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State College Inaugurates New Era As Mayor, Council Members Sworn In

State College government inaugurated a new era on Monday as three new council members and a new mayor were sworn in, establishing what several members called the “most diverse” governing board in the borough’s history.

Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest administered the oath of office to Mayor Ezra Nanes and councilmen Gopal Balachandran, Richard Biever, and Divine Lipscomb prior to the organizational meeting that kicked off the seven-member council’s new session.

“I feel great excitement and enthusiasm for the work ahead and these emotions are accompanied by humility and profound gratitude,” Nanes said. “…This is a significant change. We are blessed by new voices, members with valuable perspectives that will be central to our success. We are equally blessed to have strong continuity within council and within the borough administration.”

Balachandran, Biever, and Lipscomb were each first-time candidates for elected office when they ran on a joint progressive platform and won their seats by wide margins. Nanes, who previously ran for the state Senate seat in the 34th district, campaigned on a progressive platform as well and was unchallenged in the general election after winning the Democratic primary.

Balachandran, the first Indian-American on the borough council, is an assistant professor of clinical law at Penn State and a former public defender. Lipscomb, the first Black council member, is a restorative justice advocate and founder of Corrective Gentleman, an alternatives to incarceration and reentry program. Biever is the founder of FUSE Productions and Singing Onstage and an assistant professor of theater at Penn State.

Nanes, director of business development at AccuWeather, is State College’s first Jewish mayor.

They join sitting council members Jesse Barlow, who was re-elected to a second term as council president, Deanna Behring, Janet Engeman, and Peter Marshall.

“We have an incredible diversity of experience and perspective in this group and the potential to accomplish great things for the borough,” Nanes said. “We will need to find our way in working together. This will take careful listening to each other and it will take sharing. We will share our truth with one another and we will share the power of this council to take action. The idea is that each and every member of this council will have their moment at the center of our work. This is the key to our success.”

In his introductory remarks, Nanes laid out a brief vision of priorities for the borough — one that reflected many of the issues he and the new council members emphasized during the campaign. As mayor, Nanes does not have a vote on council or lawmaking authority but can veto ordinances and often works with council to shape the direction of legislation.

The priorities include, Nanes said, “bringing two of the most important and courageous pieces of legislation in recent memory to full maturity: the new Department of Equity and Inclusion and the Community Oversight Board.” The new department is still in the formative stages as the recruitment of a director continues. The Community Oversight Board for the police department is only just beginning its work, with its inaugural members holding their first meeting in December.

“These will have our total support and commitment as they address our foundational imperative to create a just and equitable community that welcomes, includes, protects, values, and empowers all people,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic still demands the borough’s attention and resources, but Nanes urged that it not “overwhelm our vision to the detriment of the opportunities before us” and that council develop a vision for the future.

That future, Nanes said, should include making State College and the Centre Region a leader in multi-modal transportation.

“Specifically I want us to enact bold plans for safe and efficient bike infrastructure, an interconnected network of direct arterial bike routes and branching veins and capillaries that will allow everyone from the youngest to the oldest among us to travel safely across the network,” he said.

Downtown State College, he added, can be kept “healthy and strong” by updating zoning and tying infrastructure and redevelopment to a broader vision for a thriving downtown that will have “dedicated pedestrian and bike corridors, green space, community centers for our youth to congregate safely, and thriving local businesses and arts,” as well as addressing goals of affordable housing and sustainability.

The appointment of Neeli Bendapudi as Penn State’s next president “is a proud moment for our community,” Nanes said, and an opportunity to strengthen relationships between the borough and university through open communication and shared goals.

“The standard is ours to set,” Nanes said. “Let’s seize the opportunity before us.”

Departing council on Monday were Theresa Lafer, Evan Myers, and Katherine Yeaple, while Ronald Filippelli presided over his final meeting as mayor. All four were praised for their service by Nanes and other speakers throughout Monday’s final meeting of the previous council and the first meeting of the new one.

Lafer, who has been elected to a total of three terms on council, and Myers both concluded two consecutive terms and were ineligible to run in 2021. Yeaple was appointed to fill a vacancy created by Dan Murphy’s resignation in 2019 and did not advance out of last May’s primary.

Filippelli was appointed as mayor by council after Don Hahn stepped down following his election as judge in December 2019. He pledged not to run for mayor in 2021 and had an unsuccessful primary bid for a borough council term.

Barlow said he appreciated Lafer’s “detailed knowledge of State College borough and regional issues.” Nanes called her voice on council “singular” and commended the “passion, clarity and urgency” she brought to tackling borough issues, saying he often found himself “privately cheering” her speeches.

Myers’ “moral backbone and… uncompromising voice on human rights,” provided exemplary leadership, Nanes said, calling Myers a friend and mentor whose contributions “will benefit us for a long time to come.” Barlow added that he was “proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with him on human rights issues,” and that Myers brought clarity to regional finance issues through his longtime work with the Centre Region Council of Governments.

Yeaple joined council months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a background in public health she was a critical voice on council, Barlow and Nanes said.

“I also appreciate Ms. Yeaple’s strong advocacy [against] the harassment of Asians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders that peaked during the pandemic and her advocacy for a [state-authorized local] health department,” Barlow said, adding that her actions “will strongly inform” his last two years on council.

Before being appointed mayor, Filippelli previously served two terms on council (2007-2015) and on multiple borough commissions and local government and nonprofit boards. Barlow said he appreciated Filippelli’s “experience and wisdom” particularly as the borough managed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nanes added that Filippelli brought “important leadership” during a challenging time.

“Mayor Filippelli’s voice, one that’s tempered by decades of notable service and leadership in our community, as we descended into the COVID-19 pandemic that none of us had foreseen gave us confidence and reassurance, myself included, in the borough’s position and the borough’s leadership,” Nanes said.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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