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Races in Pittsburgh region struggle to attract candidates

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 8:39 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Election signs dominate the landscape of Constitution Boulevard in New Kensington on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.
John Orndorff of Glen Osborne is a candidate for council.

Tuesday's votes aren't cast, but John Orndorff knows what he needs to do when re-elected: drum up people to serve with him.

“We will search around to find someone and appoint them to serve until next time,” said Orndorff, 66, a retired biology teacher who is the only registered candidate for four open Glen Osborne council seats. “If they're eligible and willing, they get on. That's how I got on council.”

It's a prospect facing nearly one in five municipalities in the seven-county Pittsburgh region of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland.

Of the 434 municipal elections for mayor, council, supervisor or commissioner, 78 municipalities, about 18 percent, have no candidates or too few candidates running for available seats, the Tribune-Review found.

“That's a higher number than I would have thought,” said Dick Hadley, executive director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities. “It's becoming harder and harder to attract quality people to run for local office. And that's a shame, because local politics have a greater impact on everyday life than state or national politics.”

Armstrong County has the highest percentage of uncontested or under-contested core municipal races for mayor, council, supervisor or commissioner. A third of its municipalities have a candidate deficit. The lowest percentage is in Allegheny County, where about 10 percent of its 115 municipal elections don't have enough candidates, and Fayette County, at 12 percent.

Most of the core municipal races examined are in some of the region's smallest municipalities. Sixty-three municipalities have fewer than 1,000 residents; six have fewer than 100.

The 11 municipalities in Allegheny County include Haysville and Glenfield, which for decades decided races mainly through write-in votes, elections officials said. Others are Rosslyn Farms, Sewickley Hills, South Versailles, Thornburg and Wall. Each of those communities has fewer than 650 residents, according to Census Bureau figures.

But McKeesport, with nearly 20,000 residents, is short one candidate for three open council seats. As are the boroughs of Edgewood and Springdale, each of which has more than 3,000 residents.

It is increasingly common to find local-level political races with few — if any — people running, said Larry Spahr, elections director of Washington County.

“It's drifting that way in many places,” Spahr said. “You have a portion of society that pays attention. Then you have a growing portion that doesn't pay attention and doesn't care what is going on.”

If write-in votes do not work, governing bodies or vacancy boards can nominate people to serve until the next municipal election. If they cannot agree, the Court of Common Pleas can get involved.

Home-rule charters also spell out ways to fill vacancies.

G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said low or no pay, significant time requirements and the prospect of having to make controversial decisions are among the reasons keeping people from seeking elected positions.

“A lot of times, people will run because they are upset about something in their community,” Madonna said. “It could be council raised taxes or are doing some development the people don't like.”

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, said she hopes growing discontent with national politics in Washington isn't hurting local governments.

“If anything, I see it as a call-to-arms for people to serve,” Brown said. “There really is a need for leadership in communities.”

Without qualified elected officials, communities can suffer, said Hadley of the municipalities league.

Organizations such as his, county associations and councils of governments, known as COGs, help municipalities team up to increase their purchasing power, negotiate contracts and provide employee training, Hadley said.

University of Pittsburgh political communication professor Gerald Shuster, a former Kittanning councilman, said serving on local governing boards can be “thankless,” given the amount of work required and potential criticism.

“It would be nice to say, ideally people do this as a public service,” he said, “but that's a pretty tough responsibility to assume whenever you see people on the street every day and the results of your votes or actions are paramount in their minds because it impacts them immediately.”

In North Apollo, Armstrong County, no one is running for the three council seats on the ballot.

Eugene Burns, 57, said he forgot he's up for re-election and is waging a write-in campaign to keep his seat.

It's a “sad state of affairs” that no one wants to run, said Burns, who is serving his second stint on council.

“I wish people would take more interest,” he said. “I tell them to come to the meetings. Most of the time, it's not that bad.”

Burns isn't worried about inexperienced people getting on council.

“I had to learn the ropes just like anybody else,” he said. “Sit back and learn, that's all you can do.”

The Local Government Academy, a nonpartisan organization based in the North Side, offers training for newly elected officials in Western Pennsylvania and resources to help municipalities promote development, environmental quality and intergovernmental cooperation.

An academy analysis found that of the nearly 1,700 people across the region who are running for local offices on Tuesday, about 60 percent are first-time candidates.

Municipalities that frequently resort to appointing public officials should question whether their government is too big, said Susan Hockenberry, the academy's executive director.

“I look at that as a good opportunity for good government,” she said. “If you're small and are having a problem filling the size of your government, you have the opportunity to change that in Pennsylvania. But we respect that's a decision that needs to be made locally.”

Jason Cato and Brian C. Rittmeyer are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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