Tuesday, May 14, 2013

District Judge Candidates Meet with West Ward Residents

By Christina Georgiou

From left to right, district magistrate candidates Antonia Grifo, Tony Bassil,
Tim Prendergast, Sharbel Koorie, and Lance Wheeler at the Easton Teen
Center Monday evening meet and greet event organized by the
Easton NAACP.
The five candidates vying for the district magistrate seat left vacant by Gay Elwell's sudden death last December got another chance to meet with voters and tout their qualifications Monday evening at a gathering in Easton's West Ward Teen Center, organized by the local NAACP.

While the scheduled moderator for the event was unable to attend, audience members were still able to ask questions, either of all the candidates or directed at specific ones, and each candidate also had the chance to make an opening statement as the evening got off the ground.

"I'm at a point in my life and my career where I'm ready to combine my legal areer and my career in community service," said attorney Antonia Grifo. "I've gotten involved...in many community organizations in all the neghborhoods of Easton."

While it's not a requirement that the magisterial district justice have legal experience to be elected, only that the elected person pass a test to become a member of the Pennsylvania bar to be sworn in to the position, Grifo said she thinks the office should ideally be occupied by an experienced attorney.

"I believe it should be an attorney. It doesn't have to be an attorney, but why not have the best face on the office?" she said.

Tony Bassil, currently controller for the City of Easton with years of similar corporate experience who is also co-owner of the Carmelcorn Shop in the city's Downtown neighborhood, said his financial expertise would be a plus for the position, which typically issues an estimated $600,000 in fines every year.

"I have the knowledge of our city," he said, reading from a prepared statement. "I understand the concerns of residents and business owners.  As a corporate controller, I have the experience, the skills, and the leadership...to serve."

Tim Prendergast, an attorney who specializes in criminal defense, also said his legal experience would be an asset to the court.

"There's not a case I haven't handled. I've argued cases in 17 jurisdictions," he said. "You want fairness, and you want knowledge of the law (in a district magistrate)...I believe everyone who walks in there should be treated without bias. It doesn't matter why you're there. We all deserve to be treated with respect."

He added that becoming a district judge would give him the opportunity to serve both the community and his profession, and promised to do the job "with a smile".

City code enforcement officer Sharbel Koorie said his experience in that position give him a unique set of skills that best qualifies him for the job, noting that it requires listening to both complaintants and residents, and resolving issues.

"The magistrate has to be a person that sees the city as a whole," he said. "What I've enjoyed the most is working with people...I am the only person here who has a record people can go back on and check. (The city code office) has a good reputation for resoving issues...that affect our community."

He added that he's a lifelong city resident who's lived in the West Ward his entire life.

"I've been on South 9th Street for 45 years," he said. "I have a good understanding of all the wards of this city."

Koorie added that he's committed to becoming certified for the position, beginning in June, when the state will next hold classes to do so.

Lance Wheeler, a state constable who mainly works in Bethlehem, said his experience in that position uniquely qualifies him for the magistrate position.

"A constable works hand in hand with the district magistrate. I do the workings of the district court every day," Wheeler said. "When I'm elected...I will be there from 8 to 4 every day."

He dismissed the idea that prior legal experience is necessary to do the job.

"This position doesn't need a law degree, it needs a common sense degree," Wheeler said.

Audience questions the candidates on a variety of issues and concerns


Moving on to questions posed by audience members, NAACP executive board member Merrill Fennell asked of all the candidates, "What are your plans with the unique problems in the West Ward?"

Jumping in first, Wheeler replied, "I confront the landlords every day. I serve tenants (papers). Not all tenants are bad. I'm not against landlords. I'm not against tenants. A lot of landlords are from out of state...The majority of people who rent can't afford eight or nine hundred (dollars) a month."

Following, Prendergast said, "The unique problems of the West Ward are the unique problems of all of Easton...You have a very finite job and that's to follow the law. The law is sometimes more than black and white. I think what's important is to follow and apply the law...and also have a sense of fairness and compassion."

No other candidates offered their thoughts on the question.

Moving back to the matter of legal experience, Fennell asked on behalf of an audience member, "Do you thing being a lawyer is an advantage or a disadvantage?" of all the candidates.

Taking the lead, Grifo replied, "I don't think there's any question that there's an advantage to being a lawyer," noting that attorneys are prequalified as state bar association members. "I don't think there's any question a person can become qualified (though)...I think the most important thing about being a lawyer is you can see a thing...impartially. Because that's what we do every day. It really is hard to set aside what's not relevant and just look at the law."

Prendergast said, "Those of us in the criminal justice system do resolve conflicts on a daily basis. I think the advantage is (lawyers) are ready to hit the ground running. We've had magisterial justice candidates who have won and failed to pass (the certification exam).

Wheeler said again that his experience as a constable makes him qualified for the position though he's not a member of the state bar, and suggested that an attorney would continue to practice law on the side, not devoting their full time to the job.

Grifo interjected that while she won't give up her law license and "might write a will or something on a weekend", she'll devote herself full time to the job if elected.

Bassil said, "The position is more of a community position. If they required a lawyer, then why don't they require one?"

Prendergast also said he'd "extremely limit" his law practice if elected and additionally promised not to work in other Pennsylvania counties.

Koorie again stated his intention to become certified for the magistrate position, and noted that the job requires a balance of justice and feeling.

"You have to have some compassion," he said. "Something that's a matter of health and safety needs to be addressed immediately. Other matters have taken years to develop. If you go in there swinging a bat, you may create other problems...I think I can be fair and comssionate while applying the law."

The next question was directed at Koorie personally: "Do you have a liquor license, and do you think that's a conflict?"

Koorie said he does not personally hold a liquor license, but that related family members can have one without affecting his eligibility under the law.

"My wife holds a liquor license for a restaurant that we're opening," he said.

Another question, aimed at Grifo, asked if she is a real estate attorney and if that presents a conflict.

Grifo said, "It's been reported that I'm a real estate attorney, but I've handled just about every kind of case, from both sides. I don't think any of my legal experience presents a conflict."

A question at Wheeler asked how he'd change the court.

"It's not about how I'm going to change it," he answered. "It's about how I'm going to better it."

Another question for all the candidates asked their opinion of the Guardian Angels and whether they support the group.

"I attend the Guardian Angels meetings every Friday evening," said Wheeler. "We need to support the Guardian Angels and Block Watch, but they're not getting the support they need."

"As long as they're not being vigilantes," said Prendergast. "I think a neighborhood's policing themselves is very important."

Bassil said he supports Block Watch and attends the group's meetings.

One audience member questioned Koorie specifically on his community leadership qualifications and asked how he would relate to people that are less better off financially than he is.

"I think I have the best knowledge of the makeup of our community based on my job," he said, after stating his experience again and also noting his volunteer experience with his church. He added that he doesn't come from a rich family, that he wore second-hand clothes as a child and bought his first good pair of sneakers with money he earned himself in high school.

"I've worked hard for where I am today. And I didn't leave my neighborhood. I bought the houses on my block. I built my house where there were three (that were too dilapidated to fix)...I've walked the walk of being a poor person," he said.

County council candidate and former Easton Area School Board president Kerry Myers, who attended the event, asked all the candidates: "You also represent College Hill. You have students up ther that tend to get a little rowdy and do some damage. How are you planning on handling that?", adding he wanted to know if there would be a difference between how a local young adult and a "silver-spoon-daddy-can-pay-for-it" would be treated in court.

"There is no difference. We're all equal," said Bassil, answering first. "He's a citizen. We're going to read him his rights, and we're going to deal with it."

"The law is the law is the law," said Prendergast. "The job is to treat everyone fairly. you have to detach yourself. The law is the law is the law."

"It's a different atmosphere up there," said Wheeler. "But you have to be fair. All men are created equal. And the law is the law."

"You really don't have a tremendous amount of discretion," Grifo said. "You can make a difference, but you have to follow the law."

"I would judge each case on its merit, regardless of where the defendant comes from," Koorie said.

Another audience member asked, "How will you deal when a case inconveniences you (by happening in the middle of the night)?"

"Whether a call is at 9 or 3 in the morning, we'll deal with it," said Bassil.

"I'm an insomniac, and I'm up 'til 2 or 3 in the morning anyway," said Prendergast. "It won't affect me."

"I'm devoted to the job," said Koorie. "It's not a problem."

"I don't really sleep anyway," said Wheeler. "When 911 calls, we're on duty."

"It's not a problem. It's part of the job," said Grifo. "You know when you're on call."

Another audience member asked the candidates their positions on sentencing more minor infractions, particularly those committed by younger offenders, to setting up programs or  giving community service over jail time.

"Whatever is available to me as a judge, I'm going to consider my options for programs," Grifo said. "But our options as a judge are limited, when it comes to setting up programs."

Prendergast said he thinks there may be some options of working with the county district attorney's office when it comes to set up alternative sentencing programs, and that community service is a component of that.

"It would be great if a kid that gets caught gets community service and picks up garbage over probation," he said.

Koorie similarly said he'd favor alternative sentencing for younger offenders in certain cases.

"I will do what's available," he said.

All five candidates will be on the Democratic ballot at the primary on May 21. Grifo, Bassil and Koorie are cross-filed and will also appear on the Republican ticket.

Prendergast recently said he'd planned to be cross-filed, but a problem with petition signatures left him one vote short of the minimum 100 valid signatures on the Republican ticket.

Wheeler has said he's a loyal Democrat and didn't want to cross-file.

District Court 03-2-05 covers most of Easton, including the entirety of the Downtown and College Hill neighborhoods, and the West Ward from 10th Street and east.

***

In addition to Myers, Forks Township Supervisor candidate Bendine Mballa-Fonkey and Easton Area School Board Region 2 candidate Robert Obey attended the meeting and spoke briefly.

Mballa-Fonkey, a 12-year resident of the township, said she's hopeful for the position and wants to make a difference for the municipality.

"I have always been a community organizer, even in my village in Africa," she said.

Obey said if elected he'd stand with Frank Pintabone in many matters, and promised to preserve the schools' music programs, while keeping finances in check.

"Layoffs of teachers and cutting of programs like music need to stop," Obey said. "I'm not a politician, but I'm a concerned citizen."

A corrections officer in New York, Obey said he's seen the prisons there call schools and ask for drop out numbers so they know how many places in jail to plan for in the near future.

"It's time for our children to get an education and not an education in jail," he said.

Myers said he's running for county council because "we don't actually have people representing the people. We have people representing the parties...I have not attended any classes like some of my opponents, and I will not. I'll go in there with an open mind. If you want a pit bull on county council, I'm your guy."

Updated to add a photo and the district court's geographical jurisdiction at 7:19 a.m.

7 comments:

  1. Wheeler seemed to enjoy an overwhelming amount of support. It was telling to hear some of the audience's input on the candidates. I thought it was particularly nice to hear how Constable Wheeler's gift of winter boots to a man in the audience, whom he never before giving him the boots, helped the man to get back on the right path in life.

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  2. Since I missed the "meet the candidates" event, I'm very thankful you were there and reported everyone's replies. This is more than one could read in the newspaper. And since I barely knew some candidates, this article helped immensely. I'll recommend it to voters and urge candidates to have more "meet the public" events in the coming days before 5/21, even without a moderator. The voters need to ask questions and engage in public discussions.

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  3. Julie Zando-DennisMay 14, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    Anyone who slouches in a chair while meeting the public is unqualified in my opinion. That eliminates Bassil, Prendergast, and Wheeler right there.

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  4. Guess only the two republicans, Grifo and Koorie are qualified then. Good to know some of us vote based upon a single picture.

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  5. Was I the only one that felt a little uncomfortable with the way that Koorie handled the person that asked him about poor people? It seemed like he was yelling at the person ... ? Is that a good or bad quality to be sitting in judgment in this position?

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    1. I am very sorry to have to remove this comment, as The Easton Eccentric very much supports public civil debate and the airing of opposing viewpoints.

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