Conflict of interest questions arise on Mars Area drilling vote
Three Mars Area School Board members who are set to vote Tuesday on a lease of oil and gas rights under school property have business ties with energy companies conducting drilling in Butler County.
Residents opposing a proposal from Rex Energy to lease mineral rights from the district for $1 million said that directors with those ties shouldn't vote on any leasing proposals because it would constitute a conflict of interest.
“Those directors should abstain,” said Amy Nassif of Adams.
The head of the state Ethics Commission said he doesn't believe directors have to excuse themselves from a vote as long as they are not receiving any personal gain from the school contract.
“If a public official isn't getting private pecuniary gain or some type of financial benefit from it, I'm not sure there's a conflict,” said Robert Caruso.
He added that board members would not be prohibited from voting as long as their votes didn't affect their personal contracts with the energy companies.
Board member Bonnie L. Weaver of Adams confirmed that she and her husband, William, have agreements with Rex Energy.
On the school board since 1991, Weaver said she could be impartial in deciding any lease of oil and gas rights for the school district.
“You need to be able to learn how to separate yourself,” Weaver said of her time on the board.
Board member John Kennedy also has an agreement with Rex Energy, according to records in the Butler County Recorder of Deeds Office.
He could not be reached for comment.
The proposed five-year school lease promises the district about $4,000 an acre for drilling rights about a mile underneath nearly 175 acres of school property.
Rex Energy said it will pay the district just over $1 million, which includes about $330,000 in advance royalties, for the rights to drill from a site about 4,000 feet from district property.
The district would receive 15 percent of royalties.
Board member Gordon Marburger of Adams said he's had a lease agreement with XTO Energy for nearly eight years, receiving 7 percent of revenues from a well pad in Forward, adjacent to his property.
He said he's hoping to earn from $7,000 to $15,000 annually from natural-gas drilling.
Marburger said that his lease wouldn't affect his vote on the school lease proposal.
He declined to say if he'd approve or reject the lease.
“Put it this way. No matter which way we lean, you're going to have some people say it's harmful,” Marburger said.
“But if you vote it down, then you'll have people saying, ‘Hey, you left this money on the table.' ”
Attorney H. William White III, who is advising the school board on the lease proposal, said the fact that some board members have an oil or gas lease “does not in and of itself create a conflict” as long as their own leases aren't contingent on the district approving a lease.
White added that residents concerned about the influence on board members of personal agreements with Rex Energy “have a valid point.”
He said he expected that those school directors who have personal agreements “will take individual actions” at Tuesday's meetings.
“I think I'm still objective,” Marburger said.
“This well is going in whether we're part of it or not. The school is not the factor for this well being drilled.”
While Sean Fields, deputy general counsel of the Pennsylvania School Board Association, wouldn't talk specifically about the Mars board members, he held the same opinion as White.
“In general, is there an economic benefit to the director? If there's a preexisting lease, it's unlikely there's a conflict,” Fields said.
Mars is not the only public body in the county that has looked at subsurface drilling as a source of revenue.
The Butler Area and Seneca Valley school districts have signed agreements with Rex, while the South Butler School District has an agreement with XTO Energy, according to district officials.
On Monday, Butler Township approved a lease with XTO Energy for drilling underneath two township parks.
Butler City officials are promoting and marketing drilling under the 90-acre Memorial Park.
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- 300 units on 47 Cranberry acres near starting point
- Butler County Election Board ruling favors Geyer over O’Neill for general electiion ballot
- Suit alleges Butler family’s rights violated
- Butler County senior centers face cutback in operations
- Tough negotiation looms for Butler Area School District
- Jackson housing plan goes under over flooding concerns
- Death of woman found near hospital not thought suspicious
- One vote now separates 2 Republican candidates for Butler County commissioner