Northumberland County officials may ban all from AOAA after 'booby trap' found in puddle
SUNBURY - A special meeting Monday morning to vote on temporarily banning people from the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) due to the discovery of a "booby trap" on the premises was canceled because the agenda was not made known to the commissioners at least 24 hours in advance in accordance with the county code.
County Chief Clerk Gary Steffen was directed by solicitor Frank Garrigan to announce the cancelation of the meeting because it was deemed illegal, a point made by Commissioner Rick Shoch in a two-page prepared statement presented to the media prior to Steffen's announcement.
Steffen walked into the commissioners' meeting room at about 11:15 a.m., went behind the dais, pulled out a wooden pallet measuring 41 inches long and 3 3/4 inches wide and placed it on the corner of the platform. The pallet contained six protruding sharpened bolts and two garden stakes and was reportedly found late last month in Coal Township on land designated for the AOAA.
Garrigan and Commissioners Shoch, Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi did not attend the announcement, which was made 15 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin.
"It has come to the attention of the board that Commissioner Shoch was not informed of the nature of the business to be conducted at today's special meeting in accordance with the county code, and the meeting is therefore being postponed."
Steffen said discussion and a vote on a temporary ban of all people from the AOAA due to the "booby trap" was among the meeting topics. He said the commissioners have concerns that additional "booby traps" may be located on the premises.
The chief clerk, who noted the wooden pallet containing the bolts and stakes was found in dried up mud, said all three commissioners were aware of the "booby trap" being located on the AOAA property and had concerns for public safety.
He said the commissioners referred the matter to Coal Township police.
Patrolman Terry Ketchem, who is conducting an investigation, said he wasn't notified about the "booby trap" until Friday. Bridy said he was told the "booby trap" was found in late August by Kevin Troup and another man and turned over to planning department grants manager Kathy Jeremiah, who is spearheading the AOAA with planning director Pat Mack. Bridy said Troup and the other adult had permission from county officials to be on the land to "map out" a path for a walk that will benefit ill children next month at the site.
Steffen warned the "booby traps" could pose a serious danger to the public and vehicles that enter the AOAA property. He said, "Unfortunately, this matter will now be delayed until next Tuesday's regular meeting. We would advise the public that there may be serious dangers to people and vehicles that enter the AOAA property."
He said several other motions listed on the meeting agenda also will be incorporated into next week's meeting. One of those motions involves having Garrigan draft an ordinance involving permitted usage of the AOAA property and fines to be imposed for improper usage. Another motion involves posting "no trespassing" signs at the land designated for the AOAA.
Kaleta glad meeting canceled
After the meeting was canceled, Dave Kaleta of Shamokin, a longtime local conservationist who was barred from the county-owned AOAA site earlier this month and organized a protest Sunday at the AOAA, said, "I'm glad the meeting wasn't held because I believe it was an end loop around tomorrow's hearing. I didn't know anything about the "booby trap" being found. The facts will come out at the hearing."
Kaleta believes his banishment came about because he has questioned the environmental impact the area's development has had on the 6,500-acre property.
He sued the county, Clausi and Bridy on Sept. 17, claiming they violated the Sunshine Act and committed First Amendment retaliation in denying Kaleta's request for a waiver that would allow him to enter the county-owned property, which he and many others have been doing for decades prior to the AOAA development.
A hearing pertaining to the suit will be held this afternoon before Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor.
Attending the scheduled meeting with Kaleta were Bill Knapick, Bill Weingart, Ed Faust Sr. and Dave Munson, who were members of Habitat for Wildlife, which was operated by Kaleta for more than a decade before being disbanded earlier this year.
'Someone could have been killed'
Following Steffen's announcement, Bridy addressed the "booby trap" issue in his office.
"It's unfortunate people are putting ideology ahead of public safety," he said. "Someone could have been killed. There may be more of the same devices up there."
Steffen and the three commissioners did not accuse anyone of placing the "booby trap" on the land.
As for the meeting being illegal, Bridy said, "Our solicitor felt it would be illegal since the agenda wasn't known to us 24 hours in advance. I didn't see the agenda until 15 minutes before the special meeting and I was advised not to be there by Mr. Garrigan."
"We are being demonized as a board for not telling the public what the special meeting was about," he said. "I told the media that the meeting pertained to the AOAA and that was printed, so I don't know why people are saying we are keeping them in the dark."
As chairman of the board, Clausi is usually responsible for developing and approving agendas, but he is currently vacationing in Florida, although he made it known to his colleagues that he would have participated by telephone if the special meeting was held.
Clausi agreed that Shoch was not made aware of the agenda and that the meeting would have been illegal, but criticized the commissioner for not attending.
"During the period of time when Frank Sawicki was chairman of the board, there were many special meetings held and I wasn't given an agenda until just prior to the meeting," Clausi said. "However, I showed up for these meetings because I wanted to know what was going on and cast my vote. In this case, the meeting was being held, in part, to discuss the recent 'booby trap' that was planted at the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area. The concern for the safety of persons entering the property, whether trespassing or invited, is real. Because Mr. Shoch was more interested in playing 'gotcha,' we will now delay discussion and vote on what to do. This may potentially expose persons to injury and the county to liability."
He added, "In the end, the public was informed of the danger and that is the most important thing. Congratulations Mr. Shoch, I hope you are proud."
'Tip of the iceberg'
In his two-page statement released to the media, Shoch explained why the special meeting would have been illegal. The commissioner said he could have waived his concern about not being made aware of the agenda, but felt that was not the proper thing to do.
He said, "It is my position that the meeting does not constitute a lawfully convened meeting of the board of directors under the county code, and any votes taken at such a meeting will be of no affect, and will not be binding on either the county or any other party affected by them."
Shoch also was very critical that the purpose of the special meeting wasn't revealed in the public newspaper notice and that he was not given any time to research issues that could have been on the agenda.
"I hope the citizens of Northumberland County are taking due notice of how my fellow commissioners choose to conduct the business of the county in such a way as to exclude any voice, be it that of the citizens, other local officials or myself, that is not in agreement with their own," he said. "I hope they realize that what they are seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the behind-the-scenes maneuverings that are happening every day at the county in an effort to push the selfish agendas of a few, while silencing the opinions and ideas of the many."
He added, "I can promise the citizens of Northumberland County that what I will always bring to the table is two ears and an open mind, whether I'm discussing issues at the commissioners' table, your local municipality's board table or your kitchen table.
"In closing, I ask the citizens of Northumberland County to do your best to publicly express how you feel about the way your voice is, or isn't, being considered in the county's decision-making process. You deserve better than you are receiving."