A Monessen Elegy: The political struggles and controversy of managing a declining Rust Belt town | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Monessen Elegy: The political struggles and controversy of managing a declining Rust Belt town

A Monessen elegy: the political struggles and controversy of managing a declining Rust Belt town
Photo: Christine592 on Creative Commons
There is nothing new about a mayor struggling to run a declining Rust Belt town like Monessen.

The city of 7,700 people in the Mon Valley, about 28 miles southeast of Downtown Pittsburgh, hasn’t had a mayor win re-election since 1994. The last 20 odd years have seen mayors coming in with big expectations, falling short, losing to a challenger running on big expectations, who then falls short; then the cycle continues.

In an April 2005 council meeting, a Monessen mayor engaged in a shouting match complete with accusations and name-calling over a Dollar General discount store. That mayor lost re-election later that year. In the early 2010s, another mayor spearheaded a redevelopment plan that sought to convert blighted buildings into an art colony. It failed and the plan became a crucial issue in the election, which the incumbent lost. Lou Mavrakis, the mayor who followed, became marred by sexual harassment scandals during his tenure and rankled Democrats by inviting Donald Trump to town to campaign. He also lost re-election.

Most recently, an optimistic newly elected 26-year-old mayor came into office loaded with ambition. But within just months of being seated, Matt Shorraw has clashed with the council to such a degree that he abandoned council meetings for more than 20 months.
click to enlarge A Monessen elegy: the political struggles and controversy of managing a declining Rust Belt town
Photo: Shots By Linzi
Monessen Mayor Matt Shorraw
Shorraw has since returned to council, but hasn’t detailed much about why he stayed away for so long. He recently spoke to Pittsburgh City Paper and says he had legitimate reasons for his extended absence, and adds he has been following municipal happenings closely, answering emails from constituents, and always ready to return to his duties at council meetings.

But other Monessen council members have exhorted Shorraw and said his prolonged absence and other choices have wasted taxpayer money and made their jobs harder. Council member Anthony Orzechowski criticizes Shorraw for lacking pragmatism he says is necessary to run a city like Monessen and says Shorraw’s actions caused him and other members to lose their trust in him.

The contention has led to splashy segments on TV news, a deluge of controversial headlines in local papers, and Monessen becoming a bit of laughing stock on social media. But, the latest drama playing out in Monessen is likely just another chapter in the long story of industrial and municipal decline, and the political fighting it sows.
A Monessen elegy: the political struggles and controversy of managing a declining Rust Belt town
Photo: Christine592 on Creative Commons
Donner Avenue in Monessen
On Jan. 7, Shorraw attended his first city council meeting as acting mayor in more than 20 months. He hasn’t spoken much to the press explaining his long absence, which he says has stemmed from a lot of negative comments about his work ethic and dedication to his role as an elected official. Monessen mayors earn an annual salary of $4,800, preside over City Council meetings, oversee the police department, and make other municipal decisions. Shorraw donates his salary to the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County with the goal of establishing a Monessen Community Fund.

He tells CP that when he first got into office he believed Monessen could move past its struggles, but first he thought it needed to address past scandals and potential corruption.

This led him to contact state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (D-York) during his first week in office. DePasquale then launched an investigation into the city’s finances. He says council and other officials were cordial when he came into office, but his decision to contact the auditor general irked other public officials in Monessen. From there, Shorraw says interactions became more contentious.

By April 2018, Shorraw says council was unwilling to work with him on some of his initiatives for Monessen.

“I had a council that would say I would be wasting my breath for four years, they would not accept any of my grant proposals,” says Shorraw.

In a Medium post, Shorraw describes a contentious meeting with council members and DePasquale, in which he says council said Shorraw had “no business” reporting information about the city’s pensions to state authorities. He says council and city solicitors were “screaming and raising their voices the remainder of the meeting.”

Things only got worse from there. Shorraw says on May 9, 2018, council members asked him to resign, and they drafted a letter with a vote of no confidence.

“They were going to read the vote of no confidence, then I walked out, and didn’t return until Monday,” said Shorraw. Since then, Monessen council asked Gov. Tom Wolf (D-York) to remove Shorraw and unsuccessfully tried to get him impeached.

Council members said Shorraw’s request and the auditor general investigation was a waste of time and resources. Monessen Council Member Anthony Orzechowski says Shorraw was too quick to assume everything was wrong and the fault of current council members or past administrations.

“When he got elected, it wasn’t the second day that he sent letters to auditor general. We haven't even been on for two days,” says Orzechowski, who, like Shorraw, was first seated in 2018. “Council was quite upset with him on that.”

Eventually, the auditor general investigated, didn’t find any fraud, but did freeze state pension aid until the city followed his recommendations to rebid the investment contract that manages the pensions to be compliant with transparency rules. Orzechowski, who served as acting-mayor in Shorraw’s absence, says council was able to make these changes easily and believes these could have been made without the auditor general getting involved.

“The findings that came back were taken care of by the council, we fixed those issues,” says Orzechowski.

But, Shorraw defends his calls to the auditor general. He says he entered office skeptical of the former mayoral administration’s influence on city government. After losing to Shorraw in the 2017 Democratic Primary, Mavrakis unsuccessfully attempted to run a write-in campaign to defeat Shorraw in the general election, potentially encouraging voter fraud along the way.

Shorraw says he has questions about how people in the administration and those close to Mavrakis treated women. Shorraw says that much of city government wasn’t running well either.

“Everything was in disarray,” says Shorraw. “We had police cars not getting fixed, I think it wasn’t the fault of the previous city clerk, she was overworked.”

He says he felt obligated to address these issues early on. This led to contacting the auditor general with suspicions there was fraud involving the city pensions, and even confiding with the woman suing Mavrakis for sexual harassment, and telling her that a council member had called her a derogatory name.

“I am the chief officer, if I don’t report out on something, then it falls on me,” says Shorraw. “They [council] were upset about that.”
click to enlarge A Monessen elegy: the political struggles and controversy of managing a declining Rust Belt town
Old postcards from Monessen, shared on the City of Monessen's official Facebook page
Monessen has problems far beyond mayoral scandals.

Since its peak about 90 years ago, Monessen has lost more than 13,000 residents and thousands of jobs. It’s currently about one-third the size it was during its best days. The city was a mill town, but lost those in the steel collapse of the '80s. In 1987, former Gov. Robert Casey launched a revitalization plan in Monessen meant to help former steel towns, but it failed, just like many efforts following it.

Every four years since 1998, Monessen has elected a new mayor. Turnover at city council during the time period has been high as well. Before, political turmoil wasn’t a constant in Monessen’s history. In its heyday, Monessen mayors served for a long time, including a 25-year tenure from the legendary, and notorious, political boss Hugo Parente from 1946-1971.

As the town became less economically viable, it became harder to govern. The city on the banks of the Monongahela River has lost residents every decade since 1930, but it really was hit hardest following the region’s steel industry collapse of the 1980s. Understandably, several of its main street buildings are vacant and run-down.

Shrinking tax bases mean budget cuts that coincide with an increased demand for government services because the city was losing so many high-paying jobs and residents who lost their jobs needed help. Beyond broad economic decline, Monessen, like many former mill towns, was losing population to its nearby suburbs too. From 1990-2000, neighboring Rostraver Township actually gained hundreds of residents, while Monessen lost more than 1,200, a further hollowing-out of a tax base and residents with solid employment.

By the mid-1990s, Monessen was a shell of itself, and since then, it’s struggled to find a stable local government.

But Ozrechowski says Shorraw is only making governing Monessen more difficult. He says his actions speaking with the plaintiff suing the former mayor for harassment jeopardized the case.

“City had to play for $10,000,” says Orzechowski. “He opened his mouth. We couldn’t trust him anymore.”

Shorraw doesn’t believe his actions cost the city to settle. He says it was caused by the revelation of unaired, unedited footage of Mavrakis being interviewed by a news station about the case, in which Mavrakis allegedly said even more profane and derogatory things about the employee.

Additionally, Shorraw says another reason he was wary of Mavrakis was the actions of a law firm that starting serving as Monessen’s solicitor under Mavrakis.

Shorraw says costs associated with the solicitor for the last five years have been too high, and believes the law firm acting as solicitor is to blame. He says the current council's close relationship with the firm bothered him. Shorraw says some of the law firm's members were featured in a 2010 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Rich Lord titled “The Network,” that details how many municipal governments in the Pittsburgh region work with the same small group of people, which plays a big role in utility costs for residents.

From 2015-2018, when the new law firm took over, solicitor costs in Monessen averaged about $112,000 a year. From 2006-2014, average annual solicitor costs in Monessen were about $48,000.

After new council members were recently sworn in on council this year, Shorraw had the votes to fire a city clerk and the solicitor.

Orzechowski was critical of Shorraw’s decision and says the solicitor costs went down last year and were actually under budget. He says some of the high costs were associated with the bad choices of past administrations, causing the city to spend money on legal suits, like challenges to the failed art colony development project. He calls Shorraw a hypocrite because the replacement solicitor that Shorraw supports has higher retainer fees than the previous firm.

Sharrow understands that last year’s solicitor fees came under budget, but notes that budget is still much higher than solicitor fees from nearby municipalities. Greensburg, for example, is twice Monessen’s size, but its average annual solicitor spending from 2015-2017 was about $35,000 less than Monessen.

In the end, the spat over solicitors feels typical of disagreements between councils and mayors.

What’s less typical is the sustained municipal chaos Monessen has endured for more than 20 years. Even Shorraw and Orzechowski agree that many of these problems don’t stem from personal disagreements, but something larger that declining towns like Monessen have to confront.

Orzechowski laments the struggles of managing budgets with a declining tax base and says the current council didn’t cause most of the problems he and his members have to face. Shorraw says Monessen is filled with “legacy problems like many cities in the region and across the Rust Belt.”

But it appears the contention between Shorraw and Orzechowski is too much to overcome. Orzechowski says Shorraw put council through an ordeal with his prolonged absence.

“They are all his problems because they are personal,” says Orzechowski. “When you are done at end of the day, you make your points, and you try to compromise. We have made the city run for 20 months. But his way is not the way to move forward, he had a council that was willing to move forward. He had an open and honest council. He didn’t have the votes for his radical idea, so he went away.”

Shorraw says he is pushing forward with his new agenda and says he intends to run again for mayor in 2021. “People paint me as this crazy lazy person,” says Shorraw. “I have no intention of moving from my city and I want to see it get better. It is insulting to me that people paint me that way.”

He wishes he had a more amicable relationship with council, but says he “would never be willing to compromise who I am in order to lessen contention.” Shorraw says his ambition and energy is something that has been missing from Monessen.

“If you aren’t as ambitious and energetic, you risk allowing these legacy problems, including corruption to continue to slowly fester,” says Shorraw. “And I think that’s what’s been happening, unfortunately.”

In Monessen, it appears, contention and political infighting will continue.

Right after Shorraw returned to the council, a Monessen resident filed a civil court complaint against him for allegedly violating the state’s Sunshine Act, which regulates transparent rules for public meetings and local municipalities.