The Plum Borough Athletic Association's lease on eight borough-owned ballfields has been officially terminated.
During a landlord-tenant hearing that lasted more than three hours on Tuesday, Plum District Magistrate Linda Zucco heard testimony from withnesses of both parties and ruled the PBAA to be in violation of its lease agreement with the borough.
The PBAA leased the ballfields along Ross Hollow Road for $1 a year to provide organized youth baseball/softball opportunities for children.
Plum Council President Mike Doyle, who was not present at the hearing, said he is happy with the ruling.
"I felt very confident going into this" he said. "You don't need a list of violations, you need one. We had a list. I hope the judge's decision doesn't fall on deaf ears."
The series of events began in September when borough that they no longer would have rights to the ballfields, citing the following violations:
- The construction of two sheds on two separate occasions, a batter's cage and a paved walking trail without borough permission or proper permits.
- The reconstruction of one of the baseball field dugouts without permission from the borough or obtaining the proper permits.
- Operation of vending machines for private gains.
- Plans to pave personal parking spaces in the road right-of-way. Work ultimately ceased.
Approval for Work
According to borough solicitor Bruce Dice, who represented the borough during the hearing, the lease agreement states the organization should have received written permission for each project.
PBAA attorney Rolf Patberg argued that several of the alleged violations—the shed, the dugout and the batter's cage—were all constructed from 2004 to 2006, which means it falls outside a four-year statute of limitation.
However, Dice said it shouldn't matter, given that the lease was signed in 1995 for a 99-year period. Because the violations occured when the lease was still active, they should be considered, he said.
Patberg said it's difficult to believe that the borough took action now, when many of the projects were taking place right across the street from the borough building.
Mike Thomas, borough manager, said the PBAA never did attempt to hide any of the work they were performing on the fields, but they did disregard the lease agreement and didn't obtain written permission.
Former PBAA secretary Jim McGrath—he last month after some borough officials called for them to do so—said it had never been the course of conduct for the organization to receive written approval.
McGrath said the PBAA board and borough officials worked together to apply for a state grant for the walkway and cleanup the fields after Hurricane Ivan flooded the land in 2004—the two sheds and dugout were constructed/replaced due to the damage.
"(Prior to 2010) it was all a handshake with council," he said.
McGrath said he assumed getting permits for the projects was the same thing as getting consent from council.
"I would assume that by working with borough officials, we're getting permission," he said.
Greg Bachy, assistant borough manager and former planning director/code enforcement officer, also said that permits for many of the projects were obtained after the completion of the work. He also noted that just because the PBAA received a permit for work, doesn't mean it was approved by council.
Bob Schmidt, new PBAA president, said he has been working to correct all the problems with council.
He said some of the older members of the PBAA might feel like the borough doesn't need to know what happens at the field, but in his opinion, the PBAA must work with council in order to be a successful organization.
Councilman Steven "Skip" Taylor and former councilman Chuck McMeekin spoke in favor of the PBAA. Both worked with the organization via the parks and recreation committee.
Taylor said it has never been a practice to require written approval for projects until about two years ago, when the "pot started to boil" after lawsuits in other communities.
Taylor said he thinks the construction of the walkway is an asset.
McMeekin agreed. He said the erosion at the site has reduced dramatically since the walkway was installed.
"Personally, I don't think they are (in violation)," he said.
There were questions about where the money from the vending machines at the PBAA fields have gone.
According to Dice and borough police Chief Frank Monaco, the PBAA reported $10,000 earned from vending machines in 2011. However, it's the first year where the amount is recorded in the organization's financial statements.
A detective with the Allegheny County District Attorney's office charged former PBAA president Richard Claypoole with theft by deception; and misapplication of entrusted property and property of government or financial institutions for allegedly making payments to himself and his business, Richmar with PBAA funds between 2008 and 2011.
Monaco said that during the investigation, members reported that vending machine money was handled by the PBAA board members and then given to Claypoole. Claypoole has not been charged in relation to anything concerning the vending machines.
Bill Auth, former PBAA vice president, said the money from the vending machines always has been put in the safe until the amount was logged and then given to the person running the concession stand. He said he doesn't believe that money was stolen by anyone in the organization.
Patberg said there's no "admissible evidence" showing that the money was used for personal gain.
The PBAA has 30 days to appeal Zucco's decision.
Schmidt said he and the PBAA board would try to get together with council to discuss how they will proceed.
Doyle said he hopes the PBAA lets the ruling stand.
"An appeal process can take months," he said. "It's up to the PBAA to do the right thing for the kids."
A newly-created Plum Baseball and Softball Association also falls into the mix at this point.
Some on borough council have stated they would like the and form a new association in an effort to dissolve the now "tainted" PBAA.
Doyle said that though many people believe the PBSA was created by council, it's simply not true.
"We had nothing to do with that," he said. "Former PBAA members got together to form the group. Council is going to have to get together now to talk about the organizations.
"I feel bad it came to this, but the judges ruling shows that we were doing the right thing."