Three candidates are vying for the Republican and Democratic nominations in the May 21 primary for magisterial district judge seat covering Monessen, North Belle Vernon and a portion of Rostraver Township.
The seat was vacated when longtime Magisterial District Judge Joseph Dalfonso retired. All three candidates have cross-filed.
Wayne P. Vlasic, 61, said a combination of real world, government and military experience is necessary for a district judge. Vlasic worked at the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Co. in Monessen, served as a legislative aide, previously served eight years as a board member of the city’s school district and is now in his fourth term as Monessen’s controller.
Vlasic also spent 25 years in the U.S. Navy Reserves, and was recalled to active duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
“My service has provided me with the ability to work with others of diverse backgrounds in order to complete the mission,” he said.
Alan Jack Manderino, 55, is an attorney who serves as an assistant public defender in Westmoreland County. It’s that law experience that Manderino says makes him the most qualified for the job.
“I have direct experience in the law, as a practicing attorney for over 30 years,” said Manderino. “Not only am I compassionate, but I am educated through my upbringing and scholarly endeavors to be fair and honest.”
Manderino added that the law is in his genes with his father, uncle and sister all having backgrounds as practicing attorneys.
“I know I can distinguish myself as a magisterial district judge, because I have practiced in the magisterial district courts for most all of my career, and I appreciate the awesome responsibilities placed in this office,” he said.
As Monessen police chief, James B. Smith also has ties to the law. Smith, 48, has been a member of the department since 1994 and was named chief in February 2018.
It’s that experience that makes him most qualified for the post, he said.
“My diverse background and 25 years experience in the justice system, I believe makes me the most qualified candidate for the position,” said Smith. He is co-chair of the Mon Valley Opioid Coalition, on the advisory board for the Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, assistant baseball coach for Monessen High School and a police academy instructor for the Municipal Police Officers Training and Education Commission for the state.
If elected, Smith said he would focus on juvenile offenders.
“One initiative that I would like to see started, especially for juvenile offenders, is more community service. When a juvenile offender comes into the system and is issued a fine for their charges, who ends up paying the fine? A majority of the time it's the parents. I don't think that the offender learns any lesson by having someone else answer for their actions,” he said.
Referring juvenile offenders to community service projects, he said, would also help a number of community organizations in need of volunteers, such as local volunteer fire departments and EMS providers.
“Our local fire departments are a great asset in that they help teach responsibility, sense of community and self sacrifice. Those are great lessons to instill in our youth,” said Smith.
"My primary initiative is to bring my legal education and experience to the office and my world experience as well,” said Manderino, who if elected would be the first attorney to serve that district court, as a law degree is not required to serve as a district judge. “If correct decisions are made at the community level, many legal disputes will end there, without further waste of taxpayer and litigant dollars.”
He would make observing administrative details of the office a priority and do what he could to tweak them to best serve the community.
Vlasic said his focus would be on playing his part in battling the opioid epidemic. He would like to restore school hearings and work closely with law enforcement and other agencies to do that.
Manderino agreed that the drug epidemic is one of the biggest obstacles the county faces.
“We deal with legal drug addicts and illegal drug addicts. A person whose addiction has driven then to anti-social behavior should be afforded the opportunity to reform and return to a productive contribution to their community,” said Manderino. “We have many tools to accomplish this, but I am not convinced we use them effectively.”
According to Manderino, the county needs to divert victims of addiction to the appropriate programs and onto a path of recovery.
“Westmoreland County has a veterans’ court and drug Court, where persons can turn their life around and prove that they are worthy of forgiveness under the law. We should give them this opportunity,” added Manderino.
Smith said district judges are also challenged by a backlog of warrants, something he would like to see addressed.
“There are a lot of people who have warrants for a multitude of reasons, but most specifically for failure to appear for a hearing or failure to make payment on a fine,” said Smith. “The challenge would be to get as many offenders up to date and compliant as possible.”
Vlasic said another source of concern for district judges is a lack of safety and security at their offices, citing a shooting at a Fayette County district judge’s office last year.
“I would work with county and state officials to implement better safety measures in the MDJ's office, especially for staff. The county courthouses have security, why shouldn't the magistrates offices?” he asked. “After the tragic event that happened in Masontown recently, I believe that should serve as a wake-up call to the county and state officials.”