Bellevue calls for WizardVue probe

Some 10 months after Harry Potter fans gathered in Bellevue for WizardVue, and just weeks before WizardVue Two is set to take over the borough’s main street, Bellevue Council is calling for a formal investigation of the unapproved expenditure of nearly $10,000 in tax dollars for last year’s event.

Bellevue Council did not find out until nearly a month after the first WizardVue took place last August that the borough was faced with thousands of dollars in bills for additional law enforcement officers from Allegheny County and neighboring municipalities. The officers were believed to be necessary based on an unconfirmed report that a similar festival in Volant, PA had attracted 10,000 visitors just a few weeks before. It was later revealed that the two-day Volant festival was attended by only 2,500 visitors.

At the time the invoices appeared on council’s bill list for approval, Mayor Emily Marburger -- who created WizardVue as a fund-raiser for the Friends of Bayne Library, a private non-profit organization – said that she believed that proceeds of the festival would cover much of the borough debt incurred.

Since that time, despite frequent questions by members of council, Marburger has failed to produce either money or an accounting of the event’s finances. In January, at Marburger’s request, council approved WizardVue Two contingent upon a full report and plan being submitted to council within 30 days, and there being no expenditure of tax dollars.

Council’s patience finally ran out at Tuesday’s regular meeting when the mayor was unable or unwilling to provide any of the requested information, and instead attempted to shift responsibility to various other parties, including the Bellevue Police Department, the Friends of Bayne Library and council itself.

Council member Glenn Pritchard asked whether council was going to allow WizardVue Two to take place, given that the required information had not been submitted. Marburger said that she had submitted a plan to council in February, but Pritchard said the report submitted outlines the 2018 event, and not the changes being made for 2019. Marburger said that the 2018 plan was fundamentally the same as what was being planned for 2019, with some adaptations, which prompted council member Anthony DiTullio to remark that last year’s plan cost the taxpayers nearly $10,000. Pritchard said that he had heard through word of mouth that there were a lot of changes made for 2019, but that council had yet to be informed of any of them.

“Last year’s plan is not this year’s plan,” Pritchard said.

Marburger said that if council needed additional information, they should have notified her sooner.

“Our solicitor talking to you earlier this month should have been an indication,” DiTullio responded. Borough solicitor Matt Racunas said that he had been directed by council to contact the Friends of Bayne Library regarding the information requested by council.

In fact, Marburger has been questioned about producing last year’s financial records on several occasions. Her response has always been that the report was not complete because there was money outstanding from a local business, which has since closed, that sold merchandise after the event. In an interview following that statement by Marburger, the business owner said that perhaps $200 or $300 was due. In another meeting where Marburger used the missing money for the reason no financial accounting had been submitted, the mayor said that legal action, including criminal charges, were being considered.

The Friends of Bayne Library did submit a partial report dated October of 2018.

Marburger asked why council was requesting financial information for this event when it did not make the same request of other groups holding events.

“Other people don’t send the borough a bill for $10,000,” DiTullio replied.

Marburger said that the decisions for the first WizardVue had been made by the Friends of Bayne Library, not the mayor herself, and that because council had involved the solicitor, she was “removing herself from the equation.”

Several council members noted, however, that the Friends group did not have the authority to spend nearly $10,000 in tax revenue to hire police officers for the event. In fact, council member Linda Woshner said, the police chief does not have that authority without approval by council.

At the time the bills were submitted to council, Marburger stated in an interview that the decision to hire the officers was made only days before the event, and said that was probably why council had not been informed in advance. At Tuesday’s meeting, Marburger said that the expenditure had not been approved by the Friends or by herself as mayor, although she serves as the head of the borough’s police department.

“This is something the police chose to do,” Marburger said.

Council president Tom Hrynda said that the officers were hired under a directive by Allegheny County, and that neither the police chief nor the mayor was responsible. That statement completely contradicts earlier statements by Police Chief Matt Sentner. Sentner said that he had contacted the county about hiring sheriff’s deputies for the festival, and that the county had told him to check with the state police. Sentner said then that a state trooper had reported the incorrect information about the crowd size in Volant and said that the optimal ratio was one officer for every 250 attendees.

Pritchard said that it appeared everyone was “passing the blame,” and that an investigation was therefore needed to determine what borough officials had authorized the expenditure or had knowledge of it prior to council being informed.

A motion to have director of administrative services Ron Borczyk conduct the investigation was approved unanimously by council.

In the meantime, according to council member Anya Pikul, the transfer of budget funds to cover the WizardVue event is something that the finance committee is discussing. Because the police emergency management budget did not contain enough money to cover the cost, funds were taken from other areas, including the parks budget.