As she waited for her turn to go before a panel of Westmoreland County judges last week, Lois Thomas realized she was the only of the nine potential appointees to Monessen council who wasn’t reviewing notes.
“I was under the impression that the judges were going to ask us questions,” Thomas, 56, a lifelong resident of Monessen, said this week.
Thomas didn’t panic, though. She spoke from her heart.
“I went into the courtroom, stood to the side of the podium and spoke with sincerity. I told the judges I wanted to bring the council together to do good things for the city. If they couldn’t see that, then there wasn’t anything else I could do to change their opinion of me.”
A panel of 10 judges tasked with filling a vacancy created in late May when councilman Ron Chiaravalle died believed in Thomas’ vision and appointed her.
Today, she will be sworn in to the seat she will hold until the end of 2019, and she’s quickly become a symbol of hope for a city that hasn’t had a quorum to conduct a full meeting since May.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls and emails I’ve received the past week,” said Thomas, a Medicare counseling coordinator for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Area Agency on Aging. “People are coming up to me on the street to talk with me. Everyone is telling me they’re excited that I’m joining the council. They think I will be a breath of fresh air for Monessen. I care a lot about this city and want to help the other council members come together to do great things for Monessen.”
Mayor Matt Shorraw, a voting member of council, stopped attending council meetings in May. Councilman Gil Coles also has missed meetings since early February, except for an emergency meeting on June 29 to vote for renewal of the city’s insurance policy.
Thomas, who attended council meetings when she had openings in her work schedule, quickly sensed that something wasn’t working in city hall.
“I’ve heard many of the ongoing arguments,” she said. “It’s OK if we aren’t always on the same page: we can agree to disagree. What’s most important is putting aside our personal differences and doing what’s best for Monessen. And we should also remember to show respect for each other. That includes council members talking to residents, council members talking to each other and residents talking to the council. Each person should be treated with dignity.”
Although Thomas keeps active in Monessen, she is not well acquainted with her follow council members, except for exchanging an occasional hello on the street. Thomas feels that can be an asset as she joins a highly divided council.
“I think it’s an advantage not knowing any of the other council members,” she said. “I’m not associated with one side or the other. I want to work with the all the other council members for a common purpose: to make Monessen a better place to work, live and play.”
Thomas added with a chuckle that diplomacy is something she learned at an early age.
“I grew up with 10 brother and sisters,” said Thomas. “My mom insisted that everyone get along. We weren’t allowed to right. If there was an issue, we have to solve it that day.”
Ironically, Thomas was encouraged to get involved in city government by the man she is replacing on council.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Ron Chiaravalle at a council meeting last spring,” said Thomas. “I got up to speak at that meeting about some of my concerns. After the meeting, Mr. Chiaravalle approached me and said the city needed someone like me to serve on one of its boards. At the time, who would have thought I would be filling Mr. Chiaravalle’s seat?”
One of Thomas’ top priorities as a councilwoman is restoring civic pride in Monessen.
“It’s a shame how things have gone by the wayside in Monessen,” she said. “We shouldn’t have all this blight. When I was growing up in Monessen, I remember people taking more pride in their community. I think civic responsibility starts by taking care of our home and neighborhoods. And if we notice that a neighbor is unable to mow their lawn because they are elderly or don’t have a lawnmower, we should try to help. When we take care of ourselves first, we can then take care of the rest of the city. Monessen is a great place and we need to show visitors that we are proud of our city.”
Thomas also wants to help create more opportunities for young people.
“Back when I was attending school, I was able to make some extra money by working a few part-time jobs during the summers,” said Thomas, who graduated from Monessen High School in 1979 before earning a B.A. degree in social work at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “It doesn’t seem like kids have those same opportunities today. Maybe would mobilize some of our businesses to create summer jobs for our young people. Even if they were sweeping floors or stocking shelves, teenagers would have a chance to make some pocket money and learn about responsibility.”
As she prepares to enter public office this week, Thomas looks forward to working with the other council members to find solutions for some of Monessen’s most pressing challenges.
“One of my favorite scriptures says that we are one body withy many members,” said Thomas, who has served as an ordained minister at churches in Braddock and Elizabeth. “That’s how I see our council. We should have one common goal, rather than five individual goals. I hope to be a unifier and bring everyone together to do great things for the City of Monessen.”