INDIANA BOROUGH: Three seek seats on council
Two four-year seats on Indiana Borough council, representing the Second Ward, are up for election later this month.
Incumbent councilman Robert Jobe is the sole Republican seeking a nomination.
On the Democrat ballot, three men — Larry DeChurch, Donald Lancaster and Gerald Smith — are vying for the two available nominations.
Larry DeChurch was born and raised in Homer City and attended Laura Lamar High School.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in management information systems and computer science from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
For 32 years he was employed in the Pittsburgh area as a software engineer for Mellon Bank and Bank of New York. He and his wife, the former Victoria Belash, an Indiana native, moved back to their hometown areas when DeChurch retired three years ago, and they bought a home along Indiana’s Elm Street.
DeChurch said he discusses Indiana issues with neighbors and friends, but it’s unlikely their discussions alone will lead to many changes.
“I needed to put myself in a decision-making position,” DeChurch said.
He and his wife like Indiana — that’s why they bought a retirement home in the borough — but, “I think there’s some improvements that can be made,” he said.
DeChurch said he has concerns about some past decisions council has made and about issues now before council.
“My wife and I both feel we need a very strong library here in Indiana,” and it should be kept locally, in an easy-to-get-to location, he said.
He also feels IUP student rental properties have “sprawled” too much into Indiana’s residential neighborhoods.
“I see student rental housing everywhere” and it discourages families from buying homes in the borough, he said.
On a recent warm weekend he saw many rental properties where students were drinking and partying on porches.
“If I had young children, would I want to put them in an environment like that?” he asked.
The large number of IUP students living off-campus puts a strain on Indiana’s infrastructure, he said. Two residential properties that once had two families now may have dozens of student tenants.
He also noted that a significant percentage of the Indiana Borough Police Department’s calls and expenses are related to IUP students.
“I don’t think IUP pulls its weight as far as monetary matters are concerned,” he said. “I think there’s really a disparity there.”
But he emphasizes he is not “anti-IUP.” The university is an integral part of Indiana and provides many jobs and incomes and keeps the community vibrant, he said.
DeChurch also said borough residents should have peace of mind that the borough’s infrastructure is being maintained “so they don’t have to hold their breath every time it starts to rain, wondering if they will have to deal with water in the basement yet again,” he said.
He also believes the size of council contributes to the body being “unwieldy” at times.
“There are probably too many members,” he said, but he doesn’t agree with at-large representation. He feels council members should continue to be elected by wards and he favors ways to increase citizens’ participation in council’s actions and to give borough residents more of a vehicle for expressing their concerns.
DeChurch said his education and work experience — he was in charge of large, multi-million dollar projects while employed by the banks — and his strong background in computers and “the power of information” would be his most valuable assets as a councilman.
DeChurch also operated heavy equipment for 3 1/2 years and is familiar with construction techniques, and he was the leader of The Cobras rock band that was popular around Indiana in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Donald Lancaster believes one of the most helpful attributes he could bring to Indiana council is his enthusiasm for the borough.
While strolling recently to a touring Broadway show on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus, he and his wife commented, “Where else could we walk to see a Broadway show and afford to live there?”
“Indiana is one of the special communities,” Lancaster said. “I think we have a gem here. I want to see it continue to grow in a positive way. I want to build on it.”
Lancaster moved to Indiana in 2003 when his wife began teaching tax law and accounting at IUP.
“We’ve decided to stay here” in retirement, he said.
Lancaster grew up in Westmoreland County and earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communications from Penn State University and a master’s degree in special education from Duquesne University. From 1979 to 2011 he was a special-education teacher of students with severe emotional disorders and behavior disorders in Pittsburgh public schools. Since he retired he’s been involved in several community projects, including the Horace Mann Elementary School charette, a community brainstorming session on improving the grounds, playground and front entrance of the school.
He’s also been involved with a group trying to connect the Hoddlebug Trail to downtown Indiana.
He’s concluded that the things he’d like to see happen in Indiana can be most influenced by an elected representative.
“Running for council dovetails with everything I want to do in the community,” he said.
“I’m a big supporter of the local library,” he said. “For a small borough, we have a really good public library” that’s centrally located. “I’d like to see the library stay where it is,” he said.
Most of the organizations working to improve Indiana have limited budgets, and Lancaster suggested groups should come together and pool their advertising resources. He’d like to see Indiana — with its vibrant downtown business district, festivals, IUP attractions and other amenities — promoted as a destination within a 60-mile radius.
“It’s an alternative way to stir up money” and be an extra source of revenue, he said.
Lancaster lives along Marsh Run.
“We were flooded twice in the past year” by sewer backups, he said. “I’d like to see some remediation” for Marsh Run flooding but without destroying the green spaces in some areas along the stream, he said.
Many governments become reactive rather than being proactive, he said, and he’s in favor of improving communications between council and IUP.
“We need to think about how we can work with the university and developers” to plan for the future, he said. “The university is one of our biggest assets. … Whatever’s good for the university will be good for the community, and vice versa. … We shouldn’t be doing things in a vacuum.”
As for skills that will helpful as a councilman, Lancaster said his years as a special-education teacher prepared him for dealing with all kinds of personalities and taught him to listen and mediate.
He also said that during the time he’s lived in Indiana he’s never met his representative on council, and he and Gerald Smith, another council candidate in the Second Ward, have discussed getting out into the community and perhaps hosting small informal gatherings to chat with constituents.
“We want to be more visible, so people know who represents them on council,” he said. “People should know who we are.”
Indiana Area High School math teacher Gerald Smith said his experience in community activism and in bringing people together to address issues and solve problems are assets he could bring to Indiana council.
Smith grew up in St. Louis and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and philosophy from Northwestern University. He taught in public schools in St. Louis; Portland, Ore.; Renton, Wash.; and Pittsburgh.
He also taught in Africa in 1999 and 2000 while a Peace Corps volunteer and worked with communities in east Africa on increasing access to quality education.
Between 2004 and 2008, Smith took a break from the classroom and became a community organizer with the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations. With NWFCO, Smith coordinated a national health care coalition focused on eliminating racial disparities in health outcomes and worked as a regional campaign manager for the national health care campaign that resulted in the Affordable Care Act.
Since coming to Pennsylvania, Smith has been an active volunteer with local environmental organizations and Indiana County Democratic campaigns.
He founded the Coalition for a Healthy County and the Indiana Neighborhoods Community Association and has worked with the Center for Community Growth, the Friends of Yellow Creek and the Three Rivers Community Foundation.
Smith said he wants to help expand Indiana’s reputation as a regional destination.
“We want to see Indiana flourish and continue to grow, to become a regional attraction,” he said. “I know that takes work. That’s what council does.”
He said that since moving to Indiana he’s been advocating changes aimed at increasing Indiana’s “livability.”
“I’d like to step in and help make things happen in a real way,” he said. “We need to be proactive in developing and promoting Indiana’s reputation as a local and regional destination by building on our assets,” including Indiana’s “small-town attractions” like the Jimmy Stewart legacy and the Wonderful Life events.
He said he’d like to do more to promote the borough’s farmers market and find ways to have local agriculture play more of a role in the borough.
“Like it or not, one of our biggest attractions is the night life here,” he said. He’d like to see downtown businesses “package” the amenities they have and capitalize more on them by coordinating with IUP when special events are held on the campus.
Those are examples of the “common-sense connections” he’s been proactive in creating and promoting, he said.
Indiana, too, he said, could use a “buy local” campaign to encourage residents to spend their dollars in the borough. More of an effort needs to be made to retain dollars now being spent elsewhere, he said.
Smith called the Indiana Free Library one of the borough’s “prime assets.”
“If we are serious about attracting people to Indiana, we have to hold on to that free library” at its present location, he said.
Asked what he considers to be strengths of council, Smith said, “Council members are very committed. They take their positions seriously.” Council, he added, “has a long history we can build on.”
But an improvement, he suggested, would be to make council easier to manage by reducing the number of council seats.
And he believes the borough needs professional leadership.
“We need a (full-time) borough manager,” he said, adding it’s “not fair” to ask William Sutton to serve as both borough manager and police chief.