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Borough Council Members Clash Over Interim Mayoral Candidate Guidelines, University Employment

The State College Borough Council’s Friday special meeting saw members debate guidelines for the process of selecting an interim Mayor after the expected resignation of Mayor Don Hahn in December.

Council approved a timetable and general process for selecting Hahn’s replacement at its voting meeting Monday, but discussed its selection plan, specifically candidate interviews and the viability of choosing a Penn State employee for the position, in more detail Friday.

Council Member Catherine Dauler kicked the discussion off with a summary of mayoral obligations based on data provided by Hahn’s office. Several Council members debated the best system for interviewing mayoral candidates at public meetings.

Debates ensued when Dauler read a suggested set of requirements for candidates that included actual work experience in local government, experience conducting public meetings, and understanding that the position is non-renewable after the two year interim term. Her list also suggested that Council not consider developers and Penn State employees for the position.

Council Member Jesse Barlow, a Penn State professor, was the first to disagree with Dauler’s final requirement.

“Half this town is employed by the university,” he said.

“I think it’s important for the Mayor to not be connected to the university since the Mayor represents the entire community,” Dauler replied, expressing concern over the possibility of a Penn State-affiliated Mayor showing “bias” toward the university.

Council Member Theresa Lafer questioned how any full-time employee could have the time to serve as Mayor, and noted that a public official earning a salary from the university, or a developer with interest in Borough real estate, constituted a conflict of interest.

Currently, any adult who is legally able to register to vote can run for Mayor, and Borough Solicitor Terry Williams has the authority to label conflicts of interest.

“I find most of this list highly discriminatory,” Council President Evan Myers said, citing the ambiguity of several of the terms used to describe candidates and questioning whether Council should exclude other employees, like those who work at fast food restaurants, from running.

“I’m not sure how you can equate somehow or another somebody who’s flippin’ burgers at McDonalds with someone who works at the university, and how those two would have the same biases when it came to dealing with the community,” Council Member Janet Engeman said. Lafer called Myers’ comment a “lovely and very sweet example of ad absurdum.”

“And I want to thank him for the moment of humor,” she said.

Barlow noted that a university employee may not have an automatically positive perception of it.

Council Member Dan Murphy, also a university employee, then “pull(ed) up his receipts,” citing several university policies that make it clear that it is not a conflict of interest to serve local government while employed by the university.

“I am offended by the suggestion that we as staff at the university lack the independent thought and judgement to make decisions that are in line with what we think is best for the community,” he said. “Some of my decisions that might be observed as pro-university are actually because I’ve dedicated my career and my education to understanding college student development and how colleges need to be structured and designed for their success. And so it might not be biased, it might actually just be understanding the population that I’m serving and the work that I’m doing.”

Murphy proposed that the guidelines be voted upon after the November 8 letter of interest deadline, but Dauler said that it should be discussed by a full Council before letters of interest are accepted.

“We need to be forthright, I believe, in explaining what our expectations are,” Dauler said.

Lafer said that university department chairs and administrators running for Mayor would have access to “lines of information” about university plans and policies that would overlap with those of the Borough. This would cause the individual to “publicly take both sides of an argument.” She also said that the guidelines should be seen as flexible.

“It’s not a big ‘we don’t want people,'” she said. “It’s a smaller ‘we need people who can do this job and do it well without having problems.”

Myers then involved Borough Manager Tom Fountaine in the discussion, noting that Council needed to vote first on when it would set its guidelines for selecting candidates and then vote a second time on putting those guidelines into action. With Council Member David J. Brown absent from the meeting, Council took a straw vote as to whether it should put guidelines in place before or after the submission deadline, and was stalled with a 3-3 decision.

Lafer attempted to change her vote, but it was decided that Council would attempt to push for a voting meeting next Wednesday, October 30, to decide when it would put these guidelines in place. Murphy said in a tweet that that meeting will take place at 12 p.m.

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.

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