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Uniontown Council candidate sues to oust appointee

| Saturday, April 4, 2009

A candidate for Uniontown City Council has filed a civil action seeking to have a recently appointed councilman removed from office.

Gary Gearing, of 126 Union St., contends in the lawsuit filed Friday in Fayette County that Philip J. Michael has not resided in Uniontown long enough to serve on council.

Michael, of 301 W. Berkely St., was appointed to council March 17 to fill the remainder of Marlin Sprouts' term, which was to expire in 2011. Sprouts resigned in March after he was sentenced to six months' house arrest and three years' probation in a mortgage scheme involving his daughter and a friend.

Gearing wants a judge to find that Michael isn't qualified to fill the post because he has not lived in Uniontown for at least a year prior to the appointment. Gearing cited the Third Class City code, which indicates that in order for candidates to be elected to city council, they must meet the one-year residency requirement.

Uniontown Solicitor Charles Gentile declined comment yesterday because he has not yet seen the lawsuit. In March, he told council there is no case law dealing with residency requirements for appointed council members, as opposed to elected members.

Efforts to reach Michael for comment were unavailable.

Gearing yesterday said he filed the civil action after his own attempts to persuade council to revisit its decision failed.

"I find it disappointing that somebody has to go to this level to ask our elected officials to do the right thing," Gearing said.

In response to the lawsuit, Mayor Ed Fike said the city will abide by any decision based on law.

"We'll do whatever the law says," Fike said. "We will adhere to that. We will not adhere to what Gary Gearing says."

Fike said he voted in favor of Michael's appointment because he felt Michael is more than qualified for the position. Michael has a master's degree in business education and an education degree. He teaches sixth-grade social studies at West Mifflin Middle School in Allegheny County.

"This guy is, really and truly, overqualified," Fike said. "At this particular time, I think that's what the city needs."

Fike said he believes the county Democratic committee will vote to have Michael's name placed on the fall ballot for a two-year council seat.

"My guess is that he will most likely be the candidate the Democrats will pick in November," Fike said.

Fayette County Democratic and Republican parties have until Sept. 14 to each nominate a candidate to appear on the fall ballot. The election, which has been compared to a "special election within a regular election," was placed on the ballot in response to Sprouts' resignation.

Fred Lebder, chairman of the county's Democratic party, could not be reached yesterday for comment.

According to the Election Bureau, neither party has submitted a candidate's' name for the two-year seat.

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