Post-Election Digest – Old, New, Absent, Through

Sign for three candidates for Leetsdale Borough Council posted prior to the May 16 Primary Election. While the candidates probably didn’t intend to mislead anyone, it should be noted that while Mr. Awad and Mr. Frederick have previously served on Council, Mr. Belcastro is the only incumbent among those listed, and as such is the only one here actually seeking “re-election”.

In the six weeks or so since last month’s primary election, what sticks with me as the most distressing result was how many citizens didn’t think it worth their time to participate. According to Allegheny County, only 17.3 % of the county’s registered voters bothered to involve themselves in the process.

Several questions pop into my head as I look at this number. Could this be due to apathy over the process of deciding who serves as elected officials in the most fundamental form of government we have? How about who authorizes the operations of our public schools? Better yet, the judges who decide criminal and civil cases, both big and small?

Could it be that the populace is still trying to recover from the angst of the last general election, and/or the fallout as President Trump continues to run roughshod over the institution of the presidency?

One factor could be that Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states that hold closed primaries, where you can’t necessarily vote for the candidate you want.

Regardless of the reasons, the primary, like this blog, is focused mainly on local government, something that many citizens seem to take for granted, and are often literally ignorant of.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some related issues.

Quaker Valley School Board

Perhaps the most interesting set of races this year was that to determine nominees for QV school board seats, owing to the serious decisions approaching about the future of the high school building.

I have not closely followed or attended any meetings concerning the planning and community input process for the new high school. Along with the district’s own attempts at communication and transparency, I have found an excellent source of information and commentary at the QV School Board Updates group on Facebook.

Individuals active on that group were among those seeking a ballot position in November, and were profiled by the Sewickley Herald in one of several comprehensive stories about the election that appeared in the weeks preceding it. In two of the three board regions, that meant challenging the incumbents.

No one succeeded in those challenges. It appears that Sarah Stoessel Heres from Region II, and Jonathan Kuzma and Daniela Sauro Helkowski of Region I, will retain their seats come November.

Poised to join them from Region III will be newcomer Kathryn “Kati” Doebler, who is also the wife of Aleppo Township Commissioner Matt Doebler. Incumbent board member Marianne Wagner did not seek re-election.

Ms. Doebler described herself to the Herald as “quite neutral” regarding the future of the high school building. She was one of two candidates that I spoke with before the election. Along with the high school issue, I asked her about the disparity in population among voting regions that I wrote about in February 2015, and again in April of that year. Ms. Doebler replied:

I actually hadn’t seen the population numbers broken up this way before, and I agree that it does not seem balanced. It certainly seems to make sense that it be reviewed periodically regardless of the census data, however, since this is always a good time to take stock and reevaluate. I am not the kind of person who never wants to change because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. So, if the data supports a change, then I’m open to it.

The other candidate I spoke with was Leetsdale resident Maria Napolitano. Ms. Napolitano took the time to not only comment on the voting regions issue, but also expanded greatly upon her previously published views about the high school. An excerpt is below:

I am a member of the planning committee for a new school, but I am not convinced that a brand new building is our optimal choice, nor that we, as a community, can afford it…The most responsible thing, in my view, is for the school district to continue the use and maintain the current site to serve the needs of the district. I have heard opinions that having a high school in town is a motivator for people to buy houses there, and helps house prices, and I agree with this. But should the district end up moving ahead with a new site and take all of its operations there, I would like to be very involved in making sure that the site is developed to serve the Leetsdale community, regardless of whether or not I am on the board.

I support either a redistricting that respects natural topography or a system that pegs the number of representatives from a region as proportionate to the number of residents who live there.

Ms. Napolitano came across as accessible, forthright, and articulate. She also appears to be focused not only on the needs of the school district, but the community at large as well. Despite her failure to win a spot on the November ballot, I look forward to her continued involvement in the process of governance and public service – my experience has shown me that you don’t always need a seat at the big table to make a difference.

Tull Property Rises to Prominence – Again

The QV Board, now set to continue its voyage into 2018 with its full crew of expected incumbents intact,  could now move toward the board’s stated intent to pursue a new high school. They took a big step on May 30.

When Thomas Tull stirred the tranquil waters of local property ownership with his 2015 purchase of the Walker estate “Muottas” and several parcels of surrounding land, it was unforeseen how the ripples from that action and subsequent moves could spread to the extent that they have today.

With the QV board’s entry into a conditional purchase agreement for the Tull property, it appears that a big step has been taken to locate a new high school as close to the existing site as could have been realistically envisioned.

According to a comprehensive slide presentation from the May 30 meeting, the board hired a firm to search for and identify compatible parcels of at least 40 acres within the school district boundaries. The advantages of the Tull property were spelled out – included in this was a price breakdown should the district purchase the entire 128 acres for $7.5 Million – a cost per acre of a little over $58,000.

The district has 120 days to enter the property and conduct a study of its suitability for a new high school. They can cancel the agreement without apparent penalty if they determine the land won’t work out. The Herald reported this past week that engineers are well under way with this process, which apparently includes shooing away the curious.

Should QV decide to continue with the purchase, they then have 210 days to obtain all necessary permits and permissions for their intended use – this means that the project will have to take shape in a manner sufficient for three local governments and other entities to approve land use and other permitting processes over the next 8-10 months.

It will be interesting to monitor this process, especially if the school district also acquires “Muottas” as part of any sale. Preservation issues will likely become part of any discussion concerning the future use of the house, and the land around it.

Just as with Thomas Tull’s aborted construction plans, infrastructure improvements to support a new high school may benefit some municipalities, such as new sewer infrastructure connecting the site to the Leetsdale Municipal Authority system.

This will hopefully help to take a little of the sting away from a lot of land coming off the tax rolls.

Leetsdale Council – Replace, Rinse, Repeat

As the sign at the top of this post illustrates, there were a lot of familiar names in the running for Leetsdale Borough Council. Incumbent councilors Thomas Belcastro (Democratic) and Wes James (Republican) were able to secure nominations from their respective voters for one of four total seats being contested in November.

The remaining ballot positions are currently held by three men already tied to council in some fashion.  Democrat Osman Awad is seeking to return to council after losing as an incumbent in 2013. Democrat Ben Frederick is also a former councilor seeking to be elected again. Tom Michael has yet to serve on council, but his wife Linda Michael is a current council member who is not running for re-election.

Incumbent Democrat Michael Nobers was not successful, but may not be completely out of the running, depending upon numerous write-in votes by Republican voters (which actually outnumbered votes for Wes James) that could give Mr. Nobers a position on the GOP side of the ballot. There is recent historical precedent for this activity impacting elections in the borough, owing to poor turnout and ill-advised attempts at humor.

In trying to gain an understanding of why our elected officials seem to originate from the same general group of citizens (including those who lose elections and return to run again), I must look at my own personal situation as much as other factors. I work shifts, and can’t make many evening meetings. My family obligations are significant. Thus, I can’t fault most of us who shy away from seeking elective office.

The seeming lack of fresh faces stepping forward to help govern Leetsdale may be as much a sign that things are going well as of anything else. The borough, despite the absence of a day-to-day authoritative presence in the form of a full-time manager, seems to be operating in an efficient, transparent, and accountable manner. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any problems, but they aren’t significant enough to declare that the ship of state is in distress.

Let’s hope that the return of some of the old guard to the fold doesn’t change that.

Non-Lawyers Swat Lawyer Opponents in District Judge Races

When our local Magisterial District Judge, Bob Ford, started his re-election campaign in earnest very early this year, I was mildly surprised. Judge Ford was unopposed for his election in 2011 – was there someone in the community mounting an unexpected challenge?

The answer was yes…but not just in our area. District Judge races were hotly contested in many areas across the county. Reporting by PublicSource and other media outlets highlighted many of the races that pitted lawyers against non-lawyers for this locally-based position in our justice system, for which a law degree is not a pre-requisite.

In all but two of the races, non-lawyer incumbents (including Judge Ford) or newcomers won both nominations, and are likely assured of their seat come November. Only one lawyer bested his non-lawyer opponent in the Sto-Rox area, and a non-lawyer Democrat will face a Republican lawyer in the fall – in heavily Democratic Wilkinsburg and Edgewood.

Judge Ford’s opponent, Lori Capone-Cirilano, also made being a lawyer an issue in her campaign. Lawyers also challenged two other non-lawyer incumbent justices  – William Wagner in McCandless and Jeffrey Herbst in Monroeville.

I’m wondering if there was a coordinated effort at some level to target these judges based simply on their lack of a law degree, while discounting critical intangibles such as practical experience, time in the community, and relationships with key stakeholder groups.

If so, those coordinating these challenges badly miscalculated the value of a long-standing, positive relationship with the community being served.

“Disincorporation” Proposal Ignores Cooperative Efforts

Last month a task force that included prominent educators, municipal and county officials, and consultants got together to promote the findings of a report touting the potential benefits of disincorporation for many of Allegheny County’s small and/or financially distressed municipalities.

An unsustainable jigsaw puzzle.

Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill shone some light on a Quaker Valley municipality while writing about this whole mess. His initial column featured an elected official in Glenfield Borough, population 205, and her motivation to run for council – to get a better playground for borough children.

Mr. O’Neill also stirred up a little tempest by continuing to feature Glenfield in his writing, this time on May 27 with a column about Glenfield’s Mayor, Michael Cherock, and his unique assessment of Glenfield’s government as akin to a certain fraternal organization, perhaps without the secret handshakes. Mr. Cherock owns a small, successful Pittsburgh architecture firm, and is apparently relocating his family to Sewickley. He seemed to be using the column to announce his intent to resign as Mayor.

This story was followed by a June 1 Letter to the Editor, in which Glenfield Council President David Orbison, himself a psychologist by trade, took Mayor Cherock to task for the manner in which he announced his future plans.

Mr. Orbison termed Glenfield’s current operating posture “nimble and productive”, which may be true. However, that doesn’t prevent the borough from being anachronistic and duplicative in the age of modern governance.

It’s been the contention of this corner since I returned to the area that the continued existence of 130 separate municipal entities is a grossly inefficient waste of taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, the process advocated by this “task force” places all its eggs in the basket of county government, through the creation of unincorporated areas.

This focus on disincorporation is essentially useless because it ignores the obvious compromise between this “solution” and the status quo – that is the common-sense consolidation of boroughs and townships, and/or the increased use of shared services organized through groups such as the Quaker Valley COG.  This would still allow for the local control of services, while allowing the leverage of economies of scale to optimize efficient service delivery to the taxpayer.

Perhaps it’s time for Glenfield, Haysville, and others in our area to consider their realistic future as independent municipalities.

Sewickley Native, QV Alumna Announces for Congress

While researching Glenfield’s elected officials, I was kind of surprised that there was another psychologist politician in our area besides my congressman, Tim Murphy. Tim and his neighbor in Republican politics in our area, Keith Rothfus, have drawn criticism and protests over their alleged lack of public accessibility and responsiveness to constituents since Donald Trump assumed the Presidency.

While several Democrats in the 18th District are mulling a run against Murphy in 2018, none have announced their intent as yet. In contrast, Sewickley resident Rothfus already has three Democrats lined up for the chance to take him on next year. Among these three is area native and Sewickley Heights resident Beth Tarasi.

Beth Tarasi and I both graduated from QV as part of the Class of 1978. While we didn’t really travel in the same circles, I remember her as an accomplished athlete and student. From high school she continued to move forward as a student athlete at Pitt, then through Duquesne’s law school, into motherhood, and becoming a successful attorney alongside her father.

Ms. Tarasi, along with fellow Democrats Aaron Anthony of Shaler and Tom Prigg of McCandless, possess varied and diverse backgrounds (Ms. Tarasi is the only lawyer of the three) that will hopefully produce both a spirited primary campaign and a candidate capable and prepared to unseat Mr. Rothfus a year from this coming November.

With the gerrymandering of Pennsylvania congressional districts that is now undergoing a court challenge, this will not be an easy task. Whomever is the Democratic nominee needs to carry forward a message that resonates with voters not only in northern Allegheny County, but from Somerset and Cambria Counties to Beaver County as well.

As for Tim Murphy, the Leetsdale 4th of July Committee confirmed that he was invited to walk in this year’s parade. Whether or not he shows up, well….

Have a great month ahead.

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