Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

For new police oversight commission to work, Philly must learn from its past

The Philadelphia Inquirer

July 8

After weeks of protest against police brutality and racism in policing, Philadelphia City Council unveiled its radical new idea: a Citizens Police Oversight Commission.

How radical? It was first tried in Philadelphia more than half a century ago.

The new oversight body would presumably be different than the existing Police Advisory Commission it would replace. Voters in November will need to approve a charter amendment establishing the commission, though specifics on its structure, powers, or funding won’t be fleshed out until after the vote.

The current commission, established in 1994, has a long legacy of being ineffectual at oversight, primarily due to its small budge and lack of authority -- making it easy for police commissioners, and the department as a whole, to sideline and ignore.

In recent years, the police response to the PAC’s recommendations can be summarized as ‘thanks but no thanks.’ Commissioner Ross rejected PAC’s recommendations and at times didn’t even bother to respond in writing to the substance of reports -- even though commissioners are required to. In addition, according to the PAC, information request are routinely denied by the police.

For the new oversight commission to be effective, Philadelphia needs to learn from its past.

In 1958, following uproar against police brutality, Mayor Richardson Dilworth appointed a five member Police Review Board to investigate -- the first of its kind in the nation. The Fraternal Order of the Police challenged the move, arguing that the oversight entity violated the charter. It was soon after rebranded as the Police Advisory Board. Despite the state’s Supreme Court approval of the oversight board, Mayor James Tate dissolved it -- an act then-Commissioner Frank Rizzo would call a “Christmas present.” The then-head of the board predicted: “We will come to regret this action in the years to come.”

Sixty-plus years later, that’s an understatement. What the recent protests made clear is that police practices and budgets are not in line with what the public wants -- or deserves -- out of policing. Private arbitrators and FOP bosses have more power over the police department than Philadelphia residents.

This time, if the newly proposed Citizens Police Oversight Commission must be appropriately funded and structured differently. That means full independence -- the current PAC reports to the Managing Director’s office, just like the police -- and with full access to information.

The Kenney administration said the Commission will have subpoena powers. But issuing a subpoena isn’t a magic wand. It requires filing legal actions that can be challenged and get stuck in the courts -- with Philadelphia taxpayers paying for both sides of the dispute.

For a commission to be effective, it can’t be at the mercy of police benevolence or chasing information with subpoena threats. The Commission should have access to all the information that police’s internal affairs investigators have, and police must accept recommendations unless it can articulate a specific reason not to.

City Council must also be willing to reject police budgets if the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission gets sidelined. Philadelphia doesn’t need another tired rebrand of an oversight board. It needs a police department that is accountable to the people of Philadelphia.

Online: https://bit.ly/2VZ8R9b

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Act now on state-driven schools plan

The York Dispatch

July 6

It’s the question on every parent’s mind — every student’s, too: Will public schools reopen this fall? And if so, what will that look like?

Answers have been understandably difficult to nail down, what with the still-raging coronavirus picking up steam in recent weeks. That’s due in large part to a failure in leadership from President Donald Trump, who has ceded any semblance of responsibility for the well-being of the American people.

That failure needn’t be replicated in Pennsylvania when it comes to public schools. The state Department of Education, perhaps in concert with the Department of Health, must take on a more prominent role in providing guidelines to school districts.

The latter department has provided a little broad-brush guidance, requiring students and educators to wear masks unless they are six feet apart, except in cases where a disability would preclude doing so.

But that’s a pretty thin reed to hang a reopening plan on. Local districts, left to their own devices, are doing yeoman’s work to fill the gap but are chafing at what they call a lack of solid and consistent guidance.

“The government is waffling so much because they don’t want to take responsibility,” Central York school board member Vickie Guth told the Dispatch.

The Department of Education has, in fact, issued preliminary guidance, but, as the department itself acknowledges, “given the dynamic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, (our) guidance will evolve.”

That changing guidance adds to the enormous challenges — and the consequences – of reopening schools. The idea of local rule — letting each district map out its own policies and procedures — sounds good in theory, but it’s bound to result in a patchwork of well-intended but inconsistent practices.

Take facemasks, for example. As the Dispatch’s Lindsay C. VanAsdalan reports: “West York and Central have them optional for both students and staff — except in certain situations such as on the bus or where social distancing cannot be maintained. Red Lion Area School District’s version requires all staff to be masked but not all students. Older students should wear a mask or face shield when it’s ‘appropriate,’ the plan notes.”

Such confusion on so seemingly basic a component of reopening highlights the difficulties local school boards face.

Far better, then, that policies be devised by experts in the fields of public health and education, then modified to meet specific district needs where appropriate.

After all, unlike geographic regions throughout the state, which vary widely in terms of population density and other demographics, public schools, no matter their size, face a largely similar challenge: delivering instruction in way that keeps students, teachers, support staff and administrators safe.

This goes far beyond classroom teaching. Transportation, athletics, dining services and extracurricular activities are among the myriad associated services that need to be addressed. Is it reasonable, or even fair, to expect 500 different school boards to come up with 500 different solutions? Will students in those 500 districts be best served by what will by necessity be a hodgepodge of practices?

A series of broad, health-minded strategies are needed that can be adjusted to scale depending on the size of the district.

Gov. Tom Wolf should consider appointing an emergency taskforce to tackle this issue. State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and/or Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera would seem likely candidates to lead the charge. But however it is managed, overarching leadership must step in to craft consistent guidance.

Throughout the pandemic, President Trump has left states largely to fend for themselves — and, in the case of purchasing much-needed ventilators and other supplies, to fight among themselves. It is clear what a failed model this has been.

Let’s not mimic it.

Online: https://bit.ly/2DidV1D

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Grand jury report on fracking indicts the state

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

July 7

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s latest grand jury report might seem like a diatribe on the evils of fracking. That is definitely what draws attention.

The problem is that is only half the story. The other half is the failings of government.

As attorney general, Shapiro has made a point of being tough on fracking, and the grand jury report delivered last month certainly does that. Its 243 pages cite violations, allege medical fallout and recommend criminal charges against the companies involved.

As a matter of law, any industry found to harm lives and degrade the community will face consequences.

But that is where the failings of government play a role.

“Our investigation … convinced us that (the Department of Environmental Protection) did not take sufficient action in response to the fracking boom, and even now, more than a decade after it began, must do more to fully address the special challenges posed by the industry,” the report stated.

Shapiro’s report alleges that rather than acting as a regulatory agency, following up on the way fracking companies were treating the land, air and water, “some DEP employees saw the job more as serving the industry.”

The job of all state employees is to serve the people. Industry does not need to be viewed as the enemy, whether the agency is DEP or PennDOT or the Department of Health. The mission statement is to protect the people, to ensure their safety, to make their lives better.

That is the difference between the government and a company that serves an owner or stockholders or a board of directors. A company doesn’t have to be evil to have a different goal — and that goal is to produce a product and make money. That’s not a bad goal. Over the last 10 or so years, it has provided a lot of jobs and put money into the pockets of Pennsylvania landowners.

But it isn’t an industry’s job to police itself. We don’t expect speeding drivers to stop themselves and write their own tickets. We shouldn’t expect a business will volunteer to conduct itself in a way that may cut into profits or slow down production. The government sends health inspectors to restaurants and nursing homes. The government makes sure deli scales and gas pumps are properly calibrated. Fracking should be no different.

In the four years of Tom Corbett’s time as governor, there were 11,821 inspections conducted. That sounds like a lot until you hear Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration had more than 16,000 per year.

The Department of Health has little information on what the health impacts of fracking might be. The grand jury report blames the department itself for this, as no research has been done.

Pennsylvania is built on energy and industry. It has faced decades of impact on the environment and the people. Acid drainage from coal mining and even road construction has required mitigating to counteract. Pennsylvanians still suffer from black lung disease acquired in mines. The state should know there are things to study.

The industry takes issue with Shapiro’s report, which the Marcellus Shale Coalition said “fails to identify any specific instance that substantiates its claims of impacts.”

More oversight would address that. Inspection, research and data can all make fracking — or any industry — safer and do the state’s job of serving the people.

Online: https://bit.ly/38BACtq

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Thompson, Kelly join wrong fight

Erie Times-News

July 3

It’s galling that the congressman who represents Erie County and another who used to represent part of the county have joined President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the national Republican Party in a cynical attempt to undermine mail-in voting in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly, of Butler, 16th Dist., and Glenn Thompson, of Centre County, 15th Dist., are among four Republican members of Congress in western Pennsylvania who joined the Trump campaign and the national GOP in filing a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s system for voting by mail, which was expanded via bipartisan legislation in 2019.

The plaintiffs certainly didn’t risk understatement in the suit against the state’s 67 county election boards and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

The defendants “have inexplicably chosen a path that jeopardizes election security and will lead – and has already led – to the disenfranchisement of voters, questions about the accuracy of election results, and ultimately chaos,” the lawsuit claims.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? It’s also malarkey.

The legal action in a swing state only serves to fan the doubts about the integrity of our election system that President Donald Trump has relentlessly sought to stoke from the beginning of his presidency. Shame on Kelly and Thompson for enlisting in that corrosive campaign.

We favor the counsel of a former Pennsylvania governor who also served as a longtime Republican congressman from Erie County. Tom Ridge is co-chairman of VoteSafe, a bipartisan coalition of election administrators and organizations dedicated to the proposition that all Americans have a right to vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

To his credit, Ridge has pushed back publicly against the president’s specious claims about mail-in voting. The facts – remember those? – buttress the case for voting by mail as a means for allowing voters to cast their ballots without risking the health of themselves and loved ones.

As VoteSafe documents, studies have shown that mail-in voting is secure, that fraud is extremely rare and detectable, and that there is no evidence the method favors one party over the other. And polls repeatedly have shown that a large majority of Americans support expanding that option.

Mail-in voting comes with some issues, including the challenge of producing timely results. We have urged political and election officials at all levels to spend the time until Nov. 3 mitigating those issues, and have been pleased to see bipartisan efforts in that direction in Pennsylvania.

We would argue that the federal lawsuit and the president’s rhetorical push against mail-in voting has nothing to do with fraud, which is vanishingly rare no matter how many times Trump, without evidence, claims otherwise. They’re about attempting to suppress voter turnout and undermining public confidence in the results when they do come.

Online: https://bit.ly/2VZc1cJ

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Drink and socialize responsibly. Or stay home.

Easton Express-Times

July 3

From the Jersey Shore to Downtown Easton, the effort to contain the growth of COVID-19 suffered a setback last weekend, as thousands of people cast their coronavirus worries to the wind.

Three and a half months of self-isolation will do that to a person — especially young people still on the celebratory side of middle age, accustomed to eating, drinking and carousing with friends and family.

Enjoying life, in other words.

The people who have come down hard on “unprotected” partying — including Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. and Govs. Phil Murphy and Tom Wolf — get that.

This outpouring of once-customary behavior — drinking within spitting range, without masks, thumbing noses at social distancing guidelines — isn’t part of the recent green-lighting of society and business conduct in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

It is, in fact, a renewal of the existential pandemic threat that got us into this mess in the first place.

Last weekend one section of Easton’s Downtown, centered around the bars and restaurants in Lehn’s Court, turned into an open-air festival. Several hundred people were seen partying in crowded conditions, some illegally carrying alcoholic drinks outside of designated dining-drinking areas. Easton and other towns have cordoned off outdoor spaces on sidewalks and in streets to help restaurants and bars maximize the number of people they can serve within social-distance guidelines.

“We didn’t want it to be an open, Mardi Gras-type atmosphere,” Panto said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s only a few people who ruin it all for the masses. We don’t want the spread of COVID and we certainly don’t want violence.”

Panto said he met with the owners of the establishments in that part of Centre Square to go over the rules and let them know a repeat of last weekend won’t happen. He said they responded well, committing to self-enforcement. Still, the city is warning that police will enforce the rules.

On top of all that, Easton police dealt with a homicide near Centre Square early Sunday morning, in which a 22-year-old Palmer Township man was killed. It was the city’s second homicide in a just over a week, after a four-year span without one.

Gun violence is always lurking in the Lehigh Valley’s cities, and the suburbs as well. News of “shots fired” instills fear among neighbors. It can threaten local economies that depend on shopping, tourism and dining.

And yet ... strange times. In the overall scheme of things, in terms of the threat of illness and death and economic collapse, we have more to fear from mindless beer drinkers than thugs with guns. Venturing into crowds maskless, breathing on each other, letting good times roll and alcohol rule, is wittingly playing into the hands of contagion. (And in the reported cases of young people throwing COVID drinking parties to see who’ll be the first to become infected, it’s unforgivably reckless.)

It’s clear now that “green” doesn’t mean clean — not without a lot of business and behavioral changes.

We fully support Panto and other leaders, who — having seen that we can get a grip on COVID-19 growth and numbers — aren’t willing to slide back into danger on the clinking glasses of revelers.

Please: It is time to have fun again.

Have it sensibly, or stay home.

Online: https://bit.ly/3gDiemI

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