After five rounds of voting on Monday night, State College Borough Council members could not reach an agreement on an interim appointment for the vacancy on council created by Dan Murphy’s resignation.
The meeting was recessed until 6 p.m. on Wednesday when council members will take up the matter again.
Following a previously agreed upon process, council members’ names were drawn at random by Borough Secretary Sharon Ergler to determine the nominating order. Council members then could choose to nominate one of the 11 residents who applied and gave brief presentations during a special meeting last week, or pass. Members then voted on nominees in the same order and the first to receive a simple majority of four yes votes would win the appointment. When none received a majority, the nomination and voting process started over.
Throughout the voting, Jeffrey Kern and Ezra Nanes garnered the most consistent support and were nominated in each round, but neither received the four votes needed. Kern received yes votes from council members Janet Engeman, Theresa Lafer and Peter Marshall, while Nanes’s support came from Jesse Barlow, Deanna Behring and Evan Myers.
Also nominated and receiving votes on Monday night were Katherine Oh Yeaple, who was nominated during two rounds by Barlow and one round by Lafer; Ron Madrid, who was nominated twice by Lafer; and Thomas Dougherty III, who was nominated once by Barlow.
Council members can still nominate and vote for any of the 11 applicants.
Murphy resigned on Aug. 17, and the borough’s home rule charter requires council to appoint a replacement within 45 days. That means it has until 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 1 to make a decision. If the sitting members do not agree by then on a replacement to serve the remainder of Murphy’s term — which ends on Jan. 1, 2022 — it becomes the decision of the Centre County Court of Common Pleas based on a petition by council or five residents of the borough.
Monday’s deadlock resulted from differences among council members over how much prior local government experience should play a role in the selection as the borough heads into a challenging budget planning season and deals with a host of other issues, including racial equality measures, police reform and COVID-19 impacts.
For Kern’s backers, it was the primary consideration. The owner of Resource Technologies Corporation, Kern was on borough council from 2004 to 2012 and has served on multiple authorities boards and commissions.
Marshall said new council members usually have a learning curve of up to a year to get up to speed on the workings and processes of borough government.
“This is a 15-month appointment. I do not think that we can consider a learning curve that’s that long,” he said. “We have some really significant issues to deal with and to me the budget that we’re facing this year and next is going to be a major job. It’s going to take a lot of experience. The other issues before us, I think everyone that put their name in and spoke recognized those issues, and they’re important, but the number one issue as far as I’m concerned is the budget process.”
Marshall, Lafer and Engeman each also said Madrid — a retired director of the Office of Military and Security Programs at Penn State and U.S. Marine Corps officer who has served on numerous borough commissions and committees over the past two decades — also has that experience.
“Their experience counts and it matters and makes them extremely generous members of the community because they could sit on their laurels… and say it’s somebody else’s turn,” Lafer said.
“[Borough council’s work] is complex. It can be enormously tedious,” she added. “And without the right background I think we are setting people up to fail.”
For supporters of Nanes, vision and leadership were the key factors. Nanes is a director of business development at AccuWeather who in 2018 challenged state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman for the 34th District seat. Nanes lost that race to the long-serving incumbent from Benner Township, but won nearly 53% of the vote in Centre County and 80% of the vote in State College.
Behring said that in a year unlike any other, typical budget issues are “turned on their head” and the position needs someone the community looks to for leadership, with good judgment and who learns quickly.
“What I’ve seen of Ezra Nanes and his commitment to community leadership… he’s been a true community leader,” Behring said. “What I saw from Ezra in his run for the Senate was astonishing in terms of the speed and degree with which he learned not just about State College but our region and our role in the region. He was extremely impressive and I think he inspired a lot of confidence through that process.
“As I reflect on the role of a borough council person, I think Ezra represents the type of leadership people are looking for as we face some of these horrific challenges. I think he has the skill set and the capabilities and the judgment to make decisions with the information that our top notch staff… provides.”
Myers, meanwhile, said he respects Kern and Madrid and values their experience. However, he said, council provides direction for the budget, evaluates it and ultimately approves it, but does not create it, which is done by the borough’s financial staff. Nanes, he said, brings community leadership and an understanding of financial matters through his professional experience, while at the same time upholding the same values as Murphy.
“The budget is certainly important. But our budgets are prepared by our professional financial staff. They do that at our direction, based on our policies, based on the things we want to see initiated, based on the strategic direction we want to see things go in,” Myers said. “And that’s why I’m looking at someone who best represents the spirit and the policies that we want to put into place.
“I’m looking for someone who will back up the legacy that Dan Murphy put forward when he was on council. I want to back up the legacy of those people who voted him into office… In my opinion Ezra represents that.”
The discussion briefly grew heated when Marshall raised a question about Myers’s professional relationship with Nanes. Myers is semi-retired as chief operating officer at AccuWeather and said Nanes does not report to him.
“You’re intimating something and I don’t appreciate it,” Myers said to Marshall, adding that the borough solicitor determines if a conflict exists. “He does not work for me. He does not report to me. He works at the same company that I do… That question is not proper as far as I’m concerned for you to even ask. I resent that question.”
“If his job depended on your judgment he’s going to defer to you. He’s going to listen to you more than he’s going to listen to me or any other member of council,” Marshall replied. “You said he’s not responsible to you. OK, that was my question. You answered it.”
Though Barlow voted for Nanes each time he came up for a vote, he also nominated and voted for Yeaple, whom he said brought government and budget experience as well as a focus on the same values as Murphy. Lafer lauded Yeaple’s experience as well.
Now a registered nurse who works in infection control for Penn State, Yeaple also has a master’s degree in urban planning and previously worked in planning for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Amtrak.
“Her values frankly are very similar to mine and to Dan Murphy,” Barlow said. “This is also a person who changed careers — a major change in careers. It’s hard enough to establish one career, much less two and a person who can do that can do just about anything.”