It’s been said that politics is the art of the possible.
Well, Gentle Readers, I’m in a very cynical mood these days and I disagree; politics is the art of opportunity.
And nothing presents better opportunities for feckless politicians than a disengaged public: A public that doesn’t do their research, a public that remains blissfully unaware of what their government is doing until something lands in their backyard, and then reacts in a knee-jerk manner; a public who can therefore be easily manipulated.
And when these issues catch the right citizens by surprise, clipboards and petitions appear. Sometimes this is a good thing, but sometimes it is not. Your civic duty does not begin and end with signing your name on a petition, especially if you are only bothering to inform yourself of one side of the issue.
In this post, we will be focusing on the public comment section of the last three Upper Providence Township Board meetings, which dominated those meetings.
Yes, we all have a right to question our government and we should–vigorously!!–but we also have a duty to be engaged, informed citizens. I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink criticizing our government. But I’ve also spent a lot of time–a LOT of time–researching the issues, watching the meetings, asking questions, and filing right-to-know requests when necessary.
A government “of the people and by the people” doesn’t work if the “people” aren’t paying attention.
This blog has often lamented the demise of the local media, because there is still a large segment of our population who thinks just because you can still buy something called “The Pottstown Mercury” at Wawa every morning that they are still getting the same coverage of their local government; in other words, if they are not seeing headlines in the local paper, there must not be anything going on.
Here’s a news flash you won’t see in that daily newspaper: the Mercury hasn’t been covering Upper Providence since 2016. Most of the local news you see, like State Representatives picking up trash in the community, are press releases issued by the government entities themselves. If it’s not under Evan Brandt’s byline, chances are, it’s not reporting.
So when folks find out that there is indeed something going on, it naturally catches them completely by surprise. Then they get angry and think that their government is trying to sneak something past them. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of times they are, which is why this blog was born.
But “howcum I didn’t know about this?” is not an accurate yardstick by which to measure your government’s transparency if you are not doing your civic duty and paying attention on a regular basis.
You simply have to work harder to keep yourself informed these days. But that doesn’t absolve you of your duty.
A disengaged public leads to eventually tyranny, and that’s not hyperboyle. It starts at the local level, because the local media is only holding selected local elected officials accountable for selected issues. The local constituency is generally disengaged, at least, until something happens in their backyard and/or someone shows up at their door with a clipboard and a petition. This state of affairs allows the people who were elected to be in charge of literally millions of your tax dollars to simply do whatever they want with no repercussions and no questions asked.
And legions of registered voters on both sides of the aisle who have no idea what those local officials are doing will march to the polls in November and cast a vote based on what they heard is going on in Washington DC.
Sometimes your government gets things right, too. And when they do, it’s a bit counter-productive to yell at them at a public meeting when you haven’t considered all the facts. And yes, this used to be called “common sense.”
So let’s take a spin around public comment at the last three meetings. Torches and pitchforks optional.
Failure to Communicate: 4/22/19
The April 22 meeting was dominated by about an hour of public comment. Fully half of these comments were centered around the lack of communication about the rather significant sewer rate hike enacted in last year’s budget. Coupled with the sewer bills now being collected by Berkheimer instead of the Township, residents were pretty upset.
As has been noted previously on this blog, there was justification for the sewer rate hike, just as there was justification for the implementation of the Fire, EMS and Police tax a few years ago.
The difference now is that there are no Democrats running for election that want to call the public’s attention to this issue, and the sewer fees are not being collected by Upper Providence’s Very Political Tax Collector who usually has her own narrative to add when residents come in to pay their bills in person. The sewer rate hike is essentially just another tax increase implemented by a Democrat majority Board, and it’s another foolishly made campaign promise broken, so the “strategy” is to keep it as quiet as possible as long as possible. This great strategy blew up on the Board’s collective faces once the bills were delivered.
Yes, it was stupidity and cowardice that kept the Township from simply putting a notice on their website; after all, probably at least 80% of these public commenters could have been talked off their Berkheimer conspiracy theories if there had just been a little blurb posted on the Township’s website, since that’s the first place most folks would go to see if something regarding the Township is true. A notice like that would have been easy and free to put up. Plus we would have been spared the uncomfortable minutes of Tieperman falling on his sword for following the direction of the Democrat incompetents that make up the majority of this Board.
We’ve got angry residents pounding the podium with “Why didn’t we know about this?”
Indeed. Why didn’t you?
If you are paying the slightest bit of attention to what this Board is doing, none of this should have come as a surprise. The time to be angry about the sewer rate hike was back in December, when John Pearson was so nervous about enacting this rate hike that he read an extended excerpt from a eulogy delivered at George H. W. Bush’s funeral to soften the blow.
“Later on this evening, in our agenda we will be briefly discussing next years’ budget, taxes, rate hikes and a commitment to these things with our fellow Supervisors. Thinking of these things brought to mind Senator Alan Simpson’s eulogy of George H. W. Bush and I’d like to read an excerpt from that, please.”
He had no need to worry. The repercussions of this rate hike wouldn’t land until the bills, more than four months later.
Nobody attends Board meetings regularly.
Nobody watches the online meetings.
Nobody pays attention.
But lots and lots of people vote.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: If, two years ago, you went out and pulled a lever in the voting booth based solely upon the man sitting in the White House, then you, sir or madam, are part of the problem. You have no one to blame but yourself when a sewer rate hike catches you by surprise. There are numerous ways you can inform yourself about what is going on in the Township and this blog is only one of them.
Yes, the Board dropped the ball—I believe intentionally—in informing the public of the rate hike. But at the end of the day, is it going to matter? Is it going to kindle a newfound sense of civic awareness? Are you going to attend more Township meetings? Is it even going to make a difference in how you cast your votes in the future?
Phil Barker is not running for re-election, which means this Township is going to lose more than two decades of institutional knowledge when he leaves at the end of the year. If your plan is to go out and vote for his replacement based exclusively on the party affiliation of the candidate, do us all a favor, and stay home.
Zone of Controversy: 4/22/19 and 5/6/19
The second part of public comment on 4/22, and most of the public comment at the 5/6 meeting, centered on the Hopwood/Yerkes/29 rezoning and intersection.
This is another issue that has been covered by this blog in the past, and now that both sides are organizing, I have no doubt it will be a part of many future public comments.
Your Humble Blogress does not have a strong opinion about this issue. This is an issue that is truly hyper local, and if you live in one of the neighborhoods that uses Hopwood Road as its main ingress and egress, you should have an informed opinion on it, as this proposed zoning change will affect you one way or the other.
Bottom line: if you are affected by this intersection, and you believe it is critical to get it fixed, your best chance of this resides in rezoning and a trade-off on the density of development in your neighborhood.
If you are not bothered by this intersection, or you think that by some miracle that PennDOT is going to step up to the plate to fix it properly, you are going to be waiting a very,
You should probably think about driving a different route.
But please note: if you are in favor of the zoning change to get your intersection fixed, you need to speak up. Residents have a tendency to think that if they are in favor of something they need do nothing; when in fact, it is just as important to make those views heard. When the Board hears only one opinion on an issue, it tends to increase the volume of that opinion and they can and have been swayed by those opposing views.
NIMBYs on Fire: 5/6 and 5/20
The May 20 meeting had its own share of angry public commenters. These folks are upset about the Township’s proposal to place a regional fire station at Anderson Farm Park.
Before we dive into the specifics, let me note for the record that I attended this meeting and left in disgust because of residents who were shouting out of turn from the audience when the Board tried to respond. While Higgins properly gavelled them and told them they were out of order several times, the behavior continued far longer than it should have.
This is a huge pet peeve of mine. If you are going to come into a public meeting with your prepared remarks and demand answers of your government, you cannot then feel entitled to shout over the Board when they attempt to give you the answers you demanded. As a member of the audience, these exchanges were incredibly hard for me to sit through as the rudeness on display was not simply directed to the Board, but to every member of the public who was in attendance at that meeting.
If you cannot exercise the self-control that you should have learned in elementary school, then perhaps attendance at a public meeting is not for you.
Now back to our issue.
The proposal to place the new fire station at the Anderson Farm Park was discussed in depth at the 5/6 meeting. So, before we get into the public comment, let’s review the initial proposal, which calls for a regional, combined paid staff/volunteer fire station to be built at a central location to service most of Upper Providence and Trappe Borough. This is all part and parcel of the discussions for Fire and Emergency services that have been ongoing on since 2016 and span two different Boards, and dominating last years’ Board meetings.
If you are just waking up to this issue now, then you have considerable catching up to do. Fortunately, most of these discussions are documented on this blog. See you in a couple of hours.
Take a good look at that yellow circle in the graphic above. That is the two mile radius that surrounds the BRVFC fire station in Oaks. This is where your Board of Supervisors moved the paid daytime staff last May, and from where they have been responding until they were recently moved back to the Municipal campus. The folks pounding the podium and shouting from the audience at the May 20 meeting were nowhere to be found when their fire response times to their neighborhoods were diminished last year.
It should be noted that previous Boards have contemplated the placement of the centralized Fire and EMS station at the Black Rock Municipal campus in the past. But once the Board began deliberating the location, the Black Rock Campus was reconsidered. Because of the volunteer component of the combined department, not only must the station be centralized, but it must be located close to where the volunteers live as well, and the Black Rock Municipal campus does not fit this bill. Recent comments on the Philly Fire News page from a volunteer explain the “why” of this better than I can:
When something is on fire, seconds count. For that reason, the Black Rock Campus is not being considered by anyone except John Pearson, who is still holding out hope of building it there to keep his bar buddies from BRVFC relevant in the regional fire company.
The graphic above shows the Anderson Farm Park location and the Black Rock Municipal Campus. The Black Rock Municipal Campus is where the angry residents want the fire house located. This map clearly illustrates how the Anderson Farm Park location is more closely located not only to the Township’s partners in Trappe Borough, but to the population centers, where, in fact, most of the Trappe VFC volunteers live. The Black Rock Municipal Campus, on the other hand, is not conveniently central to any population center except Rivercrest and Providence Hunt. As mentioned previously: seconds count and when the Township is relying at least partially on volunteers, then the travel time it will take for them to get from their homes to the fire station matters a great deal.
At the 5/6 meeting, the Board contemplated doing preliminary geological testing on a 16,000 square foot site at the Anderson Farm Park. The building and parking lot would essentially take up one of the multi-purpose soccer fields currently at the Farm Park.
Barker opposed testing here, because he is opposed to building the firehouse at the Anderson Farm Park location due to the money that the township has already invested in developing the fields here; Pearson, “agreeing” with Barker, opposed the Anderson Farm location as well and both voted no for the preliminary geological survey to be completed. Vagnozzi, Higgins, and Calci voted in favor of the testing.
As I mentioned earlier, if you are just joining us now for the Fire and EMS discussion and only because a fire and EMS station is being contemplated in your “backyard,” then you may have missed some of the finer points of these ongoing discussions. Even though this site seems to be ideal, voting in favor of doing geological testing of the site does not mean that the decision has been made on the location. But the township has already tested the sight lines on Route 113, the location is centrally located to the Township and the Borough, it’s close to volunteers, and, because it will be located on route 113, it would provide good access and great visibility for recruiting more volunteers.
Volunteers, need I remind anyone, save the Township money.
But just because a final decision has not been made, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t time for the residents to gather their torches and pitchforks so that they can properly jump to conclusions.
Look, I know that I am hard on this Board, and there are issues for which they deserve to be held accountable. I spend a lot of time documenting that kind of stuff right here.
So when residents come in to pontificate and pound the podium, is it too much to ask that they do it over the right issues? Or without being rude and shouting from the audience?
So today, I’m going to continue to be a little hard on the residents, because I’ve heard all of their objections before, and while they all sound reasonable, their real reason doesn’t have anything to do with the good of the community at large.
The folks who showed up to fight the firehouse fought for this piece of ground before, back in 1999, and for the same reason. They didn’t want a building in their backyard.
Let’s begin by stating right off that insinuating that the Board is somehow going to personally profit from building a fire station at the Anderson Farm Park is one of the more ridiculous accusations I’ve heard hurled at any Board, especially given some of the talking points of the Democrats’ 2017 campaign.
In 1999 it was the Spring-Ford School District who wanted the land that became the Anderson Farm Park, when it was being proposed as a location for the construction of the new Middle/Intermediate/7th & 8th Grade Center/5th & 6th Grade Center/Whatever Level School they are calling it now. The community sued successfully and a deed restriction was apparently placed on the land.
The School District would have used most of the ~75 acres that now comprises the Anderson Farm Park. The proposed Fire and EMS station will take up about 16,000 square feet, or approximately one and a half acres of that 75 acre parcel.
I’m not sure how putting a firehouse on a main road in close proximity to their neighborhoods actually brings down their property values, but for some reason, these folks think it’s a selling point to not have a firehouse within a two mile radius of their homes. Especially since, as the Board explained, there will be no house siren. In fact, I would think that the subsequent improved ISO rating from the insurance industry would improve their property values. But what do I know?
Finally, I’d be sympathetic to their supposed concerns about open space and “over-development” in the Township, except for one thing:
Where were they when the County Commissioners were selling 180 acres of open space right down the street?
I mean, if this is really about “over development” and “preserving open space,” why didn’t they speak up when the largest single parcel in the Township was sold by the Montgomery County Commissioners to a developer in 2014? Where were the concerns about Open Space when the Save Parkhouse group was lobbying and protesting the sale for 11 straight weeks?
Why are they showing up with prepared remarks and shouting out of turn from the audience over the loss of one and a half acres?
The best way to prevent development is through control of the land. Public land is owned to benefit the public good, either by open space preservation or through some other community use. Private land is owned to benefit the owner. This is why it was such a betrayal of the public trust when the Montgomery County Commissioners sold the 180 remaining acres of designated open space that surround the Parkhouse facility; the land was donated to the County in the early 1800’s so it cost them nothing to acquire and nothing to maintain.
The Upper Providence Comprehensive Plan and the Montgomery County Comprehensive plans in force at the time had never contemplated the Parkhouse parcel as anything other than open space; in fact, when the Spring-Ford School District approached the County to build the same Middle/Intermediate/7th & 8th Grade Center/5th & 6th Grade Center/Whatever Level School they are calling it now, the County said no.
And as I am and will always be a Parkhouse bore, bear with me while I repeat myself yet again: even though the property is zoned open space, there is an institutional overlay on the parcel, which means that it can (and most likely will) be developed, and that development can be quite dense. This will result in strains on our township roads, sewers, and services, as once again, this property has been open space since the 1800’s and was never contemplated as anything else as the Township rapidly developed in the last twenty years.
This is the sole reason that as Chairman of the Board, I told our Planner that the Township should not entertain any zoning changes until we saw a plan come in for the development of Parkhouse and we knew what we were dealing with.
This 180 acre parcel was sold to developers to fill the County’s budget hole in 2014 so Josh Shapiro could campaign for re-election on “cleaning up a mess” and immediately move on to Attorney General, where he campaigned on “cleaning up another mess” (next stop, Governor!). And while those aforementioned eleven straight weeks of protesting the sale of Parkhouse was going on, I don’t recall any of these anti-firehouse folks making much of an effort to stop the sale of the largest parcel of open space in our Township.
Building a regionalized fire and EMS staion on this acre and a half will provide a tremendous benefit for the safety, security, and property values of our Township residents. It’s a near perfect location. So color me extra super-duper cynical when anyone stands on the platform of “preserving open space” to protest this venture.
Do your Homework
I have harped on this Board for a year and a half about not being prepared and not doing their homework, and I think with much justification. Is it too much to ask that residents be responsible for doing their homework as well?
This Board gives the public many, many opportunities to become heroic activists and call them out on mishandling issues. I’m sure that there will be many more opportunities for this in the future.
Community activism and engagement should be applauded, but only when it is informed. Please choose your battles wisely. It’s easy to get taken in by a passionate resident who shows up at your door with a clipboard and a petition. Do your research and understand what you are signing. Understand what you are protesting before you approach the podium at a public meeting.
Otherwise, you may very well be taking a stand against your own best interests.