Edtior’s note: This story has been modified to include additional information.
CLARKS GREEN — Tensions were high during the Jan. 20 borough council meeting, at which William Toms was appointed councilman, filling a seat vacated by Pamela Osborne, who moved out of the borough shortly after the elections.
When a council seat is vacated by an elected member, it is up to the remaining members to appoint a replacement to fulfill the term.
Former Councilwoman Marnie Palmer, whose term expired at the end of 2015, also sought the position, which pays $1,800 per year.
During the public meeting, both candidates answered brief interview questions provided to them by the council in advance. The first tense moment arrived when Council President Keith Williams announced the interviews would be conducted in alphabetical order by last name, beginning with Palmer, who then requested to go second.
“I have had so much experience, and I don’t want somebody else to take my answers,” Palmer said. “It would really be fair to let Mr. Toms go first, because I have a lot more information to give.”
Williams suggested instead that Toms wait in another room during Palmer’s interview, to which Toms agreed.
After Toms left the room, Palmer proceeded to answer the interview questions, taking the opportunity to insert negative remarks regarding the very people who were about to vote on whether or not she would be appointed back to council.
“The taxpayers deserve to have at least one experienced independent voice among a council that is quickly becoming incestuous,” she said. “I know that’s not very nice to say, but it’s true.”
Speaking to her qualifications for the job, she cited her past experience on council and lengthy resume in government work, as well as her personal upbringing and background in the borough.
“No one who is currently on this council or seeking a seat on this council has the longevity that I have,” she said. “Because of my longevity and my participation in all facets of Clarks Green government, I know the past issues, as well as know how they were handled. It is an asset for this council for someone to have first hand historical knowledge that can impact decisions which council makes today and into the future.”
Testifying to her personal upbringing, she explained her father raised her to always tell the truth.
“That’s what I’m about,” she said. “Honesty and integrity. And I’m not afraid to speak out, which is exactly why you don’t really want me at the table and tried to discredit me whenever possible.”
After Palmer’s interview concluded, Toms was invited back into the meeting room to answer the same set of questions.
As to his reasons for desiring a seat on council, he said, “I’ve lived here quite a few years, left the area, came back, left the area, came back, always keeping a property here, because we thought this would be the place we’d like to settle. And we came back and retired, and I have all the time in the world now to devote to this council, this town we live in. I just feel that you have to give back to your community to get the most out of it.”
He briefly outlined his background in business, as the former owner of multiple funeral homes, and community involvement, including membership in several local organizations such as the VFW, Church of the Epiphany, Lions club, Waverly Masonic Lodge and more.
“I think how I would apply all this to a job like this is knowing how to handle a situation,” he said. “I have enough education in accounting to be able to understand the numbers — working along with people, listening to them, getting their ideas and bringing it back here to see what we can do to help them.”
He said he believes the “most pressing issue” the borough currently faces is its lack of commerce, particularly with the exodus of the CVS Pharmacy which formerly occupied the building at the corner of South Abington Road and Hall Avenue.
In addition to helping the borough grow economically, Toms envisions his role as a councilman as “being able to talk with the constituency, listen to them, let them know that you’re there to hear what they have to say, that you’re interested in solving their problems.
“I think in my work in the funeral service, I became a very good listener, and a person to bring calmness to a situation. And I think that’s one of the things I would strive for.”
Councilman David Rinaldi inquired about Toms’ relationship with the Clarks Summit Fire Company as a member, stating the borough’s contract with the department is due to expire soon, and a vote will need to be made regarding a possible renewal. Rinaldi asked how Toms planned to handle what could be a conflict of interest. Toms said he would abstain from the vote.
Vote was rushed?
After both candidates had their say, Councilman Joe Barrasse suggested the board table the decision and hold a special meeting prior to the next regularly scheduled meeting, giving council members more time to make their decisions. Rinaldi made a motion to do so, and the board voted on the motion, resulting in a tie. Mayor William Thorburn then cast the deciding vote of “no.”
Councilwoman Lynne Earley made a motion to appoint Toms to the vacancy and Joan Pidgeon-D’Oro seconded. Earley, D’Oro and Williams voted “yes,” Rinaldi “no” and Barrasse and Councilman Alan Hughes abstained.
Solicitor Alfred Weinshenk commented on the abstentions, saying, “It’s not proper to abstain from a vote on an issue unless you have a conflict in the issue, and I don’t really see there’s a conflict in the issue, so I just advise those who abstained of that issue.”
Although Barrasse and Hughes did not provide a reason for abstention or respond to the solicitor’s comments during the meeting, both later stated via telephone that they believed the council should have taken more time to do their “due diligence” in considering a matter brought to their attention less than 30 hours before the meeting by way of an email from Rinaldi.
In the Jan. 13 email, which was provided to the Abington Journal by Barrasse, Rinaldi relayed a conversation he had with Toms that morning, in which Toms told him of an incident that occurred about two years ago, when he was driving an Abington Heights School District bus for Rohrer Bus Company.
According to the email, when Toms stopped to pick up a student near Layton Road, he asked permission of the mother, who was waiting with the child, to take a photo of the child, who was wearing a Halloween costume. He wanted to show the photo to his wife, who had been a teacher. The mother consented, and he took the photo. Taking photos of passengers, however, was against the rules of the company’s handbook. The manager, who the email stated Toms “did not get along with,” learned of the incident and informed Toms that the company planned to conduct an investigation. Rather than subject himself to an investigation, Toms resigned.
“I had asked council to consider extending the nomination to our Feb. 3 meeting, completely legal and under our 30 day guideline, just so council can do their ‘due diligence,’ and make certain that this is a non-issue,” Barrasse said via email. “Note, however, he (Toms) did resign his occupation. All I asked for was a little more time.
“Furthermore, some on council were aware of this long before 30 hrs (sic) prior to the vote, and they failed to let all of council know of the situation. It should also be noted, that those who were aware of this awkward situation, and failed to inform council, were the ones nominating Mr. Toms. More awkward.”
Regarding his abstention, Barrasse added, “Mr. Toms made aware his involvement with my family, mainly Judge Michael Barrasse, which, raised issues of a conflict. Note, Our solicitor was unaware of that at the time, as was I.”
Hughes said he abstained as well because he felt the board was not ready to make a decision, in light of the information provided in Rinaldi’s email. He wasn’t, however, “against” Toms’ appointment.
“I really was uncertain at that point,” Hughes said, via telephone, later adding, “I’m very confident that all of us, certainly myself, will work with Bill Toms, to help him get up to speed as quickly as possible. And we want him — I certainly do, and I’m sure my colleagues do as well — to succeed as a council member and to help him do that.”
Although the vote was 3-1, the abstentions caused a lack of quorum, making the mayor’s vote necessary for a second time that evening. Thorburn voted yes.
Argument over ‘eavesdropping’
Seconds after Toms was welcomed aboard, Palmer requested a chance to comment, to which Williams agreed.
She then told the council members that she “overheard” them talking during an executive portion of a recent work session. Explaining she initially sat down in the hallway, with the intent of reading a newspaper, she could hear their voices carrying from the meeting room.
“When I realized that I could hear what was going on, I decided that I was going to stand in the doorway out in the hall and eavesdrop. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I was just eavesdropping. And, I grabbed a pen and started taking some notes. I didn’t get most of the notes, because it was a lengthy thing that you were doing in here.”
“Mr. President, I don’t see the relevance of any of this, to be honest with you,” Rinaldi said, cutting off Palmer and addressing Williams. “Because, as well all know from the three and a half years I was on council with Miss Palmer, her rendition of the facts has always left something to be desired. So I don’t see how this is relevant at all.”
“I would swear under oath to my rendition of the facts, because I heard what was going on in here,” Palmer said, talking over Rinaldi’s voice.
“What point are you trying to make, besides trying to embarrass this council?” Rinaldi asked, the pair now raising their voices at each other. “Which is a good reason why Mr. Toms was appointed.”
“I am not trying to make a point about you,” Palmer said. “And I think Mr. Toms is a perfect person to be on council. But he doesn’t have my experience, and neither does anyone else on this council.”
“Well then what do you need this venting for?” Rinaldi asked.
Palmer then accused the council of violating Sunshine Act and told them she plans to file a complaint.
“You guys are slime,” she said, launching into a yelling match with the board.
After a short recess, the meeting continued with other business, which included brief staff reports.
The next regular meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 17 with a work session slated for 7 p.m. Feb. 3.
Reach Elizabeth Baumeister at 570-704-3943 or on Twitter @AbingtonJournal.