How Arnold’s mayor could be ousted over Antwon Rose II protest comments

Here’s what would have to happen.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Weeks after she suggested on Facebook that water cannons be turned on protesters demonstrating against the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antown Rose II, calls are mounting for Arnold Mayor Karen Peconi to be removed from office.

In addition to residential calls for her ouster, members of Arnold’s City Council joined in as well.

Council Member Phillip McKinley on Tuesday called for a motion to send a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Senate asking them to remove Peconi as mayor, according to the Post-Gazette. The motion passed, 4-0, with Peconi abstaining.

Her Facebook comment conjured, for many, images of civil rights demonstrators being hosed by authorities in the south decades ago. And while Peconi has since apologized, her critics continue to call for her removal.

The Democrat said she has no plans to resign. Peconi was elected mayor in 2015 and is up for reelection next year. An attempt to reach Peconi on Wednesday was unsuccessful.

Asked about the procedures involved in a non-voluntary removal of a local elected official, J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, said state law requires a hearing before the Senate and a two-thirds vote by the Senate before an elected official can be removed by the governor.

Abbott added of the Peconi controversy, “Governor Wolf is aware of the comments and finds them unbecoming of any elected official.”

Under Pennsylvania’s Constitution, possible grounds for the removal of elected officials, like mayors, include “conviction of misbehavior in office or of any infamous crime” — usually this refers to crimes of fraud, embezzlement or bribery — and the more generic “reasonable cause.”

Article 6, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania constitution reads as follows: “All civil officers elected by the people, except the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, members of the General Assembly and judges of the courts of record, shall be removed by the Governor for reasonable cause, after due notice and full hearing, on the address of two-thirds of the Senate.”

With “reasonable cause,” discretion lies with the Senate to decide when it applies. The Pennsylvania Legislator’s Municipal Deskbook says “there is no significant modern case law adjudicating the issue.”

And while the removal of mayors has been sought in Allentown, Delaware County and West York in recent years, it remains a difficult process to undertake in Pennsylvania, as WHYY reported in a 2016 piece noting that “removing local elected officials is harder in Pa. than almost anywhere.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, said, “We make it real hard [to recall elected officials in Pennsylvania],” adding, “the mayor of a small town is given essentially the same due process as a high state official.”

Sabino Mistick said part of this stems from a desire to protect the will of a local electorate that put the official in office.

“The underlying theory is that we should only act contrary to the wishes of the voters under the rarest of circumstances,” Sabino Mistick explained. “It’s deference to the voters.”

But the voters themselves are also excluded from the process as recall elections were deemed unconstitutional in Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth currently lacks any recall provisions. This also applies to municipalities with home rule charters.

As a result, the WHYY article said, “Almost all states give people more options for ousting municipal officials than Pennsylvania. To be exact, all but two: Utah and Mississippi.”

The report indicates that while power, pay and duties vary among the Commonwealth’s 2,500-plus municipalities, “one consistency is elected officials cannot be removed from office absent involvement by the state legislature (unless they become disqualified, such as by moving out of the jurisdiction they were elected to represent).”

Whether the state Senate would move to oust Peconi in Arnold over her Facebook comments is unclear. What is clear is that council and many residents in the Westmoreland County city want them to.

“In order to get the governor and the Pennsylvania Senate, with all the things they have on their plate right now, involved in a local matter, it would generally take some egregious behavior for that to happen,” Sabino Mistick said.

He added that often the official chooses to walk away first — as was the case with former Mayor Ed Pawlowski in Allentown and former Mayor Charles Wasko in West York.

In 2016, Wasko resigned amid a scandal involving racist online comments that prompted calls for his removal. At the time, Gov. Wolf said he would support the Senate if it chose to remove Wasko from office. Wasko resigned first.

“I’ve been a borough councilman,” Sabino Mistick said. “It generally costs you more to hold office than not because local towns don’t have a lot of money to pay, so it is at best part-time. I think the calculation that elected officials often make under fire is ‘this isn’t worth it,’ and they end up taking the easier way out.”