Hospital bid-review committee questioned - State Rep. Schlossberg says group met, Wolf administration denies it - watchdog report

HARRISBURG - A committee of state government and Allentown officials formed to review bids for the massive Allentown State Hospital property met at least several times.


Or did it?

State Rep. Mike Schlossberg of South Whitehall Township in late September said the committee met three or four times. But Gov. Tom Wolf's administration last week denied a Right-to-Know request from The Morning Call for committee meeting minutes, saying, "Your request is denied. The Evaluation Committee was not convened ..."

Told Friday of the Nov. 3 denial letter from DGS Open Records Officer Troy A. Thompson, Schlossberg was flummoxed by the "not convened" statement.

"But it was," he said. "We absolutely met multiple times."

Thompson said the "not convened" language was supplied to him by the DGS Bureau of Real Estate, and individuals from that agency were not immediately available because offices were closed on Veterans Day.

Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association attorney Melissa Melewsky said the situation raised questions.

"There is an obvious inconsistency between the DGS' position and the apparent facts. It creates the appearance of impropriety," Melewsky said. "And it also suggests DGS did not provide a fully informed response to its Right-to-Know Law request, both of which are problematic."

The contradiction comes to light just a few days before the end of the 2021-22 legislative session, when lawmakers approved a drastic change in plans for selling the 195-acre state-owned property.

The "competitive solicitation committee" was created by a 2019 law and received only two bids. Thompson said earlier this year both were "nonresponsive."

Late in the legislative session, Sen. Pat Browne of Allentown - a lame-duck veteran senator who lost his bid for re-election - introduced a bill to sell the hospital property for $5.5 million directly to City Center Investment Corp., led by longtime Browne acquaintance J.B. Reilly.

The move drew some criticism, with some observers saying the property was worth more or questioning the transparency of the sale process.

The new proposal moved quickly in the Senate and House and was signed into law by Wolf.

Thompson declined to say specifically what disqualified the two bids in the original process. And, the department denied a Morning Call Right-to-Know request for copies of the rejected bids.

The newspaper has filed an appeal.

Browne, whose last Harrisburg session day after 28 years as a lawmaker is likely to be Tuesday, did not respond to requests for an interview.

On Friday, Schuylkill County Rep. Tim Twardzik, one of 44 House Republicans who voted against the bill that included the sale to Center City, was skeptical of the whole process.

"Meetings that are held? That are denied being held? It is really too much activity behind the curtain," he said. "As a businessperson, that would never be acceptable."

Another of those who voted "no," Rep. Aaron Bernstine of Lawrence County, said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the contradictions on whether the committee met. The sale process, he said, "lacked significant transparency."

Schlossberg said previously that meeting attendees included himself, Browne, former Allentown Mayor Ray O'Connell and former Secretary of General Services Curt Topper.

Browne, Schlossberg, current Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk and DGS all favored the direct sale to City Center, the lead developer on Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which fueled the city's downtown revitalization.

Tuerk said City Center understands the magnitude of the hospital land development project. Browne previously said he doesn't think the city will "find an opportunity better than this," referring to the direct sale to City Center.

Veteran media law attorney Craig Staudenmaier said he believed the bid-review committee fell under the provisions of the state Sunshine Law - and should have kept minutes. Speaking more generally, Staudenmaier said, "To the fullest extent possible, any action of government should be open to public scrutiny."

Melewsky, the PNA attorney, said she, too, believed the committee's work was subject to the Sunshine Act.

Putting the law aside, though, she said that public policy alone should dictate that records of meetings of such importance be kept. Maintaining records of who attended, what happened and what future courses were chosen makes sense, she said.

The lack of records, she said, leads to the question, "Why wouldn't they keep minutes and make them available?"

Schlossberg said he believed the meetings were not subject to the Sunshine Act because of exceptions made for real estate matters.

After Dec. 1, the property will no longer be in Schlossberg's House district. A recent redrawing of legislative maps put it in the newly drawn district won Tuesday by Josh Siegel, an Allentown City Council member.

Schlossberg said he was seeking answers on the "not convened" contradiction. He said he wants to hand off the process to Siegel in a responsible manner, and his main goal is to make sure development occurs in a way that reflects the will of the community.

Morning Call Capitol correspondent Ford Turner can be reached at fturner@mcall.com

Caption: An aerial view of the former Allentown State Hospital property off Hanover Avenue. Scott M. Nagy/Special to The Morning Call

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