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Termination of Muncy borough manager results in lawsuit

MUNCY — Dennis Holt, borough manager, was terminated, with a 5-2 vote, in a Muncy Borough meeting, which was not advertised, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, after a “disagreement” about the condition of borough streets on Dec. 16 with Council President, Ed Feigles via text.

Holt provided the Sun-Gazette with letters that he had written to the council detailing the argument with Feigles. He was also put on administrative leave with pay immediately after the argument, via an email from Feigles.

Within the discussion between the two men, Holt stated that Feigles had texted him “If that is your attitude and can not take a little constructive criticism, maybe it is time to move on.”

Holt stated that he offered to come to the borough to gather his belongings, but then wrote a formal letter to withdraw any reference to quitting and took full responsibility for the Streets Department and how they took care of the snow on Dec. 16.

“I pray that the Council and Mayor allow an opportunity for me to resolve this issue. I will accept any disciplinary action that may be deemed necessary,” Holt’s letter to council read.

From there, an executive session was scheduled to discuss this personnel issue in which a member from the sewer authority member had been in attendance without warning.

In a letter that Holt had received from McCormick Law Firm, which represents the borough, it stated that as of Jan. 6, Holt would no longer be an employee of the borough.

It also stated “The Borough Council determined at its duly advertised public meeting on January 5, 2021 that your services as Borough Manager were no longer needed and that it would be ending the employment relationship between yourself and the Borough effective immediately.”

Sun-Gazette records show that the borough has not run any advertisements since November.

Holt, who would normally place the advertisements in the Sun-Gazette was not allowed to do any borough business after Dec. 18, therefore, no advertisements have been done.

He offered to help the borough with the transition of staff, but was turned down.

Holt himself even sent in a “right to know” request for proof of publication of the advertisement with no information back from that request yet.

“They (the municipality) are risking having what they are doing at the meetings being declared invalid,” Melissa Melewsky, state News Media Association media law council, said. “They are cutting the public out of the process…public notice is a critical component. Skipping the notice (of public meetings) undercuts the entire purpose of the (Sunshine) Act.”

Regular monthly meetings, which are public, are “governed” by the Sunshine Act, which allows for public participation and access to information.

These meetings, as well as special meetings, are required to be advertised in newspapers with general circulation at the beginning of the year, at least three days in advance of their regular meeting including: dates, times and location. Special meetings only need to be advertised 24 hours in advance.

For example: Muncy Borough will be meeting the first Tuesday and third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at the borough hall.

Executive sessions however, do not have to be advertised in the newspaper but do have to be publicly announced at a meeting before the session begins or the next regular meeting after the executive session.

Melewsky said that the Sunshine Act also asks that local government give some detail about the session rather than just stating that it was an issue of personnel or litigation.

“The announcement is the only shot to understanding why the public was excluded…to determine if it was appropriate or not,” she said.

With not advertising a meeting, a meeting with as large of an action as termination, could cause some lack of trust when a local government is not transparent with their citizens.

“A government functions best when aided by a well informed and active citizen,” Melewsky said. “When the public can’t participate in the decision making process, it reads as distressed… they (residents) don’t feel as if their voices are heard…it leads them to believe the decisions that are happening are not in the best interest.”

She added that the Sunshine Act “promotes fairness and legality and appropriate decisions” and is the “best disinfectant” by making sure that decisions are “done in the open”.

According to Holt, the executive session in which an unwarranted guest appearance was against the borough personnel policy and a violation of his rights, therefore he has begun the process of a lawsuit.

Richard Baker, a council member who voted against the termination in the Jan. 5 meeting, said that he had driven through the borough streets and alleys and thought that the streets were drivable and safe considering the amount of snowfall that had collected on the pavement.

Linda Stein, council member, was the only other council member to vote against the termination.

Feigles, Rick Upmstead, Thad Martin, Dana Bertin and Scott Delany voted in favor.

Baker also said that Feigles deemed Holt as “not a good fit” for council.

“They said his services were no longer needed,” Baker said. “They didn’t have a reason. I don’t understand. It is just wrong.”

He continued by saying that he had asked questions as to why the termination was needed and his questions remained unanswered.

“I am defending somebody who did nothing wrong,” he continued. “All of the employees like Denny.”

He stated that the council did not disclose any information regarding the replacement of Holt at the meeting on Jan. 5.

The Sun-Gazette reached out to McCormick Law Firm, Feigles, Upmstead and Martin for comment, but they did not respond.

For more information on the Sunshine Act please visit: https://www.openrecords.pa.gov/SunshineAct.cfm.

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