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State Supreme Court denies Fayette jail referendum

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 6:36 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has turned down a Fayette County man's request that a referendum question about a proposed $32 million jail be placed on the primary ballot.

The court on Tuesday issued a one-sentence order denying the request filed on behalf of the Prison Referendum Group.

John Allen Cofchin of North Union, a member of the group who filed the petition, said he is disappointed in the denial. He declined additional comment because he had not yet received notification or a copy of the order.

In the application for extraordinary relief, Cofchin asked the court to “exercise its extraordinary jurisdiction and order that the prison referendum initiative be placed on (May 20) primary ballots to quickly and efficiently correct violations of petitioner's rights.”

On Oct. 22, the county elections board, consisting of the three county commissioners, voted 2-0 to reject a 3,500-signature petition seeking to give voters the say in the construction of the jail via the ballot question.

Citing the advice of board solicitor Sheryl Heid, commissioners Al Ambrosini and Vincent Zapotosky rejected the referendum petition, saying there is no state law or constitutional authority to authorize it. Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink did not vote, saying the board did not have the authority to hold the meeting.

Ambrosini and Zapotosky have supported the new jail; Zimmerlink has not.

A separate petition filed in county court seeking to force the referendum is pending before President Judge John F. Wagner Jr., according to online court documents. Wagner postponed a hearing on the petition until after the election board acted. Neither side as of Tuesday afternoon had filed a formal request to reschedule oral argument in the case.

In a related matter, the election board has not responded to a written request from Michael Cavanagh of Uniontown to convene an emergency hearing to investigate the board's alleged “illegal action” when it voted Oct. 22 to reject the referendum, according to Larry Blosser, election bureau director.

Cavanagh wants a new election board appointed to replace the three commissioners because of a conflict of interest, according to his April 22 letter to the board and Wagner. The newly appointed board would take testimony and determine whether the current board violated the election code and its own resolutions regarding referendum requests, according to the letter.

In addition, Cavanagh wants all of the county's judges to recuse themselves from the matter, citing conflicts of interest.

Blosser said he forwarded Cavanagh's requests to the commissioners but had not received a reply.

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

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