A Guide to the 2019 Somerset County Election

A Guide to the November 2019 Somerset County Election

Local candidates don’t always get the same kind of attention that state or national candidates do.  However, these offices are incredibly important, as they impact citizens very directly.  Since there is not as much spotlight thrust upon the candidates nor as much information available, I wanted to compile a short Q&A to help voters become more informed about just who and what they are voting for.

In order for this Voting Guide to be fair, I emailed each candidate running for an office the exact same questions, regardless of current office or experience.  This allowed for a very straightforward comparison of candidates and their platforms.

I would like to emphasize that by no means is this the definitive guide to the election.  Please pursue outside research, including the fantastic profiles run by the Tribune Democrat and the Daily American in previous weeks.  By posting this article, I only seek to fill a gap I saw in the local election process: a lack of free, comprehensive, online information.

Unfortunately, there was a short amount of time granted to the candidates to answer these questions, so they should not be received as the only necessary research when casting your ballot.  I greatly appreciate the time every single one of these candidates granted me, especially in this incredibly busy month.

I am not endorsing any of these candidates through this article, I am just trying to provide some information to the public.

Please take the time to go out and vote tomorrow.  In local elections, one vote truly can make the difference for a candidate.

Alexis N. Buncich

County Commissioner

Pamela A. Tokar-Ickes (Democratic)

1. Can you explain what a county commissioner does?
The board of county commissioners (there are three members) is the chief governing body of the county. Commissioners have budgetary responsibility for all county offices and departments and administrative authority for offices that fall outside of the court system. Commissioners are responsible for the administration of elections, tax assessment, county planning, veterans services, emergency management and 911, the safety of children and our seniors and the operation of our county library system.

Additionally in Somerset County, the commissioners sit as voting members of our local economic development council, operate and maintain the county's education center with our local educational partners, support our agricultural community by supporting the work of the Pennsylvania Extension Service and fund the Cambria-Somerset Authority, a major supplier of raw water for our region- including the county's Quemahoning Water System which provides drinking water for 97 percent of the individuals who are currently on municipal water systems in Somerset County.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
I am uniquely qualified for the position because of my experience in county government and my sincere desire to serve. I was first elected to the position in 2000 and served four consecutive terms, deciding not to run again in 2015. After working in the nonprofit community for nearly four years, I decided to seek office again because I love county government and it is where I would like to end my career. I was appointed to the board of commissioners again in May following the results of the spring primary to fill the unexpired term of the late John Vatavuk.

County government touches our lives every day. My understanding of the position and its important responsibilities, my ability to work as a strong member of the team and my dedication to public service are all reasons that I feel I am qualified to be re-elected to this position.

3. What are your goals for this office?
My goals for this office are to work with our local business and educational partners to support the local economy; complete the remaining 5.5 mile section of Route 219 to link the completed section at Meyersdale with Interstate 68; work to strengthen our workforce in our human services departments; and to begin to examine how we address the causes of our jail overcrowding problem. These are just some of the issues that face Somerset County government today coupled with our declining population, the opioid crisis and fewer resources from the state and federal government. Those elected to the next board of commissioners will have to be able to work together in the best interests of our county's residents to deal with these complex issues and more.

4. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
I have never made a decision based on partisan views and never will. The issues that come before the board of commissioners are neither democrat or republican (or third party). They are issues that face us as a county. Commissioners who are elected need to be prepared to walk through the door and work above party lines in the interest of all of their constituents. As commissioner, they will represent all county residents, regardless of how they are registered (or aren't registered) in the county elections office. It's time to get beyond those labels, especially at the local level where they are irrelevant.

Daniel L. Hillegas (Democratic)

1. Can you explain what a county commissioner does?
Commissioners are the stewards of tax payer dollars. They adopt a county budget, levy taxes, assess property and may borrow funds for construction projects. Other responsibilities include; maintenance of county property and buildings. Serve on advisory boards of many county agencies and distribute liquid fuel funds to boroughs and townships for street and road improvements.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
I have lived my whole life in Somerset County. I am just like the majority of residents in the county. I can identify with the struggles of the people of this county. I have watched many hardworking men and women lose quality jobs because of change in politics and that when I knew I had to get involved. I made my decision to run for office. I’m not a politician but someone who saw the need for change.

3. What are your goals for this office?
After traveling around the county for the last few months talking to the people I hope to represent, these are some of the concerns I wish to address; one of the main issues is property taxes. The Commissioners should pass a budget that reflects the values of the community.

Another issue is transportation. We need to address the transportation issues of our elderly and other residents of the county.

Finishing the 5.5 mile section of 219 to the Maryland line. That would be beneficial to bring more foot traffic to the county.

Bringing high speed broadband internet to the rural areas of the county.

4. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
County politics is not about party it’s about making the best decisions for the people in the county. Commissioners should be transparent and make themselves available to constituents. They should take that into consideration when voting on budget issues that effect  the county.

Gerald Walker (Republican)

1. Can you explain what a county commissioner does?
We run a large business in Somerset county that takes on programs that the public sector cannot do because most times these programs are not self-sustaining, we have a workforce of about 400 employees which can be a full time job to manage, we have several 24/7 operations which also present their own issues we also try to secure grant money from federal and state agencies to run programs without having to use general fund dollars and that only names a few of the many hats a commissioner wears.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
I believe my most qualifying assets are the 20 years in local government first as a Township Supervisor for 16 years and now as a commissioner for almost 4 years.

3. What are your goals for this office?
My goals for Somerset county are many but to name a few they would be finishing 219 , building additional broadband infrastructure , fighting the ongoing opioid crisis , helping our emergency services as they see declining volunteerism and decreased funding and workforce development to help fill existing jobs in Somerset county to name a few .

4. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
In local government we can ill afford to allow party to dictate our decisions as we all pull in the same direction to move Somerset County forward and make it a better place to live, work and raise our families.

Colleen R. Dawson (Republican)

1. Can you explain what a county commissioner does?
County Commissioners oversee the operation of county government and are responsible for providing certain services to the residents.  They are basically the CEOs of Somerset County, overseeing not just the operations of the courthouse and county employees, but also other aspects that are not as apparent.

Commissioners are responsible for the budget and to set the county tax millage, which covers expenses not covered by state and federal funding.  They have a fiduciary responsibility to the residents and taxpayers to spend tax money wisely and prudently.

Commissioners oversee elections and voter registration, voter machines and polling locations.  They oversee the judicial section of government, which includes the Court of Common Pleas and Magisterial District Courts and support staffs. Adult and juvenile probation, the jail, Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts all fall into this category..  Each of these have their own officials and staff who manage day to day operations.

Community Development, Emergency Management, the Area Agency of Aging, Children and Youth, MHMR, drug and alcohol programs, emergency management and even the airport are under the oversight of the County Commissioners.

Above all, County Commissioners have a responsibility to do what is in the best interest of the county and its residents.  You, as a resident and taxpayer, deserve the best they have to give.

 2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
First and foremost, I have a passion for Somerset County and for community service.

Leadership is an affair of the heart.  I strive to make a difference where I live and work, and have done my absolute best with what I have been entrusted.

I share the values of Somerset County residents. I am a hard worker and a dedicated volunteer. I know the struggles of our families, farmers and businesses.

As a County Commissioner, I will actively solicit information, ideas and solutions to be proactive and to anticipate the issues and needs facing our County. I have proven that I have the capability to make educated decisions, based on fact, to bring these ideas to fruition and work toward implementation.  I am known for my ability to “get things done”.  I serve in positions of trust in Stoystown Borough, Stoystown-Quemahoning Community Park, Somerset County Boroughs’ Association. Somerset County Affordable Housing Board, Somerset Area Ambulance and as the Somerset County Republican Chairman.  I am proud of the accomplishments achieved by these organizations under my watch.   I am not just a volunteer, but also a valued employee of a local law firm for 34 years.

My passion, experience and commitment to Somerset County make me the right choice.

3. What are your goals for this office?
Above all, my goal is to do what is in the best interest of the residents of Somerset County.  Whether it is balancing the budget, working with agencies and personnel, or meeting to discuss issues and concerns of residents and helping to find solutions, the best interests and welfare of the citizens must be always be at the forefront of decisions and discussions.

4. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
I believe that a political party affiliation speaks to the base values of the candidate.  Voters want candidates that share their values and beliefs.
However, once elected, a commissioner represents ALL county residents.  Political party, even whether registered to vote, must have no bearing on rights of citizens to prompt, equal and unbiased services and access.  There is no room for personal agendas or special treatment for some.  There are three elected County Commissioners and all must work together to find the best solutions. Decisions should never be based on politics.

Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas

Rose Svonavec (Democratic/Republican)

1. Can you explain what a Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas does?
The Clerk of Courts primary responsibility is serving as the custodian of the criminal court records from the early handwritten dockets to the evolution of the present day technological records that are maintained. Other responsibilities include accepting payments for case fines, costs, and restitution, and dispersing funds to municipalities and victims of crimes. I maintain files for the private detectives, constables and bondsmen. I choose the juries for criminal trials and attend trials to swear in the witnesses as well as reading the verdict.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
I am qualified for this office as I am a former Jury Commissioner and small business manager in charge of collections and payments. As a former medical lab tech, I am familiar with computer programs as well as confidentiality required to maintain public trust.

3. You’re the only candidate on the ballot.  What have you done to show your commitment to this role, even without any opponents?
I am fortunate to not have opposition on the ballot and do not take this position for granted. I serve on the Executive Committee for the Pennsylvania Association of Prothonotaries and Clerks of Court so I have the opportunity to attend the statewide meetings and network with Clerks of Court in similar sized counties. I strive to keep the office on top of all pertinent legal rulings and developments developed by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Since the office is physically very small for the amount of files and work we handle, keeping the office technically sound is a must.

County Auditor

Shelley J. Glessner (Democratic)

Unfortunately, I was unable to get in contact with Shelley Glessner by the time this article was published.  I encourage you to pursue individual research via the Internet or local articles.

Herb Moore (Democratic)

Unfortunately, I was unable to get in contact with Herb Moore by the time this article was published.  I encourage you to pursue individual research via the Internet or local articles.

Jerry L. Lyons (Republican)

1. Can you explain what a County Auditor does?
According to the County Code, the Board of County Auditors is responsible for auditing, settling and adjusting the accounts of all county officers.  We conduct regular reviews of the accounts and financial transactions of the county's row offices, district magistrates, and other departments and programs which require the handling of county funds.  We also audit the accounts of all tax collectors to assure that tax money is properly handled and submitted.  The Board of Auditors is required by law to compile an annual report and financial statement which is distributed and made available to the public.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this role?
I have served on the Somerset County Board of Auditors for nearly 20 years and have direct knowledge of the tasks that need to be completed and the system of financial transactions in the various offices and programs that are required to be audited.  My education includes a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a master's degree from Point Park University in Pittsburgh.  I have also served in administrative positions in various community organizations and know the importance of good financial documentation and have experience in the preparation for an audit.  I am knowledgeable of the methods of bookkeeping in the county offices and, therefore, have the ability to identify when something may be out of line and would need further investigation.  My hands-on experience and direct knowledge of the office allow me to hit the ground running on the first day of the new term.

3. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
A county auditor is basically a gatekeeper of taxpayers' funds and performs the service of assuring those funds are properly handled; therefore, it isn't necessary that a County Auditor be of a certain political affiliation.  County Auditors are not policy makers and are not in a position to represent any particular platform.  In fact, it is necessary for an auditor to stay neutral and to do an objective audit of any office handling county money regardless of that office holder's party affiliation.  I will say, however, that within Somerset County over the years, the Republican auditor candidates have generally been the more experienced simply because they have been the majority party in that office for more years.

JoAnne Walls (Republican)

1. Can you explain what a County Auditor does?
There is a board of 3 auditors.  We are responsible for monitoring the spending and receipts in county departments, row offices, magistrates, tax collectors and county airport.  Each auditor has a specific group of offices that they audit on a monthly basis.  The financial records are forwarded to our office each month from these departments.  We also perform group audits.   Once a year we go to each magistrate’s office to do an in-house audit as well as performing audits on each of the local tax collectors, the county’s general fund, asset forfeiture accounts and hotel taxes.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this role?
I feel my 15 years of experience in fiscal operations for the commissioner’s office as well as the area agency on aging qualifies me for the auditor position.  While employed in those positions, I gained a vast knowledge of the policies and procedures implemented in the spending of county funds.  I had a good working relationship with the various departments as well as with the county and independent auditors.  I also am completing my first term as a county auditor and feel that I have gained the trust of the county voters to be a “watch dog” of the taxpayer’s money.  I am dependable, honest and with high integrity to not be influenced by outside sources while performing county audits.

3. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
A voter must look at a candidate’s experience and their knowledge of the position when deciding who they wish to monitor the spending of their tax dollars.  Political party should not be a determining factor and they should choose someone who they can trust to perform the duties of auditor.

District Attorney

Lisa L. Lazzari-Strasiser (Democratic)

1. Can you explain what a District Attorney does?
The district attorney is the chief law enforcement officer in the county of jurisdiction.  Sworn to uphold the law, with diligence, without regard to creed, color, religion, nor political party or national affiliation in order to ensure the safety and well being of his constituents.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this role?
I have served as Somerset County DA since 2012 after serving 18 years as a assistant public defender with the last of those 7 years as the Chief in an adjacent county.

I bring over 25 years of criminal justice experience to the office which includes a seat on the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association executive committee.   I am the only candidate endorsed by PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania State Police and the United Mine Workers of America.

Under my command, the Somerset County DA’s office Is now staffed with experienced professionals committed to carrying out the duties of the office with the highest integrity and professionalism.

Somerset County is my home and the courtroom is my office.

3. Why does (or doesn’t) political party matter when voting for a local office such as this one?
Specifically, political party affiliation holds no place in the decision making of the district attorney as the office is controlled by the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions and the Pennsylvania Crimes Code.

Jeffrey L. Thomas, Jr. (Republican)

Unfortunately, I was unable to get in contact with Jeffrey L. Thomas, Jr. by the time this article was published.  I encourage you to pursue individual research via the Internet or local articles.

High Sheriff

Brad Cramer (Democratic/Republican)

Unfortunately, I was unable to get in contact with Brad Cramer by the time this article was published.  I encourage you to pursue individual research via the Internet or local articles.

Recorder of Deeds

Patricia Ann Peifer (Democratic/Republican)

Patricia Ann Peifer submitted the following statement to me:
“The Recorder of Deeds is responsible for the recording of all land documents and preservation of them.  Our documents start  from 1795 to current.  If  you look at our website you can see a complete list of all of the documents that we record at www.co.somerset.pa.us.  I started working in the office in 2001 as an Accounting Clerk.  I was then promoted to 2nd deputy in 2003 by then Recorder Patricia A. Brant.  In 2012 I was promoted to 1st deputy by the new Recorder Lorraine Barron.  When Lorraine passed away from cancer 2 years into her term, I was then appointed as Recorder of Deeds and finished Lorraine's term.  I then went on to run for my first full term in 2015 having won that election beating Democratic chairwoman Shelley Glessner.  I am unopposed this year and have also received the democratic nomination by having more than 100 democrats write me in on the ballot in the spring primary.  I have loved every position I have ever held in this office and have a tremendous understanding of all aspects since I have performed every duty in the office over the last 18 years.  I am strongly committed to uphold the professional and friendly atmosphere in this office, this is not just a job to me, it is my life's work and I am very blessed to be able to do something that I love every day.  My staff and I have been diligently working on having the older books in the office scanned and indexed for preservation and better access for the public.”

Register of Wills and Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division

Sharon K. Ackerman (Democratic/Republican)

1. Can you explain what a Register of Wills and Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division does?
In Pennsylvania, jurisdiction over a decedent’s estate begins with the Register of Wills and ends in the office of the Clerk of Orphans’ Court. The Register of Wills has exclusive jurisdiction over the probate of wills and the grant of letters to properly qualified individuals.

The Register of Wills serves as an agent for the Commonwealth in the collection of inheritance taxes.  In Pennsylvania, there is no inheritance tax on the property itself but rather on the privilege of receiving property from a decedent.  While conducting research to provide a remedy for a constituent, I discovered an inequity in the inheritance tax law and immediately called the issue to the attention of State Representative Carl Walker Metzgar.  Following a herculean lift by State Representative Metzgar, House Bill 262 was approved by the Governor on June 28, 2019.  HB 262, now Act 13, eliminates the inheritance tax burden imposed upon minor children who are suffering from the loss of a parent or parents.

The Orphans’ Court has complete jurisdiction over the administration and distribution of the real and personal property of the decedent’s estate. The Clerk of the Orphans’ Court is also responsible for the accuracy and maintenance of case files for adoptions, guardianships, and other issues that may come before the Orphans’ Court Judge.

Most records in the Register of Wills, Orphans’ Court, and Marriage License Department are open to the public with the exception of adoption records.  Adoption records are impounded by law and available only by a court order.

2. What makes you uniquely qualified for this role?
It is my high honor to serve as Somerset County’s 47th Register of Wills and Clerk of the Orphans’ Court.  My unique qualifications span 16 years of serving on the front line in the office, as well as continuing education provided by the Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans’ Court Association of Pennsylvania.

Secondly, we understand that the loss of a loved one is a very difficult and emotional time.  Not only are the ones left behind grieving the loss, but also the complex process of settling the estate. Whether probating a will, being appointed a guardian, or adopting a child; you will always receive courteous and efficient service from a staff that is dedicated and abundantly qualified to meet your needs.

3. You’re the only candidate on the ballot.  What have you done to show your commitment to this role, even without any opponents?
First and foremost, it is a blessing to be running unopposed during this election cycle.  To be perfectly honest, politics does not have a bearing on the decision making in the office or the level of service provided to constituents.  The decisions I make are based on what is in the best interests of all citizens of Somerset County. The staff and I focus on delivering excellent constituent service to the folks who seek our help.

I wish to continue serving the citizens of Somerset County and will be grateful for their vote on November 5th!

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  1. Very helpful. I felt really interested that all the candidates for County Commissioner had the same plans. Made me feel confident that they would be in sync. Thank you for doing this for the voters of Somerset County. I am a relatively new resident to the county and this was very helpful.


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