Friday, September 20, 2013

A Seven Year Switch

It’s been seven years since I started writing here.

If you’ve followed this blog over any portion of that time frame, you know that things in my life have changed significantly since it started.

With those changes, my posts have become more infrequent – I hope to do something about this, but can’t make any guarantees.

Nonetheless, I still garner a great deal of satisfaction from research as well as writing, and hope to be able to expand upon those subjects of importance more in the future.

For several reasons, the future resides at a new site –

See you there.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Travelogue, et cetera - Of Apples and Oranges, Peaches, Donuts, Caves, and Kindness

To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.

- Abraham Lincoln, Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois - February 11, 1861

It's been a varied and busy last month or so. This has been more interesting than usual because of all the places we've been over that time frame.

We had the 9-year-old son of Leslie's best friend with us for a week in July. We went bicycling in North Park and swimming at the Sewickley Community Center - activities that were simple, low cost, and a lot of fun.

Penns Cave Hotel
The old hotel at Penn's Cave, Centre Hall, Pa.

We then took Aaron home to New York, and on the way experienced Penn's Cave in rural Centre County. Aside from the cave itself, which is intensely interesting, the wildlife park, original 19th century hotel, and meticulously maintained grounds were also impressive. The money and time for this visit were well spent.

On the way back, Leslie and I enjoyed breakfast at a favorite diner, and then spent some time at an outlet mall in Tannersville, Pa., which is about 10 miles from Ross Township in Monroe County. This was the scene of a shooting at a municipal meeting on August 5 that left three dead and several wounded. This included the shooter, who sought revenge for losing his property to condemnation, the culmination of a local dispute that reportedly lasted over 20 years.

This incident generated some discussion locally about security at municipal buildings, including here in Leetsdale. Borough council seemed concerned primarily with day-to-day access to borough offices, which while a valid concern didn't seem to me to pose the greatest overall threat.

LeetsdaleBoroBldg Exterior
Leetsdale Borough Building - Council Chambers as seen from Beaver Street. Credit - Google Maps

As the attached photos illustrate, the entire council chamber is both proximal and visible to anyone walking or driving by on Beaver Street. I'm wondering how something like that would be viewed by someone doing a professional threat assessment, and what their recommendations might be. Consider that the Monroe County suspect began his rampage by shooting through the walls.

Interior of Leetsdale Council Chambers. Council and other officials sit facing the exterior windows.
Credit - Sewickley Patch

Prior to this, Leetsdale also made news for proceeding to advertise for the hiring of a Borough Manager, which on the surface runs counter to what the majority of council seemed to advocate when they were elected in 2011, and also when they summarily eliminated the position upon taking office in January 2012.

I congratulate Leetsdale Council for apparently recognizing the need for day-to-day, professional municipal management, and acting in a responsible way to fill the position. I say 'responsible' because they are engaging independent, professional assistance to conduct the recruitment.

At the end of July we were once again on the road, this time back to Colorado for the first time in over 2 years. While we spent a good amount of time there visiting with my son, the trip wasn't long enough, especially in relationship to other things we did along the way. While they didn't take an extraordinary amount of time (and yet were very worthwhile), they did eat into our travel goals to the point that it took a good couple of days to recover after we got back - between work shifts, that is.

Both before our departure and after our return, the topic of property tax reassessment appeared in the news again. First, the Tribune-Review reported on July 30 that Allegheny County was returning to a base-year system of doing tax assessments, perhaps headed down the same road that got them sued several years ago. Then this past Wednesday, the Trib reported on Washington County's plans to abide by a court order to re-assess...after 32 years.

The first Trib story pointed out a glaring observation about the archaic nature of taxation and governance in Pennsylvania - “There's no state law that requires periodic reassessments. Pennsylvania is one of a handful in the country that don't.

I resist making comparisons between Pennsylvania and Colorado - the differences in governance are too stark - but apples to oranges or not, it's gotta be said:

Colorado counties re-assess all property every odd-numbered year, as required by state law. Over the 10-plus years that I have owned property there, I've seen my assessed valuation, and along with it my taxes, fluctuate with the condition of the market and the economy over that time frame.

With the near-collapse of the housing market in 2008 came a significant reduction in the market value of the property, and a corresponding reduction in the tax rate after the 2009 reassessment. Essential government services were maintained, but a lot of the fat was cut out of municipal budgets, some layoffs occurred, and some necessary hiring and procurement was pushed back.

Government expanded and contracted with the times and the economy - what a concept. Admittedly though, a good many governments in Colorado don't have unionized employees. More evidence of the need for effective day-to-day management of municipal operations, including budgets and financial planning, in response to these factors.

This doesn't mean that a full-time manager is a guarantee that all will go smoothly. The Leetsdale manager will likely serve at the pleasure of the governing board of elected officials, as most other appointed municipal managers do.

When some of those elected officials engage in potentially questionable activities on their own, it may hinder the ability of a manager or administrator to do their job effectively. This was most recently illustrated by media reports of private meetings by the Cecil Township Supervisors with Range Resources, and by Moon Township Supervisors with Robert Morris University.

So we'll see how things pan out in Leetsdale. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Colorado and Pennsylvania do share a lot of common ground - big energy continues to loom as a threat to rural ways of life, including water, traffic, and development issues. My former next door neighbor, an energy worker and part-time writer, recently chronicled some of the more subtle, but no less significant, impacts of fracking on the human condition. His column made its way into the New York Times.

Edward "The Birdman" Gillman makes his rounds through Downtown Grand Junction, Colorado, as he has for nearly 30 years.

Between hiking and a short trip to an excellent car museum, we saw a sign of hope and kindness while walking to dinner Downtown. One of the city's most eccentric, resilient citizens, whom I wrote about in 2010, was still actively plying his self-appointed trade.

Ball Fruit
Ball Fruit Stand, Palisade, Colorado

We found kindness in the eyes and smile of the woman at the family-owned bakery a few blocks from the house. The place has been in business for over 65 years, and I'm betting that the decor has hardly changed. The smells coming from inside the place while on a late night walk together was a harbinger of the genuine good will we found there the next day.

We found the same kindness from a Colorado woman welcoming us to her family fruit stand with a ripe peach for each of us. Leslie thought it particularly touching that she referred to us as a married couple - something that is an unfortunate rarity in some circles.

 Gage Park Carousel, Topeka, Kansas

More good will came from the staff manning an antique carousel in a city park in Topeka, Kansas. The lady there took the time to speak with us about the carousel and its restored original wooden horses (which Leslie loves), and let me take a closer look at the working Wurlitzer Band Organ. We got to ride two other carousels on the trip - one in Abilene and another at an old amusement park outside of Denver.

We'll probably go back to Abilene for the preserved old west buildings, tourist railroad, and the Eisenhower Library, but also for the pleasant dispositions of the inhabitants. All except for the mosquitoes - they were something else entirely.

Dana Thomas
Dana-Thomas House, Springfield, Illinois - Built 1902

Just before our (literal) sprint home, we spent part of a day exploring some of the treasures of Springfield, Illinois. These included the home and tomb of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the finest examples of the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

We were able to see most of these while walking through the Downtown area. It was on the way back to our car, not far from the State Capitol building, that a young woman walking in the opposite direction looked at us and gave us one of the best memories of the entire trip.

She said, "You make a cute couple".

Sunset Russell KS
Near Russell, Kansas.
Have a great week ahead.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Critical Mass on University Boulevard

Univ Blvd 3
University Boulevard in Moon Township, looking south from the entrance to the Robert Morris University-owned Holiday Inn. Note the absence of a center turn lane and sidewalks, as well as the utility lines in close proximity to the roadway.                        Credit: Google Maps
In the course of growing up and working in the northwest suburbs of Pittsburgh, I learned to develop a love/hate relationship with a stretch of road in Moon Township now known as University Boulevard.

It's been known by that name since 2003, when the Moon Supervisors changed the name, in part, to "promote one of (Moon's) many assets and one of its largest employers, Robert Morris University", according to a Beaver County Times story.

Prior to that, the road went by two names - Narrows Run Road from Thorn Run Road up to the intersection with Brodhead Road, where it became Beers School Road to the end at what is now Business I-376.

Aside from any humor associated with Robert Morris changing from a "beer school" to a "university", the name change does make sense, even if the road itself largely fails to live up to its namesake. 10 years after the fact, there is still no dedicated left turn lane to access RMU's main entrance if coming from the east. This will be a recurring theme down the page.

We All Live in the (old) Yellow Submarine...

As RMU has grown, it has naturally sought more student housing. In late 2011 it acquired the struggling Holiday Inn Airport, where it houses some students and stated at the time of the purchase their eventual intent to turn the facility into a dorm in toto. Those of you who spent your formative adult years in this area may remember the hotel fondly for the Yellow Submarine nightclub in the basement.

RMU's stated 3-year plan to convert the building to a dorm is apparently being accelerated, with the announcement this past week that the hotel will close in preparation for full dormitory operations in August.

They need a zoning variance from Moon Township to accomplish this, and not everyone is pleased, for "varying" reasons. Moon Supervisors were quoted in the media expressing significant concerns over traffic flow on University - specifically with the current amount of cars traveling this state-maintained roadway, and the potential for more with the development of a new Walmart store at the site of the former West Hills Shopping Center. They also don't like the prospect of the property being largely taken off the tax rolls.

Township officials also cited the lack of pedestrian walkways, and the already established difficulty in turning left out of the facility onto University to head toward campus - one factor that an RMU Vice President dismissed by asserting that "students living at the Holiday Inn would not be driving to campus".

It made me wonder how exactly the school would go about accomplishing that - denying campus parking permits to residents of the proposed "Yorktown Hall"? Regardless, a shuttle service still has to make that left turn, and enterprising college students can indeed opt to walk or ride bicycles - just like their younger counterparts at Moon Area High School, right across the street.

That's right - the school complex, which includes Moon's stadium and athletic fields, also sits along this stretch of University, along with several other hotels and commercial establishments that sprung up from the 1960's through the 1980's, when the old Airport was located just a fraction of a mile away. This corridor abuts residential areas to the east as well.

Wait Just a Minute, Bobby U...

The Moon Supervisors held a public hearing on July 1, which they continued to this evening after taking testimony and conducting a lengthy executive session, which caused the meeting to extend past midnight.

Based on these media reports, it seems that RMU's timetable for closing the hotel, laying off 60 people, and readying the building for conversion into a dormitory in time for move-in day did not anticipate these regulatory difficulties. Eyewitness accounts from the meeting seemed to indicate that RMU representatives were surprised by the community push-back.

It sounds as if both the issues and stakeholder concerns are sufficiently complex as to warrant a closer look at...well, everything.

I am inclined to agree - The media reports seemed to indicate that discussions about traffic improvements only focused on sidewalks. While I'm not anything approaching a traffic engineer, I don't think it takes that background to see that it's a mess up there on many fronts, with the potential to only get worse with additional development and traffic loading.
Univ Blvd Master
University Boulevard seen south of Moon Clinton Road, with businesses and other facilities labeled.   Credit: Google Maps / John Linko
Things Can Only Get Better...uh, right?

As illustrated above, there are numerous commercial entrances and exits along the stretch of University south of Moon Clinton Road. Many of these entrances are not coordinated, and many parking lots are isolated from one another. The roadway itself is inadequate - it lacks a center turn lane, which would facilitate turn-offs into these local businesses, as well as provide for a smooth transition into left turn lanes at signaled intersections - like the one at the main RMU campus entrance.

Speaking of signaled intersections, there is half of one at Tiger Trail (the entrance to the school complex) that could be expanded into a 4-way intersection, to provide egress from the collective parking areas of the Holiday Inn, Doubletree Hotel, and Hampton Inn. The existing entry/exit points could be converted into entrances only, with the new intersection providing an additional entrance and a safe, signaled exit for the proposed dormitory and adjacent hotels. I've tried to rough this out in the illustration below.

Univ Blvd 2
Close-up of area at intersection of University and Tiger Trail, with illustration of how traffic could flow through the dormitory and hotels to a new 4-way intersection.            Credit: Google Maps / John Linko
New Kid on the Block

Among the numerous other things that would have to happen to make this feasible are connecting the proposed dormitory's parking areas to those of the Doubletree, and securing easements for the property between the two buildings, which is the former location of Betlyn Heating.

This is the property marked as DACOH /Covelli, which currently hosts a seemingly unoccupied house and outbuilding that likely pre-dates the surrounding development, along with numerous mature trees and a large grassy area in front of the Doubletree.

DACOH Holdings LLC is the new owner as of this past April, according to Allegheny County property records. DACOH is the real estate holdings arm of Covelli Enterprises, a Warren, Ohio-based company which describes itself as the "largest franchisee of Panera and O'Charley's" restaurants.

Does this mean that a Panera Bread or other establishment could be coming to this corridor in the near future as well? What does that portend for the traffic situation?

Moon Township Manager Jeanne Creese, contacted last week, stated that the township has received no development application from the new owners, and had no other information beyond knowing that the property was sold. Messages left for DACOH's Pennsylvania representative were not returned.

Fail to Plan...Plan to Fail

Ms. Creese also stated that PennDOT requires a traffic impact study from those desiring to make development changes that may affect roadway capacity. PennDOT District 11 spokesman Steve Cowan, responding to an e-mail inquiry, stated that a traffic study for the intersection at Business 376 was completed in 2009, and that "We are not aware of any other planned activities on University".

That study was executed for Moon Township's Transportation Authority, described on the Township website as "established in 1987 to promote economic and infrastructure development in Moon Township".

This authority was also in the news recently, as the Moon Area School Board voted July 15 to end its relationship with the authority, a move that find its resolution only in the courts. This appears to be a very shortsighted action on the part of the school district, given what seems to be an obvious need for cooperation to manage traffic literally at the doorstep of the district's core facilities.

Hopping Away 

When thinking about what happens when too many things are going on in one general area at the same time, the term critical mass pops into my head. There are several definitions for this, depending on the context in which it is being used. In physics, it defines "the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction". 

That's what this gradual ramping up of activity along University Boulevard feels like to me, along with the feeling that this traffic corridor is a pot full of water on a stove, and we commuters, consumers, students, and full-time residents are all frogs in that pot.
What happens when the heat starts to get turned up?

Without any improvements in traffic flow management, along with reasonable development controls and other coordination efforts, what will an autumn Saturday look like in the future, when it's quite possible that typical Saturday traffic in and out of Walmart and Giant Eagle will be complicated by a youth basketball tournament at Moon High School and an RMU home football game - all at the same time?

I know one thing - there will be a new Walmart in Economy Borough before there is one in Moon, and it will likely be a lot easier for me to get to.

Hope in Collaboration

There is, however, another definition of critical mass - one from the area of social dynamics: "A sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth". This concept is illustrated, albeit simplistically, by the following:

I'm no theoretical mathematician or economist, but I can see the value of this thinking when it comes to reinventing University Boulevard. I'm wondering if some of the traditional attitudes that may stand in the way of making something unique happen represent the 'blonde' in the film clip - attitudes such as non-cooperation, profiteering, and NIMBY.

This extends not only to those engaged in private enterprise, but also to those governmental entities with a significant operational and financial stake that are saddled with the perception - and/or reality - that they are obstructionist and/or combative.

Included as well is a large, privately held, not-for-profit institution that attempts to frame itself as a benevolent community asset, when the reality leans further toward an enterprise engaged in aggressive growth for the fulfillment of its mission, that is used to getting its way.
That these institutions are both in the business of education brings to bear even further the need for innovative solutions, before the wrong kind of critical mass becomes a reality.

The level of cooperation required, and the multiple of layers of stakeholders involved - Local government, PennDOT, multiple above and below-ground utilities, private property owners - is potentially daunting if substantial yet necessary changes to this multi-purpose corridor are to occur.

But think of the advantages to all if everyone will work not only for themselves, but also for the group.

Best wishes to all stakeholders as the process continues to unfold and evolve.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Spurious Signal Propagation

So much has been going on lately that I started alliterating subheadings in my head to try to keep them straight, and try to organize my thoughts about them.

While pondering them in recent days, they seemed to resemble too much unwanted feedback on a landscape of information and occurrences. I tried to have a serious discussion with my wife about religion - and wound up with a headache instead of anything meaningful. That doesn't usually happen.

All of this reminded me of what in radio terms is called spurious signals, or "undesired signal energy present at any frequency at the output of a device that was not present at the input". It's all the noise that gets in the way of what really needs to come through. More about this later.

Here is a sampling of some of that intentionally organized, yet unwelcome random stuff that stands in the way of real progress in my own personal growth - perhaps more of a picture of how my brain works (or doesn't) than one might like.

Brought to you by two letters of the English alphabet.

Surveillance, Secrecy, Snowden - Past is Present 

Has anyone else noticed that this entire episode started out eerily like the first several minutes of The Bourne Ultimatum, right down to the same media outlet breaking the story?
Hopefully it doesn't follow the plot line completely, even though I'm sure that the reporter Glenn Greenwald and his staff are taking whatever precautions they feel are necessary. The same can be said for their source.

Despite all of the additional revelations and events that have transpired over the last two weeks, I will stick with my first impressions about Edward Snowden after reading the interview that the Guardian conducted with him in Hong Kong, and released two Sundays ago - 

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

Courageous, misguided, naïve, unafraid, narcissistic - these and so many other adjectives have been used to describe the man. I personally think that he did a service to the cause of personal privacy and controls over what the government can find out, and what they can do with it.

I was listening to Mike Pintek talk about this on KDKA last week. He referred to the Pentagon Papers controversy, which this affair is being compared to, as "ancient history".
Please, Mike - we were both alive when it happened, and just because it happened 40 or so years ago does not make it any less relevant. 

Daniel Ellsberg is also still alive, and commented rather astutely in the Guardian on Snowden's actions:

"Snowden did what he did because he recognised the NSA's surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity. This wholesale invasion of Americans' and foreign citizens' privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we're trying to protect."

Ellsberg also makes a comparison of the NSA's activities to that of the East German Stasi during the heyday of the former Soviet bloc. The 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others is an excellent dramatic rendering of what it might have been like to live in a society where the fear of someone listening actually affects the nature of the discourse, regardless of the innocence of that discourse.

That is perhaps the best point I have heard in response to all of the reporting, hype, and outcry - that people will "self-regulate" themselves into what they think is palatable to what the government will tolerate.

This is an affront to the liberty of thought that no free society, that wishes to remain so, can tolerate for very long. The fact that all of this started to become public knowledge on the 49th anniversary of the publication of Orwell's 1984 has apparently not been lost on a lot of people.

The government may choose to throw the book at Edward Snowden, or do nothing at all - let him live out his days with one eye continuously looking over his shoulder. There is, however, enough of an outcry on both sides of the political spectrum - including ACLU litigation and a very popular White House petition demanding Snowden be pardoned - that some action to curtail the NSA's activities will likely have to be considered.

We The People, at least those of us who care deeply about the free expression of ideas and dissenting opinion, will not stand for it. Apparently, many citizens are planning to take to the streets this 4th of July in support of the Fourth Amendment. How appropriate is that?

Sewickley Sewer Street Shutdown Surprise - Prolonged

Over the several months, an ongoing project to connect portions of Aleppo Township and Glen Osborne to Sewickley's sewer system has resulted in several street closures and other traffic-related issues - many not communicated in a way motorists and citizens would probably appreciate or expect.

This trend apparently continued with the closing of Beaver Street in the heart of the Village two weeks ago. The Herald's story, dated Tuesday June 4, announced the closure and detour of Beaver at Logan Street to last two days.

The Quaker Valley School District sent a mass e-mail the previous evening, attempting to quickly notify parents of the closure. Communications Director Tina Vojtko made it a point to write that "we were just informed late this afternoon" of the impending detour - I imagined I could almost hear the banging of annoyed fingers on Ms. Vojtko's keyboard as it was being written.

I can't tell you if I was surprised or not to go to church two Sundays ago and see the closure - and associated heavy equipment - still in place. It was later reported that the "2 day" closure ended a little over a week after it commenced.

From last year's closure of Beaver Road in Glen Osborne, to the recent single-lane restrictions on Route 65 in the same community, up to and including this last closure, whomever is responsible at Sewickley Borough needs to make a better effort at communicating restrictions on traffic flow and other services, especially if those delays take longer than expected.

On my regular commute down Route 65 this week, I took note of the backhoe, fresh trenches, and pipe staged below where the road passes behind Osborne Elementary School. Hopefully something will be said about it..well in advance..if they intend to disrupt traffic again.

Sewickley Photoplay Philanthropy Shortage

The Village Theater Company is approaching a self-imposed deadline to obtain total pledges of $1.5 Million to construct a new movie house in the heart of Sewickley Village.

They've got a way to go to reach that goal by the end of the month. This past week I sent them an example of how a community comes together to make a great space possible - something that transcends the space itself.

Village Theater Company needs the community's help, at a fundamental level, to make this happen. It starts with financial resources, at this point in any amount. Best wishes to them in their efforts.

Penguins Paradoxically Plummet - Still Supportive

After following the Penguins during their successful campaign through a lockout-shortened regular season, and then over the first two rounds of playoffs that were rocky but eventually successful, it was distressing to see them basically not show up at all the first two games against the Bruins.

Since the Pens' season ended, there has been the predictable amount of speculation, announcements, signings, and accolades. Here are a few observations while we're waiting for next season to start:

1. Despite the post-season reaffirmation of Marc-Andre Fleury as the team's "franchise goaltender", this doesn't really explain or forgive his being thrown under the bus by Coach Dan Bylsma during the playoffs. If the team elects to jettison Fleury after saying this, it will  be tough to get behind anything they have to say in the future.

2. As for Coach Bylsma himself, General Manager Ray Shero apparently believes the team needs stability at the coaching level, and that the current coaching staff is best equipped to manage the team through numerous personnel additions, and perhaps some deletions.
Nevertheless, there's a bit of serious evaluation warranted for the way in which the team basically didn't show up for the first 2 games against the Bruins, and how to prevent that in the future.

3. It's nice that we have Evgeni Malkin for a long time, but the team's overall effectiveness will be diminished if they can't re-sign Kris Letang.

4. Sidney Crosby is probably the best individual player in the NHL. Those who play with him seem to agree with that statement - Congratulations, Sid, on your award.
With that in mind, consider the following statement from Wikipedia:

Although the rules do not specify any other distinction between the captain and his teammates, the captain has numerous responsibilities to the team, particularly in North American professional hockey. The captain is a dressing room leader, and also represents the players' concerns to management. During the game, captains are expected to motivate their teams, particularly captains who are stars or franchise players.

Considering the talent that Ray Shero amassed for this year's campaign, including Brenden Morrow and Jerome Iginla - both of whom left their previous teams as the captain - is there room for discussion as to which of the Pens may be best qualified to serve in that role in the future?

Public Station Programming Problem has Solution Starting

Two years ago this week, I wrote about the loss of jazz music programming on the FM airwaves in Pittsburgh. Two recent events have brought the return of this programming to local radio a significant step closer.

Pittsburgh Public Media announced the closing of their purchase of Bethany College's radio station, and the establishment of studio facilities in Pittsburgh's southern suburbs. According to the Post-Gazette, the group estimated that the station could begin broadcasting jazz music and other offerings of the currently online-only Pittsburgh Jazz Channel by sometime next month.

The group singled out Essential Public Media, the owners of the former WDUQ, for selling them some of that station's old equipment to help facilitate the start-up. It was nice of EPM to try to make amends in this way.

The station's current transmitter site will cover mainly the south and west suburbs of Pittsburgh, on 88.1 FM.  The group states that it will be actively seeking additional frequencies and transmitter sites to cover the remainder of the Pittsburgh area, and is seeking public support to gather funds for that purpose.

Coincidentally, this week the FCC announced that they are accepting applications for Low Power FM station licenses, made possible by the passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2011. This could be an avenue for the jazz radio folks to gain access to the FM airwaves, while admittedly at low power, but with the proper transmitter placement could attain the coverage goals that they're looking for.

Great credit should be given to the Prometheus Radio Project for helping to spearhead the passage of the law, and for continued efforts to educate and inform non-profits and community groups about the availability of LPFM to inform, connect, and motivate local communities to action.

Come to think of it, there may be an opportunity for some forward-thinking locals to band together and make a go of it in our immediate area. I can say from personal experience that it can be lots of fun and hard work, with intangible rewards, and sometimes meaning beyond words.

Speaking of signals..Radio Free Leetsdale, anyone?

Enjoy the summer. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Goliath in the Mirror

Flag ceremony on Sunday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Sewickley. From left: Pastor John Dykstra, Vern Sample, Gary Bradel, Don Brandt, Dale Brown.
Flag ceremony on Sunday, May 26 at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Sewickley.
  From left: Pastor John Dykstra, Vern Sample, Gary Bradel, Don Brandt, Dale Brown.
It's been interesting and somewhat satisfying to see Memorial Day have greater emphasis and visibility in recent years.  Regardless of who is responsible, we as a country and a society have a continuing obligation to recognize the sacrifice of those who made possible the security and freedom that we enjoy today.

This is especially important in the face of a greater need for diligence as those security and freedoms are increasingly under attack, from forces both within and outside our nation - sometimes from within our own governments.

Our church makes it a point every year to pay particular attention to the veterans in our congregation, and collectively honor all veterans with a simple, poignant flag-folding ceremony after services.

Those veterans present a week ago Sunday represented service in conflicts ranging from World War II to Vietnam. While in line with the demographic of our small congregation, it would also have been nice to welcome and honor a younger man or woman who has experienced the horror of war or the rigor of military service in recent times.

Had they been there, they would have heard familiar words meant to illustrate the personal courage and faith of the warrior, the power and significance of self-sacrifice, and when it is necessary to make difficult decisions and take tough action.

The centerpiece of this scriptural trifecta is the familiar story of David and Goliath. While I listened to it being read and expanded upon by our pastor, I couldn't help but think about the conflicts that are being fought around the world today - some with increasing ambiguity about who the bad guy really is, and others with grudges that have festered over millenia.
This verse came to mind:

Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
- 1 Samuel 17:36-37 (NIV)

I wondered whether or not the tables are turned in the eyes of many who harbor resentments much older than the United States itself.

Do many of these combatants fancy themselves as David, with a fervor and conviction approaching the Biblical account above? Do they see us as an immense yet lumbering version of the Philistine Goliath?

Do they think that incidents such as the bombings in Boston, or the public slaying of a soldier in London last month, are equivalent to trying to sling a small stone into a sensitive area, perhaps enough to stagger our resolve?

On a day when we commemorate our honored dead, and thank those among us who served, should we be concerned about this?

There are some in our opinion-riddled society who apparently think so. Michael Moore believes that supporting the troops should extend beyond the sentiment extended them on one or two days a year, and offers examples of how that's not happening. A prominent academic expert on the Middle East went as far as to suggest that those who objected to our entry into conflicts they saw as unjust deserve to be remembered alongside those who fought and died in those conflicts.

I understand the need for and the importance of the debate, but it feels as if those involved need to pay homage to the admonitions of Ecclesiastes: "a time to be silent and a time to speak".

In a different vein, the Huffington Post reported on war memorials that are crumbling and/or in danger of being demolished. One of those advocating the restoration of a World War I memorial in Hawaii said something that was equal parts poignant and sad - "We're a nation of short memory".

This probably has a lot to do with why Memorial Day seemed to mean more to me this year. The physical trappings of those clear, decisive conflicts that helped to preserve the freedoms we enjoy as a nation are fading away - whether they be monuments to the dead, or those among us who actually served, fought, and lived to carry their experiences back home with them.

I can count several of these people who influenced my life from childhood to the present. Many of those who came home, raised families, created wealth for themselves, and helped move this country forward are gone, and many others are well into their later years.

As those of my generation plunge into the heart of middle age, perhaps we are all looking for simpler, more concrete symbols of those values that we grew up with  - when the Vietnam era was something that our innocent minds struggled to wrap around. The conflicts since, and our society at large today, have become faster, muddier, and more difficult to keep up with.

We look for something with which to safely moor the storm-wearied ships of our own self-doubt and longing, but find only more questions. We view the dents in our tarnished armor in the mirror of collective memory, and wonder how those in our stead will take up the cause of defending and maintaining what we and those before us have helped to build.

Memorial Day is truly a time for quiet reflection and calm resolve as much as it is for commemoration. This is a responsibility that all generations must bear, with more than just lip service and the waving of little flags.

If you need an example, take a look at any of our local cemeteries. Think of the efforts of those who volunteer to place one of those flags at the grave of every veteran.

Perhaps this is best summarized by a verse from a hymn that we sang in church that Memorial Sunday:

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

Have a good week and month ahead.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The QV School Board Race -
A Contrast of Similarities

Before I say anything about the upcoming primary election to determine candidates for the fall race for the Quaker Valley School Board, a couple of things in the interest of full disclosure:
1.   I am presently registered to vote as an Independent. This is a carry-over from my days in Colorado, where just under 1/3 of the state's active voters are registered as "unaffiliated". I would elaborate on my reasons for this, but that would take too long and veer off the topic at hand. Maybe later.
In Pennsylvania, this unfortunately means that I am shut out of the primary election. So as a consequence of my registration, I won't be voting for any of my fellow citizens on Tuesday. I commend them for their willingness to commit to public service, and wish them all the best.
2.   In 1981, I was a candidate for Quaker Valley School Board in Region I. I managed to cross-file for both the Democratic and Republican ballots in the primary.
I ran a campaign like any other - made lots of phone calls, spray-painted signs in the basement and put them up around the area, paid for print ads in the Herald and radio spots on WMBA, and went to at least one 'meet the candidate' night. I thought that I went through at least the motions of a candidacy pretty well.
I came in second out of three candidates in both races. It was for the best - I was a college dropout in his early 20's who didn't have a clue of what he wanted to do with his life. It showed in other ways as well - I didn't see a lot of the most valuable things, many of which were right in front of me.
So it is with a measure of regret that I tried to look at this year's slate of School Board candidates.
In their public statements and advertising, many of them seem to be saying very much the same thing - maintain the existing high quality of education in tandem with an emphasis on fiscal responsibility. There are, however, subtle differences behind the lofty rhetoric that may distinguish them just a little.
Four of the candidates - Mr. Bunde, Ms. Heres, Mr. Warburton, and Mr. Weicht - have aligned themselves into what could be best described as an unofficial coalition, if the full-page ad in the May 2 Herald, which they all paid for together, is any indication of intent.
That this coalition includes Ms. Heres of Region II, the lone incumbent in the race, says to me that these four represent a "status quo" ticket. It should also be noted that the three attorneys in the race make up the remainder of this group. All four have children currently attending QV schools.
These four seem to be saying that if you like the way things have been going, and want more of the same, they're the best choice to stay that course.
The remaining three candidates may have a different view (otherwise why run - right?), and perhaps to a greater degree than the others have included a theme of community involvement and responsiveness to citizens as part of the message they are trying to send.
One of these three, Ms. Wagner, has extensive experience, but has also adopted a hard-line approach toward tax increases that may (or may not) serve her well. Maybe demographics has something to do with it. More about that later.
The remaining two, Ms. Helkowski and Mr. Kuzma, appear to be the only two QV alumni in the race. Ms. Helkowski is an active parent and homemaker - Mr. Kuzma has other credible experience in government operations.
They seek to represent Region I, which includes Leetsdale, from where the most recent and vocal opposition to current board practices has originated.
This opposition is likely to carry over to whomever assumes Board duties after the November elections. The upcoming Traffic and Safety Task Force report, slated to be presented to the Board sometime this spring, is rumored to not have consensus support of the entire Task Force membership.
It would be unfortunate if this supposed effort to achieve understanding and transparency only created more mistrust and/or frustration.
No doubt that the controversy weighs on all of the candidates, even if they haven't said hardly anything about it publicly. The Concerned Taxpayers of Quaker Valley may be small in numbers right now, but there is plenty of potential for growth if those whom we choose to represent us are perceived as unresponsive or aloof.
So what makes something approaching an ideal public servant? For me, it comes down to being able to actively listen, be flexible, and keep an open mind - not qualities at which I excel all of the time, but nonetheless appreciate the value of, whether in relationships personal, professional, or political.
Speaking of (in)flexibility, and keeping in mind my continuing fascination with boundary lines, I couldn't help but notice that the three regions the Quaker Valley School District is divided into for purposes of Board representation are the same as they were back in 1981.
These boundaries are interesting in that Sewickley Borough, on its own as Region II, commands 1/3 of the board representation, but comprises only 27.5 percent of the district's population, according to 2010 US Census Data obtained from Wikipedia.
Compare this with Region III, whose 7 municipalities include Aleppo Township, the district's second most populous. Fully half of Aleppo's population is over 45 years of age, slightly higher than most QV communities. In neighboring Sewickley Heights, 58 percent are over 45. Perhaps this is a factor in the fiscal stance taken by candidate Wagner, who seeks to represent this region.
What is most interesting to me is that the 3 board members in Region III represent a population of 5,867, out a total district population of 13,934 - that's 42.1 percent.
Only Region I - Bell Acres, Leet, and Leetsdale - comprises a population approaching proportionality with its representation - 30.4 percent of the total.
I'm not saying that there has to be perfection or exacting consistency with how many representatives are allocated to each region. I do believe that the rural character of many district municipalities has been impacted by development, and that the potential for additional population growth in these areas is likely greater than in Sewickley.
Does this mean that an evaluation and possible re-allocation of representatives may be in order? Is there justification to explore electing some Board representatives on an At Large basis? These are questions that the candidates may likely face should they be successful on Tuesday, and again in November.
State Rep. Jesse White penned an excellent column last week, in which he urged all citizens to become involved in the political process by paying attention to who is standing to represent their interests, and participating in the primary election. While his column is directed mainly at protecting the rights of communities to apply zoning to energy development, it's nonetheless a timely reminder for all of us.
Rep. White could go a long way toward accomplishing this end by advocating for open primaries in Pennsylvania, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that. It seems that if I want to make a difference, especially in races like this, I'll have to abandon the ranks of the "unaffiliated" and start showing up at the polls in May.
So should you. Get out and vote this Tuesday...if you can.
Have a great week ahead.