Centre County commissioners discuss changes to cellphone policy ahead of Parks Miller hearing

Centre County Commissioners Michael Pipe, Chris Exharcos and Steve Dershem.
Centre County Commissioners Michael Pipe, Chris Exharcos and Steve Dershem.

An otherwise routine Centre County commissioners meeting closed with discussion and heated talk about the county cellphone plan and the state Right-to-Know Law on the eve of a hearing in the lawsuit brought against the county by District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.

A majority of the board will be part of that hearing at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Courthouse Annex. Commissioners Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos said they have been called to testify.

County Administrator Tim Boyde will also take the stand, as he did last month in a hearing in similar lawsuits against the county by Court of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan D. Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker.

A ruling handed down by Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz last week in those cases found that the county should not have released cellphone records taken from itemized phone bills to defense attorneys who sought them using Right-to-Know requests.

Exarchos said the county should take the time to consider changes to the county phone policy after the suits because of liability issues.

“I feel like a sandwich here,” he said. “On one hand, we have the people’s right to know, we’ve got people saying there’s right to privacy and we’re caught in the middle. If we don’t get sued by one side, we’ll certainly get sued by another side.”

The county has issued 213 cellphones. About 120 of those see daily use and another 90 are used by the elections department about twice a year, during primary and general elections, Boyde said. The county cellphone plan costs more than $100,000 a year, Exarchos said.

Exarchos recommended amending the policy to exclude non-county employees, which would exclude members of the judiciary, like judges and the court administrator, who are state employees. Boyde said that not all counties offer phones or service to state employees through a county plan.

He also suggested reviewing the need for every county-issued cellphone, and that every employee with a phone be required to sign a contract to be drawn up by the solicitor that would stipulate that the employee understands that county phones are for work-related reasons only, there is no expectation to a right to privacy and phone use is subject to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law.

Exarchos asked Dershem to consider putting the issue on the agenda next week for discussion. Any possible action on the matter could take longer than that and would depend on talks with the solicitor and between the commissioners, Dershem said.

Commissioner Michael Pipe, who said he was unaware the topic would be brought up at the meeting, expressed concerns about effects any changes in the policy could have on county employees and their efficiency, specifically ones overseen by state employees, like the court administrator.

A possible appeal of last week’s ruling was also addressed. Although Exarchos said he felt the ruling “defies logic,” he conceded he was not a lawyer and said any appeal would be contingent on conversation with county attorneys. Dershem also expressed dissatisfaction with the ruling.

The amount of county money spent on legal counsel also increased. That figure has floated around $24,000 for months. Boyde said they recently received an invoice for $5,000 from Jay Abom, counsel hired by the county after hearing forgery allegations against Parks Miller in January, for representing county employees before a grand jury, pushing that number to about $29,000.

That money is pulled from the county general fund, generated by property taxes and fees charged by the county for services. The county fund also pays for the services of the Harrisburg-based firm of Fetterhoff and Zilli, hired by the county to provide additional legal advice to county solicitor Louis Glantz, and payments to Craig Staudenmaier, an attorney hired by the commissioners last month to provide counsel as a Right-to-Know Law expert.

The number does not include payment to Mary Lou Maierhofer, the attorney representing the county in the three lawsuits. She is paid for through professional liability insurance the commissioners maintain for the county through a program offered by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.