Dispute between Wrightsville mayor and council escalates — this time over code enforcement

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

Wrightsville Mayor Tayne Slenker, mired in an ongoing dispute with the borough council, sought outside advice on how to deal with what she describes as an erosion of her authority.

Slenker, a Democrat, defeated her Republican predecessor by a four-vote margin in November 2021. Following her election, however, she has faced pushback from council members in setting up an office at the borough hall, establishing a municipal phone line and — most recently — hastening the borough's response to code enforcement complaints.

Since her election, Slenker was placed on a three-member committee to oversee such matters. That panel reviews alleged violations and decides whether to forward the matter along to a contractor, Solanco Engineering, to conduct an inspection and pursue enforcement action.

"I don't know why they would have a complaint committee — it's not part of their job," said Slenker, who ran on a platform to "clean up the town" along the Susquehanna River.

Wrightsville Borough Mayor Tayne Slenker during a regular council meeting at the Wrightsville Borough Municipal Building in Wrightsville, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Other borough officials said the committee was established largely as a cost-saving measure. In a previous meeting, council President Joseph Giandalia said the contractor charges the borough $75 per inspection. Giandalia and other borough officials did not respond to The York Dispatch's recent requests for comment on the issue.

Out of frustration, Slenker sought the input of the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association on the issue of her authority over such issues as code enforcement.

"A borough council cannot dictate the manner in which a borough mayor enforces ordinances and regulations," Jim Nowalk, the association president, wrote in a letter to borough officials.

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In a separate interview with the Dispatch, Nowalk said he didn't want to delve into the specifics of the conflict between Slenker and her council. That, he said, is up to the mayor and the council to resolve.

Speaking more broadly, however, the association president said a council has no more say or influence over a mayor than it would over an elected tax collector. Under borough code, he said, the mayoral duties include striving to preserve borough order, enforce ordinances and regulations, and remove nuisances.

"The duty to enforce the ordinances and regulations is a particularly important one," Nowalk said. "If there is an ordinance ... you are legally obligated to enforce it."

Slenker, when addressing the council at its most recent meeting on April 3, said the borough shouldn't have established a complaint committee at all.

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At that meeting, however, Giandalia said it was within his rights as council president to set up a codes enforcement committee.

"And that complaint committee was something that would help you — not hinder you," he said. "But you make it, you want it to just be you."

Wrightsville Borough President Joseph Giandalia, right, and Secretary & Open Records Officer Tammie Hoff look on as resident Melodie McDonald (not pictured) asks the council why the mayor doesn’t have an office during the public comment section of a regular council meeting at the Wrightsville Borough Municipal Building in Wrightsville, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

When Slenker tried to interrupt, Giandalia cut her off: "You had your time."

Giandalia reiterated his concern for the budgetary implications of sending inspectors out to every code enforcement complaint without having a committee to vet those complaints.

"We're just trying to save the taxpayers money, that's all," he said. "It's a time where people don't have a lot of extra money, so we're trying to do things in-house and keep the budget under control."

What happens next remains unclear.

Peter Ruth, the borough's solicitor, has tried to walk a middle path.

At the April 3 meeting, Ruth tried to negotiate the peace between Slenker and Giandalia.

"I don't think the intent is to take away your right [to enforce codes]," he told Slenker.

In a subsequent interview, Ruth compared the code enforcement committee to a police advisory committee. A council president may create a policing committee that serves as a liaison for the borough, the police department and residents, he said. The committee might take resident complaints and inquiries about the police, but the committee can't dictate what the police do.

According to Ruth, the same is true of the code enforcement committee when it comes to the mayor.

"The president of the council has a right to form a complaints committee," the solicitor said. "He can request Tayne to volunteer if she wants to be on there. I don't think he has the right to put her on there, but he can absolutely form a committee of any member about any topic whatsoever, which is what we do."

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Ruth said Slenker could choose to not participate in the codes committee and to ignore its feedback on which complaints to forward to the enforcement agency. However, the solicitor raised concerns about the escalating conflicts and miscommunication. If Slenker doesn't cooperate with the committee, the various parties may work at cross-purposes or duplicate efforts.

"It's not that I don't think she can, it's just that I want to make sure we're all on the same page," he said.

Wrightsville's next scheduled monthly council meeting is at 6:30 p.m. May 1.

In the meantime, Slenker wants to get down to business.

When complaints come in, Slenker said, she plans to go out and look at the property herself.

"If somebody calls, calls me up, or follows up with a complaint, then I will go check it out, take pictures of it, and then I will follow through with it," she said.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.