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Dysfunction in boro that hired Tamir Rice's killer

Plus, disputes emerge as Pa. budget deadline looms.

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.

June 15, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Fiscal homestretch, education dollars, gaming probes, questionable governance, I-95 repairs, overdose study, and ineffective policy.
Budget talks in Harrisburg are in the homestretch ahead of a June 30 deadline, and a February Commonwealth Court ruling is having an impact.

Months after Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ordered Pennsylvania's legislature and governor to fix an unconstitutional school funding system, Katie Meyer reports House Democrats passed a budget bill with more education spending as Republicans push back over future recession fears

Also this week, Stephen Caruso reports a Republican-sponsored bill that would raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $15-an-hour by 2026 has Democrats in Harrisburg newly optimistic that the idea’s time has come after years of arguments and a near deal in 2019.

And finally, Angela Couloumbis reports two lawmakers have requested investigations into the state Gaming Control Board following a Spotlight PA story that detailed how top officials met privately with casino lobbyists about a major competitor and failed to disclose the meeting as required.

"Pitt, Penn State, who's next? It's a witch hunt.”

—State Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R., Dauphin) on the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus threatening to cut Penn State funding over gender-affirming care

» Disputes over education spending, cash reserves emerge as Pa. budget deadline approaches

» This Pa. county rejected voters’ flawed mail ballots. Then it refused to count their in-person votes.

» A train safety bill inspired by the East Palestine derailment faces tough odds in the Pa. legislature

Rocky governance persists in tiny Pa. borough that hired Tamir Rice’s killer

Nearly a year after Tioga hired the police officer who killed Tamir Rice, questionable governance persists in the tiny northern Pennsylvania borough. 

Last summer, the borough’s government almost imploded as a result of longtime infighting among elected officials. A Spotlight PA investigation detailed how hostility and a lack of oversight drove away borough leaders and employees, and led to the controversial police hire that made national headlines. 

Deb Relaford, who became the borough council president in the wake of the scandal and promised to get Tioga back on its feet, now faces questions regarding misuse of borough funds. Relaford — along with Tioga Mayor David Wilcox — has also been the subject of grievances brought by two former borough secretaries. 

In early May, Pennsylvania State Police investigated a charge of a debit card belonging to Tioga and found that Relaford had used the card — intended for expenses related to Tioga’s public swimming pool — for a $40 service at a New York nail salon. 

“Subsequent to the investigation being completed, The Tioga Borough declined to prosecute the actor in this case, and related that the money utilized will be paid back to the Borough through restitution,” the police report said. 

Relaford told Spotlight PA it was an honest mistake that she did not realize she had made until the State Police contacted her. The nail salon processed the debit card just like a credit card, requiring only Relaford’s signature and not a PIN number.

The borough previously paid pool expenses with checks. Relaford, who also works as the pool coordinator, said the borough switched to using a debit card this year for convenience, and said she was not yet familiar with the new routine.

Relaford said she now separates the pool debit card physically from her personal cards as a precaution, but did not mention if any additional safeguard is in place to prevent future mistakes. 

But Tioga’s secretary and treasurer at the time, Erika Mosher, questioned the borough’s handling of the misuse of funds and said she was retaliated against for reporting it to law enforcement. Relaford refuted that claim.

Mosher posted on Facebook a photo of a handwritten letter she received, dated May 8, notifying her that she was suspended from her position as secretary for both the borough and the Tioga Borough Municipal Authority. A reason was not given in the notice. 

She was officially terminated from the municipal authority one week later and from her position in the borough on June 5. Wilcox, who also chairs the municipal authority, cited “poor, unsatisfactory job performance” at a public meeting as the cause. 

Mosher had filed complaints against Wilcox and Relaford in April, alleging that they violated Pennsylvania’s open meeting law and created a hostile work environment. The borough secretary who held the position before Mosher had made similar grievances against the two officials, according to a copy of her complaint shared with Spotlight PA. 

The borough “just needs to find the right secretary,” Relaford told Spotlight PA. She said council members are working for Tioga’s benefit every day, and they need staff who wouldn’t “be swayed by drama in a small town.” Min Xian, local accountability reporter

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaI-95 UPDATES: Pennsylvania is using recycled glass to more quickly rebuild a collapsed section of I-95 in Philadelphia, the AP reports, but Democratic Gov. Josh Shaprio declined on Wednesday to say when traffic might return. The Inquirer (paywall) says the tanker truck crash and resulting fire that caused the collapse wasn't the company's first.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaOVERDOSE DATA: A Brown University-linked study ties police seizures of opioids to a doubling of overdoses in surrounding communities as people take greater risks to restore their supply. In Pennsylvania, a tug-of-war is brewing over opioid settlement windfalls between harm reductionists and more traditional War on Drugs enforcement mindsets

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaKIT QUESTIONS: Pennsylvania lawmakers are pursuing a bill that would give parents kits to collect DNA, fingerprints, and other identifying markers from their children should any of them ever go missing. But the state of Texas is pulling major funding for just such a program amid reports of a lack of evidence the kits have helped locate missing kids.

CHANGE OF PLAN: Pennsylvania General Energy has called off its plan to convert an old natural gas well in Indiana County to take wastewater from nearby fracking operations because the well was prone to leaking into the local water supply, Inside Climate News reports. Opponents are calling it a community-action success story. 

STATE SANCTIONS: The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is still cracking down on restaurant and bar owners who defied former Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency COVID-19 orders, LNP (paywall) reports. Eleven liquor licenses were forcibly sold over mitigation measure violations and 50 other licensees have been put on probation.

» ALTOONA MIRROR: State steps in on Blair Co. child welfare backlog

» CAPITAL-STAR: SCOTUS ruling implications for Pa. redistricting

» EHNFederal air monitoring funds could lower Pa. cancer rates

» PENNLIVE (PAYWALL)Dauphin Co. Prison investigator was fired

» PUBLICSOURCE: Pittsburgh's homeless camp strategy leaked

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

ONES AND TWOS (Case No. 204)What is there one of in every corner and two of in every room?
 Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Gunsmoke. (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Karen S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Elizabeth W., Judy A., Victoria S., Kevin M., Michelle T., Bruce B., Fred O., and Babs K. 
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