Thursday, August 30, 2012

While We Were Out - The Events of August

The dog days of this warmer-than-usual summer have yielded somewhat to pleasant sunshine, lower humidity, and cooler evenings. Some people may not welcome the gradual transition into autumn that these conditions portend. I personally welcome it - the past month, with the exception of one week, has felt unsettled and a little anxious for some reason.

That one week, Leslie and I spent on the road. The trip was refreshing and felt longer than usual - perhaps this is attributable to not really being under a great deal of time pressure to accomplish what needed to be done. 

We traveled to Cape Cod, then Brooklyn, and drove home across rural northern Pennsylvania. We spent quality time with friends and family, ate in an authentic diner, explored thrift stores and antique malls, saw lots of classic cars, and rode three vintage carousels.

We spent an hour and a half on a Sunday afternoon trying to drive across Manhattan to get to New Jersey. We partook of the most comprehensive bill of fare to be found in Coudersport, PA at 9 PM on a weekday - Sheetz. We dodged crazy truckers along a fog-shrouded Interstate 80 near Clarion. I'll have more to say later. 

In the weeks following our return, I've noticed a few things going on that are worth mentioning and commenting on. Combined with the upcoming election, some of these could make for an interesting next few months.. 

Several Trees Lost in Sewickley

Peebles Street at Beaver Street, Sewickley, circa 2010.
Credit - Google Maps
Leslie and I were helping to organize items for next month's flea market at St. Andrew's Church in Sewickley when we noticed a whole lot of open space where several large old trees used to be. These trees lined Peebles Street adjacent to where the new Village at Sweetwater condominiums are being built. 

I was curious as to why a total of 6 large trees would be felled in such a way - was this related to the condo construction, or did other factors contribute to their demise?

A voice message left for Sewickley Borough Manager Kevin Flannery brought a quick reply. All of the trees taken had fallen victim to disease, to one degree or another. According to Flannery, one tree was being held up largely by its 2 to 3 inch thick bark, the bulk of the tree's innards being completely rotted away.

The intersection today, with trees gone
and new condos going up.
A loss of mature trees like this is tough, especially in a place like Sewickley, where tree-lined streets are part of its distinctive, Victorian-era charm. All is not lost, however - Mr. Flannery stated that new oak trees are slated to be planted as replacements sometime around November, which is apparently the right time to do these things.

It's a shame that these trees had to be lost, but as many communities in the area have known for many years, the effects of disease, root stress, and air quality take their eventual toll. Maybe I'll be fortunate to live long enough to see the replacements approach a more majestic form in kind to their predecessors. 

Thanks to Kevin Flannery for his prompt response to my inquiry.

Lots Happening in Leetsdale..I Think..

The last couple of council meetings in Leetsdale seem to be indicative of continued conflict from within borough administration as to how and by whom the borough should be operated day-to-day. At the July meeting, council approved the settlement of a wrongful termination lawsuit by former junior clerk Sandra Bajsec.

At the same meeting, council tabled from consideration a proposal to advertise to fill the position of Assistant Borough Secretary, a position similar to Ms. Bajsec's that would provide continuity in borough operations, as well as an avenue for succession planning as long-time Borough Secretary Elizabeth Petalino approaches retirement.

According to Ms. Petalino, no action was taken regarding the vacancy at the August council meeting either. There was, however, plenty of discussion about the current workload Ms. Petalino has been recently saddled with, including numerous open records requests filed by former councilman Michael Bajsec. Quoting the Sewickley Herald report on the August meeting:

Because she has been so swamped, Petalino said she hasn't been able to use any of her four weeks of vacation, and has accrued 167 hours of overtime since Jan. 1.

"I am prioritizing what has to be done," Petalino told (Michael) Bajsec.

Early last week I posed the following questions in an e-mail to Council President Joe McGurk and council members Melanie Dunn and Linda Michael, who comprise the Finance Committee that oversees human resources issues:

What is the current status of this vacancy? What factors caused the proposed advertising for the position to be delayed? Considering the Borough Secretary's reported workload and overtime hours, how high of a priority is filling this position relative to the efficient conduct of daily borough operations?

After follow-up phone calls, Mr. McGurk replied Tuesday via e-mail:

The reason Council took the position of Assistant Borough Secretary off the agenda is due to Council being undecided regarding what positions will be filled in late 2012 and Calendar year 2013. Elizabeth Petalino will be retiring in 2013. We expect that by the end of this year we will know in which direction we are headed. In the meantime we have a skilled Borough Secretary with 20 years experience who is capable of handling the workload albeit while requiring her to work some overtime.

As I've written previously, I'm concerned with the operations of a municipal government hinging upon one solitary, though highly qualified, human being. Leetsdale Borough has seen significant internal tumult regarding whether or not it needs a full-time borough manager. The council that hired one, and changed the status quo of borough operations, tainted the process so badly with politics and procedural chicanery that the concept of professional municipal management may have a credibility problem here.

In the wake of the current council's reversal of those changes, Ms. Petalino's workload and overtime this year have been impressive - the equivalent of an extra month of work to keep up. One wonders not only how this translates to efficient operations, but also other factors related to Ms. Petalino's upcoming retirement. Does Ms. Petalino have a pension coming? How will this significant bump in compensation translate to the amount of her monthly pension when she retires? What is the long-term financial impact on the borough (if any) as a result?

There are lots of questions and discussion forthcoming, but perhaps Liz Petalino crystallized the issue best herself. Quoting Sewickley Patch

“What if I get hit by a car? What if something (happens),” she said.

Liz Petalino got to use some of that well-deserved vacation time last week. She took the whole week off, and the borough offices were closed as a result. This is a little disconcerting to me. Government at all levels needs to be accessible and responsive to citizens, at a minimum during the business day. 

Perhaps Mr. McGurk and his colleagues are trying to keep up with other borough business. Well, we did elect them to do this for us. I just think we elected them to be accountable, transparent, and responsive to concerns as well.

I don't know how that happens without an authoritative presence handling day-to-day operations consistently, while providing for continued operations in the event "something happens". I hope that council keeps this in mind, and reaches consensus on a strategy soon.

QV vs. Homeowners - Round 2?

Tina Vojtko has taken off running as the new Communications Director of the Quaker Valley School District. Along with announcing an upgrade to the district's website, Tina has been doing a great job of getting information disseminated for the upcoming school year, generating weekly e-mail updates, and writing press releases.

Ms. Vojtko wrote one release in particular early this month about the traffic study being conducted by an engineering firm, in response to the ongoing citizen outcry concerning the perceived targeting of several Leetsdale properties by the district for expansion of parking and traffic management measures at Quaker Valley High School. I explored the issue at length in a previous post.

Ms. Vojtko included the following paragraph that seemed to set the tone, or underlying purpose, for the press release:

The traffic flow behind the school and especially on Beaver Street during arrival and dismissal times is a safety hazard that must be addressed. This problem is longstanding and there are no simple solutions. As H.L. Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem, there's a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  

Leetsdale Council President Joe McGurk is a busy man. Aside from his other responsibilities, his property is one of those allegedly being eyed by QV for acquisition to accomplish the aforementioned traffic management goals. He appears to have taken a point position in the controversy, which has morphed into not as much a property battle as a disagreement over strategy and use of taxpayer monies. 

With the district trying to frame the debate in advance of the traffic study's release, Mr. McGurk and other concerned citizens sought to re-energize and perhaps re-purpose their efforts as well. At a community meeting earlier this week, those interested and involved became the fledgling Concerned Taxpayers of Quaker Valley School District - a group that, by name only, seems to expand their scope to all manner of district projects and operations. Judging from some of the comments to the Patch story, there's lots to be "concerned" about. The future looks interesting..

While I was browsing at a church thrift store in Massachusetts earlier this month, a book on the sale shelf jumped out at me. When I opened it to a random page, I was presented with another quote from H.L. Mencken, "The Sage of Baltimore", admired by journo school students and non-college graduates alike. The quote is perhaps applicable to the controversy at hand:

Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.

Enjoy your Labor Day weekend.