Ex-Hollidaysburg mayor pledges to be friend, not foe, to successor

HOLLIDAYSBURG – With the new year comes a new look Borough Council, and its members are ready to tackle the challenges that come with personnel changes, including the question of how to best work together.

Concerns about in-fighting and issues between borough officials have existed for the past several years, and it came to a head in May after a heated primary for the Republican nomination for mayor.

Current council president John Stultz Jr. narrowly defeated current Mayor Joseph Dodson for the nomination, after which Dodson made critical remarks about Stultz.

“The people spoke. … And apparently people don’t want good government, and I guess they’ll get what they deserve,” Dodson told the Mirror in May while also calling Stultz a “figurehead.”

Though he lost the mayor’s race, Dodson will still be a member of council since he won a write-in election last month to represent the 2nd Ward.

Stultz has moved on from Dodson’s comments in May and wants to be optimistic that he’ll get full cooperation from Dodson and council.

“I think for me, the biggest concern is that [as] the council and the mayor, we all work in unison for the betterment of the community,” he said.

Dodson, who served two four-year terms as mayor and four years as a councilman previously, has changed his tune since the spring primary and now says he is open to helping Stultz transition into the role.

“Anything I can do to help our new mayor, Mr. Stultz, I’m willing to do,” he said. “We [the members of council and Dodson] get along very well now, and I think we’ll continue that. You know, we’re all here for the same reason.”

Stultz said he hasn’t yet had the chance to meet with Dodson but plans to do so soon.

Dodson said he’s going to make himself available to the residents of Hollidaysburg by phone, email and other means as much as he can, much as he said he did as mayor.

“I assure you that I’m going to work very hard to be available to anybody in the borough who wants to call me,” he said.

No stranger to controversy

This year’s primary isn’t the first time that an election produced some bad blood involving Dodson.

Former mayor and councilman James Shoemaker retired from public office in 2005 but ran for a return to the borough council in 2007 after then-Borough Manager Diane Meling said that she would resign from her position.

Council had moved to fire her unsuccessfully in 2006, drawing the attention of area residents.

Meling told the Mirror that she thought some leaders, including both the mayor and members of council, wanted complete power over the borough.

Dodson, who was elected mayor after Shoemaker, was fingered as the reason for Meling’s resignation. Shoemaker said Dodson was overstepping his bounds as mayor.

There was so much tension that a committee was formed to deal with the issues, Meling said in 2007, though Dodson refused to attend after the third meeting.

Dodson, instead, said he was mostly responsible for her hiring.

“I’m probably 80 percent responsible for her getting that job,” he said at the time.

Shoemaker said when he decided to run for council that he thought Dodson was overstepping his bounds as mayor.

“I’d just like to see them get back to business and quit their squabbling,” Shoemaker told the Mirror in 2007. “They need to start taking care of everything that needs to be done.”

Shoemaker’s bid for council then was unsuccessful. He died Tuesday at age 90.

Moving forward

Despite a history of disputes, borough leaders new and old say they look forward to switching gears and moving past the negatives.

Current councilmen Harold Burkett and Tim Baranik are leaving, and Richard Scholton, who represents 7th Ward, said some new faces can help promote different ways of thinking.

“I think young blood on any committee that lives in the community helps with giving new views and new ideas,” he said.

In January, two new council members, Stephanie Wertz and current council president John Stultz Jr.’s son Matt will begin their service, and Patrick Plummer – who joined the council in June after the resignation of Tim Beresnyak – will be sworn after being officially elected for the first time.

Wertz will be transitioning to the council from a position on the Hollidaysburg Area school board, where she has served since 2009.

She said it’s hard to compare the positions, as “they really are two different roles.”

It’s a learning process, she said, to join any board or council, and she went through the same transition when she joined the school board.

Joining forces

Once he takes the role of mayor, Stultz said he hopes to see the council members working “harmoniously” with him, borough manager Mark Schroyer and other Hollidaysburg officials.

He said he doesn’t see much of a difference between the goals of the mayor and the council, where he served for more than 24 years, as both seek to serve Hollidaysburg to the best of their abilities.

He said he looks forward to working with the council in a different capacity than he has its president.

“I anticipate working well with the new council,” Stultz said. “I’m looking forward to the new year and the challenges of the operations of the borough.”

Stultz’s campaign said he would seek to end discord between borough staff members and help promote a positive environment.

He said he sees the position of mayor as a “goodwill ambassador” for the borough and that promoting the community is something else he will focus on as mayor.

Wertz, who was elected to represent the 6th Ward, said she is in the process of meeting all of the other members of council before she is sworn in.

Wertz will be the only woman on the council, and she said she doesn’t foresee that as an issue.

“Everybody that I’ve met so far, even the employees that I’ve met, everyone seems to really put the interests of the borough first, and I do, too,” she said.

Key concerns

Scholton said it was too soon to pick out a specific initiative he’d be interested in seeing the council complete, but said continuing the borough’s financial gains is a “big item” of interest for him.

He said the borough was able to dig itself out of a financial hole shortly before he was elected to the council, and now it has a “small reserve” of funds.

“I think they’ve been very responsible to the citizens here in Hollidaysburg with that money,” Scholton said.

Dodson gave the credit for that turnaround to then-Borough Manager John Little, who Dodson narrowly defeated for his council seat.

He called the previous financial situation “bleak.”

“We need to try to work within our budget, try not to incur any major debts,” he said. “By the same token, I certainly don’t want to raise taxes.”

Dodson believes the financial outlook for the borough is likely to remain positive for the foreseeable future.

“I think Hollidaysburg is in pretty good shape,” he said.

Wertz said she, too, was looking to focus on “holding the line on taxes.”

Though she hasn’t seen the borough’s budget yet, she said she doesn’t think it would be out of the question to avoid a tax increase.

“My gut feeling tells me we certainly could live within our means,” she said.

Stultz said he has already met with borough staffers about ideas he has as mayor, though he said he didn’t want to share them until he figured out if they were more than “just pie in the sky.”

“I’m not sure what I’m thinking of is even realistic,” he said.

He said he is working to determine some of the needs of the residents of Hollidaysburg and will meet with Schroyer and other borough staff members to do that.

He said he “hasn’t formulated” everything yet, but will be working to finalize an agenda early on in his tenure.

Dodson said as mayor, one of his goals was to work to improve the police department, and that’s something he plans to continue on the council.

Wertz also noted traffic concerns she heard while campaigning, especially stories of people speeding in Gaysport and Holliday Hills.

“These are neighborhoods, and people are just flying through them,” she said.

Information about council decisions, too, can be hard to come by, she said, as the public is often informed after a vote has already been taken.

“Unless you go to every single meeting you just don’t know,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.