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Hiring of new Allegheny County Council staffer raises transparency concerns

Theresa Clift
| Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, 3:45 p.m.
The Allegheny County Courthouse
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
The Allegheny County Courthouse

Allegheny County Council skirted the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act when it took a public vote to hire a new chief of staff a month after he had started work, a media law expert says.

County council voted at a meeting Tuesday to hire Ken Varhola as its new chief of staff.

Councilman DeWitt Walton, D-Hill District, introduced Varhola as the new chief of staff and then asked for a roll call vote to “formally” hire him. It passed unanimously.

Varhola had started working in the role a month ago.

“This kind of subsequent ratification eviscerates the public's right to offer input before the vote,” Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association. “Most agencies announce the name, job title and salary of prospective employees during the public meeting (sometimes in advance on an agenda), then allow an opportunity for public comment, then they vote.”

Jared Barker, council's chief clerk, declined to provide Varhola's salary without a Right to Know request, which can take up to five business days for a response. Salaries of public employees are, by law, public information.

“Where the requested information is clearly public, as with public employee salary records, there is no legal reason for the agency to require a formal (Righ To Know Law) request,” Melewsky said.

Reached by phone, council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler, doesn't think council violated the Sunshine Act.

“(Council Solicitor Jack Cambest) knew about it,” DeFazio said. “I don't know that there's any violation. This is the way we have done it before. If there's something wrong, we'll correct it.”

Pittsburgh City Council skirted the act in a similar way by allowing its new city clerk to start work Monday before council publicly voted to hire her.

Both bodies recently returned from summer recess.

Varhola previously worked in Duquesne Light's government affairs office and as chief of staff to state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, and former state Sen. Sean Logan.

County Council hired Varhola to replace Joe Catanese, who retired in December.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.

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