Attorney Alleges County Open Space Funding Impropriety
The allegations stem from a grand jury report which criticizes the program for not having specific standards in place. Commissioner Joseph Hoeffel takes aim at DA, calls report 'fundamentally unfair.'
An attorney representing Lower Providence Township charged that a “political decision” kept the municipality from receiving a portion of the county’s $150 million in open space funds.
Coming on the heels of a 69-page grand jury report and subsequent arrest of Commissioner James Matthews, the announcement made by attorney Michael Sheridan at Thursday’s commissioner’s meeting was meant as “background” for the township’s experience, he said. During 2009 and 2010, according to a letter provided to press, Lower Providence spent $114,587 on appraisals and other fees in an attempt to secure the county funding.
But, Sheridan claims that a conversation he had had with then county solicitor Barry Miller reflected a “unilateral” decision to revoke any chance of open space funds while the Lower Providence Township Sewer Authority and the Lower Perkiomen Valley Regional Sewer Authority had litigation pending against the county.
“Until that dispute was resolved, there would be no cooperation in any regard by the county with Lower Providence Township,” Sheridan told commissioners Bruce Castor and Joseph Hoeffel. Commissioner Matthews was not present. “If the county solicitor was telling me the truth that leads to some obvious conclusions.”
In his discussion, Sheridan referenced a Sept. 28, 2010 letter that had been sent to the board. The letter, which was written by Lower Providence’s Supervisors chairman, reiterated the denial of county cooperation and refusal to provide open space funding.
Miller, who was fired in the wake of Matthews’ arrest, did not return a call for comment Thursday.
Hoeffel said he recalled the 2010 letter, which he characterized as the writer “essentially complaining” about the denial of funds.
“I think some of these matters were resolved,” Hoeffel said. “We checked with our open space folks and they concluded that your grant applications weren’t competitive with other grant applications.”
Even though the letter in question was addressed to all three commissioners, Castor said Thursday was the first he had heard of it.
Castor, the former Montgomery County District Attorney, said Sheridan’s insight “may have a bearing on future decisions” that current DA Risa Vetri Ferman makes.
Castor refuses to discuss open space program procedures
Following Sheridan’s brief discussion, Hoeffel suggested that, as a result of the recommendations put forth in the grand jury report, he and Castor “publicly discuss and perhaps act” on several suggestions related to how open space funding is awarded.
“I think it is a bad idea and I will not participate,” Castor said, adding that the new board should consider it “as they see fit and when they see fit.”
Castor said the land procurement policies could be tightened up internally. As far as the rest of the issues concerning the personnel department, he said, “I do not see any immediate governmental need to address the recommendations in the grand jury report.”
Without Castor’s participation, the board was without a quorum. Hoeffel adjourned the meeting and immediately opened a press conference.
Hoeffel: Grand jury report is ‘fundamentally unfair.’
Hoeffel opened the impromptu press conference by saying it was a “dereliction of duty to not take seriously the recommendations, that in good faith, the grand jury made.”
But, moments later, Hoeffel chided the grand jury for concluding in its report that there was not a policy in place regarding distribution of open space funding.
“These are written procedures,” Hoeffel said, holding up the policy. “How is it possible that the grand jury didn’t know about this inch-thick pile of documents?”
Turning his criticism to Ferman, Hoeffel asked how she could lead the grand jury “through this process” without presenting the documents which govern the open space program.
He went on to say that the grand jury report – which referenced dozens of breakfast meetings between Matthews and Hoeffel where county business was discussed with Miller and current county attorney James Maza sans Castor – mentioned “about 20 percent of the facts.”
“That is evidence in my mind that is in an unfair discussion,” Hoeffel said, adding that the report “unfairly and inaccurately smears the staff of the planning commission.”
Ferman, when reached for comment, told Patch that the grand jury report is a summary of its conclusions – “not a summary of every piece of evidence” that was heard and considered.
She said she looks forward to working with the incoming commissioners to address all of the findings and develop appropriate solutions to fix “institutional failures.”