Did Shrewsbury's mayor err in praising a group of candidates in the borough newsletter?

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Shrewsbury's mayor spoke at an event hosted by several school board candidates who've identified themselves as anti-mask and against "controversial curricula."

In the waning days of the primary campaign, Mayor Michael Sharkey used the borough's newsletter to praise the group — dubbed the Southern York County Parent and Taxpayer Coalition and composed of conservative Republicans — for its commitment to "fiscal responsibility and parental rights."

"It’s refreshing to see engaged citizens seeking to work to strengthen our community," the mayor wrote in the municipal newsletter.

Shrewsbury Mayor Michael Sharkey at the "Local Government Matters" event held by the Southern York County Parent and Taxpayer Coalition in February.

Sharkey's written comments led several Shrewsbury residents to cry foul on social media and in emails to The York Dispatch, asking if the elected official had erred in using the government-funded publication to make political endorsements.

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In an email to the Dispatch, Sharkey said his newsletter article wasn't an endorsement. Rather, he meant to inform the community that he'd spoken at the group's event.

"I included it since it builds on a common theme in newsletter articles related to being involved in the community," he said.

According to the group — which included the Southern York School Board candidates Bill Hall, Jeremy Hash, Jen Henkel, Nathan Henkel and Joe Wilson — Sharkey spoke about local taxation and representation at its event.

"No public school or other state entity should be in the business of defining purpose for your child," the group's website reads. "That is something that parents must instill with the help of their chosen religious and cultural institutions, and we do implore parents to take this as a sacred task."

All five of the Republican candidates ultimately earned a spot on the ballot in November, when they will face Democrats Elizabeth Arpin, Charles Fallin II, Amy Rebecca Hall, Danielle Weaver-Watts and Rachael Zeleny.

Using the language of several discussions — over book bans and transgender students — playing out in other York County school districts this spring, the candidates emphasized in campaign literature that they don't want to "allow young children to be indoctrinated in ideas that the majority of our community ... disagree with."

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Sharkey said he was not compensated for his speech at the event.

The group said via email the event came about as a way to educate the community and that no one was compensated.

"We invited several speakers who represent our community at the state and local levels. Not all were able to attend," the group said. "It was a very informative event that was well attended and well received."

Ellen Lyon, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Department of State, said the use of borough materials for candidates did not appear to be an election law question and declined to comment specifically on the Shrewsbury case.

Likewise, the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission indicated that such use of taxpayer resources might not constitute an ethics violations.

Mary Fox, the commission's executive director, said the agency reviews potential conflicts of interest, defined in the Ethics Act as a public official or employee using their office, employment or any confidential information received through it for personal financial benefit.

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"You kind of have to look at it as a whole and then apply it to the particular facts of the situation to see if there is an ethics violation that has occurred," she said. "In this situation, I don't know if there would be any financial gain to an individual as a result of that newsletter that would bring it within our law."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.