With Robert Field added to the growing number of those openly questioning the convention center and hotel project, sponsors of the project now faced formidable opposition.
The emergence of April Koppenhaver, Randy Carney, and Field, along with Ron Harper, Jr., and others, meant that the Lancaster County Commissioners, specifically Dick Shellenberger and Molly Henderson, had a swelling of support behind them in their challenge to the increasingly expensive, taxpayer subsidized project.
Since the early part of 2005, before the TIF vote, it was apparent Shellenberger and Henderson were going to examine a variety of concerns regarding the project, including the $40 million county guaranty, the hotel room tax, and other issues related to the feasibility of the project. A possible lawsuit challenging Act 23 funding was also publicly discussed by the two Commissioners.
It was the late spring of 2005, and the project was far from complete. Not a shovel of dirt had been turned, funding was not secured, architectural drawings were not finished, and the public was demonstrably becoming more impatient and resistant to the project. It was a project with a very uncertain future.
Then the sponsors were presented with an opportunity which they seized with gusto. It came in the form of the sale of a 200 year-old, county-owned nursing home called Conestoga View.
Prior to the summer of 2005, if the Conestoga View nursing home was mentioned at all in any of the Lancaster newspapers, it was in the obituary section. By the end of the year, Conestoga View made the front pages, the editorial pages, and letters-to-the editor pages almost every day of the week.
The facts around the sale of Conestoga View began in the summer of 2003.
The idea to sell the facility, which employed about twenty percent of the county workforce and housed the county morgue in its basement, as well as a youth intervention center on its 40-acre grounds, was first raised sometime during the campaign summer. It was then when sitting commissioner Pete Shaub brought it up with county solicitor, LCCCA solicitor, and Stevens & Lee partner, John Espenshade.
During the summer of 2003, Shaub and Shellenberger, despite differences in temperament, often campaigned as a team. In September, when Shaub spoke to Shellenberger about the possible sale of Conestoga View, Shellenberger agreed with Shaub that the county should sell the facility. Both believed that selling Conestoga View was consistent with their interest in shrinking government, a standard part of the Republican platform.
“Conestoga View was losing money, and we felt this was the kind of thing that government should not be doing,” said Shellenberger after he left office. “This was the philosophy I campaigned on. Anything the private sector can do, the government should not be competing in and doing.”
Since Shaub was the only sitting commissioner during these pre-election meetings with Shellenberger and Espenshade, they were not in violation of the state’s open meetings, or Sunshine Act, requirements.
After taking office in January, 2004, Shaub and Shellenberger, along with solicitor Espenshade, continued to pursue selling Conestoga View to Complete Healthcare Resources, the private company that had operated the facility for more than a decade. But now that Shellenberger was in office, meeting with Shaub privately to discuss potential legislation meant possibly violating the ‘Sunshine’ law.
The two Commissioners, Shaub and Shellenberger, according to a later grand jury investigation into the sale, deliberately and carefully kept newly-elected Commissioner Henderson ‘out of the loop’ and completely ignorant of these ongoing negotiations. Shellenberger and Shaub were able to circumvent the Sunshine law restrictions by either meeting with Espenshade individually, or by using a common practice known as “walking the halls.”
‘Walking the halls’ is a term used to describe a practice where a surrogate of one official, in this case a County Commissioner, meets with another Commissioner. Then the surrogate ‘walks the halls’ back to the other commissioner’s office and briefs him. This goes back and forth, and it is done frequently as a practical way of not awaiting a public meeting in order to discuss matters between a quorum of Commissioners. (Only two of the three commissioners make up a quorum!)
The person walking the halls on behalf of then-board Chairman Shaub was County Administrative Officer, Don Elliot, (who happened to use Penn Square Partners’ Nevin Cooley as a professional reference on his application to the county).
The person walking the halls as Shellenberger’s representative was an administrator with a newly created position of Chief Services Officer (CSO) named Gary Heinke.
Gary Heinke and Dick Shellenberger were close personal friends. For several years, they had been active fellow church members, and regularly socialized together before Heinke left Pennsylvania, and moved with his family to Minnesota.
After Shellenberger won the Republican endorsement in early 2003, he contacted Heinke and asked his friend if he would be interested in returning to Lancaster to work as the Chief Services Officer for the county after Shellenberger took office.
Heinke was interested, and Shellenberger, Shaub, and Espenshade all helped Heinke get the job. The three sent Heinke material and job-related questions in advance of the formal interview for the position. Shaub, Shellenberger, and Espenshade also had several meetings with Heinke, none of which the other candidates for the position received. (Elliot was the only candidate to receive advance material for the Chief Administrative Officer post.)
Neither Commissioner Henderson nor the county human resources department were aware of the preferential treatment afforded Heinke and Elliot.
With unanimous Commissioners’ approval, Heinke was hired as Chief Services Officer. He began work on March 29, 2004. Weeks later, his job responsibility was expanded to include supervising five new departments, and overseeing Conestoga View.
During 2004, as negotiations continued between Shaub, Shellenberger, Espenshade, and the private company operating Conestoga View, the relationship between Shaub and Shellenberger deteriorated drastically.
The high-strung, combustible Shaub, who in his previous term often clashed with fellow Republican, Paul Thibault, frequently lashed out publicly at his fellow Commissioners.
“I’d like to know which side of your mouth you are speaking out of today,” he told Commissioner Molly Henderson at one meeting.
At the turn of the year to 2005, Shellenberger and Henderson staged a ‘coup’ for the Chairman’s seat, and voted to place Shellenberger as chairman of the board of Commissioners. Shaub was livid that he lost the Chairman’s seat to Shellenberger. Shaub was also bitterly angry at Henderson, whose vote enabled Shellenberger to depose Shaub.
The animosity between Shaub and Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson was exacerbated by their present positions on the convention center project. Shellenberger and Henderson were increasingly concerned about the convention center financing and feasibility, and demanding answers from project sponsors. Shaub remained a staunch supporter of the project.
The deal Shaub, Shellenberger, and Espenshade were hammering out with Complete Healthcare Resources had the county selling Conestoga View and its grounds for a total of $13.5 million – $8.5 million for the buildings, the rest for compensation and assurances that no job cuts would be made and no indigent patients denied care. The facility had a long history of caring for the elderly poor.
The morgue and the youth intervention facility would remain on the grounds.
On July 6, 2005, at a regular Commissioners’ meeting, all three Commissioners’ voted to enter into an agreement to sell Conestoga View. This meant they were intending on finalizing the sale at a later date.
The first reaction to the now-pending sale in the Lancaster Newspapers appeared on July 10, 2005, in the “Coffee with Clyde” column, written by then-Sunday News editor, Dave Hennigan.
The “Clyde” columns were a collection of observations and homilies put forth by Hennigan’s alter ego, Clyde. But the column printed on that Sunday in July had a decided edge to it. And it may be there was a voice other than Hennigan’s whispering in ‘Clyde’s’ ear.
Below is the first reaction to the issue that would dominate Lancaster Newspapers’ coverage more than any other in its history:
“July 10, 2005
Coffee With Clyde
Good morning, Clyde. What’s going on?
“The county commissioners played a little ‘full steam ahead’ on Wednesday,” my jogging friend said, sipping his coffee.
Indeed, Clyde. What do you mean?
“They approved the sale of Conestoga View in record time, Mr. Editor. It took the commissioners only six days from when it became public to unload a piece of Lancaster.”
What’s the point, Clyde?
“What’s the rush, Mr. Editor? They pulled this stunt over a holiday weekend, when few people could react, and when a couple did complain, they ignored their request to postpone the vote…”
Hennigan’s column did mention that Commissioner Henderson requested more time for public input before voting on entering into the sale agreement, but Shaub and Shellenberger wanted the vote done on that date, and it was passed. Soon, the newspapers’ coverage conflated Henderson with the other Commissioners’ involvement in pushing the sale.
After the July 6 vote, as if by orchestration, waves of letters to the editor opposing the sale also began to appear in all three papers.
“Last Wednesday, I learned that our county commissioners had been in secret negotiations for many months to sell the Conestoga View Nursing Home,” read one letter printed in the Intelligencer Journal on July 14, 2005.
“I would like to let the public know how the sale of Conestoga View has affected the staff and residents. The staff and residents were informed of the sale the morning before it came out in the evening newspaper. That was a slap in the face,” read another in the Lancaster New Era on August 13, 2005.
These letters were typical, and they were printed by the dozens during those summer months.
A readers “poll” in the Intelligencer Journal showed 96 percent of the self-selected respondents opposed the sale of Conestoga View.
Prominent political officials and ex-officials (all ardent convention center supporters) – like former Mayor Art Morris, former County Commissioner Paul Thibault, and then-Lancaster city Mayor Charlie Smithgall – all very publicly voiced opposition to the sale. Morris was especially critical in his rebuke of all three County Commissioners.
By the time the final sale agreement for Conestoga View was voted on, on September 28, 2005, the unlikely issue of nursing home sale was front page news.
And it was just the beginning of the story.