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Interest in local elections dwindles

| Tuesday, May 19, 2015, 12:41 a.m.

Carol Neubert cares about Saxonburg, so when asked five years ago to fill a vacancy on borough council, she said yes.

Seeking re-election for a second time, Neubert finds herself alone on the Republican ballot.

Only incumbents — herself and Democrats Patricia Rinebolt and David Felsing — are running for three seats. They're unopposed in the primary and, unless someone else gets on the ballot as a write-in, will be unopposed in November.

“I wish there were more people interested in running for council,” Neubert said. “I wish more people would be active in the borough government and what goes on. People need to care about what's going on in Saxonburg.”

Yet interest in local government is languishing, for candidates and voters, as evidenced in races with more open seats than candidates, and with only a fraction of registered voters expected to turn out at the polls.

In Allegheny County, out of 493 primary races for magisterial district judges, commissioners, borough council members, township supervisors and school board directors, 67 percent are unopposed, according to ballot information.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has no Democratic challenger or declared Republican opponent. Neither does District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Philip Harold, political science professor and an associate dean at Robert Morris University, said competitive races force candidates to practice “retail politics” — the door-knocking and hand-shaking that connects voters to their elected officials. Unopposed races generate less interest, he said.

“That does make a big difference as far as turnout is concerned,” he said. “And as far as the democratic process of representation, where you really know your constituents.”

Mark Wolosik, manager of the Allegheny County's Division of Elections, estimates 25 percent Democratic turnout and 21 percent for Republicans.

Turnout is typically less in odd-year elections, he said. But every cycle is different, he said. Last year's gubernatorial primary saw around 24 percent Democratic turnout and less than 11 percent from Republicans.

“I think it just depends who's on the ballot,” Wolosik said.

With nearly 1,500 candidates competing in Allegheny County, including state races, there are pockets of competition. Fourteen candidates are competing for five spots on the West Mifflin School Board. Ten candidates are running for three council seats in Munhall, and eight are seeking the countywide Court of Common Pleas judgeship.

On the flip side, Aspinwall has three empty borough council seats and no primary candidates.

“We have 160 municipalities, 45 school districts, approximately, 45 magisterial districts,” Wolosik said. “It's specific, many times, to the community issues.”

In Butler County, Elections Director Shari Brewer is predicting a turnout of 20 percent to 25 percent, based on absentee ballots. She's expecting it to be similar to 2011, which saw the last county commissioners race.

While the race for county commissioner is crowded, Clinton Township Supervisor Ed Boyd finds himself running unopposed.

“It's a sad state of affairs that nobody will step up to try to run for election, to put themselves out, I should say,” he said. “It seems like everybody just sits back and waits.”

Currently chairman, Boyd said he considered not seeking re-election to the six-year term, but felt that since no one else was running, he had to.

“I think there's a lackadaisical attitude in our country, really, for running for office and participating,” he said.

Neubert, a former hardware store owner, said she understands those who are busy with family and work may not have the time to devote to local elected service.

“It's kind of tough. I understand that. I did it for years,” she said. “Now I'm retired, now I have the time.

“It's hard to do stuff other than take care of your family and house when you're young,” she said. But “it's always nice to have young blood, also.”

Across Armstrong County, there are races for mayor, borough council and township supervisor with no candidates appearing on the primary ballot.

Leechburg is among those with a shortage of candidates, with only two people running for four open council seats. Tony Defilippi and Robert “Tom” Foster are seeking re-election; Dan Logero and Wayne Dobos are not.

Defilippi — who was first elected to council in 1967 — is concerned, but has no answer for the lack of interest. Being where he can help the people he sees at church or at the grocery store has kept him involved.

“It's our town,” he said. “You want to do whatever you can to improve the town and make it better.”

Melissa Daniels and Brian C. Rittmeyer are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Daniels can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com. Rittmeyer can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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