The irony is thick once again at the 2/19 meeting. I find myself wondering if it is a lack of self-awareness, or simply arrogant presumption. With this Board, it might be a little of both.
With the return of Chairman Higgins, we also have the return of the sixth supervisor, with Eric Frey sitting in for Joe Bresnan this evening.
After Chairman Higgins struggles with the microphone (possibly because she didn’t have the kindly grandfather there to remind her to turn on her mic) and the basic approval of the agenda, bill list, and meeting minutes, the Board finally has some discussion on the notorious pay-to-play ordinance in a public meeting, after kicking this down the road for several months.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
Posing on PAY to PLAY
First, a bit of a refresher: On the cusp of approving the advertisement of the Administrative Code on November 19 last year, Calci requested that a pay-to-play ordinance be shoehorned into the Administrative Code on the very afternoon of the meeting. Bresnan scrambled to put some language together in time for that evening’s meeting, but the Board ended up eventually advertising and passing the code sans pay-to-play. Since then, the pay-to-play ordinance has been on the agenda, but most of the comment has been offered by part-time sixth supervisor, Joe Bresnan; very little comment has actually been offered by the Board. A link to the ordinance is below:
So now you are up to date. As usual, your Humble Blogress will offer a bit of commentary and analysis after the recap of the discussion.
Calci dives right in, and notes that she had conferred with Bresnan earlier in the day and asks for Frey to explain her earlier conversation with Bresnan: that the pay-to-play ordinance would not apply to any of the vendors currently serving the Township.
In response, Frey clarifies that the ordinance would not apply to any past contributions by vendors, but it would apply to future contributions.
Vagnozzi has some comments regarding section number 7, (below):
“Two things: That could be political, number one. And ‘C’ concerns me: ‘If the facts warrant, the matter may be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation of criminal conduct.’ And the problem with that is that it would happen by the Board voting on it. That means, the opinion of the majority of the Board would be taken in public. Say ABC Vendor or ABC Consultant, we’d have to vote in public to allege that somebody did something “criminal” when we’re not triers of fact to do that, and that could be a problem. We could severely damage somebody if someone else said, well, that’s not a violation of the law, so there’s a little bit of a conflict there.”
Calci confirms, “To make it out in public, you mean?”
And Vagnozzi responds, “Yeah, sure. Because if [the code] says ‘we vote,’ the only place we can vote is right here.”
Higgins, at last, has decided to finally do some governing, and she’s concerned with the same section, but paragraph b. She asks if the presumption of the disqualification of the vendor is 6 years, presumably to go along with the Supervisor’s term of office or apply to a particular election. Is there a time limit on a vendor’s disqualification?
Frey says there is no time limit on the disqualification in the ordinance as it stands and Higgins asks that it be addressed in a future revision.
Then Higgins comments on section 2, general rule, “Does that mean state, county committees? Both parties?”
Frey responds that most of the time, the State committees wouldn’t get involved in a local election. “Most of the time, it would be money received from a local or county committee, but potentially, if a candidate is getting money from a State Committee, it would include that as well.”
Hmm. Does Higgins know something we don’t know about State Committee involvement in local elections?
Higgins continues: “Ok, and then it has, ‘limit of $300.’ Can that be pro-rated? What if, for instance, the local committee gave $300 to a slate of two candidates, or you know, how does that…?”
Frey says, “This isn’t about whether a local committee can give money, it’s whether a consultant can go over that threshold. And it would be a totality. You would have to look at the totality of what the consultant gave. If he gave $500 to a local committee and then he gave $100 to a candidate, you’d have to track where that money goes to.”
Higgins, “Ok, down a couple of lines, ‘Political committees that do not have a stated purpose of supporting a candidate,’ does that cover contributions to say, a county party, then say the county gives money to a candidate, you know, again?”
Frey says, “I think it would.”
Vagnozzi finally jumps in with some common sense:
“See, that’s where this whole thing gets complicated. And I have no problem with the proposal, in and of itself, but if some ABC vendor gives $1,000 to a state committee, and that committee happens to provide funding for a Supervisor race for $500, how can you track that back to the state committee? I would think that it would have to be a direct contribution to a candidate. And when I read that, I read it as, that like, sometimes, two supervisors will run as one, that’s what I thought, as a slate. Not so much who’s providing the money but…see it’s all convoluted. I agree with it, but I think that’s a long paragraph.”
For more common sense on this ordinance, Barker asks the $64,000 question,
“Who’s going to interpret that to decide? So if you had a disgruntled person that ran, they could just raise this issue. Who’s going to do this investigation? Who’s going to determine whether it’s a violation of this rule or not? Like I said, I don’t have any problem with what we are moving forward with, I just see all kinds of implications going down the road if somebody’s not satisfied with the way somebody else raised money or been given money.”
Higgins breaks in, “How’s it going to be enforced and what are the unintended consequences?”
Barker continues, “And I’m just concerned that ABC Consultant, because they gave money to somebody to support a committee, suffers the consequences—unintended consequences.”
Vagnozzi adds, “Yeah, and the only way you find that is the election, the finance records, right? There’s people that don’t even file finance records…”
At this point, Pearson, recognizing this remark is about him, gives an arrogant little chuckle.
Vagnozzi continues, “…how do you, then who’s going to be the one to go get it? We find out about it then,. ‘Ok, Al, go up to the courthouse and go get it and here, I’ll bring the records in? Who’s going to do that?”
Higgins: “And trace it back?”
Vagnozzi: “Right. Somebody’s going to have to do that.”
Pearson then falls back to form, deciding to not decide:
“So, why don’t, why don’t we all put it in our, why don’t we all put in our concerns and send ‘em off to Joe, and have Joe tweak it and send it back to us and we can look at it again and if, and say yeah, we like what, we like the way this has come out, orrr, we don’t like it and we do it again if we have to, it’s like.”
Higgins returns to form as well, eager to shut down this uncomfortable discussion and move the meeting along, “So, the question is, is there going to be a motion to authorize the advertisement now, or a motion to table this? Again.”
Calci, who is the sponsor of this ordinance, wants to know “How long’s the advertisement for?”
Frey responds that it has to be advertised once for seven days prior to the public meeting.
Pearson: “So what if we, what if—[turning to Vagnozzi] I’m gonna ask a question. So, so what if we take two or three months to make up our mind to decide?”
“I would suggest waiting until we get a little less questions. I think there’s a lot of questions here, but I think everyone has the same intent. But we want to get the language so it’s a little tighter to satisfy some of your concerns. What I would suggest is that you don’t need a motion to table, but get all your comments together and get them over to our office and hopefully we can address them before your next meeting and advertise it after that. The turnaround time is essentially one meeting to get it on then adopt it.”
Calci wraps it up, “Well thank you for the discussion everybody. I think it was well needed.”
Crime and Punishment
There’s so much to unpack here.
All Board discussions on this ordinance are like touching the third rail, which is why all of them, except Calci, are so awkward when discussing it and why they never seem to get anywhere. No matter how pretentious and counter-productive this ordinance is, no one wants to be on record as opposing an ordinance that is being billed as promoting “good government” and “transparency.” That’s why all of the Board members have been dancing around their support while simultaneously pushing off putting it up for a vote.
I would submit that this discussion, while entertaining, misses a few very important points: First and foremost: A vendor or contributor to a campaign has not done anything “wrong” until the Board of Supervisors appoint him to a position. In effect, it’s the Board that turns the vendor into a criminal with their appointment of him to a Township position.
In America, we have this little thing called the First Amendment, which covers our rights to political free speech. Campaign donations are considered political speech. Under the First Amendment, individuals have the right to contribute to whatever political organizations they want to. This ordinance speaks of getting law enforcement agencies involved for a perceived violation triggered by an exercise of free speech, essentially criminalizing the first amendment.
But it’s only through actions of the Board under this proposed ordinance that those contributions become criminal, and threaten to taint the reputation of a vendor or consultant.
That important point being made,
Where are the penalties for the SUPERVISORS?
It is by action of the Board—and their action alone—that a vendor is turned into a criminal under this pretentious ordinance.
But this ordinance does not contemplate any punishment or consequences for the offending Board members.
Errors and Omissions
Last year, your Humble Blogress produced an extensive report on the shortcomings and omissions of the Democrats’ campaign finance statements for the past several years. My fight with Voter Services to hold John Pearson accountable for not even filing a single campaign finance report in 2015 is well documented. If you don’t file a campaign finance statement, how can you even tell who may or may not have given money in service to an official’s election?
Or, if you don’t report all of your donations.
Am I the only one that thinks it’s odd that a majority Democrat Board would vote unanimously to appoint a former Republican Committeeman, noted Trump Supporter, former MCRC Chairman’s Club Member, top Republican donor and delegate to the RNC as the Vacancy Chairman, not only once, but two years in a row?
Am I the only one wondering about that, especially since every other township appointment seems to be used as a resume building opportunity for another one of Laurie Higgins’ politically ambitious Democrat friends?
In fact, for all its high minded pretension, this ordinance essentially only covers the solicitor, the civil engineer, and the traffic engineer. As we have seen for the past 14 months, campaign finance reports do not dictate who gets favors, and politically granted largesse comes in many other flavors besides a Township consultancy.
Witness the Board’s finesse on such politically motivated initiatives like abdicating responsibility on public safety with an attempt to turn over fire and emergency services to Pearson’s bar buddies at the Black Rock Volunteer Fire Company. Or their famous about face after randomly deciding to close the Anderson Park Rec Center. Or handing out hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to friends under “farm preservation” and getting absolutely nothing for the taxpayers in return. Or reversing course on the placement of a cell tower. Or establishing and granting a Township towing contract.
Now, after politicizing our Township government with the expansion of the Board to five members, the Democrats now are proposing to even further politicize township business with this ridiculous ordinance.
Because, how can this ordinance ever be anything BUT than political?
The majority party controls the appointments because they control the votes. What are the odds that they would then vote to “indict” one of their preferred vendors under this new ordinance?
Are they going to make an appointment, then vote to “ban” the appointee, after appointed to the position, for the “crime” giving them money to get elected?
Or will this be a new political tool to further divide this Board?
Do you see the problems here?
The Law of Unintended, but Entirely Preventable, Consequences
As Barker and Vagnozzi correctly note, chasing down campaign contributions through more than one committee will be problematic.
Let’s walk through an illustration based on a totally hypothetical, but realistic, scenario: suppose ABC Vendor donates $500 to the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, and then MCDC subsequently donates $500 to Area 4 Democrats, and then the Area 4 Democrats donate $500 to Democratic Candidate Bill Starling for his 2019 campaign for Upper Providence Township Supervisor.
ABC Vendor’s intent may have been to simply donate to County-wide candidates or to Montgomery County Democrats in general.
Or ABC Vendor may have specifically directed MCDC to filter his $500 dollars through two committees to end up in Bill Starling’s campaign account in order to get around the stupid ordinance the Upper Providence Board of Supervisors passed.
In this hypothetical, it is also entirely likely that Bill Starling may not even know that ABC Vendor donated money to MCDC, who then passed along the same amount of money to Area 4 Dems, who then in turn passed along the same amount of money to Candidate Starling.
Regardless, it will be impossible to determine ABC Vendor’s intent based upon the campaign expense report, which is the only tool available for enforcing this ordinance.
And let us be perfectly blunt: If Upper Providence passes this ordinance, it will be super easy to obscure that intent. That $500 will not get passed along from the County to the Candidate in a few neat $500 transactions; chances are, the donation would be split up–$200 here, a hundred there, several $50 dollar donations over here and then spread over multiple reporting periods so as to render it untraceable. And $50 donations are not even itemized on the campaign finance reports.
It’s easy hide it, and as discussed in this post, the Democrats and Upper Providence First have extensive past experience in shenanigans designed to obscure their funding sources. There are multiple ways around it. For instance, ABC Vendor could just have his 18-year-old twins donate $250 each to Bill Starling’s campaign. It’s worked before. 123117 HCP Annual
To return to our illustration of this ridiculousness, let’s say that candidate Bill Starling loses his election and the Board make-up remains the same (three Democrats, two Republicans).
ABC Vendor, having been a loyal Democrat donor to the Montgomery County Democrats for years, could then, through his connections at MCDC and Area 4 Democrats, have pressure applied to the sitting Upper Providence Democrat Supervisors to hire his firm. And they could legally hire him under this ordinance since ABC Vendor did not donate directly to any of the sitting Democrats’ campaigns. The sitting Democrats, now safely ensconced on the dais of their little fiefdom, are conveniently exempted from consequences of this stupid ordinance in more ways than the one mentioned above.
Now let’s say Bill Starling wins his election. If ABC Vendor’s intent was to simply support generic Montgomery County Democrats through his donation to the county party, is he now automatically disqualified from holding an Upper Providence Township consultancy for 6 years (or however long they decide)?
Or if he gets hired, is he at risk of a public accusation of violating “pay to play,” the law enforcement consequences of the ordinance, and reputational damage, simply because Bill Starling unwittingly accepted $500 from the Area 4 Democrats?
Upper Providence will have to start contracting exclusively with out-of-county consultants, because most every consultant in Montgomery County gives political donations in some form or another. Either that, or else the Township can just stomp all over the first amendment rights of Montgomery County’s lawyers and engineers. Even if all candidates keep spotless and accurate finance records (which we have already determined, they do not), it will be impossible to enforce this ordinance using a reasonable doubt standard.
The bottom line is that this ordinance will make campaign donations even less transparent than they already are, as consultants desiring a position within the Township will simply filter their donations through an umbrella organization.
But hey, the Democrats will get to say they passed a “good government ordinance” and that they “improved transparency” even though the real world effect of this ordinance will be exactly the opposite.
If this passes, watch for a legal challenge to the Township.
Johnny Doc’s Tangled Web of Influence
Well, we’ve dipped a toe in the possibilities of Township largesse, and we see that it is not limited to winning a township consultancy, and we’ve attempted to follow the money through political PACs, and found it daunting and inconclusive. Now it’s time to take a brief detour and talk about the pay-to-play elephant (or Donkey, if you prefer) in the room.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you may have heard about a little group of indictments involving the IBEW Local 98 and their leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. For the myriad of ways someone can influence the government, the Johnny Doc case is a master class of political manipulation. Philly.com:
In a wide-ranging indictment unsealed Wednesday, federal authorities portrayed the region’s most powerful labor leader, John J. Dougherty, as an unscrupulous kingpin who enriched himself on the backs of union members and exerted his influence to steamroll opponents and corruptly bend the government of Philadelphia to his whims.
“I got a different world than most people ever exist in. I am able to take care of a lot of people all the time.”
But that’s just Philly, right?
Not so fast. Doc’s influence was felt nationwide, as outlined in this early NBC10 piece, which is titled, “’Johnny Doc’ Has Had an Effect on your Life, Even if You’re Not Paying Dues to Local 98.” This piece is worth quoting at length:
Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation: Look no further to see the scope of Johnny Doc’s power than the state’s current delegation serving in Washington D.C. The dots aren’t even that hard to connect. A.) John Dougherty’s union spends hundreds of thousands of dollars through political action committees on the 2015 campaign of his brother Kevin Dougherty. B.) Kevin, a Democrat, is elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in an election that gives Democrats a 5-2 advantage on the state’s highest bench. C.) The court rules that the Republican-majority Legislature’s congressional map is unconstitutional, and must be redrawn. Eventually, it redraws the map itself.D.) Democrats rejoice, then take nine seats in the 2018 midterm election.
– The cost of soda in Philly: Fellow indictee, Councilman Bobby Henon, was the promoter of a soda tax back in 2015, even before Jim Kenney was elected mayor and ushered through what became Kenney’s defining legislation: the sugary beverage tax. It is helping pay for universal pre-K and a $500 million initiative called Rebuild, which is dedicated to renovating city rec centers and libraries and involves lots of union labor. Henon sits on the Rebuild board. [Your Humble Blogress notes that it has been reported in multiple outlets that the soda tax was cynically implemented primarily as Doc’s personal payback to the Teamsters for allegedly running a negative ad against him, on the belief that the soda tax would cost Teamster jobs. It turned out that it wasn’t even the Teamsters who paid for the ad.]
– Blue-Collar pay: Johnny Doc is not only in charge of IBEW Local 98. He also sits atop the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, an umbrella group for dozens of labor unions. Whether it’s strong-arm tactics, ratmobiles, or behind-the-scenes legislative efforts, Johnny Doc has kept developers and big corporations from subverting organized labor’s wages with non-union workers.
– Semi-dark money in local elections: Dougherty deploys political action committees, ie PACs, as conduits for donations to candidates across the spectrum, whether it’s for mayor, congress, or even district attorney.
That last bullet point—the “semi-dark” money in local elections, is the tip of the iceberg on the stuff I’m talking about when we try to trace these contributions back through multiple PACs. But let’s set aside the semi-dark money for now, because trying to follow that through the PAC maze is impossible. Let’s look at the “bright” money—the direct contributions. This link contains an analysis of politically deployed Local 98 money just since 2010. The top ten sitting officials who were recipients of Local 98 money should raise some eyebrows:
The influence of these current office holders is certainly not confined within the boundaries of the City of Philadelphia.
But more instructive is how much influence Local 98 has purchased out here in Western Montco. I’m not talking about legislative districts that brush up against Philly. I’m talking deepinahearta Montco. Allow me to cherry pick some of our local State Reps who showed up on this list:
It’s important to remember that these totals are for monies donated between 2010 and 2019, so the figures you are seeing for Tim Briggs and Matt Bradford encompass four election cycles. On the other hand, the totals for Joe Ciresi, Melissa Schusterman, and Joe Webster are only for one election cycle. In fact, amongst State Legislators representing Montgomery County, only one Representative got more from Johnny Doc since 2010 than Joe Ciresi, and that was Doc favorite, Kevin Boyle, who was elected in 2009 and whose Montgomery County district is limited to the tiny Borough of Rockledge; the rest lies in Philadelphia.
It should be remembered that prior to the 2018 election, former Spring-Ford School Board president Joe Ciresi was not only a candidate for the 146th; he was also the head of the Area 4 Democrats and was a proud and vocal supporter of the Higgins-Calci-Pearson ticket in Upper Providence.
Ciresi held a fundraiser called “Row with Joe” at John Pearson’s bar, the Fitzwater Station, on September 16, 2017 (though it was, surprisingly, not held during a time when the Schuylkill was at flood stage.) Apparently, political fundraisers held at the Fitz are not free, since Ciresi’s 2017 campaign finance report reflects a $600 in-kind donation for that fundraiser. As detailed in this post, the HCP for Upper Providence report no such in-kind donation from the Fitz, despite fundraisers held there and the Fitz’s designation as “campaign headquarters.”
In 2018 there is a total of $400 in donations to Friends of Joe Ciresi from our tax collector’s (and Republican Committeewoman’s) twins. Gosh, those Mullin twins sure are politically active!
So what gives here?
Doc has donated almost $37,750 to the Montgomery County Democratic Committee since 2010, but he’s given more than that–$38,500– to three, newly elected local state reps right here in our backyard just in the last election cycle. And of that $38,500, Joe Ciresi, got the most at $23,500 or 61%, with Melissa Schusterman getting $10,000 or 26%, and the balance of $5,000 going to Joe Something-or-other in the 150th.
That’s an awful lot of money to spend on unproven, first-time State reps. And that’s just the money we can see.
At least when a consultant gives money to a candidate in order to curry favor to get a Township appointment, you can see tangible evidence of what that consultant is doing for the Township. With this Local 98 money, including the hundreds of thousands donated to the PACs that we cannot trace, we have no idea what kind of agenda Doc was pushing in exchange for his support. So much of Doc’s agenda only became apparent after the indictment was handed down and that indictment took many years and a team of federal investigators to complete.
So chew on this one a while: Why did Doc spend so much on these local newbie state reps?
While you are chewing, let us now revisit that so-called “semi-dark” money mentioned above. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were filtered from Local 98 through the various PACs. And since in Upper Providence we’re making such a business of tracing back donations of a single consultant through PAC money, and since we’ve seen that Johnny Doc had a vested interest in our particular area of Montgomery County, perhaps we should be wondering just how much, if any, of the Local 98 money made its way from the PACs and into the coffers of the Higgins-Calci-Pearson for Upper Providence campaign. And why.
The bottom line is that if we are going to make the assumption that all elected officials are owned by their donors (some are, some aren’t), the least shady of these are the donors that this stupid ordinance addresses. At least you know what a consultant wants and public records reveal what a consultant gets. I am more concerned about political decisions that are made on behalf of an agenda I cannot see.
And $31 million buys a pretty big agenda.
Laws are for Other People
This ordinance doesn’t prevent pay-to-play or cronyism. It simply gives an already politicized and divided Board yet another political weapon to wield against each other. In fact, this ordinance essentially only covers the solicitor, the civil engineer, and the traffic engineer. I’m not sure what the point is here, other than, again, a lot of pretentious posturing on good government.
But if I had to choose just one reason to oppose this ordinance, one reason to believe that this ridiculous ordinance is never going to “clean up” your government by one iota and is only going to make things worse, I need only look at the expression on John Pearson’s face when Vagnozzi calls him out for not filing campaign finance reports.
Does this look like a man who regrets his lack of transparency on his past two campaign finance filings? Like a man who had paid a price and learned his lesson for his failure to obey the law?
Does this look like the face of a man who is worried that he’s suddenly going to be held accountable to the rules he sets for others?
No. This is the look of utter arrogance.
Laws are for other people.
Equal Opportunity Time Waster
The folks from Pulte Homes were back once more, this time with an even denser plan for townhouses, and what could only be called row homes, for an L shaped property with frontage on Ridge Pike.
Regular readers may recall this plan from last year, when Vagnozzi grew notably impatient with their over-long presentation.
Though all of the players from Pulte insisted numerous times that all they wanted was a chance to present the plan at a formal hearing, as was the case in their appearance before the Board last year, they actually seemed like they were looking for an implied “go ahead” from the Board on their project, which would require a zoning map change for the parcel. The parcel is currently zoned Commercial, though the developer is citing the 2010 Comprehensive plan to suggest a zoning change to mixed use.
Though the Board seemed lukewarm on this plan, they did agree to give Pulte their hearing. And the Pulte folks, perhaps looking for a bit more enthusiasm, left disappointed.
Gentle Readers, your Humble Blogress is of the opinion that there is virtually no need to make any zoning map amendments to accommodate a dense townhome development on Ridge Ave. I’ll leave it at that for now, and save the nitpicking for the upcoming hearing.
The Laurie Higgins Book Club
Finally, Gentle Readers, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not at least mention a newly implemented semi-regular “feature” of your Board of Supervisors meeting. Where John Pearson felt the need to “educate” the unwashed masses with his insipid little story, Laurie Higgins’ means of enlightening us will come in the form of a book review and recommendation.
Forgive me, but I can’t be bothered to re-watch the meeting to give you the title here; suffice to say, it’s some lefty tome about income inequality. It matters not.
For some reason, these Democrats feel compelled to put their own stamp of individuality on Board Meetings. That stamp of individuality typically has nothing to do with the actual conduct of Township business, something in which Higgins has heretofore only sporadically participated. No, these little “features” are nothing more than ego indulgences.
At least Higgins doesn’t make us sit through her pontificating before she starts the meeting, which is a marginal improvement over Pearson’s chairmanship.
Other Board Business
- The Board approved a capital budget amendment to replace the Summit Drive Culvert
- The Board adopted a resolution dictating how they will communicate to the public
- The Board votes to support a zoning hearing application for a setback variance on Morgan Lane.
- The Township’s traffic engineer, Ken O’Brien has resigned from McMahon and Associates. Casey Moore, one of the firm’s principals, will transition into O’Brien’s place.
- Moore presents a preliminary fact gathering on addressing the problems at the Vaughan and Lewis intersection, after residents asked the Board for action at the previous meeting.