Clairton mayoral contest a race to the bitter end
By Patrick Cloonan
Published: Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 1:56 a.m.
In what may be the Mon-Yough area's most bitter primary contest, four Democrats seek to be mayor of Clairton.
Incumbent Rich Lattanzi cited honesty and integrity and said “all of my votes, all of my decisions are based on the betterment of the city.”
Councilman Richard Ford III, Lattanzi's main target, said he can bring the city together the same way as a Unity Group he founded took in the city, Clairton City School District, churches, Clairton Chamber of Commerce and Community Economic Development Corp.
Councilman Terry Lee Julian said he can put the city in the right direction, saying, “It hasn't had any good direction since Mayor (Domenic) Serapiglia passed away.”
Kenneth Barna, a recreation director in Clairton for 10 years, also cited honesty, integrity “and the education to run the city,” and said he isn't a career politician and does believe in term limits.
No Republicans are running for mayor or council.
“I work for no one else but the people,” Lattanzi said. “I pay my taxes and do everything that is right.” He also said “it is a critical time for the city of Clairton.”
Ford said he has paid all of his taxes, too, on all but one property, saying he has an agreement with the city, school district and county, to “pay the taxes that I have in arrears.”
Ford pointed to Lattanzi's work as maintenance safety coordinator at U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant, saying, “I could be a full-time mayor. I could be in the office every day.”
Lattanzi said he has no hidden agenda. He defended his U.S. Steel employment when he was elected for his first term as mayor in 2009.
“I'm a blue-collar worker,” he said. “I will have an office at city hall, but I see myself going throughout the city working with people, taking a hands-on approach.”
Tax issues fueled court challenges against Ford's mayoral candidacy and Julian's candidacies for mayor and renomination to council in Ward 3.
Citing court records, council challenger Lee Lasich claimed Julian owed $34,000 to the city and school district. Julian said Lasich was wrong about what he owed from a defunct business.
Lasich's challenge was filed too late and dismissed by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James. Lasich, a legal secretary, and Julian remain on the ballot for council in Ward 3.
Ford also seeks a new council term from Ward 2 but was not challenged there on the ballot or in court. Lattanzi's challenge of Ford's mayoral candidacy is still pending before state Supreme Court.
Ironically, Ford and Lattanzi were on the same side of another issue recently resolved in the state's high court. They joined an appeal of the reapportionment of the city from the 39th Legislative District into the 35th.
The high court upheld that move and the rest of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission's plan for remapping House and Senate districts.
Julian and Barna each saw good in the move of Clairton into a district that also includes the Mon-Yough cities of Duquesne and McKeesport.
“We were kind of put in with Jefferson (Hills) and some of the other communities that maybe don't have the same interests as the Mon Valley river towns,” Barna said.
Lattanzi argued for Clairton's place in the 39th, where other municipalities would not be in need of state and federal aid as would many communities in the 35th.
Barna falls back on his past role as a recreation director, saying he knows how to seek out state and federal funding.
“We need someone who is a go-getter,” Barna said. “I will not sell off anymore of the Clairton assets ... just to balance the budget.”
Julian is concerned about the status of U.S. Steel, the city's largest taxpayer, whose Clairton coke plant and other properties have seen reductions in their assessed values.
The largest lot, 242.22 acres, was reduced from $9.25 million to $2.04 million, with buildings cut from $5.8 million to $1.5 million. Julian said total valuation went from $14 million to $2.5 million.
“I want to fight the assessments as far as we have to go,” Julian said. “It is going to be devastating to the city but more so to the school district. We are going to have to cut services or raise taxes.”
The city's lack of a supermarket also is an issue.
“I have new ideas about bringing in a grocery store,” Barna said. “I want to bring back some of the restaurants we had, and bring back the UniMarts, and I have new ideas on those things.”
Ford said the purpose of the Unity Group was to list problems, prioritize them and then find a way to resolve them. He said the city could have had a grocery store and might not be losing its last bank branch if he had been mayor and the city acted on a plan developed by the Unity Group.
“It is on display at the city hall,” Ford said. “I would like to complete it. It has been a vision of mine.”
He said the loss of a grocery store planned in the old Blair Heights development, “a shovel-ready area,” is the second to occur in recent years.
Ford said a would-be developer wanted a store at Maple Avenue and State Street to complement two other stores he owned, one in Duquesne.
“That property was sold from under him,” Ford said.
Ford said the city could have done more to help Sierra Development's Blair Heights plan. Lattanzi said the city already offered $1.5 million in grants, street improvements and a $600,000 tax abatement.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or email@example.com.
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