- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Feb. 26, 2021.

Editorial: Those behind autocratic power-grab at Election Board must go

Partisan doesn’t begin to describe it.

Try craven, or despicable, or repugnant. Certainly, shameless fits.

Or better yet, let’s call it what it is: Utterly undemocratic.



County Election Board members Joyce Dombroski-Gebhardt and Keith Gould - both Republicans - made a mockery of their solemn duties and turned Luzerne County election governance into an autocratic, lawless troika of self-serving GOP wingnuts when they ignored advice of an attorney paid to guide them and appointed County Councilman Stephen J. Urban as new board chairman.

To be perfectly clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with which party these three scofflaws belong to. Their action, and their mealy-mouthed, hubris-filled justification for the unjustifiable, would be reprehensible regardless of political affiliation.

Everything about this screams “autocratic power-grab.”

Gould and Dombroski-Gebhardt made the move without debate or even time for comment from anyone who might be watching the virtual meeting.

They did it when the election board is down two members due to resignations over exactly this kind of partisan hatchet job, and knowing full well County Council will fill one of those seats, as required by the county charter.

They did it despite the fact that, last year, the election board itself agreed on a procedure to require that, if a chairman is appointed with only three members sitting on the board, all three must vote for that appointment.

They did it against the clear and unequivocal advice of Luzerne County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo, who pointed out the county charter clearly (and we believe rightly) bars any county council member from sitting on the election board, declaring they understood the law better than the lawyer.

They did it as an end-run around the duly elected 11 county council members who rejected a proposal by Council Member Walter Griffith to change the charter so council members could sit on the election board.

They defied anyone who cares about the democratic and legal process to take them to court, setting the stage for a waste of taxpayer dollars to undo their egregious action.

In short, two unelected officials (four of the five seats are filled by county council, with those four picking the fifth member) decided they could ignore not only the law, not only the elected county council members, but every one of Luzerne County’s 210,000-plus registered voters.

It doesn’t get much more anti-democratic than that.

Council Member Linda Mclosky Houck was absolutely right in calling for a special county council meeting as soon as possible to vacate the seats of Gould and Dombroski-Gebhardt under terms of the county charter which allows such action when appointed board members have “willfully and knowingly violated sections of the charter.” She also called for the other obvious action: Vacating the chairmanship seat brazenly usurped by Urban.

We call for one more action, though someone so ready to disregard the law likely lacks the compunction to do the right thing: Stephen Urban Jr. should resign from County Council. A person who willingly defies the legal advice of the county’s solicitor - going so far as to essentially dare someone to launch a court challenge against his election board appointment - has no place in government.

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Lancaster Online. Feb. 25, 2021.

Editorial: What’s in a name? Transparency. Wolf administration: Take note

THE ISSUE: A panel of Commonwealth Court judges “on Tuesday said applications for individuals hoping to fill judicial vacancies should not be kept secret under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law,” reported Sam Janesch of The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication focusing on state government. “Upholding two decisions by the state’s top open records officials from late 2019 and early 2020, the judges rejected arguments from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and said his lawyers must move forward with a process to release judicial applications” to LNP Media Group. Janesch noted that judicial “appointments - made by the governor and approved by the Senate when a vacancy occurs - have come under scrutiny for their traditionally secretive process.” The Commonwealth Court is one of two statewide intermediate appellate courts.

We wrote this in an editorial in January 2020 and it still applies: “For a governor who has made transparency a priority of his administration, this battle over judicial applicant names is mystifying. And shameful.”

We are simply perplexed by Gov. Wolf’s stubbornness on this issue. It seems crystal-clear to us that the name of someone seeking an appointment to the state judiciary ought to be made known to the citizens of the commonwealth.

Candidates who run for judicial seats cannot do so secretly. Their names are necessarily stated plainly on the ballot.

Those who throw their hats in the ring to fill a judicial vacancy also should expect for their names to be made public.

If they don’t want their current employers to know they’re eyeing the exit, they shouldn’t ask to be considered for a judicial vacancy.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed. And she made this excellent point to Janesch: “When public officials step into the shoes of voters to fill an elected office, transparency is crucial to maintaining the public trust and confidence in both the appointee and the public officials tasked with making the appointment.”

This is exactly right.

The right of a judicial candidate to privacy simply does not outweigh the public’s right to know who might land on the Pennsylvania bench.

The secrecy-shrouded process of filling judicial vacancies allows for potential abuses of the system, for back-room deals and exchanges of favors.

As Janesch reported Wednesday, “Private negotiations between the governor and senators followed by a swift approval leaves little room for the public to vet the applicants, who serve in the positions temporarily before, in most cases, going on to run for the same seat in the next election.”

State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat who has called for reforms to the judicial nomination process, described that process in a December 2019 news conference.

“Historically, there is an exchange based upon party affiliation - you get one, I get two. You get two, I get three. That’s long been the standard,” Williams said.

“So one side gets two, the other gets three, and what do the citizens of Pennsylvania get?” we asked last year. “A judge they know little about. A judge they’re told to take on faith was chosen by merit, not based on political connections. This doesn’t exactly inspire trust in the judicial system.”

As Janesch reported Wednesday, LNP Media Group sought the application materials for all open judicial seats when Gov. Wolf and state Senate Republicans last went through the process - in 2019.

“The governor’s Office of General Counsel ultimately released 124 pages of applications for the five individuals who were quickly nominated and approved - including one for the Senate Republicans’ top lawyer who was appointed to Commonwealth Court,” Janesch reported. “The administration continued to shield the names of all others who applied, arguing applicants should be treated like anyone else seeking government employment.”

This is ridiculous. Applying for a judicial vacancy - normally filled by an election - is not the same as applying for a government staff job.

In a separate request, LNP ‘ LancasterOnline reporter Carter Walker sought applications specific to a vacancy in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas created at the end of 2019. Wolf never nominated anyone for that seat and strangely refused to release the names of those who had applied for it.

Was the governor afraid those applicants would be embarrassed that no one was appointed in the end? Was he worried that we’d learn that a qualified candidate had been derailed by politics?

In the vacuum left by secrecy, speculation can run wild.

And the perception of Pennsylvania judges as political - a perception that undermines trust in the judiciary - only grows.

As Janesch reported, “The Office of Open Records, handling the news organization’s appeals in both cases, said while application materials for government employees are exempt from disclosure, that exemption does not apply to appointees who would fill a vacancy in elected office and must be confirmed by the Senate.”

Commonwealth Court President Judge P. Kevin Brobson, writing the opinion in the case this week, rightly agreed with the state Office of Open Records and LNP Media Group that the Right-to-Know Law, as well as the Sunshine Act, distinguishes between agency employees and public officials such as gubernatorial appointees.

Brobson’s opinion quoted an argument made by lawyers for LNP Media Group: “Just as the public would have access to the full list of candidates who appear on the ballot were the Commonwealth Court position to be filled through the electoral process, the public is entitled to know who sought consideration for the vacant seat that was filled by gubernatorial appointment.”

The Commonwealth Court judges also ruled that applicants should be given an opportunity to be heard regarding the release of their information, some of which may be redacted. As Janesch reported, “They sent the case back to the Office of Open Records to notify those individuals and perform a ‘balancing test’ to consider whether certain information should remain private. Their order did not specify a time frame for that process, or for how the office should apply potential redactions.”

Melewsky emphasized that state election law provides “a clear roadmap” in that the expectation of privacy for those seeking elected office is “significantly diminished” compared to other government employees.

She also told Janesch that the case has “potentially wide impact” in that it could apply to vacancies not just at the judicial level, but in locally elected offices like school boards and borough councils that also are filled by appointment.

We hope it does.

Secrecy and government are a terrible and toxic mix that harms citizens most of all, but also, ultimately, government itself.

___

Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. Feb. 27, 2021.

Editorial: ‘Contagious’ energy drives region’s push to change landscape

The announcement Thursday that a project that will address acid-mine drainage and develop recreational activities along the Stonycreek River near Johnstown’s Inclined Plane was exciting – and fits well with an overall spirit of renewal we’re seeing across the region.

Leaders in the recreational tourism industry called the Inclined Plane effort a “linchpin” project for the Johnstown area.

Much like what we’ve seen across Cambria and Somerset counties, step one is addressing that decades-old AMD problem.

Then, we’ll eventually see a recreational area emerge along the river, with a boat launch and a zip-line “adventure” park, Conemaugh Valley Conservancy Project Manager Brad Clemenson said.

Partners also include the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Vision Together 2025, Cambria County Transit Authority, Cambria County Redevelopment Authority, city government, PennDOT, and the state departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources.

“This is all about community and economic development through placemaking – aligned with responsible use of our natural resources – by creating quality of life amenities and attractions,” CFA President Mike Kane said during a Zoom announcement.

“This isn’t just about attracting tourism. It’s about making our area more attractive for economic development. It’s about making our community what we want it to be.”

As you’ll read throughout The Tribune-Democrat’s special report – “Vision 2021” – that approach is being applied in areas such as blight removal and the repurposing of land and buildings.

With support from the Community Foundation and local donors, the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority has knocked down 300 vacant buildings – empty houses and commercial structures – across the city.

A recent push along the Route 56 corridor – where many visitors enter the city – has seen 20 blighted West End structures removed to make way for business expansions or green space. The former Championship Sportswear building was razed, which will allow for the Fielderz Choice sports training facility next door to expand.

Similar efforts are removing empty and dangerous buildings in the Prospect neighborhood and across Johnstown.

Blight removal is not just a city focus. From Meyersdale to Windber to Portage to Northern Cambria, community leaders are clearing space for economic growth and safer, more attractive neighborhoods.

Jeff Irwin, Meyersdale Borough Council president, said a $138,000 demolition project there – removing the no-longer New Colonial Hotel – was a pricey effort but a great move for the community.

“It has gotten to the point our glorious, Gilded Age-era past has turned into our Achilles’ heel of today, because it’s not easy trying to deal with some of these large, dilapidated buildings,” Irwin said, echoing a sentiment heard across the region.

Windber leaders are attacking blight, and also moving forward with a plan to spruce up the town’s historic ballroom site for year-round use.

Financial investment and sweat equity likewise will lead to new life and community impact for sites such as the State Theater – now hidden within Conemaugh Health System’s Lee Campus – and the Johnstown Train Station, which will house the headquarters for the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America.

Many groups continue to work to clean and maintain the region’s water resources for boating, fishing and other activities, while also continually enhancing and expanding our impressive system of hiking and biking trails.

Removing blight and changing the physical and economic landscape fits perfectly with those movements.

“It’s a lot larger than just a property being demolished,” redevelopment authority Executive Director Melissa Komar said. “It’s the proactive way that the community embraces not only the corridors, but now we are deep into each of the wards of the city through blight elimination. The energy’s contagious.”

___

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. Feb. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Years-long GOP blockage of safe gun storage laws put kids’ lives at risk

How were the kids able to access a gun?

That is one of the first questions that comes to mind after hearing about last month’s tragic death of Nyssa Davis - a 9-year-old girl who was shot in the head in her North Philadelphia home while playing unsupervised with her 12-year-old brother and 5-year-old cousin. Nyssa’s father, who illegally possessed the gun, was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, and so was her brother.

A fraction of a second and a family ruined. Whatever the legal status of the gun, this particular tragedy could have been prevented with one simple lock.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health’s Violence Dashboard, at least 100 children 18 and younger were killed by a bullet in 2019 throughout the commonwealth. Nearly half used the gun on themselves. Many more were shot and survived. How did they have access to a gun? One way is unsafe storage.

Gun owners in Pennsylvania aren’t required to keep their firearms locked when they aren’t using them. And despite evidence that safe storage laws save the lives of children, Pennsylvania Republicans have been blocking any effort to pass a gun storage requirement for years. Bills at the state House go to the Judiciary Committee - helmed by State Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin) - where they never see the light of day.

Safe storage is just one of the gun control measures that should have absolutely no impact on law-abiding and responsible gun owners. Another one is “red flag” - laws that create a process to remove firearms from people who are experiencing a mental health crisis or are considered a threat. Kauffman has vowed never to allow a red flag bill to get out of the committee as long as he is chair. Similarly, he vowed not to allow a permit-to-purchase measure to ever become law.

Gun violence is not just a Philadelphia issue - though the toll on the city is staggering, with 75 homicide victims only 52 days into 2021. In Pittsburgh, the progress that made 2019 the year with fewest homicides in two decades was nearly erased with a 40% spike in 2020. Harrisburg experienced a 60% increase in homicides. In Cumberland County, homicides doubled from four in 2019 to eight in 2020.

And while violence is rising throughout the commonwealth, so is the number of guns. The number of background checks soared in 2020 to 1.4 million. How many of those guns will end up in a household with children is unknown, but what’s for sure is that not all of them will be locked in a safe at all given times.

An October Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that more than 60% of Pennsylvania voters were in “favor of creating more laws that regulate gun ownership.” Safe storage, red flag, and permit-to-purchase have all been reintroduced this session. Lawmakers should remember that supporting gun control is not only good policy but also good politics. The time to legislate is now.

No constitutional right is so absolute that a mild inconvenience, such as storing a gun safely, is a price too high to prevent the death of a child.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. March 1, 2021.

Editorial: Cruel bill offers hope for impossible

State Rep. Valerie Gaydos is a month early with a proposed and badly needed state constitutional amendment to reduce the size of the bloated House of Representatives, in that April Fools’ Day is not until April 1.

The Allegheny County Republican spoke the obvious truth recently while proposing to cut the size of the House from 203 to 151 seats.

“Pennsylvania has the second-largest state legislature in the country,” Gaydos said. “Reducing the number of seats in the House of Representatives will not only provide a significant cost savings to taxpayers, but also streamline the legislative process and make it easier for lawmakers to reach consensus.”

Not only that, but a smaller House would make it harder to gerrymander legislative districts because each would have about 85,000 residents rather than the current 63,000 (each U.S. House district includes about 770,000 residents), and many would have to cover more territory. That raises at least the prospect of political diversity in more districts, thus more competitive elections.

As Gaydos suggested, greater diversity within larger districts would compel more lawmakers to actually legislate - that is, compromise in search of broad progress on important matters - rather than spout ideology that small, homogeneous constituencies want to hear.

Gaydos also did not make the same mistake that killed the most promising effort to reduce the size of the Legislature, about a decade ago. Then, House Speaker Sam Smith sponsored an amendment to reduce the House to 151 seats, but it died because it included reducing the 50-seat Senate to 28 seats and assured its demise in that chamber. Gaydos’ bill addresses only the House.

Gaydos’ proposal has an element of cruelty to it because it is rational, rooted in sound public policy, badly needed, yet impossible to get by the very chamber that it would affect. In that sense, it serves the further purpose of offering a microcosm of governance in Pennsylvania.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Feb. 27, 2021.

Editorial: The climate at home

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is a climate activist. When it comes to talking about sweeping international changes that could improve sustainability, Mr. Peduto has been seen front and center, including at a recent virtual event surrounding the United States’ re-entry into the Paris climate agreement.

However, when it comes to some climate/​weather-related issues at home, his sense of vision appears to be dimmed.

The Steel City has experienced more than double the usual amount of snowfall on its 1,200 miles of road, according to the city controller’s office, much of it from recent storms. Public Works drivers did not keep up with the snowfall, leaving some streets tricky, at best, to navigate.

It would be one thing if the issues had been caused by the increased snowfall alone. But that’s not the case. According to the controller’s office, a June audit outlined significant problems with the GPS Snow Plow Tracker System that the city began using in 2015. Intended to optimize routes for drivers, the software instead exacerbated the problems with the tech, making routes longer and more dangerous, drivers reported.

There was a failure to act on such information, the controller concluded.

The audit included a number of recommendations to improve the city’s snow removal services. Some of these seem obvious, like coordinating maintenance on the snow removal fleet to ensure that the vehicles are available for use during the winter months, and covering newly constructed salt storage facilities. Others struck more to the problems at hand, like asking Public Works snow removal drivers to document safety hazards while testing their routes and having their supervisors send suggestions up the chain of command.

Some of the blame for sub-optimal snow removal lies with the companies with which the city is contracting. But the buck stops with the city.

Mayor Peduto and his team should have been better prepared. They were forewarned. They failed to heed the advice.

Pittsburgh residents deserve better.

END

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