Thursday, May 7, 2009

Has Judge Wettick Reached His Limit Yet?

County Executive Dan Onorato's bizarre lurches in the wake of the easily foreseeable order affirming local judge Anthony Wettick's decision regarding assessments suggest that Mr. Onorato and his team -- a weak lineup of aides and advisors who frequently resemble moles for their candidate's gubernatorial opponents -- genuinely expected to get away with an immoral freeze of inaccurate assessments.

First, Mr. Onorato claimed that the decision would not require reassessment, declaring that his legal analysis found "wiggle room" in this sentence authored by Chief Justice Castille (page 53): "We agree that reassessment is required."

Mr. Onorato then appeared to threaten secession (or at least insurrection), declaring that he would not "just roll over" and conduct a reassessment. ("Just roll over," of course, is a technical legal term that means "comply with that court order.")

Mr. Onorato, valiantly defending his preferred constituency (those able to stroke four- and five-figure checks for his campaign), has continued to rely on the pathetic claim that "reassessment equals property tax increase" while ignoring the fact that freezing inaccurate assessments imposes on the county's poorer residents an unfairly disproportionate responsibility for funding county operations.

Yesterday, the chief executive floated the prospect of taking the issue to federal court, by far a better delaying tactic than a legal strategy.

This morning's Post-Gazette brings a report of Mr. Onorato's newest strategery: He apparently is taking a fancy headdress and snake charmer's flute to judge Wettick's courtroom for a status conference. Mr. Onorato (through his spokesman) indicates he hopes to 'find some common ground' with the judge: "We may be allies with him in this," said mouthpiece Kevin Evanto.

Mr. Onorato has flouted an earlier admonition to be prepared for a Supreme Court affirmance of Judge Wettick's, and has publicly scorned Judge Wettick's reasoning, recently and unanimously vindicated by the Supreme Court. I doubt Judge Wettick -- whose written decisions have recognized the practical consequences of Mr. Onorato's stubborn adherence to the indefensible -- find this a handy time to smoke the peace pipe and revisit Mr. Onorato's arguments.

Instead, here is what Judge Wettick might do: He might order the county to expedite a Constitutionally required reassessment, and require the county to post a bond if it does not comply with a strict schedule. The county is stealing from its less-affluent property owners (and derivatively, renters) every day it maintains its unconstitutional structure of rigged assessments. If Mr. Onorato insists on perpetuating the charade that he has a legal leg to stand on, our system entitles him to do so by making an appeal available. But an appeal does not entitle the county to keep the money stolen from victims of its cynical property tax system while an appeal is pending. Mr. Driscoll, Mr. Weiss and the others who have vindicated the interests of county taxpayers have done fine work and scarcely seem to need a legal tip, so this is a prediction rather than a suggestion: Judge Wettick, instead of indulging Dan Onorato's delusion (and desire for delay to trump justice), may force county government to finally pay a price for its misconduct. He could require the county, as a cost of an unsuccessful appeal, to repay those from whom the county is stealing.

UPDATE: Judge Wettick reportedly encouraged the litigants to pursue a "meeting of them minds" and, because he has not received the case file from the Supreme Court, scheduled a June 3rd status conference. If there is any reason for the plaintiffs to consider excusing the county from an expedited reassessment, I would welcome an explanation.

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