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

by Min Xian of Spotlight PA State College |

People stand in front of the sign for Tioga borough’s office.
Min Xian / Spotlight PA

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

STATE COLLEGE — 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 since the police hiring scandal.

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.”

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