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Challengers team up to take on row officers in county

| Saturday, May 10, 2003

UNIONTOWN - Democratic candidates have formed two slates - the incumbents vs. the challengers - as they vie for nominations to four Fayette County row offices.

Clerk of Courts Janice Snyder is running against challenger Sean Lally, while Prothonotary Lance Winterhalter is facing off against Debra L. "Deb" Bortz.

Both Sheriff Gary D. Brownfield and Controller Mark Roberts face rematches against their challengers of four years ago: Mark Santore and John "Toots" Croftcheck, respectively.

Lone GOP candidate

The only Republican seeking a row office, controller candidate John Mikita, is unopposed.

Those elected to the positions have duties that involve maintaining records, collecting fees and handling other responsibilities in the county courthouse.

The challengers running for sheriff, prothonotary, clerk of courts and controller say the public is being ill-served by the current officeholders.

The incumbents counter that their challengers know very little about their offices, and some of their proposals for improvements in service run counter to state law.

For example, Snyder said Lally's proposal to allow online payment of fines and costs is against the law here, because it is too open to fraud.

But Lally said he is just interested in providing a higher level of service to the public, such as keeping the office open through lunch, which Snyder does not do.

"I'm dedicated, I'm extremely hardworking, and I do everything to the best of my availability," Lally said.

Charges exchanged

The challengers announced last month that they would team up to try to crack the incumbents' hold. And they said newspaper articles about the tentative formation of a slate of incumbents angered them.

"The reason (the incumbents) did this was out of fear," said Fayette County Commissioner Sean Cavanagh, who is teaming with Lally, Croftcheck, Bortz and Santore.

But the incumbents said the challengers already had joined forces under Cavanagh, and they pointed to how Bortz, Lally, Croftcheck and Santore already were placing their roadside signs as a group, even before a slate was discussed.

"There's only one slate out there that I can see," said Fayette County Register of Wills Donald Redman, who is running unopposed.

Cavanagh and Democratic Party Chairman Fred Lebder have traded barbs over just who has a slate, and who organized one first. Cavanagh first compared Lebder to Saddam Hussein in his reaction to the formation of the slate of incumbents, and then Lebder fired back this month, calling Cavanagh another Hitler.

The slate allegedly collapsed in April, but Lebder revived talk of it this month in his "Hitler" ad, when he published a 4-year-old photograph of incumbent row officers with the words "united we stand" written over where Commissioners Vincent Vicites and Ron Nehls had been blacked out.

Still, Sheriff Brownfield said the slate is dead, and said Lebder published the photo without the row officers' permission.

Second showdown

Brownfield, a retired state policeman in his first term, is facing Santore for the second time in the Democratic primary.

Santore, currently an insurance salesman, was chief deputy under his mother, Norma. He said he's fully qualified to run the office.

Brownfield, a 33-year veteran as state trooper, is as well. He said he's kept a tight rein on office finances and, thanks to his connections, has organized an emergency response team and a search and rescue team free of charge to the county.

Controller Roberts faces Croftcheck for the right to run in the general election.

Roberts, a controversial officeholder who called press conferences during his first two years to project gloomy fiscal pictures, was criticized sharply early in his first term.

Croftcheck, a retired welder and former union official, is making his fourth run for office. His previous attempts have been unsuccessful.

Residency an issue

Croftcheck is focusing on Roberts' residency four years ago, which was contested after Croftcheck lost the primary.

"He wasn't even a resident of Fayette County. I think I can work with the commissioners better than he can," Croftcheck said.

Roberts allegedly lived in Allegheny County, and even stated that on a bankruptcy petition filed within a year of the 1999 election. But the issue has been decided.

Roberts, meanwhile, said he has a superior understanding of the office, and a better education.

"I have a four-year degree, while he took a couple of classes," Roberts said.

Finally, Prothonotary Winterhalter faces Bortz in the primary.

Winterhalter contends he is the better candidate because of his experience.

But Bortz, a former unsuccessful candidate for Laurel Highlands School Board, said she's going to try harder.

"If all of us get in, we want to work together to start making a better Fayette County," she said.

In addition to Register of Wills Redman, Coroner Dr. Phillip E. Reilly is running unopposed.

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