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Politics

Nov. loser sworn in after mix-up

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2003

Michelle Bittner was sworn in Monday morning as a new member of the Montour school board.

That was a surprise to Patty Kaufman, who defeated Bittner in the November election and planned to take her oath of office Wednesday when the board reorganizes.

"I feel like I'm in the middle of a soap opera," Kaufman said.

The county Elections Division sent certificates of election to both women by mistake, department Manager Mark Wolosik said.

"It was a mistake. We didn't do it on purpose," Wolosik said. "It's happened in the past."

Kaufman, 55, of Kennedy, and Bittner, 48, also of Kennedy, received followup letters yesterday in which the division apologizes for the error and instructs Bittner to return her certificate.

But Bittner had already used her certificate to take an oath of office before District Justice Carla Swearingen.

Bittner said acted on the advice of her attorney, whom she wouldn't identify.

"I was told I had a legal document in my hand and I could get sworn in," she said. "Something initiated this document being sent out. Something had to trigger it. It's hard to believe it was done by mistake."

Sean Fields, an associate counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said it is not unusual for school board members to take their oath of office before the board's reorganization meeting. Under the state school code, a board member can be sworn in on the first Monday in December.

"It's understood as soon as you get that election certificate, you can be sworn in by a district justice or anyone who's qualified to administer an oath in Pennsylvania," Fields said.

Kaufman, a Democrat, was appointed to the board in February in a 5-3 vote over Bittner, a Republican. Initial election results had Kaufman defeating Bittner for a two-year term for Region 3, which covers Kennedy, by 40 votes, 1,569 to 1,529.

Bittner, who was endorsed by the Montour Taxpayers Organization, said she believed receiving an election certificate meant the results had changed and she had won.

Bittner said when she called the elections office yesterday morning before being sworn in, the numbers still showed Kaufman as the winner, 1,566 to 1,531, a 35-vote margin. Wolosik told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Kaufman won 1,578 to 1,532, a 46-vote margin.

"To me, it's a really big mix-up," she said of the vote tallies. "I'm not trying to cause problems. I followed the advice I was given."

Bittner said she isn't sure what she'll do now, but she doesn't plan to return the certificate right away.

"Those numbers might change again," she said.

Montour Solicitor Ira Weiss said Bittner being sworn in does not overcome the fact she was not elected.

"As far as I'm concerned, Mrs. Kaufman is the individual who will be seated Wednesday night," Weiss said.

Kaufman questioned Bittner's motives.

"When a person gets sworn in knowing they lost an election, what are your motivations• What is it they really want?" she said. "I think these antics have gone on long enough. This board has many important things to do."

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