A misleading campaign mass mailer from the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a Harrisburg-based think tank described as a “right-wing pressure group.”
By David Loomis
INDIANA – In Pennsylvania’s May 18 municipal primary elections, only registered partisans can cast ballots for candidates. But every voter – Democrat, Republican, No Affiliation, Other – can vote on four statewide ballot questions.
Two of the questions (No. 3, regarding racial and ethnic non-discrimination, and No. 4, regarding lending programs for emergency services) are non-controversial and non-partisan.
But questions No. 1 and No. 2 — proposed constitutional amendments to restrict a governor’s authority to declare disaster emergencies for, say, a public-health crisis and an attendant economic crisis — are thumb-in-the-eye partisan. (Sample ballots for Democrats, Republicans and Non-Partisans in each Indiana County municipality are posted on the county’s website.)
The two disaster-emergency-declaration amendments will appear on Tuesday’s ballot not out of concern for the welfare of Pennsylvanians at risk of the double whammy. Rather, they appear because Republicans in Harrisburg dislike the popular Democratic executive. Gov. Wolf’s approval rating recently has slipped, but compared with the General Assembly’s ratings, the governor’s numbers are about double the legislature’s.
INDIANA — What’s it take to get a grown-up back on a bicycle? For millions, it takes a pandemic.
Since its spread a year ago, Covid-19 has spawned a boom in bicycling. The pandemic has changed how people live, work and play. From Budapest to Blairsville, bicycling has benefited from social distancing, the great outdoors, staycations, fitness and other mitigating factors.
— For 2020, the National Bicycle Dealers Association reported retail bicycle sales jumped 40% over 2019. The association projected the trend will accelerate.
— Sales have spiked across age groups – from children’s bikes to beach cruisers to mountain bikes.
— Surges in cycling have been reported in such cities as L.A., Houston, New York City and others, despite a lack of municipal infrastructure.
— Europe reports similar surges. Pop-up bike lanes in 106 European cities last year boosted bicycling by as much as 48 percent on average, according to a study published last month in the journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The new Euro infrastructure may produce billions in health benefits each year, if the cycling shift sticks, the study projected.
— Western Pennsylvania is riding the global wave. An Associated Press survey of Pittsburgh-area bike shops last month reported business is booming. At one Verona shop, the owner said he “never has seen anything like this.” His waiting list has 400 names. He reported an outing on a local trail where he usually sees about 40 riders; recently, he counted 504, including many families.
The following letter by Indiana University of Pennsylvania English professor John L. Marsden, Ph.D., was addressed to top administrators and faculty union leaders and emailed to faculty members at IUP on May 5.
By John L. Marsden
INDIANA — I write this late at night only because I am losing a great deal of sleep. I can only assume that you are too. Or at least I very much believe you should be.
Yesterday — the day after spring semester classes had ended — one of my colleagues received notice that her letter of retrenchment from August had been rescinded. How grateful we must be that we can all say we have saved the job of an outstanding — and tenured — faculty member!
The only problem is that my colleague was forced to sell her house, move her family and seek another job in the meantime. So, despite the rescinded letter, she is gone. IUP has accomplished its goal of reducing faculty complement while, at the same time, not laying anyone off. I know that hers is far from the only story of this kind.
Let’s ignore for a moment how many letters have been rescinded. Let’s talk instead about how many of my colleagues are leaving or have left based on retrenchment letters (rescinded or not) or based on their assumption that they expect to get such letters.
In short, IUP has managed to accomplish most of its goals without actually retrenching the numbers of faculty who initially received letters. It is an amazing shell game. The consequence of this game has been that lives have been thrown into turmoil.
Again, let’s forget for a moment the fact that my colleague’s letter has been rescinded long after her family has been uprooted by what I now consider to be a completely reckless action. (How else to explain the retrenchment letter and last-minute change of mind?) Let us forget, too, that hers is far from the only story.
Let’s turn instead to the many messages I have received, the many conversations I have had, related to retrenchment and the future of IUP. I am told by friends — senior colleagues no less — that they don’t want to speak out for fear of retaliation from administrators. What a devastating indictment that is of the current state of affairs at an institution of higher education. Who or what has created such an environment at IUP? That is not a rhetorical question.
Ultimately, I claim only to speak for myself. I am in APSCUF, the faculty union, but I don’t speak for the union. I am assistant chair in the English Department, but I do not speak for our department either. I am just one member of the “IUP Community.”
John L. Marsden, Ph.D., is associate professor and assistant chair of the English Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
INDIANA – Warning! writes the head of the local Republican Party: One of the candidates in this month’s primary election to fill a vacancy on the county court bench is — a Democrat!
That may be hard for some Republicans to imagine in a county that went for Trump by more than 2-1 on Nov. 3 and that elected state legislators who endorsed an effort to overturn the commonwealth’s Electoral College vote – a move popular among the extremist, insurrectionist, Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol mob.
Not to worry. Supposedly non-partisan is how primary elections for county Common Pleas Court judges – and for magisterial district judges and for school board directors – are conducted in Pennsylvania. Candidates in these races (and only these races) can cross-file — that is, their names can appear on both Republican ballots and Democratic ballots in primary elections, such as the one scheduled for May 18.
So, for example, former county district attorney Patrick Dougherty, the only registered Democrat seeking the county Court of Common Pleas seat, will appear on both parties’ May 18 primary ballots. But that’s not what bothered county GOP chair Randy Degenkolb in his April 30 letter to the editor. (The two Republican candidates opposing Mr. Dougherty are likewise cross-filed.)
Rather, the bother about Mr. Dougherty’s campaign is a flier he mailed to Republican voters that depicts him as “a proven conservative.”
INDIANA — The Covid-19 message at Wednesday’s meeting of the Indiana County commissioners was a mix of some important information and a misleading message.
It was important to hear county Commissioner Sherene Hess and emergency-management Director Tom Stutzman talk about vaccine hesitancy and the importance of getting vaccinated. But the majority members of the county board remain largely silent on the local Covid situation.
Following Mr. Stutzman’s presentation, Commission Chairman Mike Keith declared, “We are heading in the right direction.”
That is far from the truth.
THE NUMBERS say otherwise. New cases of Covid remain high in the county, and our level of vaccination ranks among the worst in the state.
On Wednesday, the county recorded 530 new cases for the month of April – worse than the 287 cases recorded last month, according to state Department of Health data. We have exceeded our infection rates of October, as we surged into the highest months of November and December. Covid-19-related deaths also are up – eight for the month so far and half of them this week, for a total of 169.
Vaccine distribution continues to fall behind. Thirty-one percent of Indiana County’s population has received at least one dose, compared to 40.7% for the state overall. A comparison of a dozen neighboring countiesranks Indiana 11th of the 12.
The health department ranks counties by percentage of population over age 15 that has been fully vaccinated and that has received one dose. Indiana ranks 55th of 67 Pennsylvania counties.
Meanwhile, Indiana borough monitors the wastewater to provide, among other things, a rough forecast of localized infection trends in ZIP code 15701. The monitoring also can detect mutant strains of the virus that now predominate. Last Friday’s weekly report recorded the fourth consecutive increase in Covid-19 indicators.
COUNTY COMMISSIONERS’ meetings often put blame for Covid-related problems on state government. They find no blame at the county courthouse. Granted, there are many problems than can be attributed to the state. But commissioners – especially majority commissioners Keith and Robin Gorman — still have a responsibility to deal with the pandemic and reality.
The reality is that Indiana County remains at “very high risk” of exposure to Covid-19. Commissioners Keith and Gorman need to participate in getting the message out, and to make sure that it is the right message: We are not yet heading in the right direction.
Ronald Riley, a native of Johnstown, is a retired accountant with 23 years of experience in health-care finance, including 18 years at Lee Hospital in Johnstown, where he was assistant controller. He has lived in Indiana, Pa., for 11 years.
INDIANA – It was a happy Earth Day for Friends of White’s Woods, the local advocacy group founded to preserve and protect the 245-acre community forest straddling White Township and Indiana Borough. A state agency spent much of the past year reviewing the township’s plan to “manage” the forest and just concluded that the plan, um, flunked.
It’s not that the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Forestry (BOF) couldn’t find something nice to say. The agency’s nine-page March 23 report used the word “commend” eight times. For example, the report summary’s first paragraph reads, “The Bureau of Forestry commends White Township for taking an active role and approach to managing its community forests and trees.”
INDIANA – There go another 43 union jobs in Indiana County. The half-century-old, coal-fueled power plant in Homer City, majority-owned by multinational conglomerate General Electric Co., on Thursday announced it will lay off 16.5% of its 260 workers next month. The plant’s operator helpfully announced what did not account for the corporate-ordered job cuts:
The 11-state, regional climate compact Gov. Tom Wolf proposes to join has generated unwavering opposition from state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, since the governor’s October 2019 announcement. The senator, and fellow Indiana Republican state Rep. Jim Struzzi, have argued that RGGI will cost the county good union jobs and will ruin the economies of power-plant communities.
Last week’s layoffs announcement didn’t change Sen. Pittman’s talking points. He hoped the governor “reconsiders his decision on RGGI in light of this discouraging news and realizes that his regulations will further devastate the working families of my district.”
That message resonates with craft union members who help operate the power plants – and who helped re-elect both lawmakers by comfortable margins last fall.
Their employers in the energy and natural-resources industry rank among the largest contributors to the election campaigns of Mr. Pittman and Mr. Struzzi. To Sen. Pittman’s 2020 reelection, the industry contributed $42,995 (including $3,500 from the Pennsylvania Coal Association) – about 16% of his $269,818.45 total. To Rep. Struzzi, the industry contributed $5,000 to his 2020 re-election campaign – 7.5% of his $66,911.93 total.
The lawmakers also have received non-financial assistance from the industry, according to recent reporting by the Energy and Policy Institute, a San Francisco-based, nonprofit watchdog.
None of this suggests impropriety. Indeed, both lawmakers argue that their opposition to RGGI represents the best interests of their constituents.
Editor’s note: In a December article in The HawkEye, Dr. Radell documented why Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s gradual cutbacks during the 2010s should have made unnecessary the radical retrenchment announced on Oct. 30. In this article Radell offers more evidence that IUP’s avowed “financial instability” cannot be traced fairly to excessive faculty salaries and benefits, to excessive numbers of faculty or to inadequate faculty “productivity.”
In other words, from 2001 to 2020, IUP student enrollment dropped by 28.4% while at the same time IUP full-time continuing faculty decreased by 32.5%. It is important to note that this decline in faculty positions occurred before the official retrenchment set to begin in June 2021.
INDIANA – March 25 marked a year since Indiana County recorded its first Covid-19 case. Three weeks later, the county’s first Covid death had been confirmed. How did the county manage the pandemic’s first year? Where do we go from here?
From a citizen’s perspective, elected county officials tended to follow a public-relations approach to public-health information, similar to the profoundly flawed pandemic response of former President Donald Trump. Like the ex-president’s approach, the local experience exposed weaknesses that warrant changes from local policymakers.
A review of county commissioners’ public meetings last year found that they discussed Covid-19 for the first time on March 11, 2020. Sixteen more public meetings followed in 2020. Ten of the 16 meetings addressed Covid-19 in terms of federal relief and stimulus funding. Four meetings made no mention of the pandemic.
The public meetings supplied few if any numbers of infections or deaths. Neither did the meetings address the pandemic’s toll on public well-being, including employment, food security, domestic violence, suicide, child poverty, drug addiction and other measures of social capital and diseases of despair that have afflicted Indiana County before the pandemic. The public meetings also were muted on Covid-19 mitigation strategies, such as masking, contact tracing, hospital capacity, congregate-care infections, enforcement and related concerns.
“Initially there was an internet connection and then a disconnect,” wrote township Manager Milton J. Lady in a March 25 email. “We tried for 30 minutes to resolve the problem – reboots, wire checks, etc., and no success. The start of the meeting was delayed approximately 10 minutes hoping we could re-establish the connection. I don’t know if it was an internal or external issue. We have done over 30 teleconference meetings without incident – these things happen – hopefully it won’t happen again in the future.”
Yes, these things do happen, and local civic-minded citizens may be justifiably skeptical about hopes they won’t happen again here.