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At Hourglass forum, commissioner blasts LNP (video)

The Lancaster County commissioners speak at Hourglass Foundation’s First Friday Forum on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, at the Ware Center. From left: Alice Yoder, Josh Parsons, Ray D’Agostino. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

The three Lancaster County commissioners outlined their goals for 2024 at the Hourglass Foundation’s monthly forum on Friday, touching on issues including public health, housing, the correctional facility project and election administration.

The most notable moment, however, came about 20 minutes into the event, when Commissioner Josh Parsons launched a lengthy attack on LNP newspaper.

Parsons, a conservative Republican, says the publication has a pattern of making egregious mistakes or omissions and exhibiting left-leaning bias. On Friday, in response to a question about his priorities for the coming year, he instanced “better communication,” then pivoted to his complaint.

He said he had watched Hourglass’ November forum on the merger between LNP and public media outlet WITF. The featured speakers included Bob Krasne who was publisher of LNP until the merger and is now board chair of the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement, formed along with the merger to promote media literacy and civic participation.

At the form, Krasne spoke out against previous complaints by Parsons, saying they unfairly impugned LNP’s newsgathering and are intended to impair its effectiveness as a community watchdog.

He said the same in an op-ed published two days later on Nov. 5, writing: “Parsons’ efforts to undermine LNP | LancasterOnline, if successful, would enable him to operate with less accountability to the public and greater fealty to his financial benefactors and party.”

Parsons said the foundation should think twice about accepting LNP’s framing of stories or its professions of neutrality at face value.

The Steinman Institute’s hiring of Jess King to be its executive director is a case in point, he said, characterizing her as a “fierce partisan warrior” and noting her association with Lancaster Stands Up, which enthusiastically backed her campaign. He has described Lancaster Stands Up as “a socialist, communist organization” — the organization says it is a grassroots movement that promotes a political agenda for working people — and on Friday noted the references to the Russian Revolution on a banner the group brought to a county meeting in 2022.

“I would like for there to be an objective newspaper and objective watchdog for all of us. … But that’s not what we have right now,” he said. “You should be aware of that when you’re when you’re framing these forums.”

Commissioner Ray D’Agostino chimed in briefly, saying he, too, has taken issue with LNP’s reporting.

King, who was in the audience Friday, responded during an audience Q&A.

Parsons’ statements raise concerns about press freedoms and the First Amendment, she said. She told him they sound like part of a “vendetta” against LNP’s opinion section, which is separate from its newsroom.

LNP’s editorials, she said, have been “raising questions about your leadership, including extreme partisanship, that I think honestly is part of what you’ve exhibited today.”

She listed the multiple community roles she has had, and said it’s worrisome if a person’s public identity is reduced simply to the letter after their name.

“How do you plan to rise above partisan politics,” she asked him, “and lead by example, and think about ways that we can connect and unify?”

Her statement prompted applause, but Parsons didn’t back down. “You have been engaged in the community in a very partisan way” and LNP has been, too, he said. Groups like Hourglass should know that “and we ought to be able to have the free speech to say it and not be attacked,” he said.

At the commissioners’ work session Tuesday, he said again that LNP tailors its news to fit a narrative and that King’s leadership of the Steinman Institute undermines any claim to neutrality. For the left, it would be like asking them to trust an organization staffed by the head of Moms for Liberty or Free PA, he said.

Upcoming priorities

The remainder of the forum was less contentious. Hourglass members had a chance to hear from the newest commissioner, Democrat Alice Yoder, sworn in three days earlier. Yoder previously worked at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health as executive director of community health.

She described herself as a pragmatist, focused on tackling systemic issues with solutions based on data and best practices. Her priorities, she said, include ensuring smooth elections and addressing affordable housing and homelessness while preserving open space.

She said she wants the county “to see what it would actually take” to establish a health department, ideally hiring a consultant to look at costs and rough out a plan.

Parsons said the county is “tackling tough problem” while paying down debt and living within its means. D’Agostino listed six key accomplishments of 2023: The continued development of the correctional facility project, which included securing a design team and releasing a draft facility program; the deployment of American Rescue Plan Act funds on county and community projects; adoption of C-PACE, which allows organizations to secure low-cost financing for green energy projects; creation of a tax credit for volunteer firefighters and nonprofit EMT employees; completion and ratification of the county’s Health & Medical Preparedness Plan; and ongoing implementation of the county’s new salary structure, designed to bring county pay in line with market rates.

All three commissioners agreed on the importance to the county of the new correctional facility. Parsons said his goal is a modern, professional complex that focuses on outcomes and reduces recidivism. Yoder said its design should embody its intended functions of recovery and rehabilitation: Setting people up for success will save money in the long run.

It’s too early yet to say what might become of the existing County Prison when operations move to the new site, but D’Agostino said the county is “fully committed” to working with the city and shares its interest in redeveloping the site in a way that benefits the community.

Commissioner Josh Parsons’ allegations against LNP at Friday’s Hourglass Forum included a mix of fresh objections and ones he has made before.

Among the former were objections to a Dec. 30 interview with then-outgoing Commissioner John Trescot and an article posted Friday about an appeal filed to block LNP’s efforts under state open records law to obtain the name of a minor killed in an accidental shooting.

The article on Trescot said the other two commissioners, Parsons and Commissioner Ray D’Agostino, were approached but “declined to comment.” That’s a misstatement, Parsons said: The reporter was told to ask questions at one of the county’s meetings, which are recorded, so the full exchange would be on the record “so that it can’t be manipulated.”

As for the open records story, Parsons said it describes the county as opposing the disclosure, but “it’s the coroner.”

In an email, LNP Executive Editor Tom Murse said both stories are accurate. The petition filed in the open records case lists “Lancaster County” as plaintiff, not the coroner or coroner’s office. As for the Trescot story, Parsons and D’Agostino were solicited twice for comment, Murse said. They first ignored a text message, then declined to answer when approached in person after a meeting, making LNP’s statement accurate, he said.

At the commissioners’ Tuesday work session, Parsons agreed Lancaster County had been listed as plaintiff, but said LNP ought to have reached out for confirmation. He said the listing was a mistake and he expects the coroner’s attorney to correct it; the attorney, Kevin McKeon of Hawke McKeon & Sniscak, did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

Parsons said the insistence that LNP ask questions only at recorded meetings is “unwieldy,” but necessitated because “the level of trust now is so low.”

Among Parsons’ other allegations:

• In May 2022, on the day of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, Deputy Opinion Editor Chris Otto posted the following tweet:

At the time, Parsons said LNP displayed an “apparent culture of bias and hate towards conservatives.” On Friday, he asked, regarding the tweet, “Could anyone say that in your business and continue to have a job?”

• In a September 2022 report on the county budget, LNP described a preliminary estimate as a “deficit.” Parsons objected on Facebook; the article was subsequently revised.

• In October, while running for re-election, Parsons called LNP “literally part of the opposing campaign,” citing $1,000 in donations by Hale Krasne to one of Parsons’ opponents, Democratic commissioner candidate Bob Hollister. Hale Krasne is a member of the Steinman family and married to Bob Krasne, who was publisher of LNP until its transfer to WITF last July and now chairs the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement.

Parsons also cited a $200 donation made to then Democratic candidate Alice Yoder, now commissioner, by Jess King, prior to King becoming executive director of the Steinman Institute.

In a Nov. 1 letter to the editor, Hale Krasne said her donations are attributable to her alone.

Bob Krasne said the same in his Nov. 5 op-ed, writing that Parsons “should know the difference between an individual making a political contribution and a corporate entity engaged in a trade or business.”

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct a typo in Jess King’s quote in the paragraph beginning “LNP’s editorials … .”