Sometime late Tuesday a ponderous question became reality for Indiana County.
Maybe it was 8 p.m. when the polls closed on Election Day, maybe it was just before 10 p.m. when the courthouse issued the “69 of 69 precincts” vote total.
That was when Michael Baker, the chairman of the county commissioners, signed off his final duty as head of the Board of Elections, handed in his keys and exited the Indiana County Court House for good.
With Baker having resigned his positions effective on Wednesday, as he announced a month earlier, the question officially became proper: Who’s going to replace him for the rest of his term?
Probably no one, Indiana County Republican Party Chairman Gilbert Woodley said Thursday.
Only two months are left; Baker’s term runs through the first Monday of January.
Pennsylvania law says only a county judge can name someone to fill a vacant seat on the board of commissioners, and it must be someone of the same political party as the departed commissioner.
Tradition in Indiana County has held that the president judge of the Court of Common Pleas relies on the concerned political party’s county committee to vet and nominate a replacement. Three times in the past 18 years, Judge William Martin has done so, naming Bill Shane on the resignation of James McQuown in 2002, at the Democratic Party’s request; appointing Patricia Evanko upon the death of Bernie Smith in 2006, again as the Democrats asked; and sending Baker to the commissioners’ office upon the retirement of David Frick at the end of 2013, as the Republican Committee recommended.
Woodley said the logical choices to replace Baker, commissioners-elect Mike Keith and Robin Gorman, declined to take office early.
“So we are not going to be filling it for the last two months,” Woodley said. “We talked with the candidates prior to the election, and neither of them are able to leave their careers before January so we’re just going to let that ride out.”
Effectively naming a commissioner-elect to take the job early would require a quorum of the county Republican Committee to waive the bylaws and immediately accept the will of the voters as a sign of qualifications.
Keith told the Gazette he is committed to closing out year-end business as chairman of the Rayne Township board of supervisors before taking office at the courthouse. Indiana University of Pennsylvania will look to segue Gorman’s duties as executive assistant to president of IUP for community and government relations to someone else — not an overnight decision.
“From where I’m at, we had two great candidates,” Woodley said. “If either one had said ‘yes, I’m able to step in for this and start earlier’ … could see where the committee would have no problem getting together, voting to suspend (our bylaws) and to appoint one of them in.
“But to open it up to the general public, most likely we would want to follow the whole process so that we keep it fair.
“How the process works, we make a recommendation to Judge Martin and he makes a final decision. His decision would be based on whether we did a fair process and followed our rules. And he has always worked well with us in the past.”
Woodley made clear that the understanding that the county committee’s part in replacing commissioners is not part of state law, only a courtesy granted by the court.
Martin has ultimate authority to hear from any Republican resident of Indiana County who wants to be considered as a two-month substitute commissioner.
Woodley said his understanding is that an outlier’s interest still would be put in the county GOP committee’s hands for proper vetting and recommendation, a process that could take four to six weeks.
“The time restraints with that process, to do it properly and be equal among everyone in the community to have a chance — it’s just not going to make it work in the two-month period, to make it worthwhile”
The committee probably wouldn’t entertain the idea of a two-week appointment, Woodley said.
“From my understanding, he is on the same page with us,” he said.
Baker’s absence leaves fellow Republican Rodney Ruddock and the minority Democrat Sherene Hess to conduct county business until the end of the year. Disparity on issues for strictly political reasons has not been a hallmark of the Baker-Ruddock-Hess administration.
“That is what we could have considered doing but it would not have worked out in this instance,” Woodley said. “Commissioner Ruddock is fully on board with that … and assured me that they are able to handle the office for two months.”