HOLLIDAYSBURG — Representatives of the Hollidaysburg Community Watchdog and the Borough of Hollidaysburg squared off in Blair County Court on Wednesday to address alleged sun law violations and related complaints that have arisen about Borough financial support for the Phoenix Volunteer Fire Department.
The Watchdog Group, which sued the borough, argues the laws were broken when a committee was created in late 2021 to focus on fire company operations in informal meetings influencing the council’s decision to reinstate funding for the fire department.
On behalf of the borough, Harrisburg attorney Murray J. Weed said the committee was in fact “a work group” and as such did not violate Sunshine Law.
“And once the council voted in public…the matter was settled,” said Weed.
Watchdog President Richard Laker told the judge: “It was, in fact, a formal committee…with decisions that turned into recommendations and actions.”
The dispute went before Bedford County Senior Judge Thomas Ling, who was appointed to preside over that case.
Ling said his first step in handling the case would be to consider Weed’s motion to dismiss the Watchdog lawsuit for legal deficiencies regarding the way the lawsuit was served and his lack of bail. But the judge also listened to Weed and Latker defend their positions because he said it would help him learn about the dispute.
At the end of the hearing, the judge indicated that he would file an opinion as soon as possible.
In its lawsuit, the Watchdog organization asks the court to find that the borough violated the Sunshine Law and to invalidate all decisions associated with the violations.
It also requests the disclosure of information associated with the committee that focused on fire department operations, including committee members, minutes, notices, communications, and related work products.
Latker told the judge it was a committee dealing with a fire company that had two senior members, Benjamin Rhine and Anthony Dibona, convicted of embezzlement from a federal grant to recruit firefighters. firefighters. He also talked about the money allegedly missing from the fire company’s account.
Weed acknowledged that Borough Director James Gehret had received bank statements from the fire company that contained information supporting how the company used Borough money.
Gehret destroyed those records after he finished reviewing them, Weed said, because he considered them to be fire department records.
Latker told the judge that those records should have been kept because they contained information supporting the borough’s actions, and if kept, that information could be valuable to ongoing cases.
Weed told Ling that the Watchdog organization had the wrong people in court, and if the organization had a dispute with the fire company, then they would have to bring her to court.
Latker disagreed and said his organization was focused on clean government.
“We are in court, trying to compel our government to lawful acts,” said Latker.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.