Sign or else. Controller Dan Miller chose the 'or else' option and appealed a lower courts' decision that ordered him to sign an auction house contract to sell Harrisburg's infamous Wild West museum artifacts. In true Western style, both Miller and Thompson had a showdown in Commonwealth Court.
Cling. Cling. Cling. The sound of spurs jingling echoed the walls inside Commonwealth Court Monday morning. Ok, not quite, but another installment of Thompson v. Miller is starting to rack up more western-style showdowns than John Wayne himself.
Not a dame, but a dime is being fought over. Specifically, the two disagree whether commissions to the auction house from selling former Mayor Steve Reed's failed Wild West artifacts experiment would dip into Harrisburg treasury.
Thompson claims no. Miller says yes.
"It's all coming out of the city," said Miller. "It's really sort of a gimmick that makes it look like you're not paying it, the seller is paying. But [Harrisburg is] paying it."
Attorney Ben Dunlap spoke on behalf of Miller. Mayor Linda Thompson was not present. City Spokesperson Bob Philbin was in attendance as her ears; City Solicitor Jason Hess did all the talking.
Both Hess and Miller spoke with media after the 35-minute oral argument hearing in front of Commonwealth Court Judge James Collins.
Hess said Miller's argument is weak because according to a city ordinance, "only funds payable out of the city treasury requires appropriations of city council."
As you can see, that disagreement snowballs into other arguments. For example, Miller believes city council must approve Guernsey's Auctioneer & Broker contract with Harrisburg. More importantly, the 18% commission rate they set for selling the artifacts.
While Miller personally believes that rate is too high, he explained it is a matter of procedure and his opinion does not matter in this case. Miller contends city council must have an opportunity to discuss, approve and budget funds to allow commission to be paid to the auction house.
Because city council approved allowing Thompson to sell the artifacts in 2011, she has therefore been granted power to do so. Again, Thompson believes commissions would be paid using money made after said sale of artifact.
Hess said Thompson is following proper procedure.
"That's all she's doing...enforcing an ordinance in the city that required the city to be doing—sell the artifacts," he said.
Miller was seen shaking his head in disbelief during the oral arguments of Hess. Outside the courtroom he voiced his viewpoint.
"When I listen to the arguments, it's painful to see the sort of misunderstanding of people about our profession," he said. "If this were a court of CPAs I'm sure we'd have a winner."
Miller explained most people don't quite understand the intricate nature of accounting, including Thompson. He maintained by refusing to sign the auction house contract he is fulfilling his duties and working for "the people."
Thompson has disagreed with that statement for a long time. Previously Thompson has even said Miller has no authority to make such a decision.
Hess would not comment if he believed Miller's action was politically motivated. Philbin however called his actions a "political smokescreen" in an effort to gain support for Miller's mayoral run.
Both also disagree on overall worth of the artifacts. Thompson has estimated the nearly 8,000 artifacts are worth anywhere between three to six million. Miller argued that figure is just shy of two million. For what it's worth, state-appointed receiver William Lynch has put a possible price tag of $500,000.
Thompson and Miller do agree on one thing—delays hurt citizens. Both believe that battling in the courts delays the sale of those dusty horseshoes and badges, and therefore hurts the overall progress of a broke city.
Paying off the loan attached to the artifacts would mean using "taxpayer funds instead of using the sale of the artifacts," according to Hess.
Miller said it didn't have to be this way. "It should've been resolved just by going to counsel. It would've cost nothing. So it's an unfortunate waste of funds."
Judge Collins did make a decision on Monday. He said Commonwealth Court has yet to receive documents filed in the lower courts the last time Thompson v. Miller had on their spurs.
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