CANTON — A former Canton Borough council member likened the town’s current leadership to a “circus” Monday after two members were accused of violating the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act by discussing borough business in private phone calls.
During Canton Borough’s first meeting since the COVID-19 outbreak, Canton Borough Codes Enforcement Officer John Raub stated that councilman Chris Schrader had “interjected” himself into two active investigations of codes having been broken, one in February and one in April, and broken the law by discussing whether Raub and other borough employees should be working during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Raub stated that after he began an investigation of a codes violation in April, Schrader told him he had “talked to the rest of council” and that they agreed he should not be conducting business as government employees were not to be working except for in emergencies.
Raub said Schrader also stated that permit violations should not be dealt with during the pandemic and that there were “far more important matters” to be worked on including rental inspections and issues with 38 West Main Street.
“Instead of seeing the betterment of the borough as a whole and a local government looking out for the entirety of its citizens, you called these investigations petty, nitpicky, picking on the little guy and (expletive deleted), going so far as to call other council members to complain about these investigations,” Raub told Schrader.
Raub also stated that Schrader told residents of 38 West Main Street that they should sue the borough if they contracted COVID-19 and that if any borough employee contracted the virus they were “on their own.”
When Raub asked if that statement meant that Schrader planned to deny any borough employees their benefits if they were diagnosed with COVID-19, Schrader stated that that was not what he meant, that he had told Raub that it would be their fault if they contracted COVID-19.
Borough Council President David Groover, council member Brandon Wilcox and Canton Mayor Richard Porter Sr. stated that they had been contacted by Schrader about borough employees working during the COVID-19 outbreak while the rest of council said they had not been contacted by Schrader or that they did not recall being called by him.
Raub asked Schrader if his purpose with the phone calls was to get him to stop working and Schrader stated that it was not.
When Raub asked councilman George Jennings what he thought Schrader’s purpose was in calling him about an incident on Lycoming Street, Jennings said he believed it was “just friendship” and “just trying to help out,” not to discuss borough business.
Raub also stated that individuals that were involved in both incidents that Schrader opposed were friends or acquaintances of his, though Schrader denied the claim.
Raub announced that by conducting phone calls to discuss borough business outside of a public quorum Schrader committed criminal violations under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and that anyone in the room could file charges against him.
Schrader stated that it was his understanding that discussing borough business outside of a public meeting was only illegal if a quorum of council was present, and there had not been one.
Canton Borough Solicitor David Brann was presented with the issue and noted that council members could “discuss facts” in a conversation outside of a public quorum but could not deliberate or vote on issues or set policy.
Schrader stated that he did not deliberate or make any decisions with other council members during phone calls only “stated his opinion.”
When former council member Paige Vanryn asked Schrader why he called the investigations nitpicky, he said he had limited information at the time and his understanding was that borough employees were not supposed to be contacting individuals or being around the public during the COVID-19 lockdown and that he agreed that illegal things had been done he just didn’t think the borough was supposed to be conducting investigations during lockdown and that he is upset that the rental ordinance the borough has worked on for multiple months has not been carried out.
Schrader told that as for the February investigation, he had voiced his opposition to it to Raub after a citizen approached him and stated that the issue had been taken care of before Raub had issued the individual multiple citations but that he didn’t know and may not have been told the truth by the citizen.
Groover was then accused of also violating the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law as he called all members of council at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak to hear their opinions on whether borough employees should work throughout it.
Groover asked Borough Secretary Amy Seeley why she did not inform him that proceeding with making phone calls to council members was illegal when he asked her about it before he made the calls and she stated she did not tell him “because you were working 8 to 4 (Groover is also employed by Canton Borough), it’s not an employee question and I think you should contact your solicitor when you have questions like that.”
Brann clarified that business such as discussing employee actions during the COVID-19 outbreak is “official action” and has to be done in a public meeting if there are recommendations made on how the borough should proceed.
When a citizen asked why the borough couldn’t have held a Zoom meeting to discuss how to handle what actions should be taken during the outbreak, Groover stated that he had requested that.
Seeley stated that Groover had not requested a Zoom meeting, only asked about one and that she “could not accommodate it at the time” and that there was concern about the Zoom meetings being hacked.
Former Canton Borough council member Alfonso Ciaccio addressed the council strictly, urging them to lay down any personal agendas and work for the “greater good” before it leaves Canton with “less going for it.”
“Elected officials are not the conscience of the borough. They are servants of the borough. Not enforcers of the borough, we have them, they’re here tonight (police officers). We as the public have to have the sense that you have our interest at heart and I don’t get that. I do not get that every member of this council are totally in for the best experience of people living in Canton. I get people that are doing back room politics to get their own way. You’re supposed to be serving the greater good,” he said.
Ciaccio continued, warning council members that if council members have “attitudes like this” no individuals or businesses will want to call Canton home.
“Do you think anyone is going to want to move to Canton?” he asked. “Do you think any business in its right mind will want to move to a town where it seems like people are one step removed from the circus? Of course not.”
Groover ended the meeting with an echo of Ciaccio’s call for council to work together.
“We all have differences of opinion, everybody does not have the same views, he stated. “We would not be good representatives of the borough if all of us thought exactly alike each other….we need to have conversations and we need to talk reasonably and not have arguments. I’d like us to get along and serve a better purpose here.”