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Borough Council Tables Interim Mayor Guidelines, Extends Application Deadline

by on November 06, 2019 5:46 PM

State College Borough Council on Wednesday voted to table controversial proposed guidelines for selecting an interim mayor, essentially agreeing not to formally adopt special criteria for selecting who will serve the remaining two years in Don Hahn's term.

Council also agreed to extend the deadline for potential candidates to submit letters of interest until 11:59 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 11. Information on applying can be found here.

Hahn was elected on Tuesday as magisterial district judge and has submitted his resignation as mayor effective Dec. 16. Council is tasked with selecting an interim mayor, but the home-rule charter does not stipulate a process and only requires that the person selected be a borough resident who is eligible to vote.

Two weeks ago, Councilwoman Catherine Dauler introduced a list of suggested guidelines for the interim mayor. They included work experience in local government, not an active Penn State employee or developer, a commitment to not run for election in 2021, willingness to commit to Robert's Rules of Order, experience conducting public meetings, commitment to be involved in the National League of Cities and Pennsylvania Municipal League, support for the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations and commitment to Penn State student engagement.

That sparked an increasingly heated debate over the course of two meetings with opponents, including Councilmen Dan Murphy, Evan Myers and Jesse Barlow, saying that excluding Penn State employees would be discriminatory and that in combination with needing experience in local government would eliminate most people of color as potential candidates.

On Wednesday, Dauler said she never intended for the guidelines to be formally adopted.

"I wanted these guidelines to be suggestions for us to use as we wished when we consider candidates for mayor," she said.

"Nobody ever expected that we were going to sit here and say 'yay' or 'nay' to whether or not we would adopt them," Councilwoman Janet Engeman added. "It was my expectation that we were going to sit here and discuss them, modify them, eliminate some of them, and that never happened."

Dauler shared a letter she received from Hahn, who previously warned of the chilling effect formal guidelines could have on potential candidates. But in his letter to Dauler, he wrote that he generally agreed with most of the suggestions because he believed it was her intent to "reaffirm the voters decision when they voted for me for mayor in 2017, to follow the precedents of the past … and avoid an attempt to impose council’s judgment on the voters of the 2021 mayoral election.”

Hahn and his last three predecessors had experience in local government before becoming mayor and in conducting public meetings. He also wrote that "incumbency is a significant advantage" — no sitting borough mayor has lost a reelection race in the past 40 years — and looking for a candidate who will not run in 2021 was reasonable.

But he said he could not endorse excluding Penn State employees from consideration, noting the mayor's weak role in borough governance, which is limited to signing and vetoing ordinances, presiding over borough council meetings and acting as ceremonial head of the borough.

"I cannot see how employment at Penn State would conflict with the role of mayor," Hahn wrote, adding that Penn State employees on borough council, who would have more of a potential conflict as lawmakers, have never been "shy about disagreeing with their employer."

Hahn also wrote that there should not be a blanket exclusion on someone who is a developer because there have been developers in the past who have been integral leaders of the State College community.

Dauler said she had come to agree with Hahn's concern about excluding Penn State employees and would have suggested removing it from the list.

Councilman David Brown said after consideration he also would not vote for excluding Penn State employees, though he remained concerned about whether a full-time Penn State staff member or administrator would have the time to devote to being mayor. He also said they would be on "a collision course" toward potential conflicts of interests when it came to use of the veto.

While he did not name anyone specifically, Brown also delivered critical remarks about those who had been vocal in their opposition to the guidelines.

The process “has been hijacked and manipulated, redirected and transformed, and can still be, into something ugly and nasty by grandstanding opportunists rearing up with self-righteous indignation, and by the way rallying a cadre of clapping and snapping collaborators," he said, the latter referring to audience members at last week's meeting. "Some rather debasing and inflammatory labels have been hurled again and again at those perceived as favorable to even considering the guidelines.” 

Brown said he was called "racist," "biased in favor of all white governance," "paranoid," and "ignorant." That "vilifying" characterization, he said, is "shamefully unworthy and inappropriate," and alleged it was being used to manipulate the outcome toward a favored candidate.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer also criticized members of last week's audience.

“People stood up last week and attacked people on this council ad hominem...” she said. “I don’t care how you sit in the audience. I do care if you play ‘snap snap.’ This isn’t a goddamn comedy club. This is serious business. ... I work in disability services, some behaviors are unacceptable, inappropriate.”

Lafer said the limitations in the suggested guidelines were not discriminatory and while she would not be against every Penn State employee for consideration, she wants to be sure the interim mayor is not put in an "untenable position" between borough and university interests. She cited a letter from Penn State President Eric Barron sent on Monday urging council not to exclude Penn State employees, in which he also discussed university and borough processes for managing conflicts of interest. 

Within hours, Lafer said, she received letters from two Penn State administrators, both of whom she said she respects, calling the exclusion discriminatory.

"Somebody said 'jump' and they seem to have asked 'how high?' This is my concern about having someone from the administration," she said. "That’s not true for everybody and I’m sure that’s not what they saw as they were doing. But it made me uncomfortable as it came through my mail."

Councilwoman-elect Deanna Behring, who along with Councilman-elect Peter Marshall has been invited to participate in discussions leading up to the selection of the interim mayor, said she was "saddened by Councilman Brown’s aggressive comments," especially coming at a point when council members seemed to be moving toward a more collegial discussion.

Behring added that she hopes as council considers they interim mayor, members will "continue to put value on creativity and diversity of thought, a vision that is inclusive and an attitude that is inclusive."

Myers said the guidelines would be non-binding if passed, but he still worried they would have dissuaded people from applying.

"I do reject this as a kind of exclusion and discrimination. I believe it has no place in our community," Myers said.

Barlow said that Penn State is responsible for much of the community's diversity, so excluding university employees would exclude diverse candidates. In general, he said, he found having formal guidelines unnecessary.

"I think all seven of us were elected with the understanding we have the knowledge to make this decision," Barlow said. "We don’t need the guidelines to do that. We’re all capable of doing this without them."

Barlow later made the motion to table the guidelines. It passed 5-2, with Lafer and Brown voting against. After the meeting, through a borough spokesman, they said they only voted no because it would end discussion and there were a number of people in the audience who came to speak. Myers, however, allowed for public comment after the discussion ended.

Several community members spoke, most critical of the guidelines and a few of some council members interactions with the public during the last meeting.

Amy Bader, who is a State College Area School Board member but stressed she was speaking only as a borough resident, said she was encouraged by the conversation but disappointed with how the guidelines were presented and how several council members responded to criticism.

"I find that the lack of preparation and thoughtfulness given to the presentation of these guidelines speaks volumes," she said. "The fact that no thought was given to how they could be perceived or even in effect be discriminatory is discouraging."

While some council members "understood that perspective and gave extreme due diligence" in understanding what the community impact would be, others did not and instead backpedaled to say "that wasn't the purpose," and that the guidelines were merely suggestions, Bader said.

"Any time a municipality codifies any kind of directions through a process like this and a vote it has a significant impact," she said. "If you don’t understand that then you need to do better homework. I will say your response to the previous meeting and individuals’ remarks, the defensiveness is really startling. This is what democracy looks like. If you don’t enjoy it and you don’t like it then you shouldn’t be here."

Resident Cindy Simmons, who stood up and turned her back earlier in the meeting during Brown's remarks, said council has an opportunity to use the interim mayor appointment for someone who will be a voice for an underrepresented group or who otherwise would not run because of the "expense or uncertainty" but would otherwise be a valuable addition.

"In deciding who to choose for this position, look carefully at who is not represented on this council already," Simmons said.

She also urged council to reconsider the idea of not appointing someone who might run in 2021.

“I think that we can trust the voters, so choose somebody you would want to run again. Choose somebody who would be great for a second term,” she said.

Borough Solicitor Terry Williams said council cannot impose any binding restriction on whether or not the interim mayor decides to run for election in the future.

After public comment, Lafer made the motion to extend the application deadline so that anyone who felt "intimidated or inhibited" by the potential guidelines has an opportunity to submit a letter of interest

A plan established last month by council calls for discussion and candidate interviews to take place in public meetings to be determined throughout November with council members deciding on a candidate in time for the Dec. 16 meeting when a final vote would be held.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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