Braddock Borough is now officially without a mayor after council voted on Tuesday to accept the resignation of Lt. Gov.-elect John Fetterman but failed to name his successor as expected during a raucous meeting that saw concerns raised about the eligibility of two finalists and the vetting process itself.
During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s regularly scheduled council meeting, members of the public — some of them spurned candidates for the interim mayorship — assailed the process and the two finalists selected by a committee made up of two council members and the borough manager. The two finalists were Isaac Bunn, a community organizer, and Pedro Valles, a Rankin police officer and state constable.
Members of the public who addressed council argued that finalist Bunn, a Braddock resident, was registered to vote in a nearby municipality, making him ineligible for the role of Braddock mayor.
After the meeting, Council President Tina Doose confirmed that council members had become aware of issues with Bunn’s eligibility only after naming him a finalist, adding, “that left us with only one viable candidate” in Valles.
But speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting also argued that Valles could not simultaneously serve as both a state constable and mayor of the municipality.
The borough’s solicitor, Pete Halesey, disagreed and said state law only prohibits a constable from simultaneously serving as a magistrate or an alderman, a title that remained hard to define for both Halesey and those in attendance.
Beyond the eligibility of the two finalists, questions were also raised about the selection process. That process fell to a committee comprised of Doose, Council Vice President Robert Parker and Borough Manager Deborah Brown. The committee interviewed the candidates before selecting Bunn and Valles as the finalists and submitting their names and qualifications for the full council’s consideration. Bunn and Valles were announced as finalists in news reports prior to Tuesday’s meeting.
“Some of us are feeling something ain’t right,” said Rachelle Mackson, a borough resident and one of the applicants for the interim mayorship. Mackson thanked council for opening up the application process to members of the public but said the whittling down of the field left something to be desired.
Council member Robert Clanagan agreed and moved to table the interim mayor vote for a later date. After Tuesday’s meeting, Clanagan said he wanted the application process opened back up. Clanagan said he made the motion to table the vote in response to “the things that came out during the meeting and also some unsaid concerns, those were factors, too.”
Clanagan’s motion passed council, giving the body 30 days to find a replacement. Halesey explained that if council fails to find a replacement by that deadline, a vacancy board comprised of six council members and a pre-appointed member of the public will be formed. That board would then have 15 days to name a replacement for Fetterman. If the vacancy board fails to do so in the time allotted, Halesey said the appointment would fall to a judge with the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas.
In speaking with The Incline after Tuesday’s meeting, Clanagan said he wants council members like himself — those not included in the committee process that saw the candidates interviewed and the finalists selected — to have a greater role in the vetting process this time.
Councilman Kevin Henderson said the same and added that he and the other council members not included in the last committee process couldn’t participate because they all have day jobs. Attorney Halesey said having all council members present in closed-door discussions about candidates for a vacancy would represent a clear-cut violation of the Sunshine Act, and so it remains to be seen how council will proceed in light of that fact. But the clock is ticking.
Asked if she was confident that council would name a replacement before its deadline, Doose said, “We have to. We don’t have a choice. Otherwise the courts will decide.”
The search for Fetterman’s replacement was already contentious, with council members reporting that they denied a closed-door request from Fetterman to have his wife appointed as his replacement in exchange for his resignation. Fetterman said he simply suggested it as an option.
Robert Caruso, executive director of Pennsylvania’s State Ethics Commission, warned against a sitting mayor suggesting or urging a spouse’s appointment, explaining, “Those are the types of activities that border on conflicts of interest, although this sounds more like improper influence and could pose a problem under the Ethics Act.”
Caruso added, “It’s probably not the best practice to do that.”
Fetterman will be inaugurated as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor on Jan. 15. Meanwhile, the search his replacement in Braddock continues.