In the wake of last week's 2-1 vote to suspend plans for a new Fayette County prison, some vocal opponents of the plan are engaging in a lot of self-congratulatory back slapping, giving themselves credit for succeeding in turn around Commissioner Vince Zapotosky's vote.
Zapotosky himself is playing into the narrative with the fervor of Sunday televangelist. About the only thing he hasn't done is stand up and shout, "Glory! Hallelujah! I have finally seen the light! Can I get an A-ah-MEN!" His attempt to portray himself as a responsive elected official, one who listened to the people and bent to their wishes, is designed to play to the crowd and make them feel victorious, while minimizing his own political liabilities.
Likewise, Zapotosky's statement that he hasn't given up on the project, implying that he might want to renovate the exisiting prison and perhaps find some property nearby for a scaled-down construction effort, is designed to wallpaper over the fact that he voted to spend $2 million on another plan on which he was fully aboard, then suddenly changed his mind.
That's not good leadership. That's playing the public for a fool.
If you are for a new prison, Commissioner Al Ambrosini deserves to be your hero. He's led the charge, been steadfast in his conviction on what should be done, and worked hard to see his favored course of action become reality.
And if you are against a new prison, Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink deserves to be your hero. She's also been out front in opposition, unwavering in her firm conviction that a better alternative exists, and worked hard to make sure her point of view was not forgotten in the debate.
But Zapotosky? He's not worthy of being anyone's hero. He's once again demonstrated his trademark: A willingness to whatever is in the perceived best interest of the re-election of Vince Zapotosky. If it looks like building a new prison outside of Uniontown is best for his future political viability, he's all for it, as he was for two years.
But if it looks like his chances of staying in office are better if he kills the project -- and pisses away $2 million of your money in the process -- Zapotosky quickly and without hesitation changes his mind. Is this anyone's idea of strong leadership? In poverty-stricken Fayette County, where all funds are precious, can you really buy logic from a seven-year commissioner that boils down to, "You're lucky that I threw away only $2 million now instead of spending $30 million later"?
Say what you will about the administration of former Commissioners Vince Vicites, Sean Cavanagh and the late Ron Nehls, but they tackled big issues with firm resolve, and saw them through despite political differences and shifting alliances. They took out a multi-million-dollar bond issue to finance a controversial (and long overdue) property reassessment, and to provide seed money to develop the former county home property along Route 40. Take a look at how that vision has unfolded and ask if the county is better off because of their decision, which was highly controversial at the time.
They even built into the equation a mechanism to prevent Fayette County from falling into the same property assessment inequity trap that led to all kinds of problems: The computerized ability to update every few years, at a fraction of the cost, to keep up with changing real estate market conditions. As the Herald-Standard correctly pointed out in its Aug. 24 editorial, Zapotosky and Zimmerlink shelved that update in 2009, wasting an estimated half-million-dollars of work. We have no doubt a large part of that decision was political. Vicites went along with it, too -- but in our view, he wasn't about to put his head on the voter chopping block after the other two backed out.
No one likes a reassessment, but here's one basic and immutable fact: When you don't do one, the people with higher-valued properties are the ones to profit; while folks with lower-valued ones get screwed. Thus, the Heritage Hills crowd benefits, while the people in places like Smock and Grindstone and Ronco pay a disproportionately higher share. To be fair, Ambrosini's done nothing to revive the matter since taking office.
Our point is that implementing a reassessment is perhaps the most difficult yet courageous decision a county commissioner can make, because even when the need is abundantly clear, it's certain to draw howls of protest. The easy and politically expedient thing is to succumb to that pressure and do nothing, which has happened all too often in Fayette County.
Regarding the prison, Zapotosky is now the man on the spot and we should all be eager to see what he does. If he truly thinks an alternative is better and is willing to lead, he should make a motion at the next commission meeting to set in motion plans to renovate the exisiting Fayette County prison, and to start the process of any related land acquisition in downtown Uniontown. It's as easy for him to put a plan on the table as it was to take one off. And there's no need to further study an issue that's already been studied to death. Everyone already knows the options, and certainly someone who's been in office as long as Zapotosky has should have a clear idea of what to do.
Renovation of the current lockup has been looked at repeatedly in the past, and it's long been favored by Zimmerlink, who, with a second vote, can make her prefered method of solving the problem a reality. Do you think Zapotosky will do that?
We're betting he won't, because that would be another tough decision, especially with a primary election just eight months away. In the months leading up to the election, we believe Zapotosky will pay just enough lip service to solving the problem to make it look like progress is being made, without having to put up any tangible vote to actually make something happen.
Speaking of which, there's one way Zapotosky could debunk this assessment of his motives as political. He can declare publicly that he won't be seeking re-election to a third term. That should be pretty easy for him to do, since when he first ran for commissioner, he pledged openly at a candidate forum to only serve two terms in office if elected. It was a big part of his stump speech.
Surely, as his second four-year term comes to a close, Zapotosky is a man of his word and won't be running for office again in the spring. Unless, of course, he's changed his mind on that one, too.