Was the Sheriff's Office trying to keep public testimony private?

Moments before Sheriff Jewel Williams sat before City Council Thursday to request $3.5 million more for his office’s budget for fiscal year 2013, reporters were told to disregard the public testimony he had submitted and that another would be made available.

According to a Council source, the Sheriff’s Office said they were pulling the original testimony because there was an error.

At each Council hearing, copies of public testimony lay for the taking in stacks across a wooden desk in Council’s chambers and copies are available upon request from the Council Clerk’s office.

But, a Council source told PhillyClout that after the Sheriff’s Office pulled the testimony and later hand delivered new testimony, Council staff were advised not to release it to the media.

PhillyClout reached out to Harriett Lessy, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s office, but she did not respond to requests for comment at the time of this blog post.

So, what’s the deal?

In Williams’ original testimony he proposed funding additional expenditures by increasing the amount of the deposit paid by banks seeking foreclosure from $1,500 to $2,000. He notes that neighboring counties charge the same and more.

Later in the original testimony it reads, “We want the lenders foreclosing on properties to pay our costs for services provided to them.”

Once word got out that Williams may testify to increasing the fee, a group of activists showed up clutching signs and the original testimony was soon pulled.

The new testimony does not mention the fee.

“Homeowners pay that fee if they’re trying to save their house,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “That fee has to be paid along with their back mortgage. That’s a misconception that the banks pay it.”

After the hearing, Williams said, “That information shouldn’t have been out there,” adding that there were several meetings held about increasing the fees. “Those discussions came up and there were some recommendations, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

He said he will not institute the fee.

“We were in a total state of shock,” Dodds said about the proposed fee. “It looks like we dodged a bullet there.”

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