At the Jenkintown Borough Council Meeting for June 2018, council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe lauded Borough Manager George Locke for his service to the Borough. In light of that, we present a selection of ongoing code violations and generally sloppy work that Mr. Locke has either failed to address or is directly responsible for creating.
George Locke’s current salary stands at $118,450 per year. And climbing.
If you’ve driven through Willow Grove lately, you might have noticed some major construction going on. Turns out, the district is about to make a major about-face on suburban sprawl and welcome walkability. The area that has served as the poster child for soul-crushing auto-based development for the past 40 years looks like it could finally enter a period of renaissance.
The Bohler Engineering website describes the project as a:
…five-story mixed-use development will have 275 upscale apartment units and 25,000 SF of commercial space, including retail on the ground floor and an 18,000 SF medical office. Outside there will be two landscaped courtyards, a resort-style pool, and a dog park.
And Jenkintown gets a Taco Bell.
For those of us here in Jenkintown convinced that a Taco Bell will “save” the school district, this development could probably accommodate a half-dozen fast-food joints complete with drive-through windows. Apparently, someone crunched the numbers and saw that more money can be made with pedestrian-friendly, mixed use.
It’s entirely possible that the developers might have overreached with this project, and indeed one the major downsides of this concept is the high rents of the retail space targeted to national chains at the expense of local business.
However, this is a major step in the right direction, which could now transform Willow Grove into a real transit village and a destination for residents and visitors alike.
Last Wednesday, like it or not, Peggy and Dave Downs had yet another day in court fighting a citation for running a business that does not exist. Never has.
The Borough’s original citation claimed that the Downses were operating an unspecified “commercial business” in violation of zoning which allows only a “zero impact business,” i.e. one that does not make noise, generate odors, or generally disrupt the peace of the neighborhood. The Downses faced a $500 fine, but instead they took the Borough to court where last March 26, Judge Elizabeth McHugh dismissed it for omitting an important detail — the type of business. This took twenty minutes.
The Borough wasted no time reissuing the citation. Hours later, they sent out a new version that cited them for operating a landscaping business. It arrived at the Downses two days later on March 28, and just in time to prevent Borough Council from discussing the matter at their meeting that very day.
A code violation citation requires a site inspection, otherwise the complaint has as much validity as a Yelp review.
Rather than paying the fine and admitting guilt, the Downses opted to appear before the Jenkintown Zoning Hearing Board, which required a $1,000 filing fee. That hearing took place last Wednesday, May 30.
What should have been a one-to-two hour hearing with a basic rundown of well-documented facts, comment, discussion, and dismissal, became instead three-and-a-half hours of Franz Kafka’s Theater of the Absurd, that involved, among other things, a 40-minute discussion about leaf blowers and weed wackers.
Our live stream of this hearing finally gave residents the opportunity to see first hand our Borough Manager’s low caliber and whether or not he justifies the six-figure salary our council awarded him.
Mr. Locke by most accounts seems to be a truly nice guy who comports himself professionally. Many sing his praises, and I even had the good fortune of a pleasant conversation with him in the neighborhood, where I got to meet and pet his beautiful dog Maisy. I’ll bet the guy tells a great story.
However under cross examination, his confidence in his own documentation withered under questioning. Mr. Locke didn’t seem to grasp the impact of his words, and his expansive interpretation of code left the gallery gasping with incredulity.
George Locke all-but-brought the house down during an exchange with the Downs’s attorney Michael Yanoff, who presented this hypothetical:
Michael Yanoff: “I want you to assume that I own a property, and I’ve decided I’m going to help out a neighbor who may or may not be infirm, but a neighbor. And I’m going to do it by cutting her grass and cleaning her yard. And the only way that I can get my equipment there is to load it on the back of my truck and drive it over to my neighbor’s house so that I can perform those neighborly services to her. With that hypothetical in mind, in your opinion, am I conducting a commercial landscaping business?”
George Locke: “Yes.”
In another illuminating moment later on, George Locke asserted that the Downses could simply settle this matter with a letter declaring their full compliance with the code.
Locke: “Based on my investigation by the complaints, the videos, and the pictures, I felt they were running a business. Because they said they weren’t, did not mean that everything I considered went away. So, what I would want them to do is …if they’re not running one and you want them to discontinue it, discontinuing it would be fairly simple, wouldn’t you agree? I’m not asking you questions.”
Yanoff: “No, you can ask me that question, because I’ll ask it right back to you. If they said to you, ‘I’m not running a business, so there’s nothing to discontinue,’ why would they have to file an appeal to the zoning hearing board?”
Locke: “They wouldn’t. They would have only had to put it in writing their intent to comply with that.”
Yanoff: “Didn’t you receive a letter from Attorney Gross [the Downs’s previous attorney] that says just that? A letter from their prior attorney that said, ‘We are not conducting a business’. Isn’t that a satisfaction of that condition?”
Locke: “That was one thing… First off, that wasn’t them putting it in writing.”
Moments later, Mr. Yanoff produced that letter which said exactly that.
A code violation citation requires a site inspection, otherwise the complaint has as much validity as a Yelp review. On at least two occasions, the Downses invited Mr. Locke to inspect their premises. He never accepted the invitation, but instead said repeatedly that he conducted inspections from the “public right of way.” In other words, from his car. He claimed he didn’t accept the Downs’s invitation, because he didn’t think they’d be mowing grass in November.
The Borough’s entire case rests primarily upon the word of Joe and Christine Glass and upon their photographs. While the Borough did not share these with the gallery, it did describe them in some detail. They showed Dave Downs pushing a lawnmower described by Mr. Locke as the type used by professional landscapers, a back-pack style leaf blower, the Downs’s pickup truck, and gas-powered grass trimmer.
The borough provided no evidence that Mr. Downs used any of this equipment in a professional manner — i.e. that he received money for his services — just that he possessed these items. This presumption would implicate anyone with a Viking stove who bakes cupcakes for a bake sale, a paneled van volunteered to carry kids to camp, a floor-standing drill press used in the making of bird houses, or anyone in possession of a contractor-level power tool used on a neighbor’s property.
Unlike citing a disturbance for making too much noise, as the Borough might have done, a commercial home-based business invites scrutiny from the IRS or the DOR, since “commerce” implies income. Otherwise, they and most people would consider it a hobby. If your hobby gets a little noisy, then usually a friendly call from the Borough or the police corrects the problem — at least in most communities run by people endowed with common sense.
Perhaps the most bizarre scene in this show came when the Borough called its first witness, the owner of 303 Runnymede, Francis (Frank) Reiley. The Board had already declared their intention to continue the hearing on June 7, but the Borough requested that Mr. Reiley should testify that night as he would be in Kabul, Afghanistan on that date. Mr. Reiley works for a government contractor, not the military which might justify deference. This begs the question, could anyone whose work took them out of the country during the next hearing ask permission to speak that night?
Mr. Reiley’s testimony offered little insight into the matter. As an absentee landlord, he had little to no exposure to the day-to-day events on his property. Mr. Reiley claimed that Mr. Glass owed thousands in back rent, likely because of the conviction, so naturally Mr. Reiley had a vested interest in making this problem go away, even if it meant undermining the legitimacy of the Downses complaints under oath. In testimony that stretched for more than twenty minutes, Mr. Reiley failed to make his appearance at all relevant, but it did guarantee a second night of testimony and more billings for the attorneys.
Below is the two-minute “public comment” that the ZHB allowed Mr. Reiley to make a week early.
Reading the Room
As a matter of course, the Borough sends out a notice about these hearings to all residents within a 300-foot radius of the property and posts signs on the front lawn. The Downses also notified everyone they knew in town to attend in support. As a result, Borough Hall had another packed house, but because the hearing stretched into the 10 o’clock hour, a period of cross-examination by the board, by neighbors with standing, and public comment would have to wait.
According to heavily redacted documentation supplied by the Borough as part of a Right-to-Know request, Sean Kilkenny’s office has received nearly $6,000 in fees as of February of this year. We have filed another RTK for fees and expenses paid to Kilkenny’s office and others from that point until the present. We do not expect the information before the next hearing, but we conservatively estimate that Jenkintown will transfer another $2,000 to $5,000 to Sean Kilkenny’s firm. The Downses have spent to date over $8,000.
Mr. Hitchens’s tour-de-force turd-polishing wasted a considerable amount of time and resources, not just for the Downses, but also for the Borough, the ZHB, and all those in attendance who endured the discomfort of metal folding chairs or standing for three-plus hours. The room clearly recognized the Borough’s false accusations and ham-fisted actions that could crush some households in this town. To most in the room, Peggy and Dave Downs stood up for the preservation of our community and common sense.
Council members who attended included Deborra Sines-Pancoe, Ann MacHaffie, Kieran Ferrell, Michael Golden, and David Ballard. If they did not come away from that hearing with a diminished sense of confidence in their borough manager, one could reasonably wonder what standard they applied in his hiring.
The best thing the Borough could do at this point is to shut this kangaroo court down immediately and apologize to the residents and especially to the Downses for putting this town through this wringer. Adding a few high-level resignations would serve as a perfect a la mode to some humble pie.
We plan to live stream the hearing on the June 7th, at 7:00 P.M. on our Walkable Jenkintown Facebook page and will then post the video to YouTube.
We will comment in much greater detail about last night’s zoning board hearing soon, but one thing stands out.
Borough Manager George Locke went on record explaining what could constitute a zoning violation akin to what the Downses are contesting. If you help a neighbor mow their lawn or clear their yard, you could be cited. Mowing someone else’s lawn — for whatever reason — labels your activity as “commercial” and you are in violation of Jenkintown zoning code.
This is an excerpt of the full 3-plus-hour, monumentally wasteful and pointless, zoning hearing where Peggy and Dave Downs find themselves defending against a code violation that never occurred.
Four issues that expose Jenkintown’s festering malaise and the people responsible for it
Most people who live here want to preserve Jenkintown’s small-town character, and yet our leaders seem hell-bent on letting that unravel. Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe, social media bully and Council VP, Rick Bunker, and finally Borough Solicitor and FBI target Sean Kilkenny have led our town and its citizens into a growing thicket of municipal failures and public outrages.
It concerns me particularly, because I’ve traveled though hundreds of small towns across this region, observing that cities and towns enter decline for many reasons. They keep declining or linger in malaise for mainly one: The absence of capable, visionary, and civic-minded leadership.
My residence in Jenkintown goes back 15 years now, and I can objectively say that in comparison to the communities around us, our town shows little progress. A parking lot, a movie theater, and brew pub do not make up for the continued lack of overall economic activity and declining tax base in our town center, even in comparison to what I found when I moved here.
To any outsider who casts even a casual glance into the activities of our local government, clearly we look bad. Foolish, might apply even better. Here’s why.
One: The paving program
Announced to residents via mail without warning in April, 2015 and without any general public hearing at all, the Borough’s paving program caused a mad scramble among residents to fix sidewalks and curbs inspected by borough workers who normally go around picking up trash and filling holes. This provided a bonanza for contractors who took full advantage of their captive market charging wildly fluctuating fees for an accordingly varying quality of work. As a consequence, Jenkintown residents spent double to triple what the Borough would have paid with a wholesale program and have a substandard result to show for it.
Two: Cedar Street Park
Using transparency rules written when no one heard of the internet, Borough Council announces a purchase of two adjacent parcels on Cedar Street at below market price with money discovered from a loan renegotiation and discussed in executive session. Then Council stands back in utter amazement that anyone might object, and emphatically claims its commitment to the open process in the face of public outcry. This purchase not only ignores the goals of the still-not-implemented Jenkintown 2035 plan, but it will cost money that the Borough does not have. We hear that it has applied for grants for design and build-out, but it could instead apply for grants that might further town center development. Or perhaps it might use its limited resources to work on the laundry list of code issues that have grown during George Locke’s tenure.
Three: Taco Bell & Summit House
The announcement of both Taco Bell and the Summit House project landing in Jenkintown all-but-begs deeper scrutiny. They both expose the Borough’s fumbling management and put Council’s commitment to Jenkintown’s future and oft-stated principles of transparency to the test.
The Summit House project just smells bad. Some residents have hysterically predicted a parking apocalypse, but this distracts us from the true threat to our town. The residents who live near the looming project do have legitimate concerns about the impact to their property values. However, the real concern has more to do with the ominous connections between Israel Roizman, the local and county Democratic Party, and Sean Kilkenny. We suspect that Roizman would rather not build here, but he endures this arduous process as a favor to Kilkenny who knows how desperately Jenkintown needs the money to complete future sewer upgrades.
The Taco Bell proposal lays dormant for now as the developers have yet to refile their variance application, but the spectacle of all twelve Borough Council members voting their support of this idea numbs the mind. While we have no issue with a Taco Bell coming to Jenkintown, we do have a problem with zoning codes that effectively mean nothing. Some on Council erroneously claim that they can’t really stop any legal business that wants to set up shop here — except that zoning exists for exactly that reason. The whole spectacle of Borough Council bending over for the sake of a few shekels has any reasonable person wondering why bother paying lip service to walkability? Why not just declare it open season on York Road buildings, summon the bulldozers, and call it a day?
Four: Peggy and Dave Downs
In the interest of full disclosure, I helped with Peggy’s write-in campaign. I did this because of Peggy’s declared commitment to, among other things, a more open government. While Louise and I had our own problems with the Borough, the Downses predicament has exposed Jenkintown government’s bullying tactics and its willingness to use its own zoning codes as a weapon against dissent.
The story began when a new neighbor began renting the house next door and has unspooled in somewhat epic fashion. In an indisputable violation of zoning, the neighbor began to operate a concrete business on the property. The Downses filed a complaint with the Borough, which triggered harassment from the neighbor. Despite several appearances before Borough Council, the behavior continued and a citation was not issued.
Taking matters into their own hands, the Downses filed a criminal complaint in District Court and prevailed with the court finding this neighbor guilty on all charges. Thanks to our own experiences, we already had a low opinion of our borough’s governance. The fact that the Borough not only dragged its feet in helping the Downses, but that they obstructed their efforts to settle this matter sealed the deal in our minds. We began to wonder who or what exactly does this government represent?
Coincidentally, a few weeks after last November’s election where Peggy received nearly 40 percent of the mayoral vote as a write-in, she and Dave received a citation from the Borough for operating an unspecified business in violation of code. The citation arrived without a site inspection or any other supporting evidence. Imagine a restaurant receiving a failing sanitary grade from inspectors based on a Yelp review. Rather than capitulating, the Downses lawyered up and on March 26th of this year, got the citation dismissed in district court.
On the same day as the dismissal, Jenkintown Borough issued a new citation, redrafted to claim the Downses operated a code-violating landscaping business — this despite the failure of the Borough to inspect the premises, even after an invite from the Downses. The citation’s sole basis of legitimacy rested upon the complaint of a next door neighbor currently serving jail time for his harassment of the Downses. This also despite the fact that the Downses operate NO such business at this location. Conveniently, the new citation arrived on the day of the next Council meeting which prohibited Council from discussing the matter.
This leads to one very important question: How much is this costing taxpayers? The only two people benefitting from this circus are Jenkintown Solicitor Sean Kilkenny and the Downs’s attorney — proving yet again that the lawyers always win. The Downses fight this because they have stated repeatedly that they do not operate a business, impactful or otherwise, and the Borough has failed to show evidence to the contrary.
According to the heavily-redacted documents received by Walkable Jenkintown from a Right-to-Know request, the Borough has so far spent $5,550 in taxpayer funds pursuing these citations — nearly as much as the Downses have spent in fighting them. Given Sean Kilkenny’s association with other scandals, we have little faith in the veracity of this figure.
Remember that this Democratically controlled Borough has launched a thinly veiled vendetta against a fellow Democrat. Heaven help the lonely Republican or Independent in Jenkintown who rubs Sean Kilkenny and his Gang of 12 the wrong way.
Keep all this in mind the next time you hear Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe call for civility in public discussion while proudly affirming the Borough’s commitment to transparency. You will not be blamed for laughing out loud.