The last few months of the year are typically busier and more hectic for me. As a result, I wind up filing away notes, electronic and otherwise, about things that happen in and around those last months. I then spend the rest of the time piecing these together into something that hopefully approaches a cohesive, informative, and entertaining narrative.
That it has become more difficult to do this on a consistent basis has been a matter of increasing concern to me. Access to the appropriate tools, and having the time to use them, count among some of the impediments to this.
With that in mind, here is a compendium of things local and semi-local that grabbed my interest, sometimes more than once, over the last several months.
That Championship Season
“All Glory is Fleeting.”
When I wrote in September about the curious situation facing Quaker Valley High School and its football team, I speculated that if the team (which was 2-0 at the time) continued their early season success, that perhaps all the uncertainty, confusion, and rumor surrounding the sudden departure of then-coach John Tortorea would be forgiven.
While that level of success was indeed an understatement, there are those in the media and elsewhere who didn’t forget, in part because it’s their job not to.
This year marks 40 years since I graduated from Quaker Valley High School. Many of my contemporaries from that class have no doubt followed the QV football program a lot more closely than I have in the decades since I was the PA announcer. I’m sure many of them join me in marveling at the seemingly oxymoronic moniker “QUAKER VALLEY QUAKERS – 2017 PIAA FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS”.
Post-Gazette sports reporter Mike White capably followed the Quakers’ run to the title from its humble beginnings as a team without a head coach to the state championship. His coverage included a follow-up interview with Mr. Tortorea, who seemed at peace with his decision to leave, and as pleased with the team’s success as he was pained not to have been a part of it.
Mr. Tortorea was also effusive in his praise for Coach Veshio, who has also reaped additional accolades ranging from the Pennsylvania sports media’s Coach of the Year award to a nomination by the Steelers for the NFL’s Don Shula High School Coach of the Year honors.
Sports Illustrated melded the Quakers’ success into a picture of the importance of football to many in our region. They also got one thing right that Mr. White did not – correctly stating that the high school is located in Leetsdale, not Sewickley.
Perhaps the most interesting reporting came from the Sewickley Herald. Reporter Christina Sheleheda spoke with local attorney Richard Start, whose father was a member of the 1938 Sewickley High School football team that tied with Glassport for the WPIAL title. The story included photos of the championship trophy from that season. The 1938 team also graced the front page of the November 17, 1938 Herald – my wife Leslie’s father is among those in the team photo.
Some observers on social media and elsewhere took the time to opine that since the remainder of this season’s coaching staff remained intact, they perhaps deserved a greater measure of credit for the team’s success.
There are differences in management styles, as well as intangibles such as Coach Veshio’s enthusiastic personality and passion for his craft, that likely served to push a well-prepared group of young men past the impediments that slowed previous campaigns, and motivating them to achieve beyond anyone’s expectations, including their own.
Jerry Veshio is the kind of person that will publicly recognize the contribution of everyone that played a role in this past season’s success. This likely includes the man who built the system, and walked away from it.
Coach Veshio has also made it clear that this season was his first and last. Whomever takes the helm next season will have a heck of an example to follow.
Next season is not that far away, and with the loss of some key seniors the Quakers will be hard-pressed to approach their most recent success. They will hopefully fare better than the 2016 state champions, Beaver Falls, who come from the same conference as the Quakers and followed their championship campaign with a 1-8 record last season.
For QV sports fans, the ride of glory potentially continues unabated, however. The boys’ basketball team has just completed their regular season undefeated, and is ranked #1 in WPIAL Class AAAA.
Best wishes to all.
Inconvenient Truth Department
Speaking of football and its importance to Western Pennsylvania, a key individual in the future of the sport who has local ties was back in the in the news in December.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, who while working for the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office became the first to identify Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy as a potential side effect of a life of professional football (well dramatized in the film Concussion), left the area in 2007 to become a forensic pathologist for San Joaquin County, California.
Dr. Omalu and a colleague resigned in December, citing evidence they had found that implicated their boss, serving as both the elected Sheriff and Coroner, in overriding the findings of the pathologists and their autopsy reports for shooting deaths involving law enforcement.
While a news search brought up several examples of regional media outlets across the country covering these events, the Pittsburgh-area media barely seemed to notice. This may be continuing evidence that while Dr. Omalu and his colleagues did a great service to athletes (especially young ones) everywhere, their contributions remain somewhat unwelcome in the land of football.
The title of Dr. Omalu’s most recent book, released this past August, echoes the credo that has been a hallmark of his entire career – truth doesn’t have a side.
Dr. Omalu’s unflagging commitment to his profession and the inherent truths that accompany it, combined with his achievements as an immigrant, earned him an invite to attend the most recent State of the Union address as a guest of a California congressman.
How appropriate to recognize the achievements of someone whose commitment to the truth has earned them equal measures of praise and scorn – an unfortunate side effect of the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.
Best wishes to him.
Condominiums Over Character
The dispute between Sewickley residents organized as the group Character Matters and developer Zamagias Properties effectively came to an end in December. After numerous filings of objections, objections to those objections, and intervention by the developer with additional objections (along with several delays), Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Michael Della Vecchia held a hearing on November 21 of last year.
On December 1, Judge Della Vecchia dismissed the complaint in LeCornu et al vs Sewickley Borough, citing the original objections by the borough and allowing the November 2016 decision by Sewickley council to stand.
In an email sent to supporters in early January, Character Matters representatives Peggy Standish and Anne Clarke Ronce stated:
Character Matters is a group of more than 300 people who…publicly opposed this development on Centennial and Blackburn Streets. This group of residents voiced their opposition at several Sewickley Borough public meetings. Some of the issues were: height, ten-foot setbacks, inadequate parking/loading, and the mass of the buildings. All of these issues are delineated in Sewickley Borough codes and yet all of these requirements were ignored. The Zamagias group and the Sewickley Borough Council, the Mayor and the Borough Manager were present at these public council meetings and heard all of the negative remarks of the residents. Not one person spoke in favor of this development. Amazingly, the Borough Council voted in favor of building the condos.
Character Matters is grateful for the residents’ support and wishes for better borough governance in the New Year.
In reviewing the court documents, meeting minutes, and other material published in a previous post, I must sympathize with the plight of these residents. They expected their elected representatives and appointed administrators to employ a process that was transparent, fair, and responsive to their concerns, and they didn’t get it.
Perhaps instead of being resigned to wishing for “better borough governance in the new year”, Character Matters now has hundreds of names, a good portion of which may be Sewickley residents, from which to begin an effort to leverage representative government to their advantage – if they choose to do so. The next Sewickley council election is in 2019.
Interested citizens were also failed by our local media, which aside from one story (that appeared only after a complaint was lodged with their management) chose not to report on this dispute.
The Herald appears to be committing significant column inches to stories related to the effort to construct a new Quaker Valley High School. Hopefully those efforts will not detract from a de facto responsibility to cover local government.
That means, at a minimum, being present at the entirety of monthly council or commissioner meetings – for every municipality in our area.
Looking for Lawmen (or Women)
The November 9 meeting of Leetsdale Borough Council produced several issues worthy of additional exploration.
The Herald reported on November 16 that Police Chief Daniel Raible, in his report to council, requested an additional full-time officer, lamenting the inability to retain part-time officers who may work in multiple municipalities, and perhaps lack the commitment necessary to properly serve the citizens of Leetsdale.
The Herald reported this week that the borough has authorized this hiring, along with the appointment of two new members to the borough’s Civil Service Commission. The story also described at length the convoluted hiring process.
Chief Raible’s remarks have been echoed by other officials in similarly sized municipalities, where a shrinking part-time labor pool has made it difficult to augment the full-time officers already in place. Other small towns in Allegheny County in the same boat appear to be moving toward a common-sense solution.
Several municipalities along the Allegheny River, all part of the Fox Chapel Area School District, have started considering the consolidation of their police forces into a regional department. A recent catalyst for these discussions is a comprehensive report commissioned by the Borough of Aspinwall regarding the future of its police department. A December Tribune-Review story on the study’s findings indicated that shared services were one of its stronger recommendations.
Of the 5 municipalities reported as considering the formation of a regional police department, Sharpsburg Borough is the first to sign a memorandum of understanding. Mayor Matthew Rudzki was quoted by the Trib –
“One of the key goals of regionalization is for us to leverage resources…In addition, we can reduce redundancies within a department and streamline services.”
Is there anything about that statement that is not applicable to the Quaker Valley area? I don’t think so.
While the other involved municipalities – Aspinwall, Blawnox, Fox Chapel, and O’Hara Township – consider their commitment to the concept in the coming months, I must wonder about municipalities in the Quaker Valley School District with similar size and demographic characteristics – Leetsdale, Leet Township, Edgeworth, Bell Acres, Sewickley Heights, and perhaps even Sewickley itself. Considering Chief Raible’s statement, what are the impediments to these communities engaging in similar study and conversation?
Given the recent changes in representation in Leetsdale, it’s likely that any discussion about something that involves a perceived dilution of the parochial status quo will be dismissed out of hand. Our “new” council should be considering the budgetary advantages that are being touted elsewhere, combined with the potential increase in the local tax burden to build a new high school.
Perhaps it’s time to consider substantive change in how our municipalities provide critical services, and move toward leveraging economies of scale for public safety in our area.
Leaning on Lessors and Lessees
One year ago, I reported on Leetsdale’s efforts to establish an enforcement mechanism for code violations independent of the minor judiciary. Part of that was an analysis of an ordinance involving disruptive conduct that appeared to run afoul of a 2015 court decision.
To their credit, the borough recognized the deficiencies of the ordinance, and updated it into a more comprehensive document that addresses specific violations, as well as protecting those who legitimately request police assistance.
Ordinance 667 was adopted at the November meeting, but apparently escaped the attention of the Herald reporter that was in attendance for at least part of those proceedings.
In assuring that this ordinance is updated, the borough continues to demonstrate adequate due diligence so that regulations pertaining to property conditions are well-written and enforced fairly. Review of monthly code enforcement activity reports obtained from the borough shows a healthy portion of the code enforcement officer’s time is spent dealing with inspections of, and/or violations involving, property that is leased out by the owner.
It is important that all properties, including those for rent, abide by ordinances that are crafted legally and administered fairly to preserve conditions consistent with what the community considers a safe and stable quality of life.
Caution is warranted, however, to assure that property managers, landlords, and tenants are not singled out for selective enforcement, as part of an undeclared “war on renters”.
Continued diligence in monitoring borough code enforcement activity, along with other key metrics such as real estate sales activity and sheriff’s sales, will remain an item of interest for me in the future.
Legacy Leadership Looms Large
There were few if any real surprises locally in the November 7 general election. In Leetsdale, the return of incumbent Tom Belcastro and his two running mates, former councilmen Ben Frederick and Osman Awad, was successfully accomplished.
The cliffhanger in this race was for the 4th and final seat, where Tom Michael, husband of now former councilor Linda Michael, defeated incumbent Wesley James by just 4 votes for the right to replace his wife. The election results also showed 12 write-in votes as part of this tally – more than enough to swing the race between Mr. Michael and Mr. James the other way. Apparently the Turd Ferguson effect is still a potent force in borough politics – at least if turnout remains low.
Fate, or at least some interesting planning and execution, have since played out favorably for Mr. James. According to the November council meeting minutes, council received the resignation of council member Lauren Jones Pearce, creating a vacancy on council. Mr. James then resigned his own council seat, and was then appointed to fill the remaining 2 years of Ms. Pearce’s term. Mr. James’ old seat remained vacant until filled in January by one of the newly elected members.
Apparently, this all transpired after the Herald had left the building.
I verified with borough Secretary Jennifer Simek that there was no public advertisement to solicit citizen interest in filling the vacancy created by Ms. Pearce’s resignation.
Wes James has distinguished himself as both a citizen and public servant. He’s a good neighbor as well. We don’t always agree, but I admire his commitment to the borough and the quality of his performance as an elected representative.
While I was truly dismayed when he was not re-elected, I am somewhat concerned with the process (or lack thereof) utilized to fill this council vacancy, even if the result is a positive one.
Leetsdale needs to make sure that any future vacancies for elected or appointed office are communicated to citizens in a timely fashion, with a sufficient time frame to allow for those interested to apply.
I also wanted to recognize the recent passing of two former Leetsdale officials that I had the pleasure of knowing. Former council member and borough manager Paul Scimio died on November 23 of last year at age 49, leaving a wife and three children. A GoFundMe page created to assist the Scimio family still shows as active.
Also, former Leetsdale Tax Collector William Hazelbach passed away on February 3. His wife Mary preceded him in death in 2016. My brother and I grew up knowing the Hazelbach family, as our fathers were friends for many years.
Condolences and blessings to the families and others affected by their passing.
Tomorrow is the final open house and presentation for the proposed new high school. I plan to be there, and will have more to say about the project, and other issues as they begin to take shape in the coming months.
Best wishes for a safe and happy transition into spring.