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Pa.’s turnpike commission is ‘shrouded in secrecy’


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
May 18, 2021
Turnpike transparency, abortion rights, use of force, juvenile detention, Barletta's running, and a new 'New Deal.' It's Tuesday and primary day. 

Pennsylvania's Turnpike Commission can spend and borrow staggering amounts of money in a single meeting, but it almost never conducts its business in public, enraging lawmakers and transparency advocates alike.

An investigation by the Post-Gazette found the commission's opaque, closed-door approach has been used on multi-million dollar expenditures, billion-dollar bond issues, large contracts, and the largest layoff in the agency’s history. In that instance, turnpike commissioners voted without a single word of public debate to lay off nearly 500 toll collectors and other workers in June.

The Post-Gazette found closed-door sessions followed by breakneck public votes with no debate are par for the course, often with little regard for — and no input from — the people whom those decisions impact. 

Case in point: Records show there was no public debate during the last 11 decisions to raise tolls on the turnpike, a road system that has become one of the nation's most expensive to drive.

THE CONTEXT: The lack of transparency follows an overhaul meant to clean up the agency's practices in the wake of a pay-to-play scandal that saw eight charged, including the turnpike's then-CEO, in 2013. 

Accusations of mismanagement have plagued the system before and after that grand jury probe, but the agency's culture has been slow to change, even under pressure from state officials. 

In an interview with the Post-Gazette, Commission Chairwoman Yassmin Gramian insists there is plenty of deliberation happening between commissioners about official business, but she also confirmed it's happening out of public view.

"I can assure you that before we go to that public meeting there’s a lot of debate and evaluation and assessment that goes on," Gramian said.

But advocates and experts stress the need for open deliberation to avoid violations of the state's transparency-minded Sunshine Act and the disenfranchisement of stakeholders.

"This is public transparency 101," said Terry Mutchler, the first director of the state’s Office of Open Records. "The play is not behind the curtain."

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"Gov. Wolf, you owe all law enforcement officers, troopers, and their loved ones an apology. A real apology."

—David Kennedy, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, on Wolf's Juneteenth-themed letter to state employees, which mentioned the "continued death of African Americans at the hands of police"

VACCINE UPDATE: COVID-19 cases are down in all 50 states, but President Joe Biden warns that progress could be jeopardized without a broader vaccine buy-in from the public. In Pennsylvania, the state's largest teachers union has come out in favor of a return to in-person classes this fall "as more students are vaccinated over the summer." For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool or call its vaccine hotline at 1-800-232-0233.
» BE PREPARED: Everyone — regardless of political affiliation — can vote TODAY on four ballot questions. Here's a breakdown of each one. Plus, WHYY has a great primer on the appellate court judge candidates. We'll have more resources in the days and weeks ahead.
Thanks, Aaron W., for a shot of this excellent fishing spot found in the Poconos. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.

ABORTION CASE: Twenty-nine years after affirming a woman's right to choose in deciding a Pennsylvania lawsuit against then-Gov. Bob Casey Sr., the U.S. Supreme Court is set to revisit the issue, potentially with very different results. This time, a Mississippi-based abortion case is headed before the court's conservative majority, with implications for Roe V. Wade and abortion rights nationwide, The Guardian reports.

CASE DISMISSED: Charges have been dropped against a former Philadelphia SWAT officer seen pepper-spraying George Floyd protesters on I-676 during a police siege last summer. NBC10 reports a judge dismissed related charges against Richard Paul Nicoletti, saying he was authorized to clear the highway and given pepper spray to do so.

ADDED OVERSIGHT: A Delaware County juvenile detention center that temporarily closed after reports of "physical, sexual, and psychological abuse" will be overseen by a new board helmed by three councilmembers, the county controller, and six appointed members of the public. WHYY says an investigation of the center is still pending.

BARLETTA'S IN: Republican Lou Barletta is running for governor of Pennsylvania in 2022, the Associated Press reports, following up on a failed, Trump-endorsed U.S. Senate bid in 2018. Known publicly for his anti-immigrant stance and 2020 election denials, Barletta hopes to get Trump's backing once again. "I'm going to try to earn it," he said.

'NEW DEAL': Senate Democrats have unveiled their spending priorities for some $7 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The "New Deal for Pennsylvania" plan includes large allocations for education, the economy, public health, and infrastructure. It also includes $100 million for gun violence prevention, per the Capital-Star.

GO VOTE: In case you missed it above, today is primary day in Pennsylvania. Most of the action belongs to registered Democrats and Republicans, but all voters, regardless of affiliation, will be asked to weigh in on four ballot questions. Spotlight PA has everything you need to know to vote.

NAME CHANGE: A survey found 90% of South Taney Street residents in Philadelphia want the street named for someone other than Roger B. Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott legal ruling. Even with that support, change is moving slowly. Billy Penn explains why and why it matters.

INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY: America's first federally funded highway is bringing the information superhighway to underserved Fayette County residents. The Post-Gazette reports wireless internet hotspots have been activated along Route 40 there to close longstanding rural access gaps.

OLD SCHOOL: Apparently vintage carousel animals were very popular with thieves. Waldameer Park & Water World found out the hard way when carvings by some of the country's best artists were stolen there in the 1980s. Erie Times-News has an appreciation of the art form.

TIL: Ed Metka grew up in Chicago during the heyday of trolley travel. Decades later, he decided to wax nostalgic by purchasing 14 trolley cars that he then transported to land he bought in Somerset County, per Atlas Obscura. And with that, the Windber Trolley Graveyard was born.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Onomatopoeia

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Bob R., Craig W., Irene R., Becky C., Beth T., Susan D., Neal W., Bill C., Steve D., Stephanie J., David I., Michael D., Fred O., Mark C., Parker B., Maureen G., Vince C., Joan S., Kate P., Don H., Jill A., Dennis M., Myles M., Adrien M., Kim C., Doris T., Dixie S., Jeff M., James B., George S., Joel S., Karen A., Heidi B., Dianne K., Johnny C., Carol S., Mary Kay M., Suzanne S., Diane P., Patricia R., David S., Cynthia P., David W., Barbara G., Luke E., Theodore W., Elizabeth W., Ann and John P., Elaine C., Rick D., Bruce B., Eddy Z., Lex M., John H., Karen W., Judy M., Michelle T., and Bruce T. 


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