Penn Hills rescinds plan to remove board members |
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Dillon Carr

Penn Hills council held a special meeting Thursday to remove seven appointed officials for not submitting to criminal background checks, but changed course when a council member suggested those people be given another chance.

Deputy Mayor Catherine Sapp, who was not present at the meeting but called in by telephone, requested the manager send each person a letter notifying them council intends to remove them if they don’t comply within 15 days.

That letter would give the appointed officials a chance to request a public hearing to discuss reasons for not submitting to a criminal background check, and allow them to show existing clearances to nullify the request.

Sapp’s motion, approved 4-0, came after Councilman John Petrucci rescinded a motion seeking the removal of all seven appointed officials. Councilman Mark Brodnicki was absent.

Planning Commissioner Jerry Chiappinelli, who Petrucci named as an appointed official who would be removed at the special meeting Thursday for not complying to the policy, will be afforded the same opportunity via a letter.

State law mandates Chiappinelli must be given notice before removal can take place. Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code states planning commissioners can be removed from office “after the member has received 15 days’ advance notice …”

Chiappinelli, who is also the chairman of the Penn Hills Democratic Committee, said he hasn’t received a 15-day notice.

Manager Scott Andrejchak said he would send the letters out soon.

Before any votes took place, Mayor Sara Kuhn addressed audience members’ concerns, which ranged from council’s actions smelling of a “political, and personal vendetta” against Chiappinelli, to questioning the mayor’s devotion to ending gun violence.

“You neglect to mention that Councilman Petrucci, who is the Republican candidate for mayor, has targeted the Democratic chair of the Penn Hills Democratic Committee. That’s what this is all about,” said Pauline Calabrese, the municipality’s Democratic nomination for mayor.

Chiappinelli has said he has served as the Penn Hills Democratic Committee chairman for two years. He has been on the committee for decades, he said.

Petrucci did not respond to Calabrese’s accusation during the meeting, but refuted the claims in an interview with the Tribune-Review.

“I am not targeting nobody,” he said. “This is a failure to comply with the rule that was set by the municipality. Why is that so hard for everybody to understand?”

During a lengthy and, at times, heated meeting, Kuhn said all 48 appointed officials from various boards were given chances to submit to a criminal background check — a December 2018 policy.

Since January, when Kuhn said a letter was sent to all officials requesting they submit to a criminal background check, 83% of those appointed officials have complied, leaving seven who had not.

Those people include:

Rita Spalding – Penn Hills Arts Council

Arlene Holtz – Penn Hills Arts Council

Nick Lamia – Penn Hills Arts Council

Jean Meyer – Penn Hills Library Board

Patrick Tassari – Personnel Board

Jerry Chiappinelli – Planning Commission

Anthony Solazzo – UCC Board of Appeals

Two of the officials’ letters, for Salazzo and Holtz, were returned from the post office to the municipality, Andrejchak said.

Calabrese questioned why Chiappinelli’s record was considered severe enough to prompt an executive session held Aug. 24, which then led to council’s scheduling of a meeting to remove Chiappinelli and others.

“There is no criminal record,” she said moments before Kuhn read from a 1975 criminal complaint filed against Chiappinelli.

An Allegheny County Grand Jury dismissed the case a few months after charges of simple assault and making terroristic threats were brought against Chiappinelli – who was 29 at the time.

Chiappinelli, who is serving his third four-year term on the planning commission, does not have any other criminal offenses on his record, according to Allegheny County court records.

Kuhn said during the meeting she was concerned with those charges because Chiappinelli allegedly fired a gun during the incident.

“Gun violence in this day and age is not acceptable in any way shape or form,” she said, referencing specific mass shootings in recent history.

One resident commended council for requiring appointed officials to submit to background checks, but criticized council for seemingly singling out Chiappinelli.

“The narrative that you have spun out is that this is a personal vendetta,” said Denise Graham-Shealey, a former Penn Hills school board member. “If it’s because someone didn’t follow the policy, then I get that. But we need to change the narrative on this because we look bad.”

Chiappinelli, who was present at the meeting, again defended his actions in 1975 as a fight that happened after a man attacked and attempted to rob his father at a club in Plum. He said he fired his gun into the air after seeing the man he threw out of the club “jumping” his car.

He spoke strongly against council’s plans to remove him for not complying with the policy and said he would not comply because he feared identity theft.

Andrejchak, in a separate interview with the Tribune-Review, thanked the other appointed officials who have submitted criminal background checks. He said the records, which are kept in a locked storage room in the municipal building, can be given back to the individuals. If they are not retrieved, he said, they will be destroyed.

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