Johnstown council members were found not guilty of violating the state’s Sunshine Law following testimony at a summary trial Tuesday.
A Johnstown woman who had hopes of filling a vacancy on council brought the private complaints, alleging that the five council members illegally voted during executive session to reject her application because it came in late.
Charlene Stanton, of the 100 block of Sell Street, filed summary charges against council members Marie Mock, Pete Vizza, Nunzio Johncola and David Vitovich, along with Mayor Frank Janakovic.
Acting as the prosecutor, Stanton asked City Manager Kristen Denne, “When did you become aware of an executive session?”
City Solicitor David Andrews, acting as defense attorney for all five council members, interrupted to object that there was no evidence of an executive session.
District Judge Rick Varner upheld Andrews’ objection, barring any more questions about the executive session unless further testimony showed that one was held.
Denne testified that council did tell her applications received after the 5 p.m. deadline on Jan. 22 would not be considered.
“There was a discussion,” Denne said. “I don’t recall the date.”
Janakovic was the only defense witness.
“Council never went into executive session,” Janakovic said in response to Andrews’ question about a Jan. 22 or Jan. 23 closed-door session to review the application process or discuss possible applicants.
Andrews then asked Varner to dismiss the summary charges, saying there was no evidence an executive session was held. If there was an executive session, there would have to be proof that council discussed those being considered for appointment to the vacant seat, he added.
“In order to have a violation, council would have to discuss the selection or application of a person to fill the vacancy on council,” Andrew said in his closing argument.
Stanton cited a court rule that allows newspaper articles to be admitted as evidence without testimony confirming that a reporter wrote the item.
She presented a Feb. 1 article from The Tribune-Democrat, in which Mock was quoted as saying, “Her application came in late. Kristen presented it to council and it was council’s decision. It was an executive session, so I can’t say who voted or why they voted.”
Mock did not testify on Tuesday.
The court rule Stanton cited does not address the accuracy or truth of anything included in a published article, said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association.
“It means you don’t need someone from the newspaper to testify about the authenticity of the content,” Melewsky said. “It has nothing to do with what the judge believes. It is not about the truth of what is said.”
After the one-hour trial, Stanton said she was disappointed in Varner’s ruling.
“I thought the evidence spoke for itself,” she said. “There is always a chance to appeal.”
Citing Janakovic’s apparent contradiction of Mock’s statements to the newspaper, Stanton said, “My question to the public is: Who do you believe?”
Janakovic said he was pleased with the decision, but frustrated the process took council’s resources away from bigger issues.
“This kind of stuff is what takes the city two steps backwards for every step forward, instead of dealing with the real issues the city has going on,” Janakovic said, listing the sewer project controversy, blight and crime.
Council on Feb. 18 considered 10 applicants but deadlocked on an appointment for the vacancy created when Janakovic resigned from council after winning the mayor’s seat. Judge Timothy Creany subsequently appointed Frederick Mickel.
The executive session situation soured Stanton’s interest in the seat, she said, explaining why she did not apply to Creany for the appointment.
Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.