Ross commissioners walk out over appointing new commissioner

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Ross commissioners deadlocked on appointing a ninth commissioner Monday, with the ensuing debate leading to four board members walking out, leaving the remainder without a quorum to continue.

Before the dispute, commissioners were able to adopt a $17.1 million general fund budget for 2014 that holds the line on property taxes.

But the votes on two other issues did not go as smoothly. When it came to appointing a new commissioner, it was questioned whether the chairman of the vacancy board, who was in the audience, could break the 4-4 tie, or whether doing so would violate the state’s open meeting law.

Three residents applied to replace Gerald O’Brien as the Seventh Ward representative — Paul Trilli, Pat Mullin and Donald Dreier. Mr. O’Brien resigned after he was elected tax collector in November.

Four commissioners — Lana Mazur, David Mikec, Grace Stanko and Grant Montgomery — favored Mr. Trilli, who is the Aramark operations director at Heinz Field.

The others — Chris Eyster, Peter Ferraro, Dan DeMarco and John Sponcer — favored Mr. Mullin, a retired truck driver.

Since commissioners deadlocked, the First Class Township Code requires that a vacancy board be convened to fill the seat. The vacancy board consists of the remaining eight commissioners and George Tunney, who was appointed to the board in January.

Mr. DeMarco made a motion to convene the vacancy board next week. But township Solicitor Bonnie Brimmeier said Mr. Tunney was in the audience and could be asked to break the tie at that time.

“In anticipation of them perhaps having a deadlock, we had Mr. Tunney in the audience,” she said Tuesday.

But Mr. DeMarco, who also is an attorney, protested, saying the vacancy board needed to have a separate advertised meeting to comply with the open meetings law, also known as the Sunshine Act. “You can’t do it like that. We haven’t done it like that in the past,” he said. “We haven’t advertised. It’s a separate board altogether.”

The two attorneys argued about whether or not the vacancy board could convene that night.

“At the end of the day, I am the solicitor,” Ms. Brimmeier said.

Mr. DeMarco walked out of the meeting, followed by Mr. Eyster, Mr. Ferraro and Mr. Sponcer. That left the board with four members, one shy of a quorum to continue the meeting.

Ms. Brimmeier said Tuesday that she still believes that she was correct.

“There was no reason why the vacancy board could not have just proceeded,” she said. “This was an advertised meeting. There is case law that specifically says you don’t have to have a special advertised meeting.”

Ms. Brimmeier said Mr. Tunney, as chairman of the vacancy board, can convene a meeting next week, and will do so. The window of time for commissioners to appoint a replacement expired Wednesday. The vacancy board has 15 days from Wednesday to act. If it does not act in time, the appointment will be made by an Allegheny County judge.

Mr. DeMarco continued to disagree Tuesday, and was joined by incoming Commissioner Steve Korbel. Mr. Korbel also is an attorney and solicitor for Aspinwall, Forest Hills and the McCandless Civil Service Commission.

Mr. Korbel said the amended Sunshine Act levies fines “in the thousands of dollars” for violations.

“Once [Ms. Brimmeier] was taking them down that road, the four commissioners walked out, and rightfully so,” he said.

Both Mr. Korbel and Mr. DeMarco questioned whether Mr. Tunney should even be on the board. He is an employee of the public works department and also has a business which employs Mrs. Mazur.

Earlier in the meeting, commissioners deadlocked on an ordinance proposed by Mr. Eyster to eliminate township-paid health insurance for new commissioners.

The four commissioners who voted against the ordinance – Mrs. Mazur, Mr. Mikec, Mr. Montgomery and Mrs. Stanko – all take advantage of the insurance, as does Mr. DeMarco.

Mr. Korbel and incoming Commissioner Jeremy Shaffer have both said that they will not accept the insurance.

Mr. DeMarco said he believes the vote on the commissioner candidates was influenced by the health insurance perk because Mr. Trilli said that he would not accept the insurance but would not vote to deny it to others.

Health insurance for the commissioners is estimated to cost $123,336 in 2014.

One item commissioners were able to agree upon was the 2014 budget that keeps the property tax rate at 2.7 mills.

The three large projects that put the budget out of balance will be paid for by taking money from the township’s $4.8 million reserve fund.

Those projects are $340,000 to solve heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems inside the municipal building; $105,000 to finish the comprehensive plan, which is required by state law; and $339,200 for a new public works building. The public works building could be financed.

The sewer user fee will be increased by 75 cents, to $3.75 per 1,000 gallons of water used. Residents should see approximately a $25 increase in their bills next year because the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is also raising its rates, according to Manager Douglas Sample

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:

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