Comity appears to have broken down between Harrisburg and its state financial oversight board, as the city has filed a lawsuit to force the board to fully include Harrisburg’s board representative.
On Feb. 14, the city filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court claiming that the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) has systematically excluded Bruce Weber from participating in executive sessions and other ICA business.
Weber, Harrisburg’s budget and finance director, is the city’s non-voting representative on the seven-member board.
Following the meeting, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that Weber has been routinely excluded from executive sessions and other ICA matters.
“He has every right to participate in the deliberations of the ICA,” Papenfuse said, following the meeting. “They have refused that from the very beginning.”
The lawsuit set a tense tone for Wednesday’s ICA board meeting, which Weber and Papenfuse attended.
The ICA and Harrisburg last year passed a draft five-year financial recovery plan for the city, designed to allow the city to exit Act 47, the state’s program for financially distressed cities. They’re now in the process of making updates to it.
“The ICA expresses disappointment over the current litigation initiated by the mayor,” said ICA Chair Audry Carter, in a statement. “The lawsuit is a needless distraction from the important work of removing Harrisburg from Act 47.”
Her statement further asked Papenfuse “to abandon this frivolous lawsuit.”
“The ICA calls upon the mayor to restore our shaken confidence in his ability to work cooperatively on our joint mission, which is to assist the city of Harrisburg in achieving financial stability,” Carter said.
Later in the meeting, Papenfuse objected to two other issues, which he called examples of ICA “overreach.”
The first regards a proposed “Economic Development Symposium” that the ICA plans to hold in May at the Hilton Harrisburg in conjunction with CREDC. The event includes a $20,000 expense to hire authors James and Deborah Fallows as keynote speakers, the fee coming from ICA funds.
The total ICA budget, funded by state tax dollars, is $100,000 per year.
ICA members said they hoped to offset the event expense with ticket sales and potential corporate sponsorships.
“I’m strongly in opposition to this,” Papenfuse said at the meeting. “I would recommend a greater discussion, especially with the city, before you put tax dollars at risk with a plan for a symposium, which really is a matter for the private sector.”
He added that the administration first learned about the proposed economic symposium at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I think it speaks to the larger mission creep of the ICA,” he said. “I think we should focus on what the charge is under the law.”
Carter disagreed with this criticism.
“We feel that it is an amazing opportunity to pull together the best and the brightest to help pull together members of our community to engage in a discussion of community and economic development,” she said.
Carter added that the ICA was “fundraising for partnerships” and that it “would not distract” from other ICA business.
Carter next explained that, in April, the ICA plans to launch “listening sessions” with Harrisburg residents. As part of those sessions, ICA members plan to ask residents for three things they like about Harrisburg and three things they would like to improve.
“These are efforts to go out into the community and listen to how they feel about Harrisburg,” Carter said. “An attempt will be made to go into the city hosted with nonprofit community partners.”
Papenfuse also objected to this proposal.
“I do not feel that listening sessions are in the domain of the ICA,” Papenfuse said. “It’s another example of not really understanding your role. It’s confusing to the general public. I think it is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the role of the ICA is.”
He said that the ICA was undertaking activities that should be the role of elected officials, not the ICA board.
“I think they’re wholly appropriate personally because we do have a mandate to help the citizenry of Harrisburg,” Carter responded. “We think there is good reason to be out there.”
ICA Vice Chair Ralph Vartan concurred.
“I think it’s very important for appointed members of the ICA to have face time with members of the public, and only good things can come from listening and talking to people,” he said, adding, “I think it’s a noble venture.”