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Hearing held on eligibility of Chambersburg candidates

March 28, 2001

Hearing held on eligibility of Chambersburg candidates



By DON AINES / Staff Writer


Two candidates for the Chambersburg Borough Council say they will run write-in campaigns if a judge upholds challenges to their petitions to appear on the May 15 primary ballot.

"The court will likely declare us free agents ... and that's not necessarily a bad thing," Third Ward incumbent Councilman Carl Helman said after the 30-minute hearing Tuesday before Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge John R. Walker.

Helman and Fourth Ward GOP candidate Jason Bitner both said they will run write-in campaigns for both the Republican and Democratic nominations in the primary if Walker rules they violated state election law by failing to file statements of financial interest with the borough before the March 6 deadline.

Walker said he will rule by Friday on whether the names of Helman and Bitner can appear on the ballot, but told them that Pennsylvania election law "is a very technical thing that says you shall file, not may file," Walker said.

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Walker gave both men and the challengers to their petitions until Thursday afternoon to file any briefs citing case law. Walker said he would file an opinion by Friday afternoon.

Helman and Bitner both filed their financial interest statements with the Franklin County Commissioners Office by the March 6 filing deadline, but failed to file the statements with the borough until after the deadline.

The challenge against Helman was signed by Theresa Johnson, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the Third Ward. Bitner's petition is being challenged by John A. Redding Jr., a Fourth Ward Republican incumbent.

Attorney Patrick J. Redding, John Redding's son, presented the arguments on behalf of Johnson and Redding. Helman and Bitner appeared without legal counsel Tuesday.

Reading from the Pennsylvania Public Officials Employee Ethics Act, Redding said, "Failure to file the statement in accordance with the provisions of this chapter shall ... be a fatal defect to a petition to appear on the ballot."

Borough Secretary Tanya Mickey testified Helman did not file his financial statement until March 7 and Bitner did not file the statement until March 16. On cross-examination, Helman asked if any other borough candidates had missed the deadline.

She said no one else had missed the deadline.

When Helman asked if any candidate failed to file the statement in past elections, Redding objected, saying it was "irrelevant."

"It's my understanding that if no one challenges a late filing, there's no problem," Walker said in upholding the objection.

Bitner, called to the stand by Patrick Redding, testified that the election packet handed out to candidates for municipal and county offices was unclear about filing the financial report. "Nothing says you have to file with the political subdivision itself," he said.

Redding said the requirement is spelled out in the election packet handed out by the county to every candidate.

Helman called Johnson to the witness stand and asked when she became aware he had not filed the financial statement. She said she learned of it on March 8, but Redding objected when Helman asked who informed her of the violation.

"I was unaware of the deadline-sensitive nature of filing the document at the borough," Helman said in his closing statement.

"Does that constitute a fatal defect?... That will be for the court to decide," he said.

Redding said Johnson met all the requirements of the election code, and a ruling in favor of Helman or Redding would be "a slap in the face" to those candidates who complied with the law.

A number of supporters for both sides were in the courtroom. One of those supporting Helman and Bitner was Fourth Ward Councilwoman Sharon Bigler, a Democrat.

"This is just a pathetic attempt to keep the good-old-boy network alive and well at the borough hall," Bigler said.

For more than a year, there has been an even split on the 10-member council on some issues, such as the proposed King's Grant senior citizens apartment complex downtown. Helman and Bigler have opposed John Redding and other council members on some of those issues.

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