The Two Reasons Politics in Morgantown is Absolutely Hopeless

Sam likes to rant and rave in this space about political issues facing Morgantown – no doubt, they are plentiful.  However, despite all the hand wringing on various issues in the last few years (Urban Deer Hunt, Fracking, Vote By Mail, Truck Traffic, Smoking Ban, etc.) those obnoxious and tedious back and forths are simply the inevitable outcome of a poorly constructed system.  In fact, I’d argue that ALL of those issues don’t matter a lick.  Currently, life in Morgantown is plagued by two issues which combine to create an awful system of political representation here and will NEVER be addressed.  Until they are, there’s no sense in losing sleep over anything or hold your breath hoping something good might happen – it won’t.

City Council is elected in an utterly ridiculous manner.

The current procedure for electing our city representatives restricts us geographically to one representative per ward… but allows all city residents to cast a vote in every ward.  How does that possibly make any sense?  I’ve got no strong opinions on geographically limiting ward representatives. In fact, if the purpose of say, Ron Bane, is to represent the interests of the citizens of the First Ward I think that’s a great idea! 

However, that is not Ron Bane’s purpose.  Ron Bane does not represent the interests of the residents of the First Ward. In fact, he represents the interests of ALL of Morgantown’s citizens and why shouldn’t he?  They elected him!  In fact, Bane doesn’t need to win a single vote from the Ward he represents to retain his position as the representative from the First Ward.  He doesn’t need them as long as the rest of town votes him in.  This mixed-metaphor of an election system has led to candidates of all stripes making the only logical choice: organizing as a city-wide ticket.  If you want to win your Ward, you’d better be prepared to stump city-wide or have someone else to do it for you, making unofficial political parties an inevitable outcome.  Former Council candidate Guy Panrell has complained loudly online about this so-called “collusion” among candidates (while ignoring other candidates behaving the same way), but it’s hard to accept his complaints since that is the exact outcome the system is designed to create.

The election of City Council candidates is desperately in need of reform and there are two equally reasonable options:

  1. Restrict council representation to one representative per ward and only allow citizens in that Ward to vote for their representative.
  2. Allow city wide voting for all council candidates and select the top seven vote-getters, regardless of Ward.

Those are, logically, the only two options… yet Morgantown employs a ridiculous combination of the two. That doesn’t make any sense until you understand that:

Morgantown is governed by competing governments.

I’m not talking about being governed at the local, state and federal levels – that’s a common aspect of American life. I’m talking about there being two competing government agencies, the City Council and the County Commission, who govern the same city.  Now, before you say, “But Aaron, the City governs the City and the County governs the County!” make sure you understand that a huge portion of what is considered “Morgantown” is technically outside the City.  In fact, have a look at the Ward map of Morgantown:

Look, there’s no way to think that Rorschach test of a city map makes any sense.  If those uncolored areas were some sparsely populated farmland, I could see simply shrugging and letting it be.  They’re not.  They’re far from it.  Let’s zoom in:

Yep.  You see? Lots and lots of people and businesses.  All of whom who have an impact on Morgantown’s infrastructure without having to pay into it.

I used to live on Lewis Street for a while.  That’s located in “the county” that is surrounded on three sides by the wards in Blue and Purple at the bottom of that map.  It was clearly in town, yet I was technically “in the county”.  Moving there was shocking to me: it’s incredibly densely populated. Almost a thousand people lived on my rinky-dink gravel road… yet none of us were “in the city”.  After spending huge chunks of my life in 1st Ward, South Park and Woodburn, I was amazed that when I moved “to the county” I found myself in a more densely populated area than ever before. 

So why are the city’s lines drawn that way? Because powerful people WANT them drawn that way.  Let’s zoom in a little further on that little speck of “county” surrounded by the city on three and half sides and have a closer look.

Yep, there’s the famous Morgantown Dutch drug company Mylan Pharmaceuticals.  Morgantown’s favorite “local” business told the city years ago that if the city lines moved, they’d pull out entirely.  That “Mylan Mike” sure was a saint, wasn’t he?  So on this small parcel of land, you have businesses relying on Morgantown’s roads to deliver customers literally to their front door… yet they pay no city taxes.  Nice.  Heck, on this map you also have Suburban Lanes and Office Depot sharing the same parking lot.  One is in the city, one isn’t.  One has to pay city B&O taxes, one doesn’t. Considering the two businesses are located literally right next door to one another, it’s impossible to make the argument that one relies on city infrastructure and one doesn’t.

So what does all of this mean?

It means that the County Commission tries to enact undue influence on the City and its governance.  And why shouldn’t they?  They govern half the city!  They claim to govern the county but, let’s be frank, there’s not much out there to govern besides a few parks so slowing down the city is their only goal.

The city passed a smoking ban… and the county demanded it be delayed until they got around to it.  The city banned downtown truck traffic… and Tom Bloom threw a hissy fit because he wasn’t consulted.

According to census estimates, there are 102,274 people in Monongalia County and 30,666 people in Morgantown.  The only other incorporated city in Monongalia county is… Westover.  There are three other incorporated towns in Monongalia County.  Two of them, Granville and Star City, are also essentially areas of Morgantown.  The third, Blacksville, has a 2010 census population of 193.

But, the majority of the county’s population lives outside the city. How can that be?  Obviously there aren’t 60,000 people living in Hundred, so where are those people living?  The answer is “just outside” Morgantown.  Why “just outside”? Because if we redraw the city lines, those people would be living in Morgantown!

So where should we put the city lines?

One look at the map gives some pretty obvious answers, even allowing for Star City and Westover to remain unique self-governed cities and not “sides of town”. The river makes a nice natural border to the West and North.  119 to the Northeast and I-68 to the Southeast do as well.  Voila! City lines which encompass what most people would consider Morgantown!  It wouldn’t be that hard to come up with, though I’m not even a stickler for the details.  We could print out these maps and give them to local elementary school children and ask them to draw lines around Morgantown in crayon and just use those in the aggregate – it would be better than what we have now.

Until Morgantown figures out how to elect its representatives in a reasonable manner and legal Morgantown and actual Morgantown become one in the same there will be no improvement on local politics. The people of Morgantown have very little ability to influence the outcomes of their own community and that’s entirely the way it was drawn up to be.  Until these two structural issues are addressed, don’t expect anything to get done anytime soon.

Unrefined Thoughts About Our Local Politics

Whether this city’s oldest timers like it or not, Morgantown is changing. There’s new construction everywhere. The university is expansive and omnipresent. Neighborhoods are changing. Predictably, this change creates tension.

One of the best places to find that tension is in local politics, and perhaps more specifically, in what representatives are doing with their time. Let’s use the ongoing heavy trucking ban as an example. But first, recent history:

In 2013, a heavily contested City Council election returned a very surprising result: two incumbents lost, three incumbents won, and the two remaining incumbents retained their seats only because they ran unopposed. Both of those incumbents - Wesley Nugent and Ron Bane - ran unopposed, and it isn’t difficult to imagine them having lost if they’d been challenged given how easily the other five councilors won their own contests. 

The 2013 election was contested along a set of rules that those losing incumbents had demanded, having scrapped 2011’s stunningly effective vote-by-mail process in a return to the previous model of in-person voting. What those incumbents didn’t realize was that much of their support found voting-by-mail easier, and when it wasn’t an option, they didn’t turn out.

My own protestations aside, it seems clear that Vote By Mail isn’t coming back, which means that future elections are going to be contested in the ancient model preferred by the candidates who own advocacy for it cost themselves the election. Meanwhile, the candidates who benefited from it (Jennifer Selin, Marti Shamberger, Bill Kawecki, Mike Fike, and Nancy Ganz) seemed to have genuine talent at turning out their own voters. And presumably, the voters that supported them are willing to do so in the future. 

That’s how we ended up with a City Council that was willing to aggressively challenge Brockway Avenue’s never-ending stream of truck traffic. The previous council bent over backward for established local industry. The idea of attempting to strike a balance between that industry’s needs and the neighborhoods those trucks rumble through was anathema. No more. 

So now we find ourselves at an impasse. We have a motivated council that seems to have sufficient local support against an entrenched local interest that has never been forced to give a damn about the people their policies effect. 

Enter the Monongalia County Commission. Rather than go to bat for Morgantown’s City Council, the cowardly commission has stood in opposition to proposed truck regulations. Tom Bloom leads the way, proudly insisting that those neighborhoods affected by the heavy trucking can go straight to hell. If it isn’t good for industry, it isn’t good for him. 

Here’s the potential problem: let’s assume that the 2013’s City Council election replays itself again in 2015. With new people moving into the city bringing with them new expectations, maybe the thing they want is a responsive City Council that fights for them. Maybe they want a different Monongalia County, or at least, a different Morgantown. 

But if the county commission insists on a continuation of this county’s industry-friendly and neighborhood-hostile history? We could have local political bodies at war with one another. It is difficult imagining a scenario in which that ends up being good for voters, the city, or the county. That isn’t to advocate for a unanimity of opinion, but rather, an attempt to find a middle ground that respects competing needs. 

But maybe that isn’t possible. We’ll have more soon about why it might make more sense to abandon hope for positive outcomes.

Things high above Morgantown could be prettier at 7:15 in the morning, but I’m not entirely certain how that would work.

That was a hell of a sunset tonight Morgantown. Well done. Kudos to those in charge.

That was a hell of a sunset tonight Morgantown. Well done. Kudos to those in charge.

Giant Sky Spider Attack Morgantown

Giant sky spiders attacked Morgantown today, or maybe I just took a picture of an enormous spider who has made an enormous web on my backporch. I Report, You Decide!

Ticket Illegal Driving (A Possible Middle Ground)

Safe Streets Morgantown posted this video earlier today. It features precisely the sort of trucks that would be regulated by the heavy trucking ordinance. Both trucks are making rights from Walnut onto Beechurst, and neither can make the turn without doing so illegally.

Both trucks use the middle lane - a lane designated for either left-hand turns or straight ahead driving - to set up right-hand turns. Both break specific traffic regulations including 17C-8-2 and 17C-3-4. That second one, which references turning on a red light, is egregiously violated by that second truck as it turns right (wrong) from the middle lane (wrong) on a red-light (wrong) between 6am and 6pm when such turns are explicitly prohibited for anybody. 

That this is a heavy truck making the turn simply shouldn’t matter. 

But Morgantown’s Police Department is nowhere to be seen. Tickets for violations here start at $100 and work their way progressively upward. If more than 100 trucks are routinely driving through downtown (numbers that nobody anywhere is vociferously disputing), the city’s coffers could be quickly flush with additional income raised from ticketing truckers. They’re doing this every day after all and now they’re doing this on tape. This is driving that flagrantly abuses the relevant law. 

Giving these drivers a pass isn’t the first favor that city officials have done for protected populations. Churchgoers downtown are barely regulated when parking for services. Noise ordinances that are so important when students party suddenly go unenforced when motorcycle enthusiasts come rumbling into town each summer. And plainly, the city’s police department has given what amounts to unofficial permission to truck drivers to violate relevant law.

So here’s a very workable middle ground - the heavy truck regulations are delayed while the city’s police department aggressively enforces traffic law at the the Walnut/Beechurst intersection. Truckers can get warnings on Monday, and every day afterwards, start burying them in an avalanche of tickets specific to relevant traffic violations. If they continue to decide to drive downtown and violate the law, that can be their decision. If they choose another means of getting to their preferred destination, so much the better.

What cannot continue - and what the heavy trucks regulation proposes to fix - is the utter lawlessness currently at work. What this middle ground does is fix the problem either by forcing safer driving or forcing the trucks out of town, and it does so by making an end run around both the Department of Highways and Greer Limestone drivers. Unless either wants to insist that they should not only be allowed to drive through town, but also to be free from the traffic regulations that would surely ensnare the rest of us if we tried similarly illegal stunts.

Sunset over the coliseum. #morgantown  #westvirginia

Sunset over the coliseum. #morgantown #westvirginia

That sounds absolutely delicious, especially on an English muffin. Or maybe toast!

That sounds absolutely delicious, especially on an English muffin. Or maybe toast!

One Of Morgantown’s Greatest Chefs Has Passed Away

Yesterday, a man that I knew primarily as Uncle passed away. He was one of this city’s great cooks although I can imagine him shying away from such praise. His work has been with me since I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, and my guess is that many Morgantownies are similarly familiar with it. He was the head chef at Cafe of India (his brother Sewa was much more known and recognized) and then Mother India, although his family had recently taken over for him after declining health forced him from the kitchen.

I first remember Cafe of India from eating there when it was on the corner of Fayette and High, where Tudor’s was now. I ate there with my parents at first, and later, when the family moved the restaurant into its larger home on Fayette next to the United Bank, I ate there with friends and eventually by myself. The food never disappointed, a testament to the consistency of its production and the professionalism of restaurant’s family.

When I was 18 and fully in love with the idea of eating extremely hot food, I went with friends and we each ordered the buffet during a lunch rush, but also asked for a single dish of chicken vindaloo made as hot as the kitchen was willing. We were asked if we were sure and we nodded. (What I would later learn is that customers had to earn their way to the hottest foods, having first shown that they weren’t going to return what they had ordered. There is American hot and there is hot-hot and those tend to be different things. There’s no way to take hot out of something after all.) What was brought to us was spicy at a level that was at the time almost impossible to imagine. We split the dish into quarters and each suffered our way through the experience. I ended up being the only one of that group that consistently ate food as hot as I could get it, but because they ended up knowing me as one of a small number of customers who came seeking the hottest foods, they were always willing to prepare the food that I asked for.

I had friends who worked there and eventually, I did too. In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the restaurant asked its best customers to volunteer for a buffet weekend in which all of the money raised would be donated to charity, and because I was such a constant, I was one of the ones asked. When I arrived, I expected to pour water and bus tables, but I was told to go to the kitchen, and that’s where my first significant interactions with Uncle began. 

That weekend - a weekend in which a staggering $12,000 was raised - I watched a man in total control of his kitchen but who was calm in doing so. Customers lined up from the moment the doors opened until the end of each night for two days running but Uncle didn’t freakout or scream or yell. When challenges emerged, they were dealt with, and onward the kitchen moved. After that weekend, by virtue of something - perhaps the kitchen staff’s delight at my fumbling? - I was asked if I wanted to work a few hours per week doing prep. I agreed. It was a way to put extra money in my pocket and a chance to cook with professionals.

And make no mistake, these were professionals. Whatever your opinion of the food itself, Cafe of India then and Mother India now are thriving institutions with loyal and diverse customers. That doesn’t happen by accident. When Uncle and his brother Sewa brought the Cafe of India to Morgantown, it was a cuisine that was largely new to Morgantown’s scene. The restaurant thrived almost immediately. That happens because a kitchen is able to produce food that customers not only want, but want to return to. Uncle was a huge part of that effort. 

When I worked there, I peeled onions by the fifty-pound bag. I helped to cut up chicken, potatoes, lamb, and carrots. I made aloo tikkis, badly. So much of the work done in that kitchen happens before we as customers ever go through the front door. This includes the production of the sauce and the gravy, the paneer (cheese), the dough, the pakoras and and tikkis and samosas. By the time customers order, all that’s left is putting together immaculately prepared pieces. Uncle trusted me with to peel onions and with the assembly, but that middle portion was his and his nephew Dalla’s responsibility. They rightfully recognized that I should never get anywhere near that work, as it was the heart and soul of the restaurant. It is what keeps everybody coming back. It is, I suppose, the magic.

And from my vantage point, it appeared largely to becoming out of Uncle’s head. He had prepared these recipes so often as to have them memorized, and he could perfectly eye ball the necessary ingredient amounts. If something appeared to go wrong, he would wave his hands and shrug his shoulders. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he would say, and then it would be.

I worked for Uncle for six months. That time included the opportunity to prepare the pre-buffet family lunch. Just sitting at the table with the rest of the restaurant’s staff (both the front and the kitchen) was an honor; to be able to prepare food for them is one of my most treasured memories.

The Cafe of India closed eventually and Uncle moved away, only to return several years later with Mother India. The staffing was different then but the food remained as delicious as ever and, at times, newer foods were introduced onto both the menu and the lunch buffet. The wonderfully diverse community of customers that filled Cafe of India came back to Mother of India and it is obviously still thriving downtown. 

As mentioned earlier, Uncle largely shied from view. He preferred to be in the kitchen with his work, although he became more social as time went on. He would occasionally come and sit with customers, especially when he opened Mother India. Still, the degree to which his work filled the bellies of Morgantownies near and far is almost beyond comprehension. 

I will badly miss him. I feel as though he would wave his hands and say on a day like today, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” and eventually, it will be, but there is a rightful sadness in his absence. Morgantown has lost one of its more unknown culinary giants.

My deepest thoughts go out to his family.

(Here is Uncle’s obituary:
Fresh West Virginia Pears, especially ones cut up right off the tree, are one of my favorite things about the impending autumn.

Fresh West Virginia Pears, especially ones cut up right off the tree, are one of my favorite things about the impending autumn.