Two seemingly unrelated stories developed last week that, from where I sit, show two serious flaws in our legal system.
The first I reported in a story Friday. A hearing examiner for the state labor relations board basically ruled that school boards can approve teacher contracts without holding a public meeting. The second came from my old haunts in Hazleton, where former mayor Mike Marsicano was allowed to stay on the ballot for his attempted return to office even though he has a house out of the city, by the valley country club.
The school story sprang from a dispute in the Old Forge district, where five board members – a majority and thus a legal quorum – met with teacher representatives in a negotiation session and agreed to new contract terms.
All five board members went so far as to sign a document saying they agreed.
When they reversed that decision later at a public meeting, the union filed a complaint saying that was an “unfair labor practice,” and a hearing examiner favored the union, ruling that the contract was valid even though the board had publicly voted it down.
Turns out the labor law and relevant court rulings apparently give boards so much leeway in contract negotiations that they can actually have a quorum in negotiations, and that quorum can agree to a contract.
Which would mean the contract was approved by the board without any public input, even though the state Sunshine Act mandates such official decisions be made at a public meeting.
The union has absolutely no fault in this. Its lawyers were simply savvy enough to take advantage of a boneheaded board that let it happen.
But the upshot is profound. Taxpayers were utterly cut out of the contract approval.
Mind you, such contracts are typically a done deal by the time the board votes anyway, but at least residents get to voice support or displeasure at a public meeting before the deal is final. Thanks to this bizarre twist, accountability was utterly abolished here.
The Marsicano case was just the latest example of an old problem: certifying residency. The law says that, if Mike wants to be mayor, he has to actually live in the city. It’s such obvious common sense no one in their right mind would argue against it.
Hazleton City Councilman Jack Mundie filed a complaint noting that Marsicano owns a house in Sugarloaf Township, and listed it in county documents as his primary residence.
Marsicano countered that, yeah, it was his residence, but, gosh, he had moved back to Hazleton and just keeps the valley house as a “summer residence.”
Mundie argued that Marsicano has been seen at the Valley house plenty of times at various hours of the day – something I’ve been told by other people as well. But the judge didn’t care, and probably shouldn’t. As long as Marsicano owns a house in Hazleton and is registered to vote there, he gets to stay on the ballot.
Why would a man who claims to be passionate about Hazleton and its future have a “summer residence” anywhere else? How many people can you name who own a summer residence only a few miles away from their regular home? These questions were irrelevant to the judge, just as the public’s right to see their school board vote for a teacher contract was irrelevant to the Old Forge hearing examiner.
The people involved aren’t really to blame, beyond, perhaps, stupidity or arrogance. The law is to blame.
Our new state motto?
Pennsylvania: We twist laws like pretzels.