In a nearly 50-minute presentation that took up the majority of Tuesday’s meeting of Titusville City Council, Mayor Esther Smith responded to various critics, consisting of both public figures and private citizens, whom she accused of spreading falsehoods against city leadership.
The presentation, which came just before the adjournment of council’s regular meeting, is the first in what Smith promised to be a five-part series that she plans to extend over the four council meetings remaining in the year. Throughout the course of the meeting, Smith handed printouts of emails and Facebook posts made by various people, many of them critical of the mayor, council and city government.
The mayor claimed that negative things regarding city leadership were “seldom heard” before the dissolution of Titusville Area Leisure Services Commission in 2017.
“There were very few complaints about City Council, the city manager, how he was handling the finances and running the city, or myself and how I led this administrative body,” Smith said. “In fact, we were praised for the wonderful and positive things that were being accomplished in the city.”
After the city began looking into complaints against the Titusville Airport Authority, however, Smith alleged that “a small group of people” began spreading what she called “seeds of doubt” among the Titusville population that caused them to take a negative view of the heads of the city. The mayor named a few members of this group during the meeting, namely Titusville resident James Elliott and Titusville City Council candidate Roger Gordon. In a discussion with The Herald after the meeting, Smith named the other members of this alleged small group, listing off former Titusville Airport Authority member Larry Weldon, Titusville resident Kenneth Hartley, former Titusville Airport Manger Jim Kuhn, and city council candidates Dennis Peden and Jon Crouch. Smith called Gordon the “primary voice of contention, accusation and negativity” among the people involved.
“Suddenly, every situation that was of concern, whether in the city’s jurisdiction or not, became the mayor’s fault, the city manager’s fault or both,” Smith said.
The mayor then read off a list of criticisms that Smith said have been leveled against her by the group. Many of these criticisms were previously addressed in two flyers sent out in July to Titusville residents, and also appeared in the July 1 and July 22 editions of The Herald as paid advertisements. Smith called the information presented in The Herald an “article,” but no staff writer or editor working with the paper was involved in the creation or writing of the content.
Among the critiques were accusations of over-inflating city service bills, negative views on the dissolution of various authorities including Leisure Services and Airport Authority, running the Open Air Market run by Titusville Renaissance Inc. out of town, abandoning the South Perry Street Bridge, “robbing” the city’s water and sewer funds for money, performing illegal budget transfers, demolishing the Dick Kraffert Memorial Pool, getting rid of leaf pick-ups in the city, underfunding the police and fire pension funds, cutting the fire department maintenance budget and the mayor handpicking candidates for council Smith could become city manager.
Smith criticized these claims and criticisms as “false statements” and similar such phrases. She said that during the future parts of her presentation series, she would present evidence proving each criticism as false or unfounded.
Some of Smith’s supposed evidence was given at the meeting. She held up a pipe which she alleged was used to illegally dump sewage at the Titusville Airport. This pipe was previously discussed at a March 12 meeting of the Titusville Airport Authority. However, members of the Airport Authority have previously denied the existence of the pipe or claimed that they were unaware of it if it did exist.
In a March 13 article of The Herald, then Airport Authority member Larry Weldon said that concerns about sewage leaking from pipes at the airport were raised around 2007 by a Cherrytree Township supervisor, but testing by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found no signs of sewage discharge.
Former authority member Mike Pedensky, also in a March 13 article, said he did not know of any such pipe existing.
The Titusville Airport Authority was dissolved at an April 9 meeting in a 3-2 vote. Weldon and Gale Bean, who were the most veteran members of the authority at the time of the vote, were against the measure, while Authority President Don Frazier, Vice President/Treasurer Heather Leonardi and Secretary Tamara Champion were in favor. The authority was on the receiving end of many criticisms and accusations by city government leading to the dissolution, including comments about the allegedly illegal pipe and late audits.
Smith further claimed that among long-standing issues there was evidence of pornography being watched at the Leisure Services office when discussing the board’s dissolution, and also asked City Solicitor Rich Winkler whether the transfers from the city service funds were illegal. Winkler said they were not.
Leisure Services’ dissolution, according to a Jan. 11, 2017, article in The Herald, was brought about due to financial issues. The Herald, consulting previous articles and the newspapers’ archives, was unable to find any mention of pornography in connection with the dissolving of Leisure Services.
The termination of Leisure Services was initially announced in 2015 by the City of Titusville and the Titusville Area School District, though the dissolution did not occur until 2017. The dissolution came after the board’s former director, Michael Rice, was charged in 2015 with stealing $4,500 from the group by failing to make deposits of money ear-marked for Leisure Services programs and activities. The board was marked with a period of instability in the years heading up to its dissolution, with many members resigning.
The mayor accused the group she said was responsible for allegedly spreading misinformation of participating in “adult bullying,” and distributed print outs of emails and Facebook posts critical of the mayor. Elliott, when the mayor began talking about a post made by him, criticized the mayor’s attacks.
“I object to this,” Elliott said. “This is not a political meeting.”
Smith and Elliott traded remarks throughout many points of the meeting. Smith eventually said Elliott was “out of order” and asked Titusville Police Chief Dustin LeGoullon, who was in attendance at the meeting, to intervene. LeGoullon spoke with Elliott, and the latter stayed through the rest of the meeting, at one point suggesting out loud that Smith should resign.
Another accusation which Smith discussed was a Facebook post made on the Roger Gordon for Titusville City Council page which alleged that the mayor hired PIN News, a Facebook media page, to attack Gordon. Smith claimed that she had never met the people who run PIN News prior to them moving to town.
The mayor closed her comments by praising the work she and the current council members have done over the past few years.
“We had a job to do,” she said. “We did it. I will not apologize for doing what is right.”
The Herald was successful in contacting several of the people Smith laid criticisms against at the meeting. All of them gave a negative impression of the mayor’s actions and statements.
“I think that the mayor’s behavior was very nasty tonight, and I am quite upset about it, but a good point is that tomorrow morning, when I get up, I won’t be upset anymore,” said Weldon, who wasn’t able to attend the meeting but said he saw video clips of it. “She’ll still be nasty.”
Elliott said he was “appalled” that he was attacked in such a manner while being a private citizen. He accused the mayor of attempting to intimidate him and Gordon, Peden and Crouch.
“I thought the whole mayor comment section was ridiculous,” Elliott said. “I couldn’t believe she used a city council meeting — which is designated for city business — she used that meeting for her political agenda.”
Gordon, who said he heard “snippets” of what happened at the meeting from other people, said that anything he has put his name on has been “totally, factually based.”
He also said that Smith using a tax-payer funded public meeting to make her comments was “blatantly illegal” and called on Winkler and other members of council to resign for not stopping the comments.
Crouch accused the mayor of attempting to influence the upcoming city council election through her comments, something he said shouldn’t be done at a council meeting.
“I wasn’t at the meeting tonight,” Crouch said. “I saw a short video clip. Her actions were very unprofessional and unbecoming of a mayor.”
He said it was “embarrassing” that neither City Manager Larry Manross or other members of council stepped in to stop the comments. He characterized the incident as creating a hostile environment at council meetings.
“The people of this town desire city council meetings where people are excited to come to them, know they can voice their objections and never be personally demeaned or threatened,” he said.
Hartley said Smith was telling the “half-truth” and lies with many of her comments.
The Herald was unsuccessful in contacting Kuhn or Peden. All of the people The Herald was able to contact confirmed that Smith did not reach out to them for permission to hand out the emails and social media posts they made.
The Herald questioned Smith after the meeting whether she had asked Winkler if she could perform her presentations at a city council meeting. Smith turned the question over to Manross, who said he was unaware of any rules being broken by the series.
“I don’t see where anything was violated, but again, I am not an attorney,” he said. “I think the mayor pretty much has the floor.”
Earlier in the meeting, Smith said that Manross did not know what information she would be presenting at the meeting. It is unclear whether Winkler was aware of the contents of the presentation in advance.
Smith said that she was not going to sit back and was fine with stepping out of meeting norms.
“I make no apologies,” she said. “So if it’s unprecedented, so what?”
Gordon and Peden were successful in making it to the Democratic and Republican ballots for Titusville City Council during the primaries in June through a write-in campaign, while Crouch reached only the Democratic ticket. The group is running a joint campaign. They will face Republican balloted candidate Jayla Pertz and write-in candidate Bill Adelman, who ran in the primary but did not receive enough votes, in the November election.
Ray can be reached, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.