by Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
The galvanized and growing opposition to the proposed hotel and convention center presented a formidable challenge to project sponsors.
The emergence of April Koppenhaver, and Randy Carney, and Robert Field, along with Ron Harper and other estimable people in the larger Lancaster community, meant that the county commissioners, specifically Dick Shellenberger and Molly Henderson, had a swelling of support behind them in questioning the increasingly expensive, taxpayer subsidized project. These people were used to being heard.
As noted, the sponsors of the project – High Industries, Lancaster Newspapers, equal partners, and Fulton Bank, minority investor – had serious concerns about the two (now majority) commissioners. It was the county assessment office that had the responsibility for determining whether the property would have tax-exempt status. In September of 2007, the county would be able to appoint the swing vote to the Lancaster Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) board, giving the county appointees, not Smithgall’s city board members, the decisive majority.
It was also clear Shellenberger and Henderson were going to examine a variety of other concerns, including the October, 2003, $40 million ‘midnight’ county guaranty, the hotel room tax, and other issues of the feasibility of the project. A possible lawsuit challenging Act 23 funding was also publicly discussed by the two commissioners.
It was 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, and it came in the form of the sale of a 200 year-old, county-owned nursing home called Conestoga View.
Before 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, it 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 20% of the county workforce and housed the county morgue in its basement and the youth intervention center on its 40 acre grounds, was first raised sometime during the sticky ‘dog days’ of that campaign summer when sitting commissioner Pete Shaub brought it up with county solicitor, John Espenshade.
(Espenshade, a partner at the politically connected firm of Stevens & Lee, was also the solicitor for the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority [LCCCA]. Stevens & Lee was additionally the registered lobbyist for High Industries, as well as the authors of the project’s original enabling legislation, the Pennsylvania 19994 Convention Center Act.)
Shaub and Shellenberger were the two leading Republican vote-getters in the spring primary, which virtually assured they, in GOP-dominant Lancaster County, would be elected to the three-person board of commissioners. The only open question during the campaign was whether maverick Constitution Party candidate, Jim Clymer, running on an anti-convention center platform, would upset both of the Democrats on the ballot, Molly Henderson and Bill Saylor.
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,” says Shellenberger today. “This was the philosophy I campaigned on. Any thing the private sector can do, the government should not be competing and doing.”
Since Shaub was the only sitting commissioner during these pre-election meetings, they were not in violation of the state’s open records, or Sunshine Act, requirements.
After taking office in January, 2004, Shaub and Shellenberger, 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 violating the Sunshine Act.
The two commissioners, according to a later grand jury investigation into the sale, deliberately and carefully kept newly-elected Commissioner Molly Henderson ‘out of the loop’ and completely ignorant of these ongoing negotiations. Shellenberger and Shaub were able to circumvent the Sunshine Act 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 when a surrogate of one official, in this case a 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.
The person walking the halls on behalf of then-board chairman Shaub was County Administrative Officer, Don Elliot, (who used Penn Square Partners’ Nevin Cooley as a reference on his application).
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. They had worked together at one of Shellenberger’s former jobs, and been fellow church members before Heinke left Pennsylvania and moved with his family to Minnesota to pursue a doctorate.
After Shellenberger won the Republican endorsement in early 2003, he contacted Heinke and asked his friend if he would be interested in working as the CSO for the county after Shellenberger (presumably) took office.
Heinke was interested in the position, and Shellenberger, Shaub, and Espenshade all helped Heinke get the job by sending him material and job related questions in advance of the formal interview for the position. The the two Republican commissioners 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 (CAO).]
Neither Henderson nor the county human resources department were aware of the preferential treatment afforded Heinke and Elliot.
Heinke was hired as CSO, and 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 , their surrogates, and the private company then running Conestoga View, the relationship between Shaub and Shellenberger deteriorated drastically. Shaub, with a well-earned reputation as high strung and volatile, was known to be abusive to staff, as well as his fellow commissioners.
Shaub’s outbursts were so well known that a story had been published in one of the Lancaster Newspapers about his abusive behavior. It wouldn’t be the last item about Shaub’s antics. His behavior toward highly regarded county planning department, Ron Bailey, led to Bailey’s resignation.
Shellenberger, though mild and congenial personally, was sincerely and increasingly concerned about the convention center financing, and was demanding answers from project sponsors. Shaub, conversely, was a staunch supporter of the project.
“As I said back then,” Shellenberger explained to NewsLanc, “the project involved a great deal taxpayers’ money, and the more I tried to learn about the project, which was difficult because we weren’t getting answers, the less sense it made to me.”
At the regular Wednesday public commissioners’ meetings, Shaub displayed a penchant for blindsiding his fellow board members with venomous verbal attacks.
“I’d like to know which side of your mouth you are speaking out of today,” he told Commissioner Molly Henderson at one such meeting.
Henderson never responded in kind to Shaub. The lone Democrat on the board, and only the second woman elected Lancaster County Commissioner, Henderson never lost her composure during these unprovoked attacks.
The deal Shaub, Shellenberger, and Espenshade (and associates) were working out with CompleteHealthcare Resources had the county selling the facility and the grounds for a total package 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 morgue and the youth intervention facility would remain on the grounds.
On July 6, 2005, at a regular commissioners’ meeting, the commissioners’ voted to enter into an agreement to sell Conestoga View.
The first reaction 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 poorly written 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 was clear in this column there was a voice other than Hennigan’s as “Clyde” considered Conestoga View.
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…”
The first column did mention that Commissioner Henderson requested more time for public input before voting on entering into the sale agreement, but the other commissions wanted the vote done on that date. Soon, the newspaper coverage conflated Henderson with the other commissioners as pushing the sale.
After the July 6 vote, as if by coordinated orchestration, 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 a 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 (and 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, in particular, was especially vocal in his rebuke of all three county commissioners.
By the time the sale was voted on, on September 28, 2005, the unlikely issue of nursing home sale was front page news.
And the hunt had just begun…