State court blocks McKeesport directors from seeking second seat

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The names of two McKeesport Area school directors who sought to run for re-election before their current terms expired will remain off of the May 15 primary ballot, per order of Commonwealth Court.

The Harrisburg court's ruling April 13 affirmed an order by the county Common Pleas Court that resulted in board members Dave Donato and Lori Spando having their names removed from the election ballot because each member is halfway through a four-year term.

Act 45 of 2006, amending the Pennsylvania Election Code, prohibits candidates from running for an office they already hold if their terms do not expire in that election year. Both Mr. Donato and Ms. Spando, who had successfully run for re-election in 2005, with two years remaining on their terms, said in their appeal that Act 45 was unconstitutional.

Commonwealth Court Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said in her opinions for the two cases that such a claim was too broad and that neither board member could cite law to support the argument that their constitutional rights had been violated.

The judge said the board members' assertion that the amendment to the Election Code was insufficient to govern the conduct of school board elections and that similar changes should have been made to the Public School Code were off the mark. She said the Act 45 changes to the Election Code were intended to cover candidates for all elected offices, not just those running for school board.

"With Act 45, the General Assembly intended to prevent incumbent office holders from seeking re-election during their term of office and then resigning their seats and choosing their successors. This is a legitimate public concern, and the Legislature has acted to terminate the practice [Mr. Donato and Ms. Spando seek] to perpetuate," Judge Leavitt wrote in her opinions for the two appeals.

On a procedural level, the judge said the two board members had waived their right to contest the constitutionality of the statute because they had failed to notify the Pennsylvania attorney general of their claim.

Neither Mr. Donato nor Ms. Spando were represented by an attorney at the hearing, which was conducted by way of a telephone conference call.

Mr. Donato said he still believed the provisions of Act 45 were open for interpretation.

The initial actions to set aside the nomination petitions of the board members were filed by school board candidates James Brown and Joseph Chiaverini in March.

Mr. Brown, who works for McKeesport, and three other city employees currently in the school board race, could be affected by a suit Mr. Donato filed last month against McKeesport Mayor Jim Brewster, invoking a provision of McKeesport's Home Rule Charter. It prohibits city employees from soliciting or receiving campaign funds for public office.

If successful, the suit would force the candidates to give up their jobs or drop out of the race.

Mr. Brewster has yet to file a response to the complaint.

Counsel for Mr. Brewster filed an answer to that suit this week that said the City of McKeesport and the school district are distinct municipal organizations and that being employed by the city does not create a conflict of interest for persons seeking the position of school director.

The answer also said that firing the school board candidates would open the city to "tremendous civil liability" in that McKeesport is seeking to amend the provision of the home rule charter prohibiting employees from running for office.

Eric Slagle is a freelance writer.


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