Reorganization problems in Bellevue

Bellevue Council members sworn in Monday were, from left, Linda Woshner, Mark Helbling and Frank Camello. Photo by Connie Rankin for The Citizen

The post-election reorganization of Bellevue Council Monday night was not without incident -- several of them in fact. The meeting began with one council member-elect omitted from the swearing-in, and ended with questions about the legitimacy of the entire process. In between, a new regime took charge of council, and perhaps set the tone for the coming year.

The oath of office was administered by Mayor George Doscher, which set the stage for much of the evening’s controversy. Doscher refused to swear in council member-elect Jim Scisciani, having determined that Scisciani failed to meet a borough home rule charter requirement that a council member be a resident of his particular ward for three years prior to taking office.

Scisciani served on council for a number of years, representing the borough’s second ward. Not quite three years ago, however, he moved to an apartment in the third ward and ran for office in 2011 for the third ward council seat.

State law regarding the qualifications to run for office require only one year of residency, so Scisciani was able to appear on the ballots.

Solicitor Tom McDermott said that Scisciani could be sworn in by someone else who might not be aware of the home rule charter provision or who would choose to ignore it. At that point, Scisciani could take a seat on council unless it was challenged in court by a resident of the borough.

The unique provisions of Bellevue’s home rule charter also created problems after the meeting, when it was pointed out that, unlike the borough code that governs most municipalities, the charter appears to limit the options for who can administer the oath of office. Whereas the borough code allows the job to be done by a judge, magistrate or the borough mayor, the charter mentions only a judge or magistrate.

That fact briefly called into question the legitimacy of the swearing-in of three other council members, the election of officers, and all actions taken that night, including final approval of a tax anticipation loan.

McDermott, however, quickly uncovered state law that supported the mayor administering the oath. He pointed out that the charter said that new council members “may” be sworn in by a judge or magistrate, but did not mandate that they “shall” be sworn in only by those parties. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the “may” in such a provision was suggestive rather than mandatory, and upheld the swearing-in of a council member in a similar case.

Between the two charter issues, however, council saw a change in leadership that put Linda Woshner into the council president’s seat and set the sides -- albeit loosely -- for the coming year.

Woshner was challenged by Mark Helbling, with the vote split 5-3 in Woshner’s favor. Voting for Woshner were incumbents Jane Braunlich, Jim Viscusi and Susan Viscusi along with new council member Frank Camello. Helbling was supported by prior council president Kathy Coder and Mark Panichella.

Jim Viscusi was elected vice president, again challenged by Helbling, with the vote the same as for president.

The new council’s first order of business was to change the monthly meeting schedule. For the past two years, council has held a work session on the second Tuesday of the month, and the regular council meeting on the fourth Tuesday. This had been a change from the long-standing practice of holding the pre-council meetings on the Wednesday prior to the regular meeting, which was held the first Tuesday of the month. That change was made when the new solicitor was hired, and he could not attend meetings on the first Tuesday.

Braunlich made a motion to hold committee meetings on the fourth Tuesday of the month, followed by the pre-council meeting on the first Tuesday, and the regular meeting on the second Tuesday.

She stated that two weeks between the pre-council and regular meetings was too long a period of time, and resulted in a confusing situation in which council was actually holding two voting meetings rather than one voting meeting and a discussion session. The solicitor’s presence was not needed at a work session, she said.

Helbling said that he preferred the two-week gap because it gave officials time to research issues before voting on them.

Jim Viscusi said that the longer period between meetings made it hard to keep track of information.

The vote to change the meeting schedule was approved in the same 5-3 vote.

That majority fell apart, however, when the new regime targeted the solicitor.

Braunlich made a motion to solicit proposals from potential solicitors, with the proposals due back to council in just a couple weeks.

Coder questioned why council would look into a new solicitor at this time, when members previously had agreed to seek proposals for various professional services every three years. McDermott has been the solicitor for two years.

Coder restated her question when she failed to receive a response and Woshner proceeded to a vote on the motion.

“No one wants to answer you,” Woshner told Coder. “I can’t make them answer you.”

Helbling said that he was “extremely pleased” with McDermott’s performance. Mayor Doscher asked that the solicitor be given clear guidelines if, in fact, his performance was an issue.

The vote came to a 4-4 tie, with Camello joining Helbling, Coder and Panichella in voting against the motion. Doscher sided with them, and the motion was defeated.

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