Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Inquirer. May 20, 2021.

Editorial: Mayor Kenney is responsible for making new MOVE investigation the last one Philly needs

Mayor Jim Kenney said this week he wants his administration to be the first to “get to the bottom of everything that happened” after the 1985 MOVE bombing and devastating fire. If he does his job right, he should be the last mayor to lead this long-overdue reckoning.

On May 13 — the 36th anniversary of the day Mayor Wilson Goode ordered the raid that culminated with a bomb dropped on the MOVE house in West Philadelphia, sparking a fire that killed six adults and five children, then razed a city block — City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned for previously ordering remains of MOVE members to be destroyed without consulting surviving family. Then a day later, the city announced it had found those remains in the basement of the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The whiplash of grieving for destroyed remains of loved ones and then learning those remains still exist is a horrifying sequence of events — and for the Africa family, the latest chapter in a decades-long assault on their humanity.

Delivering any measure of justice starts with getting answers around the custody chain for these remains that has been broken since 1985, meaning that for more than 30 years these individuals have not been properly laid to rest.

Kenney is not responsible for the decades of disrespect toward MOVE victims since 1985. Another mayor oversaw the police who dropped the bomb, and the Medical Examiner’s Office under multiple administrations held on to remains even after the commission first appointed to investigate the bombing declared those remains identified, and the forensic analysis completed.

But Kenney is mayor of Philadelphia in this moment, when a pattern of disrespect toward the Africa family by city government officials has come to light. His appointed health commissioner ordered these remains destroyed, and his Medical Examiner’s Office kept these sensitive materials in basement boxes that staff scrambled to find.

This makes it his administration’s responsibility to answer pressing questions in its investigation and make clear to the families and public what concrete actions come next. Immediate questions include: How many MOVE members have remains held by the city, not just in the latest discovery but overall? Which individuals do they belong to? Why were they kept? And what to make of allegations that remains may show that some family members died not by fire but being shot by Philadelphia police as they fled the MOVE house?

The administration has so far promised an investigation led by the Dechert LLP law firm to identify and return the human remains of all MOVE victims in city custody. That’s a bare minimum step. And it should come with a timeline, which the mayor would not commit to as of Tuesday. An end date avoids indefinitely prolonging the trauma of MOVE members and provides a date for them, and the public, to hold the city accountable.

A public eye on this process remains key. Farley stated that he came forward with his decision on the remains in light of April reports that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton long held on to MOVE people’s remains without consulting the family. That revelation resulted from community organizing and pressure on Penn Museum for its broader treatment of the remains of Black people, including Philadelphians. Black community members, not city officials, led this charge. To remain accountable to those communities, the city should commit to public briefings at least on the investigation’s timeline, with the respectful involvement of the Africa family.

It’s also welcome news that City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is exploring a separate investigation from her office. Her team’s scathing report on the city’s decision to teargas protesters during last year’s uprising after the police murder of George Floyd makes clear it won’t hold back on critiquing the Kenney administration. In Wednesday’s budget hearing, Councilmembers Cindy Bass and Jamie Gauthier voiced support for Rhynhart’s independent investigation. Other councilmembers should join their endorsement.

The mayor already made one long-term promise for this investigation: an overhaul of the Medical Examiner’s Office to ensure respectful treatment of human remains moving forward, including a possible policy to return all remains to relatives. This reform is necessary to end the sinful legacy that has followed the MOVE bombing — an all-too-American story of Black life devalued to the point of state murder, and then continually devalued even in death. Kenney is responsible for ensuring that our next mayor does not discover in a city basement additional remains of Black Philadelphians who have been denied rest.

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Altoona Mirror. May 22, 2021.

Editorial: Resume in-person meetings

As COVID-19 restrictions continue easing, we encourage local governments and school boards to resume meeting in person, with their doors open to the public and the media.

Many of our local governments, during the pandemic, have relied on telephone and video connections to convene public meetings.

After more than a year of covering such meetings, our reporters will tell you that these arrangements are only tolerable — definitely not preferred.

We suspect many residents came to the same conclusion when directed to render public comment by telephone, especially when school boards discussed the controversial issue of when students should return to their classrooms.

Telephoning into a meeting, while tolerable in light of the pandemic, doesn’t measure up to attending in person or speaking in person.

Prior to COVID-19, that’s how people expected to address their elected leaders, so they could watch for reactions and figure out what to say next.

While the resumption of in-person meetings may be easier for governing bodies with larger resources, we want all governing bodies to carve out ways to safely resume in-person meetings with room for the public and press.

Our Blair County commissioners recently moved in that direction. On May 11, they returned to meeting in a room in the courthouse basement, with more than a few feet between every masked attendee.

The county also kept telephone access available to their meetings, a welcome alternative for anyone, who for any reason, cannot attend in person.

Governing bodies with smaller quarters may need to consider some options to safely resume their in-person meetings. Perhaps a new seating arrangement will work effectively? Perhaps an alternative location can be identified?

What should no longer be tolerated — in light of the decrease in COVID-19 cases — is for governing bodies to convene public meetings inside buildings while the public’s access is limited to telephone and video connections.

If you’re asking what’s wrong with that set-up, we can tell you about inaudible voices, dropped connections, an inability to know who’s talking and a general frustration from feeling like you’re assigned to the little kids’ table in the kitchen while the adults are in the comfortable dining room.

“With millions of Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated, it’s time to plan the transition back to normal,” said Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery, a member of the state’s COVID-19 task force in support of Gov. Tom Wolf’s plans to ease restrictions beginning May 31.

Last week’s guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicating that fully vaccinated people can go maskless almost everywhere, sounds like another reason for local governing bodies to resume meeting in person, with access for all.

When it comes to local government, the doors should be as wide open as possible.

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Harrisburg Patriot-News/Penn Live. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: We thank all of the candidates in the May 18 primary, but running for office shouldn’t be so hard

It’s not easy to step out under the spotlight and run for public office. Campaigning is grueling. The pay is really not that good. And people can be, well, not so nice to politicians.

That’s why so many good people refuse to run. They refuse to expose themselves and their families to the public humiliation so many candidates face just because they want to serve their communities.

It takes a special kind of person to run for mayor, city council, school board or tax collector. It takes a special kind of person to walk miles and miles in neighborhood after neighborhood, knock on hundreds of doors and kindly ask for your vote. If we didn’t have people willing to subject themselves to the roughhouse of political campaigning, we wouldn’t have a democracy. We wouldn’t have America. We wouldn’t even have Pennsylvania.

That’s why we ask you to join us in applauding all of the men and women who were candidates in the May 18 primaries. We applaud them whether the vote counts show they won or they loss. We applaud them because they are the very foundation of our democracy. They are what make the American dream a reality.

Yes, there were official winners and losers in Tuesday’s voting tallies. That’s what democracy is about. But the fact that so many competent, dedicated and courageous people were willing to put their names before us for public service says a lot about our community. It says we live among people who are courageous, committed and called to serve. We applaud them all.

Most of the candidates in Cumberland, Carlisle, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and throughout our commonwealth are decent, hard-working people who felt compelled to share their expertise and talents to improve our lives. We could name names, but that would defeat the purpose of this message. We should express out appreciation of all of these ordinary people who stepped up to serve.

The sad fact is, we make it too hard for more good people to run for public office. Too many good people refuse to go through the hell it often takes to serve their communities. No one is perfect, but for some reason, we expect candidates for public office to be saints. Too many people think they have the right to berate and abuse public officials. And too many voters fall for misleading ads, false accusations and outright lies against good and honest people.

Let’s face the facts. We know not all candidates are good and honest. Unfortunately, some of the worst even get elected. But most people who run are doers. They don’t just grouse about problems. They try to solve them.

Here’s another fact. No candidate for public office is a saint. And no voter is, either. But unless we provide a degree of respect and appreciation for those who run for public office, we will find the pool of talent continuing to dwindle.

Think about it, do you know good people who would make excellent commissioners, legislators or school directors, but they would never go through the hell it takes to run for office?

We call on our readers to try to change the political atmosphere. Let’s sincerely thank the brave people who put their names on the ballot in this election. And let’s vow to change the climate so that more good people aren’t afraid to throw their hats into the political ring.

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Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. May 21, 2021.

Editorial: Voting problems add fuel to fire of mistrust in election process

Ballot shortages and misprints plagued Tuesday’s elections in spots across Pennsylvania – even as the state is striving to rebuild trust, especially among Republicans, in the voting process.

We find it inexcusable that some voters arrived at polling places, only to be told there were no ballots – as happened in several counties, including York and Delaware.

Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid called the voting problems “isolated” and Gov. Tom Wolf said he believed the election went smoothly overall.

But we see these mishaps as collectively representing a lack of focus and leadership at a time when every movement falls under the critical lens of political scrutiny.

Want the people to trust you? Don’t give them reasons to do otherwise.

Turnout was higher than expected in some regions, with the ballot questions concerning the power of a governor to control emergency declarations getting people to the polls for a municipal primary.

Here are some of the problems, as reported by our John Finnerty and the Associated Press:

• In Luzerne County, a programming error caused some Republican primary ballots to be mislabeled as Democratic ballots on electronic voting machines. Luzerne elections director Bob Morgan told the AP that the error only appeared on the screen, with the ballots printing correctly as Republican documents and primary races.

• In Fayette County, some ballots were printed without a barcode that would align them to be optically scanned and counted. Degraffenreid said ballots that were already cast with the missing barcode were kept separate from other ballots and counted by hand, while additional ballots with the correct barcode were printed for voters who arrived later in the day.

• In Lancaster County, a printing error meant about 15,000 mail-in ballots couldn’t be scanned and had to be counted by hand. Also in Lancaster, about 2,700 voters received mail-in ballots incorrectly informing them that they did not have to include postage on the return envelope. The Postal Service said it still delivered those mail ballots. And about 100 to 150 residents in two Lancaster County towns received mail-in ballots with someone else’s name on the return envelopes.

• In Delaware County, Republicans said polling places in many towns ran out of GOP ballots – with voters forced to wait in line for more to be delivered.

Tom McGarrigle, chairman of the Delaware County GOP, called on the local district attorney to launch “a thorough and independent investigation.” McGarrigle accused election officials of using “voter suppression techniques” against Republican voters.

“This county spent millions of taxpayer dollars hiring new people and buying new technology and they still can’t run an election right,” McGarrigle said. “This was a complete failure of leadership and accountability.”

Jim Allen, director of the Delaware County Bureau of Elections, said shortages affected voters in both parties and denied insinuations of a manipulation of voting.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly jumped on the scattered problems as an indication that “our Election Code is in dire need of significant reform focused on accountability, security and training,” according to a joint statement issued Tuesday by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, and State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County. Grove is the chairman of the House state government committee.

“Pennsylvanians deserve to show up to their polling place trusting in the election process,” the lawmakers said.

“They deserve the ability to leave their polling place knowing that their vote was cast accurately.”

With some still clinging to false claims of election fraud from November, it was unthinkable that Pennsylvania would have such widespread issues in May.

We agree with the Republicans who are crying “foul” this time.

These mishaps demand accountability – and a plan for making sure we don’t see a recurrence in the fall.

Elections officials at the state and county levels can and must do better.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 24, 2021.

Editorial: CMU will require students to be vaccinated, but there should be options as well

The decision by Carnegie Mellon University to require all students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall should come as no surprise. Hundreds of schools nationwide have taken similar measures in hopes of returning to permanent in-person class instruction.

While it’s understandable that CMU and other schools would want to force the issue in the interest of safety, the schools should provide some option for those students who, for whatever reason, do not want the vaccine. Nearly all schools allow exceptions on religious or medical grounds, but there should be a way for those opposed to the vaccine to attend school while taking safety precautions. Frequent COVID testing should be on the table as an alternative.

A vaccine requirement is not unexpected, given the increase in vaccine production and availability. In March, vaccine availability was an issue and people were scrambling to find sites. Now many schools, including CMU, are able to offer vaccine clinics on campus in hopes of reaching as many students as possible. This is most desirable.

The key to making the vaccine program successful at any school could be boosted by incentives in addition to easy access to the inoculating shot.

For those who receive exemptions on religious or medical grounds, the school plans to announce details later as to what steps those students will have to take to attend classes. Those who object to receiving a vaccine, but don’t qualify for a religious or medical exemption should be given similar consideration. Schools should implement alternatives such as frequent COVID testing, at the student’s expense.

Other schools in Pennsylvania also have announced vaccine requirements, and the state’s two major universities — Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh — have not yet made it a requirement but are encouraging students, faculty and staff to receive the vaccine.

On-campus clinics and incentives as well as the promise of a return to a normal college life complete with in-person classes and social activities should achieve all but complete vaccination. But, for those who simply are opposed to rolling up their sleeve, accommodations involving testing should be made.

Correction: This editorial was corrected to reflect that Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh have not announced a requirement for vaccination.

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