Mayor, mother, victim: Pa. ethics, open records experts weigh in on York assault case
York City Mayor Kim Bracey called a press conference on Thursday, Sept. 21, to address violent crime in the city.
Brandon Anderson Sr. was arrested Sept. 30 for allegedly attacking his mother, York City Mayor Kim Bracey, but city officials are still keeping mum about how they're handling his future as a city employee.
However, experts in Pennsylvania ethics and open-records laws provided some insight to The York Dispatch about what officials can and can't say in such cases, and what laws govern conflicts of interest.
Frank Campagne, the general manager of the York City Wastewater Treatment Plant, confirmed Monday, Oct. 9, that Anderson is an operations shift supervisor at the plant.
Despite Campagne's role as the plant’s GM, he advised The York Dispatch that any decision to fire or keep Anderson on the job would come from the city’s Office of Human Resources, under the supervision of Business Administrator Michael Doweary.
Anderson, 30, of the 900 block of East Market Street in York City, is charged with one misdemeanor count of simple assault and one summary count of harassment for allegedly punching and kicking Bracey about 11:15 a.m. Sept. 30 at her campaign headquarters on South Beaver Street.
Anderson spent nearly a week in custody before being released Friday, Oct. 6, from York County Prison. Later that night, Bracey responded to requests for comment with a statement that said Anderson was “battling an opioid addiction” and asked for privacy for her family.
Monday: Several hours after declining to answer any questions beyond confirming Anderson’s employment at the plant, Doweary released a statement about 5:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 9, to the same effect.
In his statement, Doweary cited a “longstanding city policy” that no city employees can speak about personnel issues.
Melissa Melewsky, a media law attorney with the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association, said “it’s becoming more common” for public officials to cite “personnel matters” to deny information, but she warned of potential “constitutional implications” of the policy.
“Ultimately, you don’t lose your First Amendment rights when you accept public employment,” Melewsky said, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings on political activity and speech. “Some limits can be applied to (public employees’) speech, but it’s not a gag order. They can’t be gagged.”
A policy such as the one Doweary pointed to prohibiting any employee from speaking could be constitutionally “problematic,” Melewsky said, suggesting that York City officials can provide more information than they have to this point.
Two attempts to reach York City Solicitors Don Hoyt and Jason Sabol were unsuccessful Tuesday, Oct. 10. The York Dispatch is seeking clarification from the solicitors about the policy cited by Doweary and the disciplinary process for a city employee accused of assaulting another city employee.
Anderson’s job title, salary, date of hire, other forms of compensation and application materials are matters of public record that can be obtained from officials or through formal requests under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, Melewsky said.
Beyond confirming Anderson’s job title, York City officials have not responded to requests for other information.
According to the 2017 York City budget, Anderson makes between $48,518 and $53,993 per year as an operations shift supervisor at the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. Anderson was hired in March 2007, according to city records.
Officials are within their legal rights to deny information about an employee’s disciplinary records and complaints filed against them, Melewsky said.
But she emphasized that while the state’s Right-to-Know law allows public agencies to deny the release of certain information, it doesn’t prohibit them from being more forthcoming.
“Can they tell you more? Yes. Are they legally required to? No,” Melewsky said.
Ethical gray areas? Robert Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said there is no state law prohibiting an immediate family member of a public official from working in that official’s municipality.
The Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission is an independent agency charged with enforcing the state's Ethics Act.
If the public official does not take any action in his or her official capacity to help a family member, then there is no conflict of interest under the state’s ethics laws, Caruso said.
Because Anderson was hired at the plant before Bracey became mayor in January 2010, Caruso said Bracey should have sent all city staff a memo after her election, informing employees of her relationship with Anderson and making it clear that she would not take part in actions regarding his discipline, compensation or potential promotions.
With city officials refusing to comment, The York Dispatch is unable to confirm if Bracey sent a memo like the one Caruso described or if she has recused herself from any deliberation about the status of her son's employment with the city.
While conflicts of interest can be easy to avoid, Caruso said, Bracey may be entering a legal “gray area” because of the number of potential conflicts she may face as the mayor, the victim of the crime and the mother of the man accused of attacking her.
“At what point does she put her family-member hat on and at what point does she have to have her hat on as a public official,” Caruso said, adding the State Ethics Commission has a process through which officials can determine how to avoid conflicts of interest in unique circumstances.
Past charges: Though Anderson’s employment status with the city is unclear after his latest arrest on simple assault charges, Anderson was able to continue working at the plant after pleading guilty in September 2013 to two counts of simple assault.
In March 2013, Anderson was charged with two counts each of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment for a Manchester Township road-rage incident in which Northern York County Regional Police said he pointed a gun at two people in another vehicle.
According to York County court documents, George Hatchard was driving westbound on Route 30 and approaching Toronita Street about 12:17 p.m. March 13, 2013, when two vehicles passed him on the right by driving onto the berm; both were turning right onto Toronita.
Hatchard also intended to turn right onto Toronita Street, and he blew his horn at both vehicles, including the second to pass him — a silver Dodge Nitro driven by Anderson, according to documents filed by Northern York County Regional Police.
Hatchard told officers that after he turned right onto Toronita, the Nitro stopped and he saw Anderson reaching under the seat for something.
Documents state that Anderson got out of his car, waved around a .45-caliber Desert Eagle handgun and pointed it at Hatchard and Hatchard’s passenger, John Soltis Jr.
Hatchard drove into the North Point housing development but was followed by Anderson, police have said. When they came to a dead end on North Point Drive, Hatchard turned around, “and while doing so (Anderson) had the firearm resting on the (car) door with his window down,” court documents state.
Hatchard and Soltis told officers Anderson had the gun pointed at them as they drove past him in an effort to get away, documents state.
Hatchard then drove to Round the Clock Diner on Route 30 while on the phone with 911, and he apparently lost Anderson, according to court documents.
Said he ‘knew nothing’: Northern Regional officers tracked down Anderson at his home, and he said he “knew nothing about the incident,” documents state.
Later, he confirmed to police that he did stop on Toronita Street after turning right and said Hatchard stopped, too, according to court documents.
“Brandon Anderson advised he then reached for his gun because he did not know what George Hatchard wanted,” documents state.
Anderson told officers that Hatchard drove off. Anderson also said he “thought about it and said ‘what the f—,’” according to documents, so he followed Hatchard through the housing development into a cul-de-sac where they turned around, according to documents.
Anderson pleaded guilty in September 2013 to two counts of simple assault and was sentenced to two years of intensive probation, with the first 90 days on intensive supervision, according to court records. He also was ordered to undergo drug-and-alcohol evaluation and complete any recommended counseling, records state.
As part of a negotiated plea agreement, charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment were dismissed, records state.
Drug charge: Then on Jan. 6, 2016, state police pulled over Anderson on Interstate 83, halfway between the Leader Heights and Loganville exits in Springfield Township, because the registration sticker on his Dodge Nitro was expired, according to charging documents.
The trooper reported smelling a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle, documents state.
Anderson completed and passed field-sobriety tests and wasn’t charged with any drunken-driving offenses, records reveal. However, a search of his car found a baggie of marijuana and Dutch Masters leaf wrappers, according to court documents.
He was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving an unregistered vehicle.
Anderson later pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia and received six months’ probation. His other two charges were dismissed as part of his negotiated plea agreement, records state.
Bracey did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
— Staff writer Liz Evans Scolforo contributed to this report.