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Commonwealth Court will choose state congressional redistricting map this weekend

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Pennsylvania Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso explains where the process to develop congressional district maps stands as the first day for candidates to file or circulate nominating petitions to appear on the primary ballot approaches; the new president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania talks about her experience and the future of abortion access across the country; and the executive director of the Hilltop Urban Farm discusses how it plans to expand its programming, once the 23 acres it operates on is sold to the Allegheny Land Trust.

Congressional maps now go to the courts for review
(0:00 - 6:58)

The clock is ticking for Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting process, and after Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the map sent by Republican lawmakers late Wednesday, the courts are stepping in to choose a map.

The governor had set Jan. 24 as the date by which he hoped to receive and approve a map. The idea was to quickly send that map to the Department of State, which would then distribute it to counties in time for congressional candidates to begin collecting signatures in the appropriate district to run for office.

“Petitions are supposed to start, under state law, on Feb. 15,” says Stephen Caruso, a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. “If there’s a really hard deadline that cannot be moved, barring court action or legal action, it is that deadline. … And so far, we’re ahead of that, and the courts are preparing to pick a map. They’ll pick it Sunday, Jan. 30.”

Although the legislature sent a map to Wolf on Jan. 24, he rejected it, saying it was unfairly drawn.

The map chosen by Republican legislators was drawn by Amanda Holt, a Republican redistricting advocate and former Lehigh County Commissioner. The map accommodated an unspoken rule that there’s zero deviation between the 17 districts, meaning all districts are perfectly equal in population. Holt herself told Caruso an emphasis on perfectly equal district populations creates an imperfect map, where in some instances, communities are divided.

“I think it shows how, the Holt map was the starting point but then Democrats say they did not contribute to picking that map, advocates say they didn’t realize that they had to have zero deviation, and then, even when they picked that map, Republicans did quickly and quietly change it to appease people on their own committee to get the votes to pass it.”

Wolf, Republicans and Democrats in the legislature have all submitted their own maps to Commonwealth Court, along with some outside organizations and individuals including Common Cause and the National Redistricting Action Fund.

The decision could be appealed to the State Supreme Court.

Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania gets a new leader
(7:01 - 15:57)

As abortion rights remain front and center on the national stage, locally, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania (PPWP) is in transition as a new president and CEO takes the helm.

Sydney Etheredge began her new role earlier this month, succeeding Kimberlee Evert, who held the role for 37 years.

“When I think about what led me here and what experiences, I have to go back to my time in undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh,” says Etheredge. “It was really my first opportunity to study healthcare.”

Etheredge graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2009, and went on to study public health at George Washington University.

Etheredge spent over a decade working with the national arm of Planned Parenthood, rising to become its director of healthcare investment program. She says she’s looking forward to supporting new services offered by PPWP, including hormone replacement therapy, and its ongoing sexual education.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this Spring or early Summer on whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Locally, Etheredge says it’s a priority to maintain that service for people.

“Working at the national office, it makes me not take a state for granted because states and political environments can swing so quickly,” says Etheredge, referencing the upcoming governor’s race. “I think we are in that moment where we could potentially see a shift [in Pennsylvania policy]. Hopefully not, but it could happen and how are we gonna prepare for that?”

Etheredge says as president and CEO, she’s preparing for the worst case scenario and hoping for the best.

The Hilltop Urban Farm hopes to expand its programs, once its lease changes hands
(16:02 - 22:30)

Hilltop Urban Farm resides at the site of the former St. Clair Village, which was a public housing complex for five decades with about 70 buildings. It could soon become the largest urban farm in the country.

“When the last of the buildings came down in around 2010, a local community group got together and they were talking about looking at possible other uses and they did a lot of talking with the community and feasibility studies and they eventually settled on an urban farm,” says John Bixler, executive director of Hilltop Urban Farm.

The farm is currently operating under a site access agreement with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh on a year-to-year renewal basis.

Before the end of last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh reached an agreement for the URA to purchase the 107-acre site at fair market value.

The Allegheny Land Trust will then purchase the 23-acre parcel the farm resides on and lease it to the Hilltop Urban Farm to keep it in permanent conservation and provide community benefits.

The URA could approve the purchase at its February board meeting.

Bixler says the sale will allow his organization to develop even more programs. Hilltop Urban Farm already hosts a youth farm and youth cooking classes, a community farm to serve Hilltop-serving food banks, and a farmer incubator program giving quarter-acre plots to eight individuals.

“[The sale will] open up different parcels or plots that we have up there, so for example, we want to have community gardens. We’ll also be able, I believe, to have our own farmer’s market up there,” says Bixler.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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