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VENANGO, PA. Proactive council puts townsfolk in a fighting mood



Published: Sat, February 15, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Library renovations and street plowing issues have taken a back seat to council fighting.

VENANGO, Pa. (AP) -- Anyone who thinks all small towns are peaceful hasn't visited here lately.

Residents who attended the last Venango Borough council meeting got into a shoving match. A councilman says he's been chased by a resident with a two-by-four. And a petition called for the ouster of the council president, who was accused of stealing from a bingo fund-raiser.

In a borough with a population of 288, snow plowing and library renovations have taken a back seat to council drama.

It's hard to say when the older residents started fighting with newer residents in this blue-collar borough about 25 miles south of Erie. For years, lifelong members of the community dominated council -- and liked it that way.

"For years we had ordinances but it wasn't enforced, maybe because someone was ill and couldn't fix the sidewalk so they'd let them by. Things just kept going down hill," said Mayor Jim Walsh, a 46-year-old tool and die worker who returned to his hometown in 1984. "Now we have a more proactive council."

Targeting junk

Newer residents like council President John Therasse, 60, and his 34-year-old stepson, Councilman Paul Holder, supported rewriting an anti-junk ordinance. They wanted to clean up the borough, which has no gas station, no police, just a corner grocery store and a couple of bars.

They say there's no reason homes with manicured lawns should abut partially collapsed buildings.

Yet, for all their efforts, the men have come under attack -- literally.

Holder said he was inspecting a house when a resident chased him with a two-by-four, and his house has been shot at with a pellet gun. Holder himself was cited by state police for getting into a shoving match with two residents after one bad-mouthed Holder's mother.

Longtime council members accused Therasse and Holder of being frivolous with the borough's estimated $86,000 annual budget. Most recently, a petition was circulated calling for Therasse's ouster.

Accusations

In May, Therasse and a 71-year-old man were accused of stealing $47,000 from the Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department's bingo fund-raiser over four years. Theft charges were dropped after Therasse and the other man each paid $21,500 in restitution.

Mark Richmond, an Erie County assistant district attorney, said various factors caused him to decide against prosecuting the men, including the suspects' ages, the willingness of fire department volunteers to testify and other hassles of trial.

Therasse has maintained his innocence. He says he couldn't afford attorney fees and no one in the borough had a problem with him staying on council until the borough started reviewing the anti-junk ordinance that affected Councilman John Woodward, who owns an auto repair shop in the borough.

Woodward, 51, and resident Cecil Miller, who declined to give his age, say they've been singled out for fines for menial items like failing to shovel the sidewalks.

Borough solicitor John Swick said council can't take action on the petition because Therasse was never convicted of a crime. Woodward said he plans to file the petition in court.




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