As the early enthusiasm surrounding the presidential race took a severe nosedive after the Pennsylvania primary in late April, residents of one Northside neighborhood turned their attention to a more immediate election—that of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council’s board of directors.
In a stunning upset on May 12th, CNNC members voted all seven members of the FORWARD slate, the main opposition to the seven candidates recommended by the current board, to the 15-member body.
The new board members are (in order of most votes received): Greg Spicer, Bill Buettin, Randy Zotter, Kirk Burkley, Chris D’Addario, Randi Marshak and John Augustine.
If there was one obvious difference between the board’s nominees and the FORWARD slate, it had to be the length of time in the neighborhood. Whereas board nominees like Joan Kimmel and Fred Fortson boasted Northside residencies of 35 and 60 years, respectively, the average FORWARD candidate has lived on the Northside for about 10.
The election, by most accounts usually a lackluster affair, drew a record number of voters this year—199 in all—and a total of 18 candidates vied for the seven open seats. The CNNC itself barely boasted 15 members in attendance at some regular meetings this time last year, according to board president Claudia Keyes.
So what engendered this sudden flurry of neighborhood participation?
According to many voters, the Salvation Army’s plan late last year to buy the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on North Avenue and use the site to extend social services to the homeless was all it took to galvanize them.
Some residents of the wealthier Mexican War Streets complained that a homeless center would bring more problems into a crime-burdened neighborhood and that the Northside already bears a large enough share of the city’s homeless services. Some complained the homeless facility would be too close to a nearby playground.
“People kind of heard about it in coffeehouses,” said Greg Spicer, the member of FORWARD who garnered the largest number of votes at 125—or 63 percent.
Spicer only became a member of the Council in December after he was surprised that the CNNC hadn’t asked for much input from the community regarding the pending sale. He said the Salvation Army’s hostile stance toward the gay community, which constitutes a sizable portion of the Mexican War Streets, angered many of these residents.
“I think people felt attacked by the way the board communicated,” Spicer said, adding that the perceived underhandedness of the board was more responsible for raising residents’ ire than the issues themselves.
But it’s not as if Spicer had previously been disengaged with the neighborhood. In fact he had been the membership director of the Mexican War Streets Society, another neighborhood organization.
“But it became clear that the only group that had a say in the Central Northside was the CNNC,” Spicer said.
Spicer’s concerns met the welcome ears of residents like John Francona, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years.
“The [CNNC], as it existed, has been more of a down-home organization without professional experience that needed more expertise to get some projects that needed to be implemented done,” Francona said.
Sizable tasks like the Federal Hill Project, a plan commenced by the CNNC to build 60 affordable townhouses on Federal and adjacent streets, has already taken too long, agreed voter David Holliday.
“I think a lot of the candidates on the new slate have the skill sets that the board requires,” Holliday said.
Indeed, many of FORWARD’s candidates stressed their professional experience in the 30 second speeches each of them were allowed before the vote.
Kirk Burkley, a partner with the Bernstein Law Firm, P.C., submitted his legal expertise as a worthy reason to be elected; Greg Spicer presented his long experience as a communication studies professor, currently at California University of Pennsylvania, as a way for the board to communicate more transparently with residents; and Bill Buettin flexed his property loans know-how as Vice President of Investment Real Estate at First National Bank of Pennsylvania.
With the varied experience of the new members, FORWARD slate members believe they will be able to push forward with projects like Federal Hill at a much quicker pace.
For starters, Bill Buettin, the de facto leader of the FORWARD slate, has already released his own vision to restructuring the Council.
On ChatNorthside, a Yahoo! Message board, Buettin wrote the day after the election, “Our campaign was based on a common pledge of moving the community FORWARD. The 7 issues underlying our pledge were: Diversity, Neighborhood beauty, Commercial revitalization, Safety, Job creation, Communication and Housing.
“As we set out to do the work you’ve elected us to do, I envision a committee for each of these critical issues (in addition to the 2 other permanent committees: finance and bylaws).”
FORWARD has also released an ambitious plan for the first 90 days of its term. The plan would have the board meeting with many other neighborhood groups to engender mutual cooperation and completely secure all funding for the Federal Hill Project.
But it is uncertain how the eight remaining board members will jive with the energetic new bunch.
Not everyone staying on the current board is as concerned with FORWARD’s enthusiastic push for “a neighborhood renaissance,” which looks to some like a push toward gentrification and away from the CNNC’s original mission of providing affordable housing.
Others, such as Annette Green, are bothered by the fact that there aren’t any board members now residing east of Saturn Way, and instead are clumped almost exclusively in the Mexican War Streets. Green believes that geographical diversity is the only way to ensure that all sectors of the neighborhood receive due attention from the board.
And in a sign that the campaign has taken a toll on the community’s cohesiveness, candidate Khari Mosley, the National Political/Field Director for the League of Young Voters, dropped out of the race just before the vote, citing the acerbic nature of the election’s rhetoric as a dangerous phenomenon.
“What’s happening in this community deeply concerns me,” Mosley said.