PUNXSUTAWNEY – The Punxsutawney borough council meeting was standing room only Tuesday evening, as many community members attended to share concerns about the recent Groundhog Festival.
Before starting into the agenda, council President Lawrence Chenoga addressed the room to say that he apologized for his actions on June 30 at the Groundhog Festival. He directly apologized to the police department and Mayor Richard Alexander.
“I said some things that I shouldn’t have said, and I owe the police department, and the mayor an apology, and I’m offering that apology right now... I wanted to say that in person here tonight so everybody knew that,” Chenoga said as the council meeting opened.
A misunderstanding took place on Sunday, June 30 involving some stands and games that were set up in the parking lot behind the Pantall Hotel. These stands were set up with the permission of Mike Weaver, the private property owner, and had permits from the council and the police department.
The misunderstanding occurred when someone issued a complaint about the stands not being part of the festival. Chenoga and festival committee president Roger Steele arrived in the parking lot to ask that the stands be removed. They were unable to contact Police Chief Matt Conrad at the time for clarification. An argument between Chenoga, the stand owners, and Steele ensued, ending with harsh words being exchanged.
Early in the meeting, Roger Steele addressed the council to update them on how the festival went, and share the clean up maintenance with them. He also brought the council the festival’s annual request for the 2020 Groundhog Festival, because booking for next year will begin in October.
Council member Michele Lorenzo addressed Steele when he finished to express concerns about the festival and the fairness of the treatment of vendors. Steele explained that the rate for food stands is $40 per square foot.
“People have to be treated fairly across the board, and I’m questioning that. I don’t think that’s happening,” Lorenzo said of the fees and treatment of vendors.
Steele continued to explain the process of vendor placement and how each tent or trailer is set up, and the spaces divided. He also explained why he had a few spots left open close to the festival. Lorenzo kept explaining that fairness was a concern of the community.
“Do you let your books become open to the public?” Lorenzo asked Steele.
Steele replied negatively and explained the festival is a closed corporation. After a few more exchanges, Lorenzo ended the conversation, making her displeasure with the workings of this year’s festival clear.
The concern regarding fairness among vendors stems from one of the trailers in the Pantall parking lot. According to Josh McAfoos, their volunteer fire company had been offered an available spot for $2,200, but declined because they were restricted from selling food. They were later offered the same spot for $800, and then again for $700, but had already accepted the free spot in Weaver’s parking lot.
Council President Chenoga then exchanged words with Steele about the altercation, telling him he would never allow him to make him that angry again. He expressed how unhappy he was with the situation that took place.
“If the chief and the mayor come and tell me they want something done, I will work with them to my dying breath, but I am not going to let you or anyone else dictate to me what goes on in Punxsutawney,” council President Chenoga later said.
Later in the meeting, Leif Eddy of Punxsutawney approached the podium to ask the council to consider the immediate resignation of council President Larry Chenoga based on his actions during the altercation on June 30. Eddy was one of the owners of a trailer in the Pantall parking lot.
“The way he handled himself was not only ignorant but unprofessional, disrespectful and flat out pathetic, especially for a leader of the community,” he said.
He alleged that Chenoga made threats against his personal property if it wasn’t removed, threatened to have the Chief of Police, Matt Conrad, fired for signing the permits, and used obscenities against the police department for not returning his phone calls.
By the end of his statement about the behavior expected of a community leader, the room began to applaud. The president agreed that he should have handled the situation differently, but insisted that he had apologized and didn’t know what else to do.
Eddy continued to insist the way the council president conducted himself, not only on that day, but during the meeting so far, had been very unprofessional.
“You’ve sworn four times in here... an apology doesn’t always go as far as it needs to. Stepping down would be a fantastic thing for you to consider,” Eddy said to conclude his comments. The council then went into executive session. Upon their return, a new topic was started.
Bob Cardamone spoke to the council on behalf of the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce to express that organization’s willingness to take on a role in the Groundhog Festival in the future. He explained the chamber believes the community as a whole should be more involved in the planning and decisions regarding the festival.
Several food vendors from the festival also voiced concerns for its future.