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As He Prepares for Judgeship, Hahn Reflects on His Time as Mayor

by and on December 20, 2019 5:00 AM

As he sat in his law office on Tuesday, the day that Ronald Filippelli was sworn in as interim mayor of State College, Don Hahn found himself in a period of transition. He is preparing for his next role as magisterial district judge for court 49-1-01.

Hahn is leaving the mayor role behind, as well as his law practice, and said now it’s going to take some time getting used to his new responsibilities.

Having practiced law for 26 years, and having served as a Borough Council member for 12 years, he decided to run for the MDJ position in the middle of his first term as mayor. The decision came after longtime District Judge Carmine Prestia announced his retirement early this year.

Hahn said he wishes he could continue his term as mayor and at his law practice, but the demands of the new position won’t allow him the time to do so, so it is time to pass the baton to his former fellow council member.

He offers this advice to Filippelli: “Trust your instincts.”

“Every mayor has their own style and I am sure he will be developing his own,” said Hahn. “He has served exceptionally, eight years as a Borough Council member and two years as council president, and I think he needs to trust his instincts and he will develop into an exceptional mayor.”

Hahn learned to trust his instincts through the years, and he is proud of the work he did as a council member and as mayor. Hahn joked that maybe his presence as mayor won’t be missed by some on the Borough Council.

“My guess is that the council and the staff will be very glad to see me leave,” said Hahn. “But for the judgeship, I would have loved to have completed my term and for a couple reasons, I would have upset quite a few council and staff members. For example, if I would have stayed, all the 4-3 tax-increase votes would have been veto bait, and I would have loved to have commented a lot about the comprehensive zoning ordinance, which basically was put on hold this year.”

Hahn said that as a council member he tended to introduce a lot of amendments, so that ordinances would fit the way that he thought would work best.

“As a council member, I would vote for or against a particular proposal, but always I tried to introduce amendments to make it closer to my ideal, and that is something that you can’t do as mayor,” said Hahn.

LOOKING BACK

A highlight for Hahn as an elected official came early in first term on the council, when the borough grappled with the development of downtown.

“I think essentially that State College was being hit with the suburban development, with the Walmarts and other big box stores drawing customers from the downtown. I think that the borough has survived very well,” said Hahn.

The borough worked on ways to help keep downtown viable as a tourist attraction and a place that people want to visit, along with keeping local businesses there, he said. The student housing ordinance, the permit revocation ordinance and the diverters that were put in place by the borough helped, he added.

“I think downtown has established a niche with good restaurants and a lot of tourist-oriented shops. It tended to be more of a two-dimensional downtown instead of a three-dimensional downtown,” he said.

Hahn also looked back at two controversial incidents during his terms as having a big impact on the community that he loves — the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and the tragic death of Osaze Osagie, who was shot by State College police after a confrontation at his home.

“I was the council president when the NCAA laid down its sanctions (in the Sandusky case) and there was an urge to play the victim, and I think in many ways, the Penn State administration gave way to the NCAA too much and the NCAA was acting like a lynch mob,” said Hahn.

While those who were guilty of crimes needed to be held responsible, Hahn said he felt that it was unfair that the whole community was condemned.

“I think that it was important to highlight the continuing strength of State College and Penn State. That essentially Penn State is primarily an institution and it does a great job at it,” said Hahn. “State College is a great town.”

Hahn said that he felt State College made the right choice in assigning the investigation of Osagie’s death to an outside agency.

“We didn’t jump to any conclusions until the investigation was completed, and we didn’t take sides, despite enormous pressure from both sides to do so. I think that it was important that we did have an outside investigation and that no one was above suspicion,” Hahn said.

“I think it illustrated, to me, that Penn State and State College are excellent communities and that there is a lot of strength that Penn State provides and the environment that State College provides,” he added. “But that there is a danger of excess provided that leads to complacency and these two events were important to show Penn State and State College where we can do better and that we need to strive to do better.

“In terms of Sandusky, we needed to be more vigilant in terms of detecting and reporting sexual assaults and sexual predators,” said Hahn. “In terms of Osagie, it reflects the flaws of our mental health system and that State College and Penn State have a long way to go in encouraging diversity.”

He said as far as the concerns brought by the Osagie shooting, the verdict is still out if lessons will be learned.

MDJ

After he was elected, Hahn took a month-long training course on how to be a district judge. Because he has a law degree, he didn’t have to pass the test required for those who don’t, but he still found the training beneficial. In the meantime, he is learning all he can from Prestia, who he calls a “rock star” among district judges.

“A lot of lawyers have basically sung Judge Prestia’s praises,” said Hahn. “He has innovated a lot in terms of electronic communications. A lot of attorneys in Centre County have praised his fairness and urged me to follow in his footsteps and learn from him, which is something that I am eagerly trying to do.”

Hahn said he strives to be a judge who listens and who is willing to learn. He hopes to help provide resources for people who speak English as a second langue. He said that, while there are resources available, they are not highlighted and that can be a major setback in the courts. He remembers winning arguments with his mother, who spoke English as a second langue. He feels that had the arguments been in her native Korean, he would not have fared so well.

“When it comes to basic skills, that is one thing, but when you are trying to persuade, there is a certain handicap for those whom English is a second language,” said Hahn.

He also hopes to increase pro bono legal services available in the county. He was awarded for his pro bono work in 2003 and 2013, and he has noticed that there has been a steady drop of pro bono work offered in that time.

“I think that in terms of indigent clients, the MDJ tent can touch more of them,” said Hahn, adding that he hopes to help make the service more available for people facing the legal system

Hahn looks to other attorneys who became judges as a role models as he approaches his next endeavor.

“One particular judge, the late Judge (John) Thomas from Wilkes-Barre, and his encouragement of attorneys to provide pro bono services, him basically bending over backward for pro se litigants, and his strong sense of justice will inspire me,” said Hahn. “His tendency to basically make his courtroom a level playing field, where an attorney’s skills are a means to an end and not the end itself, that is an inspiration.”

 



This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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