Council Split on Guidelines for Picking Interim Mayor
October 28, 2019 11:15 AM
by Geoff Rushton
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Should current Penn State employees be disqualified from consideration for interim mayor of State College? Borough council members had conflicting views on that — one of several proposed guidelines for selecting Mayor Don Hahn's replacement — during  a work session on Friday afternoon.

While some council members supported the exclusion of Penn State employees from consideration, others objected, with one saying it was "discriminatory" and another saying he was "offended" by the suggestion that they could not think and act independently.

Council is gearing up to choose who will serve out the final two years of Hahn's term after his presumptive election as magisterial district judge, a race in which he is running unopposed in November. Assuming he is elected, Hahn intends to resign on Dec. 16 and earlier last week council agreed on a process for selecting his replacement.

While members agreed then to accept letters of interest by Nov. 6, hold public discussions that will also involve council members-elect, and vote on Hahn's replacement the night of his resignation, the details on what the interview process would look like and what, if any, criteria would be established were still to be decided.

After a discussion about how interviews might be conducted, Councilwoman Catherine Dauler introduced several proposed guidelines for candidates that included work experience in local government, willingness to commit to Robert's Rules of Order, experience conducting public meetings, "understanding the position is for two years only and nonrenewable," 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.

The list also proposed disqualifying candidates based on their jobs, suggesting they cannot be a developer and cannot be an active employee of Penn State. It was the latter, mostly, that set off debate among the split council.

"My thought is that it’s very possible next year there will be three council members employed by the university," Dauler said. "I think that it’s important for the mayor to not be connected to the university since the mayor represents the entire community. ... I think that person needs to be seen to really represent everyone in the community and not have some, I’ll use the word ‘bias’ toward the university."

Councilman Jesse Barlow, a Penn State computer science and engineering professor, is up for reelection in November, and fellow councilman Dan Murphy is director of the university's Student Orientation and Transition Programs. Deanna Behring, an assistant dean in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, was the leading vote-getter in the Democratic primary and appears likely to be elected to council.

Barlow, who said he is not interested in being mayor, offered the first objection to excluding Penn State employees.

"Half this town is employed by the university," he said.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said she agreed with the guidelines, though did not feel as if they needed "to be written in concrete." One of her questions for any candidate with a full-time job, she said, would be how they would manage their work with the demands of being mayor, noting that Dauler had earlier said Hahn attended more than 200 events and meetings in 2018.

She also said it would be a conflict of interest for the representative of borough government to also be a Penn State employee in meetings between the two entities.

"Should the entire borough wish to elect said person at some point in the future, that’s a separate decision," Lafer said. "But I do not see how we can appoint someone who by the very nature of their position is set up for conflicts of interest that are important."

She said she also agreed building developers should be excluded as well, adding "it would be nice to have somebody who is not tied to one side or another but is looking at the borough as a whole and I do think that is an important aspect of how we talk to, listen to anybody who is interested in this position."

Murphy delivered an impassioned objection to the university employee exclusion, saying he has worked with Borough Solicitor Terry Williams and the appropriate Penn State departments to ensure his work on council is not a conflict of interest.

"While there is passion in my tone, I do want to recognize that I am trying not to be angry, but I am very frustrated because it is exactly for this misperception of the role that full-time staff at the university can play in serving their local community that motivated me to run for local office," Murphy said.

He and Barlow both said that because someone is employed by Penn State does not mean their views reflect the university's and that oftentimes they are in opposition.

"I am offended by the suggestion that we as staff at the university lack the independent thought and judgment to make decisions that are in line with what we think is best for the community," Murphy said. "...You might be shocked to know just how many of us don’t always agree lockstep with the university and decisions that are made. As an employee and as an individual, I do possess the freedom of thought to make my own decisions, regardless of what my boss or my boss’s boss might think is in the best interest of this community.

"Some of my decisions that might be observed as pro-university are actually because I’ve dedicated my career and my education to understanding college student development and how colleges need to be structured and designed for their success. And so it might not be bias; it might actually just be knowing and understanding the population that I’m serving and the work that I’m doing."

Council President Evan Myers noted that in the borough charter, the only qualification to be mayor is to be eligible to vote in the borough and that conflicts of interest are decided by the solicitor. He said he appreciated that Dauler brought the suggested guidelines to council, and that they bring up important questions members should ask of candidates. But he found "most of the list highly discriminatory," and asked if Penn State employees should be excluded, then where should the line be drawn on who else has a perceived conflict of interest.

"Do we exclude homeowners or do we exclude renters? Do we exclude students? Do we exclude people that work at fast food chains?" he said.

Lafer said Myers' statement was "a lovely and very sweet example of ad absurdum and I want to thank him for the moment of humor."

Councilwoman Janet Engeman also said the potential biases of a fast food worker and a university employee were not comparable. 

"We’ve had an ongoing problem with things that happen at the university that we don’t know about until they’re already happening, or things they want to do that have a spill-off effect on the community," Engeman said. "...Maybe I shouldn’t say this: Penn State is not exactly well-disposed toward people who disagree with them. I’m afraid if we had a mayor who was hooked directly to the university like that, it could cause a problem."

Barlow agreed that Penn State "is often very poor at informing the community of things that they’re doing until after they do it," but that "they’re not any better at informing" university employees.

"If anything, a person who worked for the university for a long time might have a very opposite view of it than you may think," he said. "To assume someone who works for the university is going to have a particular attitude toward it is very presumptuous."

Lafer said that for some employees it would not be an issue, but that those in administrative departments and positions are “subject to certain lines of information that will overlap those of the borough."

Still, she said, while she agreed with the guidelines, she believes they are meant to be flexible ideas of what to look for in a candidate and should not be seen as an attack.

"It’s not a big ‘We don’t want people.' It’s a smaller ‘We need people who can do this job and do it well without having problems,'" Lafer said.

Lafer suggested earlier last week that the appointed interim mayor should be someone who is committed to not running for the office in the 2021 election.

Murphy said council should wait until its next scheduled voting meeting on Nov. 8, after the Nov. 6 deadline for letters of interest, before voting on the guidelines. Dauler said the vote should be done before the deadline.

"We need to be forthright, I believe, in explaining what our expectations are because that’s certainly fair to those people who are going to be putting themselves forward for this position," she said.

With Councilman David Brown absent, a straw poll on when the vote should take place ended in a 3-3 deadlock. 

Now council will hold a special voting meeting at noon on Wednesday to first decide on when the vote should take place. If the vote is in favor of before the candidate deadline, they would then vote on whether or not to accept the guidelines.

The mayor of State College is the presiding officer of council and ceremonial head of municipal government. He or she does not vote upon any matter before council, but approves or vetoes ordinances passed by council. The mayor is paid a salary of $13,000, which is set by council and cannot be updated until the end of the mayor's elected term. 

Separately, council has a work session scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the 2020 borough budget.

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