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How to increase oversight of local governments

Plus: Will Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow on Friday?

This is Talk of the Town, a free weekly newsletter delivering top news from State College and the surrounding region.

February 1, 2024
Inside this edition: Key takeaways from our virtual panel on the DuBois corruption case, Penn State plans to cut $94M in fiscal year 2026, and the status of abortion access in Pennsylvania. Plus, tomorrow is Groundhog Day. 🎩 Will Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow?

A November Spotlight PA investigation reported how the former city manager of a small Pennsylvania city landed at the center of one the state’s most sweeping political corruption cases in recent years. 

Spotlight PA reporters Angela Couloumbis and Min Xian detailed how former DuBois City Manager Herm Suplizio wielded vast powers as the city’s chief administrator during his tenure, held outside jobs that presented conflicts of interest, and allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of public and nonprofits dollars because city government oversight was lacking.

The reporters discussed these findings and what they revealed about ethical conduct and fiscal accountability in Pennsylvania local government at a virtual event on Jan. 25. 

Here are five key takeaways from the panel discussion, which can be viewed in full at spotlightpa.org/events:

State law sets minimum standards to prevent conflicts of interest in government.

The Pennsylvania Ethics Act spells out basic financial interest disclosure requirements for all public officials and employees, as well as candidates for public office. 

Leanne Davis, executive director for Pittsburgh’s Ethics Hearing Board, said the mandatory annual filing sets a floor for making sure elected officials and government workers are not using their public office for private or political gain.

State law requires disclosure of secondary employment, certain travel expenses, and seats or offices held at a business or nonprofit. Officials also must report details of debts that exceed $6,500, any gift valued at $250 or more, and outside income of $1,300 or more. 

Fiscal accountability starts with accessible information.

The amount of public and nonprofit money that federal prosecutors alleged Suplizio stole — more than $550,000 over nearly a decade — raised questions about how those funds were handled.

Local governments can adopt best practices — such as adhering to the Governmental Accounting Standards Board guidelines and releasing annual comprehensive financial reports — as the first line of action in fiscal accountability, Rachael Heisler, Pittsburgh city controller, said. These steps would expose potential wrongdoing and generally help the public understand how taxpayer money is managed.

Segregation of duties helps eliminate fraud and misuse.

DuBois was “like the perfect storm” where checks and balances were not in place, Jennifer Jackson, a DuBois City Council member, said. The rare form of local government the city operates under grants vast powers to the city manager, and in the past elected officials trusted Suplizio to do his job without much oversight, she said.

“Even now, we don’t have job [descriptions]. We don’t have employee handbooks,” Jackson said. 

Clearly defined job responsibilities limit the authority of each public office, and having workplace policies documented is critical to municipal governance, according to the panel members.

Jackson said the new City Council is reaching out for input, including to the Pennsylvania Municipal League, to help establish new practices, policies, and procedures.

Publicizing government information increases accountability.

Panelists spoke about the importance of making government information available to the public by posting it online where possible and following the state’s open records law. 

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant, right?” Davis said. “We need to have transparency.”

Davis added that being transparent might “take a culture shift” and could be initiated and passed down by predecessors in public office as institutional knowledge.

Panelists offered potential improvements to oversight.

Elected officials can decide if their municipal policy goes further than what the state ethics law requires of public employees and themselves, Davis said. 

The panelists agreed that proper oversight of governments requires a participating public. 

Jackson successfully ran on a write-in campaign last year to join DuBois City Council, after the allegations of theft against Suplizio were made public and the city faced questions about its governance. Heisler said that running for office is an important way to restore faith in government.

Min Xian, local accountability reporter

» Penn State plans to slash $94M from budget, including deep cuts to Commonwealth Campuses

» Police in Pennsylvania slow to adopt new use-of-force rules, study finds

» What’s the status of abortion access in Pennsylvania?

» WATCH: A panel on the corruption case rocking a small Pa. city

» Spotlight PA court victory leads to new academic research into Pa. medical marijuana program

» Pa. Supreme Court sets the stage to consider whether the state constitution protects abortion

» How Spotlight PA will cover Pennsylvania’s 2024 election

» Gov. Shapiro is pitching more funding for Pa.’s struggling transit systems. Will the state Senate agree?
🤔 Can’t attend your local town meetings but want to keep tabs on what’s happening? Sign up for the new Centre Documenters newsletter. 

Centre Documenters pays local documenters to attend and document government meetings in six undercovered townships across Centre County — Benner, College, Gregg, Halfmoon, Snow Shoe, and Spring.

You can find meeting notes at centredocumenters.org. Centre Documenters is also launching a texting service, allowing you to receive key takeaways and a link to meeting notes for a particular municipality or type of meeting. 

Read more about Centre Documenters here, and read the latest newsletter here.
A sunny January day in Centre County before the recent warm weather and rain melted the snow, via Sarah Rafacz, who edits Talk of the Town.

Have a north-central Pennsylvania photo to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
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» WPSU: Penn State plans to cut funding to WPSU by 20%
» CDT: Former Centre Crest building to be renovated for $26.4 million
» WTAJ: Blair County jury finds man guilty of human trafficking

» SC: Centre Region COG executive director to retire
» WPSU: Research: How counties are spending opioid settlement funds
» SC: 53 miles of new trails planned for Rothrock State Forest
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» Feb. 2: All eyes will be on Punxsutawney Phil for the Groundhog Day Celebration in Jefferson County.

» Feb. 3: Brave the cold for Special Olympics’ 2024 Winter Games Polar Plunge at Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County.

» Feb. 7: Ephrat Asherie Dance artists and “legendary elders of the New York dance-club scene” perform Underscored at Eisenhower Auditorium at Penn State in Centre County.

» Feb. 7: V Spehar, creator of Under the Desk News on TikTok, will speak about Gen Z’s influence on news and politics at the HUB Flex Theater at Penn State.

» Feb. 7-10: Penn State's School of Music presents its African American Music Festival.
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