Lower Merion, Tredyffrin Townships Struggle With ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ Manipulation . . . Where’s the Transparency?
Mother Nature caused the cancellation of tonight’s interim supervisor interviews. Fortunately the Personnel Committee was able to reschedule the interviews for tomorrow night. Although the interview process will only include 3 supervisors (Kichline, Donahue, Lamina) rather than all six supervisors, I am accepting that it is a step in the right direction. I know each of the candidates, Eamon Brazunas, Mike Heaberg and Kristen Mayock, personally and the residents of Tredyffrin would be fortunate to have any one of them serve as interim supervisor.
Regardless of the candidate ultimately chosen, I do believe that we need to continue to encourage greater transparency from our elected officials. Similarly to Tredyffrin Township, Lower Merion Township is involved in the process of filling vacancies of elected officials. In Lower Merion’s case, two Commissioners have resigned. Residents have questioned the appointment process in Lower Merion; concerned by an orchestrated effort to manipulate the outcome behind the scenes. Many residents feel that the Commissioner replacements are predetermined — some suggest the replacement Commissioner is known before the vacancy is publicly announced! Some in Tredyffrin have suggested that a similar situation may exist.
Audrey Romasco of Bryn Mawr offers her opinion in Main Line Times on Lower Merion’s appointment process . . . and Lower Merion officials who can stay within the law, but manage to disregard transparency and civic participation.
Ms. Romasco’s letter ends with “In 2011, a year of municipal elections, it is time for citizens of Lower Merion to demand a level of transparency that both fulfills the law and fosters civic participation and to consider how well that demand is met when they enter the voting booth.” Many readers of Community Matters would probably agree with Ms. Romasco. If you don’t approve of the way things are done, make your voice heard through your vote. As you read the letter below, replace Lower Merion Township and their Commissioner vacancy with Tredyffrin Township and our interim supervisor vacancy.
Transparency more than letter of the law
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
By Audrey W. Romasco, Bryn Mawr
Over the past four weeks the residents of Lower Merion have learned a very important lesson: it is possible to follow the letter of the law, enacted in the Sunshine Act, and still deprive the citizens of transparency.
I am speaking of the Machiavellian handling of the serial resignations of Commissioners Reed and Taylor. By Bruce Reed’s own account, he had been considering resigning for the past year. Mr. McGuire also stated that Reed approached him “two or three months” before his resignation. Yet Reed waited to publicly disclose his intention until just before the close of business on Dec. 23, the last day before two shortened holiday weeks.
In other words he timed his resignation to deliberately attract the least attention from the public and to minimize the possibility of developing interest from candidates other than Mr. McGuire whom he had chosen to fill the vacancy. This goal was furthered by the very compressed scheduling of the deadline for applications.
The First Class Township statutes in Pennsylvania state that the Board of Commissioners must fill a vacancy within 30 days of the vacancy occurring. In Mr. Reed’s case, the vacancy did not actually occur until the close of business on Jan. 19. The board thus had until Feb. 18 to name a replacement. Instead, hard on the heels of residents returning to non-holiday mode, applications were due by Jan. 6. This week Lower Merion experienced déjà vu. Commissioner Taylor announced that he was resigning as of Feb. 15. Again, though the Board of Commissioners by statute has until March 17 to fill the vacancy, it has instead rushed the process forward, anticipating interviews on Feb. 9, which would require applications to be submitted by Feb. 3, a mere 13 days after Taylor tendered his resignation. Taylor was cannier than Reed. He demurred when asked about his replacement, saying he had talked to several people. However, the foreshortened timetable can only lead one to believe that a predetermined successor has been identified.
All of the above is strictly legal. It even has precedent in Lower Merion politics. It is also bad government.
First, the voters of these two wards had an expectation when they went to the polls three years ago that their elected representatives would complete their terms barring health issues or relocation. Such was not the case with Messrs. Reed and Taylor. Rather than transparently announcing well in advance that they would not seek re-election, they merely decided that they wanted to “reprioritize” their lives: that they didn’t owe their constituents the last 10 months of their “contract” with their ward residents. This sheds an entirely different light on all the votes they cast in the last several months, a context that was completely hidden from the Lower Merion citizens.
Second, by grooming specified replacements well in advance of announcing their resignations, they have denied a level playing field to all applicants. Several commissioners noted that Mr. McGuire was more “up to speed”; small wonder when he had three months to prepare. And while the commissioners had time to privately interview the candidates for Ward 13 (indeed several Democratic commissioners had already committed their vote to Mr. McGuire before the application deadline), few constituents were afforded enough time to meet them, perhaps in a venue such as a civic-association interview.
Third, they have cunningly influenced the elections playing field. They have discouraged what otherwise might be a vigorous primary contest in May by investing one candidate with the advantages of incumbency.
Finally, and by no means least, they have once again done damage to the concept that civic participation is a virtue. Their premature resignations suggest they consider only their own self-interests, an all too common perception of elected officials. The truncated appointment process signals predetermined results. A commissioner purportedly telling a citizen not to waste their breath supporting Stuart Ebby chills all citizen comment.
The National Constitution Center’s 2010 Pennsylvania Civic Health Index shows that only 11.2 percent of Pennsylvanians contacted or visited a public official and only 8.8 percent attended a meeting where political issues were discussed. That ranks Pennsylvania 29th and 38th respectively among the 50 states. As appalling as these numbers are, it can hardly be surprising when some of our elected officials do everything in their power to discourage transparency and citizen participation.
In 2011, a year of municipal elections, it is time for citizens of Lower Merion to demand a level of transparency that both fulfills the law and fosters civic participation and to consider how well that demand is met when they enter the voting booth.