State College

Discussion over State College interim mayor brings town-gown rift to the surface

As discussion among Borough Council members on how to appoint an interim mayor continued Wednesday, underlying tensions between the Penn State-affiliated and more established members of council were exposed.

Over the course of two special meetings to plan for Mayor Don Hahn’s near inevitable departure, talks have grown increasingly heated and divisive among members of council and with community members. Hahn is running unopposed for magisterial district judge to replace Judge Carmine Prestia, Jr.

At a special meeting Friday, Councilwoman Catherine Dauler unveiled a list of guidelines for mayoral candidates, which included suggestions such as: actual work experience in local government, not being an active employee of Penn State, not being a developer and not intending to run for mayor in 2021. Other suggestions are that the mayor commit to Robert’s Rules of Order, have experience conducting public meetings, support the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, commit to Penn State student engagement and be involved in the National League of Cities and Pennsylvania Municipal League.

Councilman Dan Murphy — who works as Penn State’s director of Student Orientation and Transition Programs — fired back at many of the suggestions, saying they assumed that employees or faculty of Penn State could not think for themselves, removed a huge portion of the borough population from consideration and could potentially bar people of color from applying or qualifying. Councilman Jesse Barlow, also an employee of Penn State, and Council President Evan Myers are opposed to the guidelines as well.

At Wednesday’s special meeting, council revived the discussion of mayor guidelines, where Murphy reiterated his stance, doubling down on the notion that passing the guidelines would say “to some in our community, ‘You are not welcome here.’”

Hahn penned a letter to council saying that official guidelines could have “a chilling effect” on who applies for mayor. While council members can have personal guidelines, he said, official guidelines could deter a “remarkable” candidate with “extraordinary qualifications” from even applying.

He also added that any guidelines passed by council beyond the official guidelines in the Home Rule Charter and statutory law — that the mayor be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen — would be nonbinding to individual members of council.

State College Borough Councilwoman Catherine Dauler proposed a list of controversial guidelines to appoint the interim mayor. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

“If we intend to pull from a pool of available people in State College with the actual work experience of local government, we’re all but assuring that our pool of candidates will be all white,” Murphy said. “... If we are also to take those actively employed by the university out of consideration, we have further eliminated the potential for strong community leaders of color to step forward and serve.”

But Councilwoman Theresa Lafer, who previously said she supported the guidelines, disagreed with Murphy’s suggestion that they would exclude people of color. She said her primary concern is that sometimes the borough’s wants and needs are diametrically opposed to that of the university.

She accused Murphy of turning the discussion “into a moment of outrage,” which “undermines us as a community, undermines our search for equity, equality, fairness in elections and points fingers at several of us as somehow being un-American, anti-the university (and) anti-the borough.”

Councilman David Brown later referred to Murphy’s remarks as “passionate,” “inflammatory” and “emotionally-charged” and said he generally supported passing the guidelines, since having a Penn State employee as mayor could force someone into “very uncomfortable positions of conflict of interest.”

He also said he hadn’t thrown out the idea of submitting a letter of interest for mayor, saying he would “probably be a pretty good mayor for the interim.”

In response to Murphy’s comments that the borough lacks people of color in government or government-related positions Lafer said, “Not only do we have a student representative, we have a black woman student representative. Our outgoing mayor is a person of color. Perhaps our incoming mayor will be a person of color.”

This sparked outrage among some members of the audience, including a group of students watching the meeting, prompting UPUA representative Genevievre Miller to respond to the comments during her speaking time.

“I find it incredibly, incredibly, incredibly offensive that my being here and that I so happen to be a woman and I so happen to be a person of color has anything to do with the borough’s diversity and inclusive initiatives,” she said. “This is on my own and not because of you. The argument that because I’m here, (you’re) not discriminating, is frustrating.”

Miller said she takes issue with the guidelines because they could “steer a bias,” in that they’re “incredibly subjective,” especially concerning the local government experience requirement, and could be “indirectly discriminatory.”

Kelsey Denny, president of the Penn State College Democrats, demanded Lafer apologize to Miller for using her “identity as a bargaining chip for your own pathetic argument.”

“... There is a clear incompatibility between wanting a commitment to PSU student engagement and barring a particular PSU employee from serving as mayor for these two years,” Denny said, addressing council. “It is your fear that we are re-imagining State College as a whole, that we are re-imagining what we can do with the mayor’s position.”

Several Penn State students took to the mic during public hour, calling out council members for their posture and perceived attitude while listening to public comment, especially those from students. Others said council members should listen closely when people of color talk about experiences of being marginalized.

Vicki Fong, a longtime State College resident and retired Penn State employee, said she was “shocked” when she saw the guidelines, due to “the message it sends of exclusivity.” She said so much work has been done in State College to try to get families, homeowners, graduate students and professionals to stay and get involved in the community, and adopting the mayor guidelines could further discourage involvement.

Dauler said she had only meant to provide the guidelines as a “suggestion,” and that she wanted to encourage discussion or amendments to the guidelines. Many suggestions, she said, were qualifications anyone would expect from a person in public office, like familiarity conducting a public meeting and commitment to Robert’s Rules.

Having served on council for 16 years, Dauler will leave her post in January.

The next meeting for council to discuss and take action on the interim mayor guidelines is set for Nov. 8. The deadline to submit letters of interest for interim mayor is Nov. 6.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.