Wiest cites conflict of interest in rejecting appointment to head Northumberland County prison board
SUNBURY - During the prison board's annual reorganization meeting Wednesday, president judge William H. Wiest and controller Christopher Grayson, who were both sworn into their new positions Monday, were appointed chairman and secretary, respectively.
But Wiest, who was not in attendance, later informed The News-Item that he declined the appointment and doesn't plan to serve on the board at all because he believes it poses a conflict of interest.
Wiest said he previously expressed his concerns about serving on the board to recently retired president judge Robert B. Sacavage.
He said, "I feel there is a conflict with the position because I preside over cases involving inmates at the prison and I don't want to get the county involved in any more civil suits with prisoners."
Wiest, who said it's not a requirement for a judge to serve on the board, said Judge Charles Saylor feels the same way and will not accept the position if it is offered to him.
Commissioner Richard Shoch was named vice chairman of the board after district attorney Tony Rosini declined the post.
Voting in favor of the new prison board officers were Shoch, Commissioner Stephen Bridy, Rosini and Grayson.
Bridy was the former prison board chairman. Sacavage and former controller Tony Phillips previously served as vice chairman and secretary.
Attorney John Muncer is prison board solicitor.
Also absent were Chad Reiner, who announced his resignation as sheriff Wednesday afternoon, and Commissioner Vinny Clausi, who remains on vacation in Florida.
With Wiest choosing not to serve and Reiner's resignation, there are two vacancies on the seven-member board. A representative from the sheriff's office could serve on the board in Reiner's absence.
Future prison board meetings are scheduled for 11 a.m. Feb. 25, March 18, April 15, May 6, June 3, July 15, Aug. 12, Sept. 16, Oct. 21, Nov. 18 and Dec. 23. Except for the August meeting, prison board sessions will be held the same day as commissioners' public meetings. In the past, prison board sessions were held the day after commissioners' meetings.
Warden Roy Johnson reported the prison's kitchen is fully operational after sustaining considerable damage in a Dec. 14 fire that forced the evacuation of inmates and staff.
Johnson and Shoch commended supervisors, correctional officers and dietary and medical staff for handling the tense situation as smoothly as possible.
"Things went smoother than expected," Johnson said. "There was good reaction time by everyone involved and no serious issues or injuries occurred."
Total damage caused by the fire was previously estimated at $25,000 by state police fire marshal Kirk Renn, who narrowed the cause to electrical or spontaneous combustion of rags left in cleaning solution on a prep table.
The accidental fire started in the kitchen in the basement of the prison at about 8:35 p.m. and was extinguished with a fire extinguisher. Exhaust fans were used to ventilate the area. Firefighters were on scene for about 90 minutes.
All inmates were returned to their cells shortly after 10 p.m.
Johnson and Shoch also commended staff from Prime Care Medical and food vendor Aramark for making sure inmates were properly evaluated and fed after returning to the prison.
At the end of the regular meeting, Gary Grossman, publisher of The Daily Item, inquired about the prison's policy for granting access to the media for interviews with inmates in light of reporter Francis Scarcella being denied a visit with accused murderer Miranda Barbour.
Grossman said Barbour sent a letter to the newspaper requesting an interview with Scarcella, and put him on her visitor's list. But when the reporter went to the prison to inquire about the routine for a visit, he was told it couldn't be arranged, Grossman said.
Johnson said separate procedures exist for allowing inmates to see visitors such as family members or friends and granting them permission to talk with the media. He said if one reporter was granted access to an inmate, all media would need to be given the same courtesy.
The warden said Scarcella was denied an interview with Barbour because of security reasons.
But Grossman said he wants to see a written copy of the policy, and questions why someone who is on an inmate's visitor list would be denied a visit.
He said there have been five cases since 2007 where his reporters have interviewed inmates, including those charged with homicide, at other county prisons in the region.