LOCK HAVEN - Can local elected officials be removed from office?
In light of recent charges being filed against Clinton County Commissioner Adam Coleman, numerous people have asked The Express that question.
Most statements on the issue suggest the Pennsylvania Constitution governs the process of an elected official's removal from office and the mere filing of criminal charges against an elected official like Coleman is insufficient to set any administrative function in motion.
To remove a sitting councilman, township supervisor, commissioner or state congressman, requires actual proof of wrongdoing - if what the government websites are saying is accurate.
When Clinton County Solicitor Lewis G. Steinberg was asked about the process, he said he had not researched the question.
"I do believe that's putting the cart before the horse. I'm part of a generation that believes in a defendant's presumption of innocence," he said.
Meanwhile, a first appearance in central district court scheduled for Oct. 11 for the three defendants in this case - Jeremiah Clark, Adam and Kimberly Coleman - has been cancelled. Instead, a preliminary hearing will be held Nov. 22 at 1:15 p.m.
Coleman said Thursday it's his intention to keep his duties as chairman of the board of commissioners distinct from the legal process he is facing.
Coleman and the two others have been charged by the state Attorney General's Office with various criminal counts related to the diversion of more than $100,000 in Lock Haven YMCA funds.
Specifically, it's alleged Coleman conspired with Clark, former Lock Haven YMCA director, in the fabrication of an invoice from Coleman Landscaping for $1,465 in landscaping work paid by the YMCA. The funds were allegedly used to pay Coleman's bill at the Clinton Country Club. Kim Coleman, Adam's mother, is also charged in fabrication of that invoice.
"As you know, the allegations have nothing to do with county government, so I'm trying to keep them separate," Coleman said yesterday. "I'm trying to keep those two things distinct."
Coleman said on the advice of his attorney he couldn't comment about the case, but he wanted to express his thanks for the people who've shown him support through this difficult time.
As far as case law goes, there's little to draw upon.
In connection with a 2009 petition drive in Bradford County, Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association in Pennsylvania said "there really isn't a mechanism in Pennsylvania" for removing a county commissioner from office prior to an election.
Hill said under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the only two ways a county commissioner can be removed from office are- for the commission of a crime while in office, or impeachment in front of the Pennsylvania Senate.
A cursory check of history suggests impeachment of a county commissioner has never happened in Pennsylvania.
According to the Pennsylvania's Legislators Municipal Deskbook, actual removal "requires the elected official's conviction of an infamous crime or the common law crime of misbehaviour in office."
Under the statutes listed in the Pennsylvania Constitution, an "infamous crime" includes forgery, perjury, embezzlement of public money, bribery or like offenses. A crime is infamous if its underlying facts establish a felony, perjury offense.
There's also a "Misbehaviour in Office" provision listed as an impeachable offense under the Constitution, involving a breach of official duties with corrupt or improper motive.
Removal can also be done "by the governor for reasonable cause after due notice and a full hearing on the address of two thirds of the senate."
Finally, an elected official can be removed from office during sentencing by the court, if the crime falls into any of the categories listed as offenses that may lead to removal.
In conformity with the Constitution, a court is authorized to remove an elected official upon his or her conviction of an infamous crime.
In general, Pennsylvania local governments are small operations. More than 79 percent of the state's 2,566 municipalities serve populations of less than 5,000. In such governments, local elected officials often are citizens who serve on a volunteer basis and whose chief occupation and expertise is in some other field.
There is also before-the-fact disqualification by criminal conviction.
Article II, Section 7 of the Constitution prohibits persons convicted of embezzlement of public monies, bribery, perjury or other infamous crimes from holding any office of trust or profit in the Commonwealth.
This prohibition extends to include local government offices.
Conviction is held to occur at the time a court sentences the defendant on the basis of a guilty verdict.
Individuals convicted of these crimes can also be removed from office by "quo warranto" actions.
Those actions are notice of demand, requiring a person to present proof of his authority to execute his claimed powers. After a hearing, if the court finds the proof insufficient, or if the court fails to hold the hearing, the respondent must cease to exercise the power. If the power is to hold an office, he must vacate the office.