Monessen Dems battle for nod; Republican waiting
Monessen mayoral candidates Mary Jo Smith and Lou Mavrakis sound like fighters preparing for a heavyweight brawl.
The two are vying for the Democratic nomination in the May 21 primary. Republican Robert Zynosky Jr. is running unopposed.
Smith, the incumbent, recently purchased an ad in The Valley Independent, challenging Mavrakis to a public debate.
“The reason I wanted to debate is because you can't talk to the gentleman in public, because it's a shouting match,” Smith said. “I would like us both to answer what are our plans to make the city a better place.”
But the challenger has refused, stating that, as the frontrunner, there's no reason for him to go toe-to-toe with Smith.
“What is there to debate? The issues are very clear,” Mavrakis said. “She's way behind. This is a woman that thinks she's made out of Teflon. But she doesn't know it's wearing off.”
Smith is vying for a second four-year term. She is employed as office manager and legislative assistant for state Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen.
The city's first female mayor is spearheading the “Monessen Rising” project – which aims to attract artists as new residents and subsequently develop business in the city.
“Will it all work? Probably not. But some of it is absolutely going to work, and we have to move the city forward one way or another,” Smith said. “We need to celebrate our heritage as a steel town. But we cannot live in the past, and the past kills you. The past is not coming back. We have a plan to move forward, and we're working our plan.”
Monessen's project made headlines when it was revealed in April that city's consultant R. Randy Lee, a New York-based attorney, had filed for bankruptcy and was $43 million in debt.
Smith said she and other city officials ran background checks on Lee more than two years ago and spoke to others who gave the developer “rave reviews.” Although the city did not renew Lee's $3000-per-month salary, Smith said Lee's contacts and knowledge are still essential.
“We hired him in October. He didn't declare bankruptcy until March. … No one calls you and says, ‘Hey that guy is going bankrupt' and you can't call the IRS and say, ‘Hey, is this guy going bankrupt?'” Smith said.
She said Lee and fellow developer George Christo have no access to city money.
“They throw out suggestions, and we say ‘Hey that's pretty good,' and we've told them, ‘No, that's not going to work here.'”
Smith cited her track record: repairs and renovations to the Monessen Public Library and Municipal Complex, paving 18 city streets, light installation in city parks, and construction of the Public Safety Building and the Herman Mihalich Boat Launch.
The Public Safety Building houses the police station and the Monessen No. 1 fire department.
She said such improvements attract private investors.
“Money isn't that free out there where private investors are going to just say, ‘Here, take $10 million of our money, and if it works, fine, and if it doesn't work, too bad for us,'” Smith said.
“They have to see projects moving and secured. … You have to invest in what you have first to get others to follow suit.”
Smith calls the city's multi-million dollar debt – and $5 million and $2.5 million bond issues – an “investment.”
“We didn't want to hold up the Public Safety Building or put a new roof on the library. … We did the things that needed done,” Smith said. “We're audited by both the state and an independent auditor. … Never have we missed a payment and never have we not paid bills, and we still finished in the black.
“We haven't tried to hide anything. We haven't exaggerated anything. All our facts are all in black and white.”
Mavrakis, 75, has been retired 23 years.
He first worked on the coke ovens at Pittsburgh Steel and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in the city and was president of the local union.
He touted that experience and his subsequent appointment as an international representative for the United Steelworkers of America labor union. Mavrakis said he met with President Richard Nixon about coke oven safety and “negotiated with some of the top lawyers in the country.”
Mavrakis said he intends to use his contacts to attract light industry and manufacturing to town and raise employment.
At public meetings, Mavrakis has been a vociferous critic of the Monessen Rising project and developers Lee and Christo.
“My thoughts from the very beginning was this was a con,” he said.
He questioned the lack of money from personal investors.
“The so-called Team Monessen has been incompetent. You can't hire people without doing a background check. These people fell in love with Monessen. Why didn't they go to Brownsville and fall in love?”
Mavrakis said that if elected, his plan is to immediately cut the budget while accepting no salary as mayor.
“The first thing that's going to go is John Harhai as city administrator; that's not a job that's necessary,” he said. “You've got four parks that have lights. When I was a kid here, you never had lights. Now you have lights on four different fields. The money was spent in the wrong places.”
Mavrakis vigorously denied rumors he would cut the police or the volunteer fire departments.
He said both fire departments would remain fully funded, if he's elected.
“Why in the (heck) would I cut police or fire?” he said. “If we keep going the way we're going, we'll have to cut.”
Mavrakis said he will “restore fiscal responsibility,” adding he has visited more than 500 homes in the city.
“I'm going door to door until the last minute, because people have had enough,” he said. “They want change, and they're going to get it with me.”
Zynosky is attempting to make history as Monessen's first Republican mayor since Carl Woodward in the late 1920s.
“Actually, I wasn't pushing the Republican (angle) as much as the conservative,” Zynosky said. “I'm not pressing Republican vs. Democrat. I'm pressing for common sense.”
Zynosky, 48, is a registered nurse who works as a marketing executive for Gallagher Home Care in Carnegie. He cites more than 20 years experience as an operations manager for News Group, a large regional wholesaler.
“I've been balancing budgets for 20 years in the real world,” Zynosky said. “I don't see the actual numbers for the city. Are we $5 million in debt or are we $8 million in debt?”
Zynosky contends the city can do a better job of developing the waterfront and utilizing its rail system. He vows to evaluate all projects with a “cost-benefit approach.”
“I have the business experience. I've balanced budgets. I can work with people who develop the riverfront,” he said. “I have a good relationship with Ted Harhai, and I can work with the county people as well.”
Zynosky said he owns four homes in Monessen — three are rentals – adding he's displeased with the general conditions of buildings around the city.
“You can't walk down either side of the street because you have buildings collapsed, and if you go up in the neighborhoods, it looks like Beirut,” Zynosky said. “We've got 50 percent of residents over (age) 55 on fixed incomes, and they've been paying taxes the last 50 years. Taxes have gone up, and even an increase of $60 is a huge deal to these people.”
Zynosky said that despite the best of intentions, the Monessen Rising project is not feasible. He alludes to the project as city officials treating residents' tax revenue “like Monopoly money.”
“It's like the ‘Field of Dreams' — build it with tax money, and they will come,” he said of Monessen Rising. “If a project was to work, private money should be able to sustain it. If you have to use government money to sustain it, it's not a good project.”
Zynosky said he's fine with letting Smith and Mavrakis battle it out for the Democratic nomination. Only after that, he said, will people seriously consider him as the alternative.
“At this point, I believe I'm an afterthought going into the general (election). But it will be taken much more seriously after the primary,” Zynosky said.
“It's been very polarized between Lou and Mary Jo. If Lou wins, a lot of Mary Jo's people will open their eyes to me and vice versa.”
Although Zynosky said there are only 243 Republican “super voters” registered in the city, he could be seen as the true “change” candidate.
“Consider the average margin of victory. … One would think the Republicans would stick with me, plus the pickup of how many Democrats,” Zynosky said. “Voters will have to decide what they want, and I think people will be very surprised with the outcome.”
Rick Bruni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2635 or firstname.lastname@example.org.