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We're suing to unseal Pa. corruption case records

Plus, Pa. local governments might soon hire firms as managers.

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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

August 17, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Sealed records, State Police, road dollars, municipal managers, local control, private sewers, Trump indictment, coverage crisis, and house explosion


Herm Suplizio, 63, faces 15 criminal counts for the alleged theft of more than $600,000 in taxpayer and nonprofit funds from the City of DuBois, the DuBois Fire Department, and the DuBois United Way. 

But the presentment document detailing the basis for filing those charges is still secret more than four months after the Office of the Attorney General publicly announced the indictment. 

Spotlight PA with three newsroom partners — LNP | Lancaster Online, WITF, and WESA — have petitioned a county judge to release the document.

“The public has a right to the underlying facts in criminal cases, a right that’s particularly important in cases involving public officials and the potential theft of large amounts of taxpayer dollars,” said Christopher Baxter, CEO and president of Spotlight PA. 

Also this week, Pennsylvania lawmakers are weighing a plan that would end transfers from a fund meant for road and bridge construction to the State Police. 

Finally, Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso reports on a new ruling that could put the brakes on sewer and water privatization in Pennsylvania


"This wasn't nuanced or a close call. This was, ‘You guys didn't get this right, period."

—Andrew Place, a former utility commissioner who served from 2015 to 2020, on the recent court ruling reversing the approval of the sale of a municipal sewer system to a private company.

MISSED CONDUCT: Join us Thursday, Aug. 31 from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel discussion on Penn State’s post-Sandusky misconduct policies, transparency in higher education, and how universities can keep students and employees safe. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
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» 5 takeaways from our recent event on holding officials accountable

Pa. local governments might soon hire firms as managers

Local governments in Pennsylvania might soon have the option to hire professional firms to be municipal managers, a change that proponents say could improve local government services while saving taxpayers money.

Three sets of bills in the legislature would amend the governing laws for Pennsylvania boroughs, second class townships, and third class cities — classified by population sizes — and provide an alternative municipal management option. First class townships have had the choice since 2020.

Under current law, Pennsylvania municipalities can only appoint individuals as managers, a rule that state Rep. Bob Freeman (D., Northampton) said can be particularly burdensome for smaller communities that are unable to pay the salary and benefits of a full-time administrator or manager on their own.

The change would allow municipalities to hire a range of professional groups to serve as managers, said Freeman, a prime sponsor for one of the bills. The option also would address increased costs and a shortage of municipal managers that have made hiring difficult, he added.

Professional local government managers specialize in accounting and budgeting, hiring and maintaining qualified staff, and navigating politics, said George Dougherty, a professor and public policy expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Many of them are what he calls “generalists” who also have experience with administering public services like fire and police protection.

“Well-financed, well-resourced municipalities that want to have good quality management can certainly afford and find those people,” Dougherty said. “It’s the municipalities that want it and can’t afford it that end up having problems.”

The proposed change could give local governments the option to contract with a professional management firm on a part-time basis, which could balance the cost and needs of a given community, he said. It’s also possible that several municipalities could share services from one company, creating a regional relationship.

Scarcity of professional municipal managers is a driving force behind the proposal, said Ron Grutza, senior director of regulatory affairs at the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs.

Grutza said the flexibility of the proposed change would benefit both municipal leaders and taxpayers.

While it’s entirely up to each of Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 municipalities to decide how they want their local government managed, Dougherty noted a potential trade-off of hiring an outside firm.

“What elected officials and communities want out of the municipal managers is not always just efficiency and competence,” he said. “In some cases, they hire folks simply because they trust them rather than for their expertise. … There is a little bit of loss of local control, and there's some loss of the community connectedness.”

Dogherty added that firms can garner trust by actively engaging with communities, while Freeman said the proposed change has a safeguard of accountability built in it.

“If there’s an individual who’s chosen to serve from [a] professional management team as the official designate of a city administrator, or township manager, they would have to be considered employees of the municipality and comply with all Ethics Act standards as well,” said Freeman, who serves as the chair of the state House Local Government Committee.

Although it’s unclear how many first class townships have taken up the provision, state associations representing other classes of municipalities are in favor of making the option available statewide. Freeman pointed to the unanimous passage of his bill in the state House — and two in the Senate — as evidence for broad support. Min Xian, Spotlight PA

Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
🏆 HIGH SCORE: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: House explosion, Senate hopeful’s residence, and local Little Leaguers
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaTRUMP INDICTMENT: Mike Roman, a political operative with roots in Philadelphia, is one of 18 aides and allies that a Georgia grand jury has charged with assisting former President Donald Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The Philadelphia Inquirer (paywall) writes that Roman oversaw Trump's 2020 Election Day operations, and was key in Trump's strategy of organizing slates of "fake electors."

  This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCOVERAGE CRISIS: Child care providers in Pennsylvania must hold liability insurance, but PublicSource found that many in the Pittsburgh area have recently been dropped by their providers with little warning. The cause is still largely unknown. 

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaHOUSE EXPLOSION: Fire officials are still investigating a deadly home explosion in Allegheny County this weekend. But USA Today reports they offered an update on Monday, saying the homeowners had been having "hot water tank issues." Five people, including a child, were killed in the explosion Saturday, and it left several nearby houses damaged. Officials say they're also investigating other possible causes.

MISSED REVENUE: Pennsylvania has lost an estimated $1 billion from its one-year hold on participating in a climate program championed by former Gov. Tom Wolf, StateImpact Pennsylvania reports. The missed revenue from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) could have been used to boost clean energy programs to address climate change. During his campaign, now Gov. Josh Shapiro did not commit to staying in RGGI; more recently he’s convened a secretive working group to explore the issue

PENSION TENSION: The bankrupt city of Chester is playing "bait and switch" by declining to pay more than a half million dollars in legal fees to a group of retirees, according to the retirees' lawyers. The attorneys argue this creates an uneven legal playing field for the retirees, who are suing because their payments may be cut when the city emerges from its bankruptcy, The Inquirer (paywall) reports.

» AP: Study suggests links with fracking and childhood cancers, asthma

» MORNING CALL: Volunteer ambulance squad shuts down

» PENNLIVE: Critics say hydroelectric project would flood area

» YORK DISPATCH: York County Prison to provide methadone

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

SHARED BIRTHDAY (Case No. 213)Two girls were born to the same mother, on the same day, at the same time, in the same month and year, and yet they're not "twins." How can this be?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Six. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Alberta V., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: John C., Fred O., Bill B., Jay G., Annette I., Smellsense, Michael H., Suzie B., and Judith A.
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