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MERCER COUNTY 31 testify on petition to break with district



Published: Fri, February 28, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



A morning snowstorm is believed to have prevented many people from making it to court.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

MERCER, Pa. -- Petitioners backing a move by some Wheatland residents to have the borough secede from Farrell Area School District say they are willing to pay court costs in the action.

Only 31 of about 250 people who signed the petition made the trip to Mercer County Common Pleas Court on Monday through snow and ice to confirm they had signed a petition that would put the borough in the West Middlesex Area School District.

About 100 were expected to testify Monday, with more expected in court this morning, but Monday's snow is thought to have kept some from making the 15-mile trip.

It is Judge Francis J. Fornelli's task to determine if the petition is valid.

It must bear the signatures of at least 51 percent of the taxable inhabitants of the borough, and court hearings will determine just how many legitimate signatures are on the petition.

Testifying

Those who showed up Monday spent a few minutes on the witness stand confirming they signed the document and are tax-paying residents of Wheatland. They also said they are willing to share any costs, which Fornelli said could easily climb to $10,000 to $20,000 as the case proceeds.

The witness list included Dana Brindza of Pine Street, who signed the petition just minutes before taking the stand.

"Regardless of the amount of liability, I accept it freely," said Steve Linamen, one of the first to testify. All those who followed expressed the same sentiment.

The testimony followed an effort by Atty. Joann Jofery, representing the petitioners under the banner Wheatland's Educational Alternative Task Force (WhEAT), to persuade Fornelli to reconsider his order requiring that signers of the petition testify under oath.

Jofery suggested the burden of proving whether or not they are taxpayers of Wheatland should lie with the Farrell Area School District.

Fornelli disagreed, pointing out that the law says the petitioners must prove their case.

Farrell school officials think the secession group will need more than 300 signatures. Jofery said Monday she didn't know how many people would testify.

Jofery and Atty. James Nevant, representing the school district, took depositions last week at the Wheatland municipal building from people who were unable to make the trip to Mercer.

Nevant said that one of the 20 deposed asked to be withdrawn from the petition and that he plans to challenge about 10 others because they didn't have bona fide reasons for failing to make the trip to Mercer but instead sought to be deposed in Wheatland as a matter of personal convenience.

That's not why the court allowed depositions to be taken, Nevant said.

If the petition is deemed valid, the case goes to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education who will decide the merits of the case and make a decision on the secession issue.




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