In March 2010, three months after each took office, the Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson and the City Controller Dan Miller had their first public strife over the question does the City Controller have the authority to validate who gets paid?

When Dan Miller came into his office, he attempted to exercise this power. He wanted to review the list of employees to be paid before that list was submitted to ADP Payroll Services for direct deposit.

However upon this request to review the “batch” before it was sent off for direct deposit, the Mayor refused to allow such Controller oversight citing an overstep of the Controller’s authority. So, Controller Dan Miller and then-Treasurer Paul Wambach withdrew their electronic signatures, which resulted in the need for them to hand sign each paycheck, thereby interrupting the system of direct deposit employees were used to.

Of course, most inconvenienced were the City’s employees, who now had to wait the time it took for the Controller and the Treasurer to sign all those paychecks in order to review and investigate any payment they found questionable in accordance with the Budget as passed by City Council.

Aside from the Mayor, most vocal in their protest were the unions who claimed that not having direct deposit was a violation to union contracts.

In response, the Controller’s office set up a direct deposit system, which was offered to all City employees. Apparently, this was a great source of contention inside City Hall as the Mayor was agitated by what she considered Miller’s circumvention of her demand for him to comply with the previous system. In fact, it’s reported that in his internal complaint filed against the Mayor, former City Public Works Director Ernie Hoch referred to strain the Mayor put on employees who chose to utilize the Controller’s direct deposit. It was her adamant preference that City employees not use the Controller’s system.

In May of 2011, Linda Thompson hired the law firm of Tucker Arensberg to represent her as the Mayor and the City of Harrisburg against the City Controller and the Treasurer.  In June 2011, she filed a lawsuit in Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas against Dan Miller and Paul Wambach in order to make them comply with the City’s direct deposit system. A month later, the parties agreed to a temporarily reinstate the City’s system of direct deposit for all union employees until Dauphin County Judge Lawrence Clark, Jr. made a ruling.

In 2011 alone, Tucker Arensberg charged the City of Harrisburg $34,543.56 for its representation of the Mayor. During the 2012 Budget testimonies in the Fall of 2011, the Office of the Controller had requested $60,000 in legal expenditures (up $44,000 from what was actually spent in 2010). When asked why the excessive request, the Controller referred to the suits his office was engaged in against the Mayor. He testified that ultimately, he felt his office would prevail in its position.

The hearing on this matter was scheduled for May 3, 2012, almost a year later. The scene on the 5th floor of the Dauphin County Courthouse was a strained one. Sitting in wait in a small lobby area sat Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson mostly occupied with her phone flanked by Human Resource Director Deb Felker and new City Chief Operating Officer Ricardo Mendez-Saldivia. Also, on that side of the room sat the Acting City Solicitor Jason Hess, Finance Director Bob Kroboth, and Budget Manager Joe Bream. On the other side of the room convened City Controller Dan Miller with a pile of work, both former and current City Treasurers Paul Wambach and John Campbell, respectively. Deputy City Controller William Leinberger and Deputy City Treasurer Celia Spicher were present as well. That’s ten City employees in Court for an afternoon.

Scheduled to begin at 1:00pm, it wasn’t until 2:40pm that everyone filed into Judge Clark’s Courtroom. The delay was a result of negotiations between the parties’ attorneys. At 1:55pm, the attorneys came out of the Judge’s Chambers. Ken Lee, the Mayor’s attorney, beckoned her and Mendez-Saldivia back to speak with the Judge while the City Controller and Treasurer’s attorneys said, “Let’s go downstairs and wait.” Seemingly, the Judge wanted to chat with the Mayor.

It was about 50 minutes later, we all sat in the Courtroom for what we understood was not a hearing, but rather a summary of the Judge’s conclusion. A resolution to the issue had been had.

The Judge opened the proceedings by saying, “Without a doubt, this has been an interesting journey.”

He thanked all parties for their cooperation in seeking “a mutually agreeable solution,” and he proclaimed, “There is good news this afternoon.”

Judge Clark then proceeded to outline the resolution. Declaring the Controller “a good steward, the gatekeeper of funds,” and the Mayor “the CEO, charged with managing the affairs of the executive branch,” he said the two offices are “not necessarily diametrically opposed.”

As he explained it, the executive branch presents a warrant for payment, that is a request to the Controller’s office to make a payment of a specific nature. Under law, the Judge said, the Controller has the authority of pre-approval or pre-audit of those payments. “In order to fulfill the request of the warrant, he needs certain info.”

At this point, Judge Clark cited 3rd Class City Optional Charter A established in 1957. As he said, this Charter was ratified in the days of paper and pencil, not computers and electronic systems. He stressed it was integral for everyone to “historically remember where we came from.” Presumably, the Judge felt the need to set this foundation of his remarks because he was trying to make the point that no, the 3rd Class City Optional Charter A does not explicitly refer to the Controller’s authority to oversee electronic submission of direct deposit payroll payments because, well, as he pointed out, that issue didn’t exist at the time.

The resolution as he stated it was this—-the payroll run will occur electronically in a “batch process” to be sent to the Controller to review. The Controller will determine whether or not everything is in order then send it to the Treasurer. The Controller can pull any payment, “with a reasonable basis in hand,” and ask the Administration for clarification, which “should be done expeditiously.”

“There will be cooperation extraordinaire,” Judge Clark proclaimed as he stared to a spot on the wall above everyone’s heads. A spot he maintained throughout his speech.

That is until he said this next bit about the Court retaining oversight of this resolution. He glanced out at the parties and let them know he’ll step in again if he has to. “This is not to say  the Court will get into the business of the City. Absolutely not. Unless absolutely, positively it is compelled to do it.”

He defined the Court’s position as a “significantly stepped back manner.” The Judge went onto say that the Court would be there to intervene so there would be no new motions, no new suits. “We intend to be a fair broker here. We intend to help the parties to get over these issues and to move on.”

Pointing out the obvious, Judge Clark stated, “The City of Harrisburg has extreme challenges. The Mayor and the Controller should be spending energies on other things.”

And with that he wished the City and its officials and its citizens well. Court adjourned.

So, who won?

Dan Miller gets to do what he asserted the Controller should have the right to do two years ago. The Mayor must concede and send the list of proposed payments to the Controller Office before payments are issued. He in turn must abide by the City Council-approved Budget.

But really, is there a win here? All that money spent, all that time wasted, all that City work not done (let’s not forget we still don’t have a 2009 or 2010 audit) in order to have a Judge say, yes, the definition of Mayor is this and the definition of Controller is that. There are no winners here. There are only losers. The taxpayers of Harrisburg lose because each and every dollar spent in this fight was charged to the citizens of the City of Harrisburg, and for what purpose? So everyone can do the job they should have already realized was theirs to do when they took the offices they took on behalf of the people who elected them there. No one should have needed a Court to remind them of that.

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

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