LANSDALE, Pa. - With the absence of Republican Councilman Tom Work, Republican Mayor Andy Szekely did his duty to be a tiebreaker and voted for a Request for Qualifications process for a new Lansdale Borough solicitor Wednesday night.
A vote to authorize the process stalled at 4-4 before Szekely's vote. Those voting against the RFQ process were Independent Jason Van Dame and Democrats Denton Burnell, Mary Fuller and council Vice President Steve Malagari.
Szekely said he voted for the RFQ because it fell in line with some of his opinions about overspending in Lansdale, opinions that were shared by council President Jack Hansen. He said he and Hansen saw "eye to eye" in the election.
He suggested solicitor Mark Hosterman had not been the best advisor to council on certain projects.
"In what we went through with the election, there were things that we shouldn't have spent money on. A solicitor is an advisor in those situations, especially if it's borough hall or the arts center. I made an argument in the past about excessive spending on borough hall. Based on what I heard through the election is, perhaps the borough should take a different path (with its solicitor)," he said. "That's not to say everything that the borough is doing is perfect. There's always room to improve upon things and look out for the taxpayer dollar."
Szekely said his vote had nothing to do with a reprimand by Hosterman that occurred in 2011, done on behalf of former President West, Kirchner, Clemente and Dunigan, for Szekely speaking out about an executive session that he said violated the Sunshine Law.
"We had our differences in the past, but that's long past," he said.
Hosterman agreed on the reprimand truce. He then said a solicitor isn't just an advisor, but an advocate too.
"(The solicitor is) an advocate for the borough and for a majority of council, with regard to positions on projects and things of that nature," he said.
Pay-for-Play Accusations and the 'Gang of Five'
In a nearly one-hour discussion on the RFQ—which was tainted with accusations against council President Jack Hansen of pay-for-play politics involving Sean Kilkenny and his firm, Friedman Schuman, and references to current and ex-councilmembers as a "gang of five"—councilmembers debated the reasons for even considering to replace current solicitor Wisler Pearlstine, a firm recently named a Tier One firm for municipal law by U.S. News & World Report.
It was revealed Wednesday night that, should the RFQ vote have failed, Hansen was prepared to make a motion to appoint Kilkenny and his firm to the solicitorship.
Kilkenny has come under scrutiny because of his contributions to Hansen's PAC and the Lansdale Democrats. Kilkenny has given $2,000 to the county Democratic Committee in 2011 and $1,000 in to the committee in 2008, per campaign finance reports.
It all began with public comment, where former Republican Councilman Mike Sobel and former Republican council candidate Jean Fritz spoke up, respectively, against and in favor of the RFQ process.
"Is change something you want to do at this point to get another firm in and up to speed?" Sobel said. "Any new firm that comes in will have to review and go over things on many projects already in place."
Sobel said to consider what's best for Lansdale and its people.
"A political party may have helped you get to the seat, but you did the work yourself by knocking on doors. Don't vote because a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian is telling you what to do," he said.
Fritz ran through the history of solicitorships in Lansdale since 1990. There have been three solicitors that served Lansdale in that 24-year timeline, all with varying rates.
Fritz said Hansen, a Democrat, should have the right to change solicitors.
"I ... have a problem with the fact that ... some on council and some in the audience had no problem changing solicitors in 2010. Now it's a big question like it shouldn't be done," Fritz said. "If the president feels more comfortable with a different solicitor, then he has the right to ask for a vote and change it."
Fuller said it is wrong to change a solicitor without cause.
"This is personal. It feels personal to me as a taxpayer and it feels personal to me as a councilwoman," she said. "I was elected to do what's best for my constituency and the people and give them the best we possibly can. I have yet to hear a decent reason why we are making a change."
She said a solicitor works with the borough manager and department heads daily, not council. It should be them that decide what is best for the borough.
"What's not important at all is who contributed to what campaigns," Fuller said. "In 2010, it had nothing to do with politics; it removed politics from the position."
Wisler Pearlstine was appointed in 2010, replacing Friedman Schuman.
"We chose a firm that is apolitical, with no contributions from either side," she said. "This change stinks of political payback."
Hansen responded by reading from a pre-written statement.
"Four years ago, a gang of five took control of borough council—Mary Fuller, Matt West, Mike Sobel, Dan Dunigan and Paul Clemente. With five being the magic number, they could vote in lockstep and do whatever they pleased, and they did," Hansen said.
This included replacing Kilkenny with a law firm "who had a partner who was related to ... Clemente," Hansen said. "Sounds like nepotism to me, but it fell on deaf ears."
He said the solicitorship appointment in 2010 was "ironically" done without an RFQ.
"Now the same people are asking for an RFQ," he said. "I've always been told to leave things the way they are and not make any changes. It wouldn't make any sense at all."
He said that Clemente then went to work for financial advisors Boenning-Scattergood in 2010, right when he took his post at council.
"It didn't sound right to me," Hansen said. "It fell on deaf ears."
Then Hansen brought up the firing of former Manager Lee Mangan in 2008. He said he was notified of the event 24 hours prior, which was the law. He then accused Fuller, West and Sobel of walking into Mangan's office where they "demanded he resign."
Hansen was mad that there was no meeting called ahead of time to discuss Mangan's firing.
"It sounds illegal to me, but at the very least, it was improper," he said.
Mangan got a severance package of more than $800,000.
Fuller then revealed that Kilkenny was the one who drafted Mangan's severance package.
"If we go through the RFQ process and Wisler Pearlstine gets selected, I'll gladly work with them. If we go through the RFQ process and Friedman Schuman gets selected, I'll gladly work with them. If we go through the RFQ process and Dischell Bartle Dooley gets selected, I'll gladly work with them," he said.
Burnell said he voiced opposition in the Administration and Finance Committee on the RFQ.
"It's irresponsible for us to go down the path of spending money for an RFQ while dealing with unexpected costs," he said. "It feels pre-destined to end at (Kilkenny). It's really important, if we go through the process and spend their money and our money, that we're doing it for the right reasons," he said.
Hosterman said his firm would be open to discussing rate restructuring.
Malagari asked how much will be spent on unanticipated costs in the wake of the storms. Kirchner said between $500,000 and $750,000. The borough will have to pay as much as $150,000 for road repairs related to potholes damaging roadways.
She added that a complete and thorough RFQ process can cost between $7,000 and $10,000 in staff time.
Then, there are costs to bring a new firm up to speed. Wisler Pearlstine, at present, is involved in as many as 25 ongoing projects.
Malagari said it did not make sense at the moment to change the solicitor.
"There are a lot of expenses and we had a very expensive winter. It's unnecessary at the moment," Malagari said. "Nobody predicted this. I couldn't support it for strictly financial reasons."