Thursday, November 21, 2013

Implausible Deniability

Update 5/10/14: According to The Alternative Press, the subject of this article was found guilty of DUI on May 8. The correspondence she provided to superintendent Zerbe, and which the school district fought the release of until I won a Right to Know request, is here.  In a couple of email exchanges I had with Joyce subsequent to the publishing of this post, she maintained her original story. I still don't believe she understands that it is not the actual fact of the DUI itself that is troublesome, is it the misleading of the public about it by an elected official to whom we have given our trust. 
According to published reports in both the Lower Providence Patch (here) and the Times Herald (here), allegations of a February DUI in Florida are swirling around Methacton School Board president Joyce Petrauskas. This in and of itself may or may not be notable, but Petrauskas’ incredible tale about the alleged incident has raised interest in the story to a fever pitch.

The allegation first surfaced at an October 22 school board meeting, when former school board member Grant Shanbacher publicly asked Petrauskas to explain why a mug shot appearing to be her image (linked to Pinellas County in Florida) was available on the Internet and whether she had in fact been arrested for a DUI as suggested by the existence of the mug shot, along with a court docket in the same county listing details of the open case. For what it’s worth, it’s my understanding that Petrauskas’ daughter attends school in Clearwater, FL, which is in Pinellas County.
Depending on your viewpoint and tolerance for human imperfection, a recent DUI by a sitting school district leader may or may not be a big deal to you.  I am certainly aware that no one is perfect and to expect perfection in anyone is an exercise in futility.  And, my observation and experience has been that, excepting major crimes such as preying on children, homicide, armed robbery, etc., people are generally understanding and forgiving about mistakes, whether the subject is a public official or not, as long as they feel that someone has learned from it, not repeated it - and been honest about it.

This is where I pick up with the story.
According to published sources, when Petrauskas was first questioned about it at the October 22 meeting, she denied that she had been arrested for a DUI and claimed to be the victim of an "internet crime”.  Later, in an email to a Patch reporter, she indicated the information regarding her arrest was manipulated online and claimed that there had been an attempt to extort money from her. I understand another story was provided to the superintendant, her colleagues on the school board and their counsel.

You know what? At least in part, she is technically, kind of correct. There are companies out there whose entire business model involves filing numerous Right To Know requests with a municipality or county government, obtaining embarrassing information about people, and then publishing it on a website that they own and control. The information quickly becomes easily searchable, and they will then charge you a fee to have them remove it. While it’s hardly the most honorable way to make a living, it is legal. Many states, including Pennsylvania, are in the process of tightening up their Right To Know laws to make it more difficult for these entities to burden a government agency with such for-profit requests.
In Ms. Petrauskas’ case, I believe that is how her mug shot came to be found on the Internet. One of these sites,, had it posted (it has since been removed), and anyone could pay to have it removed for a fee of, I believe, $99.  In fact, had Ms. Petrauskas been aware of it, paid the fee and had it removed early on, this whole incident would likely never have come to light here in PA.
Photo credit: Times Herald
However, these entities cannot manufacture information or photographs. They buy and post mug shots or data that already exists from legitimate government agencies. If they didn’t, the liability insurance alone that they’d have to carry would be astronomical. Thus, her mug shot could not and would not have appeared on such a website if her mug shot hadn’t existed in the first place in Pinellas County for them to purchase. Another site that has mug shots from Pinellas County is  (Not all municipalities release them, but many do).
As to the rest of the story, documents I and others have obtained from Pinellas County indicate an open DUI case in Florida with Ms. Petrauskas as defendant. She has obtained counsel there, and the case is moving forward toward jury trial, which her counsel requested November 19.

I am posting the documents here and here; you be the judge. There are more available but I only requested a handful from the open docket that I felt would be most relevant.
Ms. Petrauskas has not yet been convicted of a DUI, but judging from these documents and the open docket in Pinellas County with numerous pleadings filed within it by her attorney and the prosecutor, she HAS obviously misrepresented (denied) that she was, in fact, arrested there on a DUI charge.

I assure you I contacted the legitimate Pinellas County Clerk of Courts office in Florida - the very same court system that processed accused child murderer Casey Anthony -  and can document that they and they alone deducted funds from my credit card to obtain these documents and then delivered them directly to me. Neither they, nor I, ‘manipulated’ anything. And, judging from the Motions to Supress filed in this case, there exists a 911 telephone call audiotape, a videotape from one of the on-scene officer’s patrol cars, and a certified copy of the booking photo, all of which were provided to Petrauskas’s Florida attorney.  I don’t see how those could be ‘manipulated’ either. (The judge denied the Motions).
Also, the records indicate that Petrauskas was fingerprinted. How on earth would any Internet company fake those?
We now live in an age where pretty much everything we do and say is recorded for posterity somewhere. On any given day, the average street one walks or drives down has anywhere from 4 to a dozen security and/or traffic cameras trained on it, and then there’s satellites, webcams on laptops, cellphones that can capture audio and video…and who knows what the federal government is collecting.  
I get it that some people aren’t necessarily Internet savvy – and it would appear that perhaps Ms. Petrauskas is one of those - but to presume that the vast majority of the population is so unsophisticated as to not be able to easily discover this information and dismiss this hokey ‘manipulation’ claim is, I think, insulting and illustrative of the level of disrespect she (and/or her advisors) apparently has for the taxpayers, parents, and residents she represents.  
Whether they like it or not, public officials are held to a higher standard – particularly those in education - and the public must have faith that those they elect to represent them will be honest with them.  Incidents like this make people question what else they are being lied to about.
When this story first broke I called our LP Republican party municipal leader, Jim Van Horn, and gave my opinion as a Republican committeeperson (I don’t believe I was the only one to do so). That opinion was that, if this story was at all true, the leaders of our party needed to have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with Petrauskas and advise her to either come clean immediately or step down. My fear is that going forward, aside from being a terrible example for the students of the Methacton School District, we as a party risk losing credibility going forward with voters whenever we endorse candidates for these and other elected positions if it appears that we support misleading the public and are not willing to make the tough calls to address it.  Retaining control of a position cannot be more important than integrity. As you can probably guess, that suggestion went nowhere.  That’s disappointing.

By all accounts Ms. Petrauskas is a personable, conscientious, hardworking, knowledgeable asset to the Methacton School Board.  As president, she does a good job in a difficult position. Anyone could find themselves in her situation, but it may not be too late for her to admit that this did happen and explain why she has thus far represented otherwise.

Photo credit: Lower Providence Patch

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fields Of Gold


Imagine a scenario in which gorgeous, undisturbed open space located in your community, but owned by Montgomery County, is quietly, inexplicably and suddenly targeted for sale and rushed to closing.  

Think it couldn’t happen? We have county-owned open space at the Audubon Recreation Association fields, at Mill Grove, at the Shannondell Golf Course, even surrounding the prison in Eagleville. Most of that is under long term lease, but leases, like any other contract, can be terminated early for a variety of reasons unless otherwise protected by legal instruments.
As if that is not bad enough, imagine that all the details surrounding the proposals and contract award of the sale of land in your community – which you might even live close to - is done with next to no transparency. You have no idea what could be happening there in a few short months. Still think this couldn’t happen?
Folks, all of this IS happening just one township over from us. If you have any relatives or friends who are residents or employees of Parkhouse, Montgomery County’s geriatric and rehabilitation complex in Upper Providence Township, you especially want to be paying attention. Parkhouse consists of a 467-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility, a senior daycare and fifteen rental apartments for seniors.
Back in June, Montgomery County put Parkhouse up for sale and advertised for proposals for a private entity to purchase and operate it. Part of the assets included in the RFP were 220 acres of open, mostly agricultural, land surrounding Parkhouse. Over the summer, the County set up several meetings with UPT officials, theoretically to discuss their intentions regarding the proposed sale, get UPT’s concerns, and update UPT as to the status.
The County cancelled meeting after meeting, finally finding time to sit down with UPT in July, but not to discuss UPT’s concerns with the sale, but to discuss the COUNTY’S  concerns with UPT’s pending rezoning of the parcel, which was in process prior to the county issuing the RFP. The rezoning involved changing the subject property from R1 Residential with an institutional overlay to OSC (open space with institutional overlay).  They met with UPT staff only once again, in September, again, to discuss THEIR concerns, specifically the granting of a proposed “natural subdivision" sectioning off some of the open space down Route 113.

Since early September, I have submitted a couple of Right to Know requests to try to figure out something about this, and bottom line, the County has been stalling me left and right with what I believe are contrived excuses that are not legitimate under the Open Records Law. This isn't my first trip to the rodeo; I know how this works, so I appealed. I filed the second such request after I became aware that an October 8 meeting was scheduled for the purpose of having the ‘Working Group’ (an all-county-employee board tasked with reviewing proposals) present their findings to the county Commissioners. They did not make the winning bidder’s proposal public, nor did they reveal the names of the other bidders, including the second of the two purported finalists. This Working Group recommended that bidder Mid-Atlantic Health Care from Maryland be awarded the bid, and a few days later, the Commissioners accepted their recommendation and voted to sell the whole shebang to Mid-Atlantic for $39 million.
Some initial research I did revealed some potentially disturbing information about the winning bidder. They’ve accumulated half of their current holdings only since 2011, and took on enormous debt ($106M) to do so, so one wonders how they propose to add to their portfolio another $39M in debt AND an operation that according to the County is losing $2-7M a year and turn it around. I work in pharma; I know how unlikely it is that they will become profitable merely by joining a Group Purchasing Organization (GPO) as suggested by Dr. Rifkin, and if that argument had any merit, why didn't the County try that first?

I also found information which suggests that Dr. Scott Rifkin, Mid-Atlantic’s owner, over the past twenty years has led at least one prior business down the road to bankruptcy (several he's been involved are no longer in business today and one them was a creditor to the bankrupt business), also after aggressively and rapidly expanding. Did anyone at County vet Mid-Atlantic’s finances or viability?  Do they really care about the continuity of services and operational excellence at Parkhouse going forward? The employees? The patients and residents???
Also I discovered that Rifkin, despite his claims that he’s ‘not a political guy’, ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Maryland state senate in 2006 (here) and his brother is a Washington lobbyist.  I wonder to what degree those facts had anything to do with their introduction to, and selection by, a Democrat-majority Board of Commissioners as the winning bidder. If Rifkin would misrepresent his political background, what else would he misrepresent?

While all this has transpired, citing their desire to close the deal by the end of this year (in an arbitrarily set deadline less than 8 weeks from now) the County on November 4 pushed UPT to grant them a ‘natural subdivision’ without going through Planning Commission review…without knowing what the winning bidder has planned…without knowing, really, anything.

All that is known about this plan is what we have been told by the County. Nobody in the public has, to my knowledge, ever seen the actual proposal. After the bid was awarded in October, after my second Right To Know request received the same response as the first and the County still hadn’t turned over the proposal nor the names of the other bidders, I appealed. Once I filed the appeal with the state, THEN the County turned over the list of bidders, but are still refusing to turn over the actual proposal, even though the bid has been awarded. What are they waiting for? What can't we know until the sale is already a done deal and it can't be undone?

The County’s ‘Working Group” who recommended the sale represented to the Commissioners that they had kept Upper Providence officials informed during the entire process and that UPT was on board with their plans. UPT supervisors deny this is the case, and it’s my understanding the County is very unhappy that UPT isn’t moving this along on the timeline the County desires. 
UPT is concerned that the IN overlay allows the buyer to develop something with an institutional use and their worry is that the new owner could come in, develop a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC – a local example of a CCRC is Shannondell), something Rifkin actually suggested could happen, and then potentially – judging by Rifkin’s apparent track record - go bankrupt soon after, leaving either partially or fully completed structures behind that would then need to be converted into apartments or something else to be viable. That’s in addition to any negative impact on the existing Parkhouse facility.
So the $39 million dollar question is, what does Mid-Atlantic propose to do with the 200 acres surrounding the Parkhouse facility for which the County is aggressively pursuing subdivision? And why can’t anyone know what that is for? For all we know, they want to put a home for sex offenders on the property, or a rehab facility for drug addicts. It could all be paved over and made into parking. We just don’t know.  Despite all the chest-thumping Commissioner Josh Shapiro has been doing about how transparent his administration is, from my viewpoint, they are anything but.
There are other aspects to this debacle. As has been well documented in the press, Montgomery County has been in financial distress, with a gaping hole in their budget, partly caused by ‘economic development projects’. The County has thrown away approximately $62M in recent years in the name of Norristown revitalization investments which have been abject failures, with no one asking what happened to the money invested…certainly not the local press.

Also, what will happen with the employees? I’m aware that the nurses’ union, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professional Union, is receiving calls from distressed employees at Parkhouse upset about cuts to their benefits and increases in their medical care premiums already, despite Mid-Atlantic’s promises that nothing would change.
However, the worst aspect of all, besides the County trying to bully a convenient solution to their financial problems by ramming it down a local muncipality’s throat , is trying to fix their well-documented budget problems at the expense of our County’s most vulnerable and lowest-income residents that reside at Parkhouse and who rely on the facility for treatment and care.

There is a public meeting of UPT’s Planning Commission scheduled this coming Wednesday evening, November 13 at 7 pm at the UPT building on Black Rock Road. County officials will be making their case for the subdivision request at that time, and if you have any questions or concerns about their plans for this facility and the surrounding open space, you would be well served to attend. It might be your only opportunity to push for answers before Montgomery County finishes their mad sprint to get this done with as few eyeballs on it as possible before the end of the year.

What's happening early next year that's driving this insane deadline to get that $540K budget surplus by the end of the year? If County is dealing in good faith, why won't they turn over a copy of the proposal so we can all see what Dr. Rifkin has proposed?
Art used with permission of Jack Minster

A link with some more detail on this issue than I have room for here can be found here, along with some pertinent questions that should really be asked at next Wednesday's meeting, if you so desire.  And, UPT supervisor Lisa Mossie weighs in with this letter to the editor, here.

However this turns out, if this is how the County feels it's appropriate to deal with local municipalities, how long will it be before the County wants something here in LP that they don't want to deal with us in good faith about?

PS To add insult to injury  At the very meeting where they approved the sale of Parkhouse and 220 acres of open space, the Commissioners received the thanks of the Montgomery County Lands Trust for their financial contribution to…wait for it….preserve a mere 33 acres of greenways in Upper Dublin and Springfield Townships. I guess only open space EAST of Route 422 is worthy of preservation.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sign Language

‘Tis the season…for campaign yard signs! Nobody really likes them, but they are effective ways for candidates to gain name recognition and for residents to show support, so I suppose they aren’t going to go away.

part of my district (2-3) in sign per candidate! (2010)
As a committeeperson (who are the journeymen and women of each party who do the political grunt work on the ground to get candidates elected), one of my duties is to put out such yard signs for candidates on our ballot.

I take a lot of pride in the work I do.  I don’t put out too many signs, make sure they get replaced or stand them back up if they fall over, and I get rid of them quickly when the election is over. In  representing my own voting district,  I always ask permission from the property owner (even when they’ve allowed me to place signs previously) and I always commit to picking up signs I’ve placed as soon as the election is over because I know people don’t really like looking at them. Usually, the same evening after the polls close, and certainly no later than the next day, I’ve pulled all of mine.

Some elections are worse than others. The 2011 election was memorable for the sheer number of candidates (county commissioners, county row officers, local school boards and local township supervisors/borough commissioners) all up at the same time. With numerous candidates, the signage to promote them all was off the hook.
However, in all the years I’ve worked on campaigns or been a candidate myself, I never saw anything like what greeted me this past Saturday afternoon when I was out running errands. All up and down Ridge Pike through Lower Providence, one candidate had literally carpet-bombed us with their yard signs. There were literally 25 or 30 placed on EACH SIDE of some intersections, and spaced so closely that no other candidates’ signs (of either party, for all contests) were readable. It was a truly obnoxious display of self-promotion.

Worse, with the 35-mph winds that day, some of the sleeves had blown off the stakes and were flying loose into the adjacent lawns or the street.  They weren’t sunk into the ground well, so some were twisted sideways or had been blown completely over onto the ground. Some signs I’d placed within my voting district were pulled out of the ground and tossed aside in the process of this invasion.  All in all, it looked absolutely hideous and it was visually overwhelming.  

I don’t mind saying that the signs were placed by a candidate from my own party, but had anyone come to LP and done this, I’d have had the same reaction.
2-3 polling place, primary election, 2013
You should also know that it’s against the law to remove campaign yard signs you did not place, yard signs belonging to another candidate, and removing signs on private property. I believe it’s a misdemeanor and there’s a fine involved if caught and convicted. It’s also considered bad form to drop signs on someone’s property without their permission, a practice I’m aware that one of the candidates running for supervisor this year has been doing. Thus, there wasn’t much I could do myself since I was not the property owner where the signs were placed and I did not place them myself.
Outraged at this veritable trashing of our community, I contacted our municipal party leader, Jim Van Horn, who, for reasons unknown, was utterly uninterested in doing anything. I was told “there’s nothing we can do about it”.  Faced with this unwillingness to confront the perpetrator, I contacted the individual – again, a member of my own party - myself. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I explained that aside from the larger issue of what happened and how terrible it looked, I also expressed my opinion that trashing up our community this way not only made this particular candidate look bad, but it reflected poorly upon our party and my fear that disgusted voters would take it out on her and potentially other candidates on our ballot on election day. At that point I’d already heard from two voters who saw the mess after I did and had called to ask about how it came to be there.
I was frankly also fearful that my constituents who live here and friends who traverse through LP, knowing that I place campaign signs in my district, would think that I was responsible for this visual assault. No committeeperson I know of either party in this area would ever have placed this many signs in this way. Not to mention, signs aren’t cheap, and it’s waste of a resource to place so many in one area.
I am happy to report that the candidate was horrified, and relayed that a third-party contractor was purportedly hired to place their signs, but they were never told to place so many signs so closely together. The candidate agreed with my assessment and by 9:30 Sunday morning, the vast majority of them had been removed. I applaud their responsiveness and concern for our community; they communicated with me several times to assure that they’d done a good enough job of repairing the damage. While there are still a number of them around, at a ratio that I’d say is about 5:1 of every other candidate’s sign out there, it’s far better than it was.
Whatever your personal feelings about campaign yard signs, just know that come November 6, the day after the election, they’ll all be going away…until next spring’s primary!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Bridges of Montgomery County

If you live or have to travel anywhere near the now-barricaded Arcola Road Bridge, you might have read last week with great interest the list Montgomery County published enumerating the 19 structurally deficient bridges it has deemed a priority for repair. I know that, like me, many of you eagerly scoured said list, expecting to see the Arcola Road Bridge at or near the top. But alas, it was missing entirely.
I wondered why, as did many of you I’ve spoken to. Life post-closure in August has been painful, both for the people who regularly use the bridge and must now go well out of their way, and for the residents whose neighborhoods are impacted by additional traffic. The article the list appeared in neither asked nor answered the question as to where OUR bridge was in terms of the list and priorities, so I called Montgomery County’s Dept. of Assets and Infrastructure to see what they had to say.
The young lady who answered the phone explained that the list excluded the Arcola Road Bridge because it is already closed and the process of getting it replaced has already commenced. Those 19 bridges are on a separate RFP just approved by the County, and they’ve hired a consultant to help prioritize them.

She added that they have received a LOT of calls about this bridge. I'll BET they have!
"Ugh! These detours! WHEN will the Arcola Road Bridge be open again??"

Speaking of the bridge, at tonight’s Board of Supervisors meeting, township manager Richard Gestrich tried to make it abundantly clear that it is a COUNTY-owned bridge, not a TOWNSHIP owned bridge. My guess is angry residents and travelers are blaming (incorrectly) township officials for the closure and delays in getting it replaced.  

Some updates shared at tonight’s meeting: LP Township officials are meeting biweekly with county officials and state Rep. Mike Vereb as to the status and progress of the project, along with ways to mitigate the pain in the meantime. They have discussed ways to mediate the traffic impacts and make recommendations to PennDOT as to how to rectify them.  The County has appointed Indian Valley Appraisers to meet with adjacent residents to secure rights-of-way to enable the start of construction.
Police Chief Bud Carroll mentioned that he has worked with PennDOT to resync the timing of the traffic light at the intersection of Pawlings Road, Park Avenue and Egypt Road to allow for better traffic flow by increasing the length of the cycle a little bit. Also, we were able to get PennDOT to free up some funds ($125,000!) for a traffic control device at the Perkiomen Bridge intersection that monitors traffic in real time to improve flow to and from Germantown and Ridge across that bridge.  The device is available to us now and we are awaiting its installation, which will hopefully allow us to see some relief from congestion. It’s expected to be in place on or about November 1.
The County now believes it can start the construction in January 2015 and conclude it by August 2016, shaving a good six months off prior time estimates.
All of the above is great, but here’s my question: I, like many of you, signed up at the County’s August Arcola Road Bridge meeting to receive email updates on the project. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t received ANYTHING from the County about this since then, especially not the part about the appraisers or shaving six months off. Transparent? I think not.  
Nice job, though, by our municipality to stay in the loop, have an active voice in what happens and be a part of solutions. Maybe the number of people blowing up their phones and email about this bridge will go down just a bit.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

“You Are Fighting For Your View of the Creek. I Am Fighting For A Place to Put My Head At Night"

Upper Providence resident Patricia Stiefel’s comment, above, captures the essence of the dispute between Upper Providence and Lower Providence Townships over the regional sewer authority’s (LPVRSA’s) plans to place a middle interceptor along the Perkiomen creek, which I and others have written about at length previously.  At the end of the day, what’s more important: someone’s view from their kitchen window, or the very existence of a home that’s been in someone’s family for well over half a century and which they’ve personally owned for over 25 years? 
Last Thursday (9/12/13) another routine regional sewer authority (LPVRSA) meeting was on the calendar; I wasn’t going to attend since I had other plans. However, when I discovered that Frank and Patricia Stiefel – the Upper Providence residents whose home would be directly affected if the middle interceptor is placed on that side of the Perkiomen creek – would be attending, I knew I had to be there.

Since the Stiefel’s – and their home’s - very existence has been denied by some on the LP side of the issue, and their opinion of the project and the impact it will have on them grossly misrepresented or ignored by the same LP contingent, I’ve been trying to get the Stiefels to speak publicly about their position for months. As they are very private people who just want to be left alone, the Steifels were reluctant to wade into the fray.  Finally, they realized that with all the misrepresentations and smears being perpetrated by their counterparts across the creek, they needed to come forward before it’s too late.

It’s especially necessary given that LP hired a public relations firm some months ago to help move the needle on the issue for LP, so those neighbors, including mouthpiece Cathy Beyers, who has written numerous emotion-laden but fact-light missives relating the purported impact to her and her neighbors,   have that working in their favor. Upper Providence does not spend tax dollars on lobbyists for special interests in Harrisburg, so the Stiefels recognized that this too works against them and forced their hand to, forgive the pun, ‘pipe up’.
The last public LPVRSA meeting resulted in LP Democrat Supervisor candidate Jim Donohue disrupting the meeting by attempting to bully and start a physical fight with UP representative Bob Fieo, spouting obscenities in the process (video, here). Conspicuous by their absence, Donohue, Beyers and their usual contingent were not present Thursday night.
LPVRSA solicitor Bob Brandt began the meeting by addressing what happened at the July 11, 2013 meeting in which Donohue got out of hand. He mentioned that there is a difference between ‘public meetings’ and ‘public hearings’ and that ‘public meetings’ are not intended to be a forum for people to interrogate and harass Board members. He stated that the Board should never have allowed it to get to that point and Donohue should have been tossed for going after a Board member. Board chairman Terri Stagliano apologized to Bob Fieo for not doing more to prevent such an altercation and for not having Donohue removed for his actions once it occurred. She indicated that she has tried to give residents such as Beyer and Donohue a lot of leeway since the middle interceptor project affects them directly, but clearly that is being taken advantage of, and will not be the Board policy going forward.
Upper Providence Township supervisor Lisa Mossie was present and in the ‘public comment’ portion of the meeting, introduced the Stiefels to the Board and indicated that in light of the many misleading and outright false statements being made by Cathy Beyers and others in the local press and at local meetings about them and their position, they wanted the Board to hear from them, in person. Ms. Mossie also handed out a packet of a selection of the misleading and false statements that have appeared in various electronic and print media formats, most of which were authored by Beyer and with which the Stiefels specifically take issue.
The Stiefels addressed the Board directly, giving their address as 248 Cider Mill Road.  Frank Stiefel said that the sewer lateral already goes through their property and is presently about 40’ from their house. This time, to install the interceptor will ‘take their house’, and that this isn’t the case with any other affected property owner. He said ‘I’m a veteran (Marines)…I fought for my country so other people could stay in their properties. I wish you people would do the same for me”.

The LP folks are pushing for the option 3A, which will necessitate construction easements coming within 5 feet of the Stiefel house and at least six months of sewage bypass pumping, with a pump on their property.  While the pipe will not go directly through their house, the construction on the steep slope next to the Steifel home will destabilize an already eroding bank.  Given the huge fluctuations in rise and fall of the creek during heavy rain events, one can certainly understand the Steifel’s trepidation regarding construction so close to their little toehold on the Perkiomen.  
Stiefel's house is between Cider Mill Rd and the creek, above, and is next to steep slopes. Homes on the LP side don't come nearly as close to a proposed new trench.

Patricia Stiefel said that when LPVRSA wanted property from them they accepted their offer and gave it to them although ‘Fair Market Value’ of $264 for a ¼ acre of land was ‘a joke…elsewhere in Upper Providence an acre goes for $55,000 or more”.  She also said that this so-called ‘driveway’ the LP folks claim the Stiefels may get out of the project is neither needed nor wanted as they already have two entrances and exits out of their property.  Also, the new interceptor will not benefit the Stiefels as they have a well. Mrs. Stiefel  said that "We do not hook up to the existing sewer system and will not be able to hook up to the new one once installed, so while it may benefit ‘the public’, there is absolutely no benefit to us”. For the Stiefels, placement of the interceptor on the Upper Providence side of the creek is all downside.
Mr. Stiefel said it’s a shame that ‘some people have to say crap’ in order to try to make their case, and Mrs. Steifel said (referring to Cathy Beyer and her family specifically) “We were friends for a long time, but we no longer speak to any of them” as a result of the dispute and the things that have been said about them.
Even if you factor in claimed environmental impacts and consider alleged artifact finds of dubious value, issues which encompass both sides of the creek, all things being equal, what’s more important? Someone’s view or someone’s home?

As we exited the building, Mary Kaczor, one of the LP residents involved (and sister to Cathy Beyers), who’d arrived late to the meeting and missed most of the public comment portion of the meeting, ran up to the Stiefels and confronted them on their way to their car.  Clearly caught flat-footed, having never anticipated that the Stiefels would get involved, Kaczor feigned ignorance about any of the online comments – several of which she has actually responded to online herself -  and told the Steifels in front of Ms. Mossie and myself that she ‘had no idea that this was going to ruin their property’. In a dizzying display of sheer CYA, Kaczor’s comments ran the gamut from claiming she’s ‘an expert because she’s been to every meeting and thus knows all about this issue’ to claiming she didn’t know anything at all when presented with facts that opposed her views, including that she ‘didn’t have any idea that the pipe was coming through the Stiefel’s property’ AND that she ‘thought they were on board with the pipe going through their property’. 
When none of these arguments gained traction with the Steifels, Kaczor, apparently assuming that the Steifels were completely ignorant about the middle interceptor construction project, tried to lure them to her side by saying that they should all push LPVRSA for a pump station.  “Where are they going to put that, Mary?” asked an incredulous Frank Steifel, who knows that the pump station would be placed right on his front lawn and would necessitate a condemnation of his entire property.  Those of you who have been following along at home will remember that up until this past January, this pump station option was the preferred option of Lower Providence Township and the LP folks.
Out of options and desperate at this point, Kaczor pulled out her final ace in the hole:  The board members on the LPVRSA are all “evil” and all of the folks on the creek should band together and “just stop” this project.  The pipe could just go “somewhere else,” suggested this self-proclaimed “expert” on the project.
Indeed, for a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ Kaczor didn’t even know who Lisa Mossie, a party to the dispute, was when she was standing right in front of her and claimed to have never seen a plan that had lateral going anywhere near the Stiefel’s home (see plans, above). I wish I had taped the encounter, because it was utterly ludicrous. I’ve never seen someone vacillate so rapidly between two extremes - claiming to know everything and claiming to know nothing – in such a short period of time as I saw from Kaczor that night. Clearly Kaczor and her ilk aren’t used to a dialogue; they are used to having the soapbox to themselves, conjuring their own facts and controlling the narrative.
Kaczor complained that the Steifels ‘should have come to them’ if they had problems with the project;  the Stiefels feel the time for talking has long passed since Beyer & Co. represented them and their position without their knowledge or consent. 
As the sky opened up and torrents of rain poured down on both parties who make their home on the water, we all cut the talk short and departed. Apparently, though, Kaczor wouldn’t let it go, because she showed up unannounced at the Stiefel’s house later that evening, trying to do damage control and convince them to meet with ‘the engineer’ Fred Walker. Mr. Walker may be AN engineer, but he’s not THE LPVRSA engineer; he is LP’s representative on LPVRSA.
Aside from the central issue at hand – where the interceptor will be placed – the saddest part is this: two families that have known each other for decades and grew up together –Frank Stiefel reminisced about how Cathy and Mary would run through the sewer pipes when they were kids in the 70’s – have been torn apart because one of the parties has been so utterly consumed by this cause that they discarded all of that in favor of their own interests. Ultimately, the cost of this interceptor will be higher than just dollars, turtles and artifacts; it may cost someone’s home in addition to the long-standing friendship.
The Stiefels may be late in gearing up for war, but they are nonetheless determined to fight the smear campaign being waged against them, LPVRSA and their municipality. As Mrs. Steifel told Kaczor, “You are fighting for your view of the creek. I am fighting for a place to put my head at night. We haven’t said anything up til now, but I will fight you with my last dying breath”.



Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The New Kid On The Block

There has been no royal baby-like puffs of white smoke emanating from the rooftop of the Methacton administration building....and in a nice change, it's practically impossible to find a photograph of this person online. As of this evening, it’s official: Methacton has a new superintendent.  

Photo credit: LinkedIn
In a divided, 6-2 vote, the Board nominated and approved the hiring of Dr. David A. Zerbe as superintendent of schools at a salary of $170,000 for a 4-year term commencing October 20, 2013 and running through June 30, 2017. Zerbe currently serves as assistant superintendent of the Pocono Mountain School District, a post he’s held since 2008. 

Pocono Mountain is a school district approximately twice the size of Methacton, with over 9,000 students (although it was as high as 12,000 students) spread over  304 square miles and an annual budget approaching $200 million dollars (Methacton's is in the $95 million range). He's overseen a large administrative staff, and both construction of new schools and the closing of others due to declining enrollment, along with commensurate staff reductions in force. His most recent salary at Pocono Mountain was apparently in the $120,000 range per 2010-11 public information I located. Presumably the increase includes a relocation allowance.

In a voice vote, school board members Mark O’Neal, Herb Rothe, Jim Phillips, Christian Nascimento, Kim Woodring and school board president Joyce Petrauskus all voted in favor of hiring Zerbe. Maria Shackleford and Cathleen Barone voted against (presumably favoring the other final candidate) although both noted that they would support Zerbe in his new role. Board member Howard Jones was absent.  

Petrauskus read a prepared statement about the new hire (see the press release, here), and outlined in detail the recruiting process, criteria development and interviewing that had taken place and led them to focus on Zerbe as their selection after winnowing 26 resumes down to 9 and then 2. Recalling the selection of the Pennsylvania School Board Association as consultant, she provided a timeline from April to present, detailing the process of gathering input from administrative personnel, faculty members, Home and School members, support staff, focus group members of the public, former school board members, and students, along with a grueling set of interviews and an extensive background check, to arrive at the selection of Dr. Zerbe. 

After the vote, Shackleford commented on the fact that the final two candidates had “very different personalities and backgrounds”, and expressed “disappointment with how the selection process was handled”.   

The board members and various school employees in the audience congratulated Zerbe, who thanked the board for the opportunity and for their confidence, and introduced his wife, Chris and three daughters: 17-year old Tiffany, 13-year old Jillian and 11-year old Sydney. When I asked whether he planned to relocate and settle here, Zerbe said “our goal is to move into the community within a year” because they’d like for Tiffany to be able to graduate from the high school she currently attends, as she’s in her senior year.  They expect their younger two daughters to enroll in Methacton schools.

Let’s extend the Zerbe family a warm welcome to the Methacton 'tribe' and our best wishes for Dr. Zerbe's success in his new position.







Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tidbits and Updates

There are a lot of things going on, none of which I have time to write a full article about – and it IS summer, so I’d much rather be outside hiking, horseback riding, gardening or down the Shore than inside researching and writing.  In that vein, this mashup of bits & pieces will have to do for now:

·         I am told that the Methacton School Board is ready to move forward with hiring a new superintendent and that it is highly likely the announcement will come this Tuesday night, August 20 at the regularly scheduled school board meeting.  There’s a bit of drama surrounding the pick, so it might be worth your while to come out and get a feel for the reasoning behind the Board’s selection and what went into finding and interviewing him (or her).

·         Speaking of Methacton, recently departed superintendent Dr. Timothy Quinn and paramour Diane Barrie have both found gainful employment elsewhere. Quinn landed as an Area Partnership Manager for Provo, Utah-based Imagine Learning, a language and literacy software solution provider, and Barrie is the new curriculum coordinator for Kutztown Area School District. Best wishes to both in their new endeavors, and thanks to both for their educational contributions at Methacton.

·         As feared and predicted, Montgomery County did have to shut down the Arcola Road Bridge this past Friday afternoon and, as residents feared, they didn’t necessarily know about it until they were on their way home from work and stuck in traffic. However, I give our elected officials credit for doing a great job of notifying everyone as soon as possible. I heard from Rep. Mike Vereb within 15 minutes after the decision was made, and the County and municipalities of Lower Providence and Upper Providence were very quick to get phone and email blasts out within the hour.

·         Regarding the bridge, the meeting this past Monday was widely reported upon, so I don’t have much to add (and I already wrote back in July about what was likely to happen, here). I do know that as I floated among the Q & A groups, the primary beef residents had was with the detour routes and the length of time it will take to get the bridge built and reopened.  What wasn’t made exactly clear, judging from comments I’ve seen and heard, is that people don’t understand the bridge will be closed for approximately 3 YEARS. 15-18 months are needed  to get through design, easement acquisition and bidding the work, but it’s also going to take another 15-18 months to actually build the thing.  I think people heard the ’15-18 months’ thing twice but didn’t understand it applied to two DIFFERENT things, things that run consecutively, not concurrently. Bottom line, plan extra time accordingly when traveling between Upper Providence, Collegeville and Lower Providence.

·   *      In an odd bit of ill-timed and misguided political sideshow, the LP Dems decided to politicize the bridge meeting/issue, presumably to elevate their candidate for supervisor, Jim Donahue. The weekend before they had gone through several neighborhoods, dropping literature on residents’  mailboxes posing  questions that seemed to lead one to believe they thought closing the bridge was a bad idea, and posting signs near the bridge that were clearly against closing it (they also handed out fundraiser flyers in the literature bags and at the meeting itself).  I’m sure Democrat County Commissioners Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards were utterly thrilled that their own party members were flaming up residents over something that is already a bit of a PR headache for them.  (And, not to be bitchy, but it IS illegal to place anything in or on mailboxes that is not actual US Mail...the fines for doing so can be substantial...get your message out by all means, but follow the law).

        Not only that, but really, Mr. Donahue, you are making being AGAINST  transportation safety improvements and the safety of our residents part of your platform? I bet that if the bridge had remained open and someone were injured or killed, you would be leading the charge to sue the County for wrongful death. Nice.

·         Regarding the same Mr. Donahue, there’s a fun bit of video out on YouTube where he’s attending a regional sewer authority meeting (LPVRSA) and calls out authority member Bob Fieo to ‘take it outside’ and presumably brawl over their disagreement on an issue. Donohue is clearly the instigator, yet the caption under the video posting attempts to make it appear as though Donohue were the victim and Fieo the instigator. Again, curious, since a picture is worth a thousand words. Watch it here at about 6 minutes in. Do we really want to elect a guy to the position of supervisor whose problem resolution skills rise to the level of a common bully??  

·     Regarding the ‘censored’ videotape I wrote about previously – I appealed LP’s denial of my Right to Know Request, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania agreed with my position (here). After asking for an extension of time to thoroughly research the issue, they ruled in my favor and ordered LP to release the unedited version of the video. I have a copy and in the deleted sections, Mr. Baird made some accusations about corruption, criminal activity and collusion. My opinion is that very likely, several individuals have grounds on which to sue for defamation if they so choose; evidently BOS was trying to protect him and themselves from any fallout resulting from Baird’s statements.

·         At the July 18, 2013 Board of Supervisors meeting, Colleen Eckman mentioned that she wanted to revisit the issue of a proposed ordinance for rental property inspections and fees, last discussed in late 2012 (here). Several options regarding frequency and fees have been discussed, and an annual inspection versus just an inspection at the time a property is resold or rerented has been considered. 
        Supervisor Don Thomas, who earlier this year was an applicant before the Zoning Hearing Board attempting to get approval to build rental apartments behind his home (see here),  weighed in that he was fine with whatever was decided upon, as long as “the focus was on the health and welfare of the community, and not revenue generation”.  Given that he and his family are landlords of numerous rental units in LP, is this an issue that Don should even be able to vote on? Is his concern really anti-revenue generation, or is it really about keeping it less expensive for him and his family to do business? Seems like a conflict of interest to me since he and his family would directly be impacted by costs of paying for such rental inspections on properties he and his family hold, including the apartments Don is building right behind his house.

Enjoy these last few weeks of summer!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bridge To Nowhere

(updated 8/1/13 @ 10:25 pm to add that a meeting will be held by Montgomery County officials on August 12 at 7 pm at the Arcola Intermediate School to discuss these and other concerns.  My understanding is that all LP supervisors will be in attendance, as well as Sen. Rafferty and Rep. Vereb.

(updated 7/22/13 @ 7:45 pm to add map links)

LP’s bicentennial tagline, and the theme around which they redesigned their emblem back in 2005, was ‘Bridge to the Future”.  However, a landmark bridge over the Perkiomen, near where the Skippack Creek flows into it, referred to as the “Arcola Road bridge”, will soon become a bridge to nowhere, and there’s no easy, fast or inexpensive fix in sight.

It’s one of only two remaining bridges that allow for local automobile passage across the Perkiomen between Lower Providence and other communities. A third, the Yerkes Road Bridge, was destroyed in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes blew through the area, so the demands on the remaining two are higher.

The bridge is heavily travelled between LP, UP and Collegeville and particularly used as alternative to avoid traffic on the Perkiomen Bridge between LP and Collegeville, especially for those employees of the pharmaceutical firms in Upper Providence.

A county-owned bridge originally built in 1869 and replaced in 1931, the 258’ (total length), 20-foot wide bridge (also known as the “Cider Mill Road bridge”) handles more than 8,900 cars a day, according to Leo Bagley, transportation planner and assistant director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

Slated last fall for partial closure due to repairs anticipated to take 30 days, Montgomery County originally promised to keep the bridge in place before constructing a new one, keeping it functional by having a single lane closure with travel restrictions such as local traffic only while being worked on, but that’s no longer an option. The County recently discovered that the bridge is far too dilapidated for that and they are just going to have to close and replace it.

Originally engineered to withstand 40 tons of weight, the County's website still lists the Arcola Road Bridge at a 12 ton weight limit. However this past spring, Montgomery County’s Dept. of Roads and Bridges reduced the weight limitations on the Arcola Road Bridge twice, from 12 tons to 6, and then from 6 tons to 3 tons weigh capacity, so it’s now restricted to allow vehicles weighing no more than 3 tons to cross. In 2010 it was given a structural appraisal of ‘structurally deficient” and a deck rating of ‘poor’.

Locals report that there are boards literally hanging down from the bottom of the bridge that can easily be seen when you drive up to it, and that they often hear chunks falling off into the water. 

Since the bridge will soon be unsafe for traffic of any weight, it’s on an accelerated inspection schedule due to its condition. The plan now is to close it, remove it, and replace it, while running a detour around it. The new bridge will be two lanes (as is now), width to be determined, with a pedestrian sidewalk on at least one side.  The work will involve both deck replacement and structural improvements to the base.

The next inspection is due to take place August 16 or 17, and it is doubtful as to whether it will pass. Either way the odds are substantially against this bridge remaining open until the scheduled replacement time in about a year - best case scenario would be that construction could start in the summer or fall of 2014 – which may not even happen if the funding isn’t in place.

According to Bagley, while all the preconstruction funding is in place and allows for the design work and purchase of required easements, the total costs of $8-$10 million for the actual construction work still need to be allocated. The biggest chunk, about 75%, comes from Federal TIP (transportation improvement program) money; about 15% from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the rest from the County. The County has their portion of the funding in place, having previously done a bond issue to raise the money, and that will roll forward until used.  Bagley stated “It’s a zero sum game...if we get the funding from the state, something else won’t, and vice versa”. Thus, the pressure is on our local elected officials (state Rep. Mike Vereb, and state senators Andrew Dinniman and John Rafferty) to make sure State funding makes it way to this project. Knowing Vereb and Rafferty, I’m sure they’re already working to do what they can to make that happen sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately the County hasn’t been doing a fantastic job of keeping the impacted communities apprised of what’s going on until very recently, although they did permit them to comment on the proposed detour route. Upper Providence has signed off on the portion of the detour that lies within their boundaries. Lower Providence proposed an alternate (here) to that proposed by the County, but no sooner was that submitted for review than PennDOT came back with an alternate version. LP reiterated that they prefer their version.  Ultimately PennDOT has the final say but LP is waiting to hear which way it goes.  

The PennDOT maps (here) are virtually impossible for even transportation experts to make out, but one version for residents south of the bridge involves traffic heading east on Arcola Road, turning right to head south on Eagleville Road, turning right to head south on Park Avenue, right onto Egypt to head west toward Route 422, and then turning right to head north on either Cider Mill Road or Black Rock Road.  From either of those roads, one could turn right to head northeast on Route 29 and then turn right to head south on the upper portion of Arcola Road.

The second version for those north of the bridge directs travelers north on Arcola Road, turning right onto 29 North, and then turning right onto Ridge in Collegeville by Keyser Ford, and proceeding onto either Germantown Pike or further down Ridge depending on their destination.

The main problem I foresee with any official version is that while they illustrate what they hope drivers will do, we all know that motorists will find the fastest and/or shortest paths to follow. In LP's case, I believe many cars will choose to cross over Pinetown Road instead of going down to Egypt, or snake their way north or south on Redtail Road between Arcola Road and Pinetown Road instead of going out to Eagleville Road. If so, it creates additional traffic congestion and safety concerns for residents of those neighborhoods.

As with the regional sewer authority’s middle interceptor, this is another project that straddles both Upper Providence and Lower Providence, with potential impacts for both. The proposed detour route on Cider Mill Road will run right along the same property on the Upper Providence side of the creek as that owned by the Stiefels, the UP couple who would be directly impacted if the middle interceptor is placed on the UP side. This poor couple is literally being sandwiched from front door to back door between major infrastructure improvement projects. Similarly a portion of the detour route in LP runs right by property owned by some of our residents affected by the same project, although they have more land between their actual homes and the proposed projects/detours.

Once the design process and the easement purchases are finalized, the project can be put out to bid. Hopefully, the money will be there when that’s complete so that this bridge doesn’t have to be out of service one more day than absolutely necessary. In the meantime, prepare to wait and allow lots of additional time to traverse in and out of the township into Collegeville and Upper Providence.