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Tensions High as Debate Continues Over Interim Mayor Guidelines

by on October 31, 2019 12:11 PM

What had already been a contentious discussion turned more heated on Wednesday as State College Borough Council continued to debate proposed guidelines for selecting an interim mayor.

With State College Mayor Don Hahn running unopposed next week for magisterial district judge and expected to resign in December, council will be tasked with choosing a replacement to fill the remaining two years of his term. Under a process agreed upon by council, potential candidates have until Nov. 6 to submit letters of interest.

At a work session on Friday, Councilwoman Catherine Dauler put forward a list of suggested guidelines for the next 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.

They were met with swift criticism by Councilmen Dan Murphy and Jesse Barlow and Council President Evan Myers, who said they found them to be discriminatory and unnecessary, particularly, though not limited to, the exclusion of Penn State employees.

Murphy, who is director of the university's Student Orientation and Transition Programs, reiterated on Wednesday that the guideline suggests Penn State employees are "incapable of exercising independent judgment," and said that disdain for the university "took a dangerous turn on Friday," by also disrespecting people who work there.

“The great irony of this debate is that those that insist that elected leaders must be able to serve all who call State College home have a demonstrably poor track record of doing so,” he said. “If they did, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

He added that while he did not believe it was the intent, excluding Penn State employees and the provision of having work experience in local government would all but assure that the pool of candidates would be entirely white.

In a memo, Hahn himself urged council not to adopt formal guidelines, warning that they would have  "a chilling effect" on qualified candidates.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said the proposals are guidelines, not requirements and would not preclude anyone from voting for the candidate they thought was the best choice, a sentiment echoed by Councilwoman Janet Engeman. But, she said, some Penn State employees would have conflicts and would sometimes have to choose between borough or university interests or recuse themselves. 

"I dislike the fact that Dan has parsed it down to it’s us or them, it’s black or white, it’s this or that," Lafer said. "It’s a guideline. It makes a difference in how we might make our final decision. It’s not a law. It’s not an ordinance. It’s not carved in stone for the next 3,000 years.”

Lafer then took issue with Murphy's suggestion that the guidelines would prohibit people of color from being candidates.

“I bent over backward over a decade ago to get us a student representative. We not only have a student representative. We have a black woman student representative,” she said in reference to current student representative Genevievre Miller. "Our outgoing mayor is a person of color. Perhaps our incoming mayor will also be."

That remark drew a sharp rebuke from Miller, as well as from several students who later spoke during public comment.

“I find it incredibly, incredibly, incredibly offensive that my being here, and that I so happen to be a woman, and I so happen to be a person of color has anything to do with the borough’s diversity and inclusion initiatives,” Miller said. “I did this on my own, not because of you.

“The argument that ‘because I’m here, we’re not discriminating,’ is frustrating. If you can just pan the room, I’m the only one usually here, and I can’t vote, so I don’t understand that argument.”

Miller said she opposes the guidelines because they will "steer a bias," even if they are non-binding.

Penn State College Democrats President Kelsey Denny supported Miller's comments.

“First of all, I need to point out that Ms. Lafer, you owe Genevievre an apology,” she said. “You used her identity as a bargaining chip for your own pathetic argument. It was uncalled for. It was honestly disgraceful, and you owe her an apology.”

“If she is upset, she can come to me,” Lafer said, before Myers told her not to interrupt public comment.

Lafer also accused Murphy of turning "this into a moment of outrage that undermines us as a community, undermines our search for equity, equality, fairness in elections, and points fingers at several of us as somehow being un-American, anti- the university, anti- the borough and anti- I’m not certain quite what else. This is as transparent as we can make it."

Councilman David Brown — who said he supported the guidelines and that they are descriptive, not prescriptive — said he is concerned about "the inflammatory, emotionally charged accusations of making it look like it’s a bias or a racial thing that inadvertently might have the reverse consequence of trying to set it up in favor of a particular candidate for mayor, and I don’t think that would do us any good either."

He said that realistically most people with a full-time job but especially nonexempt staff and administrators will have difficulty finding the time and energy to fulfill the mayor's duties. A former director of Penn State's Counseling and Psychological Services, Brown also said that some employees "would be forced into very uncomfortable conflicts of interest."

Brown, who lost in the Democratic primary and will not return to council in 2020, also said he has not ruled out applying for interim mayor.

Myers said the guidelines themselves could be viewed as inflammatory. They are restrictive, he said, and while individual council members can vote on based on criteria they feel will best serve the borough, the home rule charter's only qualifications for mayor are to be eligible to vote in State College.

"Why we’re sitting up here now trying to come up with different rules or guidelines is beyond me because we already have that," Myers said. 

Barlow, a Penn State professor for nearly four decades, called the guidelines unnecessary.

"Council’s guidelines for choosing the mayor should be their understanding of what the mayor does and we should be striving to choose the best person, period," Barlow said. "All of us understand the issues well enough to be able to do this without these…. I share Dan’s offense at singling out people who work for the university."

Dauler — who will not return to council next year after reaching term limits and said she will not seek to be mayor — said she put forth the guidelines merely as suggestions, not with the expectation that all of them would be adopted. It's not unreasonable, she said, to expect a mayoral candidate who will adhere to Robert's Rules of Order, has experience conducting public meetings and is committed to supporting the neighborhood associations, engaging Penn State students and participating in the League of Cities and Municipal League.

She added that when she suggested local government experience, she meant that broadly to include ABCs and ad hoc committees, which have participation from people of color.

"It never occurred to me that  this would be a way to exclude anyone," Dauler said. "We haven’t had a chance to discuss these one-by-one. Instead there’s been this focus on one particular item.  I understand why, but I also think we should have a chance to discuss these other things calmly."

Miller, the student representative, said it is a problem that it didn't occur to Dauler or other council members that some guidelines would be exclusionary.

“When your comments are ‘it never occurred to you,’ that’s exactly why it’s discriminatory because it occurs to people like me that do see it,” she said. “Please stop saying that because you have a black person here, you are progressive. You are not and that is very frustrating to hear.”

Murphy, meanwhile, said he would "double down" on the accusation that he was being inflammatory.

"As someone who has been navigating living out of the closet for the last 20 years of my life I think it’s important to point out that the number of ‘dog whistles’ I’ve heard in this conversation are actually quite alarming in the way we talk about members of our community," he said. “I think that while it may be true that I am undermining the community through my impassioned remarks, I think it’s actually more undermining to engage in tokenism, which I think has happened here.”

The guidelines should not be officially adopted, he said, adding that the interim mayor should not have to commit to not running in two years. It should be up to the voters to decide if he or she should be awarded a second term, he said.

Several students and community members spoke during public comment, all of them denouncing the proposed guidelines.

"I read these points and I’ll admit I was shocked," said Vicki Fong, a longtime borough resident and retired Penn State employee. "I realize in the interviews and in your consideration of applicants one can bring up individual points or questions. Those are legitimate. To have a vote on guidelines, as some of the council members have said, implies policy. It codifies it and it sends the message that 'don’t even bother.'"

Deanna Behring, a candidate for borough council in next week's election and an assistant dean at Penn State, said she was concerned about the precedent the guidelines could set.

"My concern is that there might be unintended consequences, that these may become precedent-setting although that was not the intent," Behring said. "They will live on after this council is gone and after the appointment is made."

Students Jordan Emely and and Lexy Pathickal both criticized the body language of some council members throughout the debate, particularly eye-rolling and chuckling during public comment.

"The question I have is why create a guideline, if we’re going to openly say we don’t have to follow the guideline," Emely said, calling the debate over non-binding suggestions a waste of an hour.

Tyler Akers, a University Park Undergraduate Association representative, said he agreed with Hahn and the council members who were against adopting the guidelines, but urged each council member to be transparent about their criteria.

"You all should come with very transparent guidelines and make decisions with your own conscience rather than as an entire body," Akers said.

College Democrats Vice President Jacob Klipstein called the guidelines “unenforceable, and also undemocratic,” as well as discriminatory. He took exception to council imposing a two-year limit.

"If someone does a good job for two years then it’s up to the voters to say if it’s renewable," Klipstein said.

Borough resident Michael Black, who was a mayoral candidate in 2017, was the final speaker during public comment and thanked council and audience members for having an open discussion. He said council and the community need to embrace love and empathy to have an understanding of people who express different values.

"Especially now, more than ever, our town, it’s not business as usual," Black said. "So let’s make this town a better place — everybody working together and more dialogue like this."

Prior to the meeting council was expected to vote on the guidelines. However, Myers said that the public meeting notice was "defectively published" by the Centre Daily Times and Borough Solicitor Terry Williams determined that under the requirements of the commonwealth's open meetings law no action could be taken. 

Borough Council's next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 8, but a special meeting could be scheduled for Nov. 6 or 7.



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