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Group rebuffed in bid to give Fayette County voters say on jail project

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Saturday, May 17, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Seated on benches outside Courtroom No. 2 in the nearly deserted Fayette County Courthouse on Friday afternoon, several members of the Prison Referendum Group contemplated their chance of prevailing on their petition seeking to give voters a say in a $32 million jail project.

Their prospects of forcing the Election Board to place their question regarding the future of the jail project on the May 20 ballot were dim, they acknowledged.

They had no attorney, member Evelyn Hovanec said, despite having asked more than 20 lawyers in Fayette, Westmoreland, Somerset and Allegheny counties to take their case.

They were left to represent themselves, turning to sources such as the Internet for guidance, member John Cofchin said.

“They like to call us Cofchin, Hovanec and Google,” joked Cofchin as he waited, clad in a suit and tie, for the start of the hastily arranged hearing before Senior Judge William Ober from Westmoreland County.

Ober, who was appointed to hear the case late Thursday because Fayette's entire bench of judges recused themselves, offered no surprise.

He dismissed the group's petition after the hourlong hearing in which Cofchin and Hovanec, pitted against a seasoned county solicitor, laid out their case in a combination of legal and layman's terms.

Hovanec, 76, of North Union acknowledged there is no statutory authority for the referendum, a point cited by the Election Board when it rejected the group's petition with 3,457 signatures in April.

But authority does exist, Hovanec argued, in the Pennsylvania Constitution.

“There is no single, appropriate legislative statute that fits our particular case,” Hovanec said, standing at counsel table, cane at her side.

She cited several areas of the constitution, including one section that she said reserves certain powers for the people rather than the legislature. She said the fact that counties with home rule charters can have referendums while other counties cannot is discriminatory.

“They get special rights, and we don't,” Hovanec said.

Cofchin, 66, of North Union cited case law he said was applicable, but Ober said most of the cases referred to nomination petitions for individuals seeking public office, not ballot referendums. Cofchin argued unsuccessfully that they were applicable to the ballot referendum.

County Solicitor John Cupp argued the Election Board's decision was based on the lack of statutory authority authorizing the ballot question. Even if the Election Board failed to hold its hearing in a timely fashion, as the group had alleged, the ballot referendum still required statutory authority to be valid, he said.

Ober said he dismissed the petition because elected representatives are put in office to make such decisions, even if the decisions are not to the liking of all voters.

“The solution is to elect representatives who will carry out what's best for the people,” Ober said. “If we had 3,700 people in any county who decided they want something done about something, we would lose representative government.”

The group has 30 days to appeal, but the May 20 primary is just days away. Cofchin and Hovanec said they will hold a meeting with other group members before deciding how, and whether, to proceed.

“We've gone through the process and played it their way, but when you play it their way, you are set up to lose,” Hovanec said after the hearing. “It's been a long 10 months. We need time to think about this, to talk about our possibilities.”

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

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