A candidate for the office of Cambria County sheriff plans to challenge a civil complaint filed against him earlier this week.
The suit named Tom Owens, a Democratic candidate for the sheriff’s office, Stonycreek Township and the Cambria County Board of Elections as defendants.
The complaint, which was filed on Monday on behalf of Johnstown resident and Republican mayoral candidate John DeBartola by attorney Jesse Daniel, of Indiana, is seeking a mandatory injunction directing the county’s board of elections to remove Owens’ name from the ballot for the primary election or the township to terminate Owens’ employment as a police officer due to engaging in campaigning and electioneering.
Owens, who announced his candidacy for the office in February, is a police officer on the Stonycreek Township police department and also a part-time Cambria County sheriff’s deputy.
He is running against Adams Township police Chief Kirk A. Moss in the May Democratic primary. Acting Sheriff Don Robertson is also running for the position in this year’s race as a Republican.
DeBartola is on the ballot as a Republican candidate for the City of Johnstown’s mayoral race, which is also being contested this year.
“I think you must ask yourself, ‘What is really going on here?’ ” Owens said. “Here is a Republican candidate for mayor of Johnstown filing a lawsuit against me when I have done nothing wrong. This is a witch hunt, just because I am a police officer running for public office. Other officers have run for public office and no one has filed a lawsuit to have them resign, be fired, or removed from the ballot.
“There is a police officer running against me. Is that a problem? No one has filed a lawsuit against him. We have a current state representative in our area who, at the time he ran for office, was a police officer. No one filed a lawsuit against him. I look forward to defending this suit, and you will see I have done nothing wrong. Just ask yourself, ‘What is going on here?’ ”
Owens told The Tribune-Democrat that he could not comment on the particulars of the suit given its status as an ongoing legal matter. Attorney Jeffrey Miller is representing Owens.
DeBartola spoke during the public comment time at a special meeting of the Stonycreek Township Civil Service Commission on March 22, questioning a number of points, including inquiries concerning whether the township’s municipal code took precedence over the commonwealth’s civil service code and whether Owens was granted a waiver by the commission to allow his candidacy for sheriff.
DeBartola submitted the same questions via email to the township’s solicitor, but hadn’t received a reply as of Friday. A representative of Stonycreek Township told The Tribune-Democrat on Wednesday that the township was advised by its counsel to not comment on any pending litigation.
“I’m the lawyer who says, ‘That’s the law. Whatever the reason is, this is the effect of it,’ ” Daniel said. “My understanding is the purpose of the civil service laws is to prevent actual, or appearances of, improprieties when you have individuals in public service for the state government also being active campaigners in political campaigns.
“And the evil that the legislation is intended to prevent is creating an actual appearance of that impropriety. The police officer who you run into, who is also running for sheriff – is there going to be an actual or perceived conflict of interest if I’m a voter and he approaches me? How do I act? What do I do?
“The civil service laws are in place to prevent those actual or apparent conflicts of interest so that people can have faith in the government employees doing the day-to-day work – that political considerations are not filtering into the decisions of those day-to-day government employee operators.”
Cambria County Solicitor William Barbin said that he would object to the case on behalf of the county, citing that the suit is not compliant with Pennsylvania’s election code.
“It appears to violate provisions of the Pennsylvania Election Code,” Barbin said. “The election code says that you can only file an objection to nominating petitions placing someone on the ballot within seven days of the last day to file nominating petitions.”
The deadline to submit petitions for inclusion on the ballot for the May 18 primary election was March 9. The complaint was received at the county courthouse on March 29, 20 days after the petition cutoff.
“It’s my duty as county solicitor to defend the rule set forth in the election code,” Barbin said, “so I will file an objection to that complaint based on the rules, because I see that as my job and my duty, but I am subordinate to a judge, and if a judge makes a decision, I can either accept the decision or appeal it.
“When you hit the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, there’s no more choices. They’re the superior determination of what’s legal and what’s illegal in our commonwealth, except in rare cases that implicate the national constitution. Generally, the United States Supreme Court says election matters are decided at the state level.”
DeBartola was quick to point out the removal of another Johnstown mayoral candidate from the ballot when supporting his argument to pull Owens.
“I think it’s time for an investigation as to why the election director allowed this to happen,” DeBartola said. “They were so eager to remove Jeff Hammer from the ballot. Why didn’t they remove Tom Owens when they realized he was violating the law? Remember, this guy wants to be the sheriff. How can he enforce the law when he so willfully breaks them and doesn’t care that he’s breaking them?”
Hammer, who attempted to run as a Democrat in the mayoral primary against incumbent Frank Janakovic, was removed from the ballot this past month when signatures on his petition were considered invalid, dropping him below the 100 required signatures for a spot on the ballot.
“Incidentally, that is Section 29.37,” Barbin said. “Mr. Hammer’s complaints – when the county took him off, Mr. Hammer was going on Section 29.36 of the state election code. When the county took him off, they were operating under Section 29.36 that says that they have two days from the day that the nominating petitions are filed to examine them and determine whether to accept them or not.”