Philadelphia Inquirer. April 5, 2021.

Editorial: Philly may have just revolutionized evictions

In the aftermath of 2008, Philadelphia emerged as a model of mortgage foreclosure prevention. Now it is leading the way on eviction prevention.

Philadelphia is on the verge of upending evictions as we know them.

Last Wednesday, the Municipal Court of Philadelphia, which houses landlord-tenant court, released a new order following the extension of the CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium through June. For the next 45 days, landlords are required to apply to PHLRentAssist, the city’s rental assistance program, and enroll in the Eviction Diversion Program before filing an eviction for nonpayment.

The order is a game changer.

Before the pandemic, landlords filed 20,000 evictions a year in Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant court. That’s despite the devastatingly long list of harms associated with eviction, harms that start with the court filing, a record of which is publicly accessible forever — regardless of the outcome.

In Philadelphia, Black renters face eviction, and its damage, at more than twice the rate of white renters.

Since 2017, championed by City Councilmember Helen Gym and tenant advocates like Community Legal Services, Philadelphia has taken steps to prevent evictions, including a right-to-counsel bill to ensure that low-income renters have representation in court.

A 2018 Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response report included 17 recommendations, including a novel one: a mediation program for landlords and tenants before filing in court. A program that would benefit landlords by providing access to resources and benefit tenants by preventing a court filing is a win-win.

Sadly, it took the devastation of the coronavirus to establish the Eviction Diversion Program. In June, City Council passed the bill to create it, making it mandatory for landlords to participate in it before filing an eviction. The city launched the program in late August in collaboration with nonprofits. The city also launched a rental assistance program that utilizes federal dollars from relief bills — $65 million was already dispersed and another $97 million is coming down the pipe.

Until now, the requirement to use the program wasn’t enforced by the courts, so participation was voluntary. A survey of landlords found that the vast majority didn’t even know the program existed.

And yet, the diversion program received nearly 2,500 applications between September and mid-March and, in the court’s own admission, it was a success. In the order, President Judge Patrick Dugan wrote that the program, “saved the court’s resources, prevented negative consequences of eviction during a pandemic, and benefited landlords and tenants.”

Since September, this board has called on Municipal Court to require mediation before filing an eviction. Considering the detrimental harm of evictions, from the court filing to the lockout, for individuals and communities, an eviction filing has to be a tool of last resort — not the first step.

The leadership of Municipal Court deserves much credit for securing a new reality in Philadelphia: one in which an eviction filing can’t be used as a threat, tenants are less likely to lose their home, and landlords are more likely to recover rent.

Councilmember Gym told this board that “there is no reason to go back to the way things were.” We agree.

In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, Philadelphia’s Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion program became a national model. It is only fitting that in the aftermath of the pandemic, Philadelphia could revolutionize evictions.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. April 5, 2021.

Editorial: Training commitment great move

Millions of Americans watching the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have been reminded through video and abundant eyewitness testimony that there is such a thing as police brutality.

Regardless of whether Chauvin is found guilty of killing George Floyd on May 25 by kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, the medical examiner has ruled Floyd’s death to be a homicide. There is little doubt that with a proper response from police to a call that Floyd allegedly had used a counterfeit bill at a neighborhood store, Floyd would be alive.

Against the trial’s grim backdrop, it was heartening recently when Scranton police committed to installing a high-tech training system designed to help officers deal with “shoot-or-don’t-shoot” situations and, crucially, to focus on deescalating confrontations they might experience on the street.

Once the system is installed in the new training center at the former Army Reserve Center on Pine Street, it also will be available for training officers from other departments.

In cases across the country where police have been found to be at least partly responsible for violent confrontations with residents, better training consistently has been among the recommendations.

City police and the Cognetti administration are on the mark in taking to heart the need for improved and continuing police training, for the sake of effective community policing and the safety of residents and officers.

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York Dispatch. April 2, 2021.

Editorial: It’s up to us to prevent another surge

We get it. Everyone wants to go back to their favorite restaurant, sit at a table inside, have a nice meal, even have a drink at the bar.

Everyone wants to see a movie or go to a live concert and dance in front of the stage. We want to watch our kids perform in a high school play or just go to the gym and not worry about whether the person on the next treadmill is breathing hard enough that their droplets are hanging in the air in front of us.

All of us want to get back to normal. But we also have to acknowledge that normal isn’t normal right now.

On Sunday, Pennsylvania will lift some of the guidelines it’s had in place to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. Changes include allowing restaurants to use up to 75% of their indoor dining capacity if they agree to adhere to the state’s guidelines; raising limits on gyms, casinos, theaters and other businesses to 75% of capacity; and doing away with restrictions on selling alcohol without food and removing drinks from tables at a certain time. Capacity limits on indoor events will be raised to 25% and on outdoor events to 50%.

All of which sounded workable when Gov. Tom Wolf announced the changes on March 15. But since then, COVID-19 cases in the nation, the state and in York County have rebounded, and the Biden administration has asked states to ease up on reopening plans.

“Two weeks ago, this was a reasonable step forward; no argument,” said Dr. Matt Howie, medical director of the York City Health Bureau. “But over the past two weeks we’ve seen an escalation in cases. We’ll just need to keep an eye on this really carefully.”

Right now, Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the country for its case rate, with a 63% increase in daily cases over the past 14 days, according to a New York Times analysis.

As of Wednesday, York County had seen 462 new cases per 100,000 people in the previous 14 days, the highest that number has been since mid-February and a count that ranks us 13th in the state.

“York County is in a tenuous spot,” Howie said, adding that vaccine distribution will be crucial to ensure the county and state can fend off a fourth wave of cases.

And yet so many people in York County haven’t received even one dose of the vaccine so far. As of Wednesday, more than 100,000 York County residents had received at least one dose, but that’s less than a quarter of the population.

Many people seem to be lifting their guard, gathering in larger groups. The Domestic Relations office at the York County Judicial Center was shut down this week after employees who had been following social distancing and personal protective equipment protocols with the public and in the halls didn’t observe the same caution within the office, and the virus spread in the department.

We get it. We’re all burned out. After a year of distancing, masks, hand sanitizer and eating at home, we could all use a break.

But we all saw what happened after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. COVID-19 cases — and deaths — skyrocketed throughout December and January.

We’ve gotten through that surge, but with mitigation efforts being relaxed over the Easter weekend, there’s a chance for yet another surge to take hold.

It’s up to us as individuals to recognize risks and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

By all means, support local restaurants. Get takeout, and tip well. See your older family members who’ve gotten the vaccine. Take advantage of the spring weather and spend time outside.

But think things through. Keep wearing a mask, and keep social distancing, and make appointments to get your vaccine.

And while you’re waiting for your shots, stay smart. We might be close to the home stretch, but we’re not quite there yet.

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Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. April 2, 2021.

Editorial: Mullery’s tourism suggestion merits consideration

State Rep. Gerald Mullery’s proposal to move the Luzerne County Tourism and Visitors’ Center from Wilkes-Barre to White Haven sounds, on first blush, easy to dismiss. But it merits serious consideration.

The opening argument against such a move is simple: Wilkes-Barre’s population is 40,867; White Haven’s is 1,113. Wilkes-Barre is in the heart of the densely populated Wyoming Valley, White Haven is a modest oasis in the lightly-populated southeastern corner of the county.

There’s more in the Diamond City’s favor.

Wilkes-Barre either houses or is near more than a dozen of the county’s hotels; White Haven has six or so nearby, but they are actually in a neighboring county — fine establishments, we’re sure, but hardly the places the Luzerne County Visitors office should be eager to help book rooms.

Wilkes-Barre is also next to the Mohegan Sun Arena and the Mohegan Sun Casino complex, both deliberately designed to be tourist destinations.

So the argument to keep the county visitor’s bureau in Wilkes-Barre sounds potent. But there are good counter claims.

For starters, it never made much sense to have the bureau in an office on Public Square, simply because there’s no real parking. It’s also always been questionable to put a county visitors’ bureau in the heart of said county’s largest city. If you want to show visitors all the great things to see, they shouldn’t have to slog through city traffic.

White Haven has a distinct advantage on that point. It could serve as an eastern gateway to the county, just off Interstate 80 and close to the junction with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There’s a certain symmetry to having a visitors’ bureau near the county border, the “Welcome to Luzerne County Sign” including a “visitors’ bureau just ahead” seems convenient.

Mullery also made the point that the more bucolic surroundings of White Haven are a serious tourist draw in their own right: Hickory Run State Park and the Lehigh Gorge State Park are huge attractions, particularly with all the rafting in the Lehigh River and biking and hiking along the D&L trail.

The reason we’re having any discussion about the visitor bureau’s location matters quite a bit. County Council is considering moving it to the historic downtown Wilkes-Barre train station. Indeed, developer George Albert has said he needs guaranteed tenants before renovation of the station can begin.

Frankly, Albert’s comment had a hint of blackmail, a demand the county help fill the station or see it continue to deteriorate beyond salvation.

Still, moving the visitors center to the train station makes a good deal of sense regardless of how you take Albert’s words. It would provide parking while showcasing one of the county’s true historic building gems (across the street, one should note, from another preserved gem, the Stegmaier building).

Mullery’s suggestion should be given due consideration, and if the train station weren’t the alternative, it might even be a better choice. But preserving the station is a potent rationale.

There is a third option, though politically unlikely.

In the age of all things internet, does a physical visitors’ center even make sense, or can we just put it in the most cost-effective place available, not worried about surroundings or, well, visitors?

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 3, 2021.

Editorial: Let local police wield radar guns for speed enforcement

In an age of technological wonder, Pennsylvania stands alone as a modern-day Luddite when it comes to how local police departments are expected to enforce speed limits.

It is the only state in the nation that prohibits municipal police from using radar for speed enforcement. And it’s not as if radar guns are some new untested technology; state police have been utilizing radar guns since the 1960s, so there is more than 50 years of evidence showing its reliability and effectiveness.

Opponents of its use claim local police would use the devices as a means of boosting municipal revenues. They have successfully lobbied against its spread to municipal police forces. So, local police have been reduced to using archaic tools to enforce speed limits, such as painted lines on a road section, a stopwatch and calculations.

In Pennsylvania, we can use a radar gun to measure the speed of a thrown pitch at a baseball park, but municipal police can’t use it to enforce the speed limit in a neighborhood. What sense does this make?

There may be change in the wind. The state House Transportation Committee recently approved — by a vote of 25 to 0 — a bill that would allow municipal police to use radar.

The proposal does come with several conditions aimed at addressing opponents’ concerns, chief among them being the argument that radar would be used by municipalities as a moneymaking venture. The bill would limit total cash receipts from speeding fines to an amount no greater than 10% of a municipality’s annual budget. Any excess would be directed to the state’s Motor License Fund to be used for road and bridge improvement and state police operations.

The municipality would have to adopt an ordinance authorizing its use and place signs on roads leading into the community to alert motorists of radar use.

It would also stipulate that in areas where the speed limit is less than 55 mph, citations could be issued only for vehicles exceeding the limit by at least 10 mph. That’s a nod to opponents of radar use who worry about a flurry of citations for vehicles exceeding the limit by the slightest of degrees.

The full House should follow the Transportation Committee’s overwhelming support for the bill and approve it so that the state Senate can follow suit. A similar measure was approved there in 2019 by a 49 to 1 vote.

Radar devices have been available for half a century. It’s long past time that Pennsylvania joined the rest of the country in giving municipal police the technology needed for accurate speed enforcement. This benefits the motoring public as well as communities attempting to ensure safe roads.

END

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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