Gerrymandering Pennsylvania’s public universities

Pennsylvania House of Representatives District 62. Source: state House of Representatives.

The following remarks were delivered in person before a hearing of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission in Harrisburg on Sept. 21. They have been lightly edited here.

By Stanley Chepaitis

HARRISBURG — I have lived in Indiana, Pa., since 1992, when I joined the faculty of music at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. At that time, IUP was thriving, and the State System of Higher Education was thriving. It was clear that IUP offered much to Indiana county in terms of employment opportunity and quality of life.

IUP, like almost all of the 14 universities in the system, is situated in a small town. The university attracts a community of highly educated people that, though not monolithic in its viewpoints or affiliations, is clearly distinct from its surroundings.

So it was a surprise to me, when I heard a former state representative say that he did not bother to campaign much in the borough of Indiana, because that was not where his voters were. In looking at the PA House district map for Indiana County, District 62 encloses the borough of Indiana and much of the county further south. Just to the north is District 66, which also includes Jefferson County.

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GOP county commissioners’ missed opportunity

Indiana County Board of Commissioners, county courthouse, Oct. 13, 2021. Image: screenshot from live-streamed public meeting.

An opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA – On Wednesday morning, Indiana County commissioners missed an opportunity for leadership on an existential crisis gripping the nation right down to its roots in Indiana County. The crisis is a scam spread by seditionists pressing a big lie in an attack on the core of American democracy – the right to vote.

The opportunity here wasn’t presented just by mounting waves of evidence (for example, an Oct. 7 U.S. Senate report, recently published books by two different Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative teams, etc.) that document the former president’s attempts to steal the 2020 election from the winner, including the loser’s losing lawsuit 11 months ago to disenfranchise nearly 7 million Pennsylvanians.

But that evidence did prompt a couple of citizens to attend the Wednesday morning meeting in person and to speak truth to the commissioners during their public-comment period.

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Cris Dush, ‘vexatious requestors’ and Pennsylvania’s ‘fraudit’

Then-state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex, Indiana, Pa., April 14, 2019. Photo by David Loomis.

Sedition watch: a profile

By David Loomis

INDIANA – During a May 4, 2020, legislative committee hearing, Republican state Rep. Cris Dush, representing northern Indiana County, griped about what he saw as Gov. Tom Wolf’s lack of transparency with public-health data on the pandemic and with lockdown waivers for businesses. The governor, Dush said, was hampering the essential work of a free and unfettered press.

“The press has been having a very difficult time fulfilling its responsibility to the public getting information out because this governor has repeatedly refused all sorts of information,” Dush declared.

But that’s not what grabbed national headlines. It was Mr. Dush’s remark linking the governor to Nazis.

“More and more I go back to the Democratic National Socialist Party, the Nazi Party, I go to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR,” Dush said. “This is a socialist playbook.”

Newsweek magazine reported the remark and the instant reaction.

“Outrageous,” said Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia.

Dush defended his remark and resumed his posture as tribune of a free press and an informed public.

“When you start hiding stuff from the public, when you start hiding things from the press, and not allowing it to come out, there is a genuine reason for concern,” Dush added. “Like I said, it’s a socialist playbook. It’s important for the people of this state to start having access to information, rather than having it set aside and hidden for an agenda.”

Rep. Boyle condemned Dush’s remarks about Nazis.

“I’ve been in the legislature, this is my 10th year, and this is the first reference to Nazism that I have heard in committee or on the House floor,” Boyle said. “The contrast between the approach of the Wolf administration and the Nazi party could not be clearer. The Wolf administration has been enacting policies to protect human life. The Nazi party was responsible for the murder of at least six million Jews. Furthermore, I am highly disappointed that no Republican members immediately chimed in to condemn Dush’s comments.”

Dush apologized later.

But Rep. Dan Frankel, who represents Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the Tree of Life synagogue shooting was painfully fresh in memory, said Mr. Dush’s apology fell short.

“I appreciate that Rep. Dush acknowledged his mistake,” Frankel said. “But no amount of backpedaling changes the fact that there are very active and dangerous anti-Semitic groups out there that read his comments as encouragement.”

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George Lenz distorts, misleads on White’s Woods timbering

George E. Lenz, chairman, White Township Board of Supervisors. Photo: Indiana Gazette.

An opinion

By Sara King

WHITE TOWNSHIP — The 1930’s Institute for Propaganda Analysis issued bulletins to help citizens identify propaganda techniques used to mislead the public and muddle discussion of important community or national issues. Below are some of the most widely used techniques described by the institute, including recent local examples.

All examples used to illustrate each point are drawn from the Sept. 25 letter to the editor signed by White Township Supervisor George Lenz:

Name-calling:  (defined as “a device used to make us form a judgement without examining the evidence on which it should be based”): Examples from Mr. Lenz’s letter: “narrow mindset,” “obstinate residents,” “those with my way or no way,” “spew unchecked allegations,” “inflammatory,” “disingenuous,” “hate-mongering.”

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Turning blue in Indiana County

Dr. Richard Neff, chief medical officer, Indiana Regional Medical Center, Renda Broadcasting studio, Aug. 30, 2021. Source: screenshot of Renda internet video

Coronavirus diary: an analysis

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Twice last week, the local hospital hit the front page. On Wednesday, Indiana Regional Medical Center’s chief medical officer advised sick people to stay away from the ER unless, for example, they turn blue. Then, on Thursday, IRMC and local emergency-management officials were calling for help from the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Uh oh. Don’t those developments signal the onset of the nightmare scenarios – the overwhelmed hospitals, the rationed care — that policymakers have been struggling to avoid since the pandemic appeared a year and a half ago?

Tom Stutzman, the county’s emergency-management director, attached no special significance to the hospital’s call for help from the National Guard. The previous week, he reported, five Guard soldiers were sent by the state Department of Health to assist a personal-care facility in White Township. (The state Department of Human Services confirmed the soldiers were assigned to Moorehead Place Senior Living Community, until Sept. 26. On Sept. 27, the state National Guard said no request for help had been received from IRMC.)

So, ho hum? Not exactly.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data, New York Times, Sept. 23, 2021. Click to enlarge.

On Thursday, New York Times data documenting reported capacities at local hospitals nationwide showed IRMC’s intensive-care unit was 80 percent full – well above the national average for the latest pandemic wave driven by the Covid’s Delta variant. (The IRMC figure declined by Sunday.)

IRMC administrators did not respond to emails sent last week seeking elaboration. But national headlines hint where Indiana County may be heading.

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Mary Cease and reefer sanity II

Mary Cease speaks at marijuana-legalization listening tour event hosted by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Kovalchick Center, Indiana, Pa., April 14, 2019. Photo: David Loomis

An analysis

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Three years after suing the Indiana County Housing Authority, Mary Cease won her case in the state Supreme Court last week. That’s good news for the legal medical-marijuana patient caught in a Catch-22 when county officials denied her applications for housing assistance – because she is a legal medical-marijuana patient.

The background: The Supreme Court’s Sept. 14 ruling was one sentence. It upheld Ms. Cease’s successful appeal of her 2019 loss before Indiana County Court of Common Pleas Judge William J. Martin, who ruled in favor of the housing authority and its denial of assistance solely because of Ms. Cease’s pot prescription. Ms. Cease’s appeal to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court produced an extensive analysis of her case in its February ruling in her favor.

Two days after last week’s state Supreme Court ruling, Ms. Cease exulted in her win over the county housing authority.

“Once it reached the Supreme Court, I knew they would lose,” she said in a Sept. 17 phone interview from her subsidized housing in Luzerne County. “I’m setting a precedent.”

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The life and death of REACH, age 1

Lead graphic on Indiana County Covid-19 Recovery Task Force’s REACH website, November 2020. The county announced last week that the site had been taken down.

Coronavirus diary: an analysis

By David Loomis and Ron Riley

INDIANA – At Wednesday’s semi-monthly meeting, Indiana County Board of Commissioners member Robin Gorman issued a brief announcement under the “other business” agenda 27 minutes into the half-hour session.

“The REACH website is now down,” she said.

It was an unceremonious end to the board’s year-long, Covid-19 communication initiative. The information it curated on the REACH website (acronym: “Resources, Education, Announcements, Communication, Help”) now resides on the county government’s in-house website.

Commissioners have not provided an assessment of the effort publicly criticized by citizens as unproductive, duplicative, secretive and scripted. And commissioners have not responded to a Sept. 5 email asking about the REACH effort.

But on Aug. 27, two weeks before announcing REACH’s obituary, county commissioners released roughly 200 internal emails and some REACH-related documents, in response to a July 26 Right to Know Law request filed by The HawkEye. This chronology of the brief life of REACH is based in part on those released documents.

The chronology reveals county government struggling privately with its public responsibilities during a pandemic. The main character in the released documents is Commissioner Gorman, who has denied a leadership role in the work of the Indiana County COVID Recovery Task Force. But she emerges from the released email correspondence as the REACH project’s prime county-government mover on internal details as mundane as meeting times and as strategic as messaging amid a plague. Most other task force members (see sidebar, below) are invisible in the released documents.

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September is surging early

Coronavirus diary

By Ronald Riley

INDIANA — Indiana County is seeing a steady increase in Covid cases over the past month. July 2021 started off well before increasing by 64 cases in the last half of the month. The county recorded 49 cases on Aug. 18-19 and has already surpassed the 171 cases of August a year ago, with 196 new cases as of August 19.  The county is on pace to exceed 300 cases in August and could exceed the 310 cases in September 2020 during the second wave of the pandemic.

The county’s public-health goals heading into the fall need to be:

1) encourage the vaccine among the younger population,

2) take measures to avoid a surge at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and

3) increase efforts and messaging to avoid a surge in community cases by encouraging the vaccine and safe practices.

Pennsylvania Department of Health stats indicate the highest growth rate in new cases is among the younger population. About 40 percent of new cases statewide from July 21 to August 19 are among those under age 29. The data for Indiana County show that the younger age group also is the most vaccine-resistant.

The return of IUP students for fall classes that start Monday adds to the importance of encouraging younger folks to get the vaccine. Covid cases at IUP contributed to a surge in new cases last fall. IUP accounted for 60 percent of total cases in Indiana County in September 2020 with186 cases and a total of 465 by the end of October. It is important to avoid a surge of IUP cases this year.

The entire community needs to deal with the pandemic by following safe practices, get the vaccine, wear a mask where appropriate.  Our local leadership needs to be on top of this and make changes as the situation changes to ensure our safety.  We should expect that of our leaders. We need to support those decisions.

The county needs to be proactive in encouraging the vaccine, safe practices and keeping the community informed. County commissioners need to jointly support and comment on the information reported bi-weekly by the emergency management director. We should follow safe practices.

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White’s Woods ruling: little impact, lingering questions

Friends of White’s Woods yard sign, Indiana, Pa. June 28, 2020. Photo by David Loomis

An opinion

By Sara King

WHITE TOWNSHIP — Senior Judge William J. Martin’s August 5 ruling regarding Friends of White’s Woods Inc. vs White Township Board of Supervisors was a surprise and disappointment. It has little impact on the status of White’s Woods, as explained last week.

However, some implications of the decision are concerning.

The ruling concluded simply, “the Plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief [to prohibit Millstone Land Management’s invasive species removal plan] was denied.” But the plan had already been stopped.

Ten months after FWW filed its lawsuit against White Township on May 22, 2020, to request the injunction, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources made clear that it was not supportive of Millstone’s intention to remove invasive plant species in the White’s Woods Nature Center by extensively mulching the forest floor. (Because White’s Woods falls under Project 70, being purchased in part through a state grant, DCNR has final approval over any stewardship plans).

DCNR’s March 23 Bureau of Forestry review noted that:

— DCNR is “not familiar” with mulching a forest floor to a depth of 6 inches and is “highly concerned about the unintended consequences.” (p. 6)

— “Forest mulching is not a recommended method of invasive removal.” (p.6)

— “Mulching this entire tract is highly concerning and not recommended.” (p. 8)

— “[D]isturbing the soil typically promotes the spread of invasive plants and is even more concerning when coupled with opening the canopy and allowing more sunlight to the forest floor.” (p.2)

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Encourage the shot, not the mask

Indiana County commissioners Robin Gorman and R. Michael Keith, county courthouse, Feb. 10, 2021. Image: Screen grab from online Zoom session.

An analysis

By David Loomis

INDIANA — A pandemic wave or two ago, restaurant closings were a news staple. Eateries failing, the story went, meant local economies tanking. Scofflaw restaurateurs defied state government orders to shut down during a peak in the pandemic. Then, help arrived early this year with $28.6 billion in federal Covid relief for local family-owned restaurants and bars nationwide.

Now, another pandemic wave is building, and masking mandates in public schools are making headlines. Local school districts — River Valley (formerly Blairsville-Saltsburg), Homer-Center and Indiana Area, for example – are voting to make masks optional when school resumes next month. (The Indiana Area School District board earlier this week reversed its mask mandate of earlier this month.) The political debate – pumped with enough disinformation to polarize a troll farm – has gone national.

The restaurant-and-bar debate ebbed with federal resources to the rescue. The masking debate can be similarly resolved, and with no new federal money, by spurring free and plentiful Covid-19 vaccinations and enlisting trusted local authorities to encourage the vaccine-hesitant.

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