laws, and in 1978 also passed the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, to prevent public officials from unfairly benefiting from their office.

References to these various laws pop up from time to time in the County Commissioner’s Meetings. The heated debate over the Lycoming County Reentry Program served by GEO Reentry Services is one example. Commissioner Rick Mirabito has consistently called for a RFP (Request for Proposal) on the county’s day reporting program so that other companies can bid on this county program. Mirabito has been accused of a conflict of interest, a violation of the Ethics Act, given that he is on the Board of Directors for Firetree Limited, which has a division for Community Reentry Programs and would certainly be one of the bidders on the RFP for the day reporting program. More recently, there was a complaint brought forth concerning the lease for District Judge Jerry C. Lepley’s office in Jersey Shore, which is owned by his wife Tammy Lepley, which came up for renewal in October.

In both of these cases, there was a considerable amount of smoke raised, but the truth of the matter is that there was no fire. The Ethics Law lists ten activities that public officials and employees are prohibited from engaging in, including “conflict of interest.” It defines it by negation as to “not include an action having a de minimis economic impact or which affects to the same degree a class consisting of the general public or a subclass consisting of an industry, occupation or other group which includes the public official or public employee, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated.”

The translation of this legalese is that it is not a “conflict” unless a public official gains more than a trivial (de minimis) amount, or that anyone else would gain (e.g. lowering the tax rate, which would benefit everyone), or a “subclass” they belonged to or even family member would benefit, but not the official personally. In the case of Commissioner Mirabito, Solicitor J. David Smith has stated that there is clearly no conflict for as a board member, Mr. Mirabito would not financially benefit if Firetree would win the RFP bid. Likewise, Solicitor Smith ruled that District Judge Lepley was not found to be in conflict either, based on a former ruling from the Ethics and Professionalism Committee of the Special Court Judges Association. The Ethics Law specifically notes a family member benefiting is not considered a conflict.

What is interesting is that local citizens raised both of these issues, which is their right to do so. Another right of the general public is the right to speak at government meetings. In fact, under the Sunshine Law, members of the public must be given the opportunity to express their opinions. A regular feature at the County Commissioners Meeting is right after the Pledge of Allegiance and the approval of the previous board meeting minutes, Chairman Jack McKernan announces that anyone who wishes to make a comment about any item on the agenda is invited to do so. It is not unusual for someone to come to the podium with a script in hand and promote or denounce a particular issue that would be raised on that day’s session. At the conclusion of the meeting, the public is likewise given an opportunity to express their opinion, this time on any matters that would be of interest to the county officials.

At a time when our country’s history and heritage are being challenged, it is critically important that we remember the very first words of the United States Constitution, “We the people… do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.” Not politicians, but people, as President Andrew Jackson reminds us, “the planter, the farmer, the mechanic, and the laborer… form the great body of the people of the United States, they are the bone and sinew of the country men who love liberty and desire nothing but equal rights and equal laws.”

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