12 contenders vie to represent District 8 on Allegheny County Council | TribLIVE.com

12 contenders vie to represent District 8 on Allegheny County Council

Natasha Lindstrom
Allegheny County Council members meet at the Allegheny County Courthouse on May 8, 2018.

A dozen contenders are vying for the open seat on Allegheny County Council left vacant by the death of Charles Martoni.

Several Democratic council members grilled each applicant for 20 minutes during a public meeting Monday night at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

They asked about individual qualifications, priorities and experience and tested the candidates’ knowledge of District 8 and how county government works.

The district spans 17 municipalities, including Wilkinsburg, Plum, Monroeville and much of the Mon Valley, from Rankin and East McKeesport to Trafford and Pitcairn. The chosen appointee will have to win in the general election to serve beyond November.

Councilman DeWitt Walton sought to find out whether the applicants had reviewed proposed legislation for a countywide independent police review board. Most said they had not read the full document, and Walton urged them to do so. Half of the candidates said they support the bill while the rest expressed reservations or said they didn’t know enough to make a decision.

The 12 individuals seeking appointment to the interim District 8 council seat include:

• Shawn Alfonso Wells is a longtime Swissvale resident who teaches anthropology and history as an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. She talked about her goals of bringing more jobs to the region and helping “all the little communities around me” still struggling to rebound from decades of steep population losses.

“I would hope that you do not discount me because I do not have extensive political operative experience,” Wells told council members. “I am a real person. I have lived my life doing real things and I think that I am type of person who could go out there and interact with people on many different levels.”

• Elisa Beck is an optometrist and community activist who founded the volunteer initiative, Sustainable Monroeville, which meets monthly at the Monroeville Library. She’s passionate about promoting renewable energy and “green jobs” while fighting against the unchecked expansion of natural gas drilling. Beck, who grew up in Maryland and moved to Western Pennsylvania about 25 years ago, admitted she does not know much about county government but said she is a “fast learner” and excels at bringing people together for the common good.

“I’m a gatherer. I like to work together,” Beck said.

Nathaniel Carter is a pastor and nonprofit leader who was raised by foster parents in North Braddock. He is CEO and founder of This Generation Cares, a residential living facility that supports people with disabilities. He also has served on the board of North Braddock Cares Organization and The Housing and Education Resource Program Inc. and volunteered as a mentor at Barrett Elementary School.

He told council members he’s eager to build on momentum at the Pittsburgh International Airport, grow the summer youth employment program and resolve issues at Allegheny County Jail. He’s been attending East Pittsburgh’s council meetings to discuss the development of a community center, which will offer a teen drop-in program, cafe and business meeting space. He said he’s focused on efforts to “build relationships and have conversations about how it is that we can strengthen what currently exists” in District 8.

Adam Forgie was mayor of Turtle Creek from 2006 to 2013 and has spent 19 years as a social studies teacher in the Woodland Hills School District. He’s been a volunteer firefighter for Turtle Creek since 1995. He said his experience in municipal government and as teachers union president has taught him the skills of negotiation and compromise. He is in favor of police regionalization and said he would support an independent police review board — so long as municipalities can “opt out” and that the outside board can make recommendations but not have direct termination powers.

“It’s my home. I chose to stay here and I’m not going anywhere,” Forgie said. “There does need to be better opportunities in the Mon Valley, there does need to be a better transportation system.”

Edmund Guminski is a retired federal investigator with the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh. He was born and raised in North Braddock and now lives in Edgewood. Guminski continues to work as an Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association official for seven sports from September through May. He said he will not run for the District 8 seat in the November election if he is not successful in filling the interim post. He said he still has more to learn about county government but has “a good understanding of what is going on in the eastern suburbs.”

“I’m a quick study,” Guminski said. “Research is in my nature — finding out what monies are available, what programs are available that council can actually effectuate.”

James Lomeo runs a real estate law practice and is a former Allegheny County assistant district attorney and solicitor. He also is a former mayor of Monroeville and chair of the Monroeville Planning Commission. Lomeo said he has more time now that his three children have moved beyond high school and is eager to usher in revitalization and stronger communication among District 8 communities.

Though the makeup of so many small towns can pose financial and bureaucratic challenges, “I like the little neighborhoods,” Lomeo said. “It makes you vested into your community.”

As for supporting an independent police review board, Lomeo told council members during the interview, “probably not” — because he has concerns about people “second-guessing the local police chief.” He said he needs to read the entirety of the proposed legislation before making a final decision.

Ryan O’Donnell said he aims to bring the “voice of a social worker” to County Council. He is executive director of Nisar Health and Human Services, which provides mental health services in Monroeville. He cited among his strengths his extensive volunteer experience, leadership roles and firsthand knowledge of community needs through his social work. O’Donnell is a sitting member of the Edgewood Council and serves as a liaison between the borough and Woodland Hills School District. He previously worked as a political consultant and worked on the campaign of former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. If appointed to County Council, he would aim to foster greater cooperation among communities, business leaders and nonprofits.

“I know it; I love it; I’ve lived it,” O’Donnell said of District 8. “This seat specifically would be an opportunity for me to take my life’s work as a servant to the next level.”

Bhavini Patel, among the youngest to apply for the District 8 post, is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and recently earned her master’s degree from the University of Oxford. Patel started a small business, beamdata, which uses data to help solve social issues — such as ensuring everyone gets counted in the U.S. Census 2020. She serves on the boards of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh and Women for the Future of Pittsburgh. She is the vice chair of the Democratic committee in Edgewood. Her priorities would include improving public safety and ensuring everyone in the region feels welcome and has a chance to thrive. She says her working-class, immigrant background would be a valuable asset to County Council. Patel was born in rural India but grew up in Pittsburgh attending the Gateway School District while her mom ran a food truck at Pitt.

“Having those lived experiences, my mom being a small business owner,” Patel told council members by phone from London. “I think I can bring a new perspective for us to be able to implement new ideas and to support small business owners to be better advocates.”

Patricia Schaefer has served as Edgewood Council president for the past 15 years. She said though she’s been a longtime municipal government servant, she’s always open to new ideas and rethinking approaches to persisting problems. She discussed recent efforts in the borough regarding gun safety, including a program for tracking lost and stolen guns and providing residents with free gun locks and warning stickers on Community Day. She said she also knows the limitations of what local elected officials can and cannot do and the importance of working across municipal boundaries. She said she views County Council as “paramount” to assessing and identifying the needs of each District 8 community.

“If one of us fails, we all fail,” Schaefer said. “And so it is important for us to build those bridges and problem-solve together using shared resources and municipal communication to bring about change.”

Dennis Simon, a consultant and former vice president of government affairs at Chester Engineers, is council president of East Pittsburgh. He said that he views achieving the regionalization of police as essential. He’d like to see more money and resources pumped into the Allegheny County Police so they can support cash-strapped municipalities who have part-time departments or no local police. East Pittsburgh, which now relies on state police, disbanded its police force after months of financial problems and controversy stemming from the police shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose.

“We had what I call the perfect storm happen to us,” Simon said of the decision to hire Michael Rosfeld, the officer who shot Rose.

He said at the time borough officials didn’t know about Rosfeld’s prior disciplinary issues, and they sent him out patrolling alone because they didn’t have enough people to train him. A jury in March acquitted Rosfeld in the June 2018 killing of Rose.

When asked about it, Simon dismissed a $9,500 ethics violation fine he paid while serving on the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority over his alleged attempts to sway the authority to contract with Chester Engineers as a misunderstanding related to a lunch meeting. He said he pleaded guilty only to avoid $30,000 in legal fees. Simon also said he would refrain from voting on any matters that involved the county-contracted company for which he works as a consultant. He said that balancing the budget is the most important role of council members and lauded County Council for having not raised taxes in 20 years.

Joshua Worth is the chief of Foxwall EMS and a volunteer firefighter in Forest Hills. He teaches EMS courses for the Community College of Allegheny County. Worth said if appointed to County Council, he will be sure he is a visible leader in the community and will seek input from residents. He said he excels at the art of compromise and finding common ground. Improving public safety would be a top priority. He lamented that in recent years, the region’s ambulance services have dropped from 47 down to 38, with volunteer fire departments and part-time police forces increasingly struggling to recruit and retain personnel. The public safety system “needs an overhaul — starting with the police force,” Worth said. “It needs good oversight and it needs strong leadership.”

Paul Zavarella is a lifelong Plum resident and attorney who practices criminal defense law as well as municipal law and wills and estates. He is an associate at Bruce Dice & Associates. He said he’s been politically involved since attending the Democratic National Convention during law school and comes from a long line of public servants, including his father, who served as an Allegheny County judge from the early 1970s until his death in 2002. Zavarella said it would be an honor “to be appointed to fill Dr. Martoni’s shoes” and attempt to carry on his legacy as a soft-spoken servant with “a heart of gold” who knows when to speak up and when to listen. “I think I’m a better listener than a talker, even though I’m a lawyer,” Zavarella said.

Republican County Council members Sue Means and Cindy Kirk were among the handful of people in the audience during the open interviews.

Democratic Caucus Chair John DeFazio will submit a recommendation to go up before vote by the entire 15-member council on Tuesday night.

The public meeting begins 5 p.m. in the Gold Room on the fourth floor of the Allegheny County Courthouse at 436 Grant Street in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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