Jun. 18—WILKES-BARRE — The outcome: a scheduled July 27 hearing to determine if the Wyoming Valley West School Board violated the state Sunshine Act by shutting off microphones briefly during an online meeting.
But the journey to that court order followed an offbeat path.
Affable Senior Judge Emmanuel Bertin discussed the former Forty Fort High School's wrestling team, the courtroom furniture, an unrelated prior case and the logo on the stenographer's face mask.
From the outset of the hearing that started a bit after the 9:30 a.m., the visiting judge from Montgomery County set a casual tone, gently rejecting district solicitor Lars Anderson's suggestion that this was just a scheduling conference for a future hearing on allegations by Forty Fort Mayor Andy Tuzinski.
"It's a little more than that, but it's not adjudicatory," Bertin said. " I'm going to ask both sides about the case." He then read Tuzinski's entire filing, parts of it out loud, parsing legal nuances such as whether the School Board and the district were a single defendant. Anderson said that, because no individual board member was listed as a defendant, he took it that he was representing both as one entity.
Bertin then asked if the district had filed a response, and Anderson said no, because a hearing had not been scheduled. Bertin made the first of many digressions by asking if Anderson had appeared before him in a prior case.
Anderson said he had, as one of the attorneys arguing that the Luzerne County District Attorney did not have the right to fire an assistant D.A. without cause — apparently referring to a firing done by Stefanie Salavantis several years ago. "I thought you would appeal that one," Bertin said. "Did my opinion persuade you not to?" Anderson said no, that other circumstances led to the decision not to appeal.
"I enjoyed that case," Bertin said, adding that the name "Lars" was unusual, to which Anderson replied "I'm a midwest Swede who met and married a girl from Northeast Pennsylvania."
Bertin returned to the complaint, but stopped after seeing Tuzinski is Forty Fort Mayor.
"Did Forty Fort have a high school?" He asked. Tuzinski said yes, until the 1967 merger that formed Wyoming Valley West School District. Bertin asked if they knew how he knew about the old high school, and Tuzinski guessed — correctly — that the judge may have wrestled there, because it was well known for wrestling.
That led to a discussion of high school and college wrestling, ultimately touching on Ohio State University's program, simply because the stenographer's face mask had an Ohio State logo on it. Bertin talked about open wrestling tournaments that allow a wider range of athletes to compete, and Tuzinski seized the moment.
"That is the beauty of open participation," he said, "and that's why I'm here today."
"Nice segue," Bertin said with a smile.
The digressions never lasted long, and Bertin routinely picked up where he had left off, digging deep into the legal weeds, going back into old English law and the components of it carried into modern U.S. law that applied to the request for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.
Tuzinski contends the School Board violated the state Sunshine Act during a May 27 special meeting held online when the microphones were turned off for about two and a half minutes as the board discussed something before turning them back on.
Representing himself ("are you sure you're not a lawyer?" Bertin complemented at one point), Tuzinski asked the court to declare that the board violated the state law regarding open meetings, to void actions the board took at the meeting, and to order Board President Joe Mazur and Vice President Brian Dubaskas to "undergo training in the Sunshine Act." As the hearing unfolded, he offered to drop the request that actions be voided, seeking only a court declaration that the Sunshine Act had been violated and that the training be mandated.
Anderson countered that any violation has already been remediated. He said the microphones were cut at Mazur's request because he wanted to ask if it was appropriate to discuss the death of board member Gary Richards at a public meeting. Tuzinski and another caller had asked why the board had not replaced Richards, and Mazur said they had not confirmed he was dead (his death was confirmed the following day).
Anderson said the board did discuss the issue once microphones were turned back on. He also said the two key issues voted on at the May 27th meeting — a utilities contract with UGI and the 2021-22 proposed final budget — were voted on again at a June 9 meeting.
Bertin seemed to suggest no harm had been done and asked what relief he could legally provide, then digressed again, asking a reporter who he was and then noting that, of the 11 county courthouses he had heard cases in, the Luzerne County room was the only one with a table perpendicular to the judge's bench. "Do you know why?" he asked, "that's where the press sat. I was so fascinated by that."
Bertin's approach may have been offbeat, but it seemed productive. Along with Tuzinski dropping the request that board actions be voided, by the time he was ready to schedule a hearing on the matter, both Anderson and Tuzinski were agreeing they got along well and likely could come to an arrangement before the July 27th hearing.
"That's nice," Bertin said. "There's no need for hostility. Life is too short."