After a June that was rainier than usual, July and August brought with them the kind of sticky, unpleasant, hot weather that becomes annoying quickly, especially when the car air conditioner isn’t working.
There is reasonable certainty of relief from the seasonal effects of our literal climate. Whether or not the climate of conflict that seems to be pervading a great deal of our society will moderate at all is definitely up to interpretation. This is amplified when considering the examples being set as an excuse for leadership at the highest levels of government.
This corner focuses on local issues for the most part, so examples of local governance that rival the travesties in process at the federal level, or show foresight and intelligence in addressing local problems, tend to draw my attention. Here are some examples.
Rose, Cameron Incidents Raise Emotions, Awareness, Big Picture Issues
The officer-involved shooting of Antwon Rose Jr. in East Pittsburgh Borough on June 19 wouldn’t normally be something I spend time writing about. I usually don’t find myself coming up with anything that cuts a different path from the anguished and passionate voices that have arisen in the wake of this incident, and the too-numerous ones that have preceded it.
It’s a little different this time.
My experience in public safety has taught me the potential dangers of armchair quarterbacking a response, and I resisted any such activity. Instead, I waited for the District Attorney to release his findings and recommend action. Which he did.
Mr. Zappala’s announcement that the officer involved would be criminally charged was accompanied by public criticism of the status quo that is rare for an official in his position. In response, local politicians have proposed legislative efforts to impose training and information gathering standards on the state’s police departments.
County Council has voted to begin the process to establish a countywide citizen police review board, even in the face of objections from the law enforcement community. As the Post-Gazette’s Brian O’Neill observed, the weirdness of Pennsylvania law itself presents challenges to the effectiveness of this endeavor.
By late August, at least two municipalities in this area were debating the future of their police forces, with the P-G encouraging a similar fate for the distressed department in Aliquippa. Things are also not so stable in nearby Ambridge.
Mr. O’Neill also brought forth some of the gritty realities of the situation in a July 2 column, where he sought to gain some understanding about the incident, and what’s to come, from the point of view of a sort of pulse checker for the African-American community.
I’m hoping that efforts at reform don’t stop here. Many lapses in professionalism and efficiency have at their core the archaic system of governance in Pennsylvania that allows for the existence of political subdivisions that are often too small, duplicative, and parochial to respond effectively to the demands made of them. The Pittsburgh City Paper, in an excellent June story, also focused on these issues as framed by the Antwon Rose incident.
Municipalities like East Pittsburgh and others are likely to face serious choices as this trend of increased oversight, regulation, and citizen demand for accountability continues. Their viability as independent municipal entities may even be in jeopardy – and I’m pretty sure that’s not such a bad thing.
The fallout from the Rose shooting has reached into other areas of the county, mainly from the protests that have abated somewhat since late July, but were often conducted in a manner designed to be highly visible and disruptive. This practice, and one man’s alleged decision to drive through the protesters, helped bring the debate to the doorstep of the Sewickley Valley.
The July 9 meeting of Bell Acres council probably drew more attention from non-residents and the media than in the borough’s entire history, even if the councilman in question chose to stay away. Court records show that the preliminary hearing on the charges filed against him has been continued until November 15.
I believe that the protests will continue in some consistent, persistent manner until the protesters’ vision of justice is served. For many that means a criminal conviction and a punishment of significance for the officer involved – and maybe the councilman, too.
Additional media reports indicate that the male suspect in custody had made social media posts with racist overtones, leading to calls for additional investigation of the incident as a hate crime. Family members also spoke out about the likely racial foundation behind an act of rage and recklessness, which tears at the fabric of all families, and society at large.
My thoughts are with all of those touched in some way by these tragedies.
Sewickley Closes Ranks, Takes a Tooth Out of the COG
In the wake of the potential consequences to local governance brought about by the Antwon Rose debacle, the unanimous decision in June by Sewickley Borough Council to leave the Quaker Valley Council of Governments was a surprising development.
The home page of the QVCOG website includes the following: “The QVCOG is a non-profit organization that facilitates multi-municipal efforts and implements efficient, cost-effective programs on behalf of its members.”
Shortly after this decision I reached out to Sewickley councilor and QVCOG board member Hendrik van der Vaart and QVCOG Executive Director Susan Hockenberry for any background information they could provide about the decision. Ms. Hockenberry declined comment, stating she was still gathering information. Mr. van der Vaart replied, “The concern lay more with differing priorities and with the borough needing to do a better job prioritizing funds and resources.”
With the above in mind, I requested clarification from Mr. van de Vaart, asking “If the borough needs to ‘do a better job prioritizing funds and resources’, how does breaking ties with an organization, whose stated purpose is to help its members leverage economies of scale to facilitate more efficient service delivery, help to accomplish that end?”
I received no reply. A follow-up e-mail to Ms. Hockenberry in late July also received no reply.
For their coverage of this, the Herald reporter attempted, with a little success, to get some answers about the specific reasons for a separation that on the surface appears counterintuitive.
In the absence of any willingness to elaborate on the factors that ended Sewickley’s relationship with the QVCOG, I found the following:
- Last year the Post-Gazette highlighted many of the success stories achieved through municipal coordination with COGs, and coordination between multiple COGs, across Allegheny County. Ms. Hockenberry was quoted in that story:
“We want to be entrepreneurial and get economies of scale and efficiencies while respecting local control…Our only limit is the limit of our communities’ desire to work together. If something doesn’t solve a mutual problem and doesn’t improve the quality of life here, it’s probably not going to get a lot of traction.”
- The reported $3,300 annual COG membership fee represents about three tenths of one percent (0.3%) of Sewickley Borough’s budgeted General Government expenditures, according to the borough’s 2018 budget document (Page 23).
- Additional information from that document indicated that Sewickley has provided road salt storage and loading services for Glen Osborne, Glenfield, Haysville, and Sewickley Hills. In the Borough Manager’s Report for June it is mentioned that Sewickley has notified these municipalities that this service will be discontinued.
- Some of the COG’s accomplishments in support of its de facto mission statement may not translate to immediate, tangible results, but may become a foundation for more efficient provision of essential services by participating entities.
- Examples include educating the community on stormwater management, exploring the feasibility of municipal solar energy projects, participating in a study geared toward remaking Route 65, allowing participating municipalities access to a suite of Geographic Information System tools, and facilitating a comprehensive audit of the area’s Emergency Management programs.
Perhaps Sewickley’s concern about “differing priorities” and “prioritizing funds and resources” is their way of asking the COG, “What have you done for us lately?”
- One municipal official I spoke with stated that without an increase in membership fees the COG’s financial stability may become an issue in the future. The membership was also not united in embracing the hiring of Ms. Hockenberry, as evidenced by the July 2016 COG board meeting minutes (Page 4). Administrative payroll costs appear to make up just under 70 percent of the COG’s 2018 draft budget.
The business of local government appears to be more complex and challenging than ever before. While prudence in the management of resources is a positive long-term strategy, the same can’t be said of stepping away from opportunities for collaboration to assure that citizens being represented can share in a common good – irrespective of those pesky imaginary lines that we divide ourselves with.
Leetsdale Dispute with VFW Reveals Division, Disconnect
When signs popped up at the entrances to Leetsdale’s Henle Park in early June stating that the park’s popular splash pad feature would remain closed until further notice, a lot of collective heads across the borough were being scratched.
After the Herald reported on the reason why, social media began to light up with lively discussions about the disagreement between the borough and the Leetsdale VFW post, who was right or wrong, and whether or not the borough should support the VFW in some manner, given what appeared to be a congenial relationship over decades.
My biggest concern as a local resident focused on why the splash pad remained closed just because of a perceived parking issue.
Leetsdale Borough offers its community room in the municipal building for rent, and allows businesses to operate in residential areas, without adequate dedicated off-street parking. This results in patrons and event participants utilizing on-street parking spaces, often to the chagrin of nearby residents.
If these activities can take place without apparent concern for parking, why couldn’t the same apply to the splash pad? This smacked of a double standard.
This point and others were apparently made to the borough offices and elected officials, so much so that the borough quickly relented and opened the splash pad 2 days after its planned opening date. The borough then expanded splash pad hours to 5 days from the previous 4.
What doesn’t seem to make sense is the way the decision to close and then reopen the splash pad appears to have been arrived at. Initial Herald reporting about the closure and negotiations with the VFW included comment from Mayor Pete Poninsky.
After the borough reversed course, the Herald sought out Mayor Poninsky for an explanation, only to have him state that he had been out-of-town. There was no apparent referral to or contact attempt with other borough officials, and it remained unclear who had assumed command over the issue in the Mayor’s absence – or even who has responsibility over day-to-day borough operations.
This is a recurring theme for Leetsdale, the largest of the 5 Quaker Valley area municipalities that do not employ a borough manager. One of the advantages of a competent manager is providing a sense of continuity, accountability, and foresight – such as addressing dedicated, off-street parking when planning new facilities.
When done well, citizens can benefit from service provision that echoes these same values.
Much Ado About Zoning
The importance of a consistent management presence can be critical, even in municipalities whose operations seem to appear bucolic and tranquil. Consider recent events in Sewickley Heights.
For over a year, the borough has been engaged in a dispute with Scott and Theresa Fetterolf, owners of Dundee Farm and Fields on Scaife Road, over their use of the property in ways not in keeping with the borough’s zoning ordinance, and for failing to apply for any variance from the borough to conduct those activities.
For most of this year the dispute enjoyed sporadic coverage in the local media, possibly due to a lengthy hearing process before the borough’s Zoning Hearing Board, and the reluctance on the part of both sides to comment outside of those proceedings.
This changed drastically in mid-July, with the Post-Gazette reporting that the owners would be appealing the borough’s cease-and-desist order. This was followed by the Tribune-Review reporting that this appeal had taken the form of a federal lawsuit3.
The attorneys for the owners in this federal action are part of the Independence Law Center, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which describes itself on its Facebook page as “Pennsylvania’s voice for families – protecting life, marriage and religious freedom”.
As part of the complaint, these attorneys also referenced a “tradition” established by the previous owner of the farm, the late Nancy Doyle Chalfant. Mrs. Chalfant was known to open her home to church groups and others, owing in part to her benchmark involvement in such local institutions as St. Stephens Church, Trinity School for Ministry, and the Verland Foundation.
This action set off a barrage of online media attention, particularly among religious advocacy groups and media websites that focus on stories related to religion and the free exercise thereof.
A deeper look into some of the proceedings surrounding the owners’ appeal to the zoning board reveals a more contentious dispute than previously reported.
- From October of last year to March of this year, the borough and the attorney for the owners were involved in a dispute over a considerable document request made under the state’s Right to Know Law. This dispute resulted in an appeal1 to the state Office of Open Records, which ruled in favor of the borough’s request to withhold certain records that contained privileged information.
- In March, the Zoning Hearing Board issued an administrative subpoena to the owners and their associated business entities, requiring their personal appearance and the provision of records pertaining to their various business activities. The borough then petitioned Common Pleas Court2 to enforce the subpoena, alleging that the owners had not complied with it and had no intention of doing so.
- The owners then filed objections to the subpoena2 with the court, which included their assertion that to produce the documents subpoenaed or testifying about their business activities would violate their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
- On July 6, Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville issued an order2 requiring the owners to comply with the borough’s subpoena within 30 days, and dismissed most of the owners’ assertions regarding the impact of the borough’s action on their Fifth Amendment rights.
- The owners’ federal lawsuit3, and subsequent courting of media attention, followed soon afterward.
Contacted on August 8 regarding the status of Judge Colville’s order and any enforcement of it, borough attorney Alyssa Golfieri declined comment on any pending litigation.
Initial reporting on the lawsuit by the Trib and KDKA-TV reporter Jon Delano appeared to swallow the religious freedom angle hook, line, and sinker. This may have been exacerbated by the lack of a substantive response by the borough or its attorneys.
The letter’s release also appeared to force KDKA’s Delano to put together a follow-up story that provided better coverage of the borough’s position. This included an interview with Mayor John Oliver III, as well as comments received from adjacent, albeit camera-shy property owners.
An August 10 Herald story also expanded greatly on the borough’s assertions, and provided the revelation that the federal court case is possibly headed to mediation. This may explain a return to silence on the part of attorneys for both sides, including the previously accessible lawyers from the special interest firm in Harrisburg.
In principle, I support the efforts of the owners of Dundee Farm to utilize their property as they see fit – within the processes established by the borough to accomplish that end.
However, it appears that the owners have not seen fit to even attempt to go through what appear to be reasonable processes to obtain the necessary zoning variances and/or permits.
In my youth, I benefited from the hospitality of Nanky Chalfant as a guest at her farm. I remember it as being with the understanding that my presence there was as a guest, or as part of a group of guests, at her private residence.
This contrasts from what appears to be the primary focus of the current owners’ intentions for the property, as detailed by the borough’s investigation and reinforced by social media posts from clients, attendees and the owners themselves.
The debate about overzealous zoning laws and enforcement is a timely one, and I have been an advocate of reasonable private property rights. Nonetheless I find the owners’ First Amendment argument to be somewhat disingenuous.
The federal complaint appears to be an attempt to obfuscate the basic nature of the dispute – the right of the borough to regulate land use via zoning, and the owners’ apparent disregard for those requirements.
Despite this, the property owner is entitled to a fair hearing, conducted in a legal, ethical, and timely manner. From my vantage point the borough has exercised due diligence to accomplish this, even if the process has been a lengthy endeavor.
I can’t say the same for the owners of Dundee Farm. If mediation is to be where this dispute will be resolved, it may end up being tantamount to a victory for obstinate noncompliance, and a defeat for the rule of law.
In the face of all this crap, there are things that give us hope.
Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it.
– The Rev. Fred M. Rogers
Among all the consternation this summer, there have been examples of the redeeming qualities of some corners of humanity. None has been more satisfying for me than the resurgence of the words, music, and legacy of Fred Rogers.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of his television program’s humble beginnings. In addition to that observation, there has been a commemorative postage stamp issued that sold out quickly in our area.
Fred Rogers and his writings have been enjoying a renaissance of sorts as a result of this observance and commemoration, with a popular and acclaimed documentary now showing, and a new biography to be released this week.
Still to come in 2019 is a theatrical film, You Are My Friend, with Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers. The film is based in part on a 1998 Esquire Magazine article by award-winning writer Tom Junod that chronicles his friendship with Rogers during and after his research and interviews for the article, which is well worth taking the time to read. Mr. Junod mentions one of Mr. Rogers’ finest moments on network TV, which would do you well to look at too.
We in the Pittsburgh region are quite familiar with Mister Rogers and his Neighborhood, but like a favorite, comfortable piece of furniture the experience never seems trite, overdone, or boring. It’s just there, and we like it that way.
One of the benchmarks of Mister Rogers’ messages to children was making sense of and dealing with the feelings that arise in the face of complex issues such as violence, death, and divorce. A lot of these messages serve as timely reminders to adults as well. For example –
Some days, doing ‘the best we can’ may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect – on any front – and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.4
Another fact that emerges in a subtle way is that Mr. Rogers, as an ordained Presbyterian minister, was charged by his church to spread the gospel via his television ministry. He did this in a manner that didn’t seem at all like evangelism, at least in the context of the term as many interpret it today.
In a July Post-Gazette op-ed, Christine Chakoian of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary expanded upon this, upon the conflict that our country found itself in when Rev. Rogers began his “ministry”, and how the message resonates with those weary of similar patterns of conflict that we see today.
Even as we hope for health, happiness, and calm as Autumn approaches, we have a midterm election to endure (and with it another silly season of political ads), as well as the continuation of many of the issues detailed above.
Our pastor probably put it best when she preached the following in church yesterday –
As we enter into the fresh season of fall with its promises of new school years, new activities, cool mornings, and pumpkin spice everything, let’s do so with a fresh look at our words and how they match up with our actions.
1 – Alisa Carr v. Sewickley Heights Borough, Pa. Office of Open Records
2 – Fetterolf v. Borough of Sewickley Heights, Allegheny County Court Records
4 – The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. Hachette Books, Oct 8, 2003
5 – Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. Public domain.