Gentle Readers, if you have even remotely followed the ebbs and flows of this blog, you may recall a recurring theme regarding the Democrats on the Upper Providence Township Board, and that is, their propensity to create problems for themselves and then circle the wagons to try to convince you that you didn’t actually see what you just saw.
In other words, they create an agenda, move on it, get a bunch of horrified feedback from the residents, then either backpedal or, now that they have increased their majority on the Board from 3-2 to 4-1, simply gaslight the residents.
And let’s be absolutely clear here: This “feature” of the five-member board has less to do with the political ideology behind the “Democrat” identification of these folks than their outright cronyism. This is local government, folks, not national politics. At the Township level, we’re doing sewers and police and fire and roads and recreation. Partisan ideology really doesn’t–and shouldn’t–come into play here.
Instead we get partisanship in form of cronyism. The cynical political calculus here is that voters are so clueless about their local government that they will automatically vote for people who are members of their party regardless of the competency of the candidate. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative–none of this has anything to do with how the Township is actually run. But it does have a lot to do with how people vote for Township Supervisors.
The four Democrats on the Board typically vote as a block and they cover for one another when one or more of them messes up. Right now, they are circling the wagons to protect Helene Calci’s seat on the Board as she runs for re-election after she and Laurie Higgins stepped in a big ole hot mess when they rolled out the welcome mat for Scott Rifkin’s obnoxious apartment extravaganza at Parkhouse.
No, this is not the transparency and “more sets of eyes” you were promised when the expansion of the Board was proposed by Upper Providence
First Worst. But, for a change, I’m not here to beat that dead horse today. I’m here to show you exactly what partisan government gaslighting looks like in action.
It is one thing to cultivate consensus amongst Board members to pass an agenda executing a vision for the Township. It is quite another to conspire to lie to the public as an official body–and use taxpayer dollars to do it—in order to dupe the voting public into maintaining a partisan majority.
So go ahead and pull that Township newsletter out of the trash bin and follow along (or refer to the file embedded below). Because the Township newsletter has turned into an outright propaganda piece to try and convince your that what you saw the Board doing isn’t REALLY what you saw the Board doing.
And because I’m a Parkhouse bore before everything else, that’s where we’ll start.
Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil
Before we dive into this issue of Township Pravda, we need to address another coordinated attempt to circle the wagons and change the narrative for the benefit of Helen Calci’s re-election.
Our story so far (see this POST for a full write up of these events): Sometime last fall, Helene Calci, in her capacity as then-Chairman of the Board, along with Supervisor Laurie Higgins met privately with Scott Rifkin, the owner of the Parkhouse property, to view his plan for development of the parcel. The plan did not conform with existing zoning.
Current Chairman Bill Starling placed the Parkhouse plan presentation on the January 19, 2021 Board of Supervisors agenda. It was not an official submission and there was nothing for the Supervisors to vote upon, which only increases the need for clarification as to why it was put on the agenda in the first place. Only Supervisor Al Vagnozzi told any members of the public about this plan being presented at a public meeting. Not even Helene Calci, who lives in the neighborhood adjacent to the property, told a single one of her neighbors. The plan was presented with a lot of fluffy amenities but no unit counts and the presentation was topped off with a lot of favorable softball questions lobbed at the developer by Higgins and Starling, and most notably, by Calci.
Over one hundred residents tuned into the Zoom Board meeting on January 19. Public comment on the plan was almost 100% unfavorable. Many residents followed up with letters to the Board expressing their disapproval of this plan.
In response to these resident letters, Supervisor Laurie Higgins authored a form letter, presumptuously speaking on behalf of the entire Board. Helene Calci said nothing. Vagnozzi sent his own responses.
On February 4, Scott Rifkin sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
On February 16, at the public meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Chairman Bill Starling lied about what this letter said without actually reading the letter into the record.
At the March 15 meeting, I confronted Mr. Starling and the Board about this lie. I did not get a response–natch–so in concert with the Board’s admonition that if a resident wants answers to questions, they should write a letter, I wrote to the Board the following day. That letter was never acknowledged or answered.
My letters are never answered for some reason.
On April 8, Helene Calci took to the Remember Parkhouse Facebook page to state that,
While I have no recollection of Helene Calci actually “rallying” with us before the sale was finalized (it was her husband, Joe Haney, who showed up to a few of our rallies, not her), I had then and still have now, many, many questions about and problems with her statement here, the heart of which is this: if you were always opposed to a zoning change, why did you allow Scott Rifkin to present a plan that requires a zoning change, especially if you had no requirement to vote on it?
On April 8, the “Township” issued a document entitled “Parkhouse FAQs.” I put “Township” in scare quotes because it is unclear who authored this document or why it was issued. Supervisor Vagnozzi has publicly disavowed the document. Various political hacks have claimed it was an attempt to counter “misinformation” about Parkhouse, but no one has ever clearly stated what that “misinformation” is.
Because from where I sit, the only “misinformation” I’m seeing about Parkhouse is coming from the “Township.”
So now you are up to speed.
On May 4, the Remember Parkhouse group, including yours truly, held a second sign giveaway event. Chairman Bill Starling and once again, Helene Calci’s husband, Joe Haney, arrived at the event together to hand out the Township’s Parkhouse FAQ propaganda. Because at that point it had been several weeks since I had written the Board, specifically asking Bill Starling why he had lied about the contents of Scott Rifkin’s letter, it was the first thing I asked Starling when he got out of Joe Haney’s car.
Starling, of course, denied he lied, then proceeded to tell me that he knew why I was “so emotional” about Parkhouse.
Because women get “emotional,” you see.
He told me that Parkhouse was sold under my watch, and that it was therefore my fault that it was sold. Further, he had proof of this in a Times Herald article from March 2014. While he was shouting at me some nonsense about subdivisions and blame, I continued to berate him about his lying to the public, while reminding him that for every one article he has on Parkhouse, I have thirty five.
When I asked him where his buddy, John Pearson, was during the time of the sale, that resulted in some head scratching from both he and Calci’s husband, Joe Haney. It was like they had forgotten that he was also on the Board at that time.
Needless to say, it was quite an unproductive exchange.
A resident who was at the giveaway then asked Starling what difference it made WHY the property was sold, it only matters what happens to it now. Starling did not have an answer for this. Neither did Calci’s husband, Joe Haney.
A few weeks later, at the May 17, 2014 Board of Supervisors Meeting, Supervisor Laurie Higgins “bravely” brings up this supposedly damning article again. I say “bravely” in the most ironic voice possible, because this little speech was arguably the most passive-aggressive pontification I’ve heard from the dais since 2018. Let’s remember, this was at the very end of the evening, during Supervisors’ comments, when just about everyone had left. And unlike during the rest of a typical meeting when a resident can at least ask to comment on an issue, (but not actually ask questions of the Board—not that. Oh no, never that), this was done at the end of the meeting and offered as a “mike drop” moment when she was totally safe from anyone contradicting her. Higgins’ comments begin at 1:13:40.
The quote below starts immediately following her pretentious book recommendations:
“The other thing I wanted to do was bring to people’s attention the article in the Times Herald dated March 6, 2014. It is an article about Parkhouse. And I want to bring to your attention one particular paragraph, and that is, quote, ‘Because Upper Providence would not subdivide the land, the County had to use its power of eminent domain to buy back the land at market price which was valued at $2 million in order to protect it and deed it legally open space.’ That is referring to what is now the Upper Regional—Upper Schuylkill Regional Park, but it’s also referring to the other part, the other parcel that was not subdivided off from the facility. And I just want to bring that to people’s attention, and to think about it. Thank you.”–Laurie Higgins
First of all, I wonder if Laurie Higgins actually knows anything at all about the Township south of Black Rock Road. The name of the park is now, and always has been, the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park. It is now, and always has been, a county park.
Gentle Readers, please indulge your Humble Blogress for a moment to read the following short Times Herald article, dated February7, 2014, detailing the Township’s denial of the County’s subdivision request, and I’ll meet you on the other side. (click on the images to embiggen)
So what we have here is the real story.
The original Parkhouse parcel included the acreage on the east side of 113, the land that has always been known as the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park. It was always one parcel and had never been subdivided, because until Josh Shapiro got elected, Montgomery County would have never considered selling its precious open space just to make budget. However, the County Commissioners were in a giant hurry to sell Parkhouse so Josh could immediately begin campaigning for his next office touting his fiscal prowess in “cleaning up a mess” left by the previous administration. The County had hastily prepared a subdivision plan to create two parcels from one: the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park on the east side of 113, and the Parkhouse parcel on the west side of 113.
The County’s subdivision application was sloppy, incomplete, and had many problems, including, but not limited to, who the actual applicant was and how many actual parcels were involved. As mentioned in the Times Herald article above, the County did not respond to the Township’s multiple requests for clarification. For these reasons, not only did the Planning Commission unanimously recommend denying it, but the Board of Supervisors also unanimously voted to deny it.
The motion for Upper Providence Township to deny the County’s subdivision was made by none other than John Pearson.
The County Commissioners could have complied with the Upper Providence Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance at any time. They could have addressed the many concerns of the Township’s professional consultants and had the subdivision granted by the Township.
Instead, they chose to ignore all of this, and adjourned from a regular meeting to close the sale of Parkhouse from behind closed doors. For political expediency, instead of following the proper route for a land subdivision, they actually inflated the selling price to Scott Rifkin by $2 million, included the 70 acres comprising the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park in the Parkhouse sale as one parcel, then condemned the Park’s acreage back for $2 million.
That’s what Laurie Higgins and Bill Starling were going on about. An event that she and Bill Starling have demonstrated that they either clearly do not understand, or are willfully misrepresenting in a cynical attempt to change the political narrative.
The County Commissioners (read: Josh Shapiro) had originally wanted to close on the deal by year end 2013, but there were many problems inherent in the way the County handled the sale, not the least of which resulted in an administrative subpoena filed by the County controller related to County employee, Dr. Elliot Menkowitz, who was doing a bit of “insider trading” as an investor in the original purchase along with Scott Rifkin.
After the sale was finalized, the County Commissioners spent a lot of time unironically patting themselves on their collective backs for “permanently preserving” 70 acres of open space in Montgomery County.
The only danger the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park was ever in was from the Commissioners selling it. So one half cheer for preserving what was always a County park. But the sale of the 180 acres of open space surrounding Parkhouse forever opened that land up to development.
Anyway, here is the entire Times Herald article (which was dated March 7, not March 6, Laurie, but hey, you can’t even get the name of the park in your backyard right, so what’s a day between friends?) that Laurie Higgins, Bill Starling, and Helene Calci’s husband are hanging their collective “let’s change the narrative” hats upon (click on the images to embiggen):
As an aside here, it should be noted that the County’s main focus during the entire course of the sale was also to control the narrative, a lesson that our junior varsity Democrats on Upper Providence Board learned well but cannot execute as effectively since they do not have Josh’s control of a fawning media (or a viable media in which to do it, for that matter.) Hence, FAQ inclusion in the Newsletter, Xeroxed tract handouts of the FAQs, and a highlighted link to the FAQs on the Township’s webpage.
One of the County’s favorite false talking points during the course of the sale, and mentioned in the article above, was that the Parkhouse property was never County designated “Open Space.” Aside from the fact that this parcel was very clearly designated open space on all official County maps prior to 2010, the notorious subdivision brings up another point, doesn’t it?
If the Parkhouse Parcel and the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park were only ONE parcel prior to the sale, why would the County-owned Upper Schuylkill Valley Park be designated as anything other than “Open Space?”
As Laurie says: “Think about it.”
But I digress. I warned you earlier I was a Parkhouse bore.
Gentle Readers, I’m not even going to insult your intelligence by wondering aloud if at least three of the four Democrats on the Board actually colluded in their attempt to change the Parkhouse narrative with this thin, and really, contra-indicative evidence.
Of course they did.
The subdivision had absolutely zero to do with whether or not Parkhouse was going to be sold. So think about THAT.
The only real question you have to ask yourself about this is: Are Calci, Higgins, and Starling this ignorant about the events surrounding the sale of Parkhouse?
Or are they just hoping that you are?
You WILL Read and Internalize these Parkhouse FAQs
And now, for the newsletter.
No edition of Township Pravda would be complete without a totally random and unexplained inclusion of the infamous –and inaccurate—“Parkhouse FAQs.”
The Parkhouse FAQs, which are notorious for flat out lying about what Scott Rifkin’s letter said, are included in a two page spread with a map of the property redundantly explaining that the Parkhouse is private property.
Why do we even have Parkhouse FAQs? Because the Rifkin letter didn’t work for diffusing that heat they brought on themselves. And then lying about what the Rifkin letter actually said didn’t work either.
For a refresher on what Rifkin’s letter said and DID NOT say, see HERE.
The FAQs were issued ostensibly to counter all of that nebulous “misinformation” that’s supposedly floating around out there. What, exactly IS that “misinformation?” It has never been defined.
What the FAQs are really there to do is to attempt to protect Calci’s seat was to use taxpayer funded, Township resources in the forms of the website and the newsletter to disseminate their talking points propaganda to each and every resident. That’s the only reason why the FAQs exist.
From where I sit, the only misinformation about Parkhouse floating around out there is being generated by the Board.
Because in Upper Providence, we are not permitted to question our elected officials on their boneheaded decisions or their blatant lies, your Humble Blogress, once again, wrote to the Board of Supervisors.
In my letter, I took issue with FAQ #5, which states:
Here are the problems inherent in FAQ #5 as enumerated in my letter:
- As the criteria for the IN district is enumerated in the immediately preceding point 4, it’s rather misleading to describe Rifkin’s plan, which calls for high density housing, retail, office buildings and livestock stables, as simply “changing some of the criteria” in the IN district. Is the Township’s plan, when (not if) this proposal comes back through, to change the definition of the IN zoning throughout the Township to include high density residential, office and retail throughout all currently zoned IN parcels the township? Or would Rifkin’s plan require a zoning change? Or would it just be spot zoning?
- Nowhere in Dr. Rifkin’s letter does he state that he was not proceeding with the submission of the plan “based on strong negative reaction.” On the contrary, Rifkin states that he “felt the discussion was a great success.”
- The FAQ statement “Two supervisors (Helene Calci and Laurie Higgins) saw an overview and description of a proposal and felt it was necessary to bring in front of the full board, as well as the residents of the Township,” requires a bit of clarification on several points:
- Why did Supervisors Calci and Higgins feel this proposal needed to be brought in front of the Board? Helene Calci has recently stated on the Remember Parkhouse Facebook page that she has “always—and will continue—to oppose any zoning change from the current institutional overlay.” If this is the case, why didn’t she tell Dr. Rifkin during her “overview” presentation in the fall, in her capacity as Chairman of the Board, that the Township has no appetite for a project that would necessitate a zoning change at the Parkhouse property and that Rifkin should come back instead with a conforming use?
- For that matter, why did Supervisors Calci and Higgins “feel it necessary” to bring it in front of the whole Board? What was so compelling about this plan that they felt the rest of the Board needed to see it? Perhaps Supervisors Calci and Higgins can share their reasoning on this point.
- Why didn’t Supervisors Calci, Higgins, Starling, or Pearson tell a single soul that the landowner who purchased the most controversial piece of property in the Township was coming in to a public meeting to present a proposal, if, in fact, they truly wanted the input of the residents of this Township?
- Why would Supervisors Calci and Higgins allow a high-density housing plan to be presented that omitted the number of units being proposed?
- The statement that Dr. Rifkin “might” return at a later date after doing additional research is completely made up and not based on any statement that Rifkin made in his letter. In his letter, Rifkin states, “We are not ready to present any actual plan for the parcel to the Township or the Board of Supervisors. We will absorb input received and at some point, in the future, come back to you with an updated draft concept or with an actual proposal.” There is no “might” or “maybe” in that statement. Dr. Rifkin was adamant at the January Board meeting that he had a right to develop the land. He will be back.
Hold on to your hats, Gentle Readers because you may be in for a shock: Once again, this letter did not get answered either.
So here’s the thing about gaslighting: We know there are things that are true, but these days, politicians think that being “honest” and “transparent” is more a function of controlling the narrative rather than actually being honest and transparent.
If every developer’s whim is to be presented to “educate” the public, then there would have been no need for Rifkin to first meet privately with two supervisors last fall.
If there was nothing to vote on, there was no reason for it to be presented.
If they were “always” against zoning changes, a plan with a zoning change should never have been presented.
If Rifkin’s letter says what the Township FAQ says it does, there would be no need to publish an FAQ document.
Oh, and about FAQ #1…?
When the County first decided to sell Parkhouse, the reason Josh Shapiro et al gave was because the County wanted to focus on “core functions” and the Parkhouse Assisted Living Center was losing money to the tune of millions per year. (no financial evidence of this claim was ever produced by the Commissioners, by the way). The County was left in a fiscal mess, you see, and Josh Shapiro had to clean it up. There were higher offices to pursue.
Shapiro’s ability to stay on message is legendary, so he repeated this talking point just about every time he was asked about the Parkhouse sale. However, it’s also in the very same March 7 article Higgins, Starling, and Calci’s husband were quoting.
Let’s go to the tape, please:
The County Commissioners never acknowledged that Parkhouse was sold to fill the budget hole created by the Logan Square deal made during the previous administration.
The budget hole, and the connecting of the dots back to the Logan Square Studio center fiasco, were MY talking points.
Do you know why those talking points have endured? Do you know why everyone has forgotten about Josh Shapiro’s lame “core functions of County Government” excuse for selling the County Home along with this gem of open space? Do you know why subsequent news articles quote this point, and never Shapiro’s? Do you know why the Democrats on the Upper Providence Board okayed an FAQ statement that runs directly counter to Josh Shapiro’s most prominent talking point during the sale?
Because it is true.
Maybe the Board should go back and read that entire Times Herald Article.
Wreck Creation, Revisited
So regular readers may remember THIS POST from June 24, 2018, a mere six months into the new five member board dominated by Pearson and Pearson’s Girls®. What fun we had being blindsided by the discontinuation of the fitness component of the Anderson Farm Park Rec Center! Recall, a unilateral decision was made by the majority Democrats, Calci, Pearson, and Higgins, to not renew the leases for the fitness equipment at the center because the Center was
1. Losing money,
2. Not serving enough of the township,
3. In competition with private business
Much was made by John Pearson, that oh-so-savvy businessman/dive bar owner, about the Township not being in the business of competing with private enterprises. Essentially, in 2018, Pearson, Higgins, and Calci wanted to shut down the fitness component of the Rec Center, without a vote of the whole Board and without a plan for what to do with the building. They actually spent about $50,000 to throw a survey to the residents about what to do with the Rec Center AFTER they made this dumb move.
The only thing the Board ended up doing was changing the hours of the fitness center which actually made it LESS accessible. This came back to bite them later on in November of that year (read about it HERE).
Back in 2018 we were told that the “old” rec center was competing with private gyms and shouldn’t be. That it should be serving a bigger portion of our township, but wasn’t.
The cover story of the Spring Township Newsletter is titled, “Your New Community Center: Re-imagined and Rejuvenated.” Sounds great, right? At long last, the undefined vision of Pearson, Higgins, and Calci has come to fruition and we will finally see why they attempted kill the center in 2018. I can’t wait to find out what’s new and exciting!
Well, there’s some new paint.
The multi-purpose space has been repurposed as a “Kid’s Corner” playroom while parents are using other areas of the Center. And they’ve added a computer, a Cricut, a TV and a 3D printer to the silo rebranding it as a “maker” space where apparently one person can make one thing at a time.
Other than that? We’re told that the gymnasium, the rock wall and a state-of-the-art fitness center, all of which were the main part of the center before, are now open.
Hmmm. So much for serving more of the Township. So much for not competing with private gyms. Which was supposed to be the whole point of the Rec Center exercise three years ago.
Are you not completely bowled over by the execution of the vision of this Board that took three years to come to fruition?
Better go back and read Township Pravda again. Nevermind what you know about the Rec Center. Nevermind what’s been documented. Stop thinking so hard. This is all “new and exciting.” You know this because your taxpayer-funded Township newsletter tells you so.
The Article that is Four Months Late
If you follow your Humble Blogress on Facebook, you may recall a post that occurred back in February response to the Winter edition of Township Pravda in which the cover story should have been an educational article about the new Township Fire and Emergency Services building about to break ground.
Instead, it was basically a reprint of Senator Katie Muth’s self-congratulatory press release for getting Upper Providence a $2 million state grant to build the $12 million dollar building.
There was literally nothing about the building, why it was necessary, or how it would benefit the residents. Just a big love letter to our state senator for returning some of our state taxes back to our township.
Credit where credit is due: at least they decided to explain all this in this edition of Township Pravda. My only complaint is that instead of putting a picture of a rendering of the building with the article, they decided to include a tiny picture of a bunch of unnamed and unidentifiable masked individuals holding shovels.
Other Fun Stuff in this Issue of Township Pravda
There’s a two page spread entitled “Trail Map” where the only identified features on the map are parks, not trails.
The entire May 2021 Recreation calendar gets a full page in time for the public to see two days of programming.
Wikipedia defines Propaganda as communication that is primarily used to influence an audience and further an agenda, which may not be objective and may be selectively presenting facts to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is being presented. Propaganda is often associated with material which is prepared by governments, but activist groups, companies, religious organizations, the media, and individuals also produce propaganda.
The best part of Township Pravda is that it’s your tax dollars paying for it. And the only ones benefitting are the Supervisors.