EDITORIAL: Coleman, Finley willingness to accept blame a refreshing development

May 17—IN a world where people typically try to dodge blame for their mistakes, it's refreshing to see people step up and accept accountability.

When the people taking accountability are elected officials — a profession with a well-earned reputation for finger-pointing — it's even more refreshing.

And when the elected officials in question offer to pay for the mistake with money out of their own pocket, well, that's just astonishing.

That's exactly what Mercer County Commissioner Chair Ann Coleman and Commissioner William Finley Jr. did Thursday during the county salary board meeting to settle the matter over unapproved payments totaling nearly $6,000 to two employees in the county controller's office.

An investigation released May 11 by District Attorney Peter C. Acker reported that Controller Stephen Sherman II, and Coleman and Finley violated Pennsylvania's Open Records Law, known popularly as the Sunshine Law.

Acker said Coleman, Finley and Sherman — three of the four permanent members of Mercer County Salary Board — violated the law by discussing in March additional payments to two salaried employees for time worked outside normal business hours. Sherman additionally violated the same law by paying additional money to salaried employees without salary board approval.

Commissioner Tim McGonigle, the fourth permanent member of salary board, was not present for that discussion in March. He became aware of the unauthorized payments only when the county's human resources department reported them to commissioners. Acker's investigation found McGonigle committed no wrongdoing.

During a county salary board meeting Thursday, Coleman and Finley accepted culpability for their actions.

"Many of you have heard me take full responsibility for the oversight in not bringing this request for additional pay to the salary board, and I stand by that," Coleman said Thursday during the Mercer County Salary Board meeting.

The salary board rejected a resolution Thursday to retroactively approve the unauthorized payments. However, Coleman and Finley said they would personally repay the county.

"We agreed it was not fair to take money away from the employees' families, as they did complete the work."

That's what accountability looks like.

Ideally, the county would have paid the employees in accordance with procedure. But absent a time machine, that wasn't possible. The actions by Coleman and Finley amount to the next best thing.

The commissioners had called upon the employees to repay the money, a legally proper request. But assuming the employees in question are like most of us, repayment of approximately $3,000 each would have been a hardship.

It's probably a hardship for Coleman and Finley as well. And it couldn't have been easy for them to stand up in front of a room packed with county officials, the media and county residents and admit their mistake.

Sherman, conversely, did none of these things. He chose instead to deflect.

"These accusations were not only false, misleading and defamatory, but were not representative of my character, ethics or the hard work I have been doing for Mercer County," Sherman said incorrectly.

Even though Acker opted not to press charges, he said Sherman, Coleman and Finley all violated the Sunshine Law.

When Herald Staff Writer Melissa Klaric asked Sherman about the Sunshine Law violation, he replied that Acker's investigation accused Coleman and Finley also.

That's correct. But, to repeat, Coleman and Finley accepted responsibility for their role in the unapproved payments only a few minutes earlier.

Through their willingness to accept responsibility, the two Republican commissioners also gave an indication that they won't repeat their mistake.

"Had I known then what I know now, this situation would have played out quite differently," Coleman said.

Hearing that level of remorse from elected officials is, once again, more than refreshing.