Joe Hoeffel thought I was joking - "Is this a setup?" - when I invited him and fellow Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews to breakfast. Why does this happen whenever I invite politicians for a meal? I never joke when it comes to food.
Hoeffel and Matthews forged a bipartisan bromance in 2007 based, in no small part, on their antipathy toward the third wise man of Montco, Bruce Castor.
Now, Democrat Hoeffel and Republican Matthews have eggy faces after the Norristown Times Herald charged last week that they violated the state's Sunshine Act by hosting biweekly breakfasts at Jem Restaurant in Norristown. A reporter overheard them discussing bond issues, appointments, expenditures, and operating budgets.
The Sunshine Act, as opposed to sunny-side-up eggs, requires government business to be conducted in public. Normally, two elected officials getting together wouldn't make news. (Actually, the breakfasts include county solicitor Barry Miller and deputy chief operating officer Jim Maza.)
However, in Montgomery County, two is a quorum while three, quite frankly, is an unmitigated disaster.
Castor, the former swashbuckling Republican D.A. and perennial odd man out in this fractured triangulation, called for an investigation.
"The future of Pennsylvania's wealthiest county and its 800,000 residents is being decided over coffee and eggs by a secret cabal," his news release read.
District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman confirmed she is investigating.
Hoeffel and Matthews scoff at the notion that they're conducting business at a place where half the county government congregates.
"We don't deliberate at these breakfasts. We don't decide," Hoeffel said, when I met the secret cabal for coffee and eggs at IHOP in Jenkintown. "We get together for the relationship building."
They never invite Castor.
"We wouldn't have breakfast with him," Hoeffel said. "It would be no fun."
Initially, Castor didn't want to talk about the matter, which is news in itself since he has rarely met a microphone he didn't like. Eventually, he e-mailed his responses.
"Their governing partnership has been an abject and total failure by any objective measure," he wrote. "From that standpoint, I guess I'm glad they excluded me."
The Times Herald also reported that the two other commissioners didn't invite Castor when they met with American Revolution Center chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest in September to discuss the return of a $2.5 million grant, even though Castor was in his office at the time.
Hoeffel and Matthews contend that the current enmity has not hurt governance. "The government runs well, which is what the public cares about," Matthews said, adding that "99.9 percent of the time we all vote together," though not, they allowed, on major initiatives.
It will come as no shock that Castor disagrees with this assessment.
"We're broke, our debt is at record high levels, our AAA bond rating dropped for the first time ever and is at risk," Castor stated, "and they're cutting services and employees to pay for their big spending that I opposed."
Castor surmised that "politics, not policy, has driven this government for the last three years. It's been an expensive game of you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-your-back by Matthews and Hoeffel to keep their coalition together, each getting the other to go along with their agenda. The truth is they created this divided government, not me. They own it and the failure that it is."
And, yes, all three men plan to run for office next year.
Understandably, both political parties desire a two-commissioner majority. Republican stalwarts view Matthews as a turncoat for forming an alliance with Hoeffel, especially since it excludes Castor.
"I'm pretty upset about what Jim did with Joe. I've already censured him," said GOP county chair Bob Kerns. "We pride ourselves on good government in Montgomery County. When you have something like this, it's unsettling."
Kerns added, "Jim kind of let us down. I certainly don't intend to support him."
The county GOP would be foolish to run both Castor and Matthews, given that they barely exchange a word. Well, only bad words. In October, Matthews called Castor "a sick bastard," to which Castor countered, "You wouldn't know the truth if it jumped up and bit you in the bottom."
Matthews loves his party - he speaks of state Republican powerhouse Bob Asher with reverence - but plans to run as an independent.
County Democrats, who hold a registration advantage of 30,000 voters, appear primed to shed Hoeffel.
"It is embarrassing and time for a fresh start," said county Democratic chairman Marcel Groen. "Joe Hoeffel's had a long career. I have great respect for him. But people are tired of this. You don't elect a child to run your government. He certainly acts very childish."
Groen hopes to entice State Rep. Josh Shapiro, who, at age 37, is a generation younger. Shapiro also has almost $1 million in his campaign fund. Groen estimated that a successful commissioner race in Pennsylvania's wealthiest county will cost between $1.5 million and $2 million.
Ironically, Castor - currently the odd man out - appears to be the only commissioner likely to win his party's endorsement.
What will become of the breakfast club and the district attorney's investigation?
"I'm ready to write the $100 check right now," Matthews said, referring to the top fine for violating the Sunshine Act.
Actually, the law states "a fine not exceeding $100 plus costs of prosecution." Frankly, during tough economic times Montgomery County residents shouldn't be too happy about subsidizing an investigation into the dining habits of its commissioners.
Hoeffel announced "a time out" from the breakfasts and plans to skip the Tuesday gatherings for now.
"I want to avoid any arrogance, or appearance of arrogance," he said. "I think cooler heads will prevail."
Matthews, though, has no intention of halting the tradition. He appears emboldened by the tempest in a coffee cup. At the next breakfast, he said, taking a sip, "maybe I'll hand out agendas."