Lycoming County judge to hear Shamokin RTK case
SUNBURY - A Lycoming County judge will hear the open records appeal involving the City of Shamokin and Stephen Bridy.
Judge Richard A. Gray has scheduled a status conference with attorneys for 2:30 p.m. Friday in Courtroom 3 at the Northumberland County Courthouse.
Gray was appointed to the case after all three Northumberland County judges recused themselves.
Bridy, who is a Northumberland County commissioner, says he filed the Right to Know (RTK) request in an unofficial capacity, but the commissioner connection has indeed complicated the case.
Bridy requested details on what the city has paid to provide health insurance to its employees, including elected officials, since 2006. It was denied in February by Steve Bartos, city clerk and RTK officer, who said the request was viewed as a "serial filing" to similar requests made by fellow county Commissioner Vinny Clausi. Bartos said in his denial letter the commissioners did not comply with "applicable appeal procedure."
Clausi's four requests made in November and December for individually specific financial information on the city's health insurance were also denied. The city argued the records are exempt under a medical records provision of the RTK law, and that they are confidential under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Bartos said the city consulted with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in making its determination.
Bartos did provide Clausi aggregate amounts of health insurance spending highlighted in city budgets over the past four years, along with general information on benefits offered under the health care plan.
In the 2013 budget, group benefits for council members, the mayor, controller, solicitor, community development officer and a secretary are lumped into one line item totaling $121,901 for health, life and vision.
An appeal by Clausi to the state's Office of Open Records (OOR) failed in January on a filing error. However, Bridy was successful in his appeal, an OOR appeals officer ruling in May that the records applying specifically to benefit costs and not to individually identifiable health information are not exempt and should be provided.
The city, however, decided to fight the appeal, which, per the RTK Law, took the case to county court.
Bridy has maintained his request was made in an unofficial capacity. If the commissioners were to make a request on behalf of the county, he said, that decision would have had to be made at a public meeting, and that did not occur.
To the city's contention that it's a "serial filing" and viewed as another request from the "county commissioners," Bridy said in a court filing that previous requests by anyone other than himself are "wholly irrelevant."
However, Bartos has said requests from Clausi and Bridy came through the commissioners office. The address and phone number on Bridy's request form is that of the county administration center. He admits that a county secretary sent an e-mail with a RTK request, but that he paid for postage for a mailed request.
Also, Bridy is represented by John P. Muncer, who serves as Northumberland County's solicitor.
County Judge Charles Saylor pointed out Muncer's relationship to the county in court filings on Aug. 1 when he announced that he had recused himself from the case.
Saylor wrote that he received e-mails involving the case, forcing his disqualification based on the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Included in his filing was an exhibit of e-mail exchanges between Kevin O'Hearn, deputy court administrator, and Erin Odell, Saylor's law clerk, regarding the status of the case. Provided were seven e-mails over a one-week period that ended on July 31 with this from O'Hearn to Odell: "Attorney Muncer spoke to Brandy (Yasenchak, county court administrator) about this matter along with Commissioner Clausi. Brandy was inquiring what the status is, does it need to be scheduled for something or is there still something missing that the court will not act at this time."
The contact, Saylor said, relates to the city's contention that Bridy and Clausi are acting in concert and in their official capacity. The result is that he has gained "personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding."
President Judge Robert B. Sacavage and Judge William H. Wiest recused themselves on June 11. The identical one-paragraph orders said they did so "in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."
The city's attorney is Charles B. Haws of the Barley Snyder law firm.