Black life, White life, Indiana, Pa.

Dr. Melvin A. Jenkins. Photos: screen shots from Feb. 28, 2021, teleconference

Q&A: Melvin A. Jenkins

By David Loomis

INDIANA – On the last day of Black History Month 2021, Melvin Jenkins – a local professor, pastor, politician – discussed the state of local race relations.

Dr. Jenkins, 65, a resident of White Township and a native of the Philadelphia area, arrived at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1988. He led the university’s developmental-studies program and recruited IUP students from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. He co-founded Victory Christian Assembly in Indiana. And he served two terms on Indiana Borough Council beginning in the late 1990s.  

Last fall the university retrenched his position. He is scheduled to retire June 4.

His teleconference interview was conducted Feb. 28. Following is a transcript, edited for clarity and brevity.

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Indiana County’s partly sunny Sunshine Act

Opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA –  Good news: Indiana County commissioners on Wednesday convened a public meeting at which they signaled belated awareness of state law – specifically, Section 710.1(a) of Title 65, the statute governing public participation in the public’s business:

“The Sunshine Act gives the public the right to comment on issues that are or may be before the board,” read the “public comment” item on the commissioners’ Feb. 24 agenda. Further, it continued, the board “must provide a reasonable opportunity for residents and/or taxpayers to comment on an issue before a decision takes place.”

The board majority’s change of mind was welcome following Chairman R. Michael Keith’s capricious announcement at the start of the board’s Feb. 10 meeting that public comments would be sharply curtailed. Persistent citizens were effectively gagged.

The new, improved public-comment policy fudged the question of whether the board’s majority would continue to limit public comment to “actionable” agenda items only. (On Wednesday’s agenda, the public-comment period and a Covid-19 report were not labeled actionable — an irony that appeared lost among the board’s majority.)

The irony is that the board’s leadership has been criticized for lack of action and lack of communication on the public health crisis that has claimed 158 Indiana County lives, many of them during the grievously incompetent and irresponsible administration of the previous U.S. president. That leadership lacuna in the White House led local governments to the forefront of emergency response, and citizens looked to them for help.

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Partisan fiddling with the franchise

Opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Maybe you missed the news last month: “Pennsylvania leads the nation in proposed voter suppression legislation in 2021, with 14 restrictive policy proposals.” (By February, the commonwealth slipped to second place behind Arizona’s 19 proposals.)

Some distinction. Either way, it marks a head-snapping reversal for the commonwealth’s Republican-controlled legislature. In October 2019 a majority of GOP lawmakers approved a bipartisan bill signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf that made the most significant improvements to the state’s voting laws in 80 years. Provisions included expansion of voting by mail to all voters.

A year later, on Nov. 3, Pennsylvania voters broke a 60-year-old record for voting participation. In the process, they rejected Donald Trump, the candidate they supported in 2016.

Since then, Republican legislators in Harrisburg, in Washington and in Indiana County have exhibited a sudden change of heart over the 2019 improvements, despite their own down-ballot election successes. The switch also displays a disturbing loyalty to the loser-in-chief.

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Pennsylvania’s bipartisan vote to convict

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., left, and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. 2019 photo: Associated Press

By The HawkEye staff

INDIANA — On Feb. 13, Pennsylvania became the only state whose U.S. Senate delegation cast bipartisan votes to convict impeached ex-President Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, a Democrat who has supported Trump on 28 percent of his floor votes, and Pat Toomey, a Republican who has compiled an 85 percent pro-Trump voting record, both joined the 57-43 majority in favor of conviction.

(Maine and Vermont also have partisan splits in their Senate delegations, but Independent Sens. Angus King, of Maine, and Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, caucus with Democrats. Both members voted for conviction along with their respective states’ Democratic colleagues.)

Saturday’s Senate vote fell short of the 67 votes required to convict. But it stands as the most bipartisan vote for conviction in any of the four presidential impeachments in U.S. history. (Trump’s second impeachment vote in the House of Representatives on Jan. 13 likewise stands as the most bipartisan in U.S. history.)

Following are statements issued by Sens. Toomey and Casey shortly after casting their votes to convict.

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‘Suppressing people’s rights to make public comments’

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

Coronavirus diary

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Make it three straight for Republican county commissioners. That’s how many consecutive public meetings in which the county board’s two-member majority has exhibited or encouraged – incited — intolerance of viewpoints they dislike. The latest target at their Wednesday meeting:

The public.

Item No. 4 on the agenda for the Feb. 10 “regular” commissioners meeting is boilerplate: “Public comment: Anyone making public comment will be limited to three minutes.” The item comes right after the ritual roll call, Pledge of Allegiance and approval of the previous meeting’s minutes.

But on Wednesday, a minute into the meeting, board Chairman R. Michael Keith called an audible: He announced that public comments were acceptable “only on those things that we commissioners will be taking official action to today.”

That seemed to be news to the citizens tuned in on Zoom — 43 of them by one count. And the official agenda offered no guidance, since it made no indication of which items were actionable.

Off limits for public comment, according to Chairman Keith’s new decree, was one agenda item that involved listening to an update on the county’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. To enforce the decree, Mr. Keith and Republican Commissioner Robin Gorman verbally tag-teamed enforcement of the gag rule by verbally cutting off public comments of two citizens seeking to comment on Covid-19. Audio of a third commenter was cut electronically in mid-sentence.

Following is a transcript of the Feb. 10 meeting’s five-minute public-comment segment heard on the official audio. The transcript is lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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Indiana County, community immunity and the infodemic

Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess receives a vaccination against Covid-19 at The Communities at Indian Haven in Indiana, Pa., Jan. 25, 2021. Photo: Facebook

Coronavirus diary

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Partisan rancor has been on their unofficial agenda since Indiana County commissioners’ December meeting when they unanimously approved a double-digit tax hike, the largest in memory. At their early-January meeting, the majority Republican commissioners scapegoated the board’s minority member, Democrat Sherene Hess.

Would the rancor resume at the board’s Jan. 27 meeting?

Yes. But this time the scapegoating shifted to a citizen who read a statement targeting Ms. Hess, whose alleged offense was getting vaccinated during a photo op at the county’s nursing home on Jan. 25. Allegedly worse, she posted the photo on Facebook to encourage staff and residents of the nursing home and citizens of the county to follow her good example. The citizen concluded by accusing Ms. Hess of a “selfish act,” asserting falsely that she “jumped the line” to get the shot.

“Slander,” “inaccurate” and “untrue,” responded another citizen, who called on the board’s majority members to respond, too. In the process, the second citizen refocused discussion on an actual public-health issue – the herd immunity, or “community immunity,” needed to defeat the virus. Such immunity is put at risk by the county’s well-documented resistance to public-health mitigation strategies like mask-wearing, county leadership’s largely mute approach to public information and reported resistance to vaccinations among workers at some nursing homes.

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White Township’s whatchamacallit

Gail L. McCauley, supervisor, White Township. Pa. Photo: township website

Opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Thank goodness White Township Supervisor Gail L. McCauley clarified that whole debate over White’s Woods, the 250-acre recreational forest that straddles the boundary between the township and neighboring Indiana borough.

During supervisors’ Wednesday night meeting, Todd L. Sherbondy, a certified arborist and sales arborist with 140-year-old Davey Tree Expert Co., spoke on behalf of Friends of White’s Woods. A few minutes into his brief public comments about the economic benefits of natural forests, Mr. Sherbondy, a two-decade resident of Indiana, Pa., made a passing reference to the township’s “logging plan” for the woods.

Ms. McCauley interjected.

“We do not have a logging plan,” she said. “ There is not and never has been a logging plan.”

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Covid-19 Indiana County updates

By The HawkEye staff

INDIANA — Data published today by The New York Times and by the Pennsylvania Department of Health provide up-to-date information on Covid-19 infections, tests, hospitalizations and deaths in every U.S. county. Following is a visualization of Indiana County’s latest data.

This visualization and analysis of Indiana County Covid-19 data was published in today’s New York Times. Sources: state and local health agencies; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; regional hospitalization data. The information is dated Jan. 26. Click to enlarge

 

On Jan. 26, the state Department of Health published an interactive map of sites in all Pennsylvania counties where vaccines are available. Eligibility may vary among the sites. Contact information is provided for each site. Indiana County’s vaccine-site map follows:

Indiana County vaccine-availability sites. Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Jan. 26. For interactive map, click here. Click map to enlarge image.

 

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End of the tunnel: state and local lights

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania health secretary nominated to serve in the Biden administration. Photo: USA Today

Coronavirus diary: an opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA – For the past year, poor leadership plagued the nation’s pandemic response from the White House to the county courthouse. Trump talked too much but had no plan;  Indiana County had a plan but talked too little.

Two bright lights of leadership emerged from the darkness of 2020 – one from Harrisburg, the other from Indiana Borough, the county seat.

In Harrisburg, Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, last week was nominated by the Biden administration to serve as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, largely based on her management of the commonwealth’s pandemic response.

Gov. Tom Wolf added that Dr. Levine led the effort “amid hateful distractions.” The distractions included attacks on her gender identity. If her nomination is approved, Dr. Levine will become the nation’s first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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Another year in court for Grant Township

Stacy Long, right, vice-chair, Grant Township Board of Supervisors, with mother Judy Wanchisn, co-founder of the East Run Hellbenders Society, June 14,, 2019. Photo by Nathan Zisk.

By Sara Stewart

INDIANA — The latest lawsuit filed against Grant Township wasn’t terribly surprising to the board of supervisors. But it was still exhausting, in a Groundhog Day kind of way.

According to the oil and gas company Pennsylvania General Energy, the Indiana County township, population 700-ish, is depriving the corporation of its constitutional right to dump fracking waste there, or to sell it to another company interested in doing so.

The suit, filed on Dec. 9 in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania, spells out its grievances in a 162-article document.

“Grant Township’s conduct in abrogating PGE’s interest in environmental and UIC [underground injection control] permits at the Yanity Well is deliberate, arbitrary, and irrational, exceeds the limits of governmental authority, amounts to an abuse of official power, and shocks the conscience,” reads one particularly dramatic article.

Stacy Long, vice-chair of the township’s board of supervisors, said she gets why the company targeted their township in the first place.

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