Meeting tapes latest dustup for Northumberland County commissioners
By Mark Gilger
SUNBURY - A Right-To-Know request filed Monday by Northumberland County Commissioner Richard Shoch to obtain copies of all audio recordings from commissioners' meetings between Jan. 1, 1997, and Feb. 28, 2013, has delayed his fellow commissioners' plan to erase tapes from the same time period.
Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy believe maintaining the tapes is unnecessary and cumbersome and only provides more of an opportunity for the county to be sued. Both commissioners pointed out that the county is not bound by law to tape any of its meetings, while federal law requires records to be kept for only seven years.
Clausi said making copies of the recordings for Shoch would cost the county approximately $57,600. He said the cost estimate was reached by multiplying the amount of estimated hours of tape, 768, by $75, which is the per hour fee the county would be charged to copy the tapes, according to a proposal.
But Shoch believes maintaining tape recordings of the meetings is important to county citizens. "I am not comfortable getting rid of the tapes," he said. "They should be retained for accuracy sake."
In his Right-To-Know (RTK) request, which is scheduled to be acted on by county solicitor Frank Garrigan by the end of the week, Shoch is only seeking copies of the tapes and hasn't asked to inspect the records, which is an option with RTK requests.
Upon filing his request, Shoch said the original motion on Tuesday's agenda had to be amended. He said the original motion called for the commissioners to authorize the deletion or erasing of commissioners' meetings between Jan. 1, 1997, and Feb. 28, 2013. The amended motion, which was approved by Bridy and Clausi, called for the deletion or erasing of Tuesday's recording of election board and commissioners' meetings following the subsequent approval of the minutes at a future meeting.
The debate over the tape recordings angered Clausi, who with Bridy's assistance, brought out several boxes of tapes from county meetings and placed them on top of the dais to illustrate the volume of recordings that would have to be copied per Shoch's request.
"This is getting disgusting," Clausi said. "It's insane. You (Shoch) just come here to start trouble every day. You have no record to stand on. Why don't you do something good for the county?"
In reference to Clausi's fear of the county possibly facing more lawsuits by maintaining the tape recordings, Shoch replied, "It's not my mouth that got us in trouble."
Solicitor Frank Garrigan said he believed it's good policy to erase the tapes since written records are always maintained of the meetings.
Shoch acknowledged that it was not illegal to erase the tapes.
At 24 hours a day, it would take 32 days to listen to the 768 hours of tape recordings.
Bridy said several weeks ago Shoch sent an email to administrative assistant Janet Povish asking her who gave her permission to start erasing tapes from 1997. Bridy said Povish told Shoch it was past practice to erase the recordings so new meetings could be taped over them, which allowed the county to save money. Povish said nobody gave her permission to erase the tapes.
"I think it's right to eliminate or erase meeting minutes once they are approved to protect the taxpayers from being sued," Bridy said.
But the debate continued as Clausi continued to press Shoch for answers to what he believes the commissioner's real motive is for maintaining the tapes.
"Is it true you went to see Attorney Kym Best at her office after last month's commissioners' meeting?" Clausi asked Shoch, who replied, "No." Shoch also denied providing Best or attorney Timothy Bowers with any information involving lawsuits filed against the county or commissioners.
After the meeting, Clausi added, "The Sunbury cowboy wants to change federal law. If that was me, they would hang me from a light post in Sunbury."
Clausi and Bridy said they plan to approve a motion at a future meeting to delete or erase tape recordings from all salary board, election board, retirement board and commissioners' meetings from Jan. 1, 1997, to the present.