Parkhouse Politics: Six Degrees of Josh Shapiro

When I created this blog 6 years ago, I was going to call it “Montco Cassandra.” 

A love of Greek mythology was instilled in me by my sixth-grade teacher (RIP Mr. Murray) who spun tales for as part of social studies class.  According to Ancient Origins.net:

“Best-known for her prophetic powers, within Greek mythology Cassandra is a princess of  Troy who lived during the era of the Trojan War. Her gift of prophecy, however, was accompanied by a curse – no one believed in her prophecies, making her powerless to stop fate from running its course.”

Needless to say, expending the energy to research and write a blog and naming it after a tragic figure who is never believed and meets a terrible end, seemed a bit too much like tempting fate me, not to mention, the reference would be lost of most people who do not share my love for Greek mythology.

But since I have spent a good portion of the last ten years of my life being a Parkhouse bore, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like Cassandra a lot of the time.

Parkhouse is a textbook case of how one bad political decision can have ramifications well into the future.  And how that one decision can drive alliances and connections that are not dictated by party affiliations. 

Despite partisan protestations to the contrary, Parkhouse is political.  In fact, I would argue that even though I am a Republican, the biggest betrayals came not from the Democrats, but the Republicans involved in the sale. 

Politics is about one thing and only one thing:  the accumulation of power.  Most politicians care very little about the people they represent, they care only about maintaining or increasing their own power bases and they involve themselves in issues only that will produce votes for them.  It’s literally the only motivating factor.

In today’s hyper-charged political atmosphere, where just about everything is politicized, its easy to fall into the trap of tribalism. Quite frankly, you are meant to. It makes you easier to manipulate.

Very few of us actually know these politicians that we entrust with power and tax dollars. They are strangers. But we use that “R” or “D” after their name as a sort of shorthand for their political philosophy, and if it aligns with ours, we assign a certain amount of unearned trust to that politician. Some of us invest a lot more than that into their politicians and that’s when it begins to morph from political ideology into a cult of personality. P. T. Barnum had an appropriate word to describe those people.

The party affiliation after a politician’s name does not convey morality or even fealty to a specific ideology. It’s a political calculation that a savvy politician will make when he decides to run for office. Voter rolls are public record and politicians use that information to craft their strategy and their message to win votes. It’s all very cynical. True ideologues are rare and usually don’t last very long in the political game.

The bottom line is that there are very few white hats and black hats in politics. Most of them are wearing hats of various shades of gray and the only letter they should have after their name is an “S” for Self interest.

Americans used to know this. We used to be way more cynical of our politicians. Now we treat them like celebrities. And sorry, but that’s not what I signed up for.

The politicians involved in the Parkhouse sale were from both sides of the aisle and all were motivated by self interest rather than ideology.

If you are a tribalist who is going to look at the fact pattern and players laid out in this post and still refuse to accept it is at least possible that there are political agendas at work here, then you should probably stop reading right now.

Only one politician’s political career has advanced almost entirely unchecked since the sale in 2013.  Only one politician has increased his amount of power.

Josh Shapiro.

In fact, Shapiro has thus far been so successful at controlling the narrative, mostly by cultivating a press corps that more closely resembles a Shapiro public relations firm, that he actually ran for governor last year on how he fixed Montgomery County’s budget deficit in 2013 and not a single reporter bothered to question how he did it.

However, maybe the honeymoon with the press is over now. The lack of transparency surrounding Shapiro’s Transition Team, the Inauguration, and the funding of both are already raising some eyebrows in Harrisburg:

HARRISBURG — For nearly two months, a team of advisors has been working to ensure Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro has a smooth transition from attorney general to head of the nation’s fifth-most populous state.

Their mission: reviewing state agency business and making recommendations to help guide Shapiro as he takes over a bureaucracy of roughly 80,000 employees that handles more than $100 billion annually in state and federal dollars.

Yet the public may never know anything about the team’s work — or who is funding it.

That is because the more than 300 members of the Democrat’s transition were required to sign a three-page nondisclosure agreement that bars them from publicly sharing information about their activities. If they breach the agreement, they can be sued and face a heavy fine.

And because the team is organized under the federal tax code as a so-called “dark money” group, it does not have to publicly disclose the private interests that may be underwriting its work. Shapiro’s inaugural team, which will pay for his swearing-in day events next week, is similarly organized and is also shielding donor details.

The tight grip on information suggests Shapiro is already running his administration differently than recent predecessors in at least one way: transparency. And there are signs that he may maintain a level of obscurity about his administration’s inner workings as he begins his first term next week.

“Dark money…?”

“Shielding donor details…?”

“Maintain a level of obscurity…?”

Oh my.

These revelations–or in this case, the lack thereof– makes it even more instructive to take a look at some of the familiar names populating Shapiro’s Cabinet picks and Transition team, as well as some of the folks who outlived their usefulness and have been doomed to political purgatory. 

It’s important to understand that when certain things do not add up—such as a high-density housing development being seriously considered for a parcel that is not zoned for it—that there may, in fact, be other forces at work here and we would be remiss to ignore them.

In order to save the future, you must understand the past and how we got here, because if the fix is in, and I believe it is, then all the facts in the world won’t matter.

Once upon a Time, in Montgomery County…

Almost ten years ago, on February 21, 2013, Montgomery County quietly released an “RFI,” or request for information regarding Parkhouse.  It was exploratory in nature and no mention of the surrounding land was included.  Upper Providence found out about the RFI only because I noticed it in the now-defunct “Patch:”

The County of Montgomery is soliciting proposals of interest from qualified individuals or entities in the private sector (not-for-profit or for-profit) to purchase, lease, or form a public/private partnership for the County owned and operated nursing care and rehabilitation facilities known as Parkhouse, Providence Pointe, Riverview Adult Day Health Services, and Montgomery Meadows Independent Living Suites.”

A pretty comprehensive timeline of the events surrounding the fate of the Parkhouse parcel is available at the Remember Parkhouse website HERE, and I will not be restating that timeline in this post simply because that timeline is only one part of the story. 

There’s another, political timeline that is a prelude to the Parkhouse story which serves to introduce some of the key players and their stakes in the sale. The decision to sell Parkhouse was fated long before the County issued the RFI in February 2013.

As with most things political, this story meanders, so try to keep up.

JOE HOEFFEL – Political Purgatory

People who’ve been paying attention to Montgomery County politics may recall the Logan Square Studio Centre project, a pie-in-the-sky proposal that was not only going to single-handedly revitalize Norristown, but was promised to become the “Hollywood of the East.”  So great was this opportunity that then- County Commissioners Bruce Castor, Jim Matthews and Joe Hoeffel voted in 2009 to commit $24.5 million of taxpayer money to the project, with Montgomery County taking a subordinate position to the developer, Charles Gallub.  When the developer went bankrupt in 2012, he got paid first and the County only recovered a mere $8,000 of that $24.5 million in taxpayer money. Nobody ever investigated where that money went.

Between 2006 and 2011, your Humble Blogress was writing a weekly column in the Norristown Times Herald and blogging at my own site, Bluftooni, as well as the statewide blog, PA Water Cooler.  I was also co-hosting a daily local radio program on WFYL. 

No one was paying attention to the Studio Centre except that it was this great thing for Norristown and Montgomery County. 

That’s because the big story was BreakfastGate

Shortly after the 2007 election, Joe Hoeffel (D) and Jim Matthews(R ), struck a rare bipartisan “power sharing” agreement at the beginning of their terms agreeing to “co-chair” the three member Board of Commissioners, effectively shutting out Bruce Castor and relegating him to almost a minority commissioner.  Bruce Castor did not take the snub well, and as a former District Attorney and the only bona fide Political Rock Star in Montgomery County, Castor did his best to undermine Matthews and Hoeffel, leading the County Board to be christened with the infamous moniker of “the Bickersons.” 

BreakfastGate was the “sting” operation that caught Matthews and Hoeffel meeting for breakfast at the Jem Diner in East Norriton discussing County business prior to public meetings.  This amounted to a violation of the toothless PA Sunshine Law, but as a political weapon in the press, wielded by a then-political rock star with carefully cultivated media contacts (point of full disclosure, your Humble Blogress was but one of those carefully cultivated media contacts), it was highly effective. 

Actual subpoenas were issued for the calendars of Hoeffel and Matthews. 

I mention BreakfastGate only as the incident that was used to effectively end the long and storied political career of Joe Hoeffel, a man I had, in a former life, once dubbed “The Perpetual Candidate for Any Available Office.”  And I say “effectively” only because in early 2011, Joe Hoeffel had every intention of running for re-election as County Commissioner and his involvement in “BreakfastGate” was used as the nominal excuse for making him step aside for Josh Shapiro.

Joe Hoeffel was a County Commissioner from 1992-1999, where he then launched into a six-year career as a U.S. Congressman from 1999 through 2005.  From 1999 through 2003, Joe Hoeffel’s Chief of Staff was none other than his “mini-me,” Josh Shapiro. 

Shapiro launched his own political career with his first step as a state legislator where he served in the 153rd district from 2004 until 2011.

And when Josh Shapiro left the State House to run for County Commissioner in January 2011, it was not going to be in the shadow of his former boss. (emphasis mine)

Joseph M. Hoeffel III, the longtime standard bearer for Montgomery County’s Democrats, announced this morning he will not seek another term as county commissioner.

The Abington resident thanked his supporters at a news conference this morning, while flanked by a new generation of party leaders including Whitemarsh Township Supervisor Leslie Richards and State Rep. Joshua Shapiro, who officially kicked off their joint campaign for a spot on the three-man commissioner’s board.

“We know we have big shoes to fill,” Shapiro said. “But we wear our own shoes and we’re going to use them to walk in new directions and blaze new trails.”

Hoeffel’s announcement ended weeks of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation that arose after Montgomery County Democratic Committee Chairman Marcel Groen said publicly that he would not support the commissioner in a reelection bid. His statement initially prompted a vow from Hoeffel that he would run with or without his party’s backing.

Although he declined to discuss the specific reasoning for bowing out of the race, Hoeffel said he had several conversations with party members over the past few weeks and concluded that a unified 2011 ticket would put the Democrats in the best position to take control of the Montgomery County board in November.

“I certainly could have won one of the nominations had I gone forward,” he said. “But it seemed the party was not united. This is what’s best for all three of us.”

Shapiro, elected to a fourth term in the State House in November, pledged he was committed to serving out his term on the Montgomery County board should he be elected.

Although he had not previously discussed a potential run for the commissioner’s seat, Groen had singled him out as his choice to lead the Democratic ticket. Party insiders said that while Shapiro, who served as Hoeffel’s chief of staff during his stint in Congress, had refused to run with, or against, his former boss.

So it was Marcel Groen who “singled out” Josh Shapiro for County Commissioner. 

MARCEL GROEN – Transition Team

Remember that Logan Square Studio Center project?

Logan Square developer Charles Gallub’s attorney was the same Marcel Groen. 

Marcel Groen was also the Chairman of the Montgomery County Democrat Committee from 1994 through 2015.  In 2015, Groen became the Chairman of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee.

In spring of 2016, when Josh Shapiro went to the PA State Democrat Committee for the endorsement for PA Attorney General against western PA’s Stephen Zappala, Marcel Groen, as the Chairman of the State Democratic Committee called for an open primary (emphasis mine).

HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party committee members went through a divisive process of buttonholing, cajoling and promising on Saturday but ultimately could not deliver endorsements in contested primary races for U.S. senator and state attorney general.

As a result, the candidates will run without the party’s explicit backing in the April 26 primary election to pick nominees to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and keep a Democrat in the attorney general’s office since the embattled Democrat Kathleen Kane is not seeking re-election.

The party’s endorsement does not guarantee a nomination, but it can plug a candidate into fundraising and volunteer networks and provides a useful campaign slogan as the party-endorsed candidate.

The tone was set early in Saturday’s process when party members rejected chairman Marcel Groen’s call to support an open primary, rather than taking the endorsement votes. In floor comments challenging Groen’s motion, former chairman Jim Burn said the timing of Groen’s motion “calls into question the motivation” to do it.

Afterward, Groen said the process is too divisive and means little more than bragging rights.

“And, frankly, we’ve been ineffective,” he said, noting that fewer than half of the party’s endorsed candidates win contested primaries.

Ultimately, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, whom Burn supports, fell just shy of winning the endorsement over Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, a close friend of Groen’s.

With heavy support from the Allegheny County and Philadelphia delegations, Zappala won 63 percent in the attorney general’s race, just shy of the 67 percent needed for the endorsement. Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli’s name was not entered for consideration after he, like Groen, called for an open primary.

Marcel Groen was the head of the PA State Democratic committee until the #metoo movement derailed his tenure in 2018:

In 2017 and 2018, Groen came under fire for his alleged failure to respond to calls to address what female party leaders and local activists have characterized as a culture of sexual predation within the party. Critics cite Groen’s silence on sexual misconduct allegations against prominent state politicians, his failure to fulfill a commitment to create a party sexual misconduct policy after the alleged sexual assault of a state party delegate at the 2016 DNC, and his anger over calls to dismiss a close aide’s controversial statements about the #MeToo movement as evidence of Groen’s unwillingness to address sexual misconduct within the party.

As a professional, but unpaid, political cynic, it came as absolutely no surprise to me that Marcel Groen was named to Josh Shapiro’s transition team.  But it apparently did surprise Gwen Snyder, who made headlines when she accused then-Senator Dayin Leach of the sexual assault of Cara Taylor a few years ago (Snyder was subsequently sued for defamation by Leach and they settled in 2021).  In December, Snyder took to the pages of the Inky in a surprising takedown of Shapiro, who normally enjoys only fawning coverage in the media:

I didn’t expect to see his name again. Not in an official capacity, at least, and certainly not as an appointment to the gubernatorial transition team, a slot usually reserved for honored friends and allies of an incoming elected politician.

But earlier this month, when I scanned the list of Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s transition team, there it was: Marcel Groen.

The same Marcel Groen, who resigned as chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party in 2018 after his refusal to address #MeToo allegations dogging the party, was picked by Gov-elect Shapiro to serve on his business development team.

It felt like a slap in the face.

Apparently Groen’s career in the Democratic Party wasn’t over, after all.

(…)

When Josh Shapiro brings these sorts of men to his table before even taking office, the message is clear: He believes women’s right to respect is not important. Any and every gesture toward restoring Groen’s status within the party sends a clarion message that the era of accountability is passed.

Unfortunately for Shapiro — and fortunately for the rest of us — Democratic women are not about to allow the misogynistic old guard to reassert its hold on the party apparatus. We are not going back.

Shapiro would do well to remember that he spent his campaign claiming to be a man committed to weeding out bad actors in politics. As attorney general, he marketed himself as a crusader, a man willing to take on corruption within his own party. But his willingness to go after other Democrats, it seems, falls short of imposing consequences for connected, rich white men who enable sexual predators.

Whether he realizes it or not, Shapiro depended on women to win the governor’s seat, and will depend on us again when it inevitably comes time to do battle with antichoice Republicans and in the 2024 state midterms.

Poor Gwen.  If she expected to start up the outrage machine against Josh Shapiro, she should know he’s practically bulletproof, thanks in part to that tribalism I mentioned at the very beginning of this post.  But that’s an argument for another day. 

Deliberately appointing someone to his transition team who was sure to mightily tick off his rather large feminist constituency is not something the normally super careful Josh Shapiro would do. So you have to wonder, why would he risk it? What exactly is the nature of Shapiro’s bond with Marcel Groen?

URI MONSON – Cabinet, Budget Secretary

Now back to 2011, when Josh Shapiro and his running mate, Leslie Richards, ran on a campaign pledge not to increase taxes (emphasis mine):

The two Montgomery County Democratic commissioner candidates Thursday held tight to their pledge not to increase county taxes.

“We do not believe it is necessary to raise taxes to meet the obligations of the county and to make the critical investments that we believe are worth it to the citizens of Montgomery County,” said state Rep. Josh Shapiro, who is running with Whitemarsh Supervisor Leslie Richards for majority control of the three-member board of county commissioners.

However, neither Shapiro nor Richards would identify any specific cuts that they would make.

“We know there is duplication, we know there is waste and we know that there are things that can be cut,” responded Shapiro when repeatedly asked to identify just one proposed cut the pair would make if elected.

The infamous video documenting this interview is priceless:

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Josh Shapiro had no idea what “zero based budgeting” was other than what Uri Monson, the county’s soon-to-be CFO, told him.  Sure, it’s a practical budgeting tool, and makes tons of sense.  

But zero-based budgeting had zero to do with solving that budget hole caused by the Logan Square project. 

Monson claimed that Parkhouse was “operating at a deficit of $2 million to $3 million per year” but there are no numbers backing that up.  The County budget did not produce a fund accounting report; that is to say, a report detailing income and expenses specific to only to Parkhouse, so it is impossible to determine, from public records, how much, if anything, the Parkhouse operation was losing.  I also have a problem with that $1 million give or take deficit when we are talking about a $2 million or $3 million deficit.  That variance alone is either 50% or 33% of the total deficit Monson claimed. A number cruncher should be able to provide a more precise number.

As a conservative who believes practically everything that the Government does is inefficient, I could almost understand selling the operation to a private business.  What never made any sense, from the County narrative point of view, was selling the land as well: Land which was donated to the County in 1803 and cost the County nothing to maintain.  That is the primary reason I have always maintained that the Parkhouse sale was not driven by focusing on “core competencies” as Josh Shapiro told us, but by filling a budget hole by selling prime real estate in one of the fastest developing counties in Montgomery County.

Uri Monson left Montgomery County in 2016, where he became the CFO of the Philadelphia School District.  He and Shapiro will be reunited in Harrisburg later this month.

BRUCE CASTOR – Political Purgatory

Bruce Castor was not always in favor of the sale of Parkhouse.  But something—or someone—along the way changed his mind:

Initially unsold on the idea of privatization, Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. said that upon further review, he changed his mind and would vote to support the motion.

‘We have had so many things in this government that needed our immediate attention because they were broken and they needed to be fixed, due to mismanagement, incompetence or corruption. This was an area that I did not think was a priority because it worked well,’ Castor said. ‘This has been a difficult decision for me because I don’t generally like to change things that I think are working well. I don’t like to change things for change’s sake, and I don’t like to gamble with the well-being of the misfortunate people who find themselves having to utilize the Parkhouse facility. But I think that my initial reluctance is overcome based on evidence and not based on anything beyond that.’

Did someone tell Bruce Castor that signing off on placing the County in subordinate position to the developer on the Logan Square deal was a rookie mistake that ended up endangering the County’s bond rating?  Did they also perhaps suggest to Castor that such an error was likely to cripple any future political ambitions he might have?  That’s some compelling “evidence.”

What follows is an excerpt from the Montgomery County Commissioners meeting minutes of March 6, 2014 and the Commissioners’ comments immediately following the closed-door sale of Parkhouse.  Mr. Castor struts through a magnificent display of Socratic elocution/CYA. 

But before we dive into this, we should be clear on the role of “Solicitor.”  “Mr. McGarry” was the County Solicitor and served at the pleasure of the County Commissioners, much like the Township solicitor serves at the pleasure of the Township Supervisors.  The Solicitor’s purpose is to represent the wishes of the governing board and keep the board members out of legal trouble.  The Solicitors are not there to represent the wishes of the constituency.  This is an important distinction. 

Ergo, this exercise is basically Castor grandstanding to himself.  If only the ID Network TV cameras were there to capture it, though! (emphasis mine)

Commissioner Castor asked Mr. McGarry how much of the Parkhouse property was deed restricted Open Space.

Mr. McGarry answered “zero.”

Commissioner Castor asked how that has changed since yesterday.

Mr. McGarry stated the 71 acres of parkland across the street is now Open Space and there are deed restrictions on the 227 acres surrounding Open Space. (Your Humble Blogress interjects: this verbal two step references the fact that the County raised the price on the sale by $2 million and sold the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park to Rifkin. The County then condemned the 71 acre Park back for $2 million and patted themselves on the back for their commitment to open space.)

Commissioner Castor asked if yesterday, the 297 acres were not designated as Open Space.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Commissioner Castor asked if today, 71 acres are now deed restricted as a park and are 227 deed restricted as Open Space.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Commissioner Castor asked how many acres of the property could have been built on yesterday.

Mr. McGarry stated that 10% of the property or 45 acres.

Commissioner Castor asked if that number has gone up or down.

Mr. McGarry stated that the number has gone down. Mr. McGarry stated that under Upper Providence’s land development plan, there remains only 15 acres of developable land.

Commissioner Castor asked if all of the power of the development of the 15 acres rests in the hands of the people of Upper Providence Township through their supervisors.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Sidebar, your honor. 

Two points:  First, note well Castor’s statement about the power of the development resting solely in the hands of the Upper Providence Township Supervisors.  We’ll come back to that later.

But only FIFTEEN ACRES are developable?  It seems reasonable to believe that, especially given County Planner Jody Holton’s evaluation in this pre-sale email:

So either the County planner’s analysis was wrong in 2013, or this is a neat little fairy tale Bruce Castor tells himself so he can sleep at night.  Because that “fifteen developable acres” statement certainly flies in the face of the high density plan submitted by Rifkin this past May.  Pin that thought for later as well, Gentle Reader.

Commissioner Castor asked if there was any legal reason how people were able to use the Parkhouse property for recreational activity.

Mr. McGarry stated that there was none.

Commissioner Castor asked if there was any liability for accidents or injuries as a consequence under the old system.

Mr. McGarry stated that there was a potential of liability.

Commissioner Castor asked Mr. McGarry if he has addressed that potential for liability. Mr. McGarry stated that through the deed restrictions on the property over the next five years, public access will be guaranteed without a fee. Under Pennsylvania law, if you permit public access without a fee, there are protections that are given to the land owner that prohibit liability.

Commissioner Castor if there are statements within the agreement that mandate an extension of that right to access to the park.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Sidebar, your honor:  Being discussed above is the much touted “deed restriction” which, it should be remembered, only allowed public access to the property for five years but did not in any way prevent development.  This was simply another way Castor could salve his conscience and play the sale in a positive light in the media.

Commissioner Castor asked Mr. McGarry if Mid-Atlantic must get approval from Upper Providence to change the trees on the Parkhouse facility.

Mr. McGarry stated that Mid-Atlantic must consult with Upper Providence in order to do so.

Mr. McGarry stated that this approval must be granted for things other than routine maintenance.

Commissioner Castor asked if the idea is to keep Parkhouse looking aesthetically the way it does now.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Commissioner Castor asked if another member of the general assembly will take over this area once redistricting has been completed.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Commissioner Castor stated that Representative Kampf will soon be the Representative from this area and he has circulated a petition asking for the Commissioners to preserve Open Space on the park house property. Commissioner Castor asked Mr. McGarry if this Board has done that.

Mr. McGarry answered in the affirmative.

Sidebar again, your honor:  Legislative redistricting, which happens every ten years in Pennsylvania and is guided by the census, was underway at the time.  Upper Providence was essentially split in half during this process, with three of its voting districts, Oaks, Mont Clare, and Mingo 1, redistricted out of Mike Vereb’s district (the 150th) and into the 157th, a Chester County district represented by Warren Kampf at the time.  Interesting note:  the latest redistricting map reunites all of Upper Providence back into the Montgomery County district of the 150th, currently represented by Joe Webster.

Commissioner Castor signed Rep. Kampf’s petition. Commissioner Castor stated he was the last of the three Commissioners to be in favor of selling Parkhouse based on his experience with the last administration. Commissioner Castor stated that he held his own interviews at Parkhouse and he was firmly decided that he would not vote for the sale. Commissioner Castor stated that while he was not inclined to support the sale, he felt that it was his duty to listen to the evidence as it was presented. Commissioner Castor stated that when he received communications from residents, their families and staff asking him to support the sale, he began to change his mind. Commissioner Castor stated that he changed his mind when Ms. McGarry stated in front of the Board that she supported sale of Parkhouse to MidAtlantic. Commissioner Castor determined that it would be best to re-examine his views.

 An RTK was submitted by Montco resident Janice Kearney requesting all emails relating to Parkhouse. There were no emails from the public in Bruce Castor’s submission in favor of the sale. There were a few expressing concern.

“Ms. McGarry” is Melanie McGarry, who was the administrator of Parkhouse.  She, too, was opposed to the sale until Scott Rifkin repeated her own philosophy of “care for the caregiver” back to her.

Was it just happenstance that Scott Rifkin had the exact same business philosophy?

Oh, wait.  Let us not forget that the sale was almost derailed by the discovery of a County employee, Dr. Elliot Menkowitz, included in the buying group. 

Montgomery County officials fired a longtime doctor at the county-owned Parkhouse nursing home Tuesday after auditors concluded that he tried to cash in on his position by passing inside information to the company trying to buy the facility.

The 15-page audit report concludes that Elliot Menkowitz, an orthopedic surgeon, violated county ethics and procurement policies in ways that could have given Mid-Atlantic Health Care an unfair competitive advantage in its $35 million bid for the Royersford facility. In return, a development company Menkowitz co-owned was to get exclusive development rights and a stake in the facility.

Once he was fired for what essentially amounted to “insider trading,” Dr. Menkowitz asked for public hearing to “clear his name.”

The letter maintains the county working group that reviewed bids for the sale of Parkhouse should have known Menkowitz was employed with the county and questions why, if something was wrong with his interest in the sale, no one ever brought it up.

‘This working group included the County Chief Operating Officer (Lauren Lambrugo), the County Solicitor (Raymond McGarry), and senior staff at Parkhouse with whom Dr. Menkowitz has worked for over 30 years,’ the letter states. ‘No one involved in the transaction ever uttered or registered an objection or concern about Dr. Menkowitz’s involvement or interest in the sale of Parkhouse.’

Menkowitz worked at Parkhouse for 30 years. However could Scott Rifkin have learned of Melanie McGarry’s philosophy word for word?

Commissioner Castor stated that neither of the other Commissioners tried to convince him to change his views, rather, they presented the evidence supporting their views. Commissioner Castor stated that he thought about it a great deal and thought that it was peculiar that not a single elected official from either party or party leader has asked him to vote for or against this sale until Representative Vereb. Commissioner Castor stated that he thought it was astounding that in this day of communication, that nobody sent him an email, sent him a letter or called him regarding their opposition to the sale. Commissioner Castor stated that the Commissioners do not make decisions based on anything other than the best decisions of the people they represent. Commissioner Castor stated that he believes that the Commissioners are making the best decision for the County. Commissioner Castor commended his fellow commissioners, the senior staff and Dr. Rifkin for their hard work throughout this process..

This is nothing more than an attempt to control the narrative.  The results of an RTK email sweep of the Montgomery County demonstrate this statement to be false.  Additionally, many members of the Remember Parkhouse group send correspondence to the Commissioners opposing this, including yours truly. However, it’s interesting to note that that there was not a single Parkhouse -related email from the public directed to Democrats Josh Shapiro or Leslie Richards contained in the RTK.

MIKE VEREB – Cabinet, Secretary of Legislative Affairs

I could devote an entire post to the ways that Mike Vereb betrayed this community and how he still has his hooks in it. I have, in fact touched on it in previous posts.  Suffice to say that the former Republican State Rep and Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee was well placed to be an effective ally for Josh Shapiro.  I daresay Shapiro owes a good deal of his political success to Vereb’s behind-the-scenes work.

The Politics PA write up of Vereb’s qualifications is instructive for what it DOESN’T include:

Vereb currently serves as Director of Government Affairs for the Office Attorney General. Previously, he was a Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing the 150th legislative district from 2007-2017. He also served as president of the West Norriton Township Board of Commissioners prior to his election to the House. Before working in politics, Vereb worked for the West Conshohocken Police Department following graduation from the Montgomery County Police Academy in 1986.

Where is Vereb’s tenure as Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, a position he held from November 2013 through December 2016, and whose one responsibility in 2016 was beating Josh Shapiro and Val Arkoosh?  Why has that been omitted?  Why has it also been scrubbed from his Wikipedia entry?

Would it perhaps be too difficult to explain why the one person charged with defeating Josh Shapiro in 2016 has been working directly for him since 2017?

Vereb’s only public comment during the entire Parkhouse sale was only after the sale was closed in March 2014, where he was thankful for a County match to his $150,000 boat ramp grant.  It’s interesting and instructive to note that Vereb attended the closed-door closing of the Parkhouse even though its unclear what his role was at this proceeding.

Rep. Vereb stated that the investment that the state and County have made are helpful, the deed restrictions are beneficial and the Commissioners’ commitment to open space is significant. Rep. Vereb stated that the Commissioners made tough decisions that may not be popular, however, the Commissioners’ commitment to Open Space will not go unnoticed.

Vereb has held a six-figure taxpayer funded job as AG Josh Shapiro’s Legislative Liaison since 2017.  And now he’s up for another promotion as “Secretary of Legislative Affairs” under Governor Shapiro. And he’s the direct link between Upper Providence Township and the Governor’s office.

A rising tide lifts all boats, especially little dinghies kept afloat by the SS Shapiro. 

SCOTT RIFKIN – Transition Team

Can anyone think of a single good reason to include a retired Maryland doctor on the Pennsylvania Governor’s transition team?

Anyone? Anyone at all?

I mean, aside from the campaign donations, of course?

And it certainly couldn’t be Rifkin’s older brother’s Washington Lobbying firm, right?

As stated previously, the political sketchiness of the Parkhouse sale started well before the sale was even discussed publicly.  We know that on August 6, 2012, about six months before the initial Parkhouse RFI was issued by Montgomery County, Scott Rifkin contacted Josh Shapiro to inquire about buying Parkhouse. 

It is worth noting that while the County did solicit numerous bids on Parkhouse, miraculously, it was Scott Rifkin who submitted the winning bid after an “exhaustive” review by Montgomery County’s Working Committee, a committee consisting entirely of County employees answerable to Josh Shapiro. No word on if Rifkin got extra credit for being the first to express interest.

Rifkin, whose organization apparently told the County Commissioners that the open space aesthetic was crucial to the mission of Mid-Atlantic:

Rifkin also repeatedly denied and evaded direct questions about development plans were for the land. 

While the County ignored Right-to-Know requests from the public to release the terms of the sale, the public was also repeatedly told by Rifkin and County officials that there were no plans to develop the land. 

That was until, the Times Herald finally filed a Right-to-Know request that the County could not ignore.

Not only was developer Sukonic homes part of the plan, but Dr. Elliot Menkowitz, the County employee who almost derailed the sale, was also involved through his own development company, Ganas.  Once these plans were revealed, Rifkin told everyone that he “changed his mind” about developing the property.  However, he did stop trying to sell the smoke blowing about the aesthetic of the open space.

When he took over Parkhouse, Rifkin touted a $1 million spend on data mining as an “investment” in the Parkhouse facility: 

Mid Atlantic has invested $1 million to create its own data-mining software that clinicians at its nursing homes use to monitor the health status of its residents. The software relies on 130 data points gleaned from electronic medical records that track everything from bowel movements to what percentage of a meal a resident consumer to vital signs. The data helps clinicians detect subtle changes that indicate a potential health problem so those problems can be addressed, and hospital re-admissions are avoided.

This “investment” was not in Parkhouse at all, but a side hustle for Rifkin which eventually became Real Time Medical (stick a pin in that, Gentle Reader).  In June of 2017, when Rifkin sold off Parkhouse and the rest of his portfolio of nursing homes, he retained Real Time Medical and the land surrounding Parkhouse, and I believe a few of his private insurance companies, which should be instructive to anyone wishing to know where his real interests lie.

In May 2019, Scott Rifkin resigned from his position on the University of Maryland Medical System over growing scrutiny over lucrative contracts between UMMS and Board members:

Amid growing scrutiny in early April around lucrative contracts between the University of Maryland Medical System and nine of its volunteer board members, officials privately cut back two undisclosed deals with a tenth, according to a new report.

Both involved Dr. Scott Rifkin, who resigned from the board in early May even though he said a deal to supply software to the hospital system paid his company nothing.

The system’s efforts to undo those deals, paired with new allegations that UMMS employees felt pressured to push Rifkin’s products on nursing homes, raise fresh questions about his relationship with UMMS — and how and whether he stood to benefit personally from it despite the volunteer nature of his board position.

The report released Wednesday by California-based Nygren Consulting, hired to review board contracts by UMMS, found that while Rifkin’s company provided proprietary software for reducing hospital readmissions to UMMS for free for one year, the contract indicated fees would kick in during subsequent years.

The scandal caught also caught some other high-profile, politically connected Board members in it’s net:

The former chief executive of the University of Maryland Medical System made business deals with board members — including then-Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh — that were not competitively bid or properly disclosed to the full board, an independent review released Wednesday found.

The agreement that Robert A. Chrencik made with Pugh to purchase her Healthy Holly children’s books was part of a “pattern by management of making decisions without full Board approval,” said the report by Nygren Consulting, a California-based firm.

Pugh resigned as mayor, and Chrencik resigned as head of the $4.4 billion hospital network amid the fallout from the scandal, which has led to an exodus of top UMMS officials.

The review was sent Wednesday afternoon to Maryland’s top elected officials. It marks the first public accounting of the deals since March, when the Baltimore Sun reported that nine board members had deals with the system they oversaw. Pugh’s book deals are now under state and federal investigation.

In April 2020 in the early days of COVID, Montgomery County, which has more nursing homes and long term care facilities than any other county in the state, partnered with Real Time Medical to monitor the virus.  One of those homes, and the Inquirer declined to name which one it was had already experienced more than it’s share of COVID-related deaths:

UPPER PROVIDENCE – Only one other nursing home in all of Pennsylvania has seen more deaths from the coronavirus than Parkhouse Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, according to new data released by the state.

With 48 deaths listed, Parkhouse was second only to Brighton Rehabilitation & Wellness Center in Beaver County, which had 76 deaths, according to the state’s figures.

So why on earth not partner with the guy who used to run that nursing home?  From an April 14, 2020 Montgomery County Press release:

Montgomery County, PA, has teamed up with Real Time Medical Systems to provide 24/7 electronic Infectious Disease Surveillance of nursing facilities in the county, who have volunteered to share their data. The cloud-based software pulls data from the electronic health records (EHRs), identifying potential infectious disease “hotspots.”

The system detects infectious disease warning signs, looking for changes in temperature, respiratory rate, cough, diagnosis, and shortness of breath. “By having automated, early access to all of today’s medical information we hope to be able to identify outbreaks days earlier,” says Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

{…)

“We are happy to be helping Montgomery County,” says Dr. Scott Rifkin, Executive Chairman of Real Time. “We strongly believe that this program will not only save the lives of both patients and staff today but will be beneficial in years to come.”

Scott Rifkin is perhaps the strangest name of all showing up on Shapiro’s transition team roster. After all, aren’t we supposed to believe the nature of his relationship with Josh Shapiro was through only one transaction that took place ten years ago, the sale of Parkhouse?

And again, like Marcel Groen, why would Shapiro deliberately appoint the buyer in the most controversial land sale in Montgomery County history to his transition team? Why would he risk that heat?

What is the nature of the bond between Shapiro and Scott Rifkin that it merits an appointment to the transition team?

VAL ARKOOSH – Cabinet, Secretary of Health and Human Services

Val Arkoosh was not a member of the Montgomery County Commissioners when the sale of Parkhouse went through.  She was appointed to fulfill Leslie Richards’ term  when Richards was appointed as Governor Wolf’s Secretary of Transportation. 

However, when your Humble Blogress sent out a call for aid in November 2013 to all of the elected municipal Board members in Montgomery County, it was Arkoosh’s husband, Jeff Harbison, who, alone amongst the many elected officials to whom this email was addressed, felt compelled to tattle to the commissioners about “this agitating” that was going on.

When Arkoosh had to run for election in 2015, she stuck with the approved talking points like a loyal soldier:

Arkoosh defended the sale of Parkhouse Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which she did not vote on as a commissioner. “Parkhouse provided quality care to seniors. We looked for quality purchasers,” she said. “The majority of Parkhouse open space was preserved in the sale of the facility.”

“We have worked very collaboratively. Our job is to spend your tax dollars well,” she said. “We are looking forward to fixing the remaining bridges. We have already preserved land in Montgomery County.”

And, as mentioned above, it was Val Arkoosh, as Chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners, who contracted with Rifkin and Real Time Medical software during COVID.

Where do the Upper Providence Supervisors stand?

The fate of Parkhouse now lies solely with the Upper Providence Board of Supervisors, just as the Montgomery County Commissioners intended back in 2014. 

The question is, are any of these players invested in the development of Parkhouse?  Were promises made to Scott Rifkin that now must be honored?

If there’s no politics involved, then the Board’s denial of this plan is really a no-brainer, isn’t it?  Literally everyone hates it and it does not conform to Township zoning.  

And if there were no politics involved, there would have been no need for the political theater that occurred at the December 7 Planning Commission meeting. There would be no need for the obvious efforts to manage the public.

So let’s talk about that Planning Commission meeting for a second.

On December 7, 2022, the next available Planning Commission meeting after the election (of course), the Planning Commission placed the Parkhouse sketch plan on the agenda.

That was unlike any planning commission meeting I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to some planning commission meetings.

Typically, the planning commission meeting goes like this:  The developer presents the plan.  Then they address some of the more prominent issues raised in the review letters from the Township’s consultants.  And there was indeed a nod to this by Rifkin’s team.  Then the Planning Commission members ask questions. 

And then they open it up to members of the public for questions and comments.

But in this meeting, before the plan was even presented, the taxpayers in the audience got a lecture from the Township Solicitor on the current zoning, the definition of open space, and how the Parkhouse parcel, while zoned open space is no longer open space because it is now privately owned.  Most of the people involved in Parkhouse understand this, especially those who have been involved with it from the beginning.  It’s the very reason we fought the sale so hard.

It was the Township Solicitor who determined that the “copyright” on this plan prevented the Township from posting this on the website or from delivering it electronically to residents in response to a Right-to-Know request.  Instead, if residents wanted to see the plan, they had to appear at the Township building during business hours and view it in person.  So needless to say, for the vast majority of the residents in attendance at the planning commission meeting, this was the very first time they were laying eyes on the plan.

The Planning Commission members, along with the Board of Supervisors, have had this plan since May.  With six months to look it over, I assumed there would be plenty of questions for the developers from the Planning Commission Members.

Instead, none of the Planning Commission Members had a thing to say.  They asked no questions. 

None at all. 

No questions about cartways, no questions about units, no questions about amenities, no questions about emergency vehicle access, no questions about setbacks, no questions about steep slopes, no questions about open space, no questions about stormwater management. 

Instead, the Township Solicitor turned the meeting over immediately to public comment.  So in effect, the only people asking questions about this plan were lay people who mostly were just seeing this plan for the first time.

Everything about the meeting felt like a strategy for managing the public response rather than listening to it. Let the residents vent their spleen and get it out of their system so they will feel “heard.”

This, Gentle Readers, is political theater. 

And there would have been no need for this political theater if the Township was hostile to this plan.

So let’s assume the Township Supervisors feel compelled to approve this plan for some reason.  It could be political pressure from upper levels of government, it could be that they are getting something in return.  It’s hard to get a good read because the Township is more concerned with managing us than talking with us.  For our purposes here, I will just say that it is my opinion that the Board is getting squeezed from all directions on this.

And that maybe some of them have bigger problems with it than others.

This brings me to Joe Haney.

On January 10, I attended a meeting of concerned residents.  Also in attendance was Joe Haney, who showed up a few minutes after the meeting started and said nothing until towards the end of it.  Joe Haney is Township Supervisor Helene Calci’s husband.

I am not sure in what capacity he was there, representing the interests of the Township, or his wife, or himself (and no, I don’t think they are the same).  In any event, Mr. Haney made a few comments, and due to his position as the spouse of a sitting supervisor, these comments rankled me and need discussion.

First, he made a big point about contacting our State Rep and State Senator about this issue.  He told everyone that both Katie Muth and Joe Webster “know about this issue.”  Then he said, “They have Josh Shapiro’s ear.”

What on earth could THAT possibly mean? 

The approval of this plan rests solely in the purview of the Township Supervisors.  Katie Muth and Joe Webster, no matter what they “know” about this issue, have zero jurisdiction over land development decisions in the Township.  I have every confidence that Joe Haney knows this, which means the only reason to possibly contact them is “because they have Josh Shapiro’s ear.” 

And again, Josh Shapiro ultimately has no jurisdiction over land development in the Township either. He just wields the most political influence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Now Haney’s suggestion could have been a typical “run to daddy” ploy directed at people who do not understand how our government works to give them something to do. Local government is not like the courts, where you just keep appealing to a higher court until you get the verdict you want or you run out of courts or money.  Each branch of government and each office has a specific set of powers.  Since Haney also went into a dissertation on the ins and outs of the Township’s ACT 209 plan, this tells me that Haney is probably more well versed in Township business than most spouses and has a thorough understanding of the powers of each of these offices.

The other possibility, and this seems more likely, is that the Board is indeed getting political pressure to approve this plan and the they are looking for any cover they can get. 

I back this up with Haney’s second point, which was that we all must let the Township Supervisors know how we feel by showing up and writing and calling. 

But this was also a very interesting thing to say since there is no doubt the Supervisors 100% KNOW there is universal opposition to this plan.  And Haney himself could just go home and tell his wife about the opposition as soon as he left the meeting. 

The Township has made a business of managing the public response on this issue because they know the opposition is universal.  Still, it was Haney’s suggestion to keep writing to them.  This is a suggestion with which I happen to agree, just not sure why it was put forth by one of the Supervisor’s spouses.

The third thing he said was that the residents should start doing research on the lawyer they want to represent the Township in a lawsuit if the Township rejects the plan. 

I have two thoughts on this:

First, he fully expects the Township to get sued if they reject this plan.

Second, why are the residents being asked to do the Supervisors’ jobs?

Fourth and finally: Haney was overheard telling another resident that the Board’s vote on this is going to be 5 – 0 one way or another. 

That’s a pretty neat trick considering that Sunshine laws are supposed to deter, if not prevent, the Board from coordinating their votes.

Anyway, its very interesting that he not only knows how they plan to vote on this, but that he felt comfortable enough saying this in a meeting of residents who have clearly gotten the impression that the Township is working against their interests in this matter.

A Final Prediction from Montco Cassandra

It is my theory that Bruce Castor was actually correct and the only developable acreage on that parcel is the corner of 113 and Old Trappe Road.  Further, I believe that’s the only area of the property that Rifkin actually wants to develop. 

He wants his apartments and he’s going to get those apartments.  And he’s pretty miffed at Upper Providence residents for not embracing the architectural genius that was the Williamsburg-lite plan he presented two years ago. 

It is further my theory that at one or more Township officials are cooperating with Rifkin.  The Township is playing helpless, with the evil developer finding the loophole in the zoning that allows him to build high density residential in an institutional zone.

We, the public, are to suspend disbelief and to forget that the Township specifically re-wrote the zoning code in 2013 to close this exact loophole.

We are to believe that a 2017 legal decision made for a Worcester parcel zoned agricultural has an iron-clad bearing on the institutional zoning in Upper Providence in 2023.   All that blather about “The Worcester Decision” and “the law is the law” is meant to convey to us that the Township’s hands are tied in this matter and that they have no choice but to let it move forward.

(Except the law is NOT the law.  Didn’t the Supreme Court overturn 50 years of Roe v. Wade this past June?  In protest of this very event, Supervisor Laurie Higgins has not stood for a pledge of allegiance since then.  So the law is definitely NOT the law, and if ever there was a time to fight something out in the courts, now is the time.)

But if the theater plays out like I think it will, the plan will get approved and everyone will be sad and angry. 

Then, before the bulldozer blades hit the ground, the Supervisors will announce that they have successfully “negotiated” with Scott Rifkin, who really is a very nice and reasonable guy after all.  And he has agreed to cut the number of units proposed from 1,203 to say 600 to 700. 

And only develop maybe 15% of the land.

You know, down in that corner of 113 and Old Trappe Road.  Where the Williamsburg-lite development was fleshed out.  Where this latest plan actually contained the only assisted living building that is a slight nod to our zoning.

I mean, look at it. Who would want to live in an overcrowded development like this?

The Supervisors will be HEROES for saving us from the worst of this development, and all it took was a little reasonable negotiation with Rifkin.  Not this constant agitation from riff raff.

Neat story, huh?  Everybody wins.

Except none of it is legal, which is why any negotiation for a “compromise” development is completely premature.  If the plan is illegal at 1,203 units, it’s illegal at 1.  Residential buildings are not permitted in IN zoning unless there is a licensed care component, such as in a Continuing Care Retirement Community (“CCRC”).  And the man who unloaded the Parkhouse operation a mere three years after buying it–but kept the land–has no intention of running a CCRC.  He wants his investment to pay off and he’s tired of waiting.

Anyway, that’s Cassandra’s theory. 

Troy Falls

It’s a tangled web, but the same ole flies keep turning up in it.

Is it possible that the Parkhouse plan Rifkin submitted in May was withdrawn because of a couple of well-placed calls on behalf of a gubernatorial candidate with an iron grip on Upper Providence Township politics who didn’t want any negative press during an election?  The same gubernatorial candidate who spent a record breaking $63 million during his campaign, and several million of that promoting the Republican candidate he felt would be easiest to defeat?

Is it possible that the Township’s decision not to make the plan available online to the public had less to do with the legal interpretation of “copyright laws” and more to do with a political request during an election season?

Is it possible that a Township who specifically rewrote their code to prevent just the situation of a developer interpreting IN zoning as “age restricted” is rolling over due to political pressure?

Based on what we know, is it possible that there is a political component to this development?

Set aside your partisan beliefs for a second and ask yourself: Is it possible?

Though I know it would be easier for some of you Gentle Readers to believe otherwise, I really don’t care about the letter after the name of a politician.  Rs and Ds, they are all mostly the same to me, though in point of full disclosure, I do prefer a conservative philosophy.  They all count on the loyalty and trust of their rank and file party members to vote for them no matter what they do.  And most of their decisions are based not on some moral compass or personal belief system, but almost entirely on political calculus.  How many votes will this win me/cost me if I vote this way?

The biggest mistake I made during the Parkhouse sale was in trusting politicians simply because they were on my side of the aisle.  What I didn’t fully realize was that it was not my enemies who had the power to do the most damage, because I was expecting it from them and my guard was up.  The real danger –and damage– came from my “allies.”

Because your allies don’t come at you straight on when they are betraying you. They come at you sideways. They come at you bearing smiles, and gifts of “advice” or “information” in the name of “friendship.”

Your enemies can’t betray you.  Your friends can.

I’ve been screaming into the abyss about Parkhouse for 10 years.  And no matter how many times I am eventually proven correct, still no one believes until its too late. 

So maybe Montco Cassandra was the right name for this blog all along.

One thought on “Parkhouse Politics: Six Degrees of Josh Shapiro

  1. Pingback: Montco Scrap Explains Montco's Plight - BillLawrenceOnline

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