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.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Bordering on the Bizarre - The Shopping Center Splits

There are 130 separate municipalities in Allegheny County, dividing up the county's 735 square miles in some unique, and in some cases historic, ways.
Like those boundary lines, some of these communities are anachronisms, struggling to maintain relevance and viability amid economic and cultural upheaval. Others are thriving beyond their ability to manage the amount of people, associated traffic, and service demands that are set upon them. Some of those demands spill over into other jurisdictions, requiring changes to the relationships between existing governments, or perhaps the creation of relationships where none previously existed.
This series is designed to illustrate and educate about some of the more interesting ways these boundary lines affect the lives and decisions of citizens, their leaders, and others who make our towns, counties, and state the place that it is - for better or for worse.
This time, I've found several examples of how shopping plazas, malls, and other similar areas challenge the assumptions we as citizens make about who has responsibility for public safety and other services.
Each illustration below provides a little insight, or links to it, into how a particular area became what it is today, and in some cases how the towns responsible for the area cooperated - or not - in the creation of these areas, and how their existence affects a community's quality of life.
There were more of these areas than I thought there would be, but it's not really surprising. In most cases, the involved towns are benefiting jointly from the revenue that their slice of particular retail pie is generating, which would kind of explain their existence in the first place.
There are also a few jurisdictional quirks unique to the Commonwealth that are near to and/or affect those who may frequent a shopping plaza. I've included some of these as well.
I focused on construction that occurred in the midst of a border line, instead of highways where development crept outward across a municipal, or even county boundary. There are plenty of examples of that (Cranberry, Peters Township, Hopewell) to go around.
Your insights are appreciated, as always. Have a great month ahead.
South Hills Village
The "Grand-daddy" of area shopping malls, South Hills Village has been around since 1965, straddling the border between Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair. That line is a straight one, save for the inexplicable little jog in the middle of the mall. Both communities maintain their own separate public safety dispatch centers.
An extra added jurisdictional bonus is the Blue Line light rail station and adjacent Park and Ride lot and garage. Law enforcement for these areas is the responsibility of the Port Authority's Police Department. Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko

Crafton Ingram
Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center
A lone testament to truth in advertising. The boundary dividing Crafton Borough and Ingram Borough runs right through the middle of the parking lot.  Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko

Wexford Plaza
Wexford Plaza
The shopping center's website describes it as "Wexford's main street for over 3 decades".
Considering that the center is split between two municipalities, and that Wexford is for all practical purposes little more than a mailing address, is it any wonder that there's an identity crisis going on here?
Nevertheless, it's interesting that the border of Pine and McCandless runs right through a little breezeway of sorts, as if the gap between buildings was made for it.
Also, the western boundary of North Park is adjacent to the complex. The Allegheny County Police are responsible for law enforcement there. Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko

McIntyre Square
The site of the former McIntyre Shelter for children, the property was sold by Allegheny County and developed in the early 1990's.
A key consideration for approval by the two townships involved was to assure that traffic could flow through the complex without additional negative impact on McKnight Road, AKA the "McKnightmare". This is probably why the access road through the complex connects McIntyre Road to Peebles Road. Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko

The Mess at Robinson
The Mess at "Robinson"
The massive commercial and industrial development starting at Settlers Ridge (bottom right) and extending to RIDC Park West (top left) is collectively referred to by many as "Robinson".
In reality, the complex spans 4 different municipalities, with public safety resources coordinated by 6 different dispatch centers.
This includes the limited access highway that bisects the complex - more about that in the next photo. Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

The Mess at Robinson 2
Exit 59 and Surrounding Area
Driving around in this area can give you a complex, especially if you need help. Knowing where you are can be a challenge, as the line between Robinson and North Fayette Townships basically divides the interchange, as well as the parking lot of Lowe's, just to the south.
If you happen to be on the Parkway or one of the on or off ramps (highlighted in pink), there's a bonus - law enforcement on limited access highways such as I-376 is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania State Police.  Credit: Google Maps / John Linko

The Waterworks - How Not to Do It
A lot of people think that when they're shopping here that they're in Fox Chapel or O'Hara Township - heck, even the company that built the place thought so.
Surprise - the mall, adjacent UPMC St. Margaret Hospital, and the Pittsburgh Water Plant across Freeport Road is actually a somewhat solitary outpost of the City of Pittsburgh, surrounded by the above communities, as well as Aspinwall. The State Police are responsible for nearby Route 28.
The associated traffic, crime and other impacts, without any say in planning or sharing in any of the tax revenue that the City enjoys, was something that had these neighboring towns bristling a bit when the complex was first opened.
Whether or not the situation has improved is unknown, but one thing appears certain - cooperation and coordination didn't appear to be a priority from the start.  Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko

The Waterfront
The Waterfront - Making the Best of It
In contrast, redeveloping the land that hosted the historic, mammoth Homestead Works could have been a significant challenge for the three towns that hosted the steel plant. But as Wikipedia notes, "The Waterfront was predominantly a private investment, although there was a tax increment financing of approximately $25 million approved by three separate municipalities, one county, and one school district, a notable accomplishment".
While the complex's sprawling size and lack of pedestrian walkways in many places makes getting around it a little tough, there appears to be a commitment by the towns who benefit from it's operation to keep it safe and attractive to residents across the region.
The complex employs private security that interfaces regularly with the three municipal police forces. Additionally, officers from those departments provide dedicated patrol of the entire complex during peak periods - without regard for jurisdictional boundaries.
Munhall still maintains its own dispatch center, but the level of cooperation between them and neighbors Homestead and West Homestead remains good. It's not perfect (what is?), but it's a step in the right direction.  Credit: Bing Maps / John Linko