In case you missed it: This week’s best reads from Pennsylvania cities

     Five projects in Pennsylvania were awarded grants from the Knight Cities Challenge including Reading Terminal Market to host cooking demonstrations with different immigrant communities in Philadelphia.  (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Five projects in Pennsylvania were awarded grants from the Knight Cities Challenge including Reading Terminal Market to host cooking demonstrations with different immigrant communities in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Not one single mention of any presidential candidates. 

    The Pennsylvania state government can sometimes seem like a Lord of the Flies-esque jungle where lawlessness rules. But it’s not! There are a number of checks and balances intended to monitor and oversee the state’s functions.

    Executive oversight

    One of those is the auditor general. Eugene DePasquale has been busy this week, denouncing the state’s charter school law and investigating the Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. DePasquale is getting an assist on that second one as the FBI and U.S. attorney general join the probe. The ICA was formed to help the city avoid bankruptcy, but the one-man operation may have some questionable financial dealings itself. 

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    In a statement about the investigation, DePasquale used a phrase he may be pretty sick of by now: “Incompetence is not a crime.” But other things are. “There could be something illegal. There could be something that wasn’t illegal but wasn’t a good business practice. That’s something we’re going to try to find out.” 

    (If you’re interested in hearing more from the auditor general, come to our conference on May 10. He’s the kickoff speaker.)

    Judicial oversight

    Pennsylvania also relies on the court system to maintain order…usually. We’ve broken down how the court system works in the commonwealth, because it can be very confusing.

    But what happens when the courts don’t work? There are a number of judicial branch scandals playing out across the state. In Centre County, District Attorney Stacey Parks Miller is engaged in a number of legal battles with a number of attorneys, judges, and county commissioners. State Supreme Court Judge Michael Eakin stepped down last month as part of the “porn-gate” investigation launched by Attorney General Kathleen Kane. His is the second Supreme Court seat vacated over the scandal. 

    When you go to the polls on April 26th, you may see a question about raising the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. Before you spend too much time weighing the options, don’t. The legislature is postponing the vote until the general election in November, but the ballots are already finalized. Confusingly, your vote on the other referendum question, about the Philadelphia Traffic Court, will be counted. No, seriously. 

    Legislative oversight

    When it was first launched, cities fought to be part of the Community Revitalization & Improvements Zone program. It’s an economic development incentive program intended to divert state tax dollars back into the community, and the first CRIZs were established in Lancaster, Bethlehem and Tamaqua. 

    But the first year results were a little lackluster and pointed out some potential flaws in the program. A Lancaster lawmaker, Sen. Lloyd Smucker, originally a supporter of the program, called for a hearing investigating the shortfalls. Smucker got his wish this week with a two-hour hearing in Harrisburg that addressed the promises, potential and problems with the program. 

    Though solutions were proposed, they likely won’t be implemented for some time. DCED has not reopened applications for future CRIZ locations and has no timeline to do that going forward. 

    Prizes for Pennsylvania

    Congratulations to five Pennsylvanians who won the Knight Foundation Cities Challenge this week. Four Philadelphians were awarded between $80,000 and $350,000 for their community engagement ideas. There will be cooking demonstrations at Reading Terminal Market to bring immigrant communities together and a pop-up music studio on street corners around the city. The Philadelphia Area Co-Op Alliance will use book clubs to encourage small business development. And the Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship hopes to marry the lessons of hip-hop and start-ups.

    The Make Space, a community building space in downtown State College, won just over $50,000 to help residents make ice luminaries. They hope to break the record for most ice luminaries lit at once and…you know, this might be one time you just have to listen to the story.  

    This is the second year of the challenge. We checked in on last year’s winners to see what impact they’ve had on their city in the past year. (And you’re not seeing double: two of this year’s grantees are repeat winners!)

    Changing times

    State employees and contractors are now formally protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, according to an executive order signed by Gov. Wolf. In his statement last Thursday, Wolf pulled a #tbt, saying, “This is the right thing for us to do. Just as it was the right thing for William Penn to do when he proclaimed that Pennsylvania was a place for everyone, regardless of their religion.” 

    Wolf urged the legislature to vote on bills that would protect all Pennsylvanians from similar discrimination. As we’ve reported, members of the LGBT community can face discrimination when looking for housing in Pennsylvania. 

    This move is reminsicent of last month, when Wolf used an executive order to raise the minimum wage for state employees. He urged lawmakers to vote on proposals to raise the minimum wage for all Pennsylvanians. They disregarded him then, and in all likelihood, will disregard him now. 

    Things are changing in the Sharswood neighborhood of Philadelphia as well, and it’s bringing up a lot of questions for the city and state as a whole. The Philadelphia Housing Authority is spending $568 million to remake the neighborhood over 10 years. Current residents are being relocated, usually through eminent domain. 

    What can history teach us about these sorts of projects? The Arden Theater in Philadelphia is hosting a run of the August Wilson play, Two Trains Running, which is set against the backdrop of urban redevelopment projects in the 1960s. In a discussion afterwards, many Philadelphians drew comparisons between the story and the news out of Sharswood. 

    But PHA President Kelvin Jeremaiah assures Sharswood residents this won’t be like that. “It’s creating a better life for the families who have had to wait for something different and better for over 50 years. We’ve been telling them for the last 20 years we are going to confront these issues. We’re doing it in a meaningful way.” 


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