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May 20, 2013

Mayor’s race pits friends

WINDBER — A two-way race for the borough mayor seat will likely be settled Tuesday.

That’s because two Democrats – incumbent Simon “Red” Ohler and Councilwoman Sonya Pekala – are the only candidates on the spring ballot, with no Republican opposition.

Both are borough council veterans who offered similar views on the importance of the mayor’s seat – and the issues Windber faces.

Each also calls the other a friend – but both individually believe they are distinctively qualified for the job.

“The reason I’m doing this is that, as mayor, I’d have a better chance to work closely with people here in town,” Pekala said. “On council, we’re supposed to be here to help people – but in terms of being able to talk one-on-one and really be able to work directly with them, I think there’s a better opportunity as mayor.”

Pekala is finishing her second term on council.

A mother of three, Pekala and her husband have called Windber home for 18 years.

As a councilwoman, she says she’s fought against tax increases, noting her “No” vote was in the minority when a 2013 budget was passed carrying a 1-mill hike.

“As mayor, I’d have veto power,” she added.

Pekala said that her plans, if elected, would be to reinstate regular mayor’s hours at the borough office.

Ohler, 66, said he’s prided himself on his accessiblity to the public he serves.

“I always answer my phone,” said Ohler, a Vietnam veteran and longtime coal miner who is now retired.

Ohler said efforts to ramp up paving in town and a road project that will remove the old railroad tracks on busy 21st Street are among his top accomplishments as mayor.

“That didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes when you’re dealing with groups like PennDOT, you’ve got to be a thorn in their side so they don’t forget about you,” he said.

He’s also a staunch advocate for regionalization, calling on municipalities in the Windber Area School District to increase cooperation and work toward eventual consolidation.

The area’s police coverage has been a hot-button issue over the past year.

Pekala and Ohler said they fully support efforts to create an independent, commission-run police department.

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