Updated: 3:26 p.m.
The only Republican running in the special election to fill city council’s District 8 vacancy will remain on the ballot despite a legal challenge questioning his eligibility to hold the office.
In a decision handed down this afternoon, Fifth Judicial District Judge Joseph James sided with Republican candidate Rennick Remley who has sought to stay on the March 6 special election ballot despite a residency challenge filed against his campaign.
That challenge, which argued that Remley lied in claiming to be a District 8 resident on official campaign paperwork, was the subject of a hearing before Judge James in the City-County Building this morning. Citing the looming March 6 election date, James said he would move quickly to rule in the case and did so within hours of the hearing’s end.
“It is hereby ordered that the objector’s petition to set aside the nominating certificate is denied,” the judge ruled. The substance of his ruling was not immediately available, and Judge James was not available to talk by phone this afternoon. His office said if he chooses to write an opinion explaining his decision in greater detail, it would likely be issued within the next week.
The judge heard testimony this morning from a number of witnesses indicating Remley, the sole Republican candidate for city council’s vacant District 8 seat, may have lived outside the district in the last year, while attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that he should be removed from the March 6 special election ballot as a result.
The petition at the center of the case alleges Remley lied in declaring himself eligible to serve in campaign paperwork filed earlier this month and that he hasn’t lived in District 8 for at least two years. (Pittsburgh requires city council members to live in the district they serve for at least one year prior to taking office.)
Remley is one of four candidates running for the seat vacated by former Council Member Dan Gilman, who late last year resigned council to become Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff. Remley is the only Republican running for the office and the first to run for it in years, according to the PLS Reporter.
The petition looking to oust him from the race was filed by two District 8 voters, Helen and Joseph Cupelli. Helen Cupelli declined to answer questions from The Incline when reached at her home a day after her filing was first made public on Jan. 22.
Neither Cupelli was in court today, something Chuck Pascal, the attorney representing them, said isn’t unusual in such cases.
Pascal did call a number of witnesses who testified to Remley’s shifting living situation, one the Cupellis argued should prohibit him from holding the office he now seeks.
Mary McKinney-Flaherty, a local attorney, said she owned a property at 716 St. James Street in Shadyside where Remley resided for a time before leaving in May of 2016.
McKinney-Flaherty said she forwarded mail for Remley to a handful of addresses after that, including one on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill and one Downtown.
Both the St. James Place and Forbes Avenue addresses are in District 8. But attorneys for the plaintiffs are pointing to the third as proof Remley hasn’t lived in District 8 during the relevant time period.
The Downtown address in question belongs to the Chatham Tower on Washington Place, and the building’s property manager and doorman were among those called to the stand to testify in today’s hearing by attorney Pascal.
The first, Elizabeth Reed, who’s served as the tower’s property manager since 2001, testified that she’d occasionally seen Remley in the building over the last year, often on surveillance video and usually about twice a week.
“I would know Remley to see him,” she said. Reed testified that she believed Remley had been renting a unit in the building from the owner of that unit, although there was no evidence presented to support that beyond her testimony.
In his turn on the stand, doorman Don Kahl said of Remley, “I used to see him before winter, at least two to four times a week leaving the building.” Kahl testified that he first saw Remley leaving the building 6 to 8 months ago and hasn’t seen him recently. (Reed’s testimony explained this partially: She said the apartment she believed to be connected to Remley has been undergoing renovations.)
A fourth witness called to testify by Pascal, Tony Dolan, said he knew Remley socially and knew him to live Downtown, based on statements from the candidate.
“Remley told me more than once that he lived next to PPG Arena on Washington Place,” Dolan told the court. “He started mentioning he lived there in the summer of 2017.” Under cross-examination, Dolan said he’d never seen the place for himself.
But attorney Ron Hicks, who represented Remley on behalf of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said all of this testimony failed to make a conclusive point and failed to produce a smoking gun.
Hicks went on to argue that the plaintiffs had instead produced a circumstantial-at-best case.
In his closing statement, Hicks said election law was clear that Remley’s campaign paperwork attesting to his address and qualifications for office needs to be “presumed true” by the court unless proven otherwise or unless proven that it was “knowingly falsified.” Hicks said the plaintiffs failed to do either. He also argued that a city council candidate having more than one address at a time, as long as one of those addresses is in the district they seek to represent, isn’t necessarily a disqualifier.
To bolster his point, Hicks pointed to Remley’s involvement as a District 8 Republican committee member — committee members must also be residents of the areas they represent — and consistent District 8 voting record as more compelling evidence than any presented by the plaintiffs through attorney Pascal.
Remley, Hicks argued, should be allowed to stay on the ballot. Remley was not in court for today’s hearing.
Pascal shot back that Remley updated his address on his voter registration forms from the St. James Place address in Shadyside to the Forbes Avenue address in Squirrel Hill on the same day he was nominated for the District 8 race by the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. Pascal said it shows Remley “stopped using the Shadyside address because people knew he didn’t live there,” raising questions about how long he’d been in District 8 before the election and whether he’d continually lived there over the last year.
Remley’s campaign pointed to the residency challenge as a politically motivated attempt to derail his candidacy in what is a highly expedited electoral process.
“This is a one-month campaign and they’re trying to disrupt him for two weeks of it,” Dennis Roddy, a spokesman for the campaign, told The Incline.
Republicans also pointed to the involvement of Pascal, a Leechburg-based attorney and state Democratic committee member, in the filing of the Cupellis’ petition. In court, Pascal responded by saying, “Every case in an election is politically motivated. But we also want to make sure people are following the rules.”
In response to Judge James’ ruling in their favor, the Remley campaign issued a statement reading in part: “We are pleased that the judge rejected this attempt to restrict ballot access to a single, monopoly party. As we said earlier, this challenge was poorly researched and lacked merit. We will now go forward with an uphill campaign made all the harder by the waste of time and resources surrounding this ballot access challenge.”
Remley is one of four candidates on the District 8 ballot.
Sonja Finn, a political activist, James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Dinette Restaurant, earned the Democratic Party’s District 8 nomination in a Democratic committee vote held earlier this month. In lieu of the party’s nomination, both Erika Strassburger, chief of staff to Gilman during his time on council, and Marty Healey, chief financial officer of the Healey Company and a Delta Foundation board member, are now running as independents.
Remley, a member of the Young Leadership Council of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and a self-described party moderate, was the fourth candidate to throw a hat into the ring for the seat in the solidly blue city council district.