Attorney: Monroeville pool sale potentially violated state Sunshine Act, but it’s a moot point
An attorney with expertise in municipal law said Monroeville council’s decision to hire a firm to appraise the municipality’s sole public pool property should have been made in public.
The criticism comes after Monroeville council voted unanimously Oct. 8 to sell the Monroeville Community Pool along Abers Creek Road to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for $956,000 to make room for its widening project.
Monroeville has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, maintaining the difficult decision to sell the pool was done above board and with ample time for community input. The municipality’s full response is included at the end of this story.
Before the vote earlier this month, council had been discussing the potential sale of the pool property publicly since May. However, council, administration and Monroeville’s solicitor had been meeting in executive sessions at least nine months before May — when the potential sale of the pool was disclosed to the public — to discuss the sale.
The discovery comes through email documents obtained by Monroeville property owner Barbara Span, which were shared with the Tribune-Review. Span grew up in Monroeville and now lives in Maryland. She owns a home in Monroeville, where her mother lives and where she frequently visits. She is the daughter of the late Miles Span, a former Monroeville councilman who secured grant money to acquire the pool’s property.
Before disclosing the possible sale to the public, Monroeville hired Valbridge Property Advisors for $3,500 to appraise the 10-acre property.
“The council probably should have voted on retaining the appraisers at the time of authorization. Official action should be taken at a public meeting,” said Alan Shuckrow, a Pittsburgh attorney practicing at Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky. Shuckrow does not represent any parties related to the pool sale.
It is unclear exactly when Valbridge was hired, but the municipality received the firm’s appraisal Oct. 26, 2018.
Span shared emails with the Tribune-Review that included correspondence about the purchase of the pool between Monroeville Manager Tim Little, Municipal solicitor Bob Wratcher, Mayor Nick Gresock and council members and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials dating back to April 2018.
Executive session meetings regarding the pool began in August 2018. The mayor, council members, Little and Wratcher held six such meetings before the sale of the pool was brought to the public’s attention May 9 during Little’s report at the end of an agenda-setting meeting.
Span said the officials’ actions constitute as a violation of the Sunshine Act.
“The emails show they had private meetings on making a business decision,” she said in an interview with the Tribune-Review. She cited a November 2018 email exchange between Little and Charles Brannigan, who represented the turnpike in sale negotiations.
“Pursuant to our conversation today, I have discussed with Monroeville Council in consultation with Bob Wratcher, our solicitor, the sale of Bel-Aire Swimming Pool property,” Little wrote in an email on Nov. 7, 2018, to Brannigan. Little presented him with council’s counteroffer for the property: $1 million and a lease-back agreement for $1 in years 2019 and 2020.
Brannigan responded Nov. 20. He relayed to Little that PTC was firm with the offer of $956,000 for the property, $62,000 for various equipment and costs related to relocating a mobile home on the property.
“The result is the current offer already is greater than the $1,000,000 counter offer,” Brannigan wrote. He added the lease-back option was seen as too much of a liability.
Little then requested an executive session with the mayor, council and Wratcher before Dec. 6, 2018’s, agenda-setting meeting. Officials continued to exchange email communication up through May 8, which included talk on obtaining an easement from the turnpike to give Monroeville access to eventually develop a trail that would connect to the Westmoreland Heritage Trail.
“The decision was made in private, behind closed doors without sharing it with the public,” Span said.
Shuckrow said a legal challenge would be considered moot at this point.
“Challenges must be brought within 30 days of the discovery of any action that is alleged to have violated the (Sunshine Act) and, even then, in no event can an action be filed more than a year later than the alleged violation,” Shuckrow said.
Shuckrow said the Sunshine Act is clear in how it defines executive sessions.
“The Sunshine Act permits a council to hold executive sessions for the ‘purchase’ of real estate, not sale or sale in lieu of condemnation,” Shuckrow said. “So, one could argue that the entire deliberation of the ‘sale’ of property or the potential sale in lieu of condemnation by the Turnpike Commission should have been done in public.”
He said even though it was arguably “OK” for the municipality to keep negotiations with the Turnpike Commission under wraps, officials didn’t have to.
“Nothing says they had to do this privately, they could have discussed it publicly all along,” Shuckrow said. “In the case of the Turnpike Commission as a potential buyer (in fact, more like a condemnor) there was no risk that discussing it publicly would have lowered the offer. The public never really had an opportunity to weigh in on this.”
Little offered a prepared statement in response to the allegations:
“The Sunshine Law protects a municipality’s negotiation process with respect to obtaining the best possible price for real property which is in the interest of the public. A presented proposed agreement of sale for real property to a municipality cannot preclude the negotiation process; if it does, the negotiation process does not exist and the public’s interest is not fulfilled. Once Council was completed with the negotiation process of the Bel-Aire swimming pool property, the agreement of sale was publicly authorized for advertisement to adopt. During the ensuing 5 months, Council publicly deliberated the sale of the Bel-Aire pool property and sought and received significant public comment before unanimously approving the agreement of sale. The Municipality is confident that it has met the provisions of the sunshine law.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .