Penn Hills mayor silences resident during public meeting
The Penn Hills mayor refused to allow a resident to read from a prepared statement during a council meeting March 18.
Sara Snatchko, 41, attempted to read a one-page statement related to allegations put forth in a grand jury report about solicitor Craig Alexander of Bruce E. Dice & Associates, who represents both the Penn Hills School District and the municipality.
Three sentences in, Mayor Sara Kuhn stopped her.
“I don’t permit anyone to come up in public to make derogatory comments on any staff member,” Kuhn said. “That’s not what council chamber is.”
Snatchko’s statement references an Allegheny County grand jury report released in early February that found Alexander provided free and discounted legal services to four Penn Hills school board members and some of their family members.
The report delved into decisions that led to the Penn Hills School District financial crisis and also found, in a separate report, questionable conduct by school board members and the district’s solicitor.
“Considering there were serious allegations that (Bruce E. Dice & Associates) was overcharging the district in this Grand Jury report, has anyone on council considered that he may be overcharging the municipality too?” Snatchko wrote.
Snatchko said she sees Alexander’s alleged behavior with school board members as a conflict of interest and called it corruption. She urged the mayor and council members to disclose any legal services they might receive from Dice & Associates and called on municipal leaders to send a message showing they stand against corruption by cutting ties with the firm.
“We need a sign that you’re not okay with corruption. If you’re unwilling to separate yourselves from a law firm that sees no wrongdoing in kickbacks while hundreds of millions were spent, that sends a bad message,” reads the letter.
The grand jury report said the findings “raises ethical concerns which may rise to potential criminal liability.”
One allegation from the report, among several, is that Alexander gave school board members free sporting event tickets and paid for alcohol at retreats without any disclosure to the public and without any board members abstaining on any votes related to the solicitor.
Despite the findings, the grand jury did not result in any charges filed. Instead, the firm and Alexander were referred to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board for investigation, which is ongoing.
Alexander declined to comment on the mayor’s refusal to let Snatchko speak. A request for comment from Chris Capozzi, an attorney who has represented Dice & Associates in the past, went unanswered. Dice was not immediately available for comment.
During the exchange at the council meeting, Snatchko’s boyfriend – who was part of the audience and did not publicly identify himself – was escorted out of the building by a police officer after he challenged the mayor. Police Chief Howard Burton said the individual was not arrested for the incident.
“But we are the taxpayers and we pay for you,” the boyfriend said in a raised voice, standing out of his chair. “You serve us, we don’t serve you. So if she has a comment to make … to tell her that she can’t speak is silliness.”
At multiple points during the exchange that lasted over 10 minutes, Kuhn asked council members if they disagreed with her refusal to let Snatchko speak. Council members remained silent.
According to the municipality’s home rule charter, council must provide an opportunity “for all members of the public to address council on matters of general or special concern.”
The charter also states that people need to deliver a written notice of the subject matter at least a week before the scheduled meeting. Snatchko did that on March 6 via email to Manager Scott Andrejchak and his secretary, Maureen Sorce.
Snatchko’s email said, “I would like to address the employment of Bruce Dice & Associates with the municipality, considering the Allegheny County Grand Jury recommended the firm’s conduct in regard to the (Penn Hills School District) be reviewed by the PA Disciplinary Board.”
Melissa Melewsky, a media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the mayor was out of line in preventing Snatchko from reading her statement.
“(Snatchko) absolutely should have been allowed to speak. Not only is that unconstitutional, the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law addresses that. You are able to speak on matters of public concern at public meetings,” Melewsky said.
Regarding Snatchko’s boyfriend, Melewsky said the man could have violated the municipality’s rules for public engagement.
“The government agency can have reasonable rules to conduct meetings. If you don’t have permission to speak, and if you don’t follow those rules, you can be thrown from the meeting … It’s OK to be upset but you have to do so within the confines of the rules and regulations,” she said.
Penn Hills’ home rule charter states council may adopt regulations “governing the conduct of the meeting and the manner in which the public and the municipal officers shall conduct themselves.”
Andrejchak said it would be inappropriate to say if he agreed with how the mayor handled the meeting.
“My understanding is the mayor runs the meetings … that’s her prerogative,” he said.
”We respect everyone’s opinion,” he added. “I’m always available for public discussion. Anyone that wants to have discussion can call me, and residents know that.”
Deputy Mayor Catherine Sapp said the mayor could have handled the situation differently, and she thought Snatchko should have been allowed to speak.
“But this wasn’t the place and this is out of our jurisdiction,” Sapp said, referring to the grand jury report. “This isn’t a courtroom – (Alexander) is not on trial. That’s where (Snatchko) was going.”
When asked why she did not challenge the mayor, she said: “The mayor runs the meetings. If I would have stood up, (Snatchko) still would have been cut off.”
Councilman John Petrucci said Snatchko’s comments had nothing to do with the municipality.
“What was found in the grand jury doesn’t affect me. This is the municipality. (Snatchko) was talking about the school district, not us,” Petrucci said.
Kuhn has been criticized in the past for the way she handles residents’ comments during council meetings. At a December 2017 meeting, she engaged in a heated discussion with a resident who was asking questions about the municipality’s budget.
Kuhn said Snatchko had a personal agenda but would not elaborate on what she meant. The mayor did say during the meeting she has not received free legal services from Alexander.
Snatchko said she moved to Penn Hills from Ross Township in 2016 because she found an affordable home.
She said she has never sought legal advice or service from Bruce Dice & Associates and is not related to any attorneys in the area.
“I actually think Penn Hills is a great place … there are great people here that really care about what is happening in the community. We just all need to work together,” Snatchko said.
Snatchko said she is considering legal action. She also has requested to be on the municipality’s agenda for next month’s meeting.
“The topic?” she said. “The Sunshine Act.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .