Voters will decide if they want to form a commission to study Washington County’s government structure after the commissioners voted during a special meeting Thursday to place the question on the ballot in the fall.
The commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the ordinance to place the government study commission on the upcoming ballot at the end of a contentious two-hour meeting in which most residents spoke out against the initiative or said they still wanted more information about what it could mean for the county.
Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan and Commissioner Larry Maggi voted for the ordinance, while Commissioner Nick Sherman voted against the measure. The referendum on whether to create a government study commission will now be included in the Nov. 2 election, along with the names of nominees who want to serve on the 11-member board.
Irey Vaughan said there are “multiple options” for what could be decided as the county’s form of government, including not making any changes at all. Of course, that’s only if the voters approve a government study commission in the first place.
“If the citizens vote in favor of a voter-elected government study commission, the commission will only recommend to the voters of Washington County what changes, if any, should be made,” Irey Vaughan read in a prepared statement at the onset of the meeting as she explained the ordinance to the audience. “Let me stress, the government study commission does not make changes in our government structure. They suggest changes, or not, and then the voters will decide again (in a future election).”
If approved during the Nov. 2 election, the commission would spend about nine months reviewing the government’s structure and could make recommendations – or suggest no changes at all – for voters to have the final say during a future election.
The last government study commission was convened in 2001, but that board decided not to recommend any changes. Irey Vaughan said that six-month process cost the county about $4,000.
Irey Vaughan said county officials first began considering a new government study committee shortly after it was discovered that more than $97,000 was stolen from the Clerk of Courts office. Democrat Frank Scandale, who led the office from 2016 until 2019, later pleaded guilty to the theft, which Irey Vaughan said raised concerns about what recourse county officials had before he lost reelection in November 2019.
That was compounded by the adversarial relationship that has developed between the Republican-led county commissioners and three new Republican row office leaders who were elected in 2019. President Judge John DiSalle filed an administrative order on Jan. 15 reiterating how courthouse activities should function in those offices, and he has since threatened to hold Clerk of Courts Brenda Davis and Register of Wills James Roman in contempt.
A memo DiSalle sent to the commissioners on July 13 regarding the government study commission explained “an unprecedented set of obstacles” within the row offices, pointing to what the president judge perceived were specific problems with how Davis, Roman and Prothonotary Laura Hough were performing their administrative duties within the courthouse. The five-page memo was released Tuesday to the Observer-Reporter following a Right-To-Know request for the document in which DiSalle cited numerous problems in each office.
Davis, Roman and Hough all spoke during Thursday’s special meeting defending their actions in office, but said little about the proposed government study commission.
Todd Pappasergi spoke on behalf of the Washington County Bar Association’s board supporting the study commission to improve the courthouse’s operation.
“The process provides an opportunity for the people to define the limitations, powers, privileges, rights and duties of those chosen to comprise this new governing structure,” Pappasergi said. “More specifically, people’s lives, families and livelihoods depend on the accurate and timely processing and filing of the records of the court and the county. While ministerial in nature, the carrying out of these functions is critical.”
Others in the audience, however, raised concerns about what the government study commission would mean and whether it could lead to a Home Rule Charter government similar to that in Allegheny County.
Chief Clerk Cindy Griffin took 40 minutes to read 48 written statements that were emailed to the commissioners over the past two weeks, all of which indicated they vehemently opposed a government study commission. But the 18 residents who spoke during the special meeting were evenly split between supporting the commission, being against it or not having enough information to make an educated decision.
Steve Renz of Peters Township noted the previous study in 2001 that rejected any potential changes to the county government. He asked why Irey Vaughan was supporting it and he suggested she had changed in the years since she first began as a county commissioner in the mid-1990s.
“It seems like your pride is overcoming your principles,” Renz said, adding he is concerned about the compressed timeline for people to circulate nomination papers to run for the board. “I’m asking you to please stand again on your principles and at least postpone this.”
Tamara Sampson of North Strabane echoed that sentiment and suggested the “average” voter won’t understand the referendum or be able to circulate the required paperwork in time to possibly serve on the committee.
“I just really wish you could postpone it until the spring to give us a chance to really educate ourselves on this,” Sampson said.
People who want their names to appear on the ballot will need to receive 200 signatures from registered voters in any political party by circulating the papers from Aug. 3 to 24 before submitting them to the county’s elections office. The only requirement to serve on the nonpartisan commission is to be a registered voter in Washington County.
Jenna Palmieri of North Strabane said she opposed the commission, calling it a “manipulative and sneaky process” by placing the question on the ballot.
“You’re asking voters to blindly select a committee to make a very serious recommendation or changes that will affect our county,” Palmieri said about each nominee’s party affiliation not being listed on the ballot. “I feel this is a dishonest process with zero transparency.”
Lars Lange, a West Bethlehem Township supervisor, disagreed with that assertion and called the commission “an open and democratic process” for voters to have the final say.
“I think the commission is an opportunity for people to get involved,” Lange said, adding he would like to see more residents living in the southern part of the county to be represented in the government.
Others were strongly in favor of a commission as an option to reform the county government.
Susan Priest of Washington said she “heartily” supports the commission as a way to fix what she considered is an antiquated form of governance.
“It is becoming increasingly obvious that the way county government in Pennsylvania was structured in the 19th century is getting very creaky here in Washington County,” Priest said.
She pointed to the situation involving Scandale in which he was permitted to remain in office despite speculation that he was stealing from his department before criminal charges were filed against him at the end of his term.
“The old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ has a corollary. ‘If it is broke, fix it.’ I believe the time has come for Washington County to fix it,” she said.
After listening to public comment, Irey Vaughan asked for a vote and the commissioners approved the ordinance 2-1 in a rapid-fire roll call without comment.
“I hope that the correct information can reach the public so they can understand that (Thursday’s) vote was giving the power to the people of the county to decide whether they choose to form a government study commission,” Irey Vaughan said in an interview after the meeting.
Irey Vaughan, a Republican who has been a commissioner since 1996 and has chaired the board the past two years, has taken heat from her own party recently, but she was adamant that a government study commission could offer new ideas and improvements for the county.
“The Republican Party is the party that I’m affiliated with, but I work for every citizen of Washington County,” Irey Vaughan said. “I will always put the best interest of the citizens before partisan politics.”
Maggi, a five-term Democrat, said in a written statement that he supported the ordinance because the commission – if approved by voters – will review term limits and salaries for elected officials while also looking at the overall structure of the government.
“The time has come for the people of Washington County to stand up and review what their county government is doing,” Maggi said. “The voters can make these changes if they deem them necessary. Let the people, not the politicians and political parties, decide what type of government they want.”
Sherman, a first-term Republican, issued a statement before the meeting indicating he opposed the ordinance because he preferred the commissioners focus on making other changes within county government, which they have done recently with the addition of a Human Services department.
“I am proud of the work we have achieved during my tenure, and would like continuing efforts without distraction,” Sherman said. “There is still much work to be done to build a vibrant and prosperous county. I would like to continue to concentrate my efforts in that direction. This has been tried in Washington County in the past and failed.”