Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sept. 11, 2021.

Editorial: A lawsuit built on hypocrisy

Fourteen Republican members of the state House have filed a legal challenge to the law that allowed no-excuse mail-in voting — a law that 11 of those esteemed legislators supported two years ago.

In essence, they are asking the state Commonwealth Court to declare unconstitutional their own legislative actions.

Only in Pennsylvania, where politics and hypocrisy are forever linked, would you find a lawsuit this bizarre in nature.

The 2019 law, which received near-unanimous support in the Republican-controlled Legislature, provided for no-excuse voting by mail. The legislators now claim the law violates a constitutional provision that requires lawmakers to provide a way for people to vote if they are unable to do so in person for specific reasons. Those reasons include being out of town on business, illness, physical disability, Election Day duties or a religious observance.

The dubious challenge by this group of 14 is that the law — again, one that 11 of them approved —should be struck down because it allows people to vote by mail even if they do not fit into one of the specific reasons for not voting in person.

The Constitution does not explicitly say that the Legislature cannot extend absentee voting to others. And to be clear, other states use no-excuse mail-in voting and have done so for years.

Make no mistake: This is not a lawsuit prompted by concern for constitutional adherence. This is driven by the simple fact that state Republican lawmakers are unhappy with the overwhelming number of Democrats who used mail-in voting last November and helped Joe Biden capture Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes.

Of the 6.9 million votes cast in Pennsylvania last November, 2.5 million were done by mail-in ballot. And nearly two-thirds of those came from voters registered as Democrats.

It’s a scenario Republicans didn’t anticipate when they worked out a compromise with Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019. In exchange for allowing no-excuse mail-in voting, the option for voting straight-party was removed from the ballot, a move sought by Republicans.

What no one saw coming was the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 and a subsequent overwhelming demand for mail-in ballots by voters who did not want to risk voting at crowded polling places. In fact, state officials encouraged voting by mail, and millions took that advice.

The 14 Republicans challenging the law include four from Western Pennsylvania: Aaron Bernstine of Lawrence County, Timothy Bonner of Mercer County, Bud Cook of Washington County, and Bob Brooks of Westmoreland County. Mr. Bonner was not yet in office, but the other three all voted in favor of the 2019 law that allowed mail-in voting. Their lawsuit is the political equivalent of buyer’s remorse for approving a law they now regret.

The lawsuit is not about making elections fairer in Pennsylvania. Rather, it’s an attempt to take away a voting option that millions of state voters used in the last year and clearly will use again. The courts should uphold the law, and the 14 legislators should turn their attention to the real issues facing the state rather than burden taxpayers with paying for another frivolous lawsuit.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. Sept. 10, 2021.

Editorial: State should legalize fentanyl tests

The ongoing opioid addiction crisis began with excessive distribution of a new generation of effective opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin.

But with new prescribing protocols and comprehensive prescription-tracking by physicians and pharmacies, the overwhelming driver of the carnage is the exponentially more powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, synthetic opioids — mostly fentanyl — are responsible for 72.9% of all fatal opioid overdoses. The problem is not drug users going out to get a hit of fentanyl. Rather, drug producers and traffickers increasingly lace other drugs with fentanyl — heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and even marijuana — to increase their potency and addictive properties.

Even experienced users can’t accurately measure doses because they do not know whether or how much fentanyl is present.

Inexpensive technology is available to detect fentanyl, in the form of test strips that change color when they come into contact with the drug. But under state law, it is illegal to possess those strips, which are considered drug paraphernalia because they can be used to facilitate drug production and distribution.

Scranton Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti is on the mark in moving to decriminalize fentanyl test strips in the city, with the support of Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell, who said Wednesday that 92% of the county’s fatal overdoses this year involved fentanyl, either directly or within other drugs.

The mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have decriminalized the test strips by executive order, but Cognetti will submit legislation to city council this month.

Decriminalizing and distributing fentanyl strips will not reduce addiction. But the measures would be a sensible step toward reducing the opioid death toll as the government struggles to increase access to treatment and to fight fentanyl distribution.

When Cognetti sends to the legislation to Scranton City Council, it should approve it on an emergency basis.

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Philadelphia Inquirer. Sept. 10, 2021.

Editorial: Too early to declare Chester’s gun-violence program a success, but there may already be lessons for Philly

Our neighbors in Chester have been making headlines in recent weeks for their significant reductions in homicides and shootings at a time when many cities, including Philadelphia, are seeing the opposite trend play out. Comparing the first five months of 2020 with the same period this year, shootings in Chester were down 40%; shooting fatalities there experienced an even sharper drop, falling by 68%. During the same time frame in Philadelphia, shootings increased by 29% and fatal shootings rose by 50%.

One potential ingredient of the reduction in Chester is that city’s Partnership For Safe Neighborhoods, which uses a strategy similar to one being tried in Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention program.

It’s still far too early to attribute the reduction in gun violence in Chester to any one factor. It’s also perilous to compare gun violence in such a small municipality — Chester’s population is about 33,000 people — with the challenges facing Philadelphia (population: 1.6 million). Still, there might be lessons from what’s happening in Delaware County.

Back to basics

Both Chester’s plan and Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention program are based around the law enforcement strategy known as focused deterrence, the premise of which is that most violence is related to a small number of individuals who are connected through informal groups. Researchers say that members of these groups typically account for 0.5% of a city’s population but can be responsible for about 70% of that community’s gun-violence incidents. Using that standard, Chester potentially has about 200 people involved in such groups, while Philadelphia has about 8,000.

In focused deterrence, each group receives a clear message from law enforcement: If you don’t stop the shootings, we will take advantage of all of your legal vulnerabilities (probation violations, outstanding warrants, missed child support payments, etc.) to make your life very uncomfortable — but we are also here to help, and connect you to services, if you want.

Philadelphia is intimately familiar with focused deterrence. Beginning in 2013, the use of that strategy in three South Philadelphia police districts led to a 35% decline in shootings.

Chester isn’t Philly

In Chester, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer says that while the concept behind focused deterrence is simple, the implementation is anything but. “Everybody who is a collaborator or a partner in the program, at least in the beginning, has to buy into the overall strategy,” Stollsteimer told this board.

Philadelphia officials launched their Group Violence Intervention program in August 2020 — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. That means Philadelphia couldn’t have brought members of groups engaged in violence into one room to deliver the “don’t shoot” message and instead had to dispense it one stoop at a time.

Philadelphia has also had to contend with some lingering criticism of the 2013 effort, which detractors argued was overly aggressive in its enforcement, unfairly stigmatized some members of the community, and cast too wide a net in its outreach efforts.

In part to address those concerns, Philadelphia’s Group Violence Initiative includes a more robust budget for social services, including the hiring of caseworkers.

A contrast in leadership

Despite the difference in scale between the two city’s programs, there is one major takeaway: Chester seemingly managed to get behind a strategy and deliver the “don’t shoot” message in a unified voice. That is far from the case in Philadelphia, where District Attorney Larry Krasner has criticized Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration for relying too much on law enforcement at the expense of social services, while Kenney criticized Krasner for “his office’s inability to prosecute crimes.”

That said, it isn’t too late to get on the same page. In the next several weeks, Philadelphia officials are expected to release a progress report on Group Violence Intervention. Grants distributed through an antiviolence fund created by City Council could have a synergistic effect on focused deterrence by expanding community resources.

Both the report and the selection of grant recipients will deserve scrutiny.

Philadelphia is bleeding, literally. The blood is mostly of Black residents, including children. To finally turn a corner in the gun-violence crisis, it’s imperative that city leaders find a message that they can all deliver in unison. Part of that message might simply be: Don’t shoot.

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Harrisburg Patriot-News. Sept. 12, 2021.

Editorial: A sincere thanks to all the men and women who prevented another 9/11

It’s time to say thank you. It’s time for a grateful nation to formally and officially salute the men and women who have kept us safe for the past two decades – those who fought in Afghanistan and those who kept watch on America’s shores.

On this anniversary of Sept. 11, when we have ended America’s longest war, it’s fitting to raise our voices in tribute to all who fought and to the families that prayed for them each day.

On this Sept. 11 anniversary, we must acknowledge it was their sacrifice that prevented another attack on our shores since that dreadful day in 2001.

Officials tell us 2,448 American died in Afghanistan. Dozens of them were from Pennsylvania. They left grieving mothers, fathers, sister, brothers, sons and daughters who need to know how grateful we are for their sacrifice.

Those numbers don’t include the thousands of soldiers wounded in service, many bearing the emotional and mental scars of serving in an environment as brutal and hostile as Afghanistan. Their patrols through the scorched deserts and rugged mountains, staring down the Taliban and Isis, made them the targets of terrorists, instead of us.

They faced suicide bombers, roadside explosives and the gunfire of jihadists, instead of us. No, they didn’t eliminate the Taliban, nor Isis, nor even al Qaeda, but they kept them at bay for 20 years. And for that, Americans should be forever grateful.

But the war in Afghanistan is only part of the story of the past two decades. We must also pay tribute to the men and women in Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast guard, the FBI and the CIA who have been vigilant in looking for any and all signs of terrorist activity on our soil or in dangerous places abroad. Their work scouring social media, monitoring weapons purchases and keeping tabs on extremist activity likely has foiled dozens of potential terrorist attacks, like the one that could have unfolded last week in Middletown.

With the stockpile of explosives federal agents seized in the shadow of our state capitol, it’s clear they prevented another major tragedy on U.S. soil.

We need to face facts this Sept. 11 -- America is still in danger. And we Americans should pay homage to all who have outwitted the terrorists these many years.

If we really knew the full story, we would lift up prayers of thanksgiving every day for all those guiding the Coast Guard cutters, flying the F-16s, monitoring Facebook and YouTube, and raiding little homes filled with weapons of mass destruction in Middletown -- all to keep us safe.

So, we declare it now, boldly and with feeling. . . thank you to all of the men and women who have prevented another Sept. 11.

Thank you for your service and for your immense sacrifice in the war zones of Afghanistan and for protecting us here at home.

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Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Sept. 9, 2021.

Editorial: Wilkes-Barre Oktoberfest an idea worth exploring

The notion of selling beer at the celebration of Wilkes-Barre’s 150th anniversary on Public Square Oct. 2 understandably gives pause. Alcohol can make such a celebration more enjoyable if used in moderation, but can create real problems if revelers over-imbibe.

With that obvious observation out of the way, we support Mayor George Brown’s request that City Council consider a temporary suspension of the ordinance prohibiting the open consumption of alcohol so people can buy and drink beer at the one-time party under the watchful eyes of city police.

For starters, as Brown pointed out in a Wednesday story by staff writer Jerry Lynott, “We are into our 150th year as a city, incorporated in 1871.” So, yeah, pretty big deal, maybe worth adding beer to the celebration.

FYI, a 150th anniversary is called the sesquicentennial, from the Latin root sesqui, meaning one and a half, ergo “one and a half centennial,” or 150 years. According to Merriam-Webster’s website, it first appeared in print in 1880, so the sesquicentennial of “sesquicentennial” is just nine years away. But we digress.

Brown gave another reason to consider bringing brewskies to the bash: it might serve as a sort of pilot program — a toe in the water as it were — to a possible new city tradition, an annual Oktoberfest.

Well, strap on the lederhosen and strike up the oompah band! Oktoberfest in the heart of Pennsylvania’s best hyphenated city? Definitely sounds like an idea worth exploring. True, we already have the venerable “German Night” at St. Nicholas Church, but that’s in February and indoors.

It seems like a properly run, Oktoberfest on Public Square each fall might be a good shot in the arm for city businesses, drawing people to the downtown for the kind of celebration not seen much locally. Just don’t start calling the month “Funtober.”

Brown told City Council the plan is to shut down the streets along Public Square for restaurants to set up dining opportunities outside, an idea with real potential.

He also said the beer drinking would be limited to one tent and “very well controlled by our police department,” making sure people don’t stray from the designated area.

We have seen over the past few summers that large outdoor events mixing music and adult beverages can be managed safely for the enjoyment of all, notably two events sponsored by the Times Leader Media Group.

Launched in 2019, Luzerne County’s Rockin’ The River summer concerts have been a notable success, while Diamond City Partnership’s new Sunsets on South Main concert series has likewise begun to develop a loyal — and responsible — following.

Before those programs, the idea of a large outdoor gathering with alcohol might not have sounded like a good idea to some elected officials, and we can understand such concerns. Hopefully the successful and safe launch of both programs will serve as a model not only for a potential Oktoberfest, but for more pop-up celebrations such as those seen in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and other cities.

As a bonus here, Brown noted the beer would be provided by Stegmaier Brewing Co., an iconic Wilkes-Barre brand with a clear German pedigree, thus justifying the city’s possible dive into the annual Oktoberfest market.

Born in Gmund, Wuttemberg, Germany, Charles E. Stegmaier started apprenticing to a local brewer at the age of 15, learning the art for the next 13 years. At 27 he sailed for the U.S., settling first in Philadelphiaa to work with the Corporation Brewery on North Third Street. Eventually he met Wilkes-Barre brewer John Reichard, and the two formed a partnership that led to the first lager beer produced in NEPA.

(Details courtesy of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.)

So there you have it. Beer is in this city’s bones, as it were, so it seems reasonable to include it in the 150th anniversary celebration. And maybe once a year after that.

“Prost!”

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