MECHANICSBURG — Citizens for a Better Mechanicsburg spent $222.53 to spread their information about the borough’s recent scandals — and to attempt to unseat council President J. Matthew Seagrist after he accused borough volunteers of wasting taxpayer money this past summer.
Some supporters say, however, the sum cowers in the shadow of the group’s local influence.
“I think they have a huge impact,” said write-in candidate Gary Weber, who says the local political action committee members “asked” him to run after an unsuccessful primary campaign in May. “And it’s more like I’m a representative of our family and citizens in the borough more than a political agenda.”
The local PAC swung into motion earlier this year as relations among council members crumbled amidst allegations of the misappropriation of recreation board funds.
On one side of the debate, Seagrist and his supporters — Councilman Kyle Miller and Councilwoman Anne Harding — say they want to end years of taxpayer waste and abuse hidden behind the guise of recreation board volunteers.
“Thanks to well-connected donors and candidates of the ‘Citizens for a Better Mechanicsburg’ PAC, they have introduced Harrisburg-Washington style special interest corruption and manufactured mass-market negativity to our town through their campaign,” Miller said. “As a life-long resident, it is sad to see politics take this turn in Mechanicsburg.”
In the opposing corner, PAC-backed candidates Scott Pellman, Jack Winchell, Rodney Whitcomb and Weber stand united to protect the “heartbeat” of the borough: parks and recreation.
“I’ve been involved with the community, and I think I have a good sense of our town,” Weber said. “I’m particularly ingrained in our parks and recreation. Other than your downtown, that’s the family room of your house. It’s where everybody comes.”
Among them, four council seats remain up for grabs Tuesday night — “pivotal” seats in the future of the borough, Councilman John McDermott said Thursday.
“These candidates will be sworn in during the very busy month of January,” he said. “They can choose to reopen the budget or raise taxes or move on the fire department consolidation if they want.”
The candidates in Tuesday’s election are Republicans Seagrist, Pellman, Winchell and Whitcomb, and Democrats Harding, Judith Simpson and Rhonda Marshall, with Weber as a write-in candidate.
Weber — a staunch supporter of the borough’s embroiled recreation board — said his bid for the write-in win also stems from Seagrist’s “baseless” allegations against his wife, Lorrie Weber, and her role as recreation board treasurer.
Seagrist and Miller presented a memo to borough council in September detailing an “apparent loss, waste and misappropriation of tax dollars” between 2010 and 2013 — from $129 in cellphone related fees for ringtones, wallpapers and applications to a $25 Victoria’s Secret gift card to more than $400 spent at Texas Roadhouse.
Weber said the media only covered half the story, insisting the borough bought Texas Roadhouse gift cards for a fundraiser and the lingerie gift card — though he admitted that was inappropriate — was bought by the pool manager as a reward for a life guard.
“She was reprimanded for doing that,” Weber said of the pool manager. “And that was by the recreation board, not by borough council.”
Borough council gained control of the recreation board’s finances in June after Seagrist and others began questioning its continued operation despite little — if any — ability to affect change or enforce regulations within the borough.
Board members in July released a prepared statement defining its role within the community, saying “a well-managed and equipped recreation board provides the vision, the strategy and the means to ensure healthy, safe and affordable recreational opportunities for the present and for the future.”
McDermott said part of the recreation board’s problems stem from lack of council involvement over the years. he said there has been “a lot of confusion and ignorance as to why they did the things they did.”
McDermott said he is hopeful that it will improve now that the borough has taken an active role in the board’s activities.
The recreation board works in conjunction with the borough, Mechanicsburg Recreation Department, the Mechanicsburg Area School District, Upper Allen Township and the borough of Shiremanstown. The board said this collaboration enables it to fulfill its duties and provide recommendations to the borough council liaison at monthly meetings.
Those duties include determining budget needs, monitoring finances, establishing priorities for spending and spearheading fundraising and financial sponsorships “as needed.”
Former board member Robin Agerton said the board hosts some popular events in the borough, such as Community Day, lifeguard competitions and Fourth of July picnics.
Agerton also serves as spokesperson for Citizens for a Better Mechanicsburg. She declined to comment for this story, citing a busy schedule.
Other responsibilities of the board include the evaluation of services, recording safety concerns, archiving photos and reporting findings to borough staff and elected officials.
Response to PAC
For Seagrist, however, the PAC’s motivation for protecting the recreation board has little to do with civil service.
“I would strongly suggest that you ‘follow the money’ and see firsthand the origin of this organization’s funds as Mechanicsburg’s ‘Good ole boy’s network,’ who object to the more transparent, pro-taxpayer, bipartisan reforms, challenges and accomplishments undertaken by this council over the past two years,” Seagrist said.
Citizens for a Better Mechanicsburg received three $500 contributions from Mayor Jack C. Ritter, his business partner and council candidate Winchell and real estate agent Mark C. Walker.
Fathom Studio also donated more than $1,300 as an “in-kind” contribution to the PAC. Owner Jason Smith, who also donated to Harrisburg Mayor candidate Eric Papenfuse’s campaign, says the contribution stems from a love of the borough.
“We are a business in a recession and for us to support a campaign, it’s because we feel unsupported by Matt Seagrist,” he said.
Seagrist said Smith — the former Democratic candidate for Harrisburg City Mayor — moved his business into the borough this past year and donated to the PAC because “he is desperately seeking a win as a political consultant.”
“PACs have influence only to the degree that the voters allow,” Seagrist said. “As a lifelong member of this community, I have faith that the people of Mechanicsburg will dismiss the negative, chauvinistic and false message this PAC is peddling. I am sorry that people who have known me my entire life have to be subjected to undocumentable falsehoods and pettiness contained in their poisonous message.”
McDermott saw the PAC as a way to get more Mechanicsburg residents involved in an election year that usually has lower voter turnout.
“One of my favorite quotes is ... never doubt that a dedicated group of small and thoughtful citizens can change the world,” he said. “I think as a result of the organization with this and their efforts, we are definitely going to have a high turn out.”
Email Christen Croley at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @SentinelCroley