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Valley News Dispatch

Gov. Wolf blasts Arnold mayor's anti-protester remarks as 'unacceptable'

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, July 12, 2018, 9:18 p.m.
Gov. Tom Wolf said he found Arnold Mayor Karen Peconi’s Facebook posts disparaging protesters to be “unacceptable” during an unrelated news conference on Thursday, July 12, 2018, at an electrical workers union in Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Gov. Tom Wolf said he found Arnold Mayor Karen Peconi’s Facebook posts disparaging protesters to be “unacceptable” during an unrelated news conference on Thursday, July 12, 2018, at an electrical workers union in Pittsburgh’s South Side.

Arnold Mayor Karen Peconi’s social media posts suggesting that Antwon Rose protesters should be sprayed with water cannons were “unacceptable,” Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Wolf made the remark after reporters asked about the potential for the state to remove Peconi from office during an unrelated news conference on the South Side.

The governor replied that should two-thirds of the state Senate vote to remove Peconi for “reasonable cause,” he would not have a say in the matter.

“The Senate makes that decision. I don’t have a choice. That’s how the process works in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. “Let me just say that what she said, to me, was unacceptable.”

Public pressure has been mounting for Peconi to step down since she made social media posts disparaging people who took to the streets to protest in the name of social justice after the fatal June 19 police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh.

A video the embattled mayor shared on her Facebook page portrays water cannons being used to disperse protesters elsewhere. Some are violently knocked to the ground.

“We need one of these for tomorrow,” Peconi wrote in a comment beneath the video.

Later, she wrote, “bring the hoses” and complained of protesters, “None of them work. That’s how they can do this at 7 a.m. … Very sad.”

On Thursday afternoon, Wolf said, “I haven’t seen the full video, but the comments were unacceptable.”

On Tuesday night, during a meeting filled with dozens of residents calling for Peconi’s resignation, Arnold Council voted 4-0 to write a letter to Wolf and the state Senate asking them to remove Peconi for her seat using one of three constitutional methods for doing so.

Meanwhile, Peconi made clear she had no intentions to resign.

She apologized for her actions in a prepared statement and said she will “continue to work hard to improve the city of Arnold.”

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jay Costa, who was with Wolf in Pittsburgh, said Thursday that he found Peconi’s posts to be “totally inappropriate, particularly for the highest officer in that particular municipality.”

“And quite frankly, it’s disappointing that she continues to serve knowing that not only her council but many of her residents — probably an overwhelming number of the residents in the community she represents — would prefer that she would leave,” Costa said. “And so I think that would be the best course of action, but that’s my opinion personally.”

Arnold Solicitor David Regoli has said that he will draft the council’s letter as requested, even though he questions its ability to stand legal grounds.

“At this point, the solicitor is working through the actions that were taken by council and he’s providing some research and some direction,” Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Hugh Baird said.

As for what happens next, “We’ll see exactly what the letter asks,” Baird said.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, whose district includes Arnold, declined to comment.

Costa outlined the next steps should council pursue the “reasonable cause” removal option.

A senator, likely Brewster, would file a resolution, whose initial passage would spur the formation of a seven-member panel made up of Republicans and Democrats selected by House and Senate leaders.

The panel would hold a series of public hearings. Should it recommend the removal of Peconi from office, the issue would go up for a vote on the Senate floor — where two-thirds of the body must approve it.

Regoli has said that though Peconi’s comments may have been hurtful, they’re still protected under the First Amendment.

Costa said he needs to do more research before he decides how he would vote on a removal resolution. He said Peconi’s comments could violate part of the state constitution that calls on elected officials to “behave well.”

“Clearly, every person has the First Amendment right to free speech … but this is in context as an elected official serving and representing a community,” Costa said. “We have to look through that lens as it relates to what needs to be done by this person.

“And when the top elected official in your community renders comments of that nature, I think it sends a strong message that folks have every right to be concerned about what the mindset is going forward.”

The process is the same as the unsuccessful one pursued during the fall of former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who vowed not to resign until she was taken away in handcuffs — and then did so only as she began a 10- to 23-month jail sentence on a perjury conviction.

The last time the process actually resulted in the removal of an officer was the turn of the 19th century.

The Senate removed William Ellwood Rowan from his post as high sheriff of Philadelphia County in Feb. 18, 1887, state records show.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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