'Former' North Belle Vernon mayor leaves legacy of public service
If anyone is looking for Ed Lyons today, he'll be on the golf course. And, his cell phone will be off.
Lyons, 78, ended his term as North Belle Vernon mayor at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday as his retirement officially began.
Craig Ambrose will serve the remainder of Lyons' term, which expires Dec. 31. Ambrose is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for mayor in this month's primary election. There is no Republican seeking the mayoral seat.
“Coming in today, it was a bittersweet moment,” Lyons said.
The former mayor said the reality of the situation hit him when he turned over the office keys to Borough Manager Mary Lou Berish.
“I had the chief come over and do a quick inspection, and now that's it,” Lyons said of police Chief Jim Bedsworth.
“I made myself available 24 hours a day, especially for the police. That's probably something I won't miss. Having my phone ringing at all hours.”
Lyons has been serving the borough since he joined the fire department in 1956. He has served as an elected auditor, councilman, including time as president, and mayor.
Over the years, he has held positions both in North Belle Vernon and the greater Mon Valley.
He served as president, vice president and executive director of the Mon Valley Council of Governments, for which he served on the executive board.
Lyons served as president of the Mon Valley Industrial Development Corp. – now the Middle Monongahela Industrial Development Association.
During his tenure, MIDA completed many projects, including procurement of a $10 million loan for the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Rail Mill in Monessen.
He served as Private Industry Council of Westmoreland/Fayette board chairman and later became its chief administrative officer.
As president and CEO of PIC, the agency became the third-largest of its type in the state. While he oversaw operations throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, Lyons said his heart was always in North Belle Vernon and the Mon Valley.
“I still think of the Mon Valley as one community,” Lyons said. “The problem we have in this area are the borders. I really have deep concern for the Valley.
“There was a time that we had it all around here; now we're the ones playing catch up. The funding from the federal government and state just isn't there.”
Lyons recalled a time in the late 1960s that discussions began about merging Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon boroughs.
“We really wanted to use Belle Vernon as a place for heavy industry,” Lyons said. “Just think of the possibilities that are down there. You have a rail system, the river, and Interstate 70, right there.
“Belle Vernon Borough was the key municipality around here and was really the beginning of the business district down on Main Street.”
Lyons said one police department, one fire department, one governing body, would have benefitted both municipalities.
“Much to my surprise, neither community shared my desire,” he said.
Lyons acknowledged that there still seems to be lingering animosity between the two communities.
“Some down below think the ‘people on the hill' are snotty or think they're privileged,” Lyons said. “Sometimes people don't realize that most of Belle Vernon Borough is up on that hill.”
Lyons said the merger idea was scrapped because of each side arguing over roles and control.
“I'm really worried about the Mon Valley,” Lyons said. “I'm afraid that communities like ours will disappear. The edict is that communities can't survive without a certain population.
“The large will get larger and the small will get smaller.”
Lyons is the father of three sons, Ed Jr., 58, a Monessen police captain; George, 55, of Lynnwood; and Gregory, 51, of Belle Vernon Borough. He has four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“I do have some personal matters and family matters that I need to take care of and be there for,” Lyons said of his retirement plans.
Top cop OK
“Chief and I have had a great relationship for the past seven and a half years,” Lyons said after a lengthy pause when asked to describe the time working with Bedsworth.
“There's never been any quarrels. He's always been very polite and carried out my requests. He's really handled his position well.
Lyons said being a police chief in a small town isn't an easy job.
“He's done it very well,” Lyons said.
Lyons said he and Bedsworth had daily meetings, with the chief updating him on the previous day's shifts.
“Never missed a day,” Lyons said proudly. “Every once in a while, it'd have to be over the phone, but that was rare. Sometimes it would be over coffee and a bite to eat. I'm really going to miss those meetings.”
North Belle Vernon isn't immune to social problems that affect communities, Lyons acknowledged.
“Sometimes the laws that police enforce are too constricting,” he said. “When it comes to this drug epidemic that has infiltrated our homes and our communities ... people have to start looking in their own medicine cabinets, because that's the first place children are looking.
“I was shocked at what I learned at the drug summit in Monessen earlier this year. Ninety percent of the drugs going through our communities are prescription drugs.”
Lyons said it is tough being an administrator who oversees the police department, because it never seems like officers are doing enough to battle illegal drug trafficking.
“It's funny, because people see crimes resolved in one hour on their TVs, and they feel that their local police can do it in real life. Well, they can't,” Lyons proclaimed.
“But that's the thing with police officers. You persevere. You live for another day and try again. We know that there is a problem. We know where the problem is, and we're paying attention.
Lyons said some law enforcement problems have been resolved.
“Are we satisfied?” he asked. “No, but we're going to continue our investigations. It's tough, because turnover is high among the police officers in a small town, and we're no exception.”
The former mayor said he urged some younger residents to get involved in local government.
“I've seen the same faces for so many years,” Lyons said of his political colleagues. “In a larger community, you have a larger population to get involved.
Lyons said borough residents' disinterest in local government is magnified at the national level.
“Why would anyone want to get involved in a community that the people don't turn out to vote,” he said.
Back to work
After taking a break from local politics, Lyons was appointed to council in 1996. He was forced to resign because of conflicts involving federal and state dollars obtained by PIC and his role with the borough.
Lyons' wife, Pearl, didn't want him to run for mayor in 2005.
“I don't know if I really wanted to run, either,” Lyons said. “I didn't do any politicking. I ended up winning by a very small margin.”
His opponent in that election was Ambrose.
Lyons recently decided it was time to “ride off into the sunset.”
“Sometimes, your body just tells you it's time,” he said. “I don't think anyone should take these jobs as lifetime jobs. People stay too long and run out of ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of people are afraid of change.”
Lyons said his proudest accomplishment was being able to help provide for the community – including more than $1.2 million in grants.
Saying he has worked feverishly this year, Lyons feels good about the borough's chances for receiving up to $350,000 in a Community Development Block Grant for street paving.
“The whole CDBG program isn't easy,” he said. “I've enlisted the help of (Councilwoman) Diann Donaldson, and she's been getting involved administratively. I feel I'm leaving the borough with a great opportunity.
“I've always felt that boroughs and small towns shouldn't be run politically. They should be run like a business. You have to ask yourself what is going to give the taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck.”
Lyons said he has no regrets about how he did things as a public servant.
“I'm really proud of the way Broad Avenue looks,” Lyons said of the main street. “Sometimes you think about the things you were a part of, and you're really proud. And there's some things you're disappointed. You have to know that you did the best you could, and now it's up to someone else.”
He added that with the exception of a bad-looking property in the 500 block and an empty lot, which has now been purchased and is about to be put to use, he's pleased with what he sees on Broad.
“North Belle Vernon was here before I got here, and it will continue to be here after I'm gone,” Lyons said. “I still think it's the best little town in the Mon Valley, and it was a privilege to serve.”
Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2667.