Kaleta sues North'd Co., Clausi and Bridy
SUNBURY - Dave Kaleta has sued Northumberland County and commissioners Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated and that Bridy and Clausi circumvented the Sunshine Act when they decided to ban him from county land.
Kaleta, of Shamokin, said the lawsuit and Sunshine Act claims were filed Monday in Northumberland County Court.
Kaleta, who operated Habitat for Wildlife (HFW) for more than a decade before disbanding the conservation group earlier this year, received a letter last week from the county saying he would be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law" if he's found using the land slated for the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA).
He said the commissioners are attempting to stifle his right to free speech.
"This has been going on for a long time; this needs to be done," he said Monday night when asked what pushed him to file legal action. "This letter regarding banning me from the land was just the last straw."
Clausi on Monday said he stood behind the decision and said he didn't believe sending the letter required formal action by the board.
He said Pat Mack, planning department director, who has handled much of the AOAA development, told him Kaleta wanted to sign a waiver allowing him access to the land. Clausi said he didn't want to grant the request because of Kaleta's past comments about the AOAA park that have embarrassed the county. He cited a presentation Kaleta made to the Shamokin Area School Board in December in which he said the county is illegally holding 2,700 acres in Coal Township because it was not sold in accordance with the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law; the county has vigorously disputed that claim and said at the time it's "crystal clear" the law is on the its side.
When Kaleta made the waiver request, "I said enough is enough," Clausi said, and he told Mack to write the letter.
Mack reviewed the letter with county solicitor Frank Garrigan prior to sending it, and the attorney suggested a second commissioner sign it, so Bridy did, Clausi said Monday.
He said that while a story in The News-Item last week referred to Clausi and Bridy taking a "vote" on the issue, he said it wasn't that formal.
"I sent the letter as chairman of the board; I didn't even talk to Bridy about it," Clausi said. "If every little decision we make we violate the Sunshine Act, then we have to have a public meeting every day."
Bridy said last week he has nothing against Kaleta, but the letter was sent because he asked for open access the county can't grant. He said it's important to keep track of who is on the land and when.
Shoch said last week restricting one citizen from public property is "very suspect."
Kaleta, who has publicly said he believes the county has not allowed enough acreage for hunting on the AOAA land, disbanded HFW in part out of the growing rift with the county over access to the property, where his organization has done a number of reclamation projects over the years.
Kaleta, who regularly walks on the land and takes his hunting dogs there for exercise, said he hired Kymberley Best and Tim Bowers to represent him. Best, former assistant county solicitor and chief clerk, was fired by the county last year and filed a federal lawsuit in response. Clausi and Best, who once had a close working relationship, saw that deteriorate in the months prior to her firing. Bowers once also worked for the county.
News that Best, who now has a Sunbury law firm, and Bowers were involved didn't surprise Clausi.
"They're out to get me," he said. "They don't have a leg to stand on."
Mack has said the county is working closely with the state game commission to make sure all steps are taken at the appropriate time to get the AOAA up and running with respect to wildlife.
The letter to Kaleta said the board is willing to entertain Kaleta's requests to "hold an event or function for more than just personal recreation," but that day-to-day access is not allowed until AOAA plans "come to fruition."
"Until that point comes, we are not comfortable granting open access to the property," it reads.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, asked for her input last week regarding a possible Sunshine Act violation, said she wasn't sure the county could ban one individual from the property, and said commissioners should have "erred on the side of public access."