NORRISTOWN >> The majority Democratic Party commissioners and senior staff of Montgomery County fought back Thursday after weeks of allegations from Republican Commissioner Joe Gale of “backroom politics.”
Gale, the only Republican on the three-member governing body, began a string of accusations in late August that primarily targeted commissioners’ Chairman Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who is currently running for Pennsylvania attorney general. Some of the vitriol, however, spread to senior staff members whom Gale accused of leaving him out of the loop.
Shapiro opened Thursday’s weekly commissioners’ meeting by addressing those statements that he felt were disparaging to county staff, and following the meeting, Shapiro disclosed that he believes Gale is colluding with outsiders to formulate his attacks.
“I’m a big boy and I’ve got broad shoulders, and I recognize that we are 33 days out from the election and so people make wild accusations all the time. And I recognize that there is some obvious coordination going on here with political opponents of mine,” Shapiro said. “But none of that should impact the great work that the staff does and none of that should be flung on that staff who I think do yeoman’s work, who are incredibly professional, and who day-in and day-out bust their humps for the people of our county.”
Gale said during the meeting that he is part of a grassroots effort, a comment that made Shapiro chuckle.
“You’re laughing, but I think that’s unique to government, and something that should be championed, not laughed at,” Gale said. “I come to this board with no strings attached and I’m here to fight for the taxpayers of Montgomery County. I’m not part of backroom deals.”
Gale has made a number of claims of such deals, and has accused staff, many of whom worked for Shapiro’s campaign for commissioner in 2011, of playing favorites.
A palpable tension has been building between the commissioners since Gale publicly aired his opposition to the county’s $5 increase tacked on to the state’s vehicle registration fee.
During one interview, Gale accused Shapiro of being an absentee commissioner because of his campaigning for statewide office.
The registration fee measure passed with a 2-1 vote at the Sept. 15 meeting of the commissioners. During that meeting, Gale gave comments at the start, objecting to the timing of his briefings from senior staff. He continued to hold that position after this week’s meeting.
“As you can see, when you look around the room, I’m pretty outnumbered here,” Gale said.
Gale alleged that senior staff was keeping him out of the loop because he took his objection to the registration fee to the public, giving interviews and posting about it on his website. He cited an email from Chief Operating Officer Lauren Lambrugo.
In the email, Lambrugo writes, “We have had a standing time for briefing the minority commissioner for the past 4+ years at noon on Wednesdays before the Board meeting. It worked well in the past. It allows me to review the proposed agenda with the Chair and then affords staff time to complete the required follow-up from that discussion.”
The email also states, “At this point I am uncomfortable briefing on an agenda that is not a more complete draft since there is now a precedent that it may be discussed publicly prior to it being finalized.”
Gale stands by his statements that he is being given different treatment from the staff than the majority commissioners.
“Their goal is to make my colleagues look good. Mine is for the county to look good,” Gale said.
Lambrugo and county Solicitor Raymond McGarry each immediately reacted to the statement, which was given to reporters after Thursday’s meeting.
“I take offense to that,” McGarry said. “What makes everyone look good is when government works.”
It has been pointed out in the past that former GOP Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. has praised the “nonpartisan” manner in which the administration worked. Castor even came to the defense of his former colleagues in a commentary submitted to The Times Herald newspaper in Norristown.
“I witnessed no ‘politics’ whatsoever, ‘backroom’ or otherwise. We were there to make government managerial decisions. We knew that, and did our best to make the right ones, regardless of party or where we fell on the political spectrum,” Castor wrote, adding that he believed the county staff was “second to none.”
Gale responded to the commentary with his own calling the prior administration the “Shapiro/Castor era of establishment collusion.”
‘Where there’s smoke’
While Gale has publicly addressed his perception of exclusion from the table, a majority of his attacks have been focused on Shapiro alone. Gale has said during the Sept. 15 commissioner’s meeting that he suspected political favoritism in the contract for North Hills Manor and Crest Manor projects undertaken by the Montgomery County Housing Authority.
The winner of that contract, Pennrose Properties LLC, was a campaign donor to Democratic Commissioners Shapiro and Val Arkoosh, as well as former commissioner Leslie Richards, also a Democrat. The county chipped in about $1 million of the project’s roughly $17 million budget.
“I am not accusing my colleagues of criminal wrongdoing but I am exposing what I believe is reckless spending and politics-as-usual in Montgomery County. What I have discovered is based on public information and may warrant further looking into,” Gale stated in a press release a few days after the meeting.
Solicitor McGarry and Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, have each verified that the authority’s board worked independently of the commissioners when awarding the contract to Pennrose.
“Housing authorities are independent authorities. The county is no way, shape or form involved in the procurement,” Johnson said.
Further, a far more substantial donor to Shapiro’s campaign, Roizman Development, had also bid for the North Hills Manor project, and did not receive the contract.
Shapiro’s relationship with Roizman Development did come under scrutiny in Gale’s next set of press releases. The developer had donated heavily to Shapiro’s campaigns over the years. In the campaign finance reporting cycle ending April 2, 2013, Israel Roizman had donated $22,500 to Friends of Josh Shapiro.
On April 4, 2013, Shapiro participated in a 3-0 vote to provide Roizman Development with a low-interest loan of $937,103 from the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund for an age-restricted development in Whitemarsh Township.
“The original loan amount was approved for $937,103. The project came in under the original budget and they ultimately only spent $750,000 of that amount which will be paid back according to the terms of the loan,” Deputy Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak said in an email about the project.
According to Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act, Shapiro voting on the loan did not constitute a conflict of interest.
“There is no prohibition from accepting a campaign donation from an individual and then participating in a motion or some type of action that would affect that donor unless it can be determined that there is an arrangement,” said Robert P. Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.
Caruso was not commenting specifically on the circumstances of the April 4, 2013, vote, but on whether the Ethics Act requires a public official to abstain from votes involving donors. Caruso went on to explain that if someone believes an arrangement has been made, they can file a complaint to the commission.
Gale stated that he has never made a formal complaint to the State Ethics Commission, and county staff has said he has not come to them with concerns.
“Commissioner Gale has never come to me with any questions or concerns about political contributions,” McGarry said.
He also advised Gale to come to senior staff with questions before making accusations. When asked, Gale could not state whether the 2013 vote that was the topic of his press release was a loan or a contract.
“You can come to an understanding of how the process happened rather than throw accusations out there, which is offensive to me as a senior staffer,” McGarry said.
Gale has stated in his press releases that he does not have the prosecutorial power or resources to investigate the circumstances, and instead is just pointing to public records.
“As they say, ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire’ and it looks like there is smoke billowing out of the Montgomery County Courthouse. At the very least, there is an unethical use of county tax dollars to fill Commissioner Shapiro’s campaign treasure chest,” Gale stated.
‘33 days away’
After several weeks of what even Gale characterized as attacks, Shapiro said after the Thursday meeting that he believes Gale is working with Shapiro’s political opponents.
Gale initially stated he has had no communication with state Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr., the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general. Questioned further, Gale softened that stance.
“(Rafferty) reached out to me regarding the recent attacks,” Gale said. “No shock to me, he’s indirectly involved. As Mr. Shapiro said, there is an election 33 days away.”
Gale acknowledged that Rafferty, and later Rafferty’s campaign, reached out to him after the Sept. 15 board meeting. Gale said that Rafferty asked about the meeting, and he advised the state senator to watch the county’s archived video of the recorded meeting.
Members of Rafferty’s campaign staff were included in the list of email addresses to which Gale had sent his press releases detailing Shapiro’s campaign donations from Pennrose and Roizman.
“When I sent the release, I sent it to several media sources, including the Rafferty campaign,” Gale commented. “I never got an email back from them. I sent it to multiple news sources, them being one. I forget how many it went to. I figure since it was going public, get it out in public.”