Thursday, December 29, 2011

Debunking the feel-good analysis

It should surprise no one that the Herald-Standard newspaper did its level best to put a good face on the failed candidacy of Republican commission candidate Dave Lohr. After all, the newspaper did all it could to hoist Lohr into office over incumbent Republican Angela Zimmerlink.

The newspaper's rooting interest for Lohr shamefully transcended its editorial endorsement of him. On the eve of the November election, it let one reporter publish a story in which a known Zimmerink foe accused her of using a county computer to post things on the Internet, without any attempt at verifying that fact. It then let another reporter -- who wound up working a poll for Lohr -- publish an eight-day-old story about the Fayette County Conservation District board (which the paper never covers) that cast Zimmerlink in a negative light.

The newspaper also ran full-page color ads, "Paid for by Dave Lohr," that showed him shaking hands with former Republican Commissioner Joe Hardy. The text in those ads included the words, "In the past, the sitting Republican commissioner has sought to form committees and slow down the process of welcoming this dynamic (gas) industry to our community."

That sitting Republican commissioner, of course, was and is Zimmerlink. We will leave it to you if that sounds like negative advertising -- but it sure does to us.

Our little analysis of the post-election editorial, "So close: Lohr ends historic race with concession" (Herald-Standard, Dec. 23, 2011) begins with this line: In addition to his gracious concession, he (Lohr) also deserves credit for running a hard but clean campaign, which came so tantalizingly close to victory.

Is the author of that editorial capable of reading? If so, does he think that the full-page Lohr ad that accused Zimmerlink of seeking to "slow down the process of welcoming this dynamic (gas) industry to our community" is evidence of "a hard but clean campaign"?

And the use of the phrase "tantalizingly close" to describe Lohr's 18-vote loss leads us to ask, "For whom?" For Lohr and his supporters, that part is definitely true. And it is probably true for the newspaper that did all it could to help Lohr, even if that meant permiting cheap and unethical shots at Zimmerlink.

Only an intellectual Tom Thumb would make some of the other comments in the Dec. 23 editorial:

We would be remiss if we did not first commend Lohr on graciously conceding defeat and not dragging the process out any futher.

Graciously conceding defeat? Was the Herald-Standard referring to the part of Lohr's concession where he told the Tribune-Review that he will watch for any evidence of retaliation against those who supported him, and said that, "There are elected people in office of a vindictive nature"? In conceding defeat, Lohr was far from gracious; he was still throwing barbs at unnamed opponents.

Not dragging the process out any further? Lohr's attempts to erase Zimmerlink's lead resulted in Fayette County being the last of Pennsylvania's 67 counties to certify the results of the Nov. 8 election. It prevented all school boards in the county from reorganizing in early December. (And the last time we checked, the county's school boards are facing some pretty stiff challenges of their own.)

This oh-so-close election should give Fayette County voters peace of mind ... After challenges and recounts, no real problems were discovered.

Huh? We learned that some absentee ballots were ostensibly left to languish at the Uniontown Post Office, that other absentees were delivered to the election bureau but unopened on Election Day, that at least one voter voted at the polls and by an absentee ballot (which was yanked during the challenge/recount process). And after ALL of this scrutiny, we learned during Lohr's last stand -- a challenge of the paper ballots cast at five of the county's 98 voting precincts -- that Democrat Al Ambrosini picked up two additional votes, while Democrat Vince Zapotosky picked up one.

Pardon us for thinking out loud -- or logically -- but shouldn't the recount numbers for Ambrosini and Zapotosky have remained the same, in order for anyone to promote the concept that Fayette County voters should have "peace of mind"?

The process was conducted out in the open and without any chicanery or cloak-and-dagger mischief.

Does that include any chicanery and cloak-and-dagger mischief in the realm of newspaper coverage of the election and the challenge/recount process?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The guy in the high chair doesn't want to appear childish

Only in Fayette County can the guy sitting in the figurative high chair, wearing a bib and sporting a face smeared with Gerber's, make the claim that, "I don't want to drag this out to where it looks childish in nature."

That quote came from Dave Lohr in Wednesday's Tribune-Review story, "Lohr concedes Fayette County commissioners race to Zimmerlink."

Lohr has spent the past two months making things look childish in nature. Refusing to accept the official count of the Fayette County Election Board, he first challenged in court a bundle of absentee ballots that didn't arrive in that office by the deadline, hoping that they might give him a chance to overcome the 18-vote margin Angela M. Zimmerlink held over him for the third and final commissioner spot.

Rebuffed in that effort by Judge Ralph Warman, an even more desperate Lohr climbed back up in his high chair and threw some food against the wall, in the form of a second challenge to the work of the Fayette County Election Bureau and its Election Board, in the form of a challenge to recount paper ballots cast at five -- and only five -- of the county's 98 voting precincts.

After that effort -- which continued to delay the officical certification of Fayette County's vote count -- did nothing to dent Zimmerlink's 18-vote lead, Lohr climbed out of his high chair, removed his bib, wiped off his face, and proclaimed that did not want to appear childish.

There was more in the Tribune-Review story that left us here in the patch scratching our heads. Like these two paragraphs:

Lohr thanked his supporters and the (election) bureau. The bureau, he said, was unfairly criticized over its handling of the late absentee ballots and the recount process.

"A lot of rumors were around, that it was rigged, or they would do unscrupulous things," Lohr said. "But those people are top-notch. They would never do anything illegal."

Lohr needs only to look in the mirror to see which candidate was most responsible for launching any criticism of the election bureau over its handling of the late absentee ballots and the recount process. It wasn't Zimmerlink or Democrat candidates Al Ambrosini or Vince Zapotosky who twice went to court trying to find a way to change the outcome of this election.

And if Lohr truly believes that the election bureau employees are "top-notch," why was he the one challenging their handling of absentee ballots and veracity of their official vote count that had him losing by 18 ballots?

It gets even better in the Tribune-Review story, which also contains these two paragraphs:

Although he is out of the race, Lohr said he will monitor the commissioners' actions over the next four years. In particular, he said, he will watch for any evidence of retaliation against those who supported him.

"There are things that happened after the election, threats that were made, to businesses and individuals who supported me," said Lohr. "There are elected people in office of a vindictive nature, and these elected officials need to get to the heart of the people, and not their personal goals."

That assessment is, of course, a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black. If Lohr wants to find people "of a vindictive nature" who put "their personal goals" first, he might want to start by looking at some of his own backers.

To its credit, the Trib story at least attempted to pin Lohr down a bit. It noted: Lohr declined to go into specifics regarding the allegations.

When making such a serious accusations, Lohr should be willing to state, on the record, exactly which people he was talking about, so that they could be contacted for their comments. Because he refused to name names, we all have to take Lohr's accusation with a huge grain of salt.

Here in the patch, we all have a pretty good idea of whom he was speaking. And yes, his way of casting this accusatory stone seems pretty childish to us.

Since it's Christmas, we have a little reminder to everyone from one of our favorite Top Ten lists (and it's not one from Letterman):

Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why five, not all 98?

Here in the patch, we find it extremely interesting to watch Dave Lohr's attempt to cherry-pick his way to the third and final spot as Fayette County commissioner. The effort raises some interesting questions that are flying below the radar.

You'll recall that on election night, Lohr's fellow Republican (and incumbent commissioner) Angela M. Zimmerlink was 10, 11 or 12 votes ahead of Lohr, depending on what number the election bureau was using and/or what number the particular media outlet was reporting.

After a painstaking and supposedly thorough process regarding the counting of absentee ballots -- a saga that involved scrutizining postmarks and the post office and a judge's ruling -- Zimmerlink was still the winner, only by then her margin had swelled to 18 votes (that's one-third greater than it was on election night).

Case closed? Not for Lohr, who apparently does not want to go down in the county's political history books as the only person to ever be a four-time loser in the quest to become a comissioner that dates back to his initial run in 1995.

No, Lohr and his attorney sought -- and have won -- a recount in five of the county's voting precincts. Fayette County Judge Ralph Warman has agreed with their argument that votes should be recounted in Bullskin Township 1 and 2, South Union Township 1, Masontown 2 and Connellsville 5.

According to court papers filed by Lohr attorney David Montgomery, as reported by Herald-Standard,com, "It is submitted that the closeness of the race among Ms. Zimmerlink and Mr. Lohr requires a recount and a recanvass of the ballots cast in the Nov. 8, 2011 election, as there exists a possibility of human or machine error in the counting of said ballots."

(It is also possible that additional absentee ballots delivered in time by carrier pigeon were deposited in the courthouse clock tower. Although that possibility is miniscule, perhaps someone should check, just in case.)

Here's the problem, as we see it: If Lohr and his attorney believe, and if Warman agrees, that "there exists a possibility of human or machine error in the counting of said ballots," wouldn't that possibility exist for all 98 of the county's voting precincts?

Of course it would. But the Lohr camp is only seeking to recount the vote (or more accurately, a partial vote, using only paper ballots and not those registered by machine) in five precincts. The question everyone should be asking is, "Why just those five?"

In his court papers, attorney Montgomery is reported to have said that, "... based on information believed to be reliable, that fraud or error, although not manifest in the general return of votes made from the subject election district, was committed in the counting and canvassing of ballots cast in the race for county commissioner."

Really? It seems to us that if attorney Montgomery and/or his client Lohr have "information believed to be reliable" that proves "fraud or error ... was committed in the counting and canvassing of ballots," they should be asking for an investigation by Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks or state Attorney General Linda Kelly.

But we digress. Back to those five precincts: What happens, hypothetically, if the recount of Bullskin 1 and 2, South Union 1, Masontown 2 and Connellsville 5, magically erases Zimmerlink's 18-vote lead and puts Lohr up by five votes?

Is that result set in stone, because Lohr and his attorney picked those five before the deadline for filing such a request passed? No one from the media has asked or answered that question, to our knowledge. But it should be asked and answered.

Our little hypothetical scenario poses quite a dilemma for Lohr: If the recount does put him up by five votes -- or 50 or 500 or 1, it really doesn't matter -- will he then ask that five more precints be recounted? Or all 98? (Assuming that the law allows for additional requests to be made.)

Or does Lohr say, "No, it took a while, but I'm finally satisfied with the election results. The people have spoken. Thank you, and good night."

You can bet the farm, including all Marcellus gas rights, that if the recount of only five precincts changes the outcome of this race, and if the opportunity to recount the other 93 precincts has already passed, some judicious cherry-picking did the trick.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why should Zimmerlink talk?

Here in the patch, we really can't blame Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink if she never talks to the Herald-Standard newspaper again. Why should she, considering the newspaper's continued pattern of anti-Zimmerlink bias demonstrated by:

1. The front-page story published Oct. 28 (11 days before the Nov. 8 election), entitled, "Official grilled on web postings." The first two paragraphs of that story, printed here verbatim, were:

Tanya Cellurale of Connellsville on Thursday accused Fayette County Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink of using county time to make derogatory comments on a local website.

Speaking during public comment, Cellurale said Zimmerlink has posted numerous comments on a local website, some of which slander people who attend public meetings.

Zimmerlink vigorously denied those claims in the story, authored by reporter Amy Revak, who also relayed to the reading public Cellurale's further claim to have laid hands on the IP (Internet Protocol) address of Zimmerlink's county work computer.

Only a fool would believe that Cellurale's comments were not politically motivated. And only a reporter who was either: A. Willing to play along, or B. Totally clueless, would have published Cellurale's unsubstaniated accusation, especially so close to Election Day.

To date, neither Revak nor any other Herald-Standard reporter has done a follow-up story, to find out if Cellurale was even close to telling the truth when she made her pre-election accusations. As we have noted previously, it's a fairly easy thing to do -- and it starts with having the guts to ask Cellurale to provide the IP address she claims to have in her possession. (If it is a county IP address, we would further ask how she obtained such proprietary information, which we can easily envision triggering a lot of stuttering and stammering.)

2. The story published Nov. 1, seven days before the Nov. 8 election, entitled, "County Conservation District raises fees." The first three paragraphs of that story, printed verbatim, were:

The Fayette County Conservation District will raise its fees by as much (as) $700 in 2012 for any land disturbed during development.

The seven-member board - which Fayette County Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink sits on with board Chairman Don Bowser and members Bill Geary, Frank Mutnansky, Larry Chaikcic, Warren Dick and Lloyd Moser -- is responsible for the conservation, protection, restoration and wise use of the county's natural resources.

During a meeting Oct. 24, the board voted to increase the Erosion and Sediment (E&S) Fee Schedule, with varying fees based on the amount of disturbed acres associated with a project.

That story, authored by reporter Rebekah Sungala, later noted that "Zimmerlink was absent from the meeting" and that "Zimmerlink, who represents the county on the board, did not respond to requests for comment."

(On Election Day, Sungala showed up and was photographed at the Bullskin Township 1 precinct, wearing a campaign sticker for Dave Lohr, Zimmerlink's main opponent for the third and final commissioner spot.)

Given the Herald-Standard's sudden interest in the operations of relatively obscure Fayette County Conservation District, we here in the patch were -- and are -- eagerly awaiting the news story on last month's Conservation District board meeting. It was held Nov. 28 and we are assured that Zimmerlink was in attendance.

We were initially disappointed that no story appeared on Nov. 29, the day after the latest meeting. But then we realized that perhaps we needed to wait eight days for something to appear in print, just like the October meeting.

What's important for everyone to know is that neither of these stories appeared without the oversight and approval of the Herald-Standard newsroom editors. It is they who decided the ideas were newsworthy and passed journalistic muster. It is they who read them before anyone else. It is they who decided where the stories would be placed in the newspaper.

These are not completely incidents of rogue reporters who are able to have their way and say, acting alone and without approval from above. Someone higher up the chain of command sanctioned each of these stories -- and someone who had the ability to put a stop to them, or to hold them until further and fairer research could be conducted, decided those steps were not necessary.

Now that Zimmerlink has won re-election by 18 votes, despite the best efforts of many (including the Herald-Standard) to defeat her, it will be real interesting to see how the newspaper treats her in the next four years.

We don't look for much change. Which is why we're glad that Zimmerlink is using her own blog to explain the decisions she makes as a county commissioner.

From that blog, here is her enlightening explanation for why she voted no to a $2.7 million deficit county budget:

One of the most important duties of the commissioners is to develop an annual spending plan, i.e. the county budget

As provided by County Code, the preparation of the Proposed Budget must begin at least 90 days prior to adoption. In our preparation of the 2010 Proposed Budget the Commissioners advertised and held public work sessions beginning in September (90 days). In our preparation of the 2011 Proposed Budget the Commissioners began the process in September (90 days) and held public work sessions beginning in October . Now compare just those two prior years to this 2012 Proposed Budget wherein the Commissioners have not held one work session ………yet the 2 majority Commissioners on Monday, at a special commissioners meeting, voted to approve the Proposed Budget. I voted no.

Just how can Commissioners approve a proposed spending plan and present it to the public for a 20 day review period without having any meetings with their department heads, row officers, courts, etc? What's been going on for the past 90 days?

Could it be there were other things on their minds? Too busy campaigning for the Nov 8th election?

So what happens next? Well, we as Commissioners have 17 working days… but wait not really 17 because Commissioner Vicites' email to us asked that no public meetings be held Dec 6,7,8,or 9th while he is on vacation so that leaves 13 working days….but wait not really 13 because county manager Warren Hughes has a scheduled vacation so that leaves 9 working days.

Both majority Commissioners, Zapotosky and Vicites were quoted by the media saying they will work diligently to pare down the $2.7 deficit in order to balance the budget before December 30th. Really? Diligently in 9 days?

Yes, when Commissioner Vicites returns from vacation the process will begin as both majority Commissioners have instructed staff that the public work sessions will be held Monday, December 12th through Friday December 16th between 11-2pm................................ and if you are wondering courthouse hours are 8:30-4:30.