Ex-supervisor won't back down
By Bill Vidonic
Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Beverly Schenck may've lost several battles but she says the war isn't over.
For nearly a decade, she has tussled with officials over access to public records, sometimes scoring support, sometimes not.
Her back-and-forth battles, some in court, are nearly all in a day's work for Schenck, 76, who served as a Center, Butler County, supervisor from 1998 to 2001.
The longtime, self-styled activist last week lost her battle before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to uphold a 2012 referendum in which Center voters elected to reduce the size of the Center Board of Supervisors.
Schenck said she wants to shine light where she thinks it should shine, and giving up is impossible for her.
Even her husband, Francis, has asked: “ ‘Why not let it go?' ” she said.
“It's not in my nature to do that,” she responded.
Indeed, although courts have ruled against her more than a dozen times, Schenck keeps fighting.
“If I stand up, at least it brings it out to the public as to what's going on,” she said.
Her most recent court battles have involved her trying to reduce the size of Center's board of supervisors from five to three and to get the Unionville Fire Department's membership roster through public records.
Center residents, including Schenck, approved a referendum last November to reduce the size of the board.
The Center supervisors appealed. A Butler County judge tossed out the referendum in January, ruling that it was unconstitutional. Schenck mounted an appeal. The Supreme Court ruled against her on March 14, saying she had no standing to intervene.
“The people didn't lose; I believe the township supervisors lost,” Schenck said. “They lost the respect of the people here.”
“I disagree with that 110 percent,” said Kenneth Frenchak Jr., a Center supervisor. “I've talked to people, and they're glad we did what we did, because of the constitutionality of it.”
He said board wasn't against reducing the board through attrition, but said it couldn't be done all at once.
No one doubts that Schenck's persistence has cost taxpayers. Township officials say defending the municipality against legal actions she has filed has cost it about $135,000.
In 2003, Schenck tried to get invoices submitted by Center's solicitor, Michael Gallagher, to defend the township against her charge of violating the state's Sunshine Act, when it met on Nov. 6, 2002.
The state Supreme Court in 2009 rejected a challenge to the township removing descriptions of services rendered, citing attorney-client privilege, and just providing dollar amounts paid to its legal counsel.
The fire department roster issue arose in February 2012 when Schenck asked the Unionville department for a list of members. She claimed that township roadmaster Mark Lauer, who is also a volunteer firefighter, and public works employee Greg Brewster, fire chief, weren't filling out time cards correctly when they responded to fire calls during work hours.
The department refused to release Schenck's requested information, saying it didn't fall under the state's Open Records Law. It referred her request to the township, which gave her Lauer's and Brewster's 2011 timesheets, but refused to release the roster.
The state's Open Records office said the fire department should release the roster. The township went to court to stop that. Butler County Court ruled in the township's favor.
Schenck said she's obtained the fire department roster through means that she would not disclose. She declined comment on what she plans to do with them
Supervisors said they won't dock the men for responding to fire calls while on township time, but they have to reflect those hours on their time cards.
“I think (firefighters) are no different than police,” Frenchak said. “Their background, who they are, should be just as private as law enforcement officers.”
State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, is considering legislation to put volunteer emergency service groups offlimits to requests under the state's Open Records Law.
“The legislation would address volunteer fire companies and other emergency response organizations where services are provided on a volunteer basis,” said Erik Arneson, Pileggi's spokesman. “We hadn't envisioned them covered by the law when it changed in 2008.”
At last week's supervisors' meeting, Schenck “was very nice, and actually added some positive input on a discussion,” Frenchak said.
“There's always someone who questions everything. She's gone to court nearly a dozen times and never won. You'd think the first time, “OK,” the second time, shame on me, and the third time, realize it's enough.”
Said Schenck: “Governmental records, I believe, belong to the people, not to a senator, not to township supervisors.”
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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