Timing of lawsuit hearing stirs tension, election jabs in Northumberland County
SHAMOKIN - The timing of a hearing on a lawsuit filed against Northumberland County by four row officers had two commissioners steaming mad and two plaintiffs dismissing accusations of a "conspiracy."
A senior judge issued an order Thursday scheduling the hearing on a preliminary injunction for 9:15 a.m. today, less than 24 hours after commissioners Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi were handed the lawsuit and the hearing notice.
A continuance delaying the hearing until 9:15 a.m. Nov. 8 was approved Thursday afternoon, but after Bridy and Clausi sounded off at an impromptu "emergency press conference."
The lawsuit was filed Oct. 22 and county judges recused themselves over the next two days. A request for a judge was made to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) on Oct. 24, and it wasn't until Wednesday that Senior Judge David E. Grine, of Centre County, was assigned the case.
He called about 9 a.m. Thursday morning to schedule the hearing for today, according to the court administrator's office.
The plaintiffs' counsel, Samuel C. Stretton, had previously told the court he was unavailable this week. When he learned of the hearing being scheduled for today, he asked for and was granted a continuance. The change was unopposed by county solicitor Frank Garrigan.
Contacted later Thursday, Clausi wasn't moved by the explanation. While the commissioners were aware the lawsuit was filed last week, Clausi and Bridy were handed the lawsuit about 10:30 a.m. Thursday. They said it would have left county solicitor Frank Garrigan less than 24 hours to prepare.
"Why didn't they send it to us the last nine days? ... Why wait to serve the complaint until after a judge is assigned and the date is picked?" Clausi said.
During the press conference, Bridy called for county residents to vote the plaintiffs out of office, to which Clausi agreed.
"I implore the people to not vote for these career, entitled politicians of which many of them have lived off the taxpayers, not only themselves but their families as well," Bridy said.
Mary Zimmerman, register and recorder, and James F. Kelley, coroner, are both plaintiffs and are both up for re-election in Tuesday's general election. The other plaintiffs, Treasurer Kevin Gilroy and Sheriff Chad Reiner, are not up for re-election this year.
Zimmerman denied a conspiracy was at play. Kelley called the accusation "ludicrous."
"I found out at 9:50 a.m. (Thursday), the same time the sheriff did, the same time the prothonotary's office did. None of us held it (the lawsuit). Nobody," Zimmerman said.
Kelley didn't seem bothered by Bridy and Clausi's calls to oust him. He said it's their right to support any candidate they choose.
"It shows that they want to have their own candidates in there," Kelley said.
Attempts to reach Gilroy and Reiner for comment were unsuccessful.
Bridy and Clausi voted Oct. 1 to cut the salaries of five row offices as well as the commissioners office. They estimate savings in salary and benefits at $1.4 million over the combined four-year terms for those offices.
As a result, commissioners salaries drop from $61,000 to $31,500, coroner from $53,834 to $30,500, prothonotary and register and recorder from $57,396 to $31,000, and sheriff and treasurer from $53,834 to $31,000.
The cuts would take effect after the nearest election for each office: 2014 for coroner, prothonotary and register and recorder; 2016 for the commissioners, sheriff and treasurer.
Also, all elected officials will now be required to pay 50 percent of the cost for their respective health benefits.
The salary for the controller was spared and remains at $56,676. The office is currently held by Tony Phillips, who also is seeking re-election.
The lawsuit by the four row officers says reducing pay for five of six row offices violates state statute that requires salary increases or decreases be applied equally to all county officials and that benefits should be the same for all county employees.
Bridy: Cuts not political
Bridy said Thursday the cuts weren't political. He talked about the savings being used for potential tax incentives for companies who start a business in Northumberland County.
"Everybody thinks it's ... just to get back at the row officers. We were willing to take it on the chin and elected officials should do what's best for the people of Northumberland County," Bridy said after the press conference.
Commissioner Rick Shoch voted against the reductions. He said he wasn't invited to Thursday's press conference but wouldn't have attended anyway.
Shoch said he was served the lawsuit by the sheriff Thursday morning. Chief Clerk Gary Steffen accepted it on behalf of Bridy and Clausi, who Shoch said were not in the commissioners office at the time.
A copy of the lawsuit had already been mailed by Stretton to Garrigan around the day it was filed, Shoch said.
He condemned Bridy and Clausi for "using county property" to campaign against the row officers.
"Here we're a week away from the election and they're using the county property to come out against certain candidates. It's totally unethical and they should not be doing it," Shoch said.
Bridy and Clausi denied the press conference was a case of political grandstanding. Had they not been served the lawsuit five days before the election and had the hearing not originally been scheduled for less than 24 hours, both said they wouldn't have made their pleas.
Also, Bridy said he has put off a press conference he planned to expose alleged corruption until after the election.