Jan. 5—WINDBER — The appearance of campaign signs a year ago outside the magisterial district office in Windber will result in the office's relocation.
With the lease expiring for District Judge William Seger's current 15th Street office in June, Somerset County commissioners tentatively approved a $1,300-per-month lease for a Jefferson Avenue property that would relocate the office to a space near a Windber supermarket.
"Our courts have to stay fair and neutral," Court Administrator Tammy Jo Escalera-Rivera said.
During the week of the 2020 presidential election, it might not have appeared that way — due to a posted signs that were "completely outside the county's control," she said.
Election signs touting candidates were posted by the property's owner — the county office's landlord, she said.
County property records show that the 15th Street property is owned by Berwind Corp., a Philadelphia-based investment management company with deep roots in the coal industry.
The company founded Windber in the late 1800s.
Officials with Berwind did not return messages left for comment Wednesday.
Property owners have every right to post campaign signs at their locations — but it becomes a problem for the county, Rivera said.
Signage touting any political candidate or party shouldn't be posted in the same place where county court is conducted, she said.
Even though county employees didn't post the signs, state election code violations might also come into play, County Solicitor Michael Barbera said.
Rivera said that the county fielded "several" complaints from residents who were upset to see the signs.
Rivera said the signs did not appear to be an issue during the fall municipal election but the county does not want to risk another occurrence.
Through the Court Administrator's office, proposals for a new location were sought this fall, county officials said.
The 1501 Jefferson St. property, owned by The Rullo Family Limited Partnership, was the lowest of the two proposals received.
The limited partnership involves a family that includes a county judge, Dan Rullo.
But according to the nonprofit National Center for the State Courts, there's no law prohibiting Somerset County from leasing the space.
Judges may lease real property to the county in which a judge is an elected official.
But regardless, counties must follow the Ethics Act when it comes to expenditures above $500 — including lease deals — to ensure the process is public and proper, Barbera said.
That includes a public advertising process for proposals, giving anyone interested an opportunity to submit an offer "to eliminate any perception of impropriety," he said.
"It turned out that the Rullo proposal was the best offer," he said.
Rivera said the Jefferson Avenue property will be a more convenient location for district court visitors and the community.
Located just off Route 56, it offers a full parking lot for visitors, is Americans With Disabilities Act compliant, and sits just down the street from the Windber Police Station.
The current District Court office does not have a parking lot.
But there's still plenty of work needed to be done to renovate the space into a court office, she said.
The county will have to seek bids for the renovation work at a future date, Rivera said