Judge grants injunction in Shamokin man's AOAA access lawsuit
SUNBURY - Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor has approved David F. Kaleta's request for a preliminary injunction, meaning the Shamokin man can access land designated for the county's proposed Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) while his lawsuit against the county proceeds.
In a six-page order issued Thursday afternoon, Saylor said a decision by the county that banned Kaleta from the property should not be enforced, pending any further order of the court. Also, he said the county's decision represents a violation of the Sunshine Act.
"There was no reason to ban me, especially since I've done nothing wrong on the land," Kaleta said Thursday after learning of the order.
Kaleta sued the county and Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy on Sept. 17, claiming their action represents First Amendment retaliation because Kaleta has been critical of the off-highway vehicle park's development. At the same time he filed the lawsuit, Kaleta asked for the injunction to allow him to access the land while his suit makes its way through the court.
Bridy was dumbfounded by the decision, which followed a 3 1/2-hour hearing held Tuesday.
"When an injunction is issued, it is because someone has suffered irreparable harm or injury. Because Mr. Kaleta plants trees, hunts and walks his dogs there, that's irreparable harm?" Bridy asked.
Clausi said he knew Saylor would rule against the county.
"We had no chance because Judge Saylor is prejudiced against me, because we denied raises for the (court) secretaries and removed the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program from the courthouse," Clausi said. "I do not agree with this ruling."
"I was surprised that the judge didn't recuse himself when everyone knows the animosity with him and Commissioner Clausi," Bridy added. "I think it should be appealed."
Attempts to reach Saylor Thursday evening seeking comment on those accusations were unsuccessful.
Kaleta, president of the former Habitat for Wildlife (HFW), a nonprofit group whose work earned him statewide environmental praise, received a letter dated Sept. 10 from county planning director Pat Mack saying his request to use the land had been denied after consideration by "two of three members of the Board of Commissioners," later determined to be Bridy and Clausi; Commissioner Rick Shoch said he was unaware of the letter or the decision of his colleagues.
The AOAA property includes 6,500 acres of forest and abandoned coal lands stretched across Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships. Saylor said Kaleta has used the area for years for conservation efforts, walking his dogs and hunting.
"These activities were carried out with, at the very least, the county's knowledge, and at one time even its encouragement. To deprive plaintiff of his continued use of the park, even for a short time, would constitute an irreparable injury to him," he wrote.
Saylor said the county did not abide by the Sunshine Act, which requires matters of public interest be deliberated and decided at an advertised public meeting.
Bridy said he's insulted by that interpretation, saying he works harder than anyone to invite the public and the media to meetings.
"If we send out an e-mail, that's an official action according to the judge's ruling," he said.
At Tuesday's hearing, county solicitors John Muncer and Frank Garrigan said the requirements of deliberations and official action by the commissioners do not apply because there was no "meeting" where Clausi and Bridy were in the same room with Mack when they denied Kaleta's request.
"If a quorum of the members of the agency in questions have not met, then how can it be said the agency has made an 'official decision' or conducted agency business?" they asked in their memorandum to the court.
Saylor said the county's interpretation of the Sunshine Act "is deeply flawed."
"The plain fact that they did not have a public meeting constitutes the Sunshine Act violation," he wrote.
"The judge is claiming it was an official action. It wasn't," Bridy maintains. "Pat Mack came to me and let me know what was happening and I gave him input. Many department heads come to me daily for input. Is every conversation now considered 'official action?'"
"If everything we do has to be done at a public meeting, we would have to have meetings 24 hours a day," Clausi said.
In a separate interview Thursday prior to news of Saylor's ruling, Clausi said a resolution passed at the Nov. 16, 2011, commissioners meeting gave Mack authority to make such decisions, even without input from the commissioners.
The resolution authorizes "the planning department to issue permits for events on county-owned property," according to meeting minutes.
Mack said Thursday he believed he was acting in that capacity in his letter to Kaleta, even though Kaleta wasn't specifically asking for an event.
Mack, also speaking prior to the ruling, said he had similar conversations with the commissioners in approving a motorcycle race and the Jeep Jamboree USA event held at the AOAA property this summer, and wondered if those "yes" decisions would then also be interpreted as Sunshine Act violations. He does not believe they were.
Saylor said the letter wasn't clear as to the reason Clausi and Bridy had denied Kaleta access, and yet it warned he would be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
"(Kaleta) was not known to be an illegal dumper, or a disreputable individual; rather, the only consideration, by Mack's account, was a 'tense' relationship previously noted," Saylor wrote.
He also mentioned the recent revelation of a wooden plank with sharpened bolts being discovered on AOAA land and the county's decision to not allow hunting on the property this fall until an investigation by Coal Township Police is concluded.
"The risk seems minimal to someone who is walking with a dog on the property, in contrast to an individual operating an off-road vehicle," Saylor wrote, continuing with the thought it would be Kaleta's decision to undertake that risk and that he was willing to sign a waiver to absolve the county of any liability.
He ordered that Kaleta's request for attorney's fees be held in abeyance until the completion of the civil case.
Settled on Tuesday?
Clausi said the issue of access will be settled for good at Tuesday's county commissioners meeting.
"Let Mr. Kaleta enjoy walking his dogs there this weekend. Let the judge enjoy the land this weekend, and (Commissioner Rick) Shoch enjoy it," he said. "We will make a resolution that will set the policy as to who can and who can't use the land, and we will do it at Tuesday's public meeting, and I invite everyone, including Judge Saylor, to the meeting."
Clausi said a resolution cannot be interfered with by the courts, but Saylor's order says the county is prohibited by the injunction from enforcing any action in the Sept. 10 letter.
Kaleta says he'll act again as needed.
"If they try to ban me again, I will take them to court again," Kaleta said.