Pennsylvania town elects teen as mayor

Mount Carbon youth and his mother enter community politics

November 18, 2001|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MOUNT CARBON, Pa. - Jeffrey J. Dunkel will soon be able to gavel his mother out of order.

His mother can retaliate by refusing to make him supper.

"And he still has to take the garbage out, straighten up around here, do the yardwork," said Kathy Dunkel.

Jeff Dunkel, who became eligible to vote when he turned 18 in February, has been elected to a four-year term as mayor of the small Schuylkill County community of Mount Carbon, near Pottsville. His mother won a borough council seat on write-in votes. The two Democrats will take office in January.

Jeff Dunkel's decision to run grew out of a project in his American government class at Pottsville Area High School this year. He focused on his hometown - population about 100, including 81 registered voters-and didn't like what he saw.

`Nothing getting done'

"Nothing was getting done," said Dunkel, who graduated in June and now attends the Schuylkill Institute of Business and Technology. "I'd go to a council meeting in January and they'd bring up stuff, and it was the same stuff they brought up when I went to the meeting in February. People were talking about getting a policeman in the borough for months, but it never got done."

He became a regular at the monthly council meetings, held in the fire hall because the small borough building has been all but abandoned. His complaints drew a rebuke from town elders.

"They told me there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work in government that I didn't notice, and if I thought I could do better, why didn't I run for office?" Dunkel said. "They just wanted to shut me up."

He didn't. Instead, when he registered to vote, he gathered the forms needed to run for office. He got the required signatures from Democrats - it takes a mere 10 of them - to put his name on the May primary ballot as a mayoral candidate.

His opponent was an incumbent, John A. Furphy, who had held the post for four years. Furphy's wife, Laverne, was mayor for 10 years before that.

Dunkel won the primary with 22 votes to Furphy's 10. A third candidate, Betty Oley, had 11.

That put him as the sole name on the November ballot, but did not assure him victory; in Mount Carbon, write-in candidates are just as likely to be elected.

Raising hackles

Dunkel then raised hackles with a three-page campaign flier he wrote that highlighted portions of a 1998 newspaper article from the Pottsville Republican in which council said it was making police protection a top priority. It intimated the council wasn't keeping its promise.

Council President Harry Haughney was angered by the flier, which he felt made him look bad, and he had words with Dunkel about it. It didn't slow the Dunkel machine. In the general election, he beat Furphy by a margin of better than 5-1: 43 votes to Furphy's eight write-ins. (Dunkel said Haughney congratulated him at the next council meeting. "We all clapped and everything," Haughney said Friday. "I said, `Jeff, I hope we can get along and work together.'")

Meanwhile, Kathy Dunkel, 44, became a councilwoman with 22 write-in votes to best two opponents. She actually won her primary race, but was so busy working at the local Lowe's home improvement store, where she's manager of the seasonal department, that she never certified her votes and therefore didn't appear on the ballot.

`He'll hear from me'

"Jeff really talked me into running," she said. "I joined forces with him because I agree with what he's saying and what his platform is.

"But he'll hear from me if we disagree."

As for his house chores, mother has cut her son - whom she calls a good kid - some slack.

"I know he's been so busy with his campaign," she said, "so if things didn't get done right away I wasn't busting on him."

The younger Dunkel - who, along with five council members, will earn $50 a month as mayor - says getting a part-time borough policeman is his first priority. "Speeding is a big problem here," he said.

The borough has gone nearly a decade without its own officer since the death of George Dunkel, Jeff Dunkel's grandfather, who was a part-time employee.

Mount Carmel has an annual budget of $54,000; $9,600 goes for salaries.

"There are expenses for street lights and electricity for borough hall, even though it's not used," he said. "I'm not even sure what other fees are paid."

The mayor-elect anticipates some problems as he calls his first meeting to order in January.

"I don't know if council members will take me seriously," he said. "But I went to a training seminar in politics at Dickinson College, and I think I can show them how to run a government.

"And once they see me at the meeting and see that I'm acting maturely," he added, "I think they'll wake up."

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