Mayor Orchestrates Council Upset
MOUNT POCONO - This month, Mount Pocono Borough Council held an unusual meeting, on an unusual day, in an unusual location.
But it was business as usual for this council - dysfunctional & disruptive.
The regular Monday meeting was canceled at nearly the last minute, then rescheduled two days later for the United Methodist Church in the Borough.
The cancellation was the result of the borough’s mayor, Michael Penn, countermanding the Borough Manager and Council President’s public notices of a virtual meeting. Borough Manager Joshua Walker had posted notice of the virtual meeting in the borough building and sent the notice to the webmaster for publication on the website.
Penn ran interference on those notices and ordered the webmaster to ignore Walker’s instructions. In a snippy exchange of emails, Penn and Council President Claudette Williams argued over the mayor’s interference with council prerogatives to set its own meeting schedules, with Williams accusing Penn of trying to take control of the borough and just “showing you can get your way.”
For his part, Penn complained that at the Zoom meetings participants were muted by Williams. In fact, it was Walker who controlled the meetings and, in accordance with what has become the nearly universal convention in this year of online meetings, participants are automatically muted on entry. On the Zoom platform, participants can always unmute themselves when they wish to speak.
When the meeting finally did happen, council member Tom Neville attempted to make a motion to remove Williams as president. Neville, reading from a script handed to him by Penn, was gaveled down by Williams, who ruled the motion out of order. She said Neville did not have the floor.
Neville repeatedly interrupted Williams during the council president’s report. Six times during the report Neville tried to stop Williams and was rebuffed.
Williams launched into a defense of the claims against her, suggesting that there were racial overtones to the actions of the council. She claimed that a recently-discharged employee, terminated because of racial and misogynistic slurs directed at Williams, who is a person of color, was defended by Neville and council member Patricia Bucco, who supposedly did not agree that the slurs were proper cause for termination.
For his part, the mayor complained that Williams did not respond to his emails and phone calls. Williams said the mayor’s communications were “excessive” and she responded to what she could.
Penn rejected Williams’ claims that his move to have her replaced was racially tinged. He prompted catcalls from the audience, however, when he chose to adopt slogans associated with last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in his remarks, such as when he repeatedly told Williams to “Get Off My Neck!”
Neville was finally recognized to make his motion, which passed with Neville, Bucco, Ron Emilie, and Fran O’Boyle voting in favor, and Williams, Stacy Stewart Keeler, and Aida Montanez against.
As part of his motion, Neville named O’Boyle to replace him, prompting Williams to sarcastically remark, “oh, sure, put the white guy in charge.”
Three meetings before, Neville moved against then vice-president O’Boyle, convincing council to remove him as vice-president saying he was not up to the task. O’Boyle was replaced with Bucco. Ironically, it was Williams who, at the following meeting, defended O’Boyle and convinced council to re-instate him.
Asked why he felt O’Boyle was not capable of being vice-president in January, but in March thought he was competent enough to serve as president, Neville said it was part of his “strategy” to replace Williams with O’Boyle.
O’Boyle accepted the position, despite having previously argued that it was illegal to remove him as vice-president mid-term. He said he hoped to use the position to bring council together.
After Williams turned down a suggestion by Montanez that she be vice-president, Bucco made a motion to make Neville vice president. With Neville, Emilie, and O’Boyle behind it, the motion passed 4-3.
Borough Manager Attacked
During the borough manager’s report, council members brought out the fact that the manager had not yet secured a bond, which was a condition of his office. O’Boyle, Neville, and Emilie said he should be fired for the failure.
Williams explained that it wasn’t Walker’s fault. Usually, she said, it is council president’s responsibility to start the bonding process. She noted that was the process followed with the recently-hired borough treasurer. Obtaining Walker’s bond was initially overlooked, but when they realized the mistake, the application was made and is pending.
The bond protects the borough for any checks that the borough manager improperly issues. Williams and Walker confirmed that Walker has not signed any checks and is not an authorized signatory on the bank accounts.
Nevertheless, O’Boyle moved to terminate Walker immediately, and Neville seconded. Emilie said he agreed with the move. Penn handed notes to Neville, who reviewed them with Emilie and O’Boyle before O’Boyle’s motion. He refused a citizen’s request to explain the papers he was handing out to council members, saying only they were his “personal notes”.
Then the solicitor stepped in, saying termination would “be a little harsh”, particularly under the circumstances when it wasn’t Walker’s fault and he is not in a position to cause any harm to the borough accounts anyway. O’Boyle persisted, but eventually agreed to withdraw his motion.
In a compromise solution, Montanez moved to “demote” Walker to borough secretary until he obtains a bond, and gave him until the end of March to do so.
Website Contract Rescinded
Last month, council awarded a Blakeslee man endorsed by the mayor, Chris English, the contract to redesign the borough website.
At the March meeting, Williams complained that council was not told English was a sole proprietor. She also accused the mayor of improperly instructing the treasurer to send a check to English as a deposit on a contract which had not yet been signed.
Williams moved to rescind the award of the design job. The motion passed 4-3 with Bucco, Neville, and O’Boyle opposed.
In giving the job to English, council had rejected the borough manager’s recommendation of Proud City, an award-winning designed of government websites and platforms.
No recommendation on a replacement was made.
Treasurer’s Hours Increased
In contrast to the harsh treatment given to Walker, council decided to give their part-time treasurer more money than she was requesting.
Council hired Danielle Hewitt as a part-time treasurer to replace Lori Noonan. Noonan was fired by the council after thirty years of service, a move that resulted in the council paying a large settlement to resolve litigation over the termination. (Walker was also hired to do part of the job Noonan was performing as borough secretary.)
Previously, Hewitt was scheduled for 16 hours a week at $25 an hour, or $400 a week. Hewitt told council that she needed 28 hours to perform all of the tasks of treasurer, but that she was not looking for an increase of her weekly $400 pay. Hewitt proposed reducing her hourly rate to $14.28 to keep the cost the same.
Instead, Montanez moved to increase Hewitt’s hours to 28 without a change in hourly rate, for a total of $700 a week.
The motion passed 5-2 with O’Boyle and Neville opposing.
Council also voted to drop their appeal of a Right to Know request by this newspaper, which they lost in Monroe County Court.