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True primary contests are rare in region

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Sunday, May 19, 2013, 12:31 a.m.

Voters might want to practice typing on their smart phones before going to the polls for Tuesday's primary election.

In many cases, voters will be using virtual keyboards on the touch-screen voting machines to nominate candidates for a variety of elected offices.

Municipal and school races throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley feature a lack of candidates or, in some cases, no candidates at all.

Truly contested primary races — in which multiple Democrats and Republicans vie against one another for their party's nomination — are rare.

Four council seats are up for grabs in Manorville, three with four-year terms and one with a two-year term. It is one of the races in which voters will find no names on the ballot.

Councilman Larry Bandura said it's not because no one wants to serve — he couldn't get to the Armstrong County Courthouse to take care of the paperwork to get his name on the ballot.

Bandura said he and incumbent council members Gary Meyer and David Chromiak will be seeking re-election as write-ins.

“I had every intention of doing it. Work kept me from getting the petition,” Bandura said. “Hopefully we'll make it back on council.”

In Vandergrift, four council seats are up for election, but only three candidates, all incumbent Democrats, appear on the ballot.

Vandergrift Council President Brian Carricato, also a Democrat, said he's running as a write-in to reclaim his seat. He and his wife planned to move out of Vandergrift, so he didn't file the paperwork to get his name on the ballot. They changed their minds and are staying in Vandergrift, and Carricato now is running again for council.

Councilman Lenny Collini, one of the candidates on the ballot, said he was expecting a challenge with five to six candidates.

“I don't even have to put a sign up, that's what I feel like. If the people want me there, they'll vote for me,” Collini said. “What does that say about your community? Either they think we're doing a fantastic job or nobody is interested anymore.”

The primary picture suggests a great deal of uninterest on the part of the average citizen, said Jerry Shuster, a professor of political communication and presidential rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. He also was a Kittanning councilman for seven years.

“Lots of people would love to do public service, run for school boards and council and other less obvious positions,” he said. “One of the things that prevents that is not only the time it takes, but more importantly the criticism that results from the decisions they make.”

Local elected officials are more likely to face criticism for decisions, as their constituents are also their neighbors, and that criticism is likely to continue for a long time.

“The people you really need to see on the ballot are capable, enthusiastic, focused people who want to do public service. They don't want to stick their neck out because they don't want to see the blood in the street,” he said.

Former Apollo Councilwoman Debbie Schrecengost said Shuster “hit the nail on the head.” After more than eight years on council, she resigned in August, citing criticism aimed at her online.

“There are people who like to gripe and don't want to step up to the plate to make change,” she said. “There are people who might want to do it but do not want to be criticized if they make a decision they're not sure the public wants.”

Six of Apollo's seven council seats are up for election this year, but there are only four candidates, all incumbents. Schrecengost said people asked her to run again, but she wasn't interested, preferring to serve her community as a volunteer.

“The biggest fear I have for our council in Apollo is we have so many new members. Dave (Heffernan) is our last council member who is a really seasoned council member. My fear is if we get a lot of write-ins and he does not make it, the council is going to have to reinvent the wheel.”

Wendy Buzard has been head of Armstrong County elections since 1990. She said there has always been a shortage of people interested in public offices.

“A lot of people balk at the fact they have to fill out that financial interest statement,” she said. “You have to state your sources of income, if you have any outstanding debt, that kind of thing. A lot of people don't like to give that information. Even though it's very vague on the form, they don't want to give it out.”

Many local races require only 10 signatures from registered members of the candidate's party to get on the primary ballot; the same threshold is needed for a write-in to register, with some exceptions such as cities, where 100 are needed.

Buzard said her office tries to make the process of getting on the ballot easy.

“I just think in general people just don't want bothered. They don't want to take on the responsibility of borough or township offices. It's too much of a headache,” she said.

It's not unusual to have council and mayor races across the state with no filed candidates, said Ed Knittel, senior director for education and stainability at the Pennsylvania Association of Boroughs.

It's an issue the association has discussed, he said.

“It's a shame because local government is the closest to them on a daily basis,” Knittel said. “The governments in our boroughs make sure the roads are maintained, the potholes are patched, the snow is plowed in the winter. They make sure parks are clean and usable for children. It takes dedicated men and women to fill those positions.”

Among school districts, 10 percent across the state did not have enough candidates file to fill all positions in 2011, said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“While your area may not have enough candidates running for office, that is not always the case statewide,” he said. “In the Scranton area, I heard of one school board this year that has 12 people running for four available seats.

“A lot of it depends on what issues are taking place in an area at any given time that may attract individuals to run,” he said. “School boards face a lot of challenges. The challenges can be difficult. It's what attracts members to run for office.”

Shuster said regionalization of local government will become a necessity within the next 10 to 15 years. Schools have already done it, he said.

Knittel won't say the apparent lack of interest points to the potential demise of local government. Schools, he said, could do more to educate students about local government and its importance.

“It certainly is not a positive sign if the citizens of their own community don't believe it's important enough for them to participate. It's discouraging,” he said.

There are local elected officials who have served for decades, some 30 to 40 years.

“That is to be commended,” Knittel said. “It is a lot of work, and the job has changed greatly over the last 40 years.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701

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