Thursday, August 28, 2014


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.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Squanderer

When you squander $2 million of county taxpayer money making a sudden U-turn in your long-held position, like Fayette County Commissioner Vince Zapotosky, it's best to find someone else to blame.

Which is precisely what Zapotosky did at Tuesday's meeting, where he tried to make the Herald-Standard newspaper and reporter Patty Yauger the subject of attention, rather than his own ineptitude and wishy-washyness.

Zapotosky called Yauger the "personal reporter" of fellow Democratic Commissioner Al Ambrosini -- which only serves as affirmation that the stories Yauger has broken about Zapotosky's actions regarding the proposed new $30 million Fayette County prison have rattled Zapotosky.

You'd probably be rattled, too, if the public found out that you were responsible for obtaining and turning over architecturall designs for the new prison to a man from Morgantown, West Virginia, who in turn gave them to a contractor in that city -- a contractor that intended to bid on the project.

Yauger's work documented all of the above. Does anyone doubt that Zapotosky's action smacks of favoritism, bad judgement, or both? Who is he to unilaterally decide which construction firm should get the opportunity to "review" the plans drawn up by a firm he already voted to hire for that task?
His actions are important stuff for the public to know. Should Yauger be blamed for doing her job?

But instead of directing his ire where it belongs -- at the guy looking back at him in the mirror -- Zapotosky has tried to deflect attention away from himself. He has blamed Yauger for interviewing his personal courthouse assistant, Kathy Winkler, regarding the distribution of those plans, as though that's some high crime in the world of journalism.

Imagine that -- a reporter who asks questions! If Winkler didn't want to answer any, all she had to say was, "No comment." And, if she were so inclined, she could have added, "You'll need to ask Vince about that." We doubt that Yauger would have put Winkler in a headlock until she changed her mind.

Zapotosky also has taken aim at Ambrosini, blaming his long-time partner in running county government for sanctioning an "interrogation" of Winkler by Yauger. On WMBS radio's "Let's Talk" show Friday, Zapotosky trotted out Winkler as an on-air sidekick and tried to make the focus how upset she was at being asked questions during a nearly three-hour interview with Yauger.

To Zapotosky, at least, it was the Big Bad Wolf Ambrosini and Godzilla Yauger intimidating Little Miss Muffet Winkler to the point of tears.

Guess what, Vince? It goes with the territory. And surely you, of all people, know that.

You don't have to like Ambrosini for turning in your actions to the state Ethics Commission. But it looks like you will have to answer for them in some fashion. Maybe that's what has you squirming and backpedaling.

You don't have to like Yauger for pursuing this particular story, but that's not really an issue. And it's certainly, and thankfully, not your call. You can disparage Yauger as another commissioner's "personal reporter" all you want, but if you want to open that can of worms, we seriously doubt you'll end up voting to hire Yauger for a key position in the commissioner's office, like you did her Herald-Standard predecessor in covering county government.

In either case, we wouldn't want to be the elected official who slipped documents to a guy who passed them on to a contractor that, in turn, intended to bid on a $30 million project. If, as Zapotsky says, he just wanted an independent review of the plans and suggestions on how to save money, why didn't he make such a motion at a commission meeting and give ALL interested contractors the same opportunity?

When Zapotosky says, "Am I a day late and a dollar short? You betcha," it's important to remember that he's really two years and $2 million short. There's nothing he plans to do now in terms of exploring alternatives that he couldn't have done months or years ago regarding this project. He supported the idea of building a new prison, the site selection and acquisition, the hiring of a design firm and the expenditure of a significant amount of funds to get the project started. That wasn't Monopoly money he voted to hand out.

What's mystifying, though, is why so many people in the audience at Tuesday's meeting, people who rejoiced in the 2-1 vote to suspend the prison project, made snide remarks about Yauger and her reportage on this issue. Those catcalls are unwarranted.

You can't have it both ways. If it weren't for Yauger's reporting, Zapotosky wouldn't have been put on the hot spot that probably led to him changing his mind after two years as an ardent supporter of this costly prison project. His actions threw a big monkey wrench into the process. Opponents of the new prison may be glad that Zapotosky changed position and provided the second vote necessary to stop the project, but they shouldn't be blaming Yauger for turning in the best piece of investigative journalism the Herald-Standard has done in years.

Without Yauger's aggressive effort, no one would have known about these plans being slipped out of the courthouse and shipped to West Virginia. Certainly,Zapotosky wasn't telling the public that's what he was up to.

If Yauger heard about this and didn't follow up, many of those same critics would be pounding her for looking the other way. The focus should be on Zapotosky's actions -- his sudden change of heart and the propriety of handing out architectural plans for a yet-to-be-bid project -- not on the reporter and how she did her job.