It’s official: Centre Co. Commissioners vote to enter green phase Friday; Gov. Wolf approves

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CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ)– After receiving a large amount of feedback from Centre County workers, businesses, and local/state health officials (throughout Memorial Day weekend), the Centre County Commissioners have changed course–asking Governor Tom Wolf to allow the county to enter the green phase this Friday, May, 29.

Gov. Wolf approved this request at his 11:30 a.m. press conference, Tuesday.

Before Gov. Wolf’s news conference, Democratic Commissioners Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins, said at the 10:00 a.m. Commissioners Meeting that they were assured from PA Department of Health Officials that there was not a large threat of Covid-19 spreading during the June, 2 Primary Election.

This was Pipe and Higgins’ main rationale for originally asking Gov. Wolf to wait an extra week (until Friday, June, 5) to allow Centre County to enter the green phase.

In a unanimous decision Tuesday morning, they joined Republican Commissioner Steve Dershem in voting to allow the county to go green this Friday.

“We hope to be green until vaccine,” Pipe said.

Before voting, he said some changes should be made on who the decision-makers (or big influencers) are in changing a county’s status (ex: going from the yellow phase to the green phase).

Pipe said the county doesn’t have the best data for providing input on the aforementioned decision. Instead, he feels this call should fall on the Governor and other state officials, including those in the PA DOH.

“Since Centre County does not have a county health department, unlike many other counties…. I don’t believe we should be a part of the decision making process in terms of what phase or color we’re in,” Pipe said.

Also, at Tuesday’s meeting, the Commissioners were in agreement that the final decision on reopening Centre County last Friday was in the hands of Gov. Wolf, even though he stated he was honoring the Commissioners’ concerns during his Friday press conference.

“This was not a Centre County decision, you were asked to provide your opinions and thoughts, but you’re not the decision makers here,” said Centre County Solicitor Elizabeth Dupuis.

Still–the Commissioners may have a difficult time rebuilding the trust/friendship of some local business owners and workers

“I can’t control how people feel about me… I can only respond to them. If people feel there are questions left unanswered or things that happened that they didn’t agree with. I would ask them to look at the record, see what our thought process was on this,” Pipe said when asked about rebuilding a relationship with disgruntled business owners.

One man, present for the start of Tuesday’s meeting, remained upset.

“You guys have screwed this county…every business owner, every worker…. you’ve destroyed this country and this county. It’s on you,” said Dave Schultz from Howard, Centre County.

Some in the county have made accusations against Pipe and Higgins that their original decision to wait on going green, until after the Primary Election, was politically motivated.

But such accusations were put to bed Tuesday by Dershem.

“There was nothing nefarious about anything that occurred, it was genuine concern about our pole workers in Centre County,” Dershem said.

Were Pipe and Higgins alone in originally asking Gov. Wolf to wait one more week before going green?

While many reports from last Friday, including a post from PA Sentate Majority Leader Jake Corman, indicate that the Democratic Commissioners in Centre County were alone in asking Gov. Wolf to wait one week before going green, Pipe says this request (on the phone with the Gov. Wolf) was unanimous among all three Commissioners.

The accounts of Pipe and Dershem

According to Pipe:

There were two phone calls that took place last Friday between all three Commissioners. This came after Gov. Wolf’s office made contact, alerting the Commissioners they’d have 90 minutes to discuss their thoughts and give feedback on going green.

Pipe said the first joint call was at approx. 12:44 p.m.

On this call, he said there was ultimately a consensus among himself, Higgins, and Dershem to ask Gov. Wolf to wait one additional week before allowing the county to enter the green phase.

Pipe said there was a second phone call, initiated by Dershem, that took place at approx. 2:56 p.m. On this phone call, Pipe said Dershem no longer wanted to ask Gov. Wolf to wait another week to go green. He instead asked Pipe and Higgins to reconsider going green as soon as possible.

However, Pipe said by the time the second phone call took place, it was outside of their allotted window of time to give Gov. Wolf feedback.

Pipe said while Dershem’s opinion may have changed later in the day Friday, Dershem’s feedback on the original call was ultimately aligned with Higgins and Pipe.

Pipe’s final comments: “Something else that complicated things on that specific day. There were other individuals notified prior to the Commissioners that learned they would be going green. Upon those individual learning that we maybe were not going green. All hell broke loose.”

He added: “I felt like what happened on Friday, did not help us during this pandemic, but hurt us. I came to this [original] decision based on the health and safety of the county.”

According to Dershem:

The first phone call that took place (aforementioned at about 12:44 p.m. Friday) included Gov. Wolf on the line (in addition to the three County Commissioners).

Dershem said on this call, Gov. Wolf asked “What does everybody think?”

Dershem said he emphasized to Gov. Wolf that Centre County should go green “as quickly as possible.”

WTAJ asked Dershem: “Commissioner Pipe indicates that there was a unanimous request to wait another week on this phone call. Was the the case?”

Dershem: “I emphasized that we should go green as soon as possible on both phone calls.”

Dershem said he initiated the second phone call with Higgins and Pipe to further discuss the importance of not waiting to go green.

Final thoughts from Dershem: “I was probably as amazed as anybody that there was a discussion about us turning green.”

He added:”It was not helpful the way it was presented at the state level.” This was in reference to Gov. Wolf’s answer when asked why Centre Co. wasn’t (originally) going green.

Will any written account of the commissioner’s joint phone calls be published?

First, there was no neutral party writing the minutes for either of last Friday’s phone calls. There was also no recording taken of the calls (The Commissioners acknowledged at Tuesday’s meeting that in the future they should look to have some neutral record of these conversations).

The only written account of the phone calls: minutes drafted by Pipe. He claims they are an accurate representation of what occurred, and would be willing to cross-check them with Higgins and Dershem, and have them made available to the public.

However, it’s possible these drafted minutes will not ever be publicly available.

At Tuesday’s Commissioners meeting, there was discussion on whether last Friday’s phone calls were part of an emergency meeting related to Covid-19 (allowed to be called without notice according to Act 15 of 2020), or if the calls should be considered executive sessions.

If considered an emergency meeting, minutes of the calls would need to be made available to the public within 20 days.

If considered an executive session, no minutes are required to be published.

At Tuesday’s meeting Dupuis said, “In my mind it was an executive session… you did not dileberate… therefore it’s safely characterized that way rather than calling it a public meeting.”

The Commissioners agreed.

However, there was no official vote taken on whether or not the minutes will be made available to the public… something Pipe told WTAJ he would be willing to do.

The Commissioners are expected to further discuss or possibly vote on making Pipe’s drafted minutes available to the public at their Thursday meeting.

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