Who OKs Loans With Public Cash?
Lackawanna County voters went to the polls Tuesday and filled blanks next to the names of candidates they trust to spend taxpayer money wisely and transparently. No one voted to put the public purse in the hands of private insiders whose names weren’t on the ballot. Through its revolving loan fund, the Lackawanna County Department of Economic Development lends public money to private businesses and individuals. The loans are evaluated and approved by department officials and an “independent committee comprised of community, business and banking professionals.” On April 12, I filed a Right to Know Law request asking who sits on the independent committee. It’s May 22, and I still don’t know who is deciding how my tax money is doled out in deals that are sealed with a perfunctory vote by the commissioners. Retrieving a list of committee members should not take more than a business day. The administration opted to exercise its right to a 30-day extension allowed under the Right to Know Law. The extension expired Tuesday. County offices were closed for the election. County general counsel Don Frederickson said the county will turn over the list as soon as today. I called him Monday to discuss the administration’s denial of another request related to the loan program. On April 11, I asked for “any and all records related to the community development loan to Eugene ‘Gino’ Majewski and Lori Pilosi approved by the commissioners on Feb. 4, including but not limited to applications, checks, receipts, loan documents, background checks, emails and any other correspondence to the process by which the loan was approved.” Majewski is the proprietor of the new Charl-Mont restaurant at the Lackawanna County Government Center at the Globe. Pilosi is his aunt, who co-signed to help Majewski get started in business. I stopped by Monday and the place looked close to opening. After a 30-day extension, the administration denied my request, claiming it “would be reasonably likely to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual.” I am not making that up. Also, the records I asked for could include “all or part of a person’s Social Security number, driver’s license number, personal financial information, home, cellular or personal telephone numbers, personal e-mail addresses, employee number or other confidential personal identification number...spouse’s name, marital status or beneficiary or dependent information.” I didn’t ask for any of that, and have no interest in it. I don’t want personal information about the party getting the loan. I want an accounting of how the loan came to be. I’m trying to understand the process of a taxpayer-funded program I didn’t know existed until I stumbled over a $25,000 payout hidden in the county’s February bills. I requested public records. Protecting personal information is the county’s responsibility. I asked Frederickson why the administration didn’t simply provide the documents with appropriate redactions. He acknowledged that was the county’s responsibility and suggested I file another Right to Know request asking for the same information with the personal information redacted. “You don’t have to do that,”said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “The law requires them to redact (protected) information but release the remainder.” Melewsky suggested I reach out to the administration and give officials another chance to release the records. If they refuse, she recommended filing an appeal with the Office of Open Records. I will do that, if necessary. Time-lapse transparency is better than none at all. I wouldn’t be asking these questions if county officials hadn’t shrouded the transaction in unnecessary secrecy. No one voted for the revolving loan committee. How it spends taxpayer money is the public’s business. Elected officials have a duty to fill in the blanks. CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, voted Tuesday. Contact the writer: kel email@example.com, @cjkink on Twitter. Read his award-winning blog at timestri buneblogs.com/kelly.