Friday, May 27, 2011

Size didn't matter

According to the last round of campaign expense reports filed before the May 17 election, the combined war chest of Fayette County commissioners Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky was a staggering $112,453. (This for a job that will pay $49,409 in 2012.)

That is 6.7 times as much cash as their Democratic challenger Al Ambrosin, who reported a $16,640 war chest. Of that total, more than half -- $9,000 -- was a contribution from Ambrosini to his own campaign.

So in addition to a decided advantage in name recognition, the Vinces were comparatively flush with cash. Anyone who even remotely follows politics will tell you that name recognition and campaign funding are usually the two key factors in determining who wins.

But not only did Ambrosini, in his first bid for elected office, win. He also ended up as the top vote-getter, against two better-funded and better-known opponents. They even got a front-page Election Day endorsement from the Herald-Standard, which printed this one-sided assessment from Fred L. Lebder, chairman of the county's Democratic Party:

For the Fayette County commissioners race, Lebder predicted that the two Democratic incumbents, Vincent A. Vicites and Vincent Zapotosky, would garner the nominations. They are running as a team. Lebder said he never has seen a more organized campaign than they are running.

So Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. had the money, the name recognition, the newspaper's endorsement, the advantages of incumbency AND the enthusiastic backing of the titular head of the county's Democratic Party.

Ambrosini had none of the above, yet he won -- and won big. What does his win say about the state of Fayette County politics?

Here in the patch, the consensus is that Ambrosini's win represents a sea change that does not bode well for those used to winning elections by stuffing $50 bucks into the pocket of a precinct captain or handing out a flimsy emory board with your name on it. We think more people are paying attention to the issues, and realizing that by electing the same-old, same old, the results will be the same-old, same-old.

County commissioners have very little to do with things like replacing the Masontown Bridge or building the Mon-Fayette Expressway or obtaining state and federal grant funding. They are merely cheerleaders who stick their hand up and say, "Me, too!" Right off the bat, Ambrosini can do that as well as Vicites or Zapotosky.

Need proof of this theory? We would like Vicites to tell us what project in which he claimed involvement WILL NOT happen now that he's been defeated. Will the autism center NOT come to Highlands Hospital? Will the turnpike commission decide NOT to finish the Mon-Fayette Expressway? Will the new Army Reserve center NOT come to the Fayette Business Park operated by Fay-Penn Economic Development Council?

The real power of a county commissioner lies in pretty mundane things: setting a county budget (and millage rate); overseeing the tax assessment, election and planning/zoning offices; funding the county prison; and making appointments to various boards, commissions and authorities that have a tie to county government.

We think a majority of Fayette County voters -- finally -- were hungry for a change from the status quo, which obviously was not "moving Fayette forward" or "getting things done."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Truth in advertising

A few days after the May 17 election, a defeated and groggy-sounding Vince Vicites called the WMBS talk show and put on his good-guy, I-never-go-negative schtick. Then Vicites, obviously unable or unwilling to grasp that voters had decided to give him the boot, went negative.

"I think they need to divulge to the public who they're working with," said Vicites of other candidates in the field. He then went on to imply some sort of political alliance between Democrat Al Ambrosini and Repubican Angela Zimmerlink, who each finished as the top vote-getters in their respective primaries.

Here in the patch, the only similarity we see between Ambrosini and Zimmerlink is that they each have no love for Vicites. Ambrosini was obviously trying to take a job away from Vicites and/or his running mate Vince Zapotosky. Zimmerlink has been frozen out of county decision-making by Vicites and Zapotosky, which makes any claims bu them or their supporters that all three commissioners "need to work together" dubious at best.

The old saying that, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" would certainly seem appropriate to describe any relationship between Ambrosini and Zimmerlink. And if Ambrosini is willing to say "Hello" to Zimmerlink, that's red-carpet treatment compared to the cold shoulder she's gotten from Vicites and Zapotosky.

The seed that Vicites is trying to plant, though, is that Ambrosini is somehow not a real Democrat, that the man who desposed him is -- gasp! -- willing to work with a Republican! That's funny, but wasn't it Vicites who once took a $20,000 campaign contribution from another Republican, former commissioner Joe Hardy? How does a loyal Democrat do something like that?

Still, as flawed as his premise is concerning Ambrosini and Zimmerlink, we're glad that Vicites issued a call for complete transparency. The next time he calls his buddy Mark Rafail on WMBS, we would like Vicites to offer his explanation on something that caught our eye.

While reading the Herald-Standard story "Fayette County commissioner candidates file expense reports" on May 15, we noticed that Joseph A. Bezjak of New Geneva was listed as making a $100 contribution to the Marilyn E. Cellurale for Commissioner Campaign.

Bezjak is a longtime Democrat who just happens to be the uncle of current Democrat Commissioner Vince Zapotosky. Cellurale was running as a Republican candidate for county commissioner.

Why would a close relative of Zapotosky, who was Vicites' running mate, be contributing to the campaign of a Republican seeking the same office? Wouldn't you think that Bezjak would funnel every last nickel he had to the duo who were "getting things done?"

We suspect that in addition to working to get themselves re-elected, Vicites and Zapotosky had more than a passing interest in the outcome of the Republican primary. We believe that they would have liked nothing more than to knock Zimmerlink out of the running.

The next time Vicites starts talking about who was working with whom, he should start with a full vetting of the relationship between the team that was "getting things done" and Cellurale, beginning with Bezjak's contribution to her campaign.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Please wipe this egg off our face

Somebody in the patch should pick up the telephone -- if they can get through on the party line -- and give the Herald-Standard a clue. When it comes to local politics, the newspaper is as out of touch as Snoop Doggy Dogg would be if asked to sing a polka.

In the just-concluded primary election races for Fayette County commissioner, not only did the newspaper fail to endorse top Democratic vote-getter Al Ambrosini and top Republican vote-getter Angela M. Zimmerlink; it pretty much trashed each of them in the process. While completely dismissive of Ambrosini, the newspaper was both dismissive and disrespectful of Zimmerlink, which is totally unwarranted.

The high command at 8-18 E. Church St. in Uniontown still seems baffled that their favorite son, four-term incumbent Democrat Vince Vicites, and Republican endorsee Marilyn Cellurale each finished in last place.

In an attempt to wipe massive amounts of egg off its collective face, the Herald-Standard filled its editorial space ("Unpredictable," May 20) with some spin that sounded like it came straight from the Vicites damage-control machine.

The newspaper bemoaned the fact that in this year's May 17 primary election, "turnout was abysmal at 26.7 percent of registered voters." Taking another swipe at Ambrosini, the Herald-Standard further stated that "even he has to be somewhat mystified that he won despite getting only about 13 percent of votes from registered Democrats and about 7 percent of the county's total population."

The implication, of course, is that Ambrosini somehow benefitted from low voter turnout. But voter turnout has always been low, and we would love to see the newspaper analyze prior elections. We guarantee you that Vicites never won with 90 percent of Democrat votes or with the support of even 50 percent of the county's total population.

If the Herald-Standard finds it shocking that voter turnout in this year's primary election was only 26.7 percent, do they also find it shocking that in the 2007 GENERAL ELECTION that put Vicites in office for a fourth term, voter turnout was only 28 percent? Don't take our word for it; check out "Fayette County may still have electronic voting issues," Tribune-Review, Nov. 22, 2007, at

Voter turnout in this year's primary was just 1.3 percent less than in the real-deal election that put Vicites and fellow Democrat Vince Zapotosky in office for a four-year term. So what's the big deal?

We also have to debunk another spin that proves the Herald-Standard has its head in the sand. In the same post-election editorial, the newspaper focused on the drop in number of Democratic and Republican votes in the races for county commissioner. It noted that in 1999, there were 37,713 Democratic votes, compared to 25,857 in this year's primary. On the Republican side, it said the number of votes slid from 9,513 to 5.850 in the same period.

Please note that this assessment is only about the number of VOTES, not the number of VOTERS. We postulate that part of the slide, and perhaps a big part of it, is the fact that more voters are plunking for their candidate of choice. (We know for a fact that many folks we talked to plunked for Ambrosini).

Insiders have plunked for years, giving their candidate a decided advantage, but now the tactic has mass appeal. Here's how it works: In the Democratic and Republican primary elections for county commissioner, registered voters of each party get to cast TWO ballots, because their parties are each nominating two candiates for the fall election.

But even though you are allowed to vote for two, you don't have to. If you want to, you can only vote for one. If you really wanted to ensure that Ambrosini got elected, it made no sense to cast a vote for him AND for Vicites, or for him AND Zapotosky. Supporters of Vicites and Zapotosky, who were running as a team, obviously knew the value of plunking. How else do you explain that one member of the team (Zapotosky) got several hundred more votes than the other (Vicites)?

Here's an easier way to illustrate the phenomenon: If 20,000 Democratic voters head to the polls and they each vote for two Democrat commission candidates, a total of 40,000 votes gets cast. But if each of them only votes for one Democrat candidate -- i.e., they plunk -- a total of only 20,000 votes gets cast.

You can bet that if Vicites had won with only 7 percent of the county's population voting for him, with voter turnout of "only" 26.7 percent, he would have done handstands on Route 40 nonstop from the courthouse to Fort Necessity.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Different Vince, same result

Fayette County voters may have dispensed with long-time incumbent county commissioner Vince Vicites on Tuesday, in favor of newcomer Al Ambrosini, but the Vicites tradition is likely to live on in the person of Vince Zapotosky.

It was a three-man primary with two winners, so it was a foregone conclusion that unless voters fell for the "getting things done" slogan, one of the Vicites-Zapotosky tandem was going to wave bye-bye to elected office.

Anyone hoping for a compete U-turn from the past is unlikely to see it if Zapotosky wins a spot in the fall. Part of the reason that Zapotosky and Vicites were able to forge such a close bond is that they are so much alike, especially when it comes to political governance and opportunism.

Take a trip down memory lane to the last county commissioner election, in 2007. Zapotosky had no qualms about forging a "team" with former commissioner Sean Cavanagh, who had been Vicites' arch-nemesis for the eight years they simultaneously served in office. Zapotosky said some pretty nasty things about Vicites, but when the dust settled, and after Zapotosky had won election using a pile of Cavanagh's campaign cash, a strange thing happened.

Zapotosky and Vicites became pals and allies. Here in the patch, we play by a different set of rules. Someone says something nasty about you, you don't forget or tolerate that. You sure don't consider that person a friend.

So why would Zapotosky, the trasher, want to be friends with Vicites, a guy that he obviously had a low opinion of? And why would Vicites, the trashee, even want to be friends with Zapotosky, who had bad-mouthed Vicites and just been allies with Vicites' top political foe, Cavanagh? The answer goes back to our theory that they easily could do so because they are so much alike.

They both make decisions based on their own political well-being and influence (cross reference their board appointees and campaign contributors, and you'll see what we mean). They both take credit for work done by someone else (state and federal legislators really provide the money for nearly all projects). They both have no problem in using others to accomplish their goals, then unceremoniously casting them aside (Cavanagh and one-time Vicites strategist Martin Griglak immediately come to mind).

Their philosophical kinship is perhaps best evident in the fact that they are both products of old-school Fayette County Democratic machine politics. In real-life political science, they have attended the same classes, shared instructors and graduated with the same degree. As a result, they approach elected office with the same world view, a view that has unfortunately governed Fayette County for at least the past 40 years.

Now that Vicites is leaving power, watch the bulk of his supporters and campaign contributors gravitate to Zapotosky, even though there was noticeable overlap already. Expect some of them to reach out to Ambrosini, as well, in hopes of influencing him to make decisions in their best interest. We'll be watching to see if Ambrosini takes that bait, but we're hopeful he won't.

If Fayette County is ever going to move ahead, for all its citizens and not just a few, it needs to move away from the type of politics that Zapotosky represents.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Brother, can you spare a job?

Now that his 16 years of "moving Fayette forward" are about to end, given the results of Tuesday's election, folks here in the patch are wondering if outgoing county commissioner Vince Vicites will find work in the county where he's been "getting things done."

It is no secret that Vicites has been telling us for years that things are on the upswing. Stutta Bubba over in House 222 even saved the last-minute campaign mailer sent out by Vicites and his running mate Vincent "Vince Jr." Zapotosky.

Based on the boasts listed in that slick mailer, Vicites should have no problem finding private-sector work in the county he headed since 1996. In the Vicites-Zapotosky campaign's own words: "Over the last two decades, Fayette County has experienced over $1 billion worth of infrastructure investment in the manufacturing sector (annual average of over $60 million). This investment has created and retained almost 8,000 jobs and generated new payroll dollars of almost $150 million annually."

Of these 8,000 jobs, surely Vicites can snag one, don't you think? With $150 million in new payroll dollars flowing in each year, it should be a given that employers will line up to hire Vicites, who after all holds a master's degree and, in prior campaigns, has trumpeted the fact that he is "dedicated, educated and experienced."

Which lucky local employer will win out in the race to get Vicites? Competition should be rather stiff to acquire someone of his calliber. Viewing the flip side of the Vicites-Zapotosky mailer could provide some clues:

In the "Oil & Gas" category, the contenders to hire Vicites are BOS Solutions, GHX Industrial, Valerus, Calfrac, Express Energy, R&H Supply, Holloman Corp, Chevron and Universal Wells. According to Vicites and Zapotosky, they have over 500 new jobs.

But maybe Vicites will land under "Department of Defense and Homeland Security," where the pickings are Trident Systems, BAE Systems, United First Responders, Hybrid Learning Systems, Ultra Electronics, Boeing and Advanced Acoustic Concepts. Vicites and Zapotosky told us they have 200 new jobs.

If that's not possible, perhaps Vicites can work in at one of the "Customer Support Centers" of which he is so proud: Vertex Outsourcing, Teleperformance, TeleTech or Commonwealth Marketing Group. Vicites and Zapotosky said they have 1,650 new jobs.

If none of the above is to his liking, Vicites could land at one of the "Other Companies of Note," including Power Piping, Tri-State Biofuels, EbTech, Johnson Matthey, PTC Software, Hunter Panels, First Rate Metal Fab or Brownsville Marine Products. Vicites and Zapotosky told us they have over 330 new jobs.

We're not the ones who were telling voters, "Good things are happening in Fayette County. New industries are springing up. New jobs are being created." That was Vicites and Zapotosky.

Since things are going so swimmingly well in Fayette County, it should be no problem for Vicites to find gainful local employment in the private sector, where he's been among those telling the rest of us there are plenty of great jobs. We'll see if he ends up there ... or in another government job.

Bet on the latter.

Guess who "got things done" on Election Day?

Facts don't lie -- and here are the only worthy ones from today's Herald-Standard election night stories:

According to unofficial election results, with 98 out of 98 precincts reporting, Ambrosini received 9,256 votes, or 36 percent of the Democratic tallies. Zapotosky received 8,561 votes, or 33 percent, receiving the second party nomination. Vicites received 8,040 votes, and 31 percent.

According to unofficial election results with 98 out of 98 precincts reporting, Zimmerlink was the top vote-getter for the Republican nomination with 2,743 tallies, or 40 percent while Lohr received 2,274 votes and 33 percent. Cellurale secured 1,833 votes and 27 percent.

So despite the newspaper's shameful editorial endorsements, which were painfully unfair to Democratic newcomer Al Ambrosini and incumbent Republican Angela M. Zimmerlink, voters here in the patch -- and throughout Fayette County -- showed the door to incumbent Democrat Vince Vicites and Republican wannabe Marilyn Celllurale.

The newspaper's endorsement of Vicites and Cellurale was so hearty -- or should we say foolhardy? -- that folks here in the patch wondered if they weren't wearing Vicites T-shirts and hoisting Cellurale signs as they put fingers to keyboard.

As we predicted a week ago, the Democratic race turned into an every-man-for-himself affair, in which the Vicites-Zapotosky "team" unraveled. (While we erred in picking Vicites as the likely survivor, we were correct in stating that teams never win.) This marks the second time that Zapotosky's running mate didn't make it, so anyone who is approached about doing this in the future should view it as the kiss of death.

On the Republican side, we never doubted for a minute that Zimmerlink would prevail, although the Herald-Standard threw everything but the kitchen sink her way. What the newspaper has done to her since she raised questions about using tax dollars to fund Fayette County TV is nothing short of the consummate hatchet job. She remains the county's premiere watch dog, a truly independent elected official who refuses to accept campaign contributions from outside her immediate family, and we're glad to see that voters acknowledge that fact.

It is a huge accomplishment for Ambrosini to bitch-slap the team that claimed to be "getting things done," dispatching four-termer Vicites in the process. It will be interesting to see if Zapotosky, a one-termer who probably hasn't worn out his welcome as much as Vicites, is able to survive in the fall. A key to that will be whether Lohr, who has run for commissioner multiple times dating back to 1995, and who came closest running as an independent aligned with former commissioner Sean Cavanagh, can pull a Bob Casey Sr. and finally win the spot he's coveted.

Unlike Vicites and Zapotosky, who need a paycheck and don't know how to do much exept press the flesh, Ambrosini really doesn't need the job. He's retired and is financially secure, which means he will be able to make decisions based on what is right, not on how many votes he may gain or lose. In that respect, he mirrors Zimmerlink, who has never had the support of any of the county's entrenched political infrastrucutre -- and who keeps proving that when you do the right things, it really isn't needed.

On Election Day, we were happy to see that the ones who were really "getting things done" were Zimmerlink and Ambrosini.

Monday, May 16, 2011

We saw it coming

To no one’s great surprise, the Herald-Standard followed suit with our prediction and endorsed incumbent Democratic county commissioners Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky. That was as much a given as the fact that Fayette County’s coal mines are all tapped out.

The newspaper’s biggest criticism of Zapotosky was that he needs to come out from behind Vicites’ shadow. They even referred to Zapotosky as the “junior partner” in the duo’s alliance -- which had one guy at the fire hall wondering if we should start calling Vicites “Vince Sr.” and Zapotosky “Vince Jr.”

We found it interesting that in opting not to endorse challenger Al Ambrosini, the newspaper focused on his failure to hold Vicites and Zapotosky accountable for nixing a scheduled property reassessment two years ago, which wasted nearly $600,000 of taxpayer money.

In not doing this on the campaign trail, the Herald-Standard high command opined that Ambrosini wasted a “golden opportunity” to hold Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. accountable. What we’re perplexed about is this: If the newspaper feels the cancelled reassessment was a bad move, why are they focusing responsibility on the guy who DIDN’T made that decision?

We all know that periodic reassessments are the only way to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of property taxes. But it was Vicites and Zapotosky who made a blatant political calculation and canceled one after a half-million dollars had been spent.

By doing this, they ensured that everyone here in the patch pays a disproportionately higher share of property taxes. That’s because in a reassessment, the folks who live in higher-priced homes in higher-priced areas get a higher tax bill. The people who made out in this decision by Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. are those who live in places like Heritage Hills. And folks like Joe and Maggie Hardy, whose opulent Nemacolin Woodlands Resort (and soon-to-be-casino) remains assessed at a ridiculously low $38 million.

If the Herald-Standard thinks that reassessment is that important of an issue, why would it recommend the re-election of two politicians who killed it? Faulting Ambrosini on this one is like faulting New Zealand for bombing Pearl Harbor and starting World War II.

In endorsing Vince Jr. -- a.k.a. Zapotosky -- the Herald-Standard offered up this: He has taken the lead on several issues, particularly the formation of Fayette County TV …

While we would like to have seen a listing of those “several issues,” the mention of Fayette County TV only proves our point about the conflict of interest involving the use of county tourism tax dollars to revive the old HSTV operation. Here’s the skinny on how that works, as deduced from news reports: Tourism tax dollars ($70,000 so far) are funneled through the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau and awarded by the Fayette County Tourism Alliance to the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce’s nonprofit entity, the Redstone Foundation.

The Redstone Foundation then apparently contracts with Striped Shirt Media, the company operated by nice-guy Wes Ellis -- who is the son of one of the owners of Calkins Media, which owns the Herald-Standard -- to operate Fayette County TV, using the old HSTV facilities and building. Rent for that building is then paid to the Herald-Standard, thus helping bail out the newspaper from what ended up being a horrendous business decision to launch HSTV.

By wholeheartedly supporting the use of county tourism tax dollars to operate Fayette County TV, Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. have forged a bond with the newspaper that has reaped innumerable dividends. You’ve got to hand it to them; this may be the single biggest accomplishment of their four-year term.

On the other side of the coin, however, sits poor Angela Zimmerlink, who dared to question the propriety of this business arrangement -- and who has been feeling the wrath of the Herald-Standard ever since. Thus it is no surprise that she failed to get the newspaper’s endorsement in Tuesday’s Republican primary.

What is surprising, though, is the swiftness and ferocity with which the newspaper is attempting to make Zimmerlink Public Enemy No. 1. That worm turned on a fateful day last fall when, acting on information she read in the Herald-Standard, Zimmerink had the audacity to ask questions about -- you guessed it, class -- the aforementioned Fayette County TV.

Prior to that day, the Herald-Standard had nary a bad word to say about Zimmerlink, the Republican commissioner who serves as minority voice on the three-person board. Now, the newspaper says “her decisions (of the last four years) seemed to be made more with politics in mind than with the welfare of county residents,” and her “job performance over the past four years has done nothing to merit another term as a county commissioner.”

Au contrare, Herald-Standard. Here’s the problem with your logic: Zimmerlink has been the minority commissioner for the past four years. She’s been frozen out in all decision-making by Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. When she has had a good idea -- like the county’s Marcellus Shale Task Force -- they ignored it. (And the Herald-Standard couldn’t wait to give unprecedented voice to a Zimmerlink task force critic.)

When it comes to job performance, Vicites and Zapotosky have a track record littered with taking credit for money and projects brought to fruition by politicians at the state and federal level, and short on any individual accomplishments that have lifted Fayette County from its perpetual standing at the bottom of the heap. But when it comes to playing politics, Vince Jr. has a doctoral degree and Vince Sr. is as close as you can get to professor emeritus. Zimmerlink, comparatively, is a babe in the woods.

One final note regarding the endorsements: It didn’t escape our notice that while Ambrosini’s substantive business experience -- 30 years working for Allegheny Energy management, 35 years renting townhouses and apartments, 16 years as a business consultant -- weren’t enough to get him an endorsement on the Democratic side, Republican candidate Marilyn Cellurale won an endorsement largely because she has “experience running Cellurale Garden Center in Dunbar Township, and her business background should be an asset.”

We wonder if Cellarage’s “business background” includes knowledge of county zoning laws and when it is necessary to get a special exception permit before opening a business.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The crystal ball says ...

In an attempt to foresee the future, we borrowed 99-year-old Stutta Bubba's crystal ball -- one of her prized possessions from the old country -- and used it to predict the Herald-Standard's endorsement in the three-way race for two Democratic nominations for Fayette County commissioner.

If past patterns hold true, the newspaper will make this endorsement on Sunday, two days before Tuesday's primary election. That's the earliest it can publish something that it hopes will have an impact, while at the same time sucking up every possible advertising dollar from all candidates in the field.

We wiped off the fingerprints from Stutta Bubba's crystal ball, which she says was last used to predict whether we could believe what officials were telling us about the Fayette County Strategic Plan. You remember that, don't you? It was the dog-and-pony show whereby a gaggle of elected and appointed officials proclaimed that through their superb planning efforts, Fayette County was indeed on the move toward greatness.

"Zey patted zemselves on ze back zo hard, I tink zey broke zum bones," recalled Stutta Bubba, her wink proving that she didn't fall for it.
The Strategic Plan turned out to be, well, not so strategic -- unless you consider the region's highest unemployment rate and the second-biggest population loss in Pennsylvania to be worthy goals.

Back to the endorsement: We don't need a crystal ball to predict that the Herald-Standard will wholeheartedly endorse incumbents Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky. Seeking to throw everyone a bone, we predict they will praise challenger Al Ambrosini as a good guy with some good ideas, and as someone they would encourage to run for a different office to gain more experience.

We predict they will pay vague homage to the job done by the Vinces, and say that this
"team" deserves four more years to show what it can do before being shown the door, blah, blah, blah.

We can't foresee exactly what accomplishment they could praise the Vinces for, considering that any attempt to do that would be a real stretch of the facts. (Asking state or federal officials for grant money doesn't count in our book, because any county commissioner can and will do that.)

But you can be sure that one thing WON'T be mentioned: The $50,000 grant of county "tourism" money that rescusitated the newspaper's mothballed HSTV operation. When Republican commissioner Angela Zimmerlink raised a very legitimate question about the propriety of tax dollars ultimately being used to rent a newspaper-owned building, it didn't take long for the Herald-Standard to turn on the county's premiere watchdog, saying she had "turned into the worst kind of politician."

That's a supremely unfair assessment, of course, but it shows what can happen when you question the newspaper's revenue stream. Vicites and Zapotosky saw, and see, no problem with the arrangement. This may be because the new "tourism" channel has made a priority of broadcasting -- you guessed it -- Fayette County commissioner meetings! (We're still trying to figure out what those meetings have to do with tourism promotion, unless Vicites starts showing up dressed as Gen. George C. Marshall and Zapotosky dons the attire of the Marquis de Lafayette.)

In his Dec. 5, 2010 column entitled, "Ethics issues taken seriously," Herald-Standard editor Mark O'Keefe actually wrote, "If we can make money by renting one of our buildings, we have to do it." Does anyone besides us see the irony between that statement and the headline? The likely truth is, if any reporter or editor owned a building and entered into the exact same rental arrangement, he or she would probably be fired. (We hear former editor Mike Ellis was made to walk the plank for his involvement in a TV channel in Latrobe, 50 miles away.)

While Zimmerlink was being castigated as "the worst kind of politician," the Herald-Standard put on its kids gloves and served up a nice little fluff piece entitled, "Vicites witnesses other side of jury duty" (Jan. 11, 2011). In it, we got to read big news such as:

Vicites said he didn't make any attempt to get out of fulfilling his duty.

It was the first time the commissioner was called to serve on jury duty.

Although Vicites did not get chosen to serve on any of the juries that heard cases. he fulfilled his civic duty.

We can just hear someone saying, "Stop the presses!" for that news.

By the way, a new round of Fayette County tourism grants was awarded in late April, 24 to be exact. The Brownsville Area Revitalizatin Corp. got $5,000 for Nemacolin Castle. The Connellsville Area Historical Society got $9,000 for Gibson House. The Fayette County Agricultural Improvement Association, which runs the Fayette County Fair, got $39,902. The State Theater Center for the Arts in Uniontown got $30,000.

And the Redstone Foundation got $20,000 of these tourism funds "for administrative expenses, contracted services with the television studio, rent, purchasing of editing equipment, and the cost of making a short video."

It wouldn't surprise anyone in the patch if the "short video" ended up being used to promote the broadcast of Fayette County commission meetings on Fayette County TV.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Slogan versus reality

Words are funny things. You can say just about anything, but the hard part comes when the discerning listener asks if there are any facts to back up what he or she has just heard. So it was in the patch a couple days ago, when we tuned in to WMBS thinking the Pirates-Dodgers game would be on.

We instead were treated to a different kind of play-by-play, from incumbent Fayette County commissioners Vince Zapotosky and Vince Vicites. They were aided by some friendly home cooking by their own Fayette County Zoning Hearing board appointee (recently elevated to talk show host) Mark Rafail.

Listening to the Vinces, one would think that under their combined leadership, Fayette County has become the land of milk and honey. With absolutely no comparative statistical basis to support any of these contentions -- and Rafail wasn't going to try pinning them down, even if it wasn't paid airtime -- here are some things they said:

"We are moving in the right direction." -- Vicites.

"We're getting things done." -- Zapotosky.

"It's been a great three-and-a-half years ... The future of Fayette County is promising." -- Zapotosky.

"Leaders must be positive, not negative." -- Vicites.

And, of course, they proffered the usual pablum about taking the high road during the campaign and not making any derogatory comments. (We wonder when someone is going to call Bob Foltz, the deposed longtime host of "Let's Talk," to ask his opinion of those statements.) By the way, it's a little trick of the trade in Fayette County politics that you always use surrogates to do the real dirty work, so that as a candidate you can claim that you are above such things.

People who live in Fayette County should take a good, hard, objective look around.

Do you think we are "moving in the right direction," as claimed by Vicites, who has been the coxswain on this boat for 16 long years? In what category are we better off now than when Vicites first won election in 1995?

Do you think it has been "a great three-and-a-half years," and that "we're getting things done," as claimed by Zapotosky? The fact that he has been gainfully employed for the past three-and-a-half years may make it a great period for Zapotosky, but what about everyone else?

On Tuesday, Zapotosky said of his newfound alliance with Vicites, of whom he was sharply critical in the 2007 primary election, that as commissioner you must do a job "and work with whomever that may be." If that's true, perhaps someone should inform Zapotosky that Angela Zimmerlink, too, was elected as a county commissioner -- albeit as a Republican.

In the future, we challenge Vicites and Zapotosky -- and more importantly, the folks who have an opportunity to question them -- to back up their vague assertions with statistical facts. They should be able to tell us where Fayette County ranks in terms of job creation, average income, poverty rate, etc., and how that standing has improved since they took office.

Anyone who boldly proclaims that they are "getting things done" should be able to back it up, don't you think? Otherwise, the slogan doesn't match the reality.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Favorite sons

No one here in the patch ever went to journalism school, but we watched enough episodes of "Lou Grant" back in the 70s to know that newspapers are supposed to be fair and unbiased in their news coverage. That's why someone at the fire hall, after his fifth Iron City, merrily suggested that the new Fayette County TV operation air those reruns as part of its public programming quest.

"Somebody please tell the Herald-Standard, or the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, or the Fayette County Tourism Alliance, or Vicites and Zapotosky, or the Fayette Chamber of Commerce, or the Redstone Foundation, or the new nonprofit that's being created to take over from the Redstone Foundation, or whoever is running that station, that 'Lou Grant' would be great public service," said Big Mike.

When the bartender wanted to cut Big Mike off because he seemed too confused, his drinking buddies came to the rescue, saying that he was not on some inebriated spiel, and in fact none of them were absolutely sure who was running the TV channel.

The provocation that led to the call for a "Lou Grant" refresher course is the newspaper's obvious news coverage tilt toward favorite sons Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky. Real newspapers go to great pains to appear fair to all candidates in their election coverage.

So how does the Herald-Standard explain its front page on Sunday, May 1, which prominently featured a photo of Vicites and Zapotosky in a story titled, "Battle royale: Commissioner candidates outline platforms"? The story also included separate head shots of all three candidates in the Democratic primary race: Vicites, Zapotosky and newcomer Al Ambrosini.

But why did Vicites and Zapotosky warrant favored treatment by way of a separate photo, with this prominent cutline: "Incumbent Fayette County Commissioner Vncent A. Vicites gestures as he responds to questions during a recent candidates forum before the Herald-Standard editorial board. Seated next to Vicites is Fayette County Commission Chairman Vincent Zapotosky. Both are seeking the Democratic nomination for commissioner in the May primary."

So is Ambrosini, but he had to settle for the standard head shot.
Head shots were also all the newspaper gave each of the three Republican commission candidates -- incumbent Angela Zimmerlink, perpetual candidate Dave Lohr and two-time candidate Marilyn Cellurale -- in their separate election story.

Perhaps Mark "Please Don't Question My Ethics" O'Keefe, the Herald-Standard editor, can explain why only two of the six candidates running for Fayette County commissioner warranted a separate front-page photo.
And while he's at it, we would like for O'Keefe to expound on the matter of which lawsuits warrant mention in news stories.

In the aforementioned story on GOP commission candidates, by the third and fourth paragraphs readers are reminded, "Zimmerlink is suing her fellow commissioners, Democrats Vincent A. Vicites and Vincent Zapotosky, alleging the two majority commissioners cut her out of county business, stifled her right to free speech and retaliated against her when she criticized their way of doing business.

"Zimmerlink also was the target of litigation filed by Cellurale, and the county's insurance company settled without going to court."

(We will leave our analysis of the Cellurale-Kriss zoning feud for another day, but be assured that Zimmerlink is the least of our concerns in that long-simmering matter.)

But when we scoured the Herald-Standard story on the Democratic commission candidates, we found no mention of another lawsuit, this one filed by former election bureau director Laurie Lint against -- can you beleive it? -- Vicites and Zapotosky!

Here's the gist of that one, taken from the Herald-Standard's own story of March 12, 2010 and entitled, "Former election director files suit":

The former director of the Fayette County election bureau sued the county and two Democratic commissioners on Thursday, claiming she was fired last year because she is a Republican.

Laurie Lint of Fayette City was fired in October by commission Chairman Vincent Zapotosky and Commissioner Vincent A. Vicites. The majority commissioners said at the time that Lint had ongoing problems with her job performance.

However, Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink, the county's Republican representative, disagreed with the firing and supported implementing a plan to improve operations in the office.

In the lawsuit, Lint's attorney, Samuel Cordes, said Zapotosky and Vicites violated her "federally protected right to not have her employment conditioned on a pledge of alligiance to a party or candidate she may not prefer to support."

Only an idiot would believe the Herald-Standard newsroom is not aware of Lint's lawsuit against Vicites and Zapotosky. The question is, "Why would they fail to mention it?"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On May 18, who will ask, "What happened?"

With the May 17 election just one week away, seasoned political observers here in the patch are speculating on which incumbent Democratic Fayette County commissioner is going to outfox the other.

Sure, everyone has seen the campaign signs and heard the radio advertisements, and is aware that, on the surface at least, Vince Vicites and Vince Zapotosky are running as a team. But everyone, including ardent supporters of each of them, also knows that teams never win.

Former commissioner Fred Lebder ran as a team with Vicites and then with lawyer Richard Bower, but was not able to pull either of them into office along with him. Four years ago, Zapotosky ran as a team with former commissioner Sean Cavanagh, but they weren't able to nail down both Democratic nominations in the primary.

On the GOP side, remember Rich Brown and Bill Middleton? They ran as a team a few elections ago, and did so poorly that they finished behind two Democrats (Vicites and the late Ron Nehls) and Democrat-running-as-independent Cavanagh).

Given the historic trend, we believe it unlikely that both Vicites and Zapotosky will win nominations, particularly since a solid challenger exists in Al Ambrosini. But it really doesn't matter what we think; what matters is what each of them and their key advisers think. And you can bet your last pierogie that if Ambrosini is running stride for stride with them around the final turn, as it appears he is, it will be every man for himself.

What this election may turn on is who does the best job of convincing his supporters to "plunk." For those who moved into the patch just recently -- and that's not many, since Fayette County lost 8.2 percent of its people as Vicites and Zapotosky were "getting things done" -- the concept of "plunking" has been used forever to give one candidate the advantage over another.

It's pretty simple, really. Although registered Democrats can vote for TWO of their party's commission candidates in the primary election (as can registered Republicans), you only vote for ONE. This keeps your vote solidly in the corner of the candidate you really want to win. If you vote for two candidates, you are also giving a vote to a less-favored candidate. And by doing so, you could end up cancelling out the vote for the guy (or gal) that you really want in office.

As crunch time comes upon us, we see this race devolving into an "every man for himself" mentality, with in-the-know supporters of Vicites and Zapotosky, and even Ambrosini, opting to plunk in order to enhance the chance of their guy prevailing.

Since Ambrosini isn't aligned with anyone, plunking by his camp isn't unexpected and won't send any shock waves through the political community. But when the dust settles, if only one of the Vicites/Zapotosky team wins on May 17, a key factor is likely to be which one's supporters did a better job of plunking.

Our bet is on Vicites, because he is by far a better politican and strategist than Zapotosky. Four years ago, Zapotosky's teaming with Cavanagh was a sham, and Cavanagh was too naive to see how he was being used. That won't happen with Vicites.