Jenkintown Borough Hall

The costs of Jenkintown’s political vendetta

Even in little Jenkintown, it costs big money to carry out a political vendetta by weaponizing your zoning code, especially if your victim has the nerve to fight back.

Jenkintown’s ongoing political drama turned circus turned fiasco has hopefully come to a close. On July 12, the Zoning Hearing Board unanimously dismissed the notice of violation the Borough served against the Downses. I think I assumed like most in this town that the matter had finally ended, but upon review of the invoices submitted by Rudolph Clarke LLC, the firm representing the ZHB, the Borough spent the rest of July (at least) investigating the possibility of an appeal. This exploration cost taxpayers another $1162.

So far, the final bill to Jenkintown taxpayers for this affair looks like this:

December 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018

The Borough cited the Downses in December for running an unspecified, non-compliant business which on March 28 Judge Elizabeth McHugh dismissed for failing to cite the business.

Offices of Sean Kilkenny: $5273.00

April

The Borough decided to reissue the citation inserting the word “Landscaping” to describe the type of business they believed the Downses ran. Rather than pay the fine and end the matter, the Downses instead brought the matter before the Zoning Hearing Board, and in doing so, paid the filing fee of $1,000. The hearing was set for May 30.

Offices of Sean Kilkenny: $418.50
Offices of Rudolph Clarke LLC: $98.00

May

Offices of Sean Kilkenny: $2185.50
Offices of Rudolph Clarke, LLC: $1232.00
Mark Manjardi, Court Reporter: $1554.00
Newspaper Advertising (Legal notice required by state law): $246.00

June

After the initial three-hour hearing, the ZHB needed to continue proceedings and set for June 7.

Offices of Sean Kilkenny: $1069.50
Offices of Rudolph Clarke, LLC: $1218.00
Mark Manjardi, Court Reporter: $1264.00

July

Kilkenny’s invoice this month had one curious line item: A $46.50 charge for a half-hour phone call FROM Frank Reilley, the owner of 303 Runnymede Avenue. Our inquiry to the Borough as to why we should be charged for this have so far gone unanswered.

Offices of Sean Kilkenny: $744.50
Offices of Rudolph Clarke, LLC: $1820.00
Mark Manjardi, Court Reporter: $970.00

Police overtime: $1,248.00
This information was supplied at our request by Chief DiValentino via email. 

Total: $19,341.00

These totals, especially the numbers from Kilkenny’s office, reflect only those line items that plainly refer to 301 or 303 Runnymede or mentions the names of the occupants.

It’s possible the total amount is higher for the following reasons:

  • The invoices document conversations with Noah Marlier, the attorney working for Rudolph Clarke LLC, to discuss matters relating to the zoning code. It’s possible and even likely that Mr. Marlier was consulted before the Borough issued the original citation. We don’t yet have invoices from Rudolph Clarke for those months.
  • Kilkenny’s July invoices have several redacted items of email exchanges with Patrick Hitchens. On July 12, the day of the third hearing, one such email exchange charged the Borough $46.50.
  • The July invoice from Rudolph Clarke contain several post-hearing line items regarding appellate rights (of the Borough). Two of those items mention telephone calls to or from Patrick Hitchens, the prosecuting attorney working for Sean Kilkenny. Neither of those items are reflected in the Kilkenny invoices.
  • These totals only reflect the invoices we thought to ask for. Not having worked in government nor participated in a political vendetta, we don’t know all the tools the Borough had at its disposal or what it used.
  • The Borough does not expect employees to track their time and so does not require time sheets. The amount of non-billable resources the borough has expensed will never be known.
  • Employee overtime: At least two of the borough’s non-salaried employees attended the hearings in an official capacity. We did not ask for the overtime paid to them.

As we’ve mentioned before the initial copies of Kilkenny’s invoices were heavily redacted, initially without explanation. The law requires the Borough to redact personal information or references to Borough personnel or confidential legal matters. We asked Rick Ware if those massive black blocks hid only that information. Mr. Ware interpreted our Right-to-Know request as a request for information exclusively related to the Downs citation and nothing else.

We suggested to Mr. Ware that we wouldn’t mind seeing the rest of the invoices either, since that would save everyone the time and expense of refiling for the same invoices without any specific stipulation. Kilkenny’s July invoice appears more appropriately redacted.

Jenkintown Borough leadership may appeal Downs ZHB decision

Jenkintown Borough leadership considered appeal of Downs ZHB decision

[Update: The Borough had 30 days to appeal, and the window has closed. Nonetheless, it is our opinion that the Borough should have shut down this this matter well before the first hearing.]

Apparently a unanimous vote against them failed to convince the Borough to stand down after all. According to documents we’ve received today via a Right-to-Know request, Jenkintown Borough is or was considering an appeal of the ZHB vote taken last month regarding the notice of violation against the Downses.

I just received copies of the July invoices pertaining to the Downs ZHB hearing. What I’ve included here is the invoice from Rudolph Clarke, the firm representing the ZHB. The total for that month from all the invoices amount to another $3500. What stands out is the $1162 the Borough spent AFTER the vote researching a possible appeal. If the appeal window has not closed, this ordeal might not be over after all. If it has, another $1162 in taxpayer money just went up in smoke.

Question: Has Jenkintown Borough leadership gone insane?

Rudolph Clark invoice to Jenkintown for July 2018
f=”https://www.walkablejenkintown.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ClarkeInvoice.png”> Rudolph Clark invoice to Jenkintown for July 2018[/capt
The notes over the redactions reveal the easily discerned text under the marker ink. Click the image for a larger view.

Jenkintown 2035 tip-toes around issues it needs to address head on.

Jenkintown 2035: Not thinking big enough

Jenkintown adopts a long-range plan that tip-toes around issues it needs to address head on.

Last week, after five years of discussion, Jenkintown Borough Council formally adopted the Jenkintown 2035 plan. After a half a decade of notes, presentations, debates, and fact finding, the fact that no one involved with the plan — except for someone from the county — witnessed the vote came as quite the anti-climax.

The plan paints a lovely future for Jenkintown. It looks to a thriving commercial district, preserved historic housing, and enhanced transportation options among other other things. As these plans are typically the result of consensus, a reader will find almost nothing controversial in there.

As such, like any plans that attempts to accommodate such a variety of public suggestions, it is deeply flawed and it exemplifies the futility of the public process. StrongTowns addressed exactly this issue just last week in this post. StrongTowns founder and author of the article nails it when he writes:

I’ve come to the point in my life where I think municipal comprehensive planning is worthless. More often than not, it is a mechanism to wrap a veneer of legitimacy around the large policy objectives of influential people. Most cities would be better off putting together a good vision statement and a set of guiding principles for making decisions, then getting on with it.

The plan is well-meaning and could provide a blueprint for Jenkintown, but only if the Borough puts someone qualified in place to steward it. As best we can tell, that person does not currently have a desk in Borough Hall.

Here’s just a few things that the plan failed to address or got wrong.

Jenkintown 2035 rendering
Artist rendering of a future Jenkintown where people sip coffee in busy intersections.

York Road, York Road, YORK ROAD! Jenkintown’s core will never truly revive until York Road is put on a traffic diet. We hammer on this point all the time, but it’s true. Everything must begin from there. Until that happens, the only developers interested in bringing anything major to the town will be auto-oriented. You simply cannot get a critical mass of foot traffic unless you create more pedestrian-oriented commercial space, and you can’t do that until York Road is tamed.

Wholesale district development. There should be some major incentive or marketing push for a wholesale redevelopment of the area between Cherry and Cloverly. Right now that rag-tag bunch of mostly nondescript, auto-oriented buildings are doing no one any good, least of all the community.

Apples to oranges comparisons. The plan cited in inventory of over a million square feet of commercial space in Jenkintown and then went on to compare that favorably to Center City and Fort Washington. Really? In comparison to those places, how much class A commercial space, office and retail, do we have in comparison? By my reckoning, it’s tiny, and outside of the buildings by the train station and the old Strawbridge building, next to zero. Sadly, Jenkintown’s office and retail inventory is largely obsolete. Much of this would be addressed by the preceding point.

Streetscape. I find it odd and more than a little aggravating that the plan talked mostly about commercial streetscape. Company heads and entrepreneurs typically prefer to set up businesses where they like to live, and what improves the look of a residential streetscape? Great, well-engineered and well maintained sidewalks. You make a town a great place to live, and all else follows, and if you remove the burden of sidewalk repair from individual households and make it a wholesale program, you get more and pay less. There is simply no argument against that.

In simple terms, the plan does not think big enough. For such a small town like Jenkintown to survive, it must add density. It must do whatever it can to get more people to settle and work here, not fewer — and that includes bringing in more children. The whole Summit Hill issue exposed a rather unsavory attitude some residents had about the prospect of more kids in the school system. Sorry to have to tell them that this is not and should be a gated community.

For Jenkintown to survive as an independent entity, it needs to add density, not disperse it. I know there’s a mindset that wants to fight that, but there’s no denying the economics of it.

Jenkintown Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe
Jenkintown Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe

Cedar Street Redux?

Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe motion to exercise an option to purchase of the Church of Our Savior almost slipped right under our noses last June 20 at the special Council meeting. If Borough Solicitor Patrick Hitchens hadn’t corrected the wording of her motion, we might never have known of the Borough’s designs on the property as a possible location for a new Borough Hall.

In the motion passed by a vote of 10-0, but it begs the question, will residents this time get a say in the matter before our government closes this or any deal? This vote came during a “special session” that the Borough suddenly announced with little notice and no e-blast.

We’ve since been made to understand the option does not obligate the Borough, but it does protect it in the event the owner entertains offers from another buyer.

What we find most disturbing is now the notion of transparency still seems to be anathema to our council president. It took three minutes for a council official to explain to us what actually happened, and yet Ms. Pancoe, with the motion in writing in her hand nearly omitted the location for this option. After repeatedly expressing her commitment to transparency, one would think this would be her first impulse as a representative. Apparently not.

While there may be merits to the location, the ends should not justify the means. Ms. Pancoe has a responsibility to us, especially after her repeated and passionate assurances of transparency. We’re still waiting for evidence of this commitment. We didn’t see it on June 20.

The video of the vote can be seen here:

George Locke Sidewalk Presentation

George Locke’s Sidewalk Shuffle

Jenkintown Borough Manager George Locke updated Council this week on the borough’s ongoing paving program and its accompanying sidewalk inspection and rehabilitation efforts. The eleven-page Powerpoint presentation gave council members a somewhat stilted view of what Mr. Locke has so far accomplished, perhaps hoping that council members don’t walk around town much.

The presentation contradicted a few of our experiences and observations.

Ownership: Mr. Locke correctly pointed to the state law that defines the duties of property owners to maintain their sidewalks and curbs, but responsibility does not equal ownership. We have previously shown that our sidewalk and curb are as much a part of the public domain as the roadway that abuts it.

Lien Process: Once again, Mr. Locke outlined the borough policy of using the lien process to pay for sidewalk work should the owner fail to comply. At our hearing before Judge Elizabeth McHugh, he told her that council had decided not to do that. Which is it? In Mr. Locke’s presentation, he emphasized the word “may”, which makes this statement meaningless and arbitrary. Who gets the lien and who doesn’t? Where is the accounting for hardship?

Penalties: Mr. Locke’s presentation stated that non-compliant owners could be fined $100 to $600. At our hearing, Judge McHugh, told us we could be fined $185 per day. Which is it?

Walkability: We can’t say for sure what Mr. Locke’s definition of “walkability” is, and the word seemed to fumble off his lips when he said it, but to us it means a consistent, well-engineered, and unified pedestrian environment. We don’t have that.

Safety: Mr. Locke pointed to the increased safety brought about by this program thus far. Does this look safe to you?

Sidewalk and curb along Cedar Street.
Sidewalk and curb along Cedar Street.

Curb reveal: Mr. Locke pointed to his efforts to insure that the new pavement would abut curbs that are at least two inches high. His report states: “Engineering best practices state that new paving is best applied against solid curbs, road integrity would be ensured and that cracked sidewalk and curbs create a tripping hazard & liability.”

Florence Street curb reveal
Curb reveal of exactly zero inches along Florence. This condition is also found on Runnymede at the bend.

Here are just a few other examples where he failed on that account.

This report came on the heels of a previous council discussion about establishing a program to loan money to property owners unable to pay for sidewalk repairs. While we laud any effort to make this onerous policy more affordable, bear in mind that not only will homeowners then pay double to triple what the borough would pay as part of a wholesale program, now they will pay interest on that exorbitant burden as well.

When asked for an example of any community in Pennsylvania that currently offers such loans, I pointed to Lock Haven, but I also point to Ithaca, New York which instead applies an annual fee of $75 to all homeowners to pay for a more unified, wholesale approach.

Once again, we have to ask: Is this policy fair? We already know that’s it’s needlessly expensive. We’re told that one resident with a corner lot just forked over $24,000 to fix their curbs and sidewalks that belong to the community. How does that make sense?

Forcing homeowners to bear the full cost of a public resource is onerous, unnecessarily expensive, unfair, and produces poor outcomes. Why can’t we do better?