By Editorial Board
During consecutive evenings May 10 and 11, the Sto-Rox School Board and McKees Rocks Council each appointed new members to fill openings formed by death and resignations.
The processes applied in each case demonstrate how this crucial democratic task can be done well – or poorly.
During a single meeting on May 10, McKees Rocks filled two vacancies created by the recent death of Chas Maritz and the subsequent resignation of Leslie Walker.
Only one candidate expressed interest in Walker’s first ward seat and was appropriately handed the role. Meanwhile, multiple third ward residents put themselves forward for Maritz’ vacated seat, but the perception shared by many in attendance was that the council had coalesced around a preferred candidate prior to the meeting without giving much thought to the others.
The applicants were not evaluated publicly and no reason was given for making the chosen appointment, which passed unanimously.
This followed several appointments in recent years where council vacancies have been filled by friends of incumbents pledging loyalty instead of uncompromised newcomers offering fresh perspectives.
Contrastingly, to fill the vacancy at Sto-Rox, directors held a public interview with the lone candidate on May 11 before approving her for the position later in the meeting. The thorough interview showed a transparent process that allowed residents and other stakeholders to learn about their new school board representatives at the same time. Continuing with the interview in the absence of alternative candidates demonstrated an admirable commitment to the process.
The board applies the same approach whenever vacancies occur, sometimes considering with great care the respective merits of competing applicants. Those who are not selected at least know they were taken seriously.
Appointments are only made when an incumbent is unable to fulfill their term. Rather than calling a midterm election – a process too cumbersome for local elections – school boards and municipalities may appoint a replacement to fill a gap quickly and keep progress moving along.
Once the unfilled term expires, they must run again to retain their seat.
The underlying assumption is that incumbents can make good judgments on behalf of their constituents whenever a fully democratic process is impractical. But to use a death or resignation as an opportunity to shore up votes is an abuse of power and an insult by officer holders to those they represent.
Taking appointments seriously is not just a formality, but a process that brings real outcomes.
As several onlookers shared after the May 10 appointment, McKees Rocks council members gave a strong impression they had given little consideration to those candidates who were not selected. When this perception circulates through the community it reinforces assumptions local politics are an insider's space where new voices are unwelcome.
In turn, people get discouraged and demoralized. They don’t bother showing up again to meetings and they decide not to run again whenever a new vacancy emerges or a term expires.
Appointing buddies also blunts the sharpening process brought on by the interplay of opposing viewpoints and perspectives. As exampled by the unanimous appointment, the current council typically demonstrates uniform views on borough affairs. All have campaigned together or been appointed by those in power.
Contrasted with the adversarial gridlock of Capitol Hill, this could seem refreshing, but it’s more reminiscent of the machine politics with which McKees Rocks has long been associated. With almost all being white men over 50, they also capture astonishingly little of the borough’s diversity.
Of course, the new third ward representative, MaryAnne Holland, should not be prejudged by the skimpy appointment process which ushered her onto council. It could be that she is the right woman for the job. The ensuing months will give her ample opportunity to prove that.