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Kearns' candidacy stirs questions about term-limit language in Murrysville charter

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

A incumbent councilwoman's re-election bid has sparked a debate over the Murrysville home-rule charter.

Council President Joan Kearns last week filed a petition to run for a Republican nomination for a second consecutive four-year term. But one of the authors of the municipal home-rule charter says Kearns already has reached her term limit.

Under the document, which was written by nine residents in the 1970s and approved by voters, council members are limited to serving two consecutive terms. But the “Term of Office” part of the charter states that “Councilmembers shall serve four year terms commencing on the first Monday in January following their election.”

Kearns was appointed to council in April 2007, one month after councilman Jack Bankoske resigned. She ran for and was elected to a special two-year term that November. In 2009, she was elected to a four-year term.

Shirley Turnage, one of the authors of the charter, said Kearns served two terms and isn't eligible to run again.

“I know what the intent was,” she said. “I feel that it might be a little complicated, but if you take it step by step, it's clear.”

Municipal Solicitor George Kotjarapoglus issued a ruling earlier this year that disagrees with Turnage. Kotjarapoglus wrote that the charter is “silent” on how a partial term affects the municipal term limit and that it designates a term as four years. Therefore, Kotjarapoglus ruled, Kearns could serve another term, if elected this year.

Kearns said she will abide by Kotjarapoglus' advice.

“The charter deems a term as a four-year term specifically,” she said. “His opinion means I can serve again. I filled in for someone who left council and was elected for the last two years of that term.”

This isn't the first time this portion of the charter has been questioned. Two years ago, Councilwoman Nancy Kacin — who was elected to a two-year term to take over for Councilman Ted Mallickin 2005 and re-elected in 2007 to a four-year term — decided not to run again.

Turnage was consulted about Kacin's situation.

“I felt, according to the charter, it was not OK.”

Turnage said she has no issue with Kearns serving on council; she simply wants the issue to be settled once and for all.

“I have no problem with Joan — she's a fine councilwoman,” Turnage said. “What bothers me is the confusion in the charter.”

That confusion is typical in contracts, said Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development, a think tank in Wilkes-Barre. Ooms said she hasn't heard of any cases in home-rule charters, however.

“I haven't heard of any cases in particular that mirror the situation, but it's extremely common in any kind of contract,” Ooms said. “It is critical that the home-rule charter contain information about terms and what that means. If someone is appointed because of a vacancy, that should be addressed as well.”

Murrysville's home-rule charter does address vacancies, but it does not explicitly explain how an appointment affects a term limit.Turnage said she has asked an Greensburg-based attorney to review the situation and offer an independent opinion. She wouldn't identify the attorney, only that the individual has no ties to Murrysville.

“This has nothing to do with Joan,” Turnage said. “It has to do with clarifying the process in the charter. Let's clear this up, once and for all.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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