City council applicant withdraws; past felony prompts eligibility questions

Dec. 6—An applicant for a vacant Scranton City Council seat withdrew from consideration Monday amid questions of whether a past felony precludes him from holding the position.

City zoning board member Robert Gowin-Collins — one of four applicants to interview last week for the vacancy — pleaded guilty in 2009 to a felony criminal trespassing charge stemming from a 2008 incident at a former business in Wilkes-Barre Twp., Luzerne County.

It occurred while Gowin-Collins, now 36, was in the throes of drug addiction, he said, noting he entered a rehabilitation facility in 2014 and has been clean for eight years. Gowin-Collins was sentenced to three years of probation as a result of the incident.

"I want my actions today to reflect the person that I am, not who I once was, and I don't want my previous incidents to define me," Gowin-Collins said. "I try to, today, live a life where I'm community-focused and engaged and do volunteer work and help with different organizations."

In 2001, when businessman Bob Bolus ran for Scranton mayor as the Republican nominee against city Councilman Chris Doherty, the Democratic nominee, The Times-Tribune published a story questioning whether Bolus could serve if elected. Bolus sought a state Commonwealth Court ruling to determine if he could.

The Commonwealth Court ruled Bolus could not serve because of a 1991 felony conviction; the state Supreme Court affirmed the ruling. Pennsylvania's constitution forbids people convicted of infamous crimes from holding public office, and the state Supreme Court says felonies are infamous crimes, the courts ruled.

Despite the rulings, Bolus stayed on the ballot and lost by a significant margin to Doherty.

A prior council appointed Gowin-Collins to the city zoning board last year. Scranton's law department sees no reason why the relevant provision of the state constitution, or the city's own laws, would prevent a person with a prior felony conviction from serving on a city board, first assistant city solicitor Andrew Cutillo said in an email.

Gowin-Collins withdrawing from consideration for the council seat leaves three applicants who interviewed for the vacancy: business co-owner John Howe; former Scranton Parking Authority Chairman Joseph Matyjevich; and city Housing Appeals Board Chairman Gerald Smurl.

Retired educator and administrator James Allan submitted his name for consideration but didn't participate in the interviews.

Records show Howe, 34, also has a criminal history, having pleaded guilty to several misdemeanor charges in Lackawanna County since 2006. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to misdemeanor counts of terroristic threats and harassment, and in 2019 to a summary harassment charge. His record does not include a felony.

"All in all, I think that going through that made me a better person (and) made me take a step back and evaluate myself," Howe said. "And (it) made me figure out ... who I am and what I'm supposed to do in life. And it made me grow."

Former council President Kyle Donahue created the council vacancy last week when he resigned to assume office as state representative for the 113th House District.

Council Vice President Mark McAndrew confirmed members plan to vote Tuesday on an appointment, which will expire the first Monday of January of 2024. An election will be held next year to fill the rest of Donahue's unexpired council term, which runs into January 2026.

The council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Council members earn $12,500 annually.

Contact the writer: jhorvath@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9141; @jhorvathTT on Twitter.