Calling event a ‘political stunt,’ Costello won’t attend town hall in Phoenixville

U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, R-6
U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, R-6

PHOENIXVILLE >> U.S. Congressman Ryan Costello, R-6th Dist., said he won’t attend a town hall meeting at Phoenixville Area High School this weekend — an event that has become controversial.

The forum conflicts with his schedule and Costello believes it’s an underhanded political stunt organized by members of the school board to try to make him look bad.

The town hall is scheduled to take place from 1 to 3 p.m. in the high school auditorium, 1200 Gay St.

According to a flier sent to Digital First Media by the Concerned Constituent Action Group, the event will take place with or without Costello to discuss topics such as health care, the environment, education, immigration and ethics in the new age of government.

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“I already have commitments,” Costello said when asked if he would attend. “They never reached out before scheduling the event.”

He said he has tried to be as transparent as he can by hosting several town hall meetings, including one on Facebook Wednesday afternoon. The event on Saturday is a political tactic to get him to come to a “certain forum at a certain time,” he said.

“Constituents know I’m accessible,” he said. “My record speaks for itself.”

Both Costello and a spokesman for his office called Saturday’s event “a political stunt.”

“We sent a letter to Costello saying it was a public event and nonpolitical,” said Tammy Harkness, who spoke on behalf of Concerned Constituent Action Group, the sponsor of the event. “We just want to talk to him make sure he hears from constituents,” she said.

Costello has also taken issue with the group’s request to waive the $600 fee for use of the facility and the approximately $480 fee for custodial staff, particularly because one of the event organizers is the wife of Phoenixville Area School Board Vice President Ken Butera.

Costello’s office emailed Digital First Media a copy of the Feb. 8 facility scheduling application the district received about the event. It lists Alissa Butera as the contact person for the event. Costello called it “unseemly” for Butera not to disclose that his wife was involved in the event.

Butera said his wife is not the leader of the group and is involved in a number of different groups.

Alissa Butera said she didn’t tell her husband she’d applied for the space. As a member of the constituent group, she said people were trying to find a space to host the event and she used her experience as a former home and school representative to apply for the school. Others in the group were looking at other spaces at the same time.

Costello also took issue with school board member Lisa Longo’s attempt to call for a vote to waive the facility fee despite conflicting information about the true nature of the event.

Longo was sorry to hear Costello wasn’t planning to attend the meeting.

She said she was simply following standard procedure and felt the board had enough information on the waiver of fees to vote. “I have no concerns my vote was political because it was not,” she said.

After the district said it received conflicting information at last week’s board meeting that suggested the town hall wouldn’t be as apolitical as originally thought, the decision on whether to waive the fees was put off until the March 9 workshop meeting.

Costello’s office lastly emailed Digital First Media a copy of a Federal Election Commission complaint filed by resident Ben LaGarde, which states the then-called Costello Constituent Action Group failed to among other things register as a political committee with the commission and used the candidate’s name in the organization’s name.

Harkness said she has zero political background and did not intentionally violate any FEC laws. As soon as the issue was brought to her attention, she took steps to correct them.

Costello said he believes the entire affair — including the request to waive the fee for using the high school — is an attempt at political sabotage.

“The taxpayers of the Phoenixville School District are being asked to foot the bill for a political event, orchestrated in part by a few members of their elected school board,” said Vincent Galko, senior adviser to the Costello campaign. “These members wish to use their position to play politics instead of focusing on educating children.”

He further suggested “the members of the media and the local taxpayers should request — through Right-To-Know if necessary — the emails and cell phones of certain school board members that are asking the hard-working taxpayers and families of the school district to promote their own political agendas.”

Nationally, and in Pennsylvania, reports are surfacing around the country of Republican members of Congress finding hostile audiences at town hall meetings in their states. Some have skipped the meetings or even gone out the back door.

Costello said that phenomenon is not a factor in his decision regarding the Phoenixville town hall, noting that he will hold a town hall on Thursday.

Whatever the motives at play, the Phoenixville event is scheduled to occur Saturday.

Harkness said it is open to the public, non-partisan and is meant to give residents a chance for Costello to hear their concerns. The event is intended to be respectful and the audience members will be asked not to cheer or boo, she said.

The group has asked those planning to attend to write their question ahead of time so its members can pass the questions on to Costello. A live Twitter stream will be set up during the event and the event will record video to replay clips afterward.