Chapter Five: Uncivil War

(Fifth in a series)

A constant refrain coming from supporters of the convention center project, including Sen. Armstrong, Rep. Barley, Mayor Smithgall, Commissioner Terry Kauffman was that the project would especially help the local hospitality industry and needed its support. They were unsuccessful in persuading those said to benefit from the great idea.

On September 10, 1999, less than one week before the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners was to vote whether to impose the room tax (and an additional excise tax) on County hotel and motel owners, the Commissioners’ Board was formally notified in writing that such an action violated Pennsylvania law, and, if passed, could result in a lawsuit against the county.

“The [Convention Center] Act is not applicable to Lancaster,” warned Christopher C. Conner, an attorney with the Harrisburg-based law firm of Mette, Evans, & Woodside, on behalf of the Lancaster Host Hotel and Conference Center.

Conner seemed to have a sound legal argument. Section 13102(c) (1) of the Act is unambiguous. It reads:

“This Act shall not apply to a county which has an existing convention center which covers an area of more than 40,000 square feet.”

The plaintiff Host Hotel, located just five miles from the proposed site, had 72,000 square feet of convention center space. Additionally, noted Conner, privately-owned Franklin & Marshall College also maintained a facility of more than 50,000 square feet which was also used for convention center purposes.

“It is clear from the Act,” wrote Conner to the County Commissioners, “that the legislature did not intend that public financing and the imposition of a hotel room rental tax be used to construct a convention center that would compete with an existing convention center of more than 40,000 square feet.”

Conner’s warning had no effect, and the commissioners unanimously enacted the taxes and established a convention center authority to spend them on September 15, 1999.

On September 15, 1999, in three separate resolutions, numbers 44, 45, & 46, the three Lancaster County Board of Commissioners – Republicans Paul Thibault and Terry Kauffman, and Democrat, Ron Ford — voted unanimously to establish a convention center “authority,” and to impose two taxes: a 3.1% hotel/motel room tax and a 1.9% excise tax.   Both taxes would be levied solely on the hotel and motel owners of Lancaster County. The tax would commence January 01, 2000.

The close relationship between Republican Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Ridge, and the senior Republican members of the Lancaster County legislative delegation, was evident from the inception of the Lancaster Convention Center and Hotel project.

In exchange for support of his $500 million Stadium bill, Ridge doled out $150 million from the Capital budget to dole out to helpful allies in the legislature. The Governor was especially grateful for the support of the Lancaster delegation, led by House Appropriations Chairman, John Barley, and Sen. Gibson “Gib” Armstrong, and promised a $15 million state grant for a convention center in downtown Lancaster.

Senator Armstrong was a particularly fervent backer of the convention center project, and a personal friend and active political supporter of Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall, perhaps the biggest supporter of the project.

In Harrisburg, on October 19, 1999, Armstrong introduced an amendment to House Bill 148, originally intended to authorize county appropriations for Flag Day observance, and used that pretext to reenact the Convention Center Act with a single change. Armstrong changed only the scope of the Convention Center Act. This was known afterward as the “Armstrong Amendment.”

Here is the original language of the 1994 Convention Center Act:

“This Act shall not apply to a county which has an existing convention center which covers an area of more than 40,000 square feet.”

This is Armstrong’s 1999 change:

“This subdivision shall not apply to a county which has an existing convention center owned by, leased by or operated by an existing authority or the Commonwealth with covers an area of more than 40,000 square feet.” [emphasis added]

By amending the scope of the Act, Armstrong rendered the principal legal challenge on Section 13102 invalid.

There was not a single word of the change – to a law that directly impacted the people and economy of Lancaster County – published in any of the Lancaster Newspapers until after the bill passed the Senate (October 20, 1999) and the House (October 26).

Bias can be revealed by what is not published, as well as what is published. Lancaster Newspapers’ biased coverage is again demonstrated in this case by its not reporting what the senior Senator in its district was doing in Harrisburg. One of the basic functions of the ‘Fourth Estate’  is to monitor the elected representatives of the people. As journalists, the editors of Lancaster Newspapers utterly failed its readership in not reporting Armstrong’s activity. It would be one of many such examples.

The Governor signed the revised law on November 3, 1999, and on November 5, with cameras flashing, Gov. Tom Ridge was in Penn Square handing over (and posing next to) an oversized $15 million check to Armstrong, Mayor Smithgall, Baldridge, and the rest of the project’s sponsors and supporters.

The Armstrong Amendment still raises the temperature among some local hotel operators. “There was no coverage of what Armstrong was doing, because it was done in secret,” fumed Rodney Gleiberman, of the Continental Inn. “While Armstrong, and other backers were characterizing us [hotel and motel owners] as ’selfish’ and criticizing us for getting ready to file a ‘frivolous lawsuit,’ he was busy in Harrisburg. Gib changed the law, and basically deflated our best argument, and one not previously litigated, and legitimized our case at the same time as neutralizing it.”

The hotel and motel owners were wounded, but not conceding.

On March 24, 2000, a group of 37 of them representing different hospitality establishments, large and small, across Lancaster County’s vast 940 square miles, engaged Mette Evans and filed a civil lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas in downtown Lancaster.

The suit petitioned for declaratory and injunctive relief on a total of eight counts of alleged federal and state violations of Constitutional rights.

With respect to federal Constitutional violations, the hotel and motel owners argue in their suit:

“The County Ordinances, the City Ordinance and the Armstrong Amendment, facially and as applied to the Plaintiffs, constitute arbitrary, capricious, irrational and unreasonable regulations and legislation which violates Plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights as secured by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States…”.

The hotel and motel owners argued that the tax imposed “a substantial burden on the Plaintiffs without a corresponding benefit or with a disproportionately low benefit from the tax revenues.”

The lawsuit was heard first in December of 2000. It would not be the last battle in the courtroom.

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Chapter Six: The Authority

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