Mayor writes himself a ticket to court

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Talk about a costly parking ticket.

Last year, a small-town Cambria County mayor stepped in to patrol his borough for a police officer when she called off sick. During the shift he issued three tickets, writing the officer's name and badge number on each -- all without her knowledge or permission.

Thus began a tempest in a ticket book.

The violators weren't so upset by the tickets. But the authorities were.

After former Officer Christy Shaffer complained, state police charged Lilly Mayor John C. Gides (pronounced GUY'-dis) with multiple counts of forgery and tampering with public records.

The mayor took a leave of absence, the officer left the tiny force, and the key legal issue lingers in this borough of fewer than 900 residents: How far does a mayor's power extend?

It recently appeared that the case was near an end. Cambria County President Judge Gerard Long on Oct. 27 threw the charges out, essentially declaring that the matter was a trifle.

Not so in the minds of prosecutors.

Cambria County District Attorney Patrick T. Kiniry last week gave notice that he plans to appeal to the state Superior Court -- and those $10 tickets have now morphed into a major legal headache for Mr. Gides, 57.

Mountain or molehill? There are, of course, two sides.

"We're arguing legal concepts here, and we don't want this case to stand for the [notion] that a police officer's authority can be used by other than a police officer," Mr. Kiniry said.

"It just seems to me everybody knows you don't sign somebody else's name to a legal document without authorization."

Mr. Gides' lawyer, Thomas M. Dickey, waves off that idea. He said his client had no intent to defraud anyone but was properly exercising his statutory authority as the mayor.

Just like the president of the U.S. is also the commander in chief, Mr. Dickey said a mayor is the boss of his police department under the state borough code. In Lilly, there is no sworn police chief, and the force has only one officer per shift.

"This is simple," Mr. Dickey said. "It's generally understood that the mayor is the chief of police."

Mr. Dickey said the mayor did not sign Officer Shaffer's name; he printed it as a matter of record-keeping.

He also said that by ticketing the vehicles, which were parked in front of a recycling center and partially blocking a road, Mr. Gides was acting out of a desire to maintain clear streets in case emergency vehicles needed to get through.

Two of the three ticket recipients come down on opposite sides of the debate.

"The guy did wrong. I don't believe he should still be mayor," said Scott Selip, 45, of Lilly.

Mr. Selip, a state corrections officer, inadvertently helped uncover the problematic ticket. He said he went to the borough building to pay the ticket Feb. 21, 2007, four days after it was issued, and ran into Officer Shaffer.

He was surprised to learn she had been off sick the day the ticket was written. Confused, he showed it to her.

"She went, 'Oh, my God,' " Mr. Selip said. "I said, 'Something's going on here because this ticket has your name on it.' "

The officer questioned Mr. Gides on a speaker phone in the presence of a council member. Mr. Gides denied writing the ticket, according to a police affidavit supporting his arrest -- a contention his lawyer disputes.

Officer Shaffer later found Mr. Gides' keys on her desk. She questioned him again, and Mr. Gides then admitted to writing the tickets, the affidavit said.

Another ticket recipient, the mayor's nephew, thinks the district attorney's prosecution is not worthwhile.

"Everyone was parked illegally that got ticketed. I think it's a big deal about nothing," said James J. Gides, 29, a physician's assistant from Cresson. "I think it's a waste of taxpayer money."

In dismissing the charges, Judge Long cited the same portion of the borough code as the district attorney and the defense, the one that defines the mayor's powers. It reads, in part, that the mayor has the duty to "enforce the ordinances and regulations" of the borough and to "remove nuisances."

Mr. Kiniry argues, however, that does not authorize mayors to act like police officers.

"Our position is that in order for a parking ticket to be issued it has to be issued under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, and only a police officer has the power to do that, to issue a citation."

Mr. Dickey has his own response. In his brief before Judge Long, he wrote, "Defendant hereby submits that, at its worst, his conduct would constitute a petty infraction which was not intended to be governed by the Crimes Code."


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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