Emerging from what looked to be an impasse, State College Borough Council voted unanimously on Wednesday night to appoint Katherine Oh Yeaple to fill the vacant position on council.
Yeaple will serve the remainder of former Councilman Dan Murphy's elected term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2021. She will be sworn in "as soon as possible," Council President Jesse Barlow said.
A registered nurse who works in infection control for Penn State, Yeaple also has a master's degree in urban planning and previously worked in planning for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Amtrak. She's also a volunteer for Remote Area Medical and the Palmer Museum of Art.
"Why do I want to be on the borough council? Because I believe in health and wellness, balanced growth and transportation alternatives," Yeaple said during a presentation to council via Zoom on Sept. 15.
Yeaple said she expects the area will continue to see growth and that "we need to do it smartly," addressing environmental impact and infrastructure needs. She also supports the planned community police oversight board and said having a mental health professional on staff to assist with crisis and wellness checks may be an appropriate step.
"I think the quality of life here is very good. We need to maintain the quality of life," she said. "The future is going to be challenging but I think that we live in a very promising area which has a lot of strengths, and we just need to work on those strengths."
Yeaple, one of 11 borough residents who applied for the position, received what was officially recorded as a 6-0 vote in the seventh and final round of voting by council. After five rounds of voting on Monday night yielded no majority, the meeting was continued to Wednesday. No candidate received a majority in the sixth round, but in the seventh, Barlow, Deanna Behring, Janet Engeman and Theresa Lafer voted yes on Yeaple. With the majority in hand, Evan Myers cast a yes vote and Peter Marshall, who originally voted no, revised his vote to make it unanimous.
Each council members' name was selected at random to determine the nominating order. Council then voted on their nominations in that order until one received four yes votes. When none did, the process started over again until Yeaple finally secured the position.
Murphy resigned on Aug. 17 and the remaining council members had until Oct. 1 to name a replacement, or the matter would have been turned over to Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest to make an appointment.
And at the start of Wednesday's meeting it appeared to be headed in that direction.
On Monday and again on Tuesday, council had been in a 3-3 deadlock over what appeared to be the two primary contenders for the position, Jeff Kern and Ezra Nanes, as each was nominated in every round but failed to get a majority.
Engeman, Lafer and Marshall had backed Kern, a former two-term council member who has served on multiple authorities, boards and commissions and is currently chair of the State College Borough Water Authority Board. Citing what they called a yearlong learning curve for new council members, they said the 15-month appointment needed someone with experience as the borough heads into a challenging budget planning process amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues such as racial equity measures and police reform.
"I will not vote for anybody I feel has absolutely no government experience," Lafer said.
Barlow, Behring and Murphy cited vision and leadership as the key factors in voting for Nanes. The director of business development at AccuWeather, Nanes in 2018 challenged state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman for the 34th District seat, losing the race but winning 53% of the vote in Centre County and 80% in the borough.
Behring said she read each of the more than 100 letters sent by community members about the selection as well as reviewing candidate applications and the video of Monday night's discussion.
"What I've read from reviewing all that material is that our constituents are asking us to think about new leadership and a new vision during this really hard time," Behring said.
Yeaple was nominated in five rounds, twice by Barlow and three times by Lafer, including the final two on Wednesday.
Lafer suggested that council consider formally using ranked-choice voting, or if not, that fellow council members be more flexible about their choices if votes for their preferred candidates continued end in a stalemate. That sentiment won out as Behring, who had previously only voted in favor of Nanes, cast the deciding vote for Yeaple.
"There are people on our list that fulfill everybody's desires: for new, young life, for experience, for government experience in general, for new ideas," Lafer said. "I think we need to be a little more flexible about how we go about choosing them."
Before the final votes, Mayor Ron Filippelli, who otherwise did not weigh in on the selection process, suggested that if the other members would not waver in their support of Kern or Nanes, council should consider other candidates or declare an impasse and petition the Court of Common Pleas to make the appointment.
"I think continuing at an impasse over and over again there’s really no purpose to it," Filippelli said. "I think to drag it out if we are at an impasse, I don’t think it’s good for council. I don’t think it’s good for council’s future work. I don't think it's good for the cooperation among council members. I worry very much about the image of council and the future working of council in matters like this."
Discussion had been spirited, and briefly heated, as council members debated merits and process. On Monday, Marshall raised a question about the professional relationship Myers, who is semi-retired as AccuWeather's chief operating officer, has with Nanes, Myers said Nanes does not report to him and that he resented the implication that Nanes would defer to him on council matters.
Myers revisited the issue at the start of Wednesday night's meeting, noting another council member wrote to him that he had been "indignant" and had "a hissy fit over it."
"I reacted that way because those comments called into question my ethics and those of Mr. Nanes," Myers said. "That I would expect others to defer to my judgment because somehow I ordered it or that Mr. Nanes would not hold to his own well-thought-out position is not a question that I would have expected from a fellow council member."
He added that when Nanes applied for the mayoral vacancy last year, borough solicitor Terry Williams determined there was no conflict of interest.
Marshall said he raised the question because several community members had asked about it and was not accusing Myers of anything. He also said during his time as borough manager from 1986 to 2003, and to his knowledge since then, there had been no instance in which a supervisor and employee from the same company served on council and he wanted to understand the nature of their working relationship.
By the meeting's end, though, it was a more cordial atmosphere as council members expressed their commitment to cooperation and civility.
"I believe strongly in the ability of this council to work together. We've done some very good things, all of us, all the folks here," Myers said. "We've had our disagreements. We've had our conflicts. We've had our arguments. I'm sure we will in the future and they may get heated. But at the same time we have come to conclusions and tried to move the borough forward and I'm all for that."
Also receiving nominations, both on Monday and Wednesday, were Ron Madrid and Tom Dougherty.