Looking back at the second half of 2021

-YEAR IN REVIEW-


In our last edition, we selected the best stories in local news from the first half of 2021 as part of our two-part year-in-review series. This week we’re bringing you the highlights from July through December as we cap off 2021 and look ahead to the new year.


As we reflect on 2021, the Gazette 2.0 team at hyperLOCAL Media LLC is extremely proud of our consistent delivery of honest and thoughtful reporting throughout the communities we serve. We work hard to improve with each subsequent edition, a consistent goal.


As always, we are looking for readers to partner with us as citizen-journalists. If you are invested in your community and have a good eye for a story, you may be able to help us in our mission of delivering high-quality, community-centered journalism throughout our western suburban coverage area. Please call us at (412) 652-5875 if you are interested in joining the team.

JULY


Motel mischief

Ongoing criminal activities at a motel site in Robinson had by last summer reached a level where a neighboring business owner called on the township to intervene.


Sang Nam, owner of Sapporo Japanese Steakhouse on Steubenville Pike, complained to commissioners about a litany of offenses he’s witnessed at the Pittsburgh Motel in recent years, which he feared was driving away customers. Most recently, Nam said he’d found discarded needles in his parking lot, which he said was just the latest in a long pattern of drug sales and prostitution he regularly observes behind his restaurant. Last year, he said, his security camera even recorded a man shot dead after exiting one of the rooms.


Winging it

While many of the coronavirus pandemic’s worst effects were felt to be over by last summer, soaring prices in the hospitality industry told of lingering consequences.


Of all menu favorites, local restaurant owners said chicken prices (wings in particular) had soared in response to a supply and demand mismatch. Many said they had to adjust their menu listings accordingly – sometimes raising prices, sometimes adding substitutes, other times removing options altogether.

Violence solutions

Responding to an uptick in violent crime seen throughout the Stowe and McKees Rocks communities, local community leaders began meeting last spring to work on solutions.


Lee Davis, Allegheny County’s violence prevention coordinator, told those assembled at Second Baptist Church on June 23 the problem required more programming and resources, in addition to widespread community buy-in.


Out of the meetings, several subcommittees were formed to address the issue from different angles. One of the resultant programming initiatives has been recently boosted by funding from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Businesses boosted

Six small businesses in McKees Rocks and Stowe were boosted by small capital injections in July as part of a “participatory capital” program overseen and distributed by community stakeholders.


Starting with a $10,000 cash pool, a committee of local leaders picked out organizations they felt were contributing positively to the community. The concept was designed by a Carnegie Mellon University graduate looking for a community to test her model in.


Recipients included the BlackTea BrownSuga Network, DaLisha’s Treats, It’s a Pizza Cake Cafe, Lustrous Looks Beauty Care Lounge, La Vostra Pizza and Gazette 2.0.

Parking changes

In response to congestion and safety concerns, Stowe officials created new parking spaces out of three empty lots and restricted parking along sections of a residential street.


The changes enacted July 13 allowed residents to reserve space from among 61 available spots in newly-paved lots on Race Street and Russellwood and Woodward avenues, at a cost of $125 per year.


Parking along the right side of Race Street was prohibited to ensure accessibility for emergency vehicles.


AUGUST

Commissioners lash out

Commissioners turned irate during a July business meeting where a Stowe resident recounted an alleged domestic incident he witnessed involving the son of a township official.

Leading the aggression, President Robin Parrilla cut short the resident’s comments after he reiterated the profanities he said he overheard during the incident.


“You’re done,” Parrilla said. “I call the police, you go to jail.”


Another commissioner, Kelly Cropper-Hall, suggested resident Christopher Allen of Valley Street was pursuing a vendetta against the official whose son he named as the alleged suspect. Allen maintained he was simply there seeking justice because he was with the unsatisfied police’s response.


Suit filed

A Robinson resident filed a lawsuit against the township and several named officials, claiming they conspired to improperly seize his land to help a friend.


In the suit, filed July 15, plaintiff James Esposito of Capital Realty argued he was subjected to a string of harassment starting in 2015 when he turned down a proposal by Michael Dunn, a neighboring property owner who sits on the township planning commission. Esposito claimed his property was on multiple occasions cited for bogus offenses before the township finally began pursuing eminent domain proceedings to obtain the land.


Magisterial race

Frustrated that no other challenger emerged against Nick Martini’s bid to succeed his father, in late July Holly Hickling entered the magisterial race for Pittsburgh’s West End district on an independent ticket.


Hickling ran as a progressive candidate, saying she bore no ill will against Martini but wanted to challenge what she perceived as “status quo” positions on criminal justice and a sense of entitlement over the seat stemming from his father’s incumbency.


Martini won handily in November despite relentless campaigning from Hickling.

Complete street

Armed with a $35,000 grant, Ingram officials began seeking resident input on a plan to overhaul the borough’s main roadways to make them more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians.


Although consultant Justin Miller came prepared with preliminary ideas, he and the steering committee stressed nothing would be final without resident input obtained during a series of meetings in mid-August.


The plan’s main objectives are to slow traffic and promote biking and walking safety.


Gas meters

Local Stowe business owners expressed frustration after learning of utility company plans to relocate gas meters onto building exteriors (in many cases the front of the building).


Broadway Avenue proprietors said the project, which got underway in the fall and remains ongoing, would mar the area’s aesthetic and could also cause liability issues.


Responding to these concerns, Columbia Gas officials said the relocations would improve customer service and pointed to a state law passed in 2014 requiring that all gas meters eventually get moved onto building exteriors.


Business owners also complained of simultaneous work to replace large stretches of pipeline along the West Park business district, which they said is deterring customers by inhibiting access and parking.


Webster production

A theater production premiered late August depicting Mike Webster’s post-career years honed in on the former Steelers star’s close relationship with Sto-Rox graduate Sonny Jani.


Jani, an Indian emigrant who arrived in McKees Rocks with his family in the early 1980s, met Webster at a bus station about 10 years later. By then the four-time Super Bowl winner was broke and ailing.


Spying a chance for mutual gain, Jani recruited Webster to sign autographs for his sports card business and later become a close friend and caregiver to Webster before he died in 2002, aged 50.


The play debuted at the Iron Horse Theater Company in Ambridge


CRT debates

Disputes over how to teach children about racial issues eventually surfaced in local circles after igniting national debates one summer beyond the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.


Looking to cast structural racism as a thing of the past, local Republican groups organized a speaking event in late August, where former Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen took center stage. Allen, the first African-American woman to serve on the court, told those gathered at the Kennedy event the increased interest in racial injustice issues threatened to harm Black Americans by causing them to see themselves as victims.


The following day, Carter Spruill, president of the NAACP’s Coraopolis chapter, issued a statement rebuking the leadership at Sewickley Academy for firing multiple Black employees following reports of parental backlash toward expanding teaching on racial injustice.


SEPTEMBER

Masks return

With pandemic restrictions looking like a thing of the past by mid-summer, area school districts announced plans shortly after to reintroduce mandatory masking, as the novel Delta variant began to surge across the United States.


The move caused little stir at Cornell and Sto-Rox, but sparked a passionate debate at a Carlynton board meeting and outright fury when the Montour board convened for its last session before classes resumed.


Gov. Tom Wolf’s office ultimately required schools to enforce masking policies in a move later struck down by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

Fighting blight

The struggling town of McKees Rocks was awarded $2.3 last summer million to spur on revitalization efforts.


Two separate projects – one to remediate blighted housing and one to restore a decaying bank building along the Chartiers Avenue business district – were the focus of the awards.


A slew of assembled officials championed the work of local stakeholders who partnered on the grant applications and expressed hope in a better future for the impoverished borough.

Unauthorized demos?

A Stowe resident came to a township meeting seeking compensation, after claiming he was assured by township officials he would be granted the deed to a property he tore down at his own expense.


I held up my end of the deal,” resident John Tacey said to the commissioners. “I tore the house down. Where's my deed?”


Tacey said he began leveling the adjoining unit to his Ohio Street duplex after he was given verbal and written assurances from Commissioner Cheryl McDermott that she would ensure the property would get transferred to him. McDermott said she simply conveyed information to him about a county program for obtaining abandoned properties. Officials did not indicate they would take the issue further.


Masks revisited

A month after Montour directors reinstated mask mandates, angry parents swarmed a September board meeting, complaining the measures were harming their children.


The six protesting speakers expressed a range of concerns, ranging from health and wellbeing risks to doubts about the district’s methodology and motivations. In response, school officials pointed to Wolf’s mandate and indicated their hands were tied.


Between the two contentious meetings, parents gathered in front of the Clever Road school campus in Robinson to protest the measures. The policy remains in force.


OCTOBER

Pollution fines

One month after a gust of odorous fumes wafted out of a Chemical facility in Neville Island reaching residents several miles upstream, the company was hit by fines from the health department for violating emissions laws.


The enforcement order criticized Neville Chemical for the consequences of the Sept. 2 leak, where thousands of pounds of noxious emissions were released, and also chided the company for its slow response. For these and other offenses the order spelled out $62,075 in fines and requested corrective action to ward off repeat occurrences.


The company responded with an appeal, which remains pending.

Public input

Following a series of unruly public meetings, Stowe commissioners said they plan to assert control by enforcing rules on public participation.


“The last few months have been getting out of control,” said Commissioner Dave Rugh during the board’s Oct. 12 voting meeting. “For us to go in the right direction and be more civilized, I think we have to do what we have to do.”


The township has rules on the books determining public participation but had not enforced them strictly in recent months, where passionate exchanges broke out between the public and the board on more than one occasion. The rules state participants must register to talk in advance and can only speak for up to three minutes during a caucus meeting. Public comments are prohibited during business meetings.

Memorabilia questions

Plans hatched to auction off a cache of trophies and memorabilia belonging to the former St. Malachy School in Kennedy drew anguish and frustration from some alums who felt excluded from the process.


St. Malachy merged with the former Holy Trinity School in Robinson to form Archangel Gabriel School in 2019. At that point, according to David Poecking, Archangel Gabriel parish administrator, all the contents of the former schools – including St. Malachy’s cherished trophy trove – officially became the property of the new parish.


Poecking said the auction was planned as a way to return those items to community members who valued them and to raise funds for the new school in the process. Those against the plan said they thought more could have been done to keep them in the new school or another public place.

Bookkeeping concerns

An audit of the 2019-20 tax year revealed huge bookkeeping errors at the Sto-Rox School District that had led to more than $900,000 owed through missed payments and penalties.


School board members expressed shock and concern in response to the report and discussed ways to exact closer oversight over future financials. Superintendent Frank Dalmas was not there to comment.


Business Manager Paul Sroka, who was hired just four months before the arrival of the report, assured the board he was righting wrongs he inherited and would request forgiveness from the IRS and state taxing bodies, whom the monies are owed.


NOVEMBER

Superintendent saga

Learning school officials planned to terminate him, Sto-Rox Superintendent Frank Dalmas said through an attorney he had every intention of staying in his role and would fight those moves in court if necessary.


The school board never publicly discussed the concerns that later led them to vote 7-0 for his removal with one abstention on Nov 18.


However, two weeks before that vote, Dalmas’s lawyer, Charles Lamberton, said his client had been told it was for accepting personal compensation for assisting on a grant application.

Following the vote, neither Dalmas nor his lawyer could not be reached for comment.

New mayors

The November elections ushered in new mayors for Crafton, Coraopolis and McKees Rocks, with political novices coming out ahead in two of those races.


In Coraopolis, outgoing Mayor Shawn Reed announced earlier in the year he would not be seeking another term, opening the door for a new pool of candidates. In the ensuing contest, former council president Robb Cardimen faced off against newcomer Michael Dixon, who won the contest comfortably.


In interviews before the votes were cast, both candidates said they hoped to emulate Reed’s record on revitalizing the town’s business district.


In McKees Rocks, 20-year incumbent Jack Muhr was forced to the backfoot in May, following a primary loss to newcomer David Flick.


Muhr – a lifelong Democrat – continue the race as a Republican, but saw his loss margin increase at the next election. Flick cast himself as “a new voice” for a town that’s long struggled to find its place in the 21st-century economy.


Crafton’s mayoral seat was also opened up by the departure of a long-time mayor - in this case Jim Bloom who served three terms beginning in 2010.


Succeeding Bloom, Colletta Perry came out on top after a head-to-head with her former council colleague Fred Amendola. Perry said she plans to be a “proactive mayor” who champions the town and pushes economic development and community engagement.

President censored

Shortly before Sto-Rox directors voted Nov.18 to begin termination proceedings against Superintendent Frank Dalmas, the same board also censured former president Samantha Levitzki-Wright over related issues.


Instead of shying away, Levitzki-Wright introduced the motion for her censure, which was reportedly brought on by accepting personal compensation for time spent on a grant application for the school district and several local non-profits. Solicitor Anne-Marie Harr read a censuring proclamation stating, in accepting the monies, Levitzki-Wright had violated school and state ethics codes, which prohibit school officials from using their positions for private gain.


During the same meeting, directors voted to replace Dalmas with Substitute Superintendent Joseph Dimperio, pending a formal hearing as required by law.


Taxes questioned

During a public meeting immediately after he was elected to another four-year term, a political rival and a school board official both spoke out against Stowe President Robin Parrilla’s property tax record.


Jeffrey Paul, who lost a write-in bid against Parrilla, and Tyler Kochirka, a Sto-Rox school director, both said unpaid property taxes totaling around $30,000 should disqualify Parrilla from his leadership position.


Gazette 2.0 independently verified the claims and found them to be true.


Parrilla was not there to defend his record but said during a later interview much of the issues stemmed from an inheritance dispute following his mother’s death about 10 years ago.

He also said he would commit to paying back what he owed even if that entailed taking on a part-time job.


DECEMBER

West Hills JOG

Looking to defray the effects of declining volunteer numbers, firefighters at McKees Rocks, Stowe and Crafton announced a set of shared protocols for managing fire scenes.


Officers at each department said their Joint Operating Guidelines (JOG) would enable departments to work more effectively with fewer total resources while ensuring each company meets national fire standards.


The departments began following the new procedures in early November and shortly after said initial operations had been successful.

Board reshuffle

After peers appointed him as their new president, Cameron Culliver told the rest of the Sto-Rox School board he wanted to move the district beyond a recent tangle of issues and setbacks.


“It’s about time some things started changing around here,” Culliver said during the board’s Dec. 9 reorganization meeting. “...Let’s move things on, let’s get things done.”


Former president Samantha Levitzki remained on the board, saying she felt “comfortable in her skin” following a recent censure for inappropriately accepting financial compensation for working on a grant project.


Backed by the rest of the board, Culliver said he trusted Levitzki-Wright’s commitment to the district.


Sto-Rox is currently in a state program to get it back on solid financial footing and is currently being led by a substitute superintendent after directors voted to terminate Superintendent Frank Dalmas in November.


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