Harrison's George Conroy reflects on 38 years of public service
When George Conroy was first elected as a Harrison Township commissioner, he wasn't looking past his four-year term.
That was 38 years ago, in 1975.
“After I was in there for even half my term, I couldn't even visualize being in this long,” Conroy said. “In fact, I was thinking of not running for a second term. But the next thing you know, it's one term after another.”
Now on Jan. 1, at the age of 76, Conroy is about to end a career in public office that he believes has had far more ups than downs.
In fact, since he declined to run in the May primary, Conroy is discovering just how much his public service has meant.
“People have come up to me and told me how they hate seeing me get out of it,” he said. “Even people who I thought didn't think that much of me.”
A colleague's take
That doesn't surprise his longtime friend and fellow Commissioner Bill Poston, who likely will succeed Conroy as commissioners' chairman.
When asked what enabled Conroy to keep getting re-elected, Poston didn't have to stop and think about his answer.
“Honestly, I would say probably because of his integrity, his love to the township,” he said. “Anything we ever came up against, there was never a time when the people of Harrison were in second place.
“He just cared about the people; he cared about the township,” Poston said. “Not only the people in the township, but the people who worked for the township.”
Faith Payne, the township's executive secretary, is one of those people. She's the only person who has been involved in Harrison government longer than Conroy. Her tenure is approaching 41 years, so she has a unique perspective on why the voters favored George Conroy on Election Day.
“I think it's probably because he never had an agenda, like so many people who go into local politics have,” Payne said.
She said, in all those years, he never made a decision with the thought that it would be good for himself and was “low key” in making decisions.
“He didn't go out there looking for praise and to let everyone know what he was doing,” Payne said. “I don't know if there is one thing that we've done that stands out more than any other. It was always: ‘This is how you run a township.' I would say that was his biggest success.”
The primary focus
Conroy said his primary focus was on providing services that the people who elected him needed — water, sewage and road repair and maintenance. The problem with sewage backups into people's homes in the State Street-Dallas Avenue-Princeton Avenue neighborhood is an example.
“I knew that always concerned him because people were always getting water in their basements,” Payne said. “I'm sure that was the biggest thorn in his side all these years because we tried everything and we kept having the problem.”
“I spent a lot of sleepless nights over that,” Conroy said. “There were times when people probably thought we didn't care, but we did.”
Finally, in 2011, Conroy and Poston devised the idea of running a second sewer line through that neighborhood to alleviate the pressure on the existing one. It cost the township about $700,000, raised through a bond issue, but Conroy said it was worth it because it solved the problem.
When township residents attended commissioners' meetings with complaints and problems, Conroy said he always let them air their grievances. But there was a limit to how long he would allow someone to go on, particularly if he felt they were being verbally abusive to the commissioners. Then his Irish temper would erupt.
“He's low key for 20 seconds,” Poston said, laughing. “You can watch his face and you can see it building; you know it's coming. If people have a legitimate problem, he'll work with it. But if it's something that is out of our control and they keep coming back at us, then he'll lose his temper.”In the past month or so, Conroy cut off discussion with a resident complaining about the township moving her chronically tax delinquent property to sheriff sale. When she asked what the township wanted her to do, a red-faced Conroy replied, “Pay your taxes like everyone else.”
“I always believe you have to keep control of a meeting,” Conroy said. “If not, you wind up having a three-ring circus, and I think that reflects badly on the community.”
Hard work, hard decisions
Being a township commissioner involves hard work at times and often unpopular decisions, according to Conroy and Poston.
Poston said Conroy worked diligently with state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, and state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, to keep ATI-Allegheny Ludlum from moving its steel mill, which sits mainly in Harrison, to another location.
“It was gone. It wasn't going to be there,” Conroy said. “That would have impacted this whole Valley terribly if they had moved.”They managed to craft a package of tax breaks and lobby for the state to provide competitive electric rates, which resulted in Ludlum building its new strip mill at the old facility.
Backing that plan was not a difficult decision.
Closing the Natrona Fire Company was another story.
The fire company served probably the most densely populated part of the township for decades. But in the 1980s, it ran into manpower shortages that became a critical problem in responding to fire calls.
Conroy, a firefighter at one time, said he knew most of the active firefighters at the station, making the decision all the harder.
“It devastated me to do that, but I knew it had to be done,” he said. “It became a matter of safety for the residents. A fire a block away and you can't get your truck out the door?”
The decision to disband the fire company didn't make him popular in Natrona, he said, but he believes that over the years residents came to realize it was the right decision.
Another key decision Conroy played a major role in was the township's purchase of Clearview Water Co. and the creation of the Harrison Township Water Authority to run the system, rather than the township commissioners.
“It was a big gamble,” he recalled. “I was concerned about it, but it turned out to be the right thing to do.”
The ‘dark years'
Conroy said in a subsequent election a political faction in the township managed to take control of the commissioners' board in 1991, making Conroy and fellow Commissioner Rich Milito minority voices.
The new majority attempted to take control of the water authority through a lawsuit, which was defeated in the courts. Conroy said, had the lawsuit been successful, proceeds from the sale of water to township residents would have been used to supplement the township operating budget instead of being put back into improving and maintaining the water system.
Poston referred to that two-year period as the township's “dark years,” which saw allegations made against Conroy's integrity, an investigation into his ethics that went nowhere and a campaign to unseat him by reapportioning township wards.
All of which made him more resolute.
“I was more determined than ever after that,” Conroy said. “That's probably why I ended up staying so long. I never backed away from a fight in my life.”
He and Milito, to whom Conroy said he was grateful for standing with him through the turmoil, were re-elected in a landslide. The scene at the township's reorganization meeting is something Conroy said he will never forget.
Several hundred residents overflowed the commissioners' meeting room, sending up loud cheers when Conroy and Milito arrived. The residents also shared a cake with them that was inscribed with their thanks for “returning integrity to government.”
“It made me feel really good because of the community's support,” Conroy said. “It brought tears to my eyes.
“I always loved the community, but it (the show of support) probably had a lot to do with why I'm still a commissioner,” he said. “There were times I would think, ‘I don't need this any more,' and then I would think back to that evening.”
He said he feels for people who run for public office these days.
“It's different today because people are disgusted with government, and they take it out on local government,” Conroy said.
But he said local government is where people most likely will receive some response to their question or complaint — not the county, state or federal government.
For him, however, those questions and complaints won't be a concern anymore.
“It's the old story: You've gotta know when to fold 'em,” Conroy said. “But it's really been an honor to serve the people of Harrison Township.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.