Privatizing Warren County’s Board of Commissioners?

A drama in federal court involving a tiny township in Indiana County has alarming ramifications for the upcoming election of Warren County commissioners.

Pennsylvania General Energy Company, LLC vs. Grant Township

Injection Well

A drama in federal court involving a tiny township in Indiana County has alarming ramifications for the upcoming election of Warren County commissioners.

On April 4th, the Warren Times Observer ran a front-page story about how Warren-based Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) won their law suit against Grant Township, a rural municipality of about 700 people. 

When PGE proposed converting a gas well in the Township into an injection well for disposal of oil and gas wastewater, the people of Grant Township—all of whom get their drinking water from private wells—voted for a Community of Bill of Rights that prohibited injecting radioactive wastewater into the hydraulically-fractured strata beneath their water table. For the Township, the Home Rule Municipal Charter was their last best hope to protect their drinking water from possible contamination.

According to the Times Observer article, Federal Judge Susan Paradise Baxter ruled in PGE’s favor, agreeing that PGE was due $600,000 for lawyer fees—more than four times the annual operating budget of the Township! But PGE, in an apparent act of mercy, voluntarily reduced their claim to $102,978, which Judge Baxter effusively noted would “avoid bankrupting Grant Township.”

NOTE: The Times Observer article did not mention that the reduced financial award may yet cause the Township’s financial ruin. Nor did the article mention that the lawyer fees claimed by PGE would likely be substantially recovered through a tax write-off. But perhaps most importantly to Judge Baxter and PGE, their trumpeted act of apparent altruism avoided the PR debacle that would have resulted had they summarily forced the Township into immediate bankruptcy.

In what might be described as judicial outrage, Judge Baxter not only punished Supervisors (and voters) of Grant Township for their brazen attempt at democratic self-government, but the Judge made a glaring example of the Township, meant as a stiff warning to any other municipality considering asserting local unalienable citizen rights above the artificial legal rights of “corporate persons.” After all, even in the face of unacceptable risk to the health of its citizens, what township or borough will dare to defend itself against a deep-pocketed business if federal court-ordered financial ruin is certain?

Also, to make sure that no other non-profit, do-gooding attorneys will have the temerity to represent a municipality in a future community rights case, Judge Baxter ordered both CELDF attorneys to pay $52,000 to PGE and referred one to the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

NOTE: Fortunately for all of us, human nature is such that many of us (including non-profit attorneys and the municipalities of which we are a part) fight even harder in the face of court-condoned corporate rule.

PGE Commissioners vs. People of Warren County

Court House, Warren County Pennsylvania

This courtroom battle between Grant Township and PGE matters to the voters of Warren County for many reasons, but one reason in particular must be addressed by November, because two of the four candidates running for commissioner in the upcoming election are PGE employees, both of whom apparently plan to remain employed at PGE while simultaneously serving as county commissioners. 

If the three candidates who won the most votes in the party primaries are elected, the next Warren County Board of Commissioners will include PGE Chief Financial Officer Patricia Durbin, and PGE Senior Systems Engineer Paul Giannini–employees of the company that spent $600,000 to bulldoze democracy in a small, cash-strapped municipality that is remarkably similar to the twenty-six small, cash-strapped municipalities in Warren County.

In a May 18th article in the Times Observer, Ms. Durbin said of her arrangement to keep her position with PGE, “I had the pleasure of being endorsed by the [PGE] CEO to give me the liberty to do what I need to do. [I] also had the pleasure of the [PGE] owners both supporting me in this campaign role and financially backing my campaign.” 

Is this gracious support for Ms. Durbin simple largess by the owners of PGE?

If the two PGE “employee-candidates” are elected, imagine the possible consequences. What would happen after the election if an oil and gas company—perhaps even PGE—proposes one or more additional injection wells in Warren County? Or what happens when an oil and gas company proposes the resumption of spreading oil and gas well wastewater on municipal roads for dust abatement? Or what happens if an oil and gas company proposes any action that might financially benefit PGE? Who among those PGE “Employee-Commissioners” would stand for the rights and interests of Warren County citizens against the legal threat posed by a wealthy “corporate person” willing to lawyer up against the will of the people. . . especially if that wealthy company happens to be the Employee-Commissioners’ primary employer?

In a future scenario in which a Board decision might financially benefit PGE, would the two PGE commissioners recuse themselves? If so, even that could benefit PGE, since that would eliminate the required two-thirds quorum for the Board to act, thereby stymying citizen action at the County level—a result that could be just as valuable as voting to a company trying to fast track a controversial project.

The Bible says a person cannot serve two masters. If Ms. Durbin and Mr. Giannini win seats on the Board of Commissioners, who will they serve? The people of Warren County, or the owners of PGE?

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