Panelists encourage local government participation
Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents are divided into 2,500 municipalities and 500 school districts according to Susan Hockenberry, executive director of the Quaker Valley Council of Governments (QVCOG).
In the Sewickley Valley region and throughout the state, volunteer elected officials and committee members help many of these governments function.
To raise awareness about how local government affects everyday life and encourage people to run for office, SHAPE hosted a “Discussion on the Importance of Local Government” panel on Jan. 24. Held at the Edgeworth Club, the event featured four panelists who shared their experiences as elected officials.
“Everyone’s so focused on politics in D.C., but really, what we need to be worried about and don’t give nearly enough attention to is our local government,” said Susan Kaminski of SHAPE, which stands for Saving Humanity and Protecting the Environment.
SHAPE intentionally presented a nonpartisan panel, Kaminski said. Representatives from the Quaker Valley Democrats and Quaker Valley GOP joined the crowd of nearly 30 people that attended. Party leaders shared information about the May 21 municipal primary with potential candidates.
Panelists for the evening included Sewickley councilwoman Christine Allen, Edgeworth councilwoman Carrie Duffield, Kilbuck Township Supervisor Jean-Sebastien Valois and Quaker Valley school board member Sarah Heres.
Hockenberry moderated the panel and gave a brief presentation before opening the floor. She stressed the large, ubiquitous nature of local government.
“More services are deployed on a per-capita basis by local government, more taxes are collected, more individuals are employed by local government than the federal or the state governments,” said Hockenberry.
After sharing 10 skills residents can deploy as government officials, Hockenberry posed a series of questions, solicited from audience members, to the panelists. Each panel member spoke about their motivations for serving, what they have learned as elected officials and the issues they deal with.
Valois, an immigrant who moved to the United States from Canada, said he decided to participate in local government more than a decade ago, as a way of thanking the country that welcomed him.
Heres, who had served as a PTA president in the Quaker Valley School District, said a school board member asked her to join the board in 2007. She is now in her third term.
“We are the local representatives of our state education system,” she said.
To an extent, school board members have to work with decisions made in Harrisburg. But Heres also said her board makes many important local decisions, like hiring a superintendent. Board members then work with the superintendent to shape district policy.
Borough and township officials have different responsibilities. They make decisions on issues like land use, government budgets and pensions for employees, according to Allen.
Duffield said her experience dealing with legislative issues in Edgeworth inspired her to pursue a new career path.
“I enjoyed being on borough council so much that I went back to school (to) Duquesne and got my paralegal certificate, so it’s been a great experience for me, life-changing really,” she said.
Valois noted that serving in local government requires a certain amount of sacrifice. Preparing for meetings often takes a lot of time, he said, especially for a volunteer. But he also mentioned the rewards this service can bring.
“Kilbuck was in bankruptcy about 10 years ago, and now we’re doing tremendous, we are out of debt and I take pride in building a community … it’s a legacy that I’m going to leave,” Valois said.
Throughout the discussion, panelists brought up several local government initiatives that will impact the region. A Route 65 corridor study initiated by QVCOG will gather data on the roadway to help guide future development and planning decisions. Quaker Valley’s school board plans to discuss how it might fund the construction of a new high school this year.
A local official in Aleppo Township, Matthew Doebler, has made an effort to record government meetings on video and share the footage with residents. Valois cited Doebler’s efforts as an example of transparency and effective use of technology.
Kaminski closed the evening by discussing this year’s primary election and urging people to run. Candidates running on the GOP or Democratic tickets need to obtain 12 petition signatures from fellow party members, if their race is contested.
The first day to start obtaining signatures is Feb. 19. Local party leaders, Kaminski added, exist to help interested candidates obtain signatures.
“By our best count from talking to the various boroughs, there are 31 seats, council seats, that will be up for election in the primary,” Kaminski said.
Sam Bojarski a Tribune-Review contributing writer.