State College

Ferguson Township rebuffs claims of Sunshine Law violations

The land where the Toll Bros. development is proposed to go along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township May 6, 2015.
The land where the Toll Bros. development is proposed to go along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township May 6, 2015. Centre Daily Times, file

Township staff has denied allegations that a February meeting of staff and stakeholders violated state transparency laws.

Allegations came Monday after the Nittany Valley Water Coalition — a group of township residents and other parties concerned with the region’s drinking water — released a statement that it was denied documentation regarding the meeting after submitting a Right-To-Know request to the township.

The statement alleged that members of the township staff and the development community were in attendance, as well as Chairman Steve Miller and supervisors Janet Whitaker and Laura Dininni.

“If true, the three supervisors comprised a quorum,” the statement said, “and the meeting should immediately have been canceled and rescheduled as a public meeting — with public notice — to comply with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.”

During the Feb. 1 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, township Manager Mark Kunkle reported that township staff had recommended that the board allow for additional time for “affected parties” of the proposed stormwater management ordinance to discuss the recently amended provisions. A deadline of March 7 was set, and Kunkle indicated the State College Borough Water Authority and members of the development community would be involved with the discussions.

On March 7, Kunkle reported that a meeting had taken place on Feb. 29, saying that township staff and stormwater consultants had met with the water authority, design firm and planning commission as well as an independent engineer to review the proposal. A matrix was used to guide the discussion, and the new language was “agreeable.”

Supervisors agreed to prepare a revised ordinance on March 21 for a public hearing. The revised ordinance has not yet been revealed nor has a public hearing date been set.

The issues matrix used in the discussion was included with the Board of Supervisors’ meeting agenda on March 21 along with a memo indicating revisions were amended based on “input from several stakeholder groups including the State College Borough Water Authority and engineers representing the development community.”

According to the matrix, issues discussed included definitions, water quality sensitive area districts and developments, performance standards and calculation methods.

The coalition’s Right-To-Know request was denied by Kunkle, the statement said, on the grounds that the meeting was not public. No minutes were taken during the meeting nor was it recorded.

Miller issued a response Tuesday affirming that a meeting was held Feb. 29 in which township staff facilitated a meeting with representatives from the SCBWA, an engineer representing the development community and an independent hydrogeologist to discuss “outstanding issues relative to the proposed stormwater ordinance amendment.” However, he said, the meeting was not in violation of the Sunshine Act.

These meetings are not under the purview of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act as they do not involve the official action or rendering of advice on matters of agency business by this board or established authority or commission.

Chairman Steve Miller

“These meetings are not under the purview of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act as they do not involve the official action or rendering of advice on matters of agency business by this board or established authority or commission,” he said.

A quorum of SCBWA members were not present, he said. While he affirmed that he, Dininni and Whitaker were present, they were only observers and were not given any opportunities to give advice or make official decisions.

The issue was raised during a Tuesday evening Board of Supervisors work session. Kelli Hoover, township resident and one of the plaintiffs in a suit against the township regarding the proposed Cottages at State College development plan, said she thought the meeting was an issue because an apparent quorum of supervisors at a non-public meeting created a problem.

Township solicitor Joseph Green said, in his opinion, the event was a “working staff meeting” that was not a public meeting. Since supervisors were there as audience members and no deliberation took place, transparency laws weren’t applicable.

I just feel strongly this wasn’t a public meeting in the definition of the Sunshine Law.

Township solicitor Joseph Green

“It was basically a discussion of technical aspects of the regulations and ordinance under consideration,” Green said. “I just feel strongly this wasn’t a public meeting in the definition of the Sunshine Law.”

Hoover stated that the meeting was still problematic, saying that given the township is in litigation regarding the Cottages project and the Toll Brothers, and PennTerra Engineering President John Sepp is the contractor for the development, that he should not be allowed to participate in the meeting and guide the design of the ordinance.

Kunkle confirmed Sepp was part of the meeting, saying a “multitude” of development engineers were in the audience. Sepp was chosen by the engineers to speak for the group.

Responding to a charge that more stakeholders weren’t invited to participate, such as residents and farmers, Kunkle explained that the purpose of the meeting was to resolve the technical issues of the ordinance.

“If I failed to invite every single interest group to that meeting, I apologize,” he said. “But the purpose of it was to narrow the issues of a technical nature.”

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews

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