Heights resident Denise Carey left Luzerne County Court crying Wednesday after unsuccessfully trying to fight city hall. Luzerne County President Judge Michael Conahan ordered Carey to pay $11,056 in attorneys’ fees and court costs after she withdrew a petition, which proposed to amend the city’s home rule charter.
Carey’s underlying goal behind the petition was to put a referendum on the ballot to grant the public a say in reopening the Heights firehouse. She said she knew in her heart the petition was for a “good cause.”
“I just wanted the people to be safe in the Heights and that’s what motivated this. I just wanted the people to be heard,” Carey said. “I am so appalled and so shocked that they could do this to me.”
Carey said she was forced to withdraw the petition because she could not afford to fight it in court. Her attorney, Jonathan Comitz, said he will appeal Conahan’s decision.
Conahan complained that he just found out that the petition would be withdrawn immediately prior to the 3:30 p.m. hearing.
“We canceled this whole afternoon to give you your day in court,” Conahan told Carey and city officials. “We spent a lot of money here.”
Mayor Tom Leighton and Assistant Solicitor Bill Vinsko argued that the petition was misleading since people who signed it thought it was to re-open the Heights firehouse, when it actually would change city government.
After the hearing, Leighton showed a picture of Carey and other petition circulators at the Farmers Market asking residents to sign the petition. Behind Carey and other circulators was a sign stating, “Wilkes-Barre residents. Sign here for our fire protection.”
“This was a case of deception,” Leighton said. “This is not about making someone a martyr. It would be different if it was an honest mistake. To change the city government because someone disagrees with what the administration is doing is not right.”
Even if the residents were successful in getting a referendum on the ballot to re-open the firehouse, Leighton and Vinsko said the city cannot do it since there are code violations and the city cannot afford to staff it.
“They would have no right and no ability to open the firehouse through the referendum process anyway, which makes what they did even more concerning from a legal and procedural standpoint,” said Vinsko.
Vinsko said that all the hours put in to research the residents’ proposed amendment were not included in the bill for attorney’s fees.
“My personal staff had to come in after hours to go over the issues,” Vinsko said. “We have an obligation to defend the charter and to make sure the charter is legally serving the best interest of everybody in the city.”
More than 1,200 people originally signed the petition. When it was filed Aug. 5, Luzerne County Board of Elections Director Len Piazza struck several signatures in question, still leaving 991, enough to allow the petition to be reviewed.
A number of Carey’s supporters, including Christine Katsock, Walter Griffith and Luzerne County Green Party Co-Chairman Carl Romanelli Jr., attended Wednesday’s hearing.
Romanelli said he was “disturbed” by Conahan’s decision. He believes the city can be accused of “abusiveness” for asking that much, although he added it has the right to do so.
“The courts should protect its citizens and we feel once again Luzerne County Court, specifically Judge Conahan, failed to do so,” Romanelli said. “This sends a chilling message that as a citizen if your organize at a grassroots level that the powers can threaten one’s livelihood and existence. We find the ruling excessive and chilling.”
Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University, had two interpretations of Judge Conahan’s decision.
On one hand, the city has the right to ask for the costs it incurred instead of asking taxpayers to pick up the tab, Baldino said. On the other hand, some might interpret the decision as “intimidating,” he said.
“If citizens haven’t done all their homework preparing for such a petition, they could incur a financial penalty,” Baldino said. “Some might say what the government is doing here is intimidating to citizens who might bring such petitions in the future.”