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Republicans rap free ride to polls program

| Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 11:58 p.m.

Some Allegheny County Republicans are criticizing a program that gives mostly elderly voters in six traditionally Democratic neighborhoods free rides to the polls in county-owned vans.

Juvenile offenders sentenced to community service assist voters into and out of vans and polling places. Employees in the Community Intensive Supervision Program (CISP) drive the vans.

Voters who live within a 5-mile radius of program centers in the Hill District, Homewood, North Side, Garfield, Wilkinsburg and McKeesport are eligible for a ride, court officials said.

“I want to see it stopped as a county-run effort if they're not including areas in which Republicans vote. I don't think it's a function of government to drive people to the polls,” said County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, a Republican. Although the program is more than a decade old, she said she only found out about it on Sunday.

Russell Carlino, the county's chief juvenile probation officer, said voters in West Mifflin, White Oak, Monroeville, Plum, Oakmont and Pitcairn also are eligible because there are juveniles in the program from those towns, but most rides originate from where the centers are located.

Common Pleas Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco, who heads family and juvenile court, said the program is designed to help juvenile offenders, not Democratic candidates.

“What better example for these kids to see than these people who are mostly older and get dressed up to vote? What better example of what being a citizen is all about? It's so helpful for them to see that,” Hens-Greco said.

“We don't have a CISP center everywhere. We can't be everywhere.”

The program is advertised by the Pittsburgh nonprofit Black Political Empowerment Project (B-Pep), which takes calls from people who want a ride to the polls. B-Pep passes that information on to court officials.

“I'm concerned this is being taken in a political direction that it need not go,” said B-Pep leader Tim Stevens. “These offices are where they are. If CISP wanted to expand their coverage with this program, we'd be willing to field calls for it.”

Carlino said no election material is handed out to people who use the service.

“I don't consider it partisan activity — all we do is provide a ride,” he said. “We're repaying those areas where the crimes were committed. (Today) they're helping people get to the polls. The next day, they might be painting a church.”

Former County Executive Jim Roddey, head of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said if the program existed when he was executive, no one brought it to his attention.

“I think it's totally inappropriate. Obviously, it's a program to try and get more Democratic votes,” Roddey said.

Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, said the rides should be available to everybody.

“I commend the courts for wanting to help these kids, but (the rides) have to be across the board. You can't leave anyone behind or you're influencing the outcome of an election.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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