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Sean Strub and the Pike County Courthouse expansion (An interview)

The courthouse viewed from Broad and W. High Streets.
The courthouse viewed from Broad and W. High Streets.
Charles B Reynolds

In an email interview about the courthouse expansion controversy with Sean Strub, owner of the Hotel Fauchere in Milford, the passion for both Milford's rich history and its economic security were very evident. As he was “traveling”, I was invited to contact him via email. Our conversation was very enlightening and I feel it would be diminished by simply pulling quotes or referring to various comments Mr. Strub made in an article about the controversy. The following (verbatim and not edited for anything) was what ensued from our conversations. For the sake of honest dialogue, however, I will point out that some of the comments by Mr. Strub are opinion and not fact. The comments about the engineering firm involved have been disputed by several parties, for instance. And the comments about county seats has also been disputed, with several of them being cited by others as being in good economic condition (such as Honesdale, PA and Media, PA), in contrast to Mr. Strub's suppositions.

But, as always, there are two (and sometimes more) sides to every story.

(Author's note – I initially did the interview with the thought of publishing in a local paper but have since changed that to online with Examiner, as I wanted to make sure the interview appeared in its entirety. Mr. Strub has been informed of this and said it was fine.)

(CR is Charles Reynolds, SS is Sean Strub.)

CR: Mr Strub, I don't know if you remember me. My name is Charles Reynolds. I am a freelance journalist writing articles for the Pike County Courier. I was hoping to ask you a few questions about your letter concerning the courthouse project. I understand you are traveling. If you wish, you can email me your response.

SS: I worked on this longer than I expected and since you indicated it may not make it into this week's paper, I assumed it would be ok if it waited until today. See attached.

I can't help but notice that your queries focus almost entirely on my personal involvement in this effort, the timeline, venues, etc. I would like to respectfully suggest that the Courier also consider investigating the specifics of what has been proposed and whether or not it is what is either required or needed.

I don't think anyone questions the need for additional and more secure space for the courts system, so that isn't the question. What is in dispute is the amount of space, types of facilities and where they should be located. There have been statements about what is "mandated by the state"; I would like to know specifically what has been mandated by the state. The space assessment survey the county had McGooey Hauser conduct isn't something I've ever seen--I requested it and it was denied in my Right to Know request--and that might be informative, even though it was conducted by a firm with an obvious conflict of interest: the bigger the building the more McGooey Hauser will profit.

Maybe a chart comparing the amount of space, personnel, desks, etc. for each relevant department or office presently compared to what is proposed for the new building. Are the building to suit the amount of money available in the bond? Or was the bond geared to a certain expectation, in which case let's know what that is. On what population and caseload projections is this proposed expansion based? Demonstrating that the caseload has increased in various categories is helpful, but someone somewhere must have projected where it is expected to go over the next few decades. How come we can't see those projections? If they don't exist, isn't that a concern? If they do exist and they won't share them, isn't that a concern?

Furthermore, there's been no discussion in the media about the political issues at play here. There is a Commissioners election next year. There are at least two other Republicans rumored to be interested in one of the Republican seats (Tom Ryan and Harry Forbes, who is likely to lose his job if Corbett isn't reelected). Caridi is supposedly not running for reelection, but I don't think he's said definitively. How is Matt Osterberg's rabid support for the Caridi plan influenced, if at all, by the prospect of a Republican primary where he will is eager to earn the support of Caridi's base in Western Pike?

There are so many issues at play here, but unfortunately the media has been manipulated, in my opinion, into focusing on criticism of those of us who believe this building may be too large, that there are other more cost-effective alternatives available and that such a dramatic degradation of the historic district is too large of a price to pay for what the Commissioners have proposed. But ultimately, since there is little if any independent evaluation of the requirements or need, we don't really know.

What follows are the questions I had for Mr. Strub based on comments he made in a public letter.

CR: You made some pretty wide ranging statements in your recent letter to the editor. I would like to take them one at a time in the order you raised them

You state that the commissioners only engaged in serious debate after Concerned Pike Taxpayers attended the biweekly meeting. I believe you called it a “farce” that they had ever done it before then. When did you become aware of the proposed plans on the courthouse expansion?

SS: There has been discussion about the need for more courtroom space for a number of years—maybe a decade or more—so the topic had been around, but it wasn’t until last year that I became aware the Commissioners were starting to move on the project and had commissioned architectural drawings. A few years ago there was a committee appointed by the Commissioners—Dick Snyder was a member—to review possible sites and expansion options. They met with architects and did a thorough review, but the recommendations weren’t to the Commissioners liking and nothing happened. The present Commissioners claim not to have any record of that previous group’s report (it was requested in one of the Right to Know requests).

In terms of calling their process a farce, it was because they refused to respond to letters sent to them by the Historic Preservation Trust of Pike County, or the two letters sent by Concerned Pike Taxpayers. We came to their bi-weekly meetings and requested they hold a public hearing at a time when more people in the county could attend, to present their plan and hear concerns and ideas for alternatives. They refused.

There is no real discussion about this; the decision was made by the Commissioners and they have only gone through the motions of listening to the public when the public shows up and manages to get a few questions in at one of their Wednesday morning meetings.

But most people aren’t able to attend those meetings, as they have jobs and they haven’t held meetings around the county or at other times of day or in the evening. They don’t post their meeting minutes online, let alone stream video of the meetings that would make them accessible to all. Transparency and encouragement of civic participation is not part of the culture of governance in Pike County, which is unfortunate.

That’s why we wanted a public meeting in the evening, maybe several of them so they could be in different parts of the county, to better understand the process they went through and why they came to the conclusion they did, as well as why they are so unwilling to engage with those with different ideas.

CR: When did you first attend a regularly scheduled meeting of the commissioners to raise concerns?

SS: I don’t know; I’ve been to several of their regularly scheduled meetings, but they seem to usually end up being combative with their solicitor arguing, or belittling, those who ask questions. It is not an honest adult dialogue or particularly productive. It is just an opportunity for grandstanding in front of the media—for both sides, quite frankly—and that is a lousy way to conduct the public’s business. A deliberate process would also be open to the media, but would encourage participation from the public and be structured and scheduled in a manner conducive to such participation. It would include a thorough review of the process and assumptions that led to the Commissioners recommendation as well as an openness to listening to and engaging with those who have ideas that could save the taxpayers a lot of money and not jeopardize the National Historic District, which contributes so greatly to our economy and quality of life.

CR: Did you meet with them prior or after that first public meeting to express your concerns? When was that?

SS: When I first filed the Right to Know requests and they said they didn’t have any renderings or elevations of the exterior of the building—even though the floor plans were fully developed—I questioned the response and was invited to meet with Commissioner Osterberg, Solicitor Farley and Gary Orben the county clerk. I think this was last August or September. Commissioner Osterberg kept saying “he hasn’t seen” any such drawings, but was evasive when I asked if such drawings were made. “I wouldn’t know that” he said. Solicitor Farley responded that there “were no official drawings” and when I said I didn’t care if they were official or not, were their renderings of the exterior of the building made or not. They said they didn’t have that done in order to save money, a claim I found strange since other architects told me the detail of the floorplans that were completed couldn’t have been made without some idea of what the exterior of the building looked like.

CR: When did you first raise public concerns? In what manner did you do this?

I’m not sure of the date I first raised public concerns, but I think a year ago I started writing letters to the editor, last summer I filed Right to Know requests, I spoke personally with various people involved. But there have been others over the years—like the site committee referenced above—but the Commissioners didn’t seem interested in their comments or input.

CR: You say in your letter that “They [the commissioners] declined to provide documentation to support the assumptions underlying their plan.” Did you file a 'right to know' request that was ignored or declined for this documentation? If so, when was that?

SS: Much of what was requested in Right to Know requests we were told wasn’t available. Some of the specific assumptions that we requested related to the amount of space needed and how that was calculated, based on what population projections, how much space per desk, how the needs by department were analyzed, etc., as well as the assumptions used in the financial analysis that led them to believe the plan chosen was the most appropriate one. A subsequent request for any email correspondence between the Commissioners was responded to with the claim that the Commissioners never use email.

The Commissioners have chosen to locate most functions of the county’s Criminal Justice System in one building - courts, judges, court administrations, Jury, sheriff’s administrative office, temporary prisoner housing, and probation. This has necessitated a “compartmental approach” that leads to a very inefficient plan - hence the 18 separate bathrooms and “maze” lay out of the lower floors.

By taking a campus approach, and taking better advantage of the county investments already made in Milford (utilizing the Old Jail and Mahlame building, particularly with parts of the probation services), we can significantly reduce the cost, with a smaller footprint and fit the Annex behind current Courthouse or behind the Kenworthey House, still attached to the Court.

CR: You state, again in your letter, that your group has nearly “500 signatures” opposing this plan, which was published in local papers. Would it surprise you to know that there are people on your list who did not actually sign anything?

SS: “Signing” in this case, encompasses people who notified us by email that they wanted their name added to the Open Letter. After the letter was published, there were three people who asked that we remove their names (which we did); two explicitly cited fear of retribution to them or their relatives by the county. There were a handful of names (maybe 10) on the Open Letter for whom I don’t have an actual email from the signing party, but were added based on communications (whether verbal or email I don’t know) they had with others who were gathering names.

CR: With about 56,862 people in the county (per the July 2011 census), only roughly 500 signatories on your opposition, why does it surprise you that other residents – and not the commissioners, as you claim – call this movement the “1 percent'? (Just so you know, a woman who attended the 3-19-14 meeting by the name of Tammy Gillette was the originator of this phrase in regards to your group. I quote the article I wrote “When she was accused of “parroting [commissioner] Wagner”, she pointed out she was speaking her own mind and using the language of the Occupy movement to get her point across.”)

SS: I first heard the “1%” reference from Commissioner Wagner, at a meeting a a while back. But it is misleading, whether it is Commissioner Wagner or Tammy Gillette or anyone else using it as the 1% in Occupy terms, which references an economic elite, versus having 1% of county residents sign a petition, encompassing people from every economic strata, are two very different things. Incidentally, Tammy Gillette is employed by the Commissioners; a fact that might have been relevant to include in your reportage. A significant number of those who have publicly embraced the courthouse expansion plan proposed by the Commissioners are either employed by the county, enjoy appointments from the Commissioners or are related to those who do.

You cite our ~500 signatures as “only”; can you please provide an example of when more Pike County residents have ever signed a petition for or against anything? Rather than calling it “only” 500; one could just as readily point out that “a record-breaking number of Pike County residents signed…” That is, quite frankly, a lot of signatures in Pike County.

CR: You state that the courthouse expansion would threaten the viability of Milford's private commercial sector. I have a two angled question about that, that is two questions that may seem unrelated. First, exactly how do you feel the expansion project would “threaten” Milford's private commercial sector's viability?

SS: The primary driver of Milford’s private sector economy is tourism and the National Historic District is one of the most significant attractions (the two other major ones are Grey Towers and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area). Over the past 20 years, the attractiveness of Milford as a destination has steadily increased, through a heightened awareness and commitment to historic preservation, a tremendous effort by the Milford Enhancement Committee (MEC) to improve the public spaces in Milford and significant private and public sector investment in making Milford more amendable to visitation.

The MEC’s work, in particular, has been transformational, raising and spending about $4 million—with almost nothing at all from local tax dollars—to install curbing, replace or install sidewalks, pedestrian lighting, benches, landscaping and other improvements that have made Milford a more attractive and safer place to visit. If you’ve only been here three years, I urge you to look at some of the photographs from a decade ago, when what are today attractive sidewalks were sometimes little more than dirt paths or busted up blacktop; small parklets and landscaped areas were paved over.

Twenty years ago, Grey Towers, the National Historic District and the Hotel Fauchere weren’t bringing tens of thousands of visitors to Milford from each year to support our economy. Grey Towers wasn’t designated a national historic site, the Fauchere was partly empty and partly used for offices and the National Historic District wasn’t established.

Anything that diminishes the National Historic District diminishes the desirability of Milford as a destination. Degradation of an historic district happens incrementally; a compromise here and one there and before long, it is fundamentally different. But this proposed expansion is no incremental erosion of the historic district, it is a huge change that violates fundamental principles of historic preservation and protection of an historic district.

Milford’s private sector economy is not so strong that it can withstand serious hits like this. Moreover, when our political leadership doesn’t respect and support private sector community improvement efforts—as evidenced by the MEC, the establishment of the Historic Preservation Trust of Pike County and an enormous amount of private sector investment—then those private sectors efforts are going to be less robust or go away.

CR: Second, would it not be more accurate to say that Milford's own exorbitant property fees – rent, specifically – and the restrictive nature of many of the borough's ordinances would have a greater impact on its commercial viability than this expansion?

SS: I don’t know of any business that wants to open in Milford that cannot do so because of rent. If you know of any, please have them contact me because Dick Snyder and I have rental space available very inexpensively. We’ve had empty spaces at the Old Schoolhouse for several years; in our experience, the issue at this point is demand, not rent.

In terms of ordinances, I am in business in Milford and know very well that local ordinances sometimes feel unnecessarily restrictive or, worse, arbitrarily enforced. To some extent that is the nature of local government, but over the last ten years I definitely believe it has gotten better. The implementation of the Architectural Review Board was a challenge, as the ARB was comprised of volunteers and everyone—the members of the ARB, the Boro Council, the business and property owners—were learning about it as we went along and making revisions as necessary. But it also has been, in my view, an enormous success in attracting tremendous historic investment in Milford.

CR: On that second front, have your started any public campaigns to correct these issues to Milford's commercial future? (I ask this because I have only been here three years and are not aware of what you may have championed prior to my arrival.)

SS: For eight years I published Milford Magazine monthly and its focus was on encouraging civic participation, long-term planning and economic development in Pike County, environmental protection and encouragement of a vibrant creative community in Milford. I helped launch the Black Bear Film Festival and the Milford Music Festival. I served eight years on the Governor’s Travel and Tourism Partnership, through the Pennsylvania Department of Economic and Community Development. I have volunteered with the Milford Enhancement Committee for more than 15 years and served in many other volunteer roles. I have been an active participant in public life and political discourse in Milford since the late 1990s.

CR: You make claims of other “Pennsylvania county seat 'ghost towns'” and say that “many of those county seats” but make no actual references to which ones you are referring to. Could you elaborate? Perhaps name a few of them?

SS: I’m not going to criticize other county seats by name as I am supportive of civic pride and engagement and don’t want to risk insult to specific communities where there are often groups of people very engaged in trying to repair damage from the past. And, to be fair, there are many factors that contribute to the degradation of small towns, and county seats, and large government buildings that are out of scale with the community are only one factor; possibly not even the most important one in most cases (that prize usually goes to big box commercial development outside of the town that sucks the economic life out of the traditional central business district). But there is no question that historic preservation serves the long-term economic benefit of communities and improves quality of life and how well communities have done this varies significantly.

In a follow-up email, I addressed Mr. Strub's concerns about the one sided nature of the questions and explained a little about my journalistic philosophies, my history in state and national level politics journalism, as well as the difficulties inherent in freelance reporting (time and resources not always available). “Most times, as I believe I once explained to you, it is hard to justify the type of investigative reporting for these local papers,” I wrote. “In some cases, however, I feel its important to dig that extra depth no matter the time it may take. I believe this is one of those times where it is important for the public to be aware of all sides so they can get at the truth of the situation, not just the truth as one side or the other may see it.” I did take his suggestion to heart to look into other aspects of the courthouse expansion and am currently investigating those areas he points to in his responses.

SS: I appreciate that sense of responsibility. It is a tremendous problem in a place like Pike County, where we have no radio station, no daily newspaper, no hospital, the second-longest average commute of any county in the country and a huge percentage of the population that is relatively new to the area and, therefore, typically less engaged in civic processes. All of these things create sort of a perfect storm for minimal oversight of, accountability and transparency in local governance, particularly when there is an entrenched establishment with some unwelcoming or suspicious of relative newcomers.

I truly do appreciate your interest in digging deeper, as there is much to be found if one is willing to look. The issues with McGooey, Hauser & Edsall are not incidental, or routine kinds of disagreements in the course of that line of work. There are significant integrity issues, some of which have been in litigation or under scrutiny by governmental and regulatory agencies. Why do they get virtually all of the public work in Pike County?

While the state code allows no-bid contracts for professional services, that "no bid clause" is an exception meant to enable them to hire trusted counsel rather than simply going with the lowest bid. If you inquire of experts on the code, you are likely to find that they believe that exception isn't intended for significant amounts of work on capital projects. How much have the Commissioners spent on no-bid contracts related to the Courthouse expansion?

Or perhaps look at the bonds that were sold several years ago. Who benefited from the sale of those bonds; in my experience in local government, the bond sales are typically a gravy train for someone. Why did they sell them years ago, before there was a project ready to go?

Where is the constituency in support of this plan, other than the Commissioners, county employees and contractors and their families? I'm sure some exists, but I literally have not met a single one. I know the meaning of the word "literally" and I mean it, I haven't met a single person who has spoken or written in favor of this plan who doesn't have some relationship with the County. I'm sure some exist; if for no other reason than it is perceived as a position antagonistic to the so-called "Milford elites," which always has an audience, but I haven't identified such a person yet.

The irony is that Taxpayers United, the fiscal watchdog group that has been such a powerful force for so many years in Pike County politics, has been totally silent on the Courthouse expansion. Since when do we have such a huge capital expenditure without community scrutiny?

CR: I thank Mr. Strub for agreeing to be interviewed on this very controversial subject within the Pike County community and for allowing the change of venue. He was most gracious indeed.

Charles B Reynolds is an author, songwriter and journalist, who also performs and records under the name Charlie Reynolds. * Disclaimer – No monetary gain or other considerations were received from the the subject of this interview, any businesses associated with the subject, any government agencies nor any for profit or not for profit mentioned in this interview.