pocket park

 Jenkintown’s Pocket Park: Buy now, ask permission later

It took nearly six months, but the Borough finally decided to let us in on their quarter-million-dollar secret: A park no one asked for.

On Wednesday, we received like many of you the official email from the Borough announcing this transaction. As we know now, the ink has dried on the purchase. The two plots now belong to the Borough, or more appropriately, to you and us whether we want it or not.

The email essentially says this: It was great opportunity. We had to move fast, and we didn’t tell you about this because you would have said “No.” If you have kids, you’ve heard this one before.

While the unsigned eblast defends Council’s actions as prudent, Borough Hall still filled with disgruntled residents last Monday night who thought otherwise.

After an extended period of public comment, Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe responded with a prepared statement that served as a rough draft for what the Borough issued and posted on Wednesday. We appreciate the fact that an “opportunity” seemed to present itself, but a park represents a serious commitment of time and resources over a long period of time — especially for a small town such as ours. Despite the presumed benefits of the Council’s expediency, they voted to purchase this property without a plan, public approval, or adequate public disclosure.

Bad faith, inadequate disclosure

We indeed welcome the news that the Council found itself flush with funds saved from a loan renegotiation, but that was not their money to spend. As taxpayers, we have every right to feel like the Borough dipped into our pockets. Saved funds are not automatically discretionary.

Ms. Sines-Pancoe also justified this action because the Jenkintown 2035 Plan includes a call, albeit well down the list of priorities, for more greenspace in the Borough. Curiously, she dismissed the school playground at the school as School District property, suggesting that the Borough must step up with its own land acquisition. It’s all community property.

In the eblast sent on Wednesday, the Borough asserts that it followed all guidelines spelled out by the state’s “Sunshine Laws.” Looking over the timeline of these events, the Borough did post public notices in the Intelligencer’s Legal Notices section the day before each hearing. In other words, the Borough included none of this business into the regularly scheduled Borough committee or Council agendas.

This begs us to ask the reader: Do you read the legal notices in the paper? How many of you actually get the paper any longer?

According to Borough records, two special public meetings were held. On September 8, it staged a Special Council Meeting. The agenda for this meeting was created less than one hour before the meeting. We don’t know exactly when the Borough posted it on the website.

agenda meta data
The document metadata that reveals an agenda created less than an hour before the September 8 meeting.

On November 9, the Borough held a Public Budget Workshop an hour before the regularly scheduled Public Works and Public Safety committee meetings. As this link to the Internet Archive shows, the Borough had not announced the meeting even as late as the previous October 21st.

By the letter of the law, yes, the Borough has covered itself here. However, for those of us who live in the real world, this process was anything but public. Clearly, for whatever reason, Council and Ms. Sines-Pancoe slipped this transaction towards approval in the most unscrupulous manner possible without actually breaking the law. This is not acting in good faith.

Specious claims

Ms. Sines-Pancoe’s made a specious claim that they had to conduct this business during executive session — which legally excludes the public — because this is a real estate manner. The Borough did not go out seeking to buy land or enter into any negotiation. The owner of the property came to the Borough and effectively gave it the right of first refusal, with a price reportedly well under market value. In other words, the Borough had no competition for this property, and so should have broadly notified the community via email immediately upon the presentation of this offer and taken input before voting on the purchase. The meeting minutes from both special meetings reflect that there was no public comment.

If we have misinterpreted the rules for executive sessions, then the Borough should have dismissed the offer out of hand due to the framework that guides its actions. It would not matter if the land was bequeathed to the Borough. It represents a major commitment and thus needs to be presented to the residents before approval.

No plan

Transparency issues aside, now that Jenkintown owns it, what do we do with a piece of property for which they drafted no plan? According to the email:

Early ideas include a rain garden, community garden, or open play space. No decisions regarding the use of the property have been made.

And yes, despite what the Council now says, our sources tell us that a dog park was considered.

In other words, the Borough does not have a plan for this commitment. Any urban planner will tell you that creating park space involves far more than just acquiring the land. Budgets for build-out, upkeep, and other unforeseen costs require careful, long-range thinking. This too has not happened.

So instead of taking input and planning for the revival of the Jenkintown downtown, Borough hall will distract itself with this new obligation. Perhaps we could debate the need for this park, but for us, that has no relevance. The Borough acted in bad faith to acquire something with our money that no one had asked for. It is our opinion that the properties should immediately be put back on the market, sold to the highest bidder, and the profits returned to the taxpayers.

Further, the Council must address its transparency problem. Public notices for any special meeting should go out by email and posted on the Borough website at least three days before they take place. In a town as tiny as ours, they might also consider knocking on a few doors as well. A twelve-member council could probably cover our entire community in a weekend.

Jenkintown Borough Council Meeting, January 23, 2017

I think we made a little history here. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has live-streamed a council meeting. This video is a cleaned-up version of the live-stream and resides on YouTube. As this was a first-time attempt, we look forward to improving the quality of the video (if not our own Council). If you’d like to help in this effort, please get in touch.

West Avenue patchwork

Finding a better way for Jenkintown to pay for better sidewalks

What brings more value ALL of Jenkintown? A well-built pedestrian infrastructure for all the Borough or a pocket park on Cedar?

Like it or not, I probably know more about sidewalks and pedestrian policy than at least 95% of the population. That and a couple of bucks will get me a cup of coffee at Velvet Sky, I know. Yet, we continue exploring this issue because we believe in its importance and the value it can provide for our community. We want walkable communities not just because we here in Jenkintown think they look nice, but because they help foster a better, more sustainable lifestyle.

The arguments so far presented to counter the idea that community assets require community responsibility include cost, liability, snow removal, and aesthetic preferences.

Liability: Most communities impose rules upon homeowners for keeping their sidewalks cleared, including ours. That doesn’t need to change. In my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, the city will issue citations to homeowners and businesses that do not properly clear their publicly owned sidewalks. Your homeowners will cover you either way unless a citation was issued. Yes, in theory, the city would be held liable for damages that occurred on damaged sidewalks, but as homeowner, we would pay either way — either through our insurance or through Borough insurance via our taxes. As a single-payer insurance plan, it would come at a much lower cost.

Snow removal: Similarly, the Borough would not necessarily be required to clear the snow like they do the road, although some cities in more northern latitudes do. On the other hand, Jenkintown will clear the leaves from your yard, so I don’t know how they could object to clearing the snow from their sidewalks. What’s the difference?

Aesthetics: A uniform block-long sidewalk would just look better and last longer. Any claims, as some have made, that individual homeowners would want to apply their own preferences to their frontage seems specious to us. However, we can imagine a system where that the Borough might allow for that after assessing a special fee.

But how do we pay for it? As it happens, this particular cat could be skinned in a number of ways.

  1. Direct tax: We’ve estimated that incorporating this responsibility into the Borough’s budget might add, at most, five percent to the budget assuming it changes nothing else. We have argued that perhaps the Borough reassess some of its priorities in light of this. What is more important to you, for instance? Subsidies to local businesses or a better high-quality pedestrian infrasture? A $250,000 pocket park, or the sidewalks of an entire block? The Borough already outlays several hundred thousands of dollars per year supporting its parking fund, which amounts to a gift to downtown retail, while at the same time it levies taxes and fees.
  2. Transfer fee: Assuming that the average cost to rebuild the curb and sidewalk per property amounts to about $8,000, why not roll that into the mortgage? The money goes into a pedestrian infrastructure fund that at least eliminates the sudden nature of the Borough’s sidewalk inspection and insulates homeowners from any hardship that repairs might incur.
  3. Yearly assessment, or what we’ll call the Ithaca plan: In Ithaca, New York, homeowners receive a sidewalk bill of about $45 per year, less than what we pay for trash pickup. The money goes into a fund dedicated to sidewalk repair, so again, no sudden hardships.
  4. The private solution: Over the past several months, we’ve explored the idea of incorporating a company that would insure your sidewalk — much in the same way Aqua provides insurance to repair the water line that runs under your property. How much would you pay? Would you be interested?

We understand that the Borough’s paving program instigated a relatively rare mass-inspection of the walks and curbs, but that also spotlighted the fatal flaws in our current system.

The idea of having a multitude of itinerant contractors suddenly invade our community to service homeowners facing serious deadlines, applying patchwork fixes to our otherwise charming streetscape at wildly divergent prices benefits no one, least of all the hapless homeowner who planned instead to spend that $5,000 on a new furnace or some other much-needed home improvement. This past experience just showed how onerous and harmful the current sidewalk ordinance is.

Can we please find a better way?

Another clear sign most Americans are broke – CBS News

Our last “unexpected expense” was a requirement by the Borough to spend $3000 to fix their sidewalk.

“Fifty-seven percent of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $500 unexpected expense, according to a new survey from Bankrate, which interviewed 1,003 adults earlier this month.”


I ran for Jenkintown Borough Council

Gauntlet retrieved, I ran for Jenkintown Borough Council

I took up the gauntlet.

Since starting this campaign almost two years ago, more than a few people have asked why I don’t just run for Borough Council. A few, such as our neighbor Daniel Gans, have all-but-dared me to do it. I never had any political ambitions and had no desire to run for office at any level. We all know people who we’d describe as natural politicians. I’m not one of those.

However, the call to fill two open seats on the Council in my ward with the resignations of Justin Mixon and Laurie Durkin proved too tempting to resist. Last Friday, I sat before a select group of Councilors that included Jay Conners, Deborra Sines-Pancoe, Michael Golden, Chuck Whitney, and Rick Bunker to express my reasons for consideration.

For the most part, I faced what seemed like a welcoming group, and the questions focused on my reasons for applying. The members also seemed concerned about what they saw as my contentious nature. For the record, I explained, I came before the council in 2015 expressing to them that not only did we believe the sidewalk ordinance produced awful sidewalks, even if they didn’t, it presents financial hardship for us and many of our neighbors. We came before council all-but-pleading for help. Council’s answer was to remove what we saw as our last resort — a lien against our house to pay for the work.

We would discover while at a court hearing from Borough Manager George Locke last spring that Council had in fact struck that option a few months before. So now, for those of us facing hardship, it’s pay up or go to jail and likely lose your house in the process.

I became contentious, I explained, because the Borough had backed us into a corner on that one single issue. I challenge anyone faced with the same threat not to react similarly.

On other issues, I have certainly voiced my opinions, but my personal history is one of collaboration, which my record backs up. I have a long history of involvement in small-town preservation and revival and associations with some leading figures in the field.

Rick Bunker, however, went on the offensive, asking me why I saw myself as a “threat” to Council. I don’t know, Rick. You tell me. I present what I believe is a well-researched, reasonable proposal to the Borough, and Rick Bunker won’t even discuss it. What seems like an otherwise intelligent guy goes all Trumpian on the subject of sidewalks.

Of course, we have already disproven every single assertion of Rick’s opposition to our proposals — every one — so one might think that maybe he has something to conceal, a relationship to hide, a deal to protect. Maybe not, but when you meet up with that kind of bellicosity, what else does one assume?

Most telling was this: When I ended an answer to a question with, “…should I be lucky enough to serve on this board,” Rick responded audibly, “That’s unlikely.” Ms. Sines-Pancoe then cut off further questioning.

No matter. Politics, as I understand it, is a rough-and-tumble occupation, and those with skins too thin to take a whack or two have no business in that arena. From where I stand, my little experiment exposing the subtle hostilities of Jenkintonian civics has proven a rousing success.

Aside from all that, this was also a Machiavellian blunder for Council. Isn’t it best to bring your enemies under your tent to keep an eye on them? For me, the exercise was a win-win. I tried. I got rejected. I get a good story to tell.

I sincerely wish the new Council members the best of luck, and I will welcome any opportunity to work with them on any issue confronting our community.

Rick Bunker will surely claim I am unqualified for the position. If the primary qualification of a representative is to listen to, engage with, and help the voter, then Rick Bunker has failed us every in every regard.