The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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May 19, 2013

Mudslinging hits the small time

— It’s not just for presidents, governors and legislators anymore.

The time-honored American tradition of the smear job has hit close to home – specifically, the council race in Meyersdale Borough and the supervisor race in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County.

Earlier this month, an unsigned letter – appearing to come from the Department of Labor & Industry and containing allegations against Meyersdale Borough Council candidate Andrea Hoover – was circulated to the general public at a candidates forum. After she denounced the claims as libelous, the department denied the letter’s legitimacy and issued an apology to Hoover, despite its noninvolvement.

Each current council member denied involvement in its dissemination, but, as is the case with any information, once the message is spread – for good or ill – it’s out there.

One fervently penned letter to the editor that trashed incumbent Stonycreek Township Supervisor Jason Snyder was featured last week on the Somerset Daily American’s editorial page. It incited a full spread of responses from both Snyder and Dan Dively, his opponent in the upcoming May election, and dirtied another race that voters might expect would be run and won with little incident or hard feelings.

Cited in the letter, written by Kimberly Flick of Shanksville, were unfulfilled promises Snyder made, including paving of the many dirt roads in the township, reduction of home insurance costs, an ordinance to limit windmill construction and a vow to not raise taxes. Flick claimed none of those promises were kept and township taxes went up by $500,000 – a figure Snyder rejects in his response.

Flick, who maintains a spot on Dively’s Facebook friends list and, according to Dively, is a “friend from the community,” then brought up Snyder’s disorderly conduct charge, which stemmed from a physical altercation Snyder had with a fellow volunteer firefighter at an Indian Lake fireworks show last summer. She lambasted the character of a township supervisor who can be accused of assaulting township workers.

“Mrs. Flick failed to mention that the altercation involved Dan Dively,” Snyder rebutted in his response.

But it gets even uglier.

According to Dively, the incident rose from a deeply personal set of circumstances – Dively discovered that his ex-wife was involved with Snyder’s brother. After Dively allegedly made threats toward Snyder’s family, Snyder approached him at the event and slapped him twice across the face, before Indian Lake police Chief Chris Walker ordered him to leave.

“He continually provoked and harassed my family for over a year,” Snyder said.

“I’ve never threatened Jason Snyder in my life,” Dively told The Tribune-Democrat in a prior interview. “If I’m going to do something, I’ll do it. I won’t threaten him.”

According to G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin Marshall College in Lancaster, deep-seated, personal spats between competing candidates – even in small, local races – is nothing new.

“That’s as old as the republic,” he said.

In 1856, slavery proponent Preston Brooks, in response to an anti-slavery speech given by abolitionist Charles Sumner, savagely beat his fellow legislator with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

“A lot of times, it’s a personal matter – these people know each other,” he said. “You see it even within governance itself. Members of a school board or a council or commissioners, they don’t get along and see problems differently and have different approaches to it.

“A lot of these issues are close to people. They resonate. ... This is pretty common stuff in local government.”

Madonna said he can’t remember hearing about a dispute that was this personal, however, and said it’s “in and of itself pretty rare.”

“The real problem is that they get into the way of the effectiveness of running the government,” he said. “People will always have these differences, but what should it do to the governance itself?”

Both work around the township – Dively is a volunteer firefighter, also in his final recertification stages to become an Indian Lake Borough police officer, and Snyder, also a volunteer firefighter, has served in his supervisor role for six years – so, they see each other around town quite a bit.

“Jason likes to be a (smart-aleck),” Dively said. “Every time he passes me, he gives me the ‘thumbs-up’ like (he’s trying to be arrogant).”

Dively said that’s about the time he started “flipping him the bird” whenever he passed Snyder in the township truck, although he admitted that was the “wrong” behavior. Snyder said it’s the other way around, with his thumb becoming a “congratulatory” gesture toward Dively’s unprofessionalism.

And talking about unprofessionalism: “(Residents) go and say something to Jason or complain about something and he just laughs at them,” Dively claimed. “Like it’s a joke.”

But Snyder said he’s received few complaints about township matters and he’s not sure how Dively has heard about them either – he claimed Dively hasn’t regularly attended township meetings, save in the last two months.

“The serious (complaints) we address,” Snyder said. “We can’t address when people want their roads paved. There’s just not enough money to go around.”

Upgrading dirt roads was one of the sticking points in the detractive statements Dively made in the Daily American. Dively cited his six years of experience with S&S Excavating in Shanksville, making strip cuts on roads for coal trucks to pass on.

“If I can do that, I think I have the knowledge and ability to make a road a car can go across,” Dively said after once more taking Snyder to task for laziness. “They have the funding – that’s the thing. It’s just a matter of getting off their butts and doing something.”

In spite of all the barbs he’s enduring, Snyder said he won’t fight fire with fire – he said he prefers the high road. He said there’s much negativity he could sling Dively’s way, but he chose not to disclose it during his interview, even when pressed.

“He does enough of that for himself. I don’t need to,” Snyder said. “I think a lot of people consider the source that it’s coming from. He brings personal issues into a township race that have absolutely nothing to do with the township, and people are seeing that.”

It’s been a gruesome sort of slugfest – the kind that could bring out the worst in people. But who’s to say which man will be left standing?

Oh, that’s right. The voters.

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