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McCandless launches probe into councilman's confrontation with teens

Tony LaRussa
| Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, 2:54 p.m.
McCandless Councilman Steve Mertz
McCandless Councilman Steve Mertz

One of the first official actions of the new year for McCandless council was to pass a resolution to investigate the conduct of a councilman accused of a vulgar tirade against three teenage volunteers who were at a polling precinct on Election Day.

District Judge William Wagner conducted a swearing-in ceremony at the Jan. 2 reorganization meeting for two new members of council: Bill Kirk, Ward 2; and Carolyn Schweiger, Ward 6; as well as Ward 4 Councilwoman Joan Powers, who was re-elected.

Council voted unanimously to appoint Ward 1 Councilwoman Kim Zachary as president, and Greg Walkauskas, Ward 5, as vice president.

Kirk began the business portion of the meeting by introducing a resolution calling for “a full investigation into the performance of duties of Councilman (Steve) Mertz including citizen complaints against him.”

“We have no greater purpose than to serve our citizens with integrity, which means policing our own ranks at times,” Kirk said. “While it's incredibly disappointing to start a new year by needing to deal with the issue of a serious citizen grievance that has been publicly leveled against a member of our council, the only worse thing would be to ignore it or overlook it.”

The incident came to light during the Dec. 18 council meeting when Don Mueller of McCandless said Mertz accosted his two sons, age 16 and 15, and their 13-year-old sister, who were volunteering at the polls Nov. 7 on behalf of Councilman Ralph LeDonne's re-election campaign.

Mertz, who is in his first term as the Ward 3 representative, was at the polls to support Schweiger — who served as his campaign manager.

Schweiger, Mertz and Zachary cast the three votes against the resolution to investigate the incident.

In an interview with the Trib, Mertz said he used only a single insult containing the F-word while speaking to the teens. He contends they initiated the confrontation by insulting him and making disparaging remarks about Muslims and gay people. The councilman compared their behavior to members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based congregation known for its harsh anti-gay rhetoric and picketing at military funerals.

Josef Mueller said he and his two younger siblings did not make such statements and characterized Mertz's action as a “tirade” that included multiple uses of the F-word.

Kirk said he introduced the resolution because he believes council “has an obligation to act.”

“We must afford these citizen grievances the weight they deserve,” he said. “While there are two sides to every story, elected officials should never carry more weight than any other citizen.”

But Mertz maintains that the language he used was appropriate because he was “standing against bigotry.”

“Even if these accusations were true, which I don't believe they are even slightly true, what exactly do you feel is the point where someone should ignore blatant bigotry at a polling station while it is being chanted? Where do you draw the line?” Mertz asked Kirk.

Mertz's contention that the teens instigated the incident was disputed by Walkauskas, who said he was “a direct witness.”

“I don't recall any of that,” Walkauskas said. “I recall the confrontation, but I don't recall them (the teens) saying these bigoted things.”

The incident was initially referred to the McCandless police, which recused itself from investigating to avoid any conflicts of interest.

Allegheny County Police investigated the exchange between the children and Mertz but the district attorney's office did not file any charges against the councilman.

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-772-6368 or tlarussa@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TonyLaRussaTrib.

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