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City officials clarify management of Hiawatha, political signs

A political banner prominently displayed Sunday on the Hiawatha riverboat was placed there by the individual who chartered the cruise, not the nonprofit organization that manages the tourist attraction, said city officials.

“I had no idea there would be a banner,” said Todd Wright, contract services manager with River Valley Transit, of the “Keep America Great” sign put on the simulated paddle wheel riverboat that was a part of the boat regatta in support of President Donald Trump’s reelection on Nov. 3.

Democrat Mayor Derek Slaughter said it was a private charter and not a city-sanctioned event.

“This charter was approved by the board that runs the 501c (tax-exempt organization) that deals with its operation, not River Valley Transit,” said Gary Knarr, city zoning administrator.

Norman Lubin, city solicitor, would not comment on it on behalf of the city, referring the Sun-Gazette to a tax attorney specializing in Internal Revenue Service law.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said 501c3 organizations are prohibited by the Internal Revenue Service rules from taking a political position, and the possible ramifications include loss of their tax-exempt status.

Wright said while the boat was chartered, the nonprofit organization doesn’t get involved politically.

“We would never do anything to jeopardize our 501c status,” he said.

Gabe Sinicropi, president of the Hiawatha board of directors, said the organization is fully aware of nonprofit status and agreed to the charter after a summer when cruises were stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said the boat does not get revenue from River Valley Transit, only the cruises and sale of refreshments and merchandise.

As for whether the boat should have left with the banner on it, that is a decision for the captain, he said.

“He decides whether the boat leaves the dock,” Sinicropi said.

In a supplemental statement posted on the Hiawatha Inc. Facebook site, the board said it is not affiliated with any political party and does not endorse any candidate or oppose any candidate.

“I view the Hiawatha as a catering facility,” said Morgan Allyn, chair of the Democratic Committee in Lycoming County.

“It was privately chartered,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the nonprofit that runs it. … I know they have been rented for political events in the past.”

“If the Lycoming County Democratic Committee rented it for an event, I fully expect that we could hang pro-Biden signs all over it for the duration of the contracted time on the vessel,” Allyn said.

The problem, she said, is that past city administrations have promoted the Hiawatha in such a way that it seemed like an extension of River Valley Transit, or another city-owned property.

“People got upset because of the confusion past promotions have created,” Allyn said.

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