Thursday, April 29, 2010

The meter is running...(Part II)

Back in March I posted about our lawyer-happy Board of Supervisors (BOS) and how they are practically singlehandedly keeping the legal profession afloat in our area.

One reference I gave as a shining example of frivolous litigation and needlessly wasting your tax dollars was Chairman Rick Brown & Co.'s directing their solicitor for the BOS, Mike Sheridan, to enter the Township's appearance into and intervene, against any reasonable likelihood of success, in a neighboring resident's appeal of a December 2009 LP Zoning Hearing Board ruling. That ruling pertained to a property on Pawlings Road in Audubon that did not go the way the neighbor would have liked, despite the decision being painstakingly researched and deliberated by the ZHB after months of hearings, exhibits and testimony.

The Township's appearance in the case was authorized by the BOS despite the neighboring resident, having already spent a hefty amount of his own cash on the original zoning challenge over six months, deciding to appeal the ruling (and fund it) on his own. He apparently had the resources and the will to keep the meter running without the Township needing to get involved. 

Or did he? From what I've heard and observed, this particular resident was quite helpful in getting the vote out for Rick's handchosen candidates for supervisor last Fall, resulting in a change in control of the BOS. I'm not saying this resident was promised anything or even expected anything in return, but the appearance of some kind of deal is troubling to me. Usually, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck... 

As I mentioned previously, the Township wasn't aggrieved. A longtime problem property was vastly improved, and there was ample evidence that the Township had screwed up along the way, giving the landowner/applicant incorrect information that he relied upon. So, it would seem counterintuitive that the Township would want to fight a decision that they were arguably at fault in causing.

Anyway...intervene in the appeal the BOS did. And earlier this week, the matter was scheduled for argument in front of Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Judge DelRicci. Mike Sheridan was present, representing the Township. The Township's motion to transcribe the oral argument was denied. Their argument to supplement the record with additional testimony and take depositions of people who already testified on the original zoning record was also denied.

Additionally, the original applicant/landowner's motion to quash the BOS's appeal and deny the right to intervene (which the ZHB also had to join to defend its decision) was denied in part and granted in part. The bottom line is that the BOS  may not have a separate appeal and they cannot intervene to oppose the decision of the ZHB.

The only way Chairman Rick and the BOS can intervene in the case at all would be to support its own ZHB's decision as rendered which, of course, he wouldn't want to do, because you can't appease a special interest by telling them what they don't want to hear or supporting something a special interest is against.

Hopefully, this is as far as this waste of tax dollars will go  - unless, of course, the BOS continues to exhibit substantial arrogance and continues to fight the judge's ruling.

It would be comical if it weren't for the fact that all the briefing and motions and oral arguments and court appearances just cost our taxpayers a nice chunk of change (to the tune of several thousand dollars, I'm sure) that could have been used for other things. Something tells me, though, that Rick - the same guy who tried to question and delay paying  the ZHB attorney's legal bills a few months back - will probably rubber stamp Mike Sheridan's bills for this wild goose chase without discussion.

Monday, April 26, 2010

War(rior) Paint

The striking teachers in the North Penn School District could soon have company if their neighbors to the south, the teachers of the Methacton Education Association (MEA) serving Methacton School District, go through with their intention to walk off the job if negotiations on a new contract break down.

In early March, MEA notified Methacton School District that they were implementing the 'work to rule' provision of their contract, which is more a display of solidarity and a small scaleback in their participation of noncontractual obligations than a threat, but still, it moves MEA one step closer to going on strike.

 With only 48 hours' notice to the school district, MEA's leadership could choose to strike, since members of the teachers' association recently voted to permit their leadership to initiate a work stoppage at will.

Since negotiations have been ongoing since 2008 and the teachers have been without a contract since June  2009, I have to wonder at what point MEA, frustrated with the lack of progress, will flex their muscle and go out on strike, using whatever leverage they have - imminent June graduation comes to mind as one potential chip - to move negotiations forward.

The school district's website indicates that negotiations are still ongoing and progress is being made, and the next negotiating session is scheduled for May 3.

Unfortunately for MEA, the timing could not be worse to be in the midst of contract negotiations.

The Methacton School Board finance committee recently reviewed a list of 27 proposed budget cuts totaling $1,102,359 from the fiscal 2010 preliminary budget. The $1.1 million in cuts will maintain the budget’s millage increase at 1.55 mills to 25.79 mills, a 6.4 percent real estate tax increase. The millage increase will boost the average homeowner’s tax bill by $272.71 to $4,537.54 based on an average assessment of $175,942.

That's if their labor costs stay the same, which they certainly won't (or else any strike will be endless). And that's if they actually make all those budget cuts - which some people are already screaming about, such as proposed elimination of the T1 program or closing the swimming pool at the high school - or substitute any of those items on the list that are spared with something else of equal savings.

The proposed fiscal 2010 cuts come on the heels of last year's budget, in which measures other than spending reductions were taken in order to keep the budget trim. Other revenue sources, including a transfer of  $1.1 million from the capital reserve fund, reduced the original proposed 6.7% tax increase to 3.92%. The small percentage of our school budget that comes from state and federal subsidies will surely be even smaller going forward as those sources are already strained and experiencing shortfalls in funding to provide their critical services.
Obviously, we can't transfer money from the reserve fund every year. And MEA's members are likely to be unwilling to settle for the kinds of reduced or eliminated pay raises and benefit contributions that those of us still fortunate enough to be working full time have had to
 accept in a poor labor market.

So far, the war paint is on, but no one has raised a tomahawk just yet. At some point, however, the rubber will have to meet the road, and it may not be pretty when it does.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Big (Sheriff's) Shoes To Fill

My understanding is that the Montgomery County Republican party's executive committee/area leaders will meet on Monday to wade through and consider all those individuals (almost a dozen!) who threw their hats into the ring for the opportunity to replace  beloved Sheriff John Durante, who recently passed away.

Lower Providence has two contenders up for consideration, both of them worthy: one is Ben Crahalla, who was our delightfully colorful longtime district justice of 22 years, until the end of last year, when The Hon. Cathleen Rebar took over that office.

The other is Joseph Stemple, the former chief of police in Whitpain Township, most recently a member of our Planning Commission and our 'Senior Citizen of the Year' for 2009.

Either would be an excellent choice and representative of Lower Providence's best. Just wanted to wish both gentlemen the best of luck on Monday.


All candidates were interviewed and discussed but a formal vote was not taken on whom to recommend to the Governor (the name must be submitted within 90 days to the PA Senate for confirmation).  I heard that one candidate did quite well and hit it out of the park; however, getting this done in Harrisburg is going to be tougher now that budget season is underway. If the 90 days passes with no name submitted, then the Chief Deputy (Al Ricci), who is Acting Sheriff now, fills out the remainder of the term.

May 11 is the deadline for the Governor to submit a name for PA Senate confirmation, so Bob Kerns may try be more aggressive in trying to get this done as that date approaches.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

Poll Position

I generally don’t weigh in on Montgomery County issues. There are other bloggers who have more interest and do a far better job of covering the commissioners and row offices than I ever could. However, lately one county office in particular has been a burr under my saddle and since it involves Lower Providence, I feel compelled to write about it.

That office would be the Board of Elections/Voter Services. I’m not talking about the staff there; they do an exemplary job daily, often during extremely stressful circumstances. They've always been exceptionally helpful. No, I’m talking about Joe Passarella, the department director.

Last year I started working on a proposal to relocate one of our polling places (photo, right), the LP Township Community Center on Hillside Avenue, which happens to be outside my home voting district (2-3) – the only one for Lower Providence that is located outside of where its voters actually live. Not only that, but the parking lot is extremely small for the number of people who vote there (many of whom drive large SUVs), and there’s one awkwardly-placed entrance which has almost no line of sight to the parking lot once you drive in. It’s poorly designed and tough to turn around once you’re in it in order to leave. And it’s often dangerous, especially if you’re a senior citizen and can’t sprint across the lot to get inside to vote.

I understand our polling place used to be within my district's boundaries years ago, but the business/building hosting it closed and there was no other practical place at the time, so it ws moved where it is today.

I’ve worked that poll on election day many times and seen a few near-misses. I’ve heard some of the residents who vote there complain about it. So, I figure, nobody else is being proactive and doing anything about it, so I will. There's no longer any reason it has to be there.
I do my homework. I call the BOE and ask them what has to happen to relocate a poll. They tell me. So I set about making those things happen. I line up a proposed new site (photo, above), the new Calvary Church (formerly Victory Church, 601 N. Park Avenue), inside the voting district. It's got great access and a huge parking lot with a number of reserved handicapped spaces. It even has a good sized lobby for voters to wait in if the weather is poor.

I make sure the tenant and landlord of that building are OK with it and have appropriate facilities to support voting there.

I talk to the area leaders of both parties, and both of them tell me that they think it’s a great idea and can support it (although I'm aware the Republican party area leader, Doug Hager, is part of the ‘other’ Republican faction here in Lower Providence and has interjected himself in my election campaign in the past, supporting my old-guard opponent - so who knows what his word is worth. I'd like to believe him, but I'm not naive, either). Speaking of my opponent, Kathie Eskie, she never once responded to my letter and phone calls to her on this subject, so my take on that is that she's working against it.  At any rate, I did what the county told me I needed to do.

Most importantly, I speak to the voters directly. I go knocking on doors with a petition, and ask our Republican voters what they think and with only one exception, they agree and sign. I spoke to 25% of our registered ‘supervoters’ which, statistically speaking, tells me that more than likely most of the rest of them support it too.

When I’m done with all of this, I contact the person I spoke to initially and provide all this information so they can check it out, and they do. And then….nothing.

I happened to be at the BOE on other business a few weeks later and ran into this individual, and asked what the status is. I’m told that they checked it out, but because ‘no one has complained’ that they’ve decided to leave it where it is. And, this person mentioned that an email had gone out (supposedly to me) about it. Well…that’s interesting, because I never got an email, a letter or a phone call from anyone at the County about this. Or from anyone else, for that matter.

I asked for a copy of this correspondence, but then I’m told that this person ‘just cleaned out their emails and deleted it’. I’m sure the County’s legal department would be thrilled about that (then again, given all their other legal issues, maybe they really ARE thrilled about that). Still, there must be a ‘Right to Know’ law or record retention violation there somewhere. But I digress.

This brings me to Mr. Passarella. I contact him, as my contact’s supervisor, to obtain a copy of this correspondence. I mean, I’m a reasonable person, if they have a good reason and made a good faith effort, I’m fine with that. But I also suspect that there was a miscommunication, and I wanted to get straight from him exactly what the criteria truly is for such things. If, in fact, it’s ‘complaints’, which is not what I was told initially, then I would think that ME complaining should be enough, not to mention, I don’t know if he knows that our voters signed a petition supporting it.

Additionally, a number of the petition signers brought something to my attention that I hadn't even considered initially - they felt this was an outstanding idea because it's 'green' - meaning a large number of our voters can actually walk to this new polling place instead of having to drive.

Well, I’ve written to Mr. Passarella, and I have called him several times. I’m still waiting. At this point, I want to know why the County apparently thinks it can trump the will of Lower Providence voters. And, why it apparently doesn't think we deserve even the courtesy of a response one way or the other, or the opportunity to discuss it. I think we all deserve an answer, don’t you?