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Judge to hear Prison Referendum Group's plea to put new prison on May ballot

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Dates have been set for a Fayette County judge and the county election bureau to hear the concerns of a citizens group that wants a ballot referendum to give voters a say in whether $32 million should be spent to build a new jail.

President Judge John F. Wagner Jr. will hold a hearing at 9:30 a.m. April 15 to hear the Prison Referendum Group's arguments in favor of a court order directing the bureau to place the binding referendum question on the May 20 primary ballot.

The election board has tentatively set its own hearing for April 22 to approve or reject the group's request, according to county Commissioner Al Ambrosini, who is a member of the board.

The court hearing is in response to the prison group's petition seeking a judge's order directing the election bureau to place their question on the ballot.

The group wants a judge's order because the election board never held its own hearing on their request, instead notifying them by letter that there is no statutory authority permitting the ballot question, according to their petition.

The group in March held a rally outside the courthouse in support of the referendum. On Friday, members of the United Mine Workers of America held a rally in support of building a new prison.

Wagner has directed the prison referendum group “to provide specific statutory authority to support” their request for the court order.

Evelyn Hovanec of North Union, who is a member of the referendum group, said it believes no statute is needed because referendums are permissible under the Pennsylvania Constitution.

“If there is no applicable statute, how do you deny people their rights?” Hovanec said. “And that's what they have done in this case.”

Ambrosini, who along with commissioners Vincent Zapotosky and Angela Zimmerlink comprise the election board, said he will vote against the referendum on April 22.

“We have to reject it because there is no legal basis for it,” Ambrosini said. “We already sent them, right after the filing, a notice that says you have failed to meet the legal requirements to put this question on the ballot. To do what they want to do, there is no legal referendum statute or any constitutional statute that allows them to do that.”

Zapotosky said he will follow applicable law.

Zimmerlink questioned the timing of the April 22 meeting because, under a county resolution, the election board is required to hold a meeting on any proposed referendum at least 24 hours before the filing deadline for challenges to the referendum.

The deadline for challenges was March 18.

“They already publicly stated that they rejected the referendum petition, so how could they now possibly say they want to hear what the petitioners have to say?” Zimmerlink said. “Their scheduling of a hearing now, 30 days after the required deadline, is their attempt to cure the Sunshine Law breach. But this is more than a Sunshine breach, this is the election board and bureau not adhering to election law.”

Hovanec said the referendum group does not oppose the prison, but it wants voters to have a say in the process because they will pay for the prison through tax dollars.

The ballot question, she said, would seek to void all resolutions pertaining to the new jail and modifications to the current jail setup. It would require the county to explore other options, with any discussions on site selection, construction and other matters to be conducted openly.

“All we want them to do is stop, back up and do the right thing,” Hovanec said.

Frank Rutherford, an international representative for the union, said a new prison is needed because Fayette's aging facility poses health and safety concerns for corrections officers.

“The working conditions over at that jail are deplorable,” Rutherford said at the outset of the rally held inside the courthouse because of rain. “They need a new prison.”

Ambrosini and Zapotosky in October voted to build a prison. In March, the two commissioners voted to pay Fay-Penn Economic Development Council $1.25 million for a 58-acre site in Dunbar and North Union townships for the prison.

Zimmerlink voted against both resolutions.

Wagner's April 15 hearing will be held in Courtroom 2 at the courthouse in Uniontown. The April 22 meeting is tentatively scheduled for the commissioners conference room in the courthouse.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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