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Phil Koch: Arnold mayor's comments a lesson for Westmoreland

| Monday, July 23, 2018, 12:06 p.m.

“Bring the hoses?”

In Arnold, a long road to recovery after a mayor’s terrible comment, and across Westmore­land, a hard lesson about choices for its future:

As a leader in community philanthropy dealing every day with challenges facing our region, I’ve been shocked at the news reports of racist-tinged comments from Arnold’s top elected official. That community, which tags itself the “Proud City of Proud People,” is in turmoil over Mayor Karen Peconi’s posts on social media.

Vile remarks she made on her Facebook page were directed to those protesting the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose by an East Pittsburgh police officer. “Bring the hoses,” she wrote, and included a video of a group of protesters being knocked down by water cannons — reminiscent of what was done to many protesters during 1960s-era civil rights demonstrations. When Peconi’s post circulated and led to a social media uproar, she removed her Facebook page and later issued an apology.

That didn’t stop public protests, which included circulation of a petition calling for the mayor’s removal from office. Peconi has refused to resign, but at a heated Arnold council meeting July 10, members voted 4-0 to ask Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Senate to remove her. The mayor abstained.

In the wake of these events, two regrettable assumptions about small communities in Westmoreland County have been reinforced: 1. It is acceptable to be racist here; and 2. If you are black, you are not welcome in this county.

I do not believe for one minute that residents of Arnold or the county support Peconi’s comments. The public outcry demonstrates they have higher expectations of those in office. This is not about conservative or progressive political ideology. It’s about human decency and elected officials living up to their responsibilities.

Many forward-thinking elected leaders are helping to develop the new county comprehensive plan, Reimagining Westmoreland. The events in Arnold tell us we have some tough questions to answer before our imaginations can take flight: How do we attract and retain families from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities and racial makeups? How can we shape Westmoreland’s culture so that all who are willing to make positive contributions feel welcome? I believe the answers will determine whether we are successful.

If the morality of this approach is not enough for some, then perhaps a reality check on the county’s future economic prospects will be the convincer.

Westmoreland is a county with stagnant population growth. During the next decade, deaths are expected to outpace births to the point of a 7,000 to 8,000 workforce shortage. If that looming crisis isn’t averted, businesses will move or shutter.

Changing the culture of the county to welcome people of all backgrounds and encourage everyone to have a stake in community development is not just the responsibility of officials working on the comprehensive plan. Each resident must be a billboard for the message that Westmoreland is a wonderful place to live and that all who are willing to contribute are welcome.

In blunt demographical terms, our county is homogenous to a fault — 97 percent white. The face of America is changing, and if we are to thrive as a region, we must rid ourselves of racist behaviors, elect leaders who bring people together and get on with recruiting a diverse workforce. The future of Westmoreland depends on it.

Phil Koch is executive director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County.

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