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Bellefonte council finishes terms with female majority

by on December 28, 2017 9:00 AM

BELLEFONTE — Renee Brown has been on Bellefonte Borough council for 20 years, and she said facing a room of all men was something she was conscious of when she joined council in 1997. She was the second woman ever to serve as a council member.

Brown said it was more intimidating back then, but has improved over the years.

The six women currently serving on the Bellefonte council reflected on the past year when they outnumbered the men for the first time in borough history.

Joanne Tosti-Vasey is the former president of the Pennsylvania National Organization for Women, a position she said made her conscious of the positions of women in government.

She said according to reports she worked on as a part of NOW, women are not as quick to run for office as men.

“Women have to be asked multiple times, six to seven times, to run for office,” she said.

It was only her unhappiness with council in 2013 that inspired her to run.

Gay Dunne, current council president, said she wasn’t reluctant to run. She herself didn’t experience much discrimination in the workplace during her career, but that was partly due to the fact that she ran a private medical practice with her husband, she said.

She’s served on council for eight years.

She said during medical school her colleagues treated her well, but “I think there was gender unpreparedness in medicine when I went into that profession Maybe it's too charitable, but I think it was the fact that medical school administrators, residency program administrators, etc., were not prepared for women.”

That unpreparedness included issues such as bathroom parity and accommodating for maternity leave.

Multiple council members said they believed they bring fresh voices to the table.

“We bring a different perspective,” to council, Tosti-Vasey said.

“Oh, I think we do,” Dunne agreed. “I think it changes the language around the council table. Maybe actual language and maybe body language.”

“What I like about having a parity on council is that we have diversity of experiences and voices so that we can more uniformly represent the borough,” Tosti-Vasey said.

The female members of council generally agreed that the current men on council are welcoming of new ideas and comfortable with open discussion.

“I think the men on council now are of the age that they had been in the workforce with women,” Brown said. “Back years ago, women weren't out in the workforce, so men were just used to telling everybody what to do and going ahead and doing it. They didn't get any resistance.”

“When I joined, it was a male majority,” said Melissa Hombosky, who was appointed to council in May 2016 and won her first election in November. “Within six months, it was a female majority. Not to disparage the men who were on council when I joined, but I feel like there's an easier dialogue than there was and more of an exchange of ideas than before.”

“People are able to express themselves,” Tosti-Vasey agreed.

“The men that are now on council are more receptive to our ideas,” said Brown. “I don't think they have a problem. They don't care if it's a woman or a man on council as long as we get done what the taxpayers want done.”

Courtney Dickman said that while she’s proud to serve on a female majority council, she tries not to get too caught up in any sort of achievement aspect and instead tried to focus on good governing.

She said in her experience in the workforce, sharing ideas can become a competition.

“For whatever reason, men I’ve worked with have a hard time sharing ideas without it being a competition,” Dickman said. “On council, men and women have done a really good job of sharing ideas without doing that.”

In years prior, Brown said being on council wasn’t easy or inviting.

“There was certainly no softness,” Brown said. “And you must realize that years ago there wasn't C-Net either. They weren't televised. So, you know, they could just be.”

“It was rather nasty at times, before then,” Tosti-Vasey said. “I originally ran for council in 2005 and one of the things I ran on was transparency because there was no transparency ... actually, I understand there were a couple of council members who said they didn't want to be on C-Net because they wanted to yell and scream if they wanted to.”

“I never heard that,” said Dunne. “But, in fact, they did.”

“They were held more accountable for what they were saying,” Brown said about the addition of C-Net.

Tosti-Vasey said looking at the broader picture, there is a huge lack of parity in many policy-making positions. She pointed out Pennsylvania has no female senators or congressmen.

"Hopefully, in some small way, we are encouraging women who are out there and perhaps didn't consider seriously enough their own role in local government or county government or politics at a higher level," Dunne said.

Hombosky said she hoped more young women join either council or the various authorities, boards and commissions.

Dickman said she tries to raise her two children slightly different than how her parents raised her to reflect the new times, and she believes in the importance of teaching good communications skills.

“Every generation is going to be like that,” she said. “We need to figure that out and keep communications going and respect people’s opinions and plans, even if it’s not 100 percent what we envisioned.”

She said it was important to avoid doing things because “that’s just the way they’ve been done,” to recognize the power of legitimate compromise and not just see compromise as “giving in.”

Dickman was appointed in January and said she intended to run for council in November, but a job change in June changed her mind. She previously served on the planning commission for three years.

Council member Taylor Lake couldn’t be reached for comment before press time.

Next year, the dynamic of council will change slightly, with five men and four women serving.

Jon Eaton and Melissa Hombosky both won their elections to represent Ward 1. Randall Brachbill will again represent Ward 2 after winning reelection. Evan Duffey beat out Taylor Lake by nine votes to represent Ward 2 for a two-year seat.

Ward 3 saw a crowded race, with Anne Walker and R. Michael Prendergast beating out Ted Conklin and Michael Andriaccio for the two seats.

Dunne decided this year to step down from council after her term, as did Joseph Beigle and Dickman.

Brown will remain on council with a term expiring in 2019, as will Dough Johnson and Tosti-Vasey, who is halfway through her first term.

The Pennsylvania State Borough Association said the rate of female-majority councils in the state is about 28 percent, but a spokeswoman added it has been several years since they’ve analyzed the statistic in depth.

Representatives of the Pennsylvania State Association of Townships said they didn’t keep close records on the matter. In Centre County, Ferguson Township has a 3-to-2 female majority on its board of supervisors.


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