Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Defending First Amendment Rights in Tredyffrin Township

It has been 8+ weeks, since Tredyffrin Township Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro wrote and posted his September 5, 2012 letter to the citizens on the township website. (click here to read the letter). Over the last 2 months, I continue to receive phone calls, emails and have had many discussions with residents that are troubled and concerned about DiBuonaventuro’s letter and use of government letterhead, government website and government resources for his personal attack of traditional news sources as well a private citizen, who dare to question our government. Subsequent to September 5th, we have learned that DiBuonaventuro’s personal letter and use of government resources, was apparently sanctioned and approved by former township manager Mimi Gleason, township solicitor Vince Donahue and the other six members of the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors.

At the September 17, 2012 Board of Supervisors meeting, I read a personal statement (click here for Community Matters post and links to BOS meeting and statement) which addressed DiBuonaventuro’s letter and subsequent email and joint phone call from the township manager and police chief on this topic.

When the framers of our Constitution insisted on Freedom of Speech rights, one of their aims was so that all Americans – no matter their social class or position in our society – could vigorously examine and criticize our government. These rights have throughout our history nurtured our democracy and made us a beacon to the whole world. However, as history has played out, the battle for these rights has proven at times to be hard-won rights that we have to continually fight for and renew. First Amendment rights are a cornerstone to this nation’s government and citizens have a right to discuss issues that are of importance. The freedom is speech is in place for all of us – including the citizens of Tredyffrin Township. Further, freedom of speech includes ‘me’ as a citizen and Community Matters.

In 1996, Pennsylvania federal judge Stewart Dalzell, wrote his opinion in the ACLU v. Reno, the Internet – Freedom of Speech case, “As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion. It also deserves a great deal of attention from civil liberties activists who are concerned about free speech, privacy, and universal access – because the larger the scale of a new medium, the greater the temptation to restrict it.” As background, Dalzell, a 1969 graduate of Penn Law School, was recommended by Pennsylvania Senators Heinz and Spector and nominated by President George Bush to fill a judicial vacancy on the federal bench in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1990. He was confirmed by the Senate in 1991.

The last couple of months since DiBuonaventuro’s September 5 letter appeared on the township website have given me time to reflect. Because all township supervisors, the former township manager and township solicitor supported DiBuonaventuro’s letter and use of the government letterhead and resources, I knew that I needed to take a stand for First Amendment rights in Tredyffrin Township. If an elected official is permitted to use the public website whenever they disagree with a news story, what’s next for the citizens of Tredyffrin Township? Where will it stop? What recourse do citizens have — we are not permitted the use of the township website to defend ourselves. The end result … a chilling effect intended to silence all those who disagree.

To be clear, DiBuonaventuro is entitled to his own freedom of speech; he has every right to explain himself, defend, etc. He could write a letter to the editor, make a comment on Community Matters, etc. etc. — I simply do not think it is OK to use Government resources for a personal matter by an elected official.

As a result of the September 5, 2012 letter written by township supervisor John DiBuonaventuro, using the government letterhead, government website and government resources, I sought legal counsel and have retained the services of attorney Samuel Stretton. The following letter from Stretton dated October 25, 2012 was mailed to each member of Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors. To date, there has been no response.

October 25, 2012

Michelle H. Kichline, Chair
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

John P. DiBuonaventuro, Vice Chair
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Philip Donahue
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Michael C. Heaberg
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Kristen K. Mayock
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Paul W. Olson
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Evelyn Richter
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Dear Supervisors:

Please be advised I have been retained by Pattye Benson, in reference to a letter of September 5, 2012 written by Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro. This letter was posted on the Tredyffrin Township website. This letter was done on the letterhead of the Board of Supervisors. Attached and marked as Exhibit “A” is a copy of the September 5th letter.

This letter of Mr. DiBuonaventuro, in effect, used Government funds, Government letterhead, and a Government website to respond to a private blog on his personal issues. I believe it is entirely inappropriate to allow a Government official to use Government resources to respond to matters involving his personal conduct. I understand there was and is no policy as to the use of the government website and the expenditure of government funds.

I am asking that this Board immediately adopt a policy so this sort of misconduct and abuse of the First Amendment will not occur again. I am also asking that an apology be placed on the website. Further, I am asking that the letter be rejected by the Board as inappropriate to be placed on the township website.

Further, the letter is inaccurate. The blog “Community Matters” is written by Ms. Benson to raise important community issues. The blog at issue concerned the conduct of the Tredyffrin Township Police Department in not appearing at the two criminal hearings for a member of the Zoning Board. There were two different cases, and both were set for the same day. Coincidentally, neither officer appeared on that day, resulting in the cases being discharged. The failure to appear by two officers was surprising since the Tredyffrin police officers are known to always appear at criminal hearings. Clearly, the failure to appear raised some questions.

The blog “Community Matters” also raised the question about one of the supervisors and his relationship with the Zoning Board member. These are valid issues of public discussion and concern.

The letter, which is dated September 5, 2012, from Supervisor DiBuonaventuro, is essentially a personal attack on Ms. Benson, supposedly defending himself. This type of personal letter has no place on the Board of Supervisors letterhead and no place on the township website.

What is particularly disturbing is the last paragraph on the first page where Mr. DiBuonaventuro, using Government resources, Government letterhead, and the Government website, criticizes legitimate discussions of public business. He calls this a “disturbing trend”. He utilized the Government website to bully “Community Matters” and others.

This conduct, using Government resources to respond to those who speak out or discuss Government issues is unacceptable and should be disavowed by the Government immediately. If Mr. DiBuonaventuro is not able to accept public criticism, he ought to resign as Supervisor. Those who choose to hold public office have my respect. But as part of serving, one has to understand there will be differences of opinion, which should be welcomed as part of the public discussions. To utilize the platform of the Government website and Government letterhead to try to bully bloggers is totally unacceptable and foreign to the First Amendment.

This improper website use and letter has to be put in the context that my client then received a phone call from the Township Manager with the Police Chief on the same line. Clearly, such a tactic has the effect of chilling legitimate speech.

Further, when Ms. Benson spoke to the Township Manager about the letter, the response was an email dated September 7th to Ms. Benson criticizing her and supporting the use of public resources of the Supervisor without approval to criticize public comments.

It is a sad day if the Government resources can be used by Supervisors to defend their own personal issues. But it is a sadder day when the Government resources and the authority of the Government is used to try to chill First Amendment discussions.

I am requesting an apology to Ms. Benson and I ask that a policy be put in place to prevent Government resources to be used for individuals to express their personal dislike or disagreement of articles. It is unacceptable that an individual can use the power of Government to try to bully and prevent legitimate discussions of questionable conduct by Government officials. I will await your advice. I hope to have a response in the next 7 days.

Very truly yours,

Samuel C. Stretton

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  1. Moved out of Tredyffrin one year ago, and I am sad to say I’m glad. This type of attempt to silence or embarass into silence an important source of news is terrible.
    Personal attacks have no place on official sites – employees would be fired for doing something like posting this type of attack. How do you fire elected officials? Think carefully the next time you vote…

    1. bonnie im glad im still here. warts and all. maybe try to make it better. Guess you are not a fox hole type of person. or maybe you just moved out. — life change… good luck anyway

  2. How is it possible that this is allowed to happen in Tredyffrin in 2012. If anything the BOS should be thanking you for offering clarification in regards to the township police matter.

    I watched the video of BOS meeting and Mrs. Felkens makes some good suggestions. The school district has a policy pertaining to the use of TESD website by school board directors, why doesn’t the township. However, even in the absence of a public policy, common sense should dictate that Mr. D’s letter and attempt to silence the newspapers and this blog are ridiculous. But what is more outrageous is that the other supervisors go along with the posting of the letter as does the twp manager and solicitor.

    Our taxpayer dollars at work in Tredyffrin, paying the salary of the manager and the fees for legal advise from the solicitor. This is crazy. Didnt I read somewhere that some of the current supervisors are lawyers? If that is the case, dont they understand freedom of speech?

  3. I sense that Pattye would be satisfied with an apology and a policy. In essence, Pattye is formally asking them to do what anyone with a moral compass would have done already. Unfortunately, my guess is that this “nice” letter will elicit no response. I’ll be interested in the next step.

  4. As someone who spoke that night, I will repeat that 5 of the 7 BOS told me they had not seen the letter before it was posted and appreciated my comments. So let me say again: this is a group that does not understand their mission. The idea that Michelle would have read a statement of solidarity when in fact she did not approve the letter tells me in sad detail that leadership of this board is not possible. I cannot fathom why Mr. DiBonaventuro did not stand that evening and apologize for his display of temper and poor manners. That would have been fine. If he had the strength to be a leader, it is precisely what he would have done. Now that there are lawyers involved, this will be like every other pathetic government protocol: “we cannot comment on the advice of counsel.”. But Michelle sure did comment about standing by JD as if his association with the woman involved needed a defense. I’ll ask again–why was SP asked to resign when there was no policy in place regarding qualifications (or disqualifications) to serve on ZHB? Sure was some kind of moral compass guiding the BOS there. 6 BOS sat through Michelle’s statement, and all 7 plus Mimi and the solicitor sat there during my “rant” and Pattye’s statement, and said NOT A WORD. JDB sat there like the Cheshire cat…and the promise of a policy has already failed to happen….it will. No doubt. But leadership or at least COURAGE of convictions should have prevailed. For me, I will never go to a Supervisor meeting again. It was the most scripted thing I have ever witnessed. No voices matter. No one says anything except explain their vote WHILE they vote. TV version on DVR…ff through all the “debate” which is anything but. I won’t be a township resident the next election cycle, but it would not surprise me to see JDB run again and get re-elected. Let’s see if he becomes Chair when Michelle finishes her term in that seat. maybe someone who doesn’t tow the line might be a breath of fresh air. I know several key members of the TTRC encouraged MY comments and thanked me for making them. Let’s see them look for independent thinking people the next time around.

    1. Andrea,
      Thank you for this comment and thank you for standing up at the BOS meeting on September 17.

      When will our voices matter in Tredyffrin Township?

      We just want our elected officials to do what is right — why is that so hard? Why is it so much to ask? Once a candidate for the BOS, it is completely and thoroughly impossible for me to understand the mentality of the other supervisors to simply ‘go along’ — I could never just go along with something that is so obviously wrong as was JD’s letter, using township letterhead and the township website. I thought that some of these supervisors were better than this — how could I have been so wrong.

      You are right — where is the leadership of the BOS?

    2. Andrea,

      Don’t hold your breath waiting for the TTRC to nominate an independent thinking candidate in the next cycle. That ended years ago when they, and the CCRC, didn’t nominate 2 highly qualified candidates for higher office, and it won’t happen anytime soon. The TTRC backs only its own – those who do not and will not buck the system.

      I agree, all JD had to do was apologize at the meeting and ihe matter would have been finished.

  5. You go girl! I am very glad to see that you are taking action and I hope the BOS complies with your attorney’s requests – we need the policy now and a public apology to you is the very least they can offer.

  6. Very happy to hear that you’re standing up for your rights, and OUR rights as taxpayers and citizens of Tredyffrin. We stand WITH you….you’re not alone.

  7. Transparency is the foundation of accountablility. It is a powerful means of urging greater openness which leads to less corruption.

    This blog has become a powerful tool to help keep local citizens aware of and interested in what our officials are doing. It is difficult to evaluate behavior and performance when there is no transparency to hold people accountable.

    I think that S.P. resigning her position, a new township manager hired so quickly and 5 of the 7 supervisors revealing to Andrea that they hadn’t seen the letter before it was posted demonstrates they recognize missteps and are now waking up to the realization that they will be held accountable to a much higher standard of conduct in the future. These things would never have happened without this blog.

    Thank-you Pattye for your hard work and determination.

    1. Thank-you John for your civil reply. I concede you may be right. It may take real political fall out, like losing elections.

      If it weren’t for this blog though, do you think SP would have resigned? The new manager hire might be a reach but I also believe the 5 who talked to Andrea did so out of “true realization.” What did they have to gain by confiding in Andrea?

      1. Even though it got picked up in the papers, nothing happened until Pattye shined a big bright light on it and kept it there until the pressure became too great and she resigned. You said yourself, she should have resigned 2 years ago but there was no pressure on her or the R party for her to do so. I’m confident, her resignation satisfied many people in this district.

        Every member of the BOS knows that Andrea is a public person and doesn’t mind telling people what she thinks. Those 5 BOS knew exactly what they were doing when they told Andrea that. They were conceding John.

        I’m not a lawyer, so I may be wrong, but it seems to me you’re being overly dramatic with respect to the last paragraph.

        Let’s give these people a chance. They’re demonstrating that they are listening.

      2. John,

        Just read this, Not accustomed to going back and reading previous threads. When Pattye moved on so did I.

        Good insights. Thanks for revealing you were a supervisor. I think that is important.

    2. The practice of government is surely a difficult one, here at the local level. Mistakes in judgment, by otherwise good people are made. My question is why would people of otherwise good character, good intentions and a desire to serve want this? The leveling of stifling of free speech is serious, indeed, but my take is that with this new board, as opposed to the previous board where criticisms were constant and myriad, a new board that had a fresh start and was generally hailed as being made up of good folks, now comes under criticism. While I agree the phone call to pattye was out of line, maybe some of the subsequent actions of this board were clumsy, if also ill advised. To think that an all Democratic board, unlikely as it seems, would be immune to mistakes and criticisms is folly too. This is a tough business, some attorneys give bad advice (Donohue?) and while some of these board members are indeed attorneys, that does not make them immune to errors, sometimes big ones.

      1. To think that an all Democratic Board….

        Republican or Democrat, this type of behavior is endemic in the system. The supervisors are indoctrinated to believe that serving themselves instead of the public is normal and they are trained that this is how government works.

        There is enormous pressure on people to do what the system wants and what their supervisor wants. People are obedient . They will follow instructions even when they are unethical.

        I still don’t see how this is a “career wrecker.” SP resigning is one thing………….I don’t see where the pressure needed to get these people to resign will come from.

        All of this is a recipe for exactly what happened. Hubris did JD in. He was bold, foolhardy – and above all – void of humility. and the sad thing is- he obviously didn’t even know it.

  8. Glad to see you having the courage of conviction to do what is right, Pattye, but don’t expect an apology – at least a true one with any meaning.

    From my experience, I’m not surprised in the least no other supervisor will stand up against JD.

    I have witnessed this in LM and Radnor so I doubt it is different in your neck of the woods.

    Supervisors/commissioners come and go, but township solicitors, managers and police chiefs tend to serve through many terms of different boards.

    Senior staff learns how to control and manipulate the boards while appearing subservient. They tell the boards how to act and behave. When LM had a wholesale change on its board, one commissioner, after a year in office, publicly thanked the LM township manager for “teaching us how to do our jobs”. Huh? And who do they work for? Certainly not the citizens as it is supposed to be.

    There is no doubt in LM that the board does the bidding of the senior staff in situations like this. In a way, it is understandable. It’s a part time job and with often overwhelming hours with a tremendous amount of details for supervisors to keep up with while senior staff does this for a living – so supervisors learn to lean on them when they should be leaning on citizens for how to do their jobs.

    Further, senior staff never wants to look bad (and they don’t want the supervisors looking bad because that can reflect on them) so they train the supervisors to always stand in agreement on issues like this – and even if it means doing the wrong thing.

    Make no mistake – senior staff feels they run the township and are in charge and they have had years to learn the best way to control board. Board members, upon being elected, are indoctrinated by senior staff on “how government works” – which is not the board working for citizens, but rather working for and with the township staff.

    This has been going on for so long that local political party committees of unelected party members who run the local party in charge (Republican in your case) even become an extension of township government.

    This is why JD felt perfectly OK using the township website for his demented rant. He has been trained by staff to feel that the board and the township itself rule over citizens and run the show – when it is supposed to be the other way around.

    The brilliance of it is how they still give citizens the appearance that their voice matters, but when situations like this arise, we see how it really works,

    It’s an institutionalized system that is almost impossible to change (Radnor has turned out pretty well with its new board while LM is still a mess where government is the almighty, ruling authority that does whatever it wants) and it won’t change until and if you get supervisors with the time, wherewithal and courage of conviction to be independent of township staff and the supervisors who are in bed with township staff. Tredyffrin obviously does not appear to have any supervisors who are independent of township staff and actually work for the citizens first and foremost at this point.

    You may get a supervisor or two privately supporting you, but they won’t dare do so and go against the status quo and support you publicly. Government via township staff feels they must maintain their power and control over citizens – and one way to do this (outside of how they sought to intimidate and shut you down) is for them to never admit they are ever wrong in situations like this.

    However, it is always worth fighting the good fight to remind the board and other citizens who is supposed to be in charge in this country until you maybe get some supervisors who understand who they work for, but as long as they are elected out of the party apparatus (does not matter which party – D’s control LM and are no different in situations like this) this draconian form of local government will never change.

    Good luck with it, and keep up the good fight!

    1. politeia,
      Great information. Thank-you. So would you say then that the same principle applies to the school district? Is the TESD an institutionalized system that is almost impossible to change too? School Board members are paid nothing. Do the administrators, who are paid very high salaries, control and manipulte the board while appearing subserviant? Does the school board do the bidding for the administrators? I have long wondered why the salaries and benefits and contracts of the administrators are never brought up, much less discussed. I have even gotten the sense that citizens are afraid to “go there.”

    2. I agree with you that it probably makes no difference whether its Republicans in Tredyffrin Twp or Democrats in Lower Merion. I do think that this points to the flaws in single party representation on our Board of Supervisors — there is no push back. In Tredyffrin Township’s 300 years of history, there has only been 2 Democrats ever elected but maybe this current situation will be the impetus for change. An issue as important as freedom of speech should not be just swept under the carpet, as if it didn’t matter. However, to change the political climate and encourage independent thought in Tredyffrin Township is going to take more than just my wanting it to happen!

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