Monroeville hiring could have repercussions
Although a recent decision by Monroeville officials to launch an investigation prior to public discussion was criticized by some residents and deemed a possible violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act by a media-law specialist, it's uncertain whether a complaint will be filed.
Three days before Monroeville Council first publicly discussed hiring CSI, an investigative firm, the company submitted an invoice for $4,334 for work already done on behalf of the municipality.
On the night of that discussion, when residents asked if a private investigator had been hired, Solicitor Bruce Dice assured residents “there's no deal yet.”
“There's no contract for an internal probe,” he said at the April 3 council meeting.
The invoice dated March 31 — which bills the municipality for work done between Feb. 19 through March 27 — indicates that officials might have violated the state's open-meeting law, said Melissa Melewsky, media-law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Any contract or hiring decision must be made through a public vote, she said.
“The process that's been described here seems to run afoul of the process outlined by the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act,” Melewsky said. “Approval at a public meeting should not be taking place after the fact. It's not a formality. It's a requirement.”
Violation of the Sunshine Act is a summary offense, said Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office. Residents who think a violation of the Sunshine Act might have occurred could file a complaint in Allegheny Common Pleas Court, and a judge could determine the outcome.
Monroeville resident John Yakim, a frequent critic of council, said that council's process was flawed.
“A reason not to (file a complaint) would be the money,” said Yakim, referring to why some residents might not push the issue in court. “You have to get an attorney.”
Yakim, who ran unsuccessfully for council and served briefly on the zoning hearing board, is a self-proclaimed watchdog of Monroeville politics.
Dice — who has not commented publicly on the issue since the invoice was disclosed — said Monday the issue was “old news” and declined to comment.
CSI officials did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Council voted April 8 to hire CSI, which has a regional office near Monaca, at a cost not to exceed $10,000. Some residents voiced opposition at recent council meetings to the second investigation in as many years involving the Monroeville 911 dispatch computer system.
Documents obtained through the Right To Know Act show Dice's signature on a document dated Feb. 25 that outlined the investigative firm's fees and include the sentence, “I/We understand and agree to the terms set forth above and do hereby employ your services in accordance with the same.”
Dice referred questions about the hiring process to municipal manager Tim Little, who said it was an oversight that the hiring wasn't included on the agenda for council's meetings in March. He said council discussed the agreement in two closed-door executive sessions prior to Feb. 19, before the investigation started.
Little said he regularly approves purchase orders before council approves them.
“It doesn't mean it's a violation of the Sunshine Law,” Little said. “Situations like this happen all the time.”
Mayor Greg Erosenko chalks the problem up to an oversight during a busy period for Monroeville officials.
“We're human, and Tim made a mistake,” Erosenko said. “And any one of us on council should have caught it as well. There's a lot on our plate.”
Council members said they requested the investigation to determine if a 2013 investigation that a former majority of council had initiated was flawed.
That 2013 internal investigation was conducted by Pittsburgh-based law firm Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote PC. The firm was tasked with examining claims that unauthorized people viewed Monroeville police information.
It determined that computer-use policies were violated, and a state audit by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office determined that unauthorized individuals accessed police information.
Councilwoman Linda Gaydos said witnesses interviewed as part of the 2013 investigation since have recanted statements in writing.
“Not only does the (2013 investigation) come in to question, but then so does the Attorney General's report,” Gaydos said.
While council requested an investigator be hired, they turned to Dice and Little for legal and administrative guidance, she said.
On April 2, a purchase order to pay CSI was drafted by the municipality with Little's electronic signature. CSI charged $90 per hour for 45.2 hours of work, plus $266 in additional charges.
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.