Loose Ends For a Better Year, Part 3 – Nothing New Under the Sun

All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

 – Ecclesiastes 1:8-11 (NIV)

Happy June.

My wife has a tremendous gift for distilling things down to lowest terms. As I’ve written previously, she’s in the process of trying to clean house, which is a really good idea. She’s got a full plate and then some.

In discussing the turbulence brought about by the ongoing pandemic, changes at home and at work, and the general political and social climate, she referenced the above scripture.

She really didn’t need to say much more than that, and it made all the more sense to get these miscellaneous items “up and out” – if they will stay that way.

Council Changes Course on COG, Code Enforcement

The makeup of Sewickley Council changed a little in 2020, with the departure of Hendrik Van der Vaart last August and the appointment of Ed Green to the Ward 2 seat.

Council’s position on certain changes made in borough operations over the last few years shifted dramatically as well. Most noteworthy of these was the decision in January to rejoin the Quaker Valley Council of Governments (QVCOG).

According to the meeting minutes and the meeting audio, several councilors made note of the advantages of QVCOG membership over any perceived disadvantages. Most vocal was councilor Thomas Rostek, who stated he was “baffled” by the borough’s absence from the COG. Councilor Cynthia Mullins cited specific advantages with the borough’s Act 537 (Sewer Facilities) Plan update to send sewage to Leetsdale for treatment, and an upcoming renewal of the refuse and recycling contract at the end of this year.

Both councilors also cited “general interest in our neighbors” and “cooperation with sister communities” as other positive benefits of COG membership. Council voted 7-2 to rejoin the COG, with annual membership dues at $3600. Jeff Neff and Larry Rice were the lone dissenters. 

As I stated when I wrote about Sewickley’s departure from the COG in 2018 –

The business of local government appears to be more complex and challenging than ever before. While prudence in the management of resources is a positive long-term strategy, the same can’t be said of stepping away from opportunities for collaboration to assure that citizens being represented can share in a common good – irrespective of those pesky imaginary lines that we divide ourselves with.

It’s good to see a majority of Sewickley Council see past whatever disagreements may exist regarding the COG and its operations, and also see the value of working cooperatively on issues that will require our fragmented municipal governments to behave more like a single entity to properly resolve.

As for the QVCOG itself, their operations are in transition on multiple fronts, with the announcement of a new Executive Director with local experience, and the decision by the COG board in February to relocate their headquarters to the Kilbuck Township municipal building. This building also houses the local office of Building Inspection Underwriters (BIU), which provides contract code enforcement and building inspection services to many of the COG’s 15 member municipalities

Sewickley is also in the process of a Code Enforcement change, after advertising for a full-time Code Enforcement  / Zoning Officer in January of this year. Borough Manager Marla Marcinko stated at that time via e-mail –

The Borough has determined that it would be in the best interests of the community to have these functions provided by an in-house staff person. We are hopeful that, if we can find the right candidate, we will be more responsive and may actually realize a cost savings for the provision of these services. 

Since April 2019, the borough has contracted with Harshman CE for the provision of these services, and per Ms. Marcinko will continue to do so at least until a suitable candidate is found. The position remains posted on the borough website as of this writing. Reached in May via email, Ms. Marcinko stated “we interviewed two candidates and did not have unanimous support on the recommended candidate“. 

Harshman’s tagline on their website is “Keep it simple – Do it right – Get it done“, but their relationship with both citizens and borough administration has not been without its bumps –

  • As previously detailed, giving the green light on the construction of a garage in a historic district without the required referral to the Historic Review Commission.
  • Elected and appointed officials have both expressed concern over difficulties in communication between Harshman and borough personnel. One example was detailed in the minutes of the August 2020 meeting of the Sewickley Planning Commission. Councilor and commission member Christine Allen detailed her concerns regarding a driveway project – yes, another one – in the steep slope area of Hill Street. Included in the discussion was Harshman Code Technician and Zoning Officer Randy McCray.

Click to Enlarge.

This project, and the 601 Hill Street driveway before it, were significant factors in a proposed revision to driveway construction standards. More about this below.

 

Steep Slope Saga Slides Into Standards Stalemate

Late last year, Minas LLC sold its last two holdings in the Hill Street and Hopkins Street “steep slope” area of Sewickley. It would appear that Minas principal Stan Southern’s stated intentions to sell the remaining properties and “close up shop” have been met.

Responding via e-mail, Barbara Cox recently stated that she has yet to meet her new neighbors at 601 Hill, but that their gravel and runoff water continue to make regular visits to her property. She also described as “terrible” the process of developing the driveway at 607 Hill.

To its credit, the Planning Commission began to investigate how to develop standards for driveway construction that would (hopefully) restrain those who would engage in future misadventures such as these. Then-commissioner Ed Green researched existing standards for driveway slope, owing to no such animal being resident in borough code.

At the Commission’s July 1, 2020 meeting, he presented PennDOT Publication 13M, Section 7, which establishes a standard for driveways along state-owned rights-of-way.

        Graphic from PennDOT driveway standards publication.                  Click to Enlarge.

Per the minutes, Mr. McCray stated that “he spoke with Mr. Harshman about the PA DOT standards. The only concern was that they may be overly onerous to administer“.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to add language to the Zoning Ordinance to require new driveway construction meet the PennDOT standard. Council approval was then required to formally add this to the ordinance.

The minutes of Council’s December 8, 2020 meeting reported the following-

Click to Enlarge.

Contacted last month, Christine Allen confirmed that Council appears to be holding off, citing the complexity of the rules and their applicability to all areas of the borough. She stated –

Crescent Avenue, March 2021.

Council lacks the will to adopt driveway standards, despite strong arguments in favor of doing this, which were made by multiple members, including me.

Regardless of the complexity of any standard and/or perceived difficulties in enforcing it, some type of regulation needs to be imposed, at the least in the natural resource protection overlay as defined by the zoning ordinance.

This overlay, created by the borough in an apparent attempt to manage activities that threaten hillside stability and associated life and property, would seem tailor-made for requirements of this type.

This is not the only area of the “steep slope district” that is experiencing problems, as the photo to the right illustrates.

More about this later.

 

Dundee Farm Dispute Winds Down….NOT.

When I last reported on the court battle between Scott and Theresa Fetterolf and Sewickley Heights Borough over the alleged commercial use of Dundee Farm in violation of zoning regulations, Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph James had ordered the parties to attempt to reach a consent agreement by early September 2019. For those unfamiliar with the length and breadth of this dispute, I also reported on it here, here, and here.

When that agreement didn’t happen, Judge James scheduled hearings in December 2019 and March 2020 to hear oral arguments and review evidence. In May 2020, he issued a ruling that divided the disputed activities at Dundee Farm into three separate categories – those that occurred between August and December 2017, those related to agricultural uses, and those related to a “School, Special, or Studio” use. From the judge’s ruling –                        

In June 2020, both the borough and the Fetterolfs appealed Judge James’ decision to Commonwealth Court. On March 1 of this year the Court returned a ruling which reversed the Common Pleas ruling regarding activities in 2017, and affirmed the ruling regarding the “School, Special, or Studio” activities. The Fetterolfs then applied for re-argument of this decision, which Commonweath Court denied on April 23.

Borough Manager Nathan Briggs, contacted via email on May 19, issued the following statement –

The Borough is pleased with the Commonwealth Court’s decision in support of local zoning.

The only option that remains now is to request an appeal before the Pa. Supreme Court.  In order to do this, the Fetterolfs must file a Petition for Allowance of Appeal on or before Monday, May 24, 2021.

The next step is to move forward with positive actions in the Borough.

Perhaps those positive actions may include the Fetterolfs recognizing their responsibilities under the rule of law, utilizing the processes established under that law, and cooperating with both the borough and their neighbors in using their property in a manner complementary to those responsibilities.

Nah…..the Fetterolfs filed that petition with the Pa. Supremes on the last day that they could. 

Unfortunately, it appears that this saga has a little longer to go.

 

Sewickley Gets a Piece of Cherock

A noteworthy story in September of last year was the sale of the former headquarters of Explore Sewickley to AE Works, an architecture and engineering firm founded and headed by Sewickley resident Michael Cherock. The company is currently in the process of transforming the building into its headquarters, and has begun the process with the borough to add a third floor.

Along with making a positive impression with Sewickley officials by relocating the company from Pittsburgh’s North Side, Mr. Cherock has also shown a willingness to contribute further, by applying for and being appointed to the Sewickley Planning Commission, replacing Ed Green, who was appointed to Council.

The company’s body of work is impressive – from a restoration of the lobby of the Edgeworth Club to a conceptual project for a new hockey arena at the RMU complex on Neville Island. This concept may remain just that, if last month’s unfortunate news out of “Bobby U” holds up.

It’s also worth noting that Mr. Cherock moved his family to Sewickley from Glenfield in 2017, after serving a lively 1 1/2 years as Mayor there. In a Post-Gazette column by Brian O’Neill from back then, Mr. Cherock stated that Glenfield Borough Council was “run more like a Moose Lodge than a governing body“. The column also profiled him as someone who is forthright, direct, and loathe to compromise.

With the manner in which Sewickley has conducted some of its operations in recent years, I wonder what obscure fraternal organization Mr. Cherock might compare it to.

This may be especially interesting in light of a recent letter to the Herald by Sewickley resident Jeffrey Rhoads, which essentially accused the Planning Commission Chairman, also a local architect, of a conflict of interest.

Sewickley Borough actually has a Conflict of Interest Policy that was enacted in 2012, but it only applies to Council members and certain “key employees“.

Mr. Rhoads’ letter also lamented the lack of any apparent code of ethics for some borough officials, and cited a snippet of what is in place in Monroeville as an example. The Pa. Public Official and Employee Ethics Act  also addresses the conduct of certain elected, appointed, and public officials, but it is unclear as to whether that extends to members of boards and commissions.

That’s about as far as I’m going to go with that…for now.

In any event, my best wishes to Mr. Cherock and his company.

 

Edgeworth Taco Bell – Mucho Ruido y Pocas Nueces

The “new” Taco Bell in Edgeworth, as seen from Hazel Lane. The entrance to the parking lot from Hazel has been closed off.

It started with a proposal to construct a McDonald’s in mid-2015.  It then morphed into a questionable plan to put a Chipotle restaurant in the space about six months later. Then adjacent property owners got into a tiff with the developer, which resulted in some legislative legerdemain a few months after that.

Fast-forward to 2019, and now the developer wants to put a Taco Bell in the space. After much deliberation at the Planning Commission and Council levels, in September 2019 Edgeworth Council approved the planned Taco Bell development, which included a drive-thru. Among the conditions set by Council included the closing off of the parking lot access from Hazel Lane, as well as other considerations regarding signage and traffic flow. 

After construction delays related to stormwater drainage and the pandemic, the new restaurant, pictured above, made its debut around November of last year. The building is fairly small, and is tucked in at the southernmost end of the lot. The drive-thru lane is right up against the property line for Starbucks. In looking at the finished product, I’m not sure exactly how many parking spaces were lost to the building, but it couldn’t have been that many.

Curb cuts onto Route 65, 2015.

One improvement is the change in traffic patterns as a result of traffic for the restaurant being forced to access it from either Route 65 or the access road to the Esmark building. The congestion at the Hazel Lane light to exit the area seems to have lessened.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help with the over-abundance of curb cuts off of 65 into and out of the commercial area. Safety in this area hasn’t really been enhanced at all.

One week last month, the usual Tuesday bundle of coupons in the mail included some for the “new Taco Bell in the neighborhood”. The offers, like the building itself, seemed anemic. I’ve been there once, and left unimpressed. Unlike other Taco Bell outlets, this one doesn’t even offer breakfast.

What was the point?

 

Leetsdale – Build a Bridge, Get Over It

The pandemic year was one of change and adjustment for many local governments, and Leetsdale was no different. In early 2020 I was involved in a Right to Know Law appeal regarding several draft meeting minutes that the borough would not release due to their not yet being approved by Council.

Pennsylvania open records law maintains that draft minutes become accessible public records after the next regularly scheduled meeting of the entity involved. The borough, through its solicitor Megan Turnbull, released the minutes requested a week after the appeal was filed.

This incident felt more bureaucratic than any deliberate attempt to withhold records. The minutes of a meeting represent the historical record of a governing body. A backlog of minutes in draft form just isn’t acceptable, and the law reflects that. Since then, the situation has improved considerably.

Over the last year, those minutes reflected several issues regarding the conduct of the borough’s business –

The January reorganization meeting included vocal objections over the seating of duly elected councilor Roger Nanni, who had previously served on Council from 1998 to 2013. He was defeated in the primary election that year after violations of the Pa. Ethics Act involving the employment of a family member. In apparent anticipation of these objections, Mr. Nanni was sworn in before the actual meeting.

At the regular meeting three days later, Mr. Nanni wasted no time in bringing to Council’s attention what might be best described as an 800-pound gorilla, hiding in plain sight, perhaps for good reason –

Portion of Leetsdale Council meeting minutes, January 9, 2020

This meeting also included discussion by Ms. Turnbull regarding a resolution to revise guidelines for citizen comments, which would have imposed a maximum 2-minute comment period. After accusations from at least one citizen of an attempt at censorship, Council voted to table any further action on the proposal.

In February, several citizens made comments regarding allegations of misconduct against an unnamed Council member that had resulted in a confidential financial settlement with a former borough employee. Several citizens demanded the resignation of the member involved. Mr. Nanni made a motion to reorganize Council that, while the minutes state “MOTION CARRIES”, also indicates a roll call vote showing a 4-3 vote against the motion. No further action was noted, so it appears that the motion did NOT carry.

COVID created both opportunities and challenges for the use of online platforms for government meetings. Leetsdale appeared to struggle more than others with this. Restrictions were placed on virtual attendance, with Council requiring both registration and submission of comments in advance.

I did both for the April meeting, but along with at least one other citizen did not receive the promised access code to attend remotely. My comments at that time focused primarily on how these practices may or may not fall within established guidance from the Pa. Office of Open Records (OOR), and regulation in the form of the Pa. Sunshine Act.

I also made comments for the May meeting, which was conducted under the same conditions. Along with concerns about the borough’s compliance with regulatory advice disseminated by the OOR, I expressed concern with the borough’s ability to conduct online meetings similar to standards achieved by neighboring municipalities.

I also made the following statement about the allegations that no one would, or apparently could, speak about –

While it is understood that legal agreements may preclude the disclosure of specific details, the Borough nonetheless needs to be more transparent regarding this issue, especially if taxpayer funds were involved.

Some middle ground needs to be arrived at before the Borough’s business continues to be hindered by continued demand for an end to what many interpret as stonewalling.

The meeting minutes for the summer months contained little or no apparent reference to the issue. This changed at the October meeting, when Mr. Nanni again moved to reorganize Council. This time he had a majority behind him and the motion passed, 4-3. Councilor Ben Frederick then moved to enter executive session. This was defeated by the same 4-3 majority.

Council then, again by that same margin, proceeded to elect councilor Wes James as President, replacing councilor Jeff Weatherby.

Aside from the obvious lessons that could be learned from this experience, another consequence looms large over the borough and its operations – the questionable decision to enter into any type of settlement agreement that requires confidentiality on the part of a government entity, which at the end of the day remains accountable to the people.

I’ve seen settlement agreements from other municipalities where a clause establishes that both parties understand that the agreement could be released in response to a public records request. This could also be a sort of guidepost for those seeking elective office, or employment in the public sector –

Behave as though your actions can become public knowledge at any time.

As it happens, transparency and integrity were two prominent buzzwords in the municipal primary election held a few weeks ago. The unofficial results of that election may display a desire on the part of citizens for a more open, responsive approach to government operations. I’ll have more to say as the field for the November election takes shape.

Even with all of this going on, Leetsdale is trying to build bridges to solve known problems in a literal sense. This dates back to the consequences of the Lubrizol Fire of November 2015. Much concern and commentary was directed toward Council regarding the two industrial parks and several private dwellings dependent upon only one way out over the railroad tracks.

Leetsdale Council and other officials, along with public safety leaders and property owners in the industrial area, have been working over the last few years to attempt to establish an emergency evacuation route using one of three bridges that cross Big Sewickley Creek between the Hussey Copper property and the Port Ambridge Industrial Park.

Last year, Council authorized borough engineer Dan Slagle to “begin to move forward” with the process of designing a single-lane evacuation bridge that would utilize an existing railroad spur. Council President Wes James recently confirmed this via e-mail, stating Mr. Slagle was to “do some leg work on getting some right of way information and permissions from Ambridge and their property owners“.

From the Lubrizol fire to several incidents at Hussey over the last few years, recent history continues to highlight the need for more than one way out of that area. It’s good to see the ongoing commitment of the borough to this issue, and the daunting logistics that accompany it.

 

Local Government – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

As I was in the last stages of finishing this post, a slim majority of Sewickley Council succeeded in firing Borough Manager Marla Marcinko. They needed the Mayor’s help to do it.

According to Sewickley Herald reporting that was both comprehensive and informative, the firing was unexpected, sudden, and not well received – so much so that councilor Christine Allen resigned in response to the decision and the manner in which it was handled.

Additional Herald reporting also raised questions regarding the legality of the firing under the Sunshine Act, and included comments from Ms. Allen relating to other critical issues in the borough that have been reported previously, and are not going away –

Allen said that the internal dispute over manager’s position, as well as a lack of interest in improving infrastructure, were the two major factors in her decision.

“Sewickley has roads and walls that have already failed for decades of neglect,” Allen said. “As long as Marla was here, I thought this would get done. We don’t have a strategic plan. That’s your job, to have a strategic plan for doing business. I would like roads and walls to be a priority. What we do should mirror our agenda, and it didn’t.

“I came into this wanting to do the right things the right way, and I feel like I’ve been put in a compromising position.”

That last sentence sounds painfully familiar, and could almost be associated with the oft-used adage about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

I found both Ms. Marcinko and Ms. Allen to be responsive, forthright, and dedicated to their respective responsibilities. They’ll be missed.

The manner in which Ms. Marcinko was relieved of her duties – last minute action, not on the agenda, without public comment and cloaked as much as possible in the secrecy of the executive session – speaks to an unfortunately all-too-common tactic deployed when some representative bodies want to keep more controversial aspects of the people’s business as hidden as possible.

There is nothing new under the Sun – or even hidden from it.

That being said, there is a need to maintain confidentiality within some deliberations of government. It’s entirely appropriate to discuss the performance of an employee within the confines of an executive session.

The significance of this action, combined with the media reporting and possible ramifications under the Sunshine Act – which would require a court filing to fully flesh out – bring the possibility that the public may decide to demand a closer look at this decision.

I was hoping for a strong virtual turnout at tonight’s Council meeting for just that reason. I did notice a Herald reporter’s name among those logged in – perhaps something new that can be relied on in the future, and not just for Sewickley meetings.

Until next time.

 

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