Ongoing disagreements between the sole Republican on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and his Democratic counterparts boiled over in public Thursday, with allegations from both sides of unethical behavior - and an accusation that the GOP member was trying to damage Chairman Josh Shapiro's campaign for state attorney general.
The public dispute, a departure from the normally civil and collegial commissioners' meetings of recent years, arose from GOP Commissioner Joseph C. Gale's recent public complaints that county staff members hide information from him and leave him out of decisions.
Shapiro denounced Gale's complaints in an opening speech at Thursday's meeting, and continued his criticisms after the meeting.
"I'm a big boy and I've got broad shoulders, and I recognize that we are 33 days out from an election, so people make wild accusations all the time," Shapiro said to reporters. "And I recognize that there's some obvious coordination going on here with political opponents of mine. But none of that, none of that, should impact the great work that the staff does."
Gale acknowledged that he had spoken with State Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), Shapiro's opponent in the race for attorney general, but said he is not part of Rafferty's "inner circle" or working for his campaign.
Gale, 27, who took office in January, drew attention to a spat with the county administration at a meeting last month, citing "a toxic culture of suppression and secrecy behind closed doors here in Montgomery County."
The county's senior staff members, Gale said, have treated him unfairly and refuse to brief him on agendas until the day before meetings.
Shapiro and Vice Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh countered that it was inappropriate for commissioners to publicly criticize hardworking staff members.
Now in his second term as chairman of the commissioners, Shapiro touts a record of bringing stability to a body previously racked by infighting. He got along well in his first term with former Republican Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., who has praised Shapiro for his ability to build consensus.
Gale, 27, was elected last year despite not having the backing of the county's Republican Party. He cast himself as a political outsider, and promised to fight tax and fee increases. Gale's criticism of the administration last month came at a meeting where he voted against a $5 vehicle registration fee that would pay for infrastructure improvements.
Tension has grown in recent weeks as Gale circulated a petition and advertisements opposing the fee, as well as news releases questioning campaign donations made to Shapiro by developers who received county contracts or grant funding. Those donations came from developers for a public-housing project that Gale opposed, calling it too expensive. The county solicitor said that project was the product of a contract between the developers and the county housing authority, not the commissioners, who simply voted to administer grants for it.
Although Rafferty campaign staffers were copied on Gale's news releases, campaign manager Mike Barley said Rafferty had nothing to with Gale's attacks on Shapiro.
"I'm not your typical politician," Gale said at Thursday's meeting. "I was elected by the people in a grassroots fashion."
At that, Shapiro let out a quiet laugh.
"You're laughing," Gale said, turning to Shapiro. "And I think it's ... something that should be championed, not laughed at."
The dispute continued after the commissioners' meeting, in a 30-minute question-and-answer session with reporters. That discussion included interruptions from the county solicitor and chief operating officer, who said they were personally offended by Gale's suggestion that they seek only to make the Democratic commissioners "look good."
"I'm pretty outnumbered here," Gale told reporters. "So consider the sources."
"Exactly," Shapiro replied.