Grand jury: State failed to protect public from fracking

“We believe that our government often ignored the cost to the environment and to the health and safety of the citizens of the commonwealth in a rush to reap the benefit of this industry,” the report says.

“I can assure you, there will be more to come,” — PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Shapiro also urged legislators to increase oversight of the industry, which he said for too long has been given a “free pass” to do as it pleases.

“They acted as though they are unaccountable,” Shapiro said. “That is what the powerful do when left unchecked.”

PGE: Principal Stakeholder of the Warren County Board of Commissioners

Two top candidates for Warren County Commissioner—if elected—plan to keep their full-time jobs with PGE. This can only happen in a County that has an environmental blind spot.

[Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about how two top candidates for Warren County Commissioner—if elected—plan to keep their full-time jobs with Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE), an oil and gas company headquartered in Warren, Pennsylvania. (Read previous post.) This post will explore political palatability, while a future post will look in detail at the public ethics of simultaneously working for government and business.]

The Environmental Blindspot in Warren County Government

Among the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, Warren County ranks 55th in population. Like many counties in the upper Allegheny River watershed—Potter, McKean, Elk, Clarion, etc.—Warren County is losing population, currently estimated at 39,498, a 5.44% decline since the 2010 census. If the population does not increase by more than 5,000 before the 2020 Census, Warren County will fall from a Class 6 to a Class 7 county (in a ranking system that contains 8 classes).

In such a small population, few well-qualified and capable candidates are available to serve in local elected positions. This is one reason why the issue of two PGE candidates running for County Commissioner is so difficult. By all accounts, the PGE candidates are talented, accomplished members of the community; they have excellent experience; they mean well. Perhaps the only credential they lack is a proven commitment to the environment—a political credential that will elude them so long as they are employed by an oil and gas company.

Of course, the lack of such an environmental credential in Warren County is not a political liability. It is a plus, as is working for an oil and gas company. In the candidate forum in May, not a single question about the environment was asked, nor did any of the candidates mention the environment in their closing statements. If you bring an environmental issue to the Board of Commissioners, you will be told it is not the Board’s jurisdiction, and you will be directed to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. So environmental issues are a low, virtually non-existent, priority in local elections in Warren County.

Instead, like most counties struggling to make ends meet, the focus of elected officials is on economics, not ecosystems. The natural environment is either a blindspot, an annoyance, an irrelevancy, or a distant afterthought—not surprising in a county with 160-year history of drilling for oil and gas, where almost every family had (or still has) members in the oil business. So where better to nominate two oil execs to county office?

However, while the issue of electing one (or even two) PGE employees as commissioner won’t bother most voters in Warren County, the issue that does rankle them is electing a commissioner—regardless of their employer—who won’t give full-time attention to the job. On rare occasions, the interests of anti-environmental and pro-environmental voters can align, though inadvertently.

PGE’s Deal with Warren County: Civic Duty, or Self-Interest?

It is fair to the PGE candidates to note here a key point of Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act—the law that pertains to the ethical behavior of elected officials and candidates. The Act recognizes that local office holders are “citizen-officials who bring to their public office the knowledge and concerns of ordinary citizens and taxpayers” who “should not be discouraged from maintaining their contacts with their community through their occupations and professions.” [Italics added.] In short, the Ethics Act encourages local elected officials to keep their jobs. 

This statement in the Act seems an ode to Jeffersonian democracy, to the citizen-politician we all esteem—of the yeoman farmer, nurse, teacher, or small business owner who sacrifices their time and income to bring real-world experience, common sense, and thrift to public service.

On the other hand, the Act may simply state this for the much more realistic reason that for most local officials outside the populous counties, the pay is paltry. For example, supervisors of second class townships in Pennsylvania earn between $1,875 to $5,000 per year. So clearly, if most local officials at the municipal level were forced to leave their private jobs or step away from their businesses while serving in their elected positions, we would have many few candidates in township elections.

However, county commissioner is an elected position of a more elevated type even in less populous counties, one that involves significantly greater fiscal responsibility, increased bureaucratic complexity, and higher voter expectations. In recognition of these challenges and expectations, county commissioners are given a significant step-up in salary. In Warren County, where the average income is $39,973, and where the average teacher salary is $44,610, commissioners receive an annual salary of $57,178, plus a generous benefit package, including health insurance, life insurance, a retirement fund, even a dental plan. 

The taxpayers of Warren County provide their commissioners with a livable wage and desirable benefits—enough to devote full-time, selfless attention to the job. So, for the voters of Warren County, the issue of the PGE Commissioners may boil down to a simple financial calculation: Is a part-time Commissioner worth $57,178 plus benefits?

On the other hand, it is important to note that Warren County Commissioners are under no legal obligation to record and report their work hours. Nor is there a legally established minimum number of hours they must work. It is no crime to do the work part-time, though, if the recent actions of the current Board of Commissioners are any indication, it is certainly a serious performance issue that merits public shaming of any truant commissioner.

As reported in a Times Observer article on September 14, 2017, during a melodramatic public Board meeting, then Chair Cindy Morrison (Republican) was accused of not being present at the Courthouse often enough during work hours by Vice Chair Ben Kafferlin (Republican) and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston (Democrat). Commissioner Eggleston was quoted by the Times Observer as saying: “The number one thing that we were asked when we were running for office… will you be a full-time commissioner? It’s not happening,” he said, referring to Commissioner Morrison.

Since that day, one must wonder what has changed on the current Board to support party nominees—one Republican and one Democrat—vying for a seat on the next Board who will keep their full-time jobs with PGE if elected and who will, realistically, spend less-than full-time hours at the Courthouse? Why was it important enough to raise the issue in a public meeting in September 2017 and vote to demote a sitting Board Chair to Vice Chair? Why the silence now? 

This is particularly odd because the PGE candidates were the “running mates” of current commissioners Kafferlin and Eggleston during the primary election. PGE Candidate Tricia Durbin’s name appeared on campaign signs with Ben Kafferlin’s name, while PGE candidate Paul Giannini’s name appeared on campaign signs with Commissioner Jeff Eggleston’s name. Certainly, despite the concerns of voters with the issue, that was a clear endorsement of part-time commissioners by both the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as by the two sitting commissioners for whom it was previously such a grievous issue.

Less noticed, it was also a bi-partisan endorsement of marrying county government to the oil business, which must have happened because of the environmental blindspot in Warren County political culture. Because such a marriage couldn’t be intentional. Could it?

Note: Why don’t Warren County Commissioners just voluntarily agree to officially log their hours and make that information public? That would create a record for voters to examine, especially when those commissioners seek re-election or a pay raise.

Biting off more than you can chew

Another question is just one of simple practicality, which is as applicable to the owners of PGE as it is to County taxpayers: Are there really enough hours in the work week to do both jobs well, or even adequately?

Candidate Patricia Durbin is quoted in a Times Observer article of May, 2019 saying: “I have had the pleasure of being endorsed by the CEO to give me the liberty to do what I need to do.”

That same Times Observer article reported: “[Ms. Durbin] indicated there are enough hours in the day to serve in both capacities. She said that she once. . .reported to the commissioners in Mercer and Lawrence counties where several of the commissioners at the time maintained their career while serving as a commissioner.”

Ms. Durbin does not indicate the nature of those Mercer and Lawrence County commissioners’ careers, but we know that some occupations might better accommodate such dual-employment than others. For example, self-employed persons like small business owners or farmers may have options that allow business partners or family members to assume all or most duties while the citizen-official serves. But can you imagine hourly wage workers and most salaried workers in corporate offices convincing their CEO to let them simultaneously work another full-time job that overlaps with the same day-time work hours?

The “liberty” PGE has given its employee candidates may be seen as a laudable act of community spirit that will be appreciated by many citizens of Warren County. However, for others (like the citizens and Supervisors of Grant Township in Indiana County) who will be much more dubious of PGE’s civic-mindedness, is it unreasonable to ask PGE what they will get out of such an arrangement?

Of course the PGE candidates need to be more forthcoming and thorough in statements about how they feel their dual-employment plans will work. But this is one instance where PGE itself ought to explain their interests, not for PR purposes but to simply inform voters. After all, it was PGE’s decision to approve and support the candidacies of their employees for public office and to allow those candidates (if elected) to apparently keep their full-time jobs and salaries. Not only does this make PGE a principal stakeholder of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, it gives them the added civic responsibility of government-like transparency on this issue.

If we’re going to mix oil and government, let’s at least hold it up to the light and see the sheen. 

[Editor’s note: A following post will explore the ethics of the issue, where we will learn that strict compliance with Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act does about as much to guarantee ethical behavior of elected officials as Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment does to guarantee clean air and pure water.] 

Follow-Up Questions

The following additional questions are left to the reader to ponder or comment upon. . . .

  • How many hours per week does it take to govern a county? What if current and former commissioners agree that the job can be handled in much less than a 40-hour work week? Wouldn’t citizens and the County Salary Board then rightly ask to revisit the current salary and benefits package commissioners enjoy? 
  • If the two PGE candidates are elected, how will they divvy work time between two workplaces? How will scheduling conflicts between two high-pressure jobs be resolved? Will County meeting times be rearranged to accommodate PGE meetings and obligations? Will PGE Commissioners “phone it in,” or telework from their PGE offices? 
  • If the benefit packages offered by the County exceed those provided by PGE, will the candidates accept the County benefits and drop some or all of those received from PGE? If so, that will save PGE money? Exactly how much money might PGE save over four years (or more) if they do not have to pay for the benefits of two of their senior employees? (Might that be enough savings to fund PGE’s next lawsuit against a class 2 township trying to democratically resist an unwanted injection well?)
  • If elected, what about pay raises, bonuses, promotions, or new perks the PGE employees receive from PGE while they serve as commissioners? Will the public or political enemies attempt to connect increased compensation in their PGE job with official votes or actions? How will that improve public trust in Warren County government?

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