If national partisanship is starting to heat back up in anticipation of the 2020 election, it hasn’t yet reached Cumberland County’s local races.
Tuesday night’s forum for countywide candidates on the Nov. 5 election day ballot touched relatively few hot-button partisan issues, instead stressing the nuts and bolts of local government: court organization, planning and zoning, transportation, and other hometown matters.
The forum featured the candidates for Cumberland County commissioners, county treasurer, court of common pleas judges, and the county’s district attorney.
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Only in the latter two discussions were potentially divisive topics raised, but in those cases, candidates were seeking offices whose purpose is to carry out existing law, regardless of their personal opinions on it.
Although organized by local conservative groups — the Cumberland County 9/12 Project, the Conservative Christian Center, and Cumberland County Action — Tuesday’s discussion welcomed Democrats given the local angle.
As Democratic county commissioner candidate Michael Fedor put it, “party doesn’t matter in local government in so many ways, because there isn’t a Republican way to take out the trash, there isn’t a Democratic way to make sure the water is running.”
"I am a lifelong Republican, but I know that partisan politics does more harm than good,” incumbent Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said.
Fedor and DiFilippo appeared along with fellow candidates Gary Eichelberger, also a GOP incumbent, and Democratic candidate Jean Foschi.
As Foschi said in her opening remarks, the core function of the commissioners is two-fold: putting together the county’s budget, and overseeing the county’s delivery of human services, most of which are dictated by the state.
“Children & Youth [Services] is important, our county nursing home, the Office of Aging, those things are important and you need county commissioners who know how to handle them,” Foschi said.
Most of the county’s quarter-billion-dollar budget comes from state and federal appropriations for such services. But about $88 million of the total expenses in the coming budget cycle will come from the county’s general fund, which consists mainly of local taxes, over which the county has more control.
Eichelberger and DiFilippo credited good administrative management under their tenure for the county’s budget stability. The county hasn’t raised its property tax rate since 2014, with increased revenue from new development largely covering cost increases. The county hasn’t added a significant number of employees over the same period, DiFilippo said.
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“We are adamant that we don’t need to grow government,” Eichelberger said. “We can be a bigger county without needing a bigger government.”
Managing the county’s population and economic growth also falls partly on the commissioners, Eichelberger said, because the county’s planning office helps municipalities with tier zoning and land use ordinances, and the county helps fund a number of workforce development initiatives.
DiFilippo also said commissioners influence the county’s growth pattern through the farmland preservation program, with finances appropriated from the general fund. The commissioners also oversee the county’s development authority, which secures low-interest financing for projects of public interest, such as the redevelopment of former factory sites in Carlisle, construction at Dickinson College and the YMCA, and other initiatives.
A large part of the commissioners’ work is also advocacy. DiFilippo cited fighting for state and federal funding to improve Interstate 81 to deal with increasing truck traffic; Fedor said the county could do more to get its fair share of benefits from state programs.
“One thing I think I can help any board do is get more of our state tax money back here in Cumberland County,” Fedor said.
None of the candidates said they saw a major tax hike or any significant budgetary shakeup coming in the near future, assuming the state and federal governments don’t pass down any mandates with major dollar figures attached.
Cumberland County dealt with the state’s requirement to replace voting machines relatively easily given its healthy cash reserves, whereas other counties have struggled, Eichelberger said.
On another state mandate, the expansion of the county court system, Foschi said the commissioners could deal better with the creeping cost of information technology improvements, citing a recent IT breakdown in a courtroom.
"That’s not one person’s fault, but when we piecemeal things together with our software, when we piecemeal things together with our electronic equipment, we end up in trouble,” Foschi said.
Common Pleas judge
Judicial candidates were asked about their views on the Second Amendment and abortion rights — the most potentially divisive question of the evening — but mostly sparred over how appropriate it was or wasn’t for them to answer the question.
“I cannot comment on specific issues and how I might rule on them or what my personal feelings are, because quite frankly my personal feelings do not matter,” said Susan Pickford, who is running for judge as an independent, citing American Bar Association guidelines.
Earlier in the evening, Pickford said the election of judges was unique since the office is “not there to represent your values and your beliefs, it is there to administer the law. … Judges don’t write the law, the Legislature writes the law.”
Democratic candidate Lisa Grayson largely agreed, saying she worked on federal death penalty cases for four years.
“Not once did anyone in the federal court building ever ask what my opinion on the death penalty was, because it doesn’t matter,” Grayson said. “My job was to follow the law.”
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Republican candidate Carrie Hyams and candidate Matt Smith, who received both a Republican and Democratic nomination, divulged a bit more.
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“I agree that the role of a judge is to follow the law,” Hyams said, but added that she personally supports the Second Amendment and the “right to life with very, very few exceptions.”
Smith said he disagreed slightly with Pickford, saying that ABA rules prohibit a judge from giving an opinion on a matter that could come before them, but allow for judges to share their personal beliefs.
Smith said he also believes in state and federal constitutional gun rights and the “right to life,” but “of course, like my colleagues, it’s an application of the law.”
The four candidates also broadly agreed on the success and importance of the county’s specialized courts, namely the drug treatment and mental health courts which have a track record of successfully keeping offenders, namely opioid abusers, from re-offending.
Grayson and Pickford also said they are proponents of a veterans’ court for military veterans who may have committed a crime due to substance abuse or traumatic stress issues. Pickford also suggested a domestic violence court.
“We’re doing the same old thing. We keep putting people in jail and letting them out, putting them in jail and letting them out again. That is not working. We need to do something different,” Pickford said.
Smith was more circumspect about judges committing funding to new court subdivisions when successful programs to deal with underlying drug and psychiatric issues already exist.
“We do have that umbrella. We do have them and we’re working hard, but there are certain resources, and we are the shepherd of those resources,” said Smith, who works as a county prosecutor.
Current Cumberland County DA Skip Ebert, a Republican, and Democratic candidate Sean Quinlan fielded questions about how they view two possible criminal justice initiatives being discussed in Harrisburg: the legalization of recreational marijuana and Extreme Risk Protection Orders, often called “red flag” gun safety laws.
Quinlan said he supported marijuana legalization given the current racial disparity in marijuana arrests. This has not changed since Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, Quinlan said.
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If a non-white person caught with marijuana “doesn’t have the $400 to get their medical marijuana card, or access to a physician, although they might have the same diagnosis, they will catch a charge, whereas a relatively affluent white person who can get to a doctor will not,” Quinlan said.
Regarding marijuana arrests, Quinlan said he would “not pursue them as zealously” if he were the DA.
“I don’t feel strongly about it one way or the other,” Ebert said regarding marijuana, but given the political winds, he predicted that legalization would eventually occur. The major issue will then be how to deal with an increase in high drivers.
“We’re going to have more driving under the influence, there’s no other way around it,” Ebert said.
He also said he hasn’t experienced a significant racial disparity as DA given that Cumberland County’s nonwhite population is relatively small.
“I don’t find it particularly a racial problem here,” Ebert said. “We don’t have that many minorities in the county to start with.”
ERPO or “red flag” laws have been floated by the Legislature in the wake of recent mass shootings. Such laws, in short, would allow a person’s friends and family, and law enforcement, to petition the court to temporarily confiscate a person’s firearms if there is sufficient evidence that they are at a heightened risk of harming themselves or others.
Quinlan and Ebert were asked if they share the concerns of some state legislators regarding due process for a person who has not yet committed a crime.
“I don’t believe so,” Ebert said. “There would have to be a hearing and due process … a judge would have to sit there and say ‘yes, I’m taking these weapons away.’ We already have this in the protection from abuse system right now.”
Individuals subject to long-term protection-from-abuse orders, typically domestic violence offenders, must turn over their firearms under state law. But Ebert said PFA and “red flag” gun prohibitions are not a perfect solution.
“Everyone thinks it’s going to be a panacea to these shootings and it’s not,” Ebert said, citing the recent shooting in North Middleton Township where the accused shooter obtained a gun even though the county sheriff had confiscated his weapons under a PFA.
“There are so many weapons out there, if you want to get one and you’re mentally ill, to do a shooting like that, you’re going to get one,” Ebert said.
“I would agree … but for the conclusion that there are so many guns there’s nothing we can do,” Quinlan said. “I think ERPOs have a vital role to play.”
Quinlan cited the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in which police visited the shooter’s home multiple times prior to the shooting, but were unable to take action since Florida had no ERPO law at the time. The state has since passed one, and local law enforcement in Florida have used it extensively over the past 18 months.
“We should do that,” Quinlan said.
Republican candidate Kelly Neiderer and Democratic candidate Jake Miller are vying to run the county treasury, which is primarily responsible for the day-to-day collection and disbursement of county funds and for serving as the county licensing agent for various state authorities.
Miller highlighted his experience as a former state legislative aide and current school teacher.
“I don’t really get into the partisan politics,” Miller said. “I’m worried on the national level and on the state level, sometimes things get so hacky that nothing gets done.”
Neiderer touted her experience as a bank manager, something she said would be helpful in managing the investment of county funds. The county treasurer helps handle the county’s pension fund investments, something Neiderer said would need a close eye in order to meet expectations in the current low-interest climate
“In the interest rate environment we’re currently seeing, it’s going to be very difficult,” she said.