Local Election Results Offer Suspense, Intrigue, Sewer Gas

Three weeks ago, my wife and I walked to the Community Room at the Leetsdale Municipal Building and read the tallies from the voting machines, which are posted on the door after the polls close.

Along with the results of the ballot voting, it’s always interesting to read the names that voters “wrote in” on their electronic ballot. I’m not sure that Mickey Mouse is qualified to serve as Tax Collector, however.

Write-in votes can become much more than just a humorous sidelight of the political process. Such is the case in more than a few communities in our local area this year – especially in Aleppo Township. When the Sewickley Herald posted the first election results online, I did a double-take when reading that 704 votes, or just over half of all votes cast, were write-in votes.

After verifying through the County Elections site that this wasn’t a misprint, I began digging around for information. What I found was evidence of a well-coordinated exercise in citizen involvement, spearheaded by what appears to be a grassroots organization and a third-party candidate with more than his share of legal expertise and media savvy.

The stated purpose of the Aleppo Good Government Group is “to ensure that the citizens of Aleppo Township are governed fairly, effectively, and efficiently. This will be accomplished by electing qualified individuals and establishing effective channels of communication with more citizen involvement”. 

The apparent point person for these efforts was on the ballot for commissioner under a political party of his own creation – “Restore Sanity”. Matthew Doebler, a trial attorney and resident of the Sewickley Heights Manor development, outlined his “formula for success” on his personal website:

1.  Control present implementation of infrastructure projects–including the prior sewer resolutions and road management–to make the best of suboptimal situations.

2.  Evaluate relationships with consultants, advisors, and managers.

3.  Approach new municipal decisions with a critical eye, clarity of thought, and common sense.

Mr. Doebler appears to have a hand in managing the website for the Manor’s Homes Association, as well as other websites related to personal, professional, and township-related efforts.

Should the Allegheny County Elections Board certify the write-in results, Mr. Doebler will be joined on the 5-member Aleppo Board by write-in candidates Anthony F. Lisanti and George Jones. Both men list significant experience in municipal engineering, water and wastewater management, and alternative technologies.

Mr. Doebler’s ability to leverage online resources to get the message out is impressive. Still, I did not see anything about the Aleppo campaign in Sewickley-area media. Aaron Aupperlee of the Tribune-Review wrote what appeared to be the first comprehensive story about the campaign and related issues in their November 7 edition.

The focal point of concern at the heart of the campaign is something that appears to have been equally under-reported on in recent months – the sewer interconnect project tying areas of Aleppo and Glen Osborne to the Sewickley wastewater treatment system.

Masonic Village is suing the township over sewer rates that the Trib reported in May “would increase from $72,000 a year to $423,000 a year, or about $101 per month for each resident. Other residents in the township, by comparison, would pay about $83 per month”.

When contacted last week, Mr. Doebler continued to emphasize discontent over the sewer project as the driving force behind the campaign:

“The biggest issue is the price, which is essentially a tax. Residents want the price to come down…The bigger issue is how we got to the point where residents are confronted with this huge new cost without knowing about it in advance”.

He also emphasized communication with citizens as a key to understanding and success in governance.

“We–as a township and as larger governmental units–must do a better job about getting information to voters in time for them to participate in the political process. Having public meetings isn’t good enough anymore. We must take advantage of 21st century communication techniques to get residents the information they’re entitled to”.

Mr. Doebler and his colleagues did, however, make use of “old fashioned” methods of community organizing – fliers, polls, and a town hall meeting – in assessing the sentiments and preferences of those residing in Sewickley Heights Manor and Masonic Village.

A large number of the residents surveyed identified the Herald as one of their primary information sources, something that was not lost on Mr. Doebler:

“It’s not realistic that they will send a reporter to every meeting. We can’t count on them to be our PR arm…But what we can do is work with them. Sending more regular press releases, working with their deadline schedule, and feeding them the information we’re posting online will all go a long way towards helping them help us reach our residents who still rely on a printed newspaper to get their information about the township”.

This focus on just two residential areas, along with the possibility of losing their jobs, has not set well with several incumbent Aleppo commissioners, some of whom represent long-term township residents from areas other than the above housing complexes. Commissioner Linda Vescio has been quoted as stating the election results, if certified, could serve to divide the township more. 

This is not the first controversy that the township has faced in recent years. In 2005, a federal lawsuit brought by one commissioner against the other 4 resulted in a large legal bill for the township, as well as a coordinated write-in campaign for commissioner in that year’s general election. This was conducted by the “Good Government Group of Aleppo”, which according to Mr. Doebler is not associated with the similarly-named group that spearheaded this year’s campaign.

Change, not elections or sewer lines, is what has divided Aleppo Township. The sewer project will result in many larger township properties being made available for development, which will result in more citizens, an increased property tax base, and could eventually result in Aleppo eclipsing Sewickley as the most populous municipality in the Quaker Valley School District.

These are but symptoms of a changing population dynamic that is resulting in a shift in the power structure. Long-term residents of Aleppo seem to be fearing the associated reduction in representation that these changes would likely bring about.

All of this may result in the need to re-evaluate the entire existence of Aleppo as a township. 53 years ago, the citizens of what was then Sewickley Township saw similar trends, and voted to become Bell Acres Borough. Closer to Aleppo is the borough of Sewickley Hills, created at about the same time.

Will the citizens of Aleppo eventually be confronted with the same decision in the future?

Similar decisions may also be looming for two other neighbors of Aleppo, each of which had no candidates on the ballot for several positions, something that is apparently the norm in tiny Glenfield and Haysville. Glen Osborne had only one council candidate for 4 available seats.

Is there really any reason for Glenfield and Haysville to maintain their existence as independent local governments? Perhaps becoming part of Aleppo, in whatever future form it assumes, will result in more efficient government and improved service provision for all concerned.

Best wishes to the new Aleppo Township government for improved communication and better working relationships, for the benefit of all its citizens.

Leetsdale

There will be two new additions to Leetsdale Borough council. Incumbent Osman Awad was the odd man out in a 5-way race for 4 available council seats. Thomas Belcastro and Michael Nobers will join incumbents Linda Michael and Wes James beginning new terms in January. Mr. Awad departs council along with incumbent Roger Nanni, who was defeated in the May Democratic primary.

The presence of a Borough Manager for Leetsdale remains an unfulfilled goal. According to council president Joseph McGurk, any decision on hiring is on hold until the new council is seated in January. However, council did pass an ordinance at their November 14 meeting formally (re)establishing the Manager position.

Councilmember-elect Belcastro has reportedly been a vocal opponent of the Manager position at recent council meetings, including one that the Herald reported on in October. Other residents have criticized the impartial, third-party selection process chosen by council – some suggesting that an “outsider” is somehow not suited to manage the borough.

Uh, haven’t we been down this road before? Where did it get us? It sounds to me as if an outside perspective could be a good thing.

Leetsdale council should remain steadfast, and stay the course to hire a borough manager whose employment qualifications, including degrees, certifications, and practical experience, best match those advertised by the borough in August.

These qualifications do not require a long-term familiarity with Leetsdale.

Once they hire that someone, council should also convey the requisite authority and support that the manager needs. It’s essential that he/she be able to meet their responsibilities to council, citizens, and other key stakeholders. These relationships are all important to maintaining the vitality and viability of Leetsdale as an attractive place to live and do business.

As I’ve written before, positions and processes (and professionalism) need to be more important than personalities and politics.

Quaker Valley School Board

Tuesday, December 3rd will see 3 new members of the School Board seated for service. With the election of Marianne Wagner over Robb Bunde in Region III, and the re-election of incumbent Sarah Stoessel Heres in Region II,  only one of the 4 candidates that ran as a coalition in May were eventually elected.

Ms. Wagner, who has prior service on the Board amounting to 3 terms, will be joined by new Region I representatives Jonathan Kuzma and Daniela Sauro Helkowski, who won both the Republican and Democratic primaries in May.

Mr. Kuzma and Ms. Helkowski garnered support from those aligned with the Concerned Taxpayers of Quaker Valley, whose primary focus continues to be the preservation of the Leetsdale neighborhood that abuts Quaker Valley High School, and other issues related to efforts to replace or seriously renovate the High School.

Ms. Wagner comes across as a fiscal conservative, dedicated to preserving the same high quality educational standards at QV, while stating that she will oppose any attempt to raise property taxes.

Another newcomer to the board is Region III representative Jeffrey Watters, who was selected in October to complete the term of Board President Jack Norris. Mr. Norris, remembered for threatening the “nuclear option” of eminent domain in the early stages of the Concerned Taxpayers debate, left the area in September after retiring.

A new School Board President will be selected at the December 3 reorganization meeting. Ms. Heres currently serves as Vice President.

Remembering the historical nature of the debate, I found a political advertisement in a 1970 edition of the Beaver County Times, which offered the following that applies to the present circumstances quite well:

“The Board has stated that Quaker Valley’s school facilities should ‘set an example for the nation’. WE SAY LET THIS EXAMPLE BE ONE OF EXERCISING FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY WHILE PROVIDING QUALITY EDUCATION TO THE STUDENTS IN FACILITIES WHICH ARE SOUND AND PROPERLY MAINTAINED.” 

It should go without saying that there will be some changes in the operational dynamic of the board. The real question is how well the new board will work together, considering the stated (and unstated) positions of the new arrivals.

Let’s be honest, because sometimes I’m not as good about this as I would like to be. Relationships, or the lack thereof, are how all of the governing bodies mentioned above will either succeed or fail in their responsibilities to citizens, students, and taxpayers.

At the end of a campaign, a heated meeting, or a debate on the issues, we should all be able to respect each other as human beings. Hopefully, those serving in the most fundamental positions of our system of government will remember that as transition time approaches.

Have a blessed and safe Thanksgiving holiday.

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