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Historic flooding, new officials, Parks Miller lawsuits top 2016 county stories

As 2016 comes to a close, a look back at the most-read county government stories reminds us of a historic flooding event, the swearing-in of new county officials and the lingering litigation between the county and a high-profile employee.

New county officials

On Jan. 4, families, friends and supporters gathered in the Centre County Courthouse to witness 12 officials being sworn in. Judges Thomas Kistler, Pamela Ruest and Jonathan Grine presided over the ceremonies which ended the monthslong election process.

Ruest swore in Judge Katie Oliver first, who joined the three judges for the remainder of the ceremony. Kistler swore in: District Judge Tom Jordan; county commissioners Michael Pipe, Mark Higgins and Steve Dershem; Controller Charles Witmer, Sheriff Bryan Sampsel; Treasurer Richard Fornicola; Prothonotary Debra Immel; Recorder of Deeds Joe Davidson; Register of Wills Christine Millinder; and Coroner Scott Sayers.

“Our county is very lucky for those who have been elected and for those who have offered themselves for office,” Kistler said.

Flooding

The competence and resolve of the officials was placed front and center in October when the county experienced historic flooding in Milesburg and Howard.

County commissioners Pipe, Higgins and Dershem declared a disaster emergency on Oct. 21, and oversaw the recovery efforts, which included applying for financial relief from government agencies, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

On Nov. 16 Gov. Tom Wolf signed a disaster declaration for the area, which saw more than $2 million of damages to infrastructure like roads and bridges. More than 400 residents in the area experienced property damage and state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, was pleased to see the federal help arriving.

“This is wonderful news,” Hanna said. “Our region endured devastating damages, and many do not know where to turn, so every bit of assistance helps. It is my hope that between the SBA program and FEMA aid, residents will be able to get back on their feet.”

Parks Miller lawsuits

The recovery efforts following the flooding continue as does the legal tug-of-war between the county and District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, stemming from allegations in 2015 that she forged Ruest’s signature on a court document. The allegations, brought to the Centre County Commissioners by State College Attorney Bernie Cantorna, touched off an investigation. Ultimately, a grand jury declined to charge Parks Miller with a crime after hearing testimony that included a handwriting expert.

January marked one year since Parks Miller filed a federal lawsuit against the county commissioners, plus their solicitor and county administrator. The suit also included the attorneys who brought the allegations forward, a former paralegal whose affidavit attesting to the forgery provided the seed for the situation, and Ruest, who said she did not remember signing the document in question.

In May, U.S. Judge Matthew Brann, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, dismissed almost all of Parks Miller’s lawsuits, calling her suit “inartfully” framed and “spiked with vitriol.”

Brann permitted Parks Miller to refile against commissioners Steve Dershem and Michael Pipe, then-commissioner Chris Exarchos, solicitor Louis Glantz and administrator Tim Boyde if she could allege “personal involvement.”

In September, Parks Miller filed an appeal in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. That appeal has yet to be heard.

In November, Cantorna announced his candidacy for District attorney. Parks Miller quickly responded.

“Now we know why he and his cronies falsely and maliciously accused me of a crime; to get me out of the way because he covets the job for himself,” Parks Miller said.

The response sets up what could be a contentious election cycle in 2017.

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi

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