Jenkintown faces a Sophie's choice: Which do we love more? Our cars or our community?

Jenkintown faces a Sophie’s choice: Our cars or our community?

It’s time to decide whether we want nice places to walk or fast places to drive

Last Monday’s Business Zoning, and Redevelopment Committees brought Graham Copeland pitching his services as a business development consultant to Jenkintown Borough. Mr. Graham seemed like an earnest guy and who brought with him at least one solid credential in the field of revitalization; the ongoing redevelopment of Fort Washington, of all places.

Most of us probably think of Fort Washington as little more than an exit off the turnpike into a soulless, flood-prone 1950s-vintage office park and little else. That looks very likely to change.

Mr. Copeland came to the BZR meeting with few specifics for Jenkintown. Yes, we want to fill the empty storefronts, and Mr. Copeland spoke of “public-private partnerships” and how he preferred targeting “mature businesses” that might open a new branch store over startup businesses. The new brewery might offer evidence for this approach. We also already have the 2035 Plan in place, for what it’s worth.

Unfortunately, the meeting barely acknowledged the 800 pound gorilla in the room. With Old York Road making our downtown a pedestrian wasteland, Mr. Copeland didn’t tell the committee what it really needs to hear: Downtown Jenkintown will never be revitalized until parking is restored on Old York Road. Of course, that won’t happen until PennDOT gives the idea its blessing, and that won’t happen until someone in power in Harrisburg orders PennDOT to do so. Any money spent on Mr. Copeland’s services is money down the drain until the state tames Old York Road.

Let’s give pedestrians their own Jenkintown

Jenkintown Plaza
We can easily imagine Jenkintown Plaza with ground floor shops.

Alternatively, we could just rezone a chunk of Jenkintown and foster commercial development there. This is not a new idea. Historically, centers of commerce have shifted within municipal borders thanks to the establishment of transportation, business, or government hubs. It happened in New York with the construction of Grand Central Terminal. In Framingham, Massachusetts, the established stagecoach services forced the route of the railroad to the south, where a new downtown quickly sprouted. Keswick Village grew up around the trolley line that took riders out to Willow Grove Park.

Why Jenkintown’s commercial district didn’t gravitate toward its train station remains something of a mystery. as are many things about Pennsylvania. When developers replaced the factories along the tracks with single-purpose office structures, Jenkintown missed a major opportunity. Imagine instead our own Keswick Village filled with shops, offices, and residences, seamlessly connected to SEPTA’s far-flung transportation network. Imagine a real transit village, and we could happily concede Old York Road to the traffic gods.

We appreciate the fact that most if not all of the people in this town would like to see Old York Road returned to its former glory. Concerts, banners, and lip service won’t do it, however. Someone needs to step up and finally slay the dragon that has stretched across our town since the day PennDOT ripped out the parking meters.

Not found money, real money, our money.

Jenkintown Government and the “cost of a cup of coffee a day” fallacy

Last Monday night, Jenkintown’s Finance Committee and Business Development Committee held their monthly meetings. I attended because I saw an item about a discussion to update the Borough’s sidewalk and street codes on the agenda, but I came away with a more lasting impression about our government’s fiscal attitude.

In short, the Borough needs to borrow $1.5 million to pay for sewer upgrades. Remember that it has already borrowed $1.4 million for the parking lot it built in 2009. While I don’t have the budget handy, this means that Jenkintown already services at least $1 million in debt which this would double.

Think about that when you consider the Borough just bought chunk of property for $250,000 and will likely spend at least another $650,000 to develop it into a park (that no one asked for). While Rick Bunker’s fuzzy math says that taxpayers will not even notice the financial impact of that park project, it fails to consider the loss of not just actual tax revenue, but of potential tax revenue if they sold the site to a developer. And none of this considers the impact to the School District. Logic would dictate that this pocket park commits the Borough for yet another million dollars over the course of the next five years.

The Borough has little choice but to upgrade its sewers, and it deserves credit for some considerable savings on infrastructure maintenance in general. Unfortunately, it also appears to have adopted this attitude that the money it manages belongs not to us, the taxpayers. If the Borough manages to save $15,000 on something, it looks for ways to spend that $15,000 on a pet project. Savings should not translate into “found money”.

One of the bits of savings reported in last night’s meeting was an unexpected recycling grant for $11,589. Committee Chair Kieran Farrell immediately found a use for that money to print more flyers to educate us about recycling, augmenting the thousands spent on refrigerator magnets. Funny me, I looked at that money as something to return to the taxpayers — or perhaps to pay for sidewalk repairs in front of three properties.

To Borough officials, eleven grand seems like chump change, like those ads that say “It’s only a cup of coffee a day!” Except that by the end of the day, we could find ourselves swimming in coffee.

Municipal government has only three legitimate functions: Secure the streets, clean the parks, and fix the schools. It’s not supposed to be a piggy bank for pols eager to plunk feathers in their caps. For Jenkintown that means keep us safe, maintain our infrastructure, and educate our kids.  Everything else is mostly nonsense or better handled by private efforts. That includes — but is not limited to — leaf collection, movie theaters, and recycling education.

A million here, a million there, as they say.

A cautionary tale for anyone thinking they can make a difference

Left in the dark by the Right to Know

A cautionary tale for anyone hoping to make a difference

A friend of of mine who follows my dealings with Jenkintown Borough recently related his own experience that spoke to the futility of civic engagement. An attorney and a one-time senior official in state government, he’s a guy that possesses considerable political acumen. Earlier in his adult life, he and his wife also decided to get very much involved in their own bucolic community just north of Boston. After months of frustration, they decided instead to just move.

Luckily for my friend, his current financial status insulates him from municipal shenanigans. My family? Not so much. Decisions made by Jenkintown Borough and Jenkintown School District affect us profoundly. We therefore have incentive to get involved and to make our positions known, but after our experiences of the past couple of years, rubber mallets to our heads would produce much the same result and take far less time.

Not here, not now, not ever

While our story began with a campaign to discuss the rationality of Jenkintown’s sidewalk ordinance, it evolved into a tale with a familiar theme; that familiarity breeds contempt. We approached the Borough not only asking for help, but we also presented an alternative plan that we thought was a well-reasoned and researched.

The Borough not only expressed no interest in discussing the matter, they took action to actually make matters worse for us. Meanwhile Rick Bunker publicly disparaged us on social media as crackpots, calling our ideas “quixotic”. We were not asking for the Borough to build a protective dome or to mow our lawn. We were asking it to reconsider an ordinance that hurt people financially and produced substandard results. We characterized it as paying for steak and getting McNuggets.

Since this began, here’s a short list of what we experienced:

  • Neighbors falsely accusing us of trying to evade our responsibilities
  • Rick Bunker flatly proclaiming, “This is the we’ve always done it, and it’s the way the rest of the state does it. I see no reason to support this change.
  • Rick Bunker trolling my Facebook page and posting a comment on this website saying, among other things, “I pity your family.”
  • Borough Manager George Locke conveying false information to a judge about a decision to rescind the lien process used to pay for work the resident couldn’t afford
  • The threat of fines amounting to $185 per day for non-compliance
  • Neighbors accusing us of misrepresenting ourselves in a GoFundMe campaign we launched to pay for the work
  • The Mayor of Jenkintown, Ed Foley, blocking me Trump-style from seeing any of his Facebook posts, including those that conveyed official information on the Jenkintown Community Page

A right to know (what we want you to know)

And finally, in an attempt to investigate possible improprieties of Rick Bunker, I filed a Right-To-Know request for emails sent to and from his borough email address. The Borough invoked their right to a 30-day extension, which I believed meant they needed time to assemble the files and redact them for reasons related to privacy.

Instead, I received a letter from the Borough with an estimate for computer forensic services for the amount of $3,800 to retrieve these emails. As an IT professional myself, I knew that such services would only be required if the Borough not only deleted those emails, but wiped them clean from the server.

This made little sense, for a couple of reasons. First, the Borough apparently employs the use of Microsoft Outlook cloud services to administer their email, which means that the emails never really go away. Second, I had already spoken with a sympathetic Council member about this, and he offered to let me see his email account anytime.

No connections, no consideration, no service

The Borough’s letter suggested that I should write the the office of our borough solicitor, Sean Kilkenny, with any questions or concerns, and of course I had questions. The Borough’s letter stated that the estimate I received was the lowest of three, so I asked for the other two. Also, I wondered why I should even need a forensics firm for this, as it would imply that they deleted their emails. I wrote three letters over the course of a month, and I received no reply.

Further research into the document archival guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determines that administrative correspondence, which includes emails, only need to be retained for “as long as administratively useful.” In other words, if Jenkintown lies and says that the emails don’t exist, they have legal cover.

This is obstruction plain and simple. If a citizen has cause to believe that a borough official is up to no good, they have no recourse and no right to access any official correspondence that might support that suspicion. However, you can bet that if the FBI comes calling, those emails will magically reappear.

Our tiny little borough would have you think that its size, demographics, and location would make it an almost idyllic community. Good school, easy access to transit, and a rich mix of housing types should make it the poster-community for small-town living. The dream of such a lifestyle does exist here, but it requires a substantial financial cushion and steering clear of any interaction with its government or calling attention to any issue not already on its agenda.

Welcome to small-town politics at its smallest.

Did Kilkenny lie Jenkintown Council, why is he our solicitor?

Did Sean Kilkenny lie to Jenkintown Council?

And if so, why is he still our solicitor?

Did you know that Jenkintown Borough Council creates an audio recording of all their meetings to use in the generation of its official minutes? Given that you no longer see anyone at the meeting typing a transcription, this makes sense.

Did you also know that once the Borough creates the minutes document it destroys the audio recording? News to us as well, and given that these recordings create an MP3 file less than 150 megabytes in size, a one terabyte hard drive could hold more than 6500 recordings, or about 125 years worth of Council meetings.

Right now, you can buy a one terabyte external hard drive on Amazon for $55.00. Why does the Borough delete these historical records?

Enclosed is one such historical record from March 27, where you can hear at least three Jenkintown residents put Borough Solicitor Sean Kilkenny in his place, and even catch him in a lie. Mr. Kilkenny states on several occasions in this recording alone that he is not allowed to give legal advice on criminal matters, and yet we hear Chief of Police Albert DiValentino revealing that his office did just that.

The comment period of this particular meeting largely involves the ongoing ordeal at 303 Runnymede, for which the Borough has dragged its feet for an interminable amount of time. Judge for yourself.

Jenkintown Borough Transparency, Sines-Pancoe style

Jenkintown Borough Transparency, Sines-Pancoe style

Deborra Sines-Pancoe extolls the virtues of transparency, but her actions drown out her four minute statement.

Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe delivered a rambling four-and-a-half-minute statement last Monday that considered some of the controversies currently swirling around 700 Summit Avenue. Much of this statement sounded like a defense of her and her colleagues on the board, but she also took some swipes at the “inordinate” number of Right to Know requests, and the verbal attacks that she and others in Borough Hall have had to endure in the past several months.

We’ve taken Ms. Sines-Pancoe to task in the past for her curious cluelessness, which she exemplified last Monday when she observed a “full house” at the meeting, when in fact only eight people turned up. In the past, she told Borough Manager George Locke that she thought the sidewalks “looked great,” when in fact they look like a sloppy hodgepodge.

Like George W. Bush telling former FEMA head “Brownie” he was doing a “great job,” we start to wonder about Ms. Sines-Pancoe’s comprehension of the realities that confront this borough.

Most of her statement addressed her commitment to transparency and openness, especially in light of recent developments and the announcement that the Borough may sell its properties for redevelopment. This assertion flies in the face of her actions in the recent past where she:

  • Did not dismiss George Locke’s request withhold posting the Borough’s full budget on the website because it shows the line-item with Mr. Locke’s current salary ($115,000) and the percentage increase (23.5%).
  • Held a public hearing about the Cedar Street acquisition advertised only in the legal notice section of the Times-Chronicle just barely before the 48-hour deadline, and posting the agenda on the website a half-hour before the actual hearing.
  • Continues to hinder the effort to set up procedures for community e-blasts informing of major announcements, especially those that affect the broader community and/or would commit it in a financially significant manner.
  • Refuses to ride herd on the Borough Manager to put an end, once and for all, to the egregious and flagrant zoning violations taking place at 303 Runnymede and the criminal activities of its occupant.
  • Defends Borough Solicitor Sean Kilkenny despite the fact that he was caught in a lie providing prohibited advice on a criminal matter with regards to 303 Runnymede during the March 27 council meeting, at which she should have asked for Kilkenny’s resignation right on the spot.

Ms. Sines-Pancoe also took great pains to remind us all that she, her fellow council members, and the mayor serve as volunteers. “We are performing community service,” she stressed. The implication being, of course, was “You should all stop being so critical.”

As previously stated, I applaud anyone’s sense of volunteerism, but just because you do not accept compensation for your efforts does not put you beyond reproach — especially when you assume the reigns of power. For many people, power is its own reward. Our volunteer council has the power to take our homes, to put it bluntly. Volunteers that don’t know how to do their jobs or who abuse their positions do us no favors.

Finally, with regard to the Right-To-Know requests, I myself have filed maybe a dozen in the past six months. I know for a fact that two other residents have also busied themselves filing requests as well, mostly to learn more about Borough activities.

Speaking for myself, I file them because there is simply no other way to get the information I need to draft proposals for improving my community or to build a case illustrating Borough ineptitudes. Ms. Sines-Pancoe complained about the cost to the Borough of these requests, but I can assure her that if the Borough was indeed transparent, we would’t need to file the requests for the information.

I am currently engaged in an effort to receive official information about a one particular Council member, and the Borough has retained Kilkenny’s office to cynically and illegally obstruct this request with prohibitive demands.

The grapevine tells me that Deborra Sines-Pancoe plans to run for reelection, but to paraphrase Henry II, will no one rid us of this meddlesome councilor? I rather that she would spare us any further lip service to providing the good government she falsely asserts she is providing.

As I have stated numerous times before: This is a tiny borough. There is simply no excuse for our government to serve us so poorly and to work so hard to keep us in the dark.

Listen to the full statement here: