Council seat still open in New Ken
Controversy continues to surround the upcoming selection of candidate to fill a vacancy on New Kensington Council.
A county judge will decide who fills the vacancy left when Councilman John Regoli Jr. resigned in January.
The issue became the responsibility of Westmoreland County Court after New Kensington officials failed to appoint a replacement in the 30 days following Regoli’s resignation, as provided by law.
One candidate, Ron Balla Jr., claims he’s the choice of a majority of council, so he wants Westmoreland County Judge Richard McCormick Jr. to pick him.
But Mayor Tom Guzzo, one of the officials whose support Balla is counting on, says that’s not necessarily the case — even though the mayor signed a petition that makes it appear he’s backing Balla’s appointment.
McCormick is scheduled to interview candidates for the vacancy March 21. Candidates — who can be anyone registered to vote in New Kensington — must submit letters of interest to the judge by Wednesday, March 15.
Petition for appointment
State law requires 10 voters from a municipality — New Kensington, in this case — to petition a county judge to choose someone to fill a vacancy if local officials haven’t done so in the required timeframe.
Two groups of New Kensington residents did just that, including a group of apparent Balla supporters.
But the wording of the two petitions differs in a key way.
One group’s petition asks the court to appoint a city councilman. It doesn’t suggest a candidate.
The petition from apparent Balla supporters asks the court to appoint Balla, specifically.
Balla is not one of the 10 people to sign the petition but, in a letter to the judge attached to his petition, Balla calls it “my petition for consideration” for the council seat.
The first three signatures on that petition are those of Councilman Tim DiMaio, Mayor Tom Guzzo and Councilman Dante Cicconi.
Balla points that out to the judge.
“Their support and signatures on this petition are their declared endorsement and intention to fully support my candidacy for this council seat,” Balla wrote in a letter to McCormick.
Those three votes would be a majority of council — enough for Balla to be appointed by council if the decision was still in its hands.
Mayor: Signing petition no endorsement
According to Guzzo, his signature on Balla’s petition is not necessarily an endorsement of any particular candidate, even though it specially asks the judge to pick Balla.
“I signed that petition to move this process forward,” he said.
Neither DiMaio nor Cicconi returned a request for comment.
Although it may seem unusual for elected officials to put their names to such a petition, according to Bob Davis Jr., an adjunct professor at the Widener University-Commonwealth School of Law in Harrisburg, the mayor and council have the same rights as anyone from New Kensington.
“A person who is mayor is also an elector, with the same rights as any other citizen,” Davis said.
Balla’s petition, like the one from the other group, is only a legal mechanism to open the council seat for interested candidates. Once such a petition is filed and accepted by the court, no further petitions are required — the council seat now is open and any qualified candidate can apply to be appointed, no petition or signatures from voters required.
But Balla included a pitch for his own candidacy in his petition, even claiming he already would be on council if New Kensington officials had acted more quickly.
“On Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, the council was prepared to act on the appointment by electing me to the seat with the majority of the remaining board,” Balla’s letter reads.
As it turns out, Balla needn’t have bothered including the information in his petition.
It was rejected by the court as unnecessary because the other petition already had opened the seat for appointment.
Private interviews held
Guzzo and Cicconi were among three council members who held a private meeting Feb. 3 to interview three candidates for the council seat. The other official was Councilman Todd Mentecki.
The candidates interviewed at the meeting were Balla, former councilman Doug Aftanas and Amos Glenn.
The meeting, which wasn’t advertised and not open to the public, likely violated the state’s Open Meetings law, which requires that meetings related to the appointment of someone to an elected position be held in public.
Guzzo has since said he was unaware that the meeting was improper and apologized if it was.
DiMaio did not attend the interviews nor the regular council meeting Feb. 6 because of a family emergency.
Even though city council could have appointed someone to Regoli’s seat at that meeting, it did not.
A council divided?
It’s possible a vote didn’t occur because it would have been split: After the public meeting Mentecki expressed his support for Aftanas, citing Aftanas’ experience.
According to Balla, during the Feb. 3 meeting, Mentecki questioned whether Balla would run against him in this year’s elections for terms that start next January if not appointed to council. The appointed person will serve for the rest of this year but must run for election if he or she wishes to remain on council.
Mentecki said he asked that question of all the candidates to gauge their commitment to council, not out of concern for competition.
“It’s not really that we are running against each other,” he said. “There are two open seats. I was curious if they were appointed would they run, or if they wouldn’t run.”
Balla and Aftanas expressed their intention to run for council whether or not appointed to fill Regoli’s term.
And they both say they’ll be standing before Judge McCormick on March 21.
“I talked to my family, and I said from the beginning I was going to do this,” Aftanas said. “I am going to be there on March 21 and, hopefully, I do a good enough job that they give me the opportunity.”
Amos Glenn could not be reached for comment.
Matthew Medsger is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675 or [email protected].