LAWRENCE COUNTY 78-year-old fights ban on him at center
A judge will decide if the county violated the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Bob Semler doesn't have to worry about going back to the Lawrence County Jail, but he's still fighting to be allowed in the county government center.
Prosecutors are dropping all criminal charges against the 78-year-old Highland Avenue man, who was arrested twice on New Year's Eve after attempting to enter the Lawrence County Government Center. He had been banished from the building after throwing a toothbrush at a county commissioner Dec. 18.
Refusing to testify: District Attorney Matthew Mangino said county commissioners refused to testify against Semler on the toothbrush-throwing matter and charges of defiant trespassing that were filed on New Year's Eve.
"We were going to proceed, then I was approached by commissioners at different times. They said they didn't want to go forward with this and they weren't going to cooperate," he said.
Still fighting: But Semler is still battling county commissioners in civil court to get a banishment order sent to him by county solicitor John Hodge dropped.
He appeared Thursday before Common Pleas Court Judge J. Craig Cox seeking a preliminary injunction against the county. Semler contends that his banishment from the building was a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law because commissioners did not vote on it publicly.
Commissioners say they instructed their solicitor to write the letter as an administrative action and did not need a public vote.
Semler, a frequent visitor at government meetings, carries a toothbrush in his shirt pocket and often tells officials he wants to go to jail, where the county pays medical and housing bills.
He testified Thursday that he lobbed the toothbrush at Commissioner Ed Fosnaught's desk on Dec. 18 because he disagreed with what the commissioner was saying.
Escorted out: He said he arrived that day intending to talk to Atty. Hodge and Fosnaught about a letter he received instructing him not to enter the building. He was escorted out by deputy sheriffs both times he tried to enter and lay in the snow as people passing by urged him to get up and go home. State police were called and arrested him and took him to a district justice's office and filed charges. Semler returned to the county building and was arrested again. After his second arrest, the district justice ordered him to jail.
"I wanted to make my point that they were wrong and I was right," Semler said of his protest in the snow.
After his second arrest, he was confined about three weeks, some of it in the Ellwood City Hospital under psychological evaluation. He wasn't released until Monday, when the district attorney petitioned the court to eliminate Semler's $500 monetary bond.
The county solicitor said commissioners are discussing whether to lift the order banishing Semler from the building, but they proceeded with a hearing Thursday in an attempt to stop his civil lawsuit.
Judge Cox will decide the matter after the county solicitor files a written brief.
Still facing vote: Semler's attorney, William G. Cohen, said that even if Semler is successful in getting a preliminary injunction against the county based on a violation of the state's Sunshine Act, commissioners could still ban Semler from the building by voting on it at a public meeting.