This Month in Personal History – The ‘Sewickley Malaise’

Sewickley Water Storage

Sewickley Water Authority storage tank and reservoir – present day.                                                                                                                                                                 Bing Maps

Forty years ago, the attention of the local, state, and national public health community turned toward Sewickley Borough and its municipal water supply.

If you lived, worked, played, or were otherwise hanging out in the general vicinity of Sewickley, PA in late August 1975, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, got really sick.

A joint statement by health officials published in the days following the outbreak gave estimates of 60% of residents becoming ill:

 “The prominent symptoms of this illness were prolonged abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting”.

That 60% translates to about 4,000 people at the time, and that was just residents. The statement acknowledged that the number likely didn’t include anyone who ingested Sewickley water, but didn’t live in the service area of the Sewickley Water Authority. An example cited was “a 23-man U.S. Coast Guard crew, 20 of whom drank Sewickley water and became ill“.

Those numbers also included myself. My family lived in Edgeworth at the time, but not in the part served by Sewickley Water. I spent enough time in “the village” and other places to be one day suddenly taken over by symptoms matching those described above – with a vengeance.

I am fortunate to say that aside from chicken pox at age 8, I cannot recall being that sick before or since. Over the course of the three-day average length of the illness, I lost 11 pounds.

Word Spread Like The Virus

This happened in the 1970’s, which in the eyes of a teenager was a time of dynamic change on many fronts. If you followed Mad Men on TV, you get the idea. The social media of the day was the local newspaper, with CB Radio running a popular but fairly distant second. I was a big fan of both.

The Herald of those days was the best source, if not the sole source, of information about newsworthy, commercial, and social goings-on in Sewickley and its neighboring communities. Editor Betty G.Y. Shields and her staff were involved in the community outside the paper as much as within its pages. “B.G.” Shields was a big part of the local effort to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial less than a year away, and lots of column inches were dedicated to publicizing that effort.

Also included in Herald reporting of the day was coverage of rampant vandalism, loitering juveniles, rumors of trouble at Bethlehem Steel in Leetsdale, and a crumbling, fragile Sewickley Bridge.

Thanks to the magnificent resource that is the Sewickley Herald Digital Archive, I was able to trace a timeline of reported events. This started and ended much like the virus that entered the Sewickley water supply – starting small, but quickly becoming prolific, intense, and short-lived.

The first mention of any trouble appeared in the August 27 edition, approximately two days after the Allegheny County Health Department was alerted by a local physician to 15 patients exhibiting similar symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.  The few paragraphs included that information, but were intended primarily to alert water customers of changes in color and taste due to increased chlorination at the requests of regulators. Then-Sewickley Water Superintendent Ernest Tucci’s skepticism of water as the cause was also reported.

As cases began to multiply exponentially, so did the media attention. As state resources (DER, now the DEP) and the federal Centers for Disease Control became involved in trying to pinpoint the cause, Pittsburgh media started to pay attention, and the Herald’s reporting and opinion became much more comprehensive and focused on what was at the time a mystery ailment without a definitive cause.

The September 3 edition reported at length on the investigation, including a description of the Command Post at the Sewickley Borough Building, manned by as many as 20 workers.

On the editorial page of the same issue, the focus seemed to be one of trying to calm what appeared to be a community ready to blame the water supply, and its overseers, before the investigation was even approaching the completion of information gathering. The term “Sewickley Malaise” appeared prominently on this page.

The tone of the editorial almost seemed to admonish a citizenry just getting over the trust issues brought about by Watergate (now that’s ironic) not to jump to conclusions:

It may be that the mystery is never solved. What then? Let’s not begin talking of coverup. It is a fact that the Sewickley Water Works has cooperated fully with all the authorities, granted interviews to all reporters and, we think, want more than any others to know the answers.

The Cause, and the Effects

By the following week, those conclusions had been reached, and water was determined to be the illness’ method of transmission. The statement issued by health officials called the three open reservoirs along Water Works Road “a weak link in the water system and the probable point of contamination“.

The Herald editorial for that week grabbed hold of the recommendation to cover those reservoirs, and implored the then-Sewickley Water Commission to move “with dispatch” to plan for the eventual covering of those reservoirs – an expensive proposition.

It was also discovered that a hole in the collector for the well that drew water from an aquifer underneath the Ohio River had allowed river water into the system pre-treatment. Repairs were effected, and health officials dismissed this as a potential source of the illness.

Fallout and continued scrutiny continued in the weeks afterward. The September 24 Herald included coverage of the Sewickley Council meeting, where a councilman was quoted as stating that “providing safe water was not council’s responsibility”  – a technically correct but nonetheless unfortunate assertion that earned him criticism in an October 1 Herald editorial. This editorial also leveled criticism at the Sewickley Water Commission for failing to communicate in any meaningful way with its users and fellow citizens about the outbreak, or their plans to better protect the community’s water supply.

That communication finally occurred in mid-October, with the Herald reporting on October 22 that a public meeting held by the Water Commission detailed the costs of repairs already made, and that the costs of future repairs and upgrades related to the recommendations of health officials would likely necessitate an increase in water rates.

It was also reported that the audience at that meeting amounted to a total of nine persons. Life went on, I guess…

The System Today

A comprehensive report and analysis of this major waterborne disease event was published in the November 1976 issue of the Journal of the American Water Works Association. While copyrighted, the article can be obtained through Sewickley Public Library’s reference desk, which is how I got to read it.

According to Mark Brooks, Sewickley Water’s Operations Supervisor, the system has changed significantly, and “there is a lot more coordination now“. Of the three reservoirs in use in 1975, only one remains – Number 4, which is fully covered. Adjacent to this reservoir is a 2 million gallon storage tank. A second collection well was also drilled into the aquifer that runs beneath the bed of the Ohio.

Mr. Brooks also stated that the amount of water stored at the reservoir site is less than it was forty years ago. The former reservoir Number 1 is presently being demolished to make way for a new, straightened section of Water Works Road, slated to open in December.

The amount of attention paid to critical infrastructure such as this has increased dramatically since 9/11/2001. Regardless of the size of the system, consistency in both operating practices and security procedures, as well as environmental regulation and enforcement, has become much more prevalent in most local utility systems.

As a result, the likelihood of another ‘malaise’ may be reduced, but the CDC reminds us in this 2012 article that vigilance is still, and will always be, of paramount importance to our nation’s health and quality of life. One need look no further than the impact on our region’s water systems by drilling activity to see the need for this to continue.

Have a great month ahead.

Posted in Government, Health, History, Local, Media | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Treehouse and the Meadow – A Tale of Independence

I hope that your Independence Day holiday was a good one.

Over the last couple of months, two conflicts between government and homeowners in the Quaker Valley area have illustrated some important facts about local government’s ability to relate to how individuals choose to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on their private property.

Also pertinent to the discussion is the manner in which information is communicated by both social and mass media, and how government and others respond to the attention generated by that reporting.

214 Kenney Dr

The Truchan treehouse, located along Kenney Drive in the Quaker Heights section of Leet Township.

Truchan Treehouse Tribulations

According to the May 14 Sewickley Herald, when Elise Truchan wanted to build a treehouse in front of her Quaker Heights home for her 8th grade project, she and her family researched applicable ordinances via the somewhat informative Leet Township website.

Unfortunately, the resources available on that site were incomplete, as the Truchans were issued a Notice of Violation in March for having a non-conforming “accessory structure” on the property. The initial Herald report stated that “after (the Truchans) were first notified they were in violation of zoning rules in March the family says they reached an agreement to keep the treehouse in the family’s front yard until Oct. 1″.

This was apparently until the story gained traction in the local, national, and global mass media machine. Quoting the June 4 Herald:

Building inspector Joseph Luff notified the family last week that they needed a variance from the zoning hearing board, or the treehouse would have to come down within five days.

The notice…came after the Truchan’s story…was featured on “Fox and Friends” on Fox News; KDKA-TV; The Daily Mail in England; and numerous other publications.

Over the past month, many other media outlets and news sites have re-posted the Truchans’ story. A petition on has garnered nearly 100 signatures.

Additional original reporting approached the story in different ways. The Post-Gazette focused on the reasons behind why municipal ordinances governing land use exist, and must be applied in ways that sometimes seem to strain against common sense.

After being unable to secure any specific comment from township officials, the P-G reporter sought out Richard Hadley, Director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities:

Mr. Hadley said while ordinances can become cumbersome and overburdening in many ways, they provide community structure and protect residents and businesses from property uses that are incompatible with neighboring property.

If the township officials give the Truchan family a pass, Mr. Hadley said it opens the door for others to argue, “Why them and not me?”

“That’s the reason municipalities are very strict about enforcing their ordinances. Waivers can extend to things getting out of control,” he said.

This leads us to the story filed by Rachel Martin for the Pennsylvania Independent.

Ms. Martin’s reporting has a more anti-regulatory tone to it, while including some more entertaining tidbits that other news outlets may have passed on. For example:

In their variance application, the Truchans argue the rule about structures in front yards “should be read in the spirit of which it was written.”

Just because a building inspector might be able to technically shoehorn a given situation into the letter of the law doesn’t mean that’s a reasonable way to apply a law.

Ms. Martin also reported that while township officials were helpful with accessing zoning ordinance information that is apparently not posted online, they refused to discuss the treehouse situation specifically. This refusal to comment was echoed by nearly all of the media reports that I reviewed.

My own experience with Leet officials was a pleasant one. I recently inquired of them if Quaker Heights, a subdivision roughly as old as I am, had a homeowners association, or if any properties had restrictive covenants in place. Assistant Manager Betsy Renkers replied promptly that there was neither a HOA or covenants, and that the township would investigate any complaints received from residents.

They have recently taken this a step further, announcing in their summer newsletter that they have assigned an existing township employee the additional duties of Code Enforcement Officer, and established a complaint process that emphasizes the anonymity of those making complaints, as provided for by state open records law.

This includes the unknown ‘neighbor’ who reportedly started the whole treehouse mess by complaining about it.

521 Hill St

The walkway up to the Oswald residence, along Hill Street in Sewickley Borough.

Mr. Oswald and his Grassy Knoll

By contrast, the lengthy dispute between Sewickley Borough and Hill Street resident Larry Oswald has featured calm, comprehensive discourse from both sides, featured prominently in the local media.

Mr. Oswald comes across as an intelligent, articulate, and resolute citizen with definite ideas on how he wants to use his property. Before and since he was cited by the borough last September for the condition of his yard, Mr. Oswald has calmly stated his case for the continued existence of his meadow – in person to Council, in a letter to the Herald on June 18, and by retaining counsel from a local environmental law firm.

Mr. Oswald’s appeal to Common Pleas Court has included, according, to Council meeting minutes, “an environmental expert from the University of Pittsburgh, a professor from the Department of Biological Services, who indicated that almost none of the vegetation on Mr. Oswald’s property should be considered a weed, and that this type of vegetation provides a strong ecological benefit“. Further review of those minutes has also shown that Sewickley Council has adjourned into executive session on more than one occasion to discuss the case involving Mr. Oswald.

In what could be a response to Mr. Oswald’s challenge, Council has acted quickly to draft and enact a new ordinance governing the legal height and condition of grass, plants, and vegetation in the borough. Council members and Borough Manager Kevin Flannery have been quoted extensively regarding the need for “uniformity“, and for property owners to meet “expectations that we value each other’s property…to enhance our property so the community is enhanced“.

Mr. Oswald’s appeal was continued to a hearing held on June 23. According to his attorney, Megan Lovett, both parties were advised that a decision would be rendered to them by mail, something that was atypical in her experience for a summary appeal of this type.

As of this writing a decision has not been received by Ms. Lovett, who declined to speculate on her client’s chances to win the case, or whether the arguments presented may have influenced Council to ‘fast track’ the new ordinance.

Observations and Conclusions 

Should Miss Truchan and Mr. Oswald be successful in their appeals, what is the long-term plan for their respective projects? Will Elise continue to use and maintain her sanctuary as it (and she) grows older? What will become of Larry’s meadow, along with the rest of his ample abode, when he is no longer physically able to tend to it?

If Mr. Oswald is forced to de-foliate in the name of ‘uniformity’, perhaps he would be willing to exchange the desire to offset pollution and create oxygen, for reducing his own carbon footprint and increasing energy self-sufficiency, along with perhaps that of his neighbors.

Mr. Oswald’s property sits on a hill with excellent exposure to the south and west, ideal for capturing a good portion of whatever daily sunshine our area receives. Cut down not only the meadow, but the big trees along the street as well, and install a healthy, robust array of solar panels.

Sewickley Council moved hastily to establish new rules for grass and plants, possibly in response to Mr. Oswald’s push-back, and received some negative comments from other citizens in response. Let’s hope that the end product of this haste doesn’t become the law of unintended consequences.

Sewickley officials do deserve to be commended for the open, forthright manner in which they communicated their thoughts about the Oswald situation with the media and other citizens.

On the other hand, the actions of some Leet Township officials in not only refusing to discuss the Truchan treehouse, but appearing to actively dodge contact attempts from the media and others, create concerns about transparency and accountability.

Leet’s reported actions in first agreeing to allow the treehouse until October, then switching gears with an order to immediately dismantle it unless the Truchans went through an expensive variance process, smacks of an approach that is inconsistent at best, arbitrary, capricious and possibly vindictive at worst.

That being said, governance in these areas is not easy, especially in an environment where citizen perception of what constitutes an appropriate use of private property is changing, and transparency and accountability in municipal operations is being sought on a greater level by taxpayers.

The Internet has been leveraged by numerous area municipalities as a resource for citizens, but there are varying degrees of service provision. For example, Sewickley and Leetsdale provide complete, searchable online access to their ordinances. Leet Township does not.

Municipalities need to be willing to revisit their ordinances on a periodic basis. What should be a common sense, balanced approach to maintaining community character, while respecting individual property rights, can be lost in misguided attempts to control as much as possible about a citizen’s use of their property.

Mr. Oswald, despite his well-intentioned zeal for ecology over the rarefied aesthetics of his community as dictated by his elected officials, may have nonetheless gone a little bit overboard here.

But who can argue with a kid’s treehouse, so long as it is well maintained?

Best wishes to everyone for equal measures of freedom and understanding.

Enjoy your independence.

Credits – Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

Posted in Civil Liberties, Community, Government, History, Local, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

WTAE Looks At Western PA Fire Service, Finds Inconvenient Truths

Pittsburgh TV station WTAE focused their May ratings sweeps efforts on calling attention to the challenges facing the area’s volunteer fire departments. Action News investigative reporter Paul Van Osdol presented several reports in late April and throughout last month, focusing on several issues:

A 3-part report detailed the differences in response time between those agencies that have paid personnel standing by in station versus those that don’t, and the reasons affecting those disparities. If the words “apples” and “oranges” popped into your head after reading that, you’re not alone.

Additional reports highlighted other touchy subjects, such as fire response politics and the voluntary firefighter training standards in place here, compared to a mandatory certification process in other states such as West Virginia.

The reports on response time generated a considerable amount of feedback. A fire chief in Monaca published a thoughtful, articulate response on his department’s website, and was featured in a follow-up report, along with a story that featured those viewer comments that met broadcast standards for decency.

I say that because there was also a fair share of backlash – a Facebook page urging a boycott of the station garnered numerous “likes”. Comments posted to the station’s social media pages ran the gamut from earnest support for the firefighters to expletives deleted.

WTAE also responded to the viewer feedback in the form of an Editorial, which seemed to be an attempt to soften the impact of their own reporting. Station management also called for hearings at the state level to effect changes at the local level –  changes that, judging from the responses by those with either a stake in the status quo or just opposed to any sort of change, will likely continue to run into roadblocks in the morass that makes up the manner in which we Pennsylvanians choose to be governed.

This series of reports approached its conclusion with an interview of State Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committee. Sen. Vulakovich emphasized, among other things, the need for many of the state’s 2,300 fire departments to merge. Fire Engineering published a story last year detailing the issues and challenges involved in optimizing service to Pennsylvania citizens through consolidation of existing independent departments. Several local fire officials were interviewed.

Throughout the series, Mr. Van Osdol featured interview footage with one of Sen. Vulakovich’s former colleagues – Tim Solobay – who was appointed by Governor Wolf to serve as State Fire Commissioner.

Mr. Solobay, who also serves as a fire line officer in Canonsburg, became available by virtue of his being defeated for re-election to the Senate last November. His appointment has not been without its share of controversy. Governor Wolf was the target of much criticism from media and fire service alike for failing to re-appoint the previous commissioner, Ed Mann, who had served several administrations over the previous 14 years. The bulk of the criticism is aimed at the perceived political motivations behind Mr. Solobay’s appointment.

Commissioner Solobay gave what I thought were largely disappointing answers to most of the questions put to him by Mr. Van Osdol, at one point stating, “I’ve only been in for three months. Give me a chance to work on it“. In all fairness to Mr. Solobay, perhaps former Commissioner Mann could have been approached to give a more comprehensive accounting of what he accomplished in these areas during his tenure.

This series of reports is certainly not the first time that the mainstream media has turned their attention to these issues. The Post-Gazette reported on the issue of staffing and consolidation in 2012, the year after elected officials in O’Hara Township and Edgeworth took direct action with regard to the provision of fire services.

There have also been several controversies with regard to fire departments and their municipal overseers during this calendar year –

  • In January, a house fire in McKees Rocks near their border with Stowe Township brought complaints from area residents who stated that the firehouse in neighboring Stowe is physically closer, but was not initially requested to respond.
  • It seems that the firefighters for the two independent fire departments in largely rural Fawn Township can’t seem to agree on much of anything. Township commissioners are slated to vote on an ordinance that basically attempts to force these departments to work together, under threat of fine or imprisonment.
  • In 1999, three of the five volunteer fire departments in North Versailles Township consolidated their operations. The resulting F.D.N.V. allegedly prefers to work with departments in neighboring municipalities, rather than the remaining two departments within the township.                                                                                       The township is one of the few that provides financial support through a fire tax, which the township commissioners are withholding from F.D.N.V. unless the department adheres to township policy, which requires all township fire departments to work together.                                                                                                                                         The Tribune-Review elected to weigh in on this dispute. In a May 28 editorial, they alluded to the almost Solomonic challenges involved:

It is a correct decision. Is it the right decision?  The answer is more complicated.

The editorial reached a conclusion that seems to resonate with anyone having a             genuine interest in serving the public:

A solution must be reached before this mix of politics and stupidity has deadly results.

I was largely impressed by most of WTAE’s reporting, but in the weeks following their last report I haven’t seen any follow-up, and have grown skeptical as to their resolve in continuing to report on these issues, especially in the wake of the negative comments they encountered.

Unfortunately, the station will likely look toward the next ratings book to measure their success, instead of taking a greater measure from serving the public interest, which is how they qualify for their license to use the public airwaves.

It will also be interesting to see how these disputes are eventually resolved – will the sanctions imposed soften the hardened stance of those bent upon maintaining operating postures that are increasingly unsustainable in this age of reduced staffing and increased response expectations?  Or will the municipalities, faced with an intractable challenge to their oversight responsibility and liability exposure, opt for the examples set by others and impose a “death penalty”?

The answer is not only more complicated – it is critical to creating traction to bring about improvements in the way that critical emergency services are delivered in our region. Our local media has a responsibility to the public to assure that traction is maintained, through continued diligent reporting on not only the failures, but on the successes as well. Our local governments have an obligation to encourage, if not insist upon, reasonably transparent operations by all service providers.

Regardless of tradition, interpersonal conflict, or financial constraint, the expectation that competent, adequately staffed resources will be available to respond at all times to requests for emergency assistance continues to resonate among citizens and the lawmakers that represent them. As citizenry become more focused on government operations, those who continue to shirk responsibility or misplace priorities will find their positions increasingly untenable.

To their credit, many area fire departments embrace minimum standards for training and other benchmarks, and actively practice established incident management techniques, which include utilizing resources based upon objective criteria, such as geographic proximity and/or resource typing. Some are actively pursuing partnerships that transcend tradition, infighting, and the archaic imaginary lines that too often impede the progress toward more efficient governance in Pennsylvania.

Our volunteer firefighters deserve our support and appreciation for their efforts. Those communities that provide that support reap the benefits from responsive departments with members that deliver an intangible, invaluable return on that investment.

In those communities that are struggling to maintain the identity of a bygone age, perhaps it is time for a wholesale re-evaluation of how that community functions, especially with regard to adjacent communities and their respective response organizations.

In either scenario, may common sense and common decency prevail, for the benefit of all.

Posted in Government, Local, Media, Politics, Public Safety | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Critical Mass on Ohio River Boulevard

EDG site with property labels

The proposed McDonald’s site in Edgeworth, with property boundaries shown. An already approved drive-thru Starbucks location, on property owned by Esmark, is also illustrated.                                                                                                                                            Google Maps / John Linko

As a daily commuter along Route 65 (AKA Ohio River Boulevard), I am often challenged by driving habits seemingly influenced by haste, carelessness, inattentiveness, and/or ignorance.  In fairness, I must admit that some of these habits are my own as well. I also wrote about this subject almost exactly one year ago. Perhaps it’s a springtime thing.

Despite recent improvements to the roadway in several places, these and other challenges continue to manifest themselves. They often include the existence of tiny side streets, driveways, and entry points in and out of numerous business establishments and other institutions.

Remarkably, there are still areas along the Boulevard in Allegheny County that are legally viable targets to be developed into commercial properties. Some of these properties are in Edgeworth, just across its border with Sewickley.

As the above graphic illustrates, the area in front of the newer Esmark Center has reportedly been approved for a drive-thru Starbucks Coffee location. Immediately north of that, a development application was submitted to Edgeworth Borough to build a full service McDonald’s restaurant in what is now an overflow parking area for the adjacent Edgeworth Square medical office building.

Anyone reading the Sewickley Herald over the last few weeks is likely familiar with the reaction of some area citizens to this proposal. From front page coverage to a half-page ad taken out by “concerned residents” on April 16, there appears to be a coordinated effort to oppose the development, citing issues related to traffic and safety from both vehicular and pedestrian vantage points. An online petition is also out there.

While these opponents are likely celebrating last Wednesday’s announcement that McDonald’s has withdrawn their application, the issues will likely remain so long as there is a desire to develop the property – unless steps are also taken to alleviate those factors contributing to the traffic overload.

I looked at these types of issues almost two years ago with University Boulevard in Moon Township. In all fairness, the folks in Moon are still worse off – that roadway still has no center turn lane, there is no apparent effort to coordinate traffic flow between neighboring businesses, and the possibility of massive new development threatens to create even more traffic and safety challenges. One change is forthcoming – there is a left turn lane planned from this roadway into the main entrance of Robert Morris University.

A first look at the current situation in Edgeworth would seem to support the notion that traffic flow through this campus of businesses is well-coordinated, via the intersection at Hazel Lane and several entrances south of that. The lone exception is Burger King, which is isolated by curbing and landscaping from the remainder of the campus.

EDG site curb cuts with flow

Example traffic flow pattern for the area in question. Access points to/from the highway, AKA curb cuts, are numbered.                                                                                             Google Maps / John Linko

There are several factors related to traffic loading, capacity, and history that complicate this proposal beyond what could be considered reasonable.

Hazel Lane – Beyond Capacity

EDG Hazel Lane impact master

The traffic signal at Hazel Lane handles vehicular and pedestrian traffic for Eat N Park and all businesses south, as well as residential areas and Sewickley Academy.               Google Maps / John Linko

The focal point of access to this commercial area is the signaled intersection of Ohio River Boulevard and Hazel Lane. Edgeworth Borough, through its various regulatory boards and agencies, sent the development application back for tweaking at least twice, over parking and traffic management issues.

Critical to the viability of any additional development is the ability of this intersection to handle traffic flow not only in and out of the area in question, but also the Eat N Park restaurant and the Edgeworth Village strip shopping center. Many motorists, especially senior citizens, appear to be uncomfortable entering or exiting the complex without the apparent safety of a traffic signal.

EDG Hazel backup 2

Traffic waiting at the Hazel Lane traffic signal. Additional vehicles can back up into the Edgeworth Village lot, blocking access to vehicles attempting to enter from and/or across Route 65. Edgeworth Borough’s traffic engineer recommended three lanes, one 13 feet wide, to handle traffic here.

Edgeworth resident Michael Tomana is one of the area citizens spearheading the effort to oppose the McDonald’s development. His concerns about traffic resonate even in the absence of any immediate additional development:

The obvious two issues are the traffic coming from Eat n Park, Edgeworth Village lot blocking Hazel Lane exit and the fact that traffic turning into Hazel from 65 can be blocked even now by congestion in the Hazel Lane exit from the medical building and Edgeworth Village lot. This can leave a car turning as a sitting duck to 65 traffic because it can’t get in. I have witnessed accidents there myself.
Pedestrians crossing 65 from Edgeworth will be at risk – the lure for kids at the new Academy field to run across 65 can’t be ignored.

Mr. Tomana’s point about Sewickley Academy is well taken, especially with a new events center going up – a facility that may host larger scale events, and draw larger numbers of pedestrians to whatever establishment(s) may be available across the Boulevard in the future.

Sheetz N Strabane

The Sheetz store at the intersection of Washington Rd (US Route 19) and Weavertown Rd, North Strabane Township, Washington County.  Any purported resemblance to Route 65 in Edgeworth appears to be purely coincidental.                                                                                                                                        Google Maps

Mr. Tomana also expressed concern about the traffic study that the developer had submitted, which used a Sheetz store in Washington County (see photo above) as a comparable example of traffic patterns. He stated that residents “are asking for an independent traffic study to address issues left out by the McDonald’s study”. 

It’s also likely that PennDOT will get involved in any study comprehensive enough to evaluate all aspects of traffic through this intersection.

Being Neighborly

Recent reports about the disgruntled nature of the current relationship between McDonald’s Corporation and its franchisees, or the corporation’s reported plan to close “hundreds” of restaurants as part of a business recovery strategy, may or may not have played a role in the decision not to pursue a store in Edgeworth.

Whether or not the developers or property owners acceded to the position taken by many residents, and/or were discouraged by the response of government thus far to their proposal, is hard to know.

One thing that’s not hard to know are some of the players in the development process. In this instance, the owners of the property that would have become McDonald’s.

According to Allegheny County property records, the owner of this property is listed as Edgeworth Real Estate Associates, LP. The Pennsylvania Secretary of State lists this business as partnered with Edgeworth Advisors, Inc. This record also lists the President of Edgeworth Advisors as Geoffrey H. Wilcox.

Mr. Wilcox, along with W. Grant Scott and Michael D. Felix, are listed as the officers of Edgeworth Management, Inc., which is partnered with Edgeworth Development Associates, LP. Edgeworth Development is listed as the owner of the Edgeworth Square medical office building. Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Felix are also physicians – they operate Hope Bariatrics at this location.

If I might speculate a little – I’m sure that these doctors want to remain on good terms with the Edgeworth community. Perhaps with an agreed-upon plan to improve traffic movement and safety for the entire corridor and surrounding neighborhoods, their parcel will attract a different kind of establishment, perhaps one geared toward the healthier lifestyle that their practice and profession espouses. Maybe Noodles and Company, or something like it.

The Past Shapes the Future  

This area of the Boulevard is not without its share of tragedy. There was no center turn lane in November 1971, when four local youths were killed as the station wagon they were riding in was rear-ended while waiting to turn left into Burger King.

In September 1976, a friend of mine was hit by a motorcycle while trying to cross the Boulevard just north of the Hazel Lane intersection, which had no traffic signal at that time. He died a month later. Petitions to PennDOT to approve Edgeworth’s request for a signal at Hazel Lane were circulated among local residents, as well as students and faculty at Sewickley Academy.

These and other incidents likely shaped the current configuration of Ohio River Boulevard in this area. The development of what was once vacant commercial and industrial land, into the busy office complexes in existence today, requires a re-evaluation of traffic loading and movement in this area, before additional demands on traffic infrastructure are made.

Due diligence on the part of all concerned is an important part of this process. From the looks of it, residents and other stakeholders are in it for as long as it takes to assure that commercial, residential, and educational purposes can safely coexist with what continues to be a significant surface roadway through our region.

Best wishes to them.

Acknowledgments: Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

Posted in Business, Government, Growth, History, Local, Traffic | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Adventures in Gerrymandering, QV Style

March is typically a very busy month for me and mine – two birthdays and a wedding anniversary all converge within 15 days during that month. Combine this with watching our granddaughter and the usual challenges of working in a 24/7 environment, and the time seems to go too fast.

This doesn’t stop me from researching and formulating ideas, of which there are many that will make their way to this page..eventually.

As a follow-up to my post from February, I thought I would try my hand at adjusting the composition of the Quaker Valley School District’s three voting regions, so that the population per region got as close to equal as possible, using the same 2010 Census data.

While doing that, I attempted contact with board members and other stakeholders to try to elicit some opinion or perspective about what appears on paper to be a disparity in representation, and whether or not this disparity may be evaluated in the future.

These stakeholders included Dr. Shelby Stewman of Carnegie-Mellon University, to whom I e-mailed questions about his scope of work for the analysis that QV commissioned from him. Dr. Stewman did not respond to my e-mail inquiry – not that I expected him to, but it was worth a try.

I also elected to try again to re-contact QV board members via e-mail, despite not hearing from any of them on my first attempt through QV Communications Director Angela Yingling. This time, I tried only to reach those board members in Region I, who represent where I live. Surprisingly, all three replied within three days.

Board members Gianni Floro, Daniela Helkowski, and Jon Kuzma all agreed that the disparity was an issue worthy of additional discussion once Dr. Stewman’s analysis was received and reviewed, but also agreed that the current system continues to serve the district well. Ms. Helkowski went as far to state “at this time I feel that the discrepancy is not significant enough to merit realignment“.

QVSD Region Graphic 0215

Current Quaker Valley School District voting regions and population data.


Considering that Region I is currently the most balanced in terms of proportional representation, I can perhaps understand their perspective. I have to wonder out loud if the board members representing Region III would feel the same way, and perhaps I should have polled them for an opinion as well.

Instead, I thought I would tweak the above map, and see what a hypothetical balance of population for each region would look like.  This brought out some of the subtleties of demography that worm their way into all manner of political subdivisions – most notoriously in the form of gerrymandering.

QVSD Region Graphic 0215 ReApp 1Let’s just move the colored pieces around like a child’s slide puzzle –  Edgeworth to Region I, Bell Acres to Region III. Sewickley Heights gets to join lonesome Sewickley in Region II, which puts it right at 1/3 of the total population, with the other two regions less than a percentage point away. Easy, right?

Well, not so fast, some will say. Do all regions have a school facility in them? Well, yes. Are the regions geographically contiguous? Yes to that as well. What other factors, such as median age or income, would impact the decision-making here?

I’ve nary a clue – that’s for the Ph.D at CMU. Woo-hoo.

There is one curious historical tidbit that I found, however, in a history of Sewickley Heights Borough on the Library’s website:

In the 1960s, a notable success story in preserving the rural character of Sewickley Heights was the creation of a 130 acre park, formerly part of the Lewis Park estate. This land, slated to be the site of a new public school, was purchased by residents at the turn of the last century to be set aside for park use in perpetuity.

So there is a history of resistance to development of land in the Heights for anything approaching a school facility. Kind of makes me chuckle to think that my contemporaries in high school that hung out at “Tortilla Flats” may have been standing on land that could have been the high school if not for some resolute grownups.

QVSD Region Graphic 0215 ReApp 2

Here’s an example of a slightly more haphazard attempt at achieving population balance. The numbers approach parity like the first example, but Region III does not have a school building in it, and Region I is not contiguous.

Does this stuff really matter? Sure it does, especially if you’re a taxpayer seeking effective representation. This is something that QV taxpayers have a history of – witness this example of opposition to school development in Bell Acres in the 1970’s.

To be honest with both you and myself, I approached this little project with my mind made up about something.  Sewickley Borough should not be entitled to 1/3 of the seats on the QV board, or be allowed to stand alone as its own region, unless it has the population to justify it.

As it happens, this is an election year for 5 of the 9 board seats. Incumbents Floro, Riker, Pusateri, and Watters have all successfully cross-filed on both major party tickets for re-election in May’s primary, as has a newcomer, Marna Karcher Blackmer of Edgeworth, to replace the outgoing Mark Rodgers in Region III. So there will likely be just one new face on the board when it reorganizes after the November general election.

I’m looking forward to see how the current and future Quaker Valley school boards will receive and apply their impending compendium of demographic derring-do, for the benefit of students and taxpayers alike. I’m sure a lot of my fellow taxpayers will be doing the same. The board’s next work session is scheduled for this coming Tuesday, April 14.

Talk to you soon.

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Quaker Valley’s OTHER Population Crisis

QVSD Region Graphic 0215

Obligatory Fancy Population Graphic

Earlier this month, Quaker Valley School District’s new Communications Director, Angela Yingling, put out an e-mail newsletter detailing a population imbalance in the district’s two elementary schools:

Due to a change in demographics across the region and parent or district student reassignments, Edgeworth Elementary School has about 100 more students than Osborne Elementary School. According to (Superintendent) Dr. (Heidi) Ondek and principals Dr. Susan Gentile and Dr. Barbara Mellett, the disparity in numbers has created an imbalance in opportunities for students. All three agree that it is imperative to discuss both a short-term and long-term solution.

The Sewickley Herald provided Page One coverage of this issue in its February 19 edition. The story included multiple, elaborate graphics in the online edition that served to both illustrate and break down the nature of the enrollment gap.

The Herald also reported on February 5 that the school district had hired Dr. Shelby Stewman of Carnegie-Mellon University to analyze demographic trends within the district. At least one board member was quoted in the story as expecting greater clarity in how to plan enrollment and building projects with the data received from Dr. Stewman’s study.

This immediately brought to mind another population disparity within the district, one that I first covered in a post from May 2013. In this overview prior to that year’s primary election, I outlined what appeared to be an imbalance in the population of the school district’s 3 voting regions.

As the above graphic illustrates, three board members are elected from each region, including Region II, which consists of just Sewickley Borough. As of the 2010 Census, this region comprises only 27.5 percent of the total district population. Compare this to Region III, which consists of seven municipalities and accounts for 42.1 percent of the population – 2,000 more people than Region II – but is still represented by only three board members.

These voting regions have remained the same since at least 1981, when I mounted a losing effort for a party nomination for Region I school director in that year’s primary.

Aleppo Township, second only to Sewickley in population within the school district, is seeing the potential for additional future residential development, with the recent extension of sewer service from Sewickley’s sewer system to several township areas.

Should Dr. Stewman’s study predict even more growth for Region III – which arguably contains more land area that could be developed than Sewickley does – is the board prepared to address voting region boundaries, in order to achieve a greater balance of representation among the district’s populated areas?

I posed this question to Ms. Yingling in an e-mail earlier this month. She replied on February 18, stating she would forward my questions to board members. To date, I have yet to receive a reply from any board member. For those interested, board member e-mail addresses are available here.

I’m hopeful that the board will see the issue of voting regions as something worth at least a careful evaluation, especially with fresh demographic data expected in a few months. There are recent, local examples of citizens forcing the issue when representation does not adjust for population.

Have a good week and month ahead.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Local, Politics, Public Safety, Schools | Tagged | Leave a comment

This Week in Personal History – The Marwood Apartments Fire

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Front Page of the Beaver County Times, February 8, 1985. Credit: Google News Archive

A little over 30 years ago, my career as a dispatcher was in its infancy. I was volunteering as a dispatcher with an EMS agency in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, while working full-time at an area hotel. I was living in an apartment on the third floor of a house in Sewickley, with the woman who I would marry later on that decade.

The hotel job ended abruptly. With the help of a fellow volunteer who worked full-time as a paramedic in Beaver County, I managed to secure a part-time job dispatching EMS at Beaver County’s dispatch center, which was then located in the basement of the former P&LE railroad station in Beaver. I was an employee of what is still today the county’s largest EMS provider.

The EMS dispatcher worked with the two dispatchers – that’s right, two – who answered calls and dispatched police and fire units for most of the county.  This was before 9-1-1, computer aided dispatch, and cell phones – and those engaged in the practice could be extremely busy at times.

Such became the case the evening of February 7, 1985, when just before 9:00 PM reports came in of a fire in an apartment building in Ambridge. The Marwood Apartments were created inside what was formerly a United Dairy facility at the southwest corner of 9th Street and Melrose Avenue. Beaver County property records showed that the building had been owned by a local painting contractor since 1983.

According to the initial reporting from the February 8 Beaver County Times:

The building had been remodeled into a 30-room apartment house…Apartments occupied the first two floors and paint supplies filled the basement, adding another level of concern to the firemen’s worries.

My recollection of the evening from a dispatch standpoint was one of ordered chaos of the kind that I had yet to experience. Several ambulances were requested and sent. The urgency of the fire radio traffic kept increasing in the minutes after arrival – reports of rescues being made, and of residents, predominantly elderly, trapped inside. Firefighters yelling for more water, more personnel, more apparatus.

The last hour and a half of my shift felt strangely longer than that – as the fire was slowly brought to some semblance of control, as best as one could determine from radio traffic that ran the gamut between painfully chaotic and painfully silent, the searches began for those residents unaccounted for. Requests for the Coroner to respond were received. A temporary morgue was set up at a nearby funeral home.

And then it was time to go home.

On the way back to Sewickley, I decided to stop by the scene. Parking well down Merchant Street, I walked toward the intersection with 9th Street and was amazed by what was going on. Temperatures in the teens had caused much of the immense amount of water sprayed at and around the Marwood building to freeze on the surrounding structures, as well as telephone poles, wires, and the street itself.

As I walked closer, the result of this was a decided drop in temperature around the fire building – as if a gigantic walk-in freezer had been created in the middle of a city block.

In the days that followed, additional reporting detailed the progress of the investigation, the lives of the four elderly victims of the fire, and community efforts to render assistance to those left homeless in its wake. Media also reported that Ambridge’s Assistant Fire Chief dismissed as false the allegation that there were painting supplies in the basement.

The Marwood fire occurred during a significant period in the history of fire protection in Ambridge. Over the previous year, several members of borough council had advocated for the elimination of the full-time paid positions within the fire department (which were supplemented with volunteer personnel) in favor of an all-volunteer force. Council had voted to authorize a referendum on the question as part of the May 1985 primary election.

Five weeks after the Marwood incident, fire severely damaged the Larstone Corrugated Carton Company on 11th Street, causing damage to the adjacent Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Another fire at the same plant on April 3 caused additional significant damage.

Residents not only overwhelmingly voted to keep the paid fire department, but also denied Democratic nominations to the four council incumbents who favored its elimination.

Reached via e-mail last week, current Ambridge Fire Chief David Drewnowski expressed surprise that 30 years had passed since this tumultuous period in his department’s history. Chief Drewnowski also stated he was a volunteer at the time of the Marwood fire, and was hired as a full-time firefighter in August 1985, after the department received its vote of confidence from the Ambridge electorate.

Marwood Site 2014

The Marwood Apartments site today, now serving as a storage lot for a nearby auto dealership. Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko

The site of the fatal Marwood fire was sold less than a year after the blaze, to the owner of a nearby automobile dealership. Vehicles are now stored on the lot. The former box factory site is also now a parking lot, for the much larger campus of what is now known as Trinity School for Ministry.

Many people I know who were integral parts of that night in February are still around, filling significant roles within the Beaver County public safety community. As for that fellow volunteer who helped get me that job? He passed away in 2004, one of several I knew who made a distinct imprint on their families and the communities around them, before departing way too soon.

I often think about this and other experiences that shaped both my career path and my approach to the profession, and the people I have known along the way. All of these have provided a rich and rewarding professional experience that I wouldn’t trade for any additional measure of what some call success.

That being said, there is never a bad time to show those who put up with all of this, and love you anyway, how you feel about them. Many in the emergency services might agree with the sentiment that circumstance and commitment has too often got in the way.

With that in mind, have a great Valentine’s weekend.

Posted in History, Local, Media, Personal, Politics, Public Safety | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

‘Forgotten Sewickley’ Revisited

Herald Linko 112383

Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

Happy New Year, plus one month.

It’s been almost 3 months since I last wrote here. The holidays and weeks since were eventful ones, filled with stress, joy, and associated craziness. Challenges were endured, loved ones from afar were welcomed and seen, and new life continues to be celebrated and nurtured.

Over the last couple of months I have been exploring one of the most interesting developments on the local scene in some time, and what was a great Christmas gift for history buffs – the new digital archive of the Sewickley Herald.

This archive comprises just about every issue of the Herald (there are a few gaps) from its inception in September, 1903 to well into 2012. It is essentially comprised of the existing microfilm archive of the Sewickley Public Library, with the powerful additions of being searchable by keyword and/or date, and accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection.

For me, the experience of perusing the archive with the precision of a search engine has been both exhilarating and sobering. I found pictures and articles related to all manner of life achievements and events, including the picture above, which accompanied an article about my short sports announcing career in the mid-1980’s. I was even able to locate a photo of Leslie’s father, part of a successful 1938 Sewickley High School football team, on Page One of a Herald edition from that same year.

Along the same lines I found several items that gave me pause – crime reports, legal notices, and the death of at least one friend.

I also started writing opinion as a teenager, and found several examples of letters to the Herald editor that I had penned – all of them passionate, some very cringe-worthy.

Respect the Run

There are recent events that have definitive ties to previous Herald reporting, and with them some personal recollections. One example is the recent issues regarding the Village Theater Company project, and a troublesome stream that runs underneath its proposed site.

In late November 2014 the Herald reported on an alteration in the Theater site plan in response to the location of Hoey’s Run, and the need to perform maintenance on the culvert carrying the stream under the area. Another report in mid-December stated that the repairs had been completed, with the Theater projected slated to get off the ground in the spring.

On June 30, 1974, my mother’s shoe store had been open for about 4 months, in a since-demolished 2-story house directly across Walnut Street from what is now the Theater site. My mother got a call at home that Sunday evening that there was flooding in the Village, impacting businesses along Walnut as well as Beaver Street.

The Herald account in its July 3, 1974 edition did justice to what we saw when we got to the business district:

Beaver Street was a nightmare of gushing water and mud. One police source estimated the mud depth at 3 inches. But whatever the depth, there was sidewalk to sidewalk mud. Spectators sloshed through it. Firemen worked until 1 a.m. hosing and scrapping (sic) it into gutters.  Store owners and employees moved merchandise to counter tops as they mopped mud from floors and entrances.

There was a good deal of mud in the basement of my mother’s business, but what sticks with me was seeing Blackburn Road transformed into a raging torrent of water.

While the 1974 flood was the result of a rare storm event, the recent actions taken by Sewickley Borough show much-deserved respect for the stream, perhaps with the memory of its previous destructive potential well in mind.

The ‘Forgotten’ Neighborhood

The Herald archive shows that the Dickson Road area of Sewickley – which also includes Farren, Miller, Harkness, and Cook Streets, along with the 800 and 900 blocks of Nevin Avenue – has had its share of controversy in recent decades.

In 1983, several residents of the neighborhood became vocal about the conditions there, and formed the Committee for a Forgotten Sewickley (CFS). The group circulated petitions for action to improve the quality of roadways and other municipal services. The petition read in part:

It is a shame that a village known for its beauty and friendliness should have the heritage of shameful neglect exemplified in the condition of Dickson Road and Farren Street.

This was reported as part of a comprehensive story in the Post-Gazette‘s North edition of November 10, 1983, along with several pictures and interviews with residents. The story also reported allegations by the residents that the neglect had a racial component, as the area had a greater concentration of African-American residents, along with claims that borough personnel were dumping trash illegally in the area – accusations that the borough denied.

The story also noted that the 1980 census counted 16 percent of Sewickley residents as being African-American. According to the 2010 census, that number stands at 7.3 percent.

The Herald picked up on this shortly afterward, reporting in its November 16, 1983 issue (Page 3) on a lively meeting between borough officials and CFS members, which included the presentation of a list of demands. Then-Manager Martin McDaniel (who today manages Edgeworth Borough) was quoted as stating Dickson Road “needs a complete rebuilding“, adding that after studies and estimates “it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A September 19, 1984 Herald editorial (Page 6) extolled the cooperative efforts of CFS, Sewickley council, and community volunteers to improve the appearance of the area. Then-Herald Editor Mike May followed up in the October 17, 1984 edition with an extensive overview (Page 2) of CFS’ accomplishments, along with their continued concerns over neighborhood conditions. For example:

Pointing to a pile of dirt at the Mae West curve on Dickson Road, (CFS member) Betty Vescio noted, “That used to be a spring”. She traced the rill’s former route down the side of a hill to Nevin Avenue. “One day the borough just came up here and filled it in”, she added.

But that meant the water had to go somewhere else. CFS contends it seeps into the hillsides, where it eventually destroys the foundations of the homes.

By 1990, conditions in the neighborhood had again deteriorated to the point that the Herald reported on a resident’s complaints to council in its March 14 edition (Page 2). A subsequent editorial on April 4, 1990 (Page 19) lamented these conditions, and mentioned the efforts of CFS in the 1980’s as an ideal that both the borough and residents could strive for in the future. Unfortunately, there was little if any information available on what happened to CFS.

Fast Forward…to the Past

Dickson Herald 111912

Dickson Road at Miller Street in Sewickley, first published Nov.29, 2012, showing deterioration of the roadway.    Credit: Sewickley Herald – Kristina Serafini

According to Herald reports in both 1984 and in November 2012, a good portion of this neighborhood is on an unstable hillside, with conditions such that Sewickley Borough Manager Kevin Flannery was quoted that Dickson Road is ‘”past the point where we can provide repairs” and the hillside supporting the roadway and Farren and Miller streets is in jeopardy of falling’.

Mr. Flannery went on:

“There’s going to be a point where we’re going to have to vacate the road,” Flannery said. “It might take two or three years (to vacate).” “There’s no way to make any permanent improvements,” he said. “We’d never go up there and pave it.”

Flannery said he worries what could happen if the hillside gives in. “My bigger concern would be that, if the hillside were to move, it would slide down into the homes on Nevin (Avenue),” he said.

The following month, Sewickley Patch reported that, at a meeting of neighborhood residents on December 18, 2012, Mr. Flannery and representatives of two engineering firms introduced an alternative to an unaffordable (upwards of $15 Million) road reconstruction:

…The best, most cost-effective option will be to construct retaining walls to stabilize two trouble spots– the horseshoe bend on Dickson Road at Miller Street and a sliding section of Miller Street further up where the street has sunken down a bit.

Flannery said the goal is to construct the two retaining walls in 2014. In the meantime, he said the plan in 2013 will be to monitor water flow to see where the water is coming from and potentially reroute the flow. Officials will also monitor for movement in the hillside on a monthly basis.

Flannery…reassured residents they wouldn’t have to move and that the borough would work to keep the road open.

These two reports appear to reflect contrasting viewpoints from the borough on the viability of the roadway and hillside. On one hand, they are saying that the roadway, and by default the neighborhood, may have to be abandoned. This is followed by plans to stabilize the hillside, and assurances from the borough that something will be done to shore up the roadway.

A recent visit to the area seemed to indicate that the condition of the roadway, like the hillside that supports it, is still in a state of slow decline.


Dickson Road at Miller Street, taken January 18, 2015, showing additional erosion of the road surface.


Miller Street above the curve intersection with Dickson Road, taken January 18, 2015, showing the sinking of the roadway.

E-mail and voice mail messages left for Mr. Flannery, requesting a status of the retaining wall project, as well as additional information on the monthly monitoring of the hillside, have not been returned.

Haste Makes Waste?


The former location of 883 Dickson Road.      Credit: KDKA

In early November 2014, local media outlets reported on the demolition by the borough of a house along Dickson Road, without prior notice to the property owner. This story drew above-average media attention from across the region, ranging from from the Post-Gazette to KDKA-TV.

The borough quickly took responsibility for the error, and per media accounts suspended the demolition of vacant properties pending an internal review. Manager Kevin Flannery was straightforward in his explanation and assessment of the borough’s handling of the processes involved:

”When someone on the team hits a home run, the team hits a home run. When someone on the team strikes out, the entire team strikes out. This is one time the entire team struck out.”

Mr. Flannery deserves credit for honesty and candor in communicating the borough’s error. This was not a strikeout, however – this was a routine pop fly, lost in the sun, with the winning run on third.

What Does the Future Hold?

‘Forgotten Sewickley’ has, from time to time, been on the minds of many over the last 30 years. The problems related to the stability of the hillside, and the houses and roads that sit upon it, relate to forces largely beyond the control of government. These are primarily the laws of gravity and geology, but also seem to be mixed with the decidedly human forces of economics and law, especially where it relates to service provision, real estate marketing, and private property rights.

The mixed messages sent by the borough – in one forum speaking as if the area will eventually be sacrificed to geological forces it cannot afford to mitigate, while in another trying to assure residents that they will keep the area viable for future habitation – makes me wonder about exactly what is being planned for this area.

Hopefully something can be done before a catastrophic, but not entirely unexpected event occurs – similar to a much larger event in 2006 where someone tried to put up a Wal-Mart.

Have a great month (and year) ahead.

Posted in History, Local, Media, Personal | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Ralph D’Andrea – Silent Key

I need to pay homage to an important person from my days in Colorado, whose untimely death has left a void on a lot of fronts, most notably in media and political criticism, but also technical expertise in many areas.

I received some sad news on Tuesday afternoon with the announcement that Ralph D’Andrea had passed away suddenly last Friday. Ralph’s obituary summarized him well:

Ralph had a brilliant mind and a loving heart, desiring the best for his community and country and always willing to help those in need. A talented guitarist, he played in local bands in both Montclair, NJ and Grand Junction. Scientist, astronomer, ham radio operator, educator, computer whiz, musician, animal advocate, grandpa, family man and seeker of justice, he seemed to excel in anything that interested him.

Ralph was already trailblazing as the author of the Junction Daily Blog when I first started writing in 2006. His critical voice was often powerful, sometimes over-the-top, but always intelligent and reasoned.

Ralph was savvy enough to host his own blog instead of using a hosting service such as Blogger or WordPress, but a server crash deprived us of much of his best early writing. Some still survives, however, in places like The Huffington Post.

In recent years he moved his blog to Facebook, and maintained a Twitter feed for shorter outbursts. His apparent final post, in the late morning hours of the day he died, has an unfortunately autobiographical tone in the wake of his passing.

Ralph’s posts about fracking, which were written from the standpoint of both his career as a geological professional and his avocation as a pollster and political analyst, helped me to form solid opinions about the practice that have served me well since returning to Pennsylvania.

Ralph and I met once, in 2008 at a media workshop hosted by what is now Colorado Mesa University. He and I were often critical of the manner that the Grand Junction media reported on things..or didn’t. The media, for their part, did their best to remain civil while agreeing to disagree.

When the Daily Sentinel website went behind a subscription paywall in 2010, Ralph was adamant at the time in his refusal to subscribe, but in recent years made online story comments that are reserved for subscribers only. Perhaps there was a softening there.

The Sentinel, which has changed its paywall model to allow registered users view 12 free articles per month, published an editorial yesterday paying homage to the loss of Ralph’s “robust voice”. I was unable to read the bulk of it, however, because I exceeded my free articles for October and the paper’s servers have apparently failed to figure out it is November. I get the feeling Ralph would somehow appreciate the irony of that.

During our time as bloggers in the same area, Ralph and I both had to deal with loss; for me my first wife, for him his adult daughter. We quietly exchanged cards expressing condolences, and seemed to deal with much of our grief privately.

As a ham radio operator,  Ralph often fleshed out the DX, or distant contacts, aspect of the hobby. He often wrote about the annual field days, when contests were held to make the most contacts, often with emphasis on distance. It is a part of amateur radio that I have never explored, and I enjoyed reading about it from his perspective. Now that Ralph’s key has gone silent, I hope that his writing and enthusiasm inspires other radio hobbyists in the GJ area.

I owe Ralph credit for facilitating one of my most memorable moments while living in Grand Junction. Whenever some type of celestial body or other astronomical event was going to be visible in the local area, Ralph would post about it.

It was after one of those posts that I found myself laying face up at the clear night sky from the playground in Hawthorne Park, on the phone with Leslie while the International Space Station flew silently overhead, with a Space Shuttle following close by.

A memorial service is being held this afternoon in Grand Junction to celebrate Ralph’s life. Blessings, prayers, and condolences to Ralph’s family and friends.

May the stars shine that much more knowing that his spirit is among them.




Posted in Grand Junction, Media, Personal, Politics, Radio Hobby | 1 Comment

QV Reboots Search For ‘Crucial’ Positions

On October 9, the Quaker Valley School District re-advertised the position of School Resource Police Officer (SRO) online and elsewhere. This past August, I wrote about their efforts to find someone with the experience and temperament necessary to properly serve the diverse needs and complex situations present in the school environment.

After that post, I received an email from a candidate for the position who stated that he was “surprised” that no one had been hired from the initial group of applicants. He provided additional details about the extensive nature of the process:

There were approx. 50 applicants that applied. All applicants went through online testing, and the pool upon completion of this process was narrowed to approximately seven who had a first interview on or around June 23.  At least three had a 2nd interview on July 30.

The final three…met with three boards (A teacher / administration board, a police chief board, and a student board).  There was also a written response to a hypothetical situation.

I made additional inquiries at that time to QV’s Communications Director, Tina Vojtko, who put me in touch with the new Assistant Superintendent, Andrew Surloff.

Contacted at the beginning of October, Mr. Surloff initially stated that the process was still in place, with applicants evaluated in the spring still being considered. I then shared with him what I had been told about the process, along with some concerns about the seemingly inordinate length of time that had transpired to get the new officer on board. Mr. Surloff’s reply was frank and comprehensive:

Seemingly, such a process would not seem to necessitate so much time.  However, one delay was the significant changes to our administrative team.  Those hires were critical and took precedence over the SRO search process.  That said, we’ve been through several rounds and processes and have yet to be successful in reaching consensus on a finalist.  We need to ensure that your faculty, administration, students, local law enforcement agencies, and school board all feel as though we’ve been able to find the person to best serve in this role.  To date, we have not been able to finalize that.

Mr. Surloff also stated that a couple of finalists were not successful in the “final round” of the process. Considering the process up to this point, I have to wonder what that final round might consist of. Walking across hot coals? Or worse, a role-play scenario with a screaming parent?

Mr. Surloff concluded his remarks by stating, “We are committed to getting the right person to serve our schools and keep them safe“.  Considering the bureaucratic calisthenics that have been going on so far, I believe him. Whomever is eventually hired will have been vetted and evaluated with vigor and diligence rivaling a Cabinet position.

A review of the job listings today shows the position no longer advertised. Mr. Surloff stated in an e-mail that “We plan to screen the next group this week or next“. If the previous process is any indication, could it be well into next year before the new officer is on board?

Let’s hope it’s worth the time and effort.

That review of the district’s job listings also revealed a position whose vacancy was somewhat unexpected – the Director of Communications. An attempt to reach Tina Vojtko via her district email was replied automatically with “Please note that I have accepted a position with the Moon Area School District“.

Sure enough, Ms. Vojtko was on the job last Thursday when the [Allegheny Times reported] on the Moon district’s response to a harassing Twitter account. Ms. Vojtko’s work life will be a lively one over there, considering the district’s dispute with the Moon Transportation Authority and the beginnings of merger discussions with the neighboring Cornell School District.

In terms of the day-to-day operations at Quaker Valley, both of these positions share the same “crucial” label that has been previously applied to the Officer position. The Resource Officer is the district’s tangible face of safety and preparedness, while the Communicator is the one who assures that the district’s message is articulated, and its reputation properly managed.

Considering the amount of time being spent on securing consensus from different stakeholder groups within the district about potential candidates, as a citizen with relevant experience I feel that I am justified in weighing in with a few thoughts about both of these jobs:

  • Transparency – In my roles as a public safety professional and as a parent, I have personally witnessed multiple attempts to convey information to police and others about potential emergency situations in schools in such a way as to prevent students, parents, and especially the media from finding out about them.                                                                                                                                                                            Communication is not aided or embellished when affronts to transparency, accountability, and citizen awareness exist because of the operating philosophies of school district administrations. It is made even more difficult when public safety and other government stakeholders are complicit in those efforts to keep the daily, seemingly ‘routine’ problems quiet and hidden.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 That being said, I must recognize the willingness of QV Assistant Superintendent Andrew Surloff in communicating that nature and status of their process. His candor and accessibility is much appreciated.
  • Coordination – Communication is nearly always identified as a key improvement issue in the planning or functional exercise of safety or emergency plans, or when reviewing actual incidents in an attempt to improve response.

      Once a School Resource Officer is on board at Quaker Valley, he/she needs to directly           interface with area law enforcement and other public safety responders as a matter of           routine response to everyday incidents. This includes those who function as the first             level of coordination and information management – the dispatch center.

      Doing an ‘end around’ the dispatcher reinforces practices and attitudes that will                     not serve anyone well when the real emergency arrives.

      In 2013, Quaker Valley licensed several radio frequencies to aid in their own resource           coordination, and may be in the process of building their system out. Included with this       build-out may be equipment to assist local police and fire agencies with                                   communication inside school buildings.

      This will hopefully reinforce the concept of interoperability and unified command with       all involved stakeholders, and thus bring to life what is too often lost in a dust-covered         binder until needed in haste.

Best wishes to Mr. Surloff and his staff for a smooth and successful recruitment process.

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