Detailed billing on Shikellamy Right to Know requests show multiple calls with directors, superintendent

Jan. 21—SUNBURY — Documents acquired by The Daily Item show the Shikellamy School District paid a Philadelphia law firm just more than $13,000 over a two-month period regarding Right to Know requests and a complaint filed against the school board for a possible Sunshine Law violation.

The Levin Legal Group, of Philadelphia, was paid $13,250 from September through October just for dealing with the requests and an alleged Sunshine Law violation, according to the documents provided by the district.

In September, Superintendent Jason Bendle — the district's Right to Know officer — forwarded various Right to Know requests, news articles and emails, to the Levin Legal Group for "legal review." The law firm drafted response letters to The Daily Item's Right to Know requests and they were all signed and sent by Bendle.

The attorneys worked with the district regarding a possible Sunshine Law violation filed by the newspaper over the hiring process of Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Winn. In that case, the Northumberland County District Attorney's Office originally warned the district of the possible violation, and later said no violation occurred after additional information was provided. The district attorney's office said Levin did not provide the proper information when the office asked for the documents.

The documents also show multiple calls and emails to the law office by Bendle, board president Wendy Wiest, and a "board member."

On Sept. 14, solicitor Mike Levin charged $1,722 for composing a letter to the unamed "board director," returning a call to Bendle, attending a board meeting and composing an email to Wiest, according to the records. On Sept. 18, Levin charged the district $1,218 to hold a video conference with Bendle and a "board member," while reviewing multiple emails and sending multiple emails to The Daily Item. On Sept. 20 Levin charged the district again for a phone call with a "board member." On Sept. 27, the Levin Legal Group charged the district $1,400 for a position statement to be provided to the Office of Open Records in an appeal the newspaper filed over being denied access to a list of legal bills.

The Office of Open Records ruled the district could not redact certain parts of the materials and granted the newspaper access to the documents.

In October, the documents show Wiest spoke with the law firm three times dealing in response to the possible Sunshine Law violation.

Bendle did not return an email seeking comment on a series of questions concerning the solicitor, or who the other "board member" was speaking with Levin.

Directors Julie Brosius, Joe Stutzman, Tom Webb and Jenna Eister Whitaker questioned when they were allowed to speak to Levin and were advised by Bendle they shouldn't be reaching out to the attorney, according to Webb.

Webb said he wanted to speak to Levin and get a more detailed breakdown of the bills and find out what legal work is being performed.

Levin, who does not have a retainer, is paid $210 per hour based on how many times he is contacted to conduct legal work.

The district does not have a policy on how many times Bendle or a board member can contact Levin, according to officials.

Webb, Brosius, Stutzman and Eister-Whitaker all said they will continue to vote no when it deals with the current solicitor. The directors said they would prefer to open the position to a Valley attorney.

At a recent work session, Bendle posted the totals of Levin's legal bills on a big screen, showing itemized costs to respond to Right to Know requests from the newspaper and district residents.

Bendle, nor the board, addressed the newspaper's appeal in the state Office of Open Records, nor the cost, which was granted in part to the newspaper for the same documents Bendle and Levin originally denied.

Director Lori Garman said she wants to put the names of people who file Right to Know requests on agendas in the future. Webb said he has no issue with it, but it isn't being done for the right reasons.

Webb said he does not want the district to self-inflict more work on staff just to place those individuals' name on requests.

"They can simply put it online if anyone wants to see it," he said. "I don't think we need to cause any extra work for staff just so we can put the names out of people looking to get the public information."

The district is also facing a second Sunshine Law complaint filed by a Sunbury resident for allegedly breaking the law when they used a secret ballot to vote at a reorganization meeting in December. The newspaper filed the first complaint in December and was provided with a letter from the Northumberland County District Attorney's Office stating the school district was in violation and needed to remedy the issue because secret ballots are not allowed.

Wiest said during the work session, the board did nothing wrong and the results of the vote were placed in meeting minutes.

Wiest, who was nominated for president by director Mike Thomas, won with a 5-4 vote. She received votes from herself, Thomas, Garman, Slade Shreck, and Justin Lenner, according to the meeting minutes.

Webb, who was nominated by Stutzman, received votes from himself, Eister Whitaker, Brosius and Stutzman, according to the meeting minutes.

Shreck was named vice president by a 7-1 vote. Director Eister Whitaker voted for Donald Trump for vice-president of the board, and Stutzman voted for Webb, according to the documents.