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County Commissioner Candidates On Lawsuits & Legal Challenges

by on October 27, 2015 6:00 AM
Bellefonte, PA

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on the Centre County Commissioners election. Read the commissioner candidates' thoughts on the county economy here.

Centre County, depending on who you ask and what criteria is examined, is either in good or bad shape.

Taxes haven’t been increased in six years, several lengthy projects have been completed under budget, and the county is weathering the state budget stalemate in Harrisburg better than some of its colleagues.

But at the same time, conflict and controversy have run rampant in Centre County for the last 10 months, seemingly pitting the executive and judicial branches of county government against each other in several contentious lawsuits.

Against this backdrop, five candidates for Centre County Commissioner are seeking to dominate the ballot box on Nov. 3. Incumbents Steve Dershem, Chris Exarchos, and Michael Pipe are all seeking reelection, while newcomers Mark Higgins and Todd Kirsten are also vying for a seat on the three-person board.

The Candidates

Steve Dershem, a Republican candidate, is the current chairman of the board and has served three consecutive terms as commissioner. Prior to his election, he ran a sporting goods business in Centre County. He cites his business management experience as a key asset he brings to county government, and points to the county’s under-budget 911 system upgrades and improved emergency services facilities as major successes of his pervious terms.

Chris Exarchos, a Republican, has served two non-consecutive terms as a commissioner, and previously served on the College Township council and ran the Victorian Manor restaurant in Lemont for many years. He also advocates for frugal decision-making influenced by his time in business, and cites the county jail and emergency services center as evidence of his effect management of county government.

Michael Pipe, the minority Democrat on the current board, is seeking reelection after his first term as commissioner. He previously managed a State College restaurant before winning his seat as a commissioner, where he currently serves as the vice-chair of a statewide community and economic development committee. He wants to press for criminal justice reform to reduce the number of repeat offenders cycling through the county’s jail while also pushing for greater transparency from the commissioners.

Mark Higgins, a Democrat, is a business turnaround specialist who currently works for the Link Computer Corporation. He boasts of a 32-year career that has saved six companies from the brink of bankruptcy. Investment in economic development to grow and attracted new businesses and jobs to Centre County is a major component of his campaign, as is increased transparency in county government.

Todd Kirsten, the lone independent candidate, currently serves on the Halfmoon Township Board of Supervisors. He also worked on the finance and transportation committees of the Centre Region Council of Governments, and advocates for increasing the county’s revenues without raising taxes through responsible development while preserving its agricultural heritage.

The Legal Issues

Centre County is the defendant in three separate civil lawsuits. Two of the lawsuits stem from the county releasing phone records for judges and prosecutors in response to Right to Know requests. The third is a defamation suit from the Centre County District Attorney, who alleges that the county commissioners and various county officials overstepped their authority when they were presented with the now-disproven allegations that she forged a judge’s signature.

How exactly these lawsuits will play out, and what the final cost to the taxpayers will be, has yet to be seen.

Dershem and Exarchos defend their actions at issue in the lawsuits. Both commissioners said they responded appropriately to the forgery allegations based on legal advice from the county solicitor, and that they stand behind the county’s decision to release phone records in response to Right to Know requests.

Dershem said its important for the county to continue defending the rights of its citizens to access information from their government, although he said he hopes “cooler heads will prevail” and issues can be resolved out of court.

Exarchos also stressed the importance of fighting for open access to government records through Right to Know requests, and said the county has only defended the rights of its citizens in lawsuits brought by other people.

“What’s important to remember here is that the commissioners have not sued anybody. We’re defending suits brought by others,” Exarchos said. “We’re defending people’s right to have a transparent government, and these things need to work their way through the judicial system.”

Michael Pipe – the only one of three current commissioners who called for the county solicitor’s resignation for providing “really bad legal advice” that he said opened the county up to liability – puts his focus on the importance of repairing relationships between different branches of the county government.

Although Pipe said there’s little he can do in his role as a commissioner to influence the lawsuits as they work their way through the courts, he said it's important for the commissioners to accept the grand jury report that cleared the district attorney’s name of forgery allegations and work to ensure the county government is operating healthily.

“I’m really concerned when people say the whole system corrupt. There are good people in the DA’s office, and the probation office, and the court administration; it’s a lazy interpretation of what’s going on,” Pipe said. “There are honest to goodness differences about how Right to Know requests have been answered, and about how elected officials operate their offices, but need to return to working with and respecting each other.”

Todd Kirsten also stressed the importance of repairing relationships between different branches of county government if Centre County wants to make out of these issues intact.

He said that, if elected, he would “no longer fan the flames” of the issues pending in court, and would trust in the judicial system to make a fair decision while doing everything in his power to resolve the lawsuits as quickly as possible.

“Relationships are invaluable,” Kirsten said. “As soon as one gets completely destroyed, as it seems the relationship between the DA and at least two of the commissioners has, that’s not good at all for county business or for the people.”

Mark Higgins lambasted the current board of commissioners for how they handled the forgery allegations, saying they “failed to mitigate risk to the county” by starting an investigation when the Attorney General’s Office was already working on it. This “special investigation” is a key point of the district attorney’s civil suit with the county, which Higgins said might have been avoided if the commissioners had more carefully considered their situation and sought additional legal advice before making any decisions.

Higgins advocates for trying to resolve the lawsuits through mediation outside the courtroom, which he hopes would save time, energy, and county money.

“I’m no lawyer, but I know once you start talking about relationships between the executive and judicial branch, and then you start throwing in open records and other state agencies, things could get messy really quickly,” Higgins said. “That’s why you should proceed carefully with the best possible legal advice you can get, which is not what appears happened here.”

The local elections will be held on Nov. 3. Your address dictates your polling place, which can be found by visiting the Centre County Elections Office website.

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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