Sunshine Law Focus of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport Quarrel

Aug. 23--PITTSTON TWP. -- The switch of millions of dollars of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport business to a bank where an airport board member is a director should have been done at a public meeting, said critics of the privately done deal.

On Monday, two former airport officials blasted the decision to switch from Wachovia to Landmark Community Bank of Pittston, where Lackawanna County Commissioner Robert Cordaro sits on the board.

Cordaro has acknowledged that he owns shares of Landmark stock, but it's unclear whether he receives any other compensation for sitting on the bank's board.

"The public has a right to comment on things like this," said former Lackawanna County solicitor Joseph O'Brien, who also served as an airport board solicitor.

Despite the airport board saying that the switch was an administrative action by director Barry Centini, the state Sunshine Law calls for official action to be done in public, O'Brien stressed.

Furthermore, he said, the matter should have been studied and discussed publicly rather than handled privately in Centini's office before last Thursday's public meeting of the commissioners of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, who oversee airport operations.

"Any administrative action is subject to the approval of the board and subject to public approval," added Wy Gowell, who had served as assistant airport director and business manager until early this year, when he resigned.

Terri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, also said the bank switch appears to have violated the Sunshine Law.

"The Sunshine Act is clear. It says all official action must occur in public," she said. "If it's something that requires board action, then it's official action."

There are six exceptions to the Sunshine Law that allow public bodies to meet privately in executive sessions. They include personnel matters, negotiations regarding collective bargaining agreements, property negotiations, potential litigation and other legal matters. But any official action on such matters must still be voted on publicly.

The airport board met none of the exceptions when it met privately last week to finalize the bank switch.

A quorum of the board met in Centini's office, where commissioners signed signature cards, allowing them to endorse Landmark checks.

Gowell said he suspected the airport board was aware of the switch, before that meeting, despite statements to the contrary by commissioners.

"If it wasn't, then this signals a major shift in the way management conducts business," he said.

Centini defended his decision as an appropriate use of his administrative authority, adding it met with approval of airport attorneys.

There were no problems with Wachovia, he said. Landmark, which pitched its services to assistant airport director Michael Conner, was not the sole bank considered but made the best offer.

Landmark's bid included a higher interest rate, free courier service and zero-fee accounts, said Conner.

"We have five different accounts, so we maybe pay multiple hundreds of dollars a month in fees to Wachovia," Conner said.

The airport's banking is not subject to competitive bidding, said Conner and Centini. Had they sought bids it would have taken three months to decide on a bank.

Harrisburg International Airport Aviation Director Alfred Testa Jr. backed up his local counterparts.

"Generally, a board decides policy, not the day-to-day operational determinants," Testa said. "In the case of doing business with a bank, it has nothing to do with policy."