Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Which is the scarier stuff?

Thirteen days after voting to "censure" fellow board member Beverly Beal, in a flap over a packet allegedly left behind in a restaurant, the other four board members of the Fayette County Housing Authority took an interesting action.

Harry Fike, Robert Onesko, Mary Wertz and Harry "Bo" Joseph yesterday approved a settlement agreement with former housing authority finance director Steve Middleton, who was fired in April 2011.

And, they agreed to keep the terms of this agreement secret, according to the story, "Housing authority settles lawsuit," June 27.

Here's a quote from that story, from housing authority executive director Tom Harkless, that should have everyone falling out of their seats: "Part of the agreement is to keep everything confidential. Both sides agreed that there would be no further discussion."

There's just one small problem for Harkless and those four board members: The law doesn't allow such things. (Quick, somebody call Cohen and Grigsby! We need to find an investigator, pronto!)

Those same four board members centered their motion to censure Beal around this theme: "Her conduct has been improper and unprofessional and her actions are detrimental to the authority and the residents it serves. She has violated our trust and violated her fudiciary responsibility by improperly discussing ongoing litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the authority, as well as discussion an ongoing federal case." ("FCHA censures member over docuements,", June 15).

Improper and unprofessional? Here's what Pennsylvania Newspaper Association attorney Melissa Melewsky had to say about the Middleton agreement, according to "Pennsylvania law is clear. Settlement agreements involving a public agency are public and confidentiality clauses in such settlements are not legally enforceable."

Violated trust and fudiciary responsbility? Again, from Melewsky: "It is also worth noting that courts have penalized government agencies that deny access of settlement agreements." (Can you say, "Fines"?)

The bigwigs at the Fayette County Housing Authority should know better. They can't keep this agreement secret, so why even try? But your right to know the terms will depend on someone: 1. Asking for a copy; and 2. Taking the matter to court, if turned down.

Fike previously said that some of the stuff in the packet allegedly left behind by Beal was "scary."

We don't know about you, but an old newspaper photo of Harkless working at K-Mart as a teen-ager is a lot less scary than a public agency that, in 2012, is trying to keep secrets.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wipe away the tears

It's perfectly understandable why Fayette County commission chairman Vincent Zapotosky would get teary-eyed over the alleged beating death of a child, as he reportedly did at Tuesday's commissioner meeting.

"I'm so sorry for you," Zapotosky is reported as telling Sharon Smitley of Lake Lynn, a grandmother who came to the meeting as part of her awreness crusade. Her 4-year-old grandson, Trenton St. Clair of Point Marion, died in September despite numerous complaints being made to Fayette County Children and Youth Services.

You can read more about the case here: "Grandmother takes up cause against Fayette CYS," (Tribune-Review, April 12)

As we have pointed out before, this was the second death of a child in Fayette County in 2011. The first occurred in January of that year -- and prompted Zapotosky to shed tears before the cameras of WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh.

Here is a transcript of that 17-month-old news segment, from WTAE's website:

Fayette County Official Vows 'Accountability' In Toddler's Death

Parents Charged With Criminal Homicide In Death Of 15-Month-Old
POSTED: 3:53 pm EST January 6, 2011
UPDATED: 6:08 pm EST January 7, 2011

POINT MARION, Pa. -- Fayette County‘s highest elected official told Channel 4 Action News that he’s determined to find out what could have been done to prevent the death of a 15-month-old girl in need of special care.

"I will assure the people of Fayette County there will be accountability," said Fayette County Commissioners Chairman Vincent Zapotosky. "I will work on it and I will find out what went wrong, and we will do everything we can to hopefully prevent future incidents of this kind."

Police charged the parents of Madison Violet Dodson with criminal homicide after she was found unresponsive by her father at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday in the family's home on Morgantown Street in Point Marion.

A year-and-a-half after making that pledge, which was made eight months before the death of Trenton St. Clair, one would think that by now Zapotosky would be able to answer three very basic questions:

1. Did CYS in any way, shape or form screw up, in the cases involving Madison Violet Dodson or Trenton St. Clair?

2. Is CYS so under-staffed that it could not handle the complaints in a timely enough fashion?

3. If CYS needs more manpower, what is his plan for the COUNTY to address this?

After all, it was Zapotosky who vowed to work on it and find out what went wrong. If CYS did all that it could, but was hamstrung by current law, then by all means it is appropriate for him to pledge his support to Smitley to get those laws changed.

That's what he reportedly did according to the June 21 story, "Zapotosky offers help to grandmother."

But here is an interesting line from that story: Zapotosky explained that CYS is sometimes limited in its ability to immediately respond to reports, but perhaps Smitley's initiative will make a difference.

IF CYS is sometimes limited in its ability to respond to reports, that seems to us a matter of not having enough manpower to do the job. It does not seem to be a matter of inadequate state or federal laws to empower the agency to do that job.

Before anyone goes writing letters to Gov. Tom Corbett, they should be able to state with specificity what law needs changed, and how current law hampered CYS in preventing the deaths of two children in these instances.

That hasn't been done. If so, it hasn't been reported.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Controversy for lunch

Here in the patch, we're having a field day over the "discovery" of a "packet" by a "restaurant employee" that led to the Fayette County Housing Authority's "censure" of board member Beverly Beal and a "state police investigation," as well as the authority's hiring of a "private investigator" and its appointment of a two-man "committee" to check things out.

It's all being made out to be pretty serious stuff, except for one problem: It isn't.

Not unless Beal having lunch with Sonya Over, the housing authority's former controller/finance director, and Angela Zimmerlink, a former housing authority board member and current county commissioner, is a crime.

Besides liking to meet for lunch once in a while, there is one thing in the public record that Beal, Over and Zimmerlink have in common: They are not huge fans of Tom Harkless, the housing authority's executive director.

Beal is in her second stint on the board. During the first, she made a constant theme of trying to reign in high administrative salaries while boosting the salaries of lower-paid workers, and of getting rid of Harkless' $650-a-month vehicle allowance. As board treasurer, she also went over expenditures with a fine-tooth comb.

Little wonder that after last spring's election, where Democrat Al Amrosini defeated incumbent Vince Vicites and Beal's return looked very likely, that the same housing authority board now censuring Beal attempted to change its rules concerning board membership -- a change that reportedly could have been invoked to keep Beal from getting back on the five-person board of directors.

That didn't work out, because the rules of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development trump those concocted by local housing authorities.

Before anyone goes all ga-ga over the motion to censure Beal, which states "her conduct has been improper and unprofessional and her actions are detrimental to the authority and the residents it serves," they should ask themselves if the attempt to change board membership rules was not also improper and unprofessional, and detrimental to the authority and the residents it serves.

The same could be asked about what transpired with Over, who as a key housing authority department head was suspended for one day (a punishment later rescinded by the State Civil Service Commission) and then for 30 days (which resulted in Over filing and prevailing in a civil lawsuit against the authority in which she was awarded monetary damages).

It may have escaped us, but we don't recall any board members being hot to trot to have Cohen & Grigsby, a Pittsburgh law firm contracted by the authority, help find an investigator to put on either of those cases.

In our view, Zimmerlink is ensnared in this, well, for just being Zimmerlink. She's a big political target, and those who aren't happy with the 18-vote margin of victory that kept her in office last November aren't going to go away any time soon. So if they can play a little "guilt by association," they will. And even if there is no guilt on her part, they will go with association.

If you want to read a comprehensive view of this story, you can do so here:

"Fayette housing authority board OKs censure, "Tribune-Review, June 14.

We'll ask our questions, one at a time, in chronological order as presented in that news story:

1. What legal statute gives four members of the Fayette County Housing Authority the power to censure the board's fifth member? We really wish someone would have asked that question of the authority solicitor at the meeting -- or would ask it of HUD now.

2. If there's an ongoing federal investigation of the Fayette County Housing Authority, why doesn't the weak-kneed local media know and report more about it? Why haven't any of them followed up on this important revelation?

3. If there's an ongoing federal investigation of the Fayette County Housing Authority, why are Harkless and the board apparently more focused on and worried about a packet allegedly left behind in a restaurant?

4. Of all the things allegedly in this packet, the thing that most disturbs housing authority board president Harry Fike is an old photograph of Harkless, taken when he was 18 years old and working at the Altoona K-Mart? Really?

5. What legal statute gives Fike the power to appoint fellow board members Harry Joseph and Robert Onekso to sit on a committee that "will deal exclusively with the authority's legal matters"? Is that even permitted by state law and HUD?

6. And how will the local media, HUD and the public react to the explanation in Joseph's motion that this two-man team is necessary "to eliminate the leaking of legal information" to outside sources? Doesn't a move like this deprive three of the five board members of any input or knowledge concerning matters that are very important to them performing their job of authority oversight? Could that not be considered "censorship"?

7. If the packet was left and found in a restaurant, how many people there (patrons or employees) had the opportunity to put stuff in, or take stuff out? If it was then forwarded to the housing authority offices, how many people there had the chance to put stuff in, or take stuff out? These are chain-of-evidence questions that any good investigator or attorney would have to ask.

We understand why the other four members of the board would want to censure Beal. She is a one-person minority, and she just might be someone they suspect of "leaking information" to outside sources. Perhaps, just perhaps, one of those outside sources might be HUD. Perhaps one of them might be the media.

At least in doing its story, the Trib attempted to contact Over and Zimmerlink for comment. Not so in's coverage. We scoured their story, "FCHA censures board member over documents," June 14, and saw nothing to indicate that their reporter even tried to get a rebuttal comment from Over or Zimmerlink.

They did print, however, this allegation that mentioned their names:

Board chairman Harry Fike said restaurant employees found the folder at a table where Beal, Fayette County Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink and former housing authority finance director Sonya Over had been sitting.

Lest you think that did not have time to make any phone calls, they did manage to place one to Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks Jr., and they printed his comment that state police are still investigating.

We challenge editor Mark O'Keefe to explain this latest but noteworthy example of shoddy reporting. There is no excuse for it, really.

As for us, we suspect that the real reason for censuring Beal -- a move we hope she appeals to HUD, by the way -- lies in this line from the censure motion: "She has violated our trust and violated her fiduciary responsibility by improperly discussing ongoing litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the authority, as well as discussing an ongoing federal case."

Someone must think the best way to keep Beal in the dark is to keep her out of the loop.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Right criticism, wrong judge

Here in the patch, we are waiting with baited breath to see how editor Mark O'Keefe handles a prickly situation concerning retiring Fayette County Judge Ralph Warman.

Just a couple weeks ago, lauded the retiring Warman in an editorial, which said in part: He was methodical in handling trials and his various hearings, taking great lengths to make sure justice was being served. There was no such thing as a shortcut or doing something the easy way. To Warman, there was only one way to do things and that was the right way.

As a newspaperman, O'Keefe has a solemn obligation to support the public's right to know, especially as concerns public information and those who prefer to keep things secret.

Warman just made his life a little harder on that count. On Wednesday, the judge declared a mistrial in the trial for a man accused of shooting two people outside of a Unintown bar. ("Mistrial declared in shootings,", June 7).

According to that story, Warman summoned the defense and prosecution attorneys, along with a female juror, to his chambers. When they returned to court an hour later, Warman granted the defense attorney's request for a mistrial -- over the objections of the prosecution attorney -- but refused to state why.

The judge who never took a shortcut or did something the easy way, according to, appears to be, well,  taking a shortcut and doing something the easy way.

It gets worse, if you are a champion of open government, like O'Keefe: Not only did Warman refuse to offer an explanation for his ruling, he apparently told the two attorneys to zip their lips, too. The story says: Afterward, both attorneys declined to comment on what had occurred to cause the mistrial. (Assistant District Attorney J.W.) Eddy said they were advised by Warman not to discuss the reason and declined to say more about what had happened.

What is the harm in stating why this mistrial was declared? Doesn't the public have a right to know? Without this knowledge, how can anyone determine whether Warman made the right, or even a sound, decision?

The prosecution attorney objected to the move, so apparently at least he thinks the trial should have gone on as scheduled. He should be permitted to state why.

Will O'Keefe pound Warman, in any way, shape or form, for wanting to keep things hush-hush? Or will he let the issue slide, no questions asked?

The answer may be found in Friday's editorial, "Judge is wrong." The Herald-Standard criticized a judge, all right -- only it was the judge overseeing the trial of Jerry Sandusky in Centre County, in an editorial reprinted from the Altoona Mirror.

Instead of criticizing Warman, the judge in their own back yard, O'Keefe and Co. opted to put their stamp of approval on another newspaper's critique of Senior Judge John Cleland, criticizing him for banning electronic transmissions from the Sandusky trial.

Everyone should take special note of two lines from that editorial:

"All courts shall be open." (A line taken from the Pennsylvania Constitution.)

And: While Pennsylvania has the constitutional edict to have open courts, our judges have taken an activist, revisionist role in defining what open courts mean.

Would that also apply to Warman? Is refusing to state the reason for declaring a mistrial in keeping with the concept that "all courts shall be open"?

We suspect that O'Keefe would rather get purposely lost in Laurel Caverns for a month than write something even remotely critical of Warman.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Mirror, mirror on the wall ...

If you do nothing else today, you owe it to yourself to read this June 7 story in the Tribune-Review:

"Uniontown officials won't back resolution," at

The denizens of Fayette County should be grateful to see how the head of the county's lead economic development agency is spending his evenings these days: Heading to Uniontown City Council meetings, trying to drum up support for an organization he's formed on the side, with the goal of amending the U.S. Constitution.

Michael Krajovic, who by day is the well-compensated executive director of Fay-Penn Economic Development Corp. (though he prefers to call it a "development council"), approached the city fathers last night pitching the merits of his new group, Uplifting America.

Krajovic asked city council to approve a "Democracy Resolution" to amend the Constitution, to reassert that the power of American democracy will rest with the people -- not with corporations, organizations or wealthy individuals who spend their money to influence public elections.

That part in bold-face is taken, word for word, from the news story.

By "wealthy individuals who spend their money to influence public elections," is Krajovic referring to people like the late Bob Eberly? You know, the multi-millionaire who founded Fay-Penn, was thus Krajovic's benefactor for many, many years -- and who also for years and years tossed around lots of campaign cash that influenced many Fayette County elections?

Maybe Krajovic has forgotten that, in one pertinent example, kingmaker Eberly pretty much personally bankrolled the campaign of successful Fayette County commission candidate Ron Nehls.

Here's another passage from the news story:

In recent times, Krajovic said campaigns are unjustly won by outspending opponents on political advertising, which has become increasingly negative, lacking substance and in many cases grossly misleading.

Is Krajovic referring to things like the full-page newspaper advertisements that Fay-Penn, its board members and supporters have run toward that end? We seem to recall one, featuring the names and signatures of many Fay-Penn potentates, that was critical of former commissioner Sean Cavanagh. Weren't they trying to influence that election?

Maybe we missed it, but we don't recall Krajovic forming his own group and urging passage of resolutions -- or wanting, for God's sake, to alter the U.S. Constitution -- back when Eberly was bankrolling Fay-Penn and being a major political campaign contributor. Or when members of his "organization" were affixing their names to negative ads.

We don't remember Krajovic leading the charge to check-mate the influence of the exceptionally wealthy, back when at least one exceptionally wealthy person was in a position to benefit him.

We are bemused that during his spiel before city council, Krajovic said that while he intends to push his resolution nationwide, he wanted to give Uniontown first crack at approving it. You know, historical importance and all.

Does anyone in their right mind think this Krajovic initiative is going anywhere, except the bad idea scrap heap?

Pardon us, but we want to laugh out loud when we read that Krajovic said it is un-American, anti-democratic and unjust for the voices of a few to be able to down out the voices of many just because they have more money to spend in public elections.

Does he also believe that it is un-American, anti-democratic and unjust for the voices of the few to attempt to silence or discredit critics? Can he vouch that he or no one from his organization has ever attempted such a thing?

And then Krajovic railed against those "who seek to manipulate and control our government for their own personal gain," as quoted in the Tribune-Review.

Did anyone on council hold up a mirror as he said that?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Washington Post visits the patch

Did ya know that the Washington Post-- yes, THE Washington Post -- stopped by the patch the other day to talk to take the pulse of the electorate regarding the upcoming presidential election?

That's right -- one of the country's premiere newspapers thought it important to stop by "coal country" (in a county that hasn't had a major working mine in 50 years), to talk to people who still say, "I grew up in the patch."

The story, "In Pennsylvania coal country, voters not thrilled with their choices," can be read here:

Were you aware that, according to the Post, Fayette County "is a political and economic battleground"? Or that it is "full of prototypical Reagan Democrats"? Or that -- egad! -- its "unemployment rate is higher than the national average"?

Or that, "This is one of the poorest counties in the state. Locals bemoan a culture in which too many families are broken and too many people have drug dependencies or are living off disability payments in what ought to be the prime of their working lives."

(We can't wait to see what the folks at Fay-Penn Economic Development handle "negative news" when it appears in a national publication. Perhaps a letter to the Post, saying that its story is driving potential employers away?)

Anyway, here in "coal country," amid all its "company houses" and overgrown gop heaps, the Post found South Union Township supervisor Bob Schiffbauer, state Rep. Tim Mahoney, union member Mike Mercadante, one-time Brownsville restaurant owner Beverly Novotny, high school employee Tina Palko, psychologist/Republican Debra Rhodes, disabled Vietnam veteran Gary Smitley, used car salesman Tom Nicholson, lawyer Jeffrey Golembiewski and Judge Ralph Warman.

We're not sure how many of them ever lived in a company house or played on a slate dump, but they are the Post sources on this story, which seems to be centered on the theme that Fayette County voters are having a tough time choosing between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

The story notes that in the traditionally Democrat-heavy county, Republican John McCain beat Obama by fewer than 200 votes in 2008.

We have our own theories on why that was -- and why Obama may not carry Fayette this year, either -- but our real pet peeve concerns the endless and meaningless historical recitation about the area that still goes on.

What is the relevance of anyone continuing to state that Fayette County was part of the Whiskey Rebellion? That has about as much to do with the current Fayette County situation, or the mindset of the people therein, as it does Justin Bieber's latest hair style. Have you ever heard anyone say, "My great-great-great-great Grandpappy was part of the Whiskey Rebellion -- and that fighting spirit, handed down through the generations, is why I won't take this from my elected officials!"

Honestly, someone should mount a campaign to convince the Post and others to stop refering to "King Coal" (that king has been dead for so long, he no longer matters), "trolley cars" (they haven't operated for ages, but we do have a pretty nice expressway and bypass, and even most of the poor have cars), and "steel mills ... fueled by coke" (the only thing the county's coke fuels nowadays is bad behavior and crime).

Same thing for references to Fort Necessity, the French and Indian War, Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Washington, the National Road, blah-blah-blah. What any of those things has to do with a current-day analysis of presidential politics is beyond us.

Do you think that they matter to Obama or Romney, or the Democrat or Republican strategists who are crafting their strategy for winning the election?

"President Obama, we've done the research -- visit Fallingwater and mention Frank Lloyd Wright, and you'll win Pennsylvania."

"Governor Romney, if you want to carry Fayette County and win Pennsylvania, you'll need to ride in the National Pike Festival wagon train. Our research shows people will vote on that basis."

In any case, the story is an interesting take on how outsiders view Fayette County, shorn of worry about how advertisers or the influential will react.

Friday, June 1, 2012

She's not Toyeing around

Here in the patch, no one knows Julie Toye. But more and more people are hearing about her. Or should we say, reading about her. And they are liking what they are reading.

Toye's blog is fast becoming "must" reading for anyone who wishes to obtain more than a cursory view of what's going on in Fayette County government. It was she -- not the Tribune-Review, not the Daily Courier, not -- who kept on commissioner Vince Zapotosky until he filed his campaign expense report (five months late).

And now it is she who is following up on the last meeting of the Fayette County Election Board -- or rather, a behind-the-scenes but still newsworthy controversy about how that meeting came to fruition.

You can read about it here:

Nor surprisingly, it appears that commissioner Angela Zimmerlink was an afterthought in this process. By way of Toye's reporting, we discover that Zimmerlink was not even consulted as to her availability for a date and time for the hearing. And her signature was solicited, it appears, after that date and time were set. (Who can blame her for saying thanks, but no thanks, to that sort of second-class treatment?)

This incident provides a great jumping off point to discuss the role of minority commissioner. More specifically, it affords an opportunity to debunk some common and often politically motivated myths.

One is that the "minority" commissioner, whoever that is, just can't get along with anybody. That myth is more often than not promulgated by the two commissioners who are running the show (and their supporters).

It easy for the majority partners (and they don't have to be from the same political party) to point to the one who isn't part of the power-sharing arrangement (or who doesn't wish to be), and portray that person as an undesirable governing partner. But just because that person isn't willing to quietly "play ball" doesn't make them unfit to govern.

The second myth is that the minority commissioner has nothing to offer, because he or she is always voting "no." Anyone who believes this one must first believe that all votes need to be unanimous (which means more often than not that they need to be ironed out ahead of time, away from the public eye). This myth is spread to try to undermine the credibility of the minority commissioner.

But as a tactic, it relies heavily on voter ignorance or apathy for success. It ignores the fact that the minority commissioner just might have a point, or a very good point, that just might sway the public into stopping or slowing down something the other two want to do

If the majority has a good idea -- "We are voting to lower taxes and bring in a new factory" -- not even the protest vote of the minority commissioner will dent public perception that this is a good thing. But if the majority has a bad idea -- "We are voting to hire someone now, and we'll set the salary later," or, "Let's change the ordinance now, we'll get public input and work out the details later" -- then the minority commissioner can and should be a thorn in the majority's paw. That is why the law forbids all three commisioners from being from the same political party.

These tricks of the trade have been used for years. Just ask Democrats Carmine Molinaro, Susanne Teslovich, Sean Cavanagh, Vince Vicites (when Cavanagh and Ron Nehls formed a working alliance), and Republican Zimmerlink. All have been the minority commissioner at one point in time.

Here in the patch, people still remember that these very same things were said about Cavanagh back when he was the odd man out in an administration where Vicites and Republican Harry Albert were running the show. As minority commissioner, Cavanagh used the only tool available to him -- the bully pulpit -- to push for an investigation into alleged voter fraud. It wasn't the majority leading that charge; it was the minority.

In the end -- surprise, surprise! -- voter fraud was documented.

Tactically speaking, there are powerful reasons for a ruling majority on any board to keep information and plans from the minority board member or members. The sooner the minority is informed or gets wind of something, the longer it has to analyze and strategize. The later the minority is informed or gets wind of something, the less time it has to do those things.

The more that the minority can be kept in the dark, and the darker the landscape can be made, the clearer the path for the majority to carry out its wishes.

We are sure that the powers that be don't like Toye, any more than they like us. But we hope that she keeps on asking questions and providing the answers that she gets. She provides valuable information and insight that isn't being supplied elswehere.