Worcester, Pennsylvania, Politics Online

Policy Statement

      This website is maintained by Worcester residents who are concerned about our community and its future. Its purpose is to inform all Worcester residents about matters of interest and concern.
      We encourage and support efforts by our Supervisors and other groups and individuals to control development in our Township in a way that protects its rural heritage. For those of us who live here, Worcester is an island of tranquility and open spaces surrounded by a sea of traffic-congested development, both residential and commercial. Some commercial and residential developers, most of whom are not Worcester residents, see our home as a place to be exploited, not as a place to be preserved. A very small but very vocal minority of residents would like Worcester to look just like the other heavily developed communities that surround it. These groups favor eliminating Township funding for the preservation of open space and expanding municipal "services" that are not needed or wanted by the vast majority of Township residents. These groups also favor changing zoning ordinances in ways that will quickly cause Worcester to lose the qualities that differentiate it from the communities surrounding us on all sides.
      We disagree with these individuals. Worcester is different from other communities and we are committed to keeping it that way. Toward this end, we favor Township efforts to limit development while at the same time encouraging appropriate commercial activity in our existing village areas. We want the Township to enforce zoning ordinances that protect the open and peaceful character of our residential areas. We encourage the Township to work proactively with groups and individuals dedicated to preserving our open spaces and we support the use of public funds toward this end whenever appropriate. We support a small and efficient local government that limits our local property taxes (only a few tens of dollars per years for Worcester households, rather than the several hundreds of dollars more typical of other communities in Montgomery County) by limiting the services we ask our government to provide.
      We believe these are widely held non-partisan positions for our community and the role of local government. We endorse or oppose candidates for elected office based not on their party, but on their actions and their demonstrated abilities to represent the interests of the vast majority of Worcester residents. We are not affiliated with or supported by any group or organization in Worcester, nor are the contents of this website controlled by any group or organization.
      Questions and comments can be sent to webmaster@worcesterpapolitics.org. Comments will be posted entirely at our discretion. Posted comments will appear in their entirety, without editing unless noted otherwise. Comments can be posted anonymously, if you wish. We will never reveal any personal or contact information unless you specifically authorize us to do so. The reason for this policy is that, unfortunately, some members of our community regularly resort to harassment and intimidation of residents with whom they disagree. We do not wish to provide targets for those individuals. We admit that one unfortunate result of this policy is that you have to take our word for it that we are accurately reflecting the views of contributors — that we are telling the truth when we state that an e-mail is "reproduced in its entirety, unedited," and that the e-mail is genuine. This is a decision for you to make about this site, as is the case for political or other information from any source.


May 28, 2015: Worcester Township's Manager, Lee Mangan, has announced his retirement, effective this weeek.

Lee Mangan's last day is Friday, May 29, 2015. He has served as Worcester's Township Manager for three and a half years. Previously, he served for many years as Lansdale's Manager. An interim manager will be appointed and a consulting firm has been hired to search for a replacement. We believe Worcester was well served by Mr. Mangan and we wish him and his wife much success in their future endeavors.

May 22, 2015: Application for high-density development of Center Square Golf Club property denied

You can find the entire text of the Board's decision on The Cutler Group's application HERE.

      The proposal by the Applicant, The Cutler Group, was based on their interpretation of the Worcester zoning ordinance which would permit construction of a "residential life-care facility" consisting of 164 independent living "villa units," 170 independent living "carriage home units," a clubhouse and associated recreational amenities, and a "senior campus" with 141 additional units on approximately 150 acres of AGR-zoned property. If approved, this would allow more than four times the housing density that would otherwise be allowed under AGR zoning (approximately 75 or fewer homes, depending on terrain and other possible site complications).
      The question for Worcester's Supervisors was whether the Applicant's proposed "business plan" for the development met the definition of a "residential life-care facility." The proposed business model was significantly different from Meadowood, for example. At that facility, individuals buy into a plan that guarantees them a full spectrum of living arrangements, ranging from rather large single-family units to skilled nursing care, depending on their health needs. Meadowood residents do not own their living units. In the Applicant's business model, the villa and carriage homes were to be bought and sold separately on the open 55+ housing market. The "care" part of the facility would be run separately by a different entity and the relationship between the housing developers and the care facility operators was never clear.
      Even before reading through to the end of the decision, the "Conclusions of Law" section made clear where the decision was headed:

".. the Applicant initially bears the burden of establishing that the Application complies with the objective standards and criteria of the particular ordinance... [The Board] is free to reject even un-contradicted testimony it finds lacking in credibility, including testimony offered by an expert witness... a quasi-judicial body should rely upon the common use of the words and phrases contained therein and should construe the language of the zoning ordinance in a sensible manner... The mere fact that a zoning ordinance does not provide a definition for a particular use or its components does not itself render the ordinance ambiguous... a quasi-judicial body will look for guidance from definitions found in statutes, regulations, or the dictionary... [and] may also draw upon common sense and basic human experience to construe terms."

      The meaning of words was critical to the Board's decision to deny the Application. Section 150-9 of the applicable zoning ordinance defines a residential life-care facility as a development "restricted to the elderly that provides a continuum of accomodations and care, from independent living units to personal care and nursing homes. 'Independent living units' are dwelling units located within a resident life care facility." The decision then goes on to state that "the Applicant failed to offer any testimony or evidence, persuasive or otherwise, that the age of 55 constitutes 'elderly'."
      Further, the Board concluded that the Applicant did not meet the standard of a continuum of care, which "guarantees [emphasis in original] residents the ability to move from one level of care.. to another... within the same facility... [d]rawing upon its common sense and basic human experience, the Board found that... the Development would simply constitute a 334 unit residential development located next to a Senior Campus, with no continuum of accomodations..."
      The Conclusions of Law speaks in considerable detail about the meaning of nearly every word in the ordinance and rejected the Applicant's interpretation in every case. Thus, it it is not surprising that the Board denied the Application.
      Of course, despite what seems to laymen like a convincing legal argument put forth by the Supervisors' decision, there is no guarantee that the decision will not be appealed. Quibbling over the interpretation of words is what attorneys do, and the next steps remain to be seen.
      It is worth noting that the alternative for developing this property under its AGR zoning is, as noted above, no more than 75 or so homes. Under Worcester's "growing greener" ordinance, those homes would not be on two-acre lots, but would be clustered on smaller lots surrounded by open space. Although it would be nice for this property to remain as a golf course, that is up to the property owner, not Worcester Township or its residents. Even if the owner were interested in preserving this property as-is, and if county or state funds were available for helping to preserve a tract of this size (which currently they are not), they almost certainly would not available for property already used commercially. In principle, the property owner could sell development rights to the property. It would be an extremely expensive proposition for taxpayers to foot the bill for the development rights on this valuable property or to otherwise maintain it as a golf course even if the owner were interested in doing that.
      It is conceivable that an argument could be made for a "real" life-care community, operating more like Meadowood. Such a community might or might not provide positive net tax benefits to Worcester. Such a community might or might not be consistent with the interests of developers like The Cutler Group. Such a community might or might not be successful. If not, the developers would no doubt try to extract concessions in the future. In any case, we believe that right now this is a good decision which minimizes potential negative effects in our community.
      A great deal of credit for this decision belongs to neighbors living around the Center Square Golf Club property. They presented their case professionally and convincingly, and it is clear that the Board relied on the expert testimony they provided in deciding how the ordinance wording should be interpreted.

May 21, 2015: Jim Mollick runs the most disgusting campaign in Worcester's history... loses

Unofficial results from May 19 primary election:
PrecinctRepublican
Caughlan
Republican
Mollick
Dem. Writein
Caughlan
Dem. Writein
Mollick
East 1 (Bethel)140 (58.6%)99 (41.4%)23 (79.3%)6 (20.7%)
East 2 (Variety Club)155 (37.3%)260 (62.7%)34 (51.5%)32 48.5%)
East 3 (Schwenkfelder)193 (68.9%)87 (31.1%)17 (72.0%)7 (28.0%)
West (Fairview)217 (60.6%)141 (39.4%)30 (66.7%)12 (33.3%)
TOTAL705 (54.6%)587 (45.4%)103 (64.4%)57 (35.6%)
(See Primary Results. These are still listed as "unofficial" results, but they are unlikely to change in the future.

The Democratic Party did not put up a candidate for this office. Both candidates ran an "unofficial" writein campaign for Democrats, which Caughlan won at every poll. This means that she will be the candidate for both parties in the November election. Had Mollick won this spot, he certainly would have had some interesting problems as a Worcester Republican Committeeperson.
      So what kind of campaign did Mollick run? Here's what his mailings promised he would do if he won:
"[I plan to]... Create an atmosphere of cooperation with all township residents and businesses to move Worcester forward."
"The public should be treated with respect."
"I want to make Worcester a friendly place to live again."

      Mollick's own pervasively angry actions and words during and long before this campaign began put the lie to every one of these "promises."

      An atmosphere of cooperation with residents and businesses? Laughable. His long and public history of legal actions demonstrates that he has no interest in cooperating with anyone, ever. That record screams "I'm always right! My way or I go into attack mode!"
      Treating the public with respect? Never. His campaign literature is full of distortions and lies which are disrespectful on their face both to the individuals he attacks and every individual he expects to read his diatribes.
      Making Worcester a friendly place? The most preposterous claim by far, as anyone who has ever watched him in action at public meetings can attest. His personal attacks against Ms. Caughlan and every other community leader with which he disagrees, during this campaign and long before, are so egregous that "unfriendly" simply doesn't do them justice. Are they defamatory? Slanderous? We believe a reasonable person should certainly think so.
      We are at a loss to decide which is worse: actually believing the rubbish which Mollick and his supporters have printed and said during this campaign, or knowing it was rubbish and printing/saying it anyhow. We suspect some of each, with the former being more likely among those individuals who are not independently informed about issues and individuals in the Township and the latter almost certainly being the case for the others. For anyone in the latter group, this is not respecting residents – it is insulting and cynically manipulating them.

      Ms. Caughlan's campaign, on the other hand, focused on the issues and her positions on those issues. She never attacked anyone and she never insulted the intelligence of voters. It is possible to disagree with Caughlan's positions – that's why we hold elections – but there can be no disagreement over the fact that she ran a positive issue-oriented campaign.
      Yes, we are pleased with the outcome of the election. You should be pleased, too. But on the down side, the Mollick campaign has dealt a serious blow to responsible local government. His disgusting tactics have created an atmosphere in which nobody wants to compromise, nobody wants to deal with their opponents, nobody wants to discuss positive solutions to real problems. In short, nobody wants to participate in local government. This is an unacceptable loss for all of us and a very sad day in Worcester. It is going to require your longterm commitment to reverse this situation.


May 5, 2015: Scott Misus bites the dust.

Last night, Fox 29 news broke a story about offensive racist and anti-Semitic remarks made on social media by School Board candidate Scott Misus – the same person who we noted in our April 17 posting was seriously in arrears on his property taxes. He didn't deny the comments, some of which were deemed too offensive to quote on TV. Methacton School District parents are, understandably and justifiably, appalled. There is an article and video at THIS LINK. (We have no way of knowing how long this link will remain active – probably not long.)
      We have already expressed our dismay about Misus' endorsement. For that fiasco, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the Lower Providence Republican Committee. But, we have reason to believe that Misus also got Jim Mollick's vote. (If that's not true, we would be glad to issue a correction.) Less than 24 hours after this story broke, we understand that to its credit the Republican Party told Misus to step down. It is too late to remove his name from the official ballot, which has already been finalized, but apparently the Republican power structure is frantically pasting over his name on all the Endorsed Republican School Board candidate campaign signs which have already been distributed and his name will not appear on the official Republican "green sheet" for endorsed candidates that is handed out at polls. This might be amusing if it weren't such a serious and sad business.


April 22, 2015: Negative campaigning and election law violations from Jim Mollick

A reader has sent us this email, which is reproduced here in its entirety:

      A neighbor of mine showed me some photocopied handouts she received recently from Jim Mollick, who apparently is running for supervisor. The handouts talked about court cases and incidents that happened many years ago. They didn't have anything positive to say about Worcester or its future. All the other campaign literature I receive always has a "paid for by..." statement, but his didn't. Is this allowed?
      Is this a real campaign, or is it just a personal vendetta? He said that Worcester has a budget surplus that he would return to residents? Is this true? Could the Township really do that? Why would anybody want to vote for somebody who is so negative?
      if you respond to this email, please do not use my name. Thanks.

Thanks for writing. First of all, you are right about the lack of a "paid for by..." statement. This is a requirement of Section 1638 of Pennsylvania's Election Code 25 P.S. §3258, which states that "Whenever any person makes an expenditure for the purpose of... expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate,... the candidate... shall clearly and conspicuously state that the communication has been authorized." So, for example, when candidates distribute campaign signs or even photocopied handouts, which cost money, those "communications" always say (usually in very small type!) "paid for by..." Even "free" communications should say "authorized by..." Mollick isn't ignorant of this law because he has tried to use it against candidates in the past. If what you say about Mollick's photocopied handouts is true, then we wonder by what stretch of the imagination does he conclude that the Election Code doesn't apply to him??
      As for your other questions, those who have watched Mollick over the years at public meetings observe that, with him, everything seems like a personal vendetta. He never has anything positive to say about Worcester or any of its elected officials and he has never expressed any positive vision about Worcester's future. (He has opposed every attempt to preserve our farms and open spaces.) His answer to every perceived problem is to accuse your elected officials and others of breaking laws and to take actions which reportedly have cost Worcester taxpayers more than $370,000 in legal fees to defend against his groundless accusations.

      It is true that Worcester has a "budget surplus" (see the finances section on Worcester Township's website) and we should be glad that it does. This is not "extra" money that can or should be returned to residents. It is for planned projects, such as for converting the Army Reserve Base property into a new public park, and for unexpected expenses, such as the presumably larger than expected expenses for road treatment during the very harsh winter we just experienced. These reserve funds mean that Worcester doesn't have to borrow money, which would waste your tax dollars for interest payments on debt. It is irresponsible and just plain silly to suggest that these reserves should be distributed to residents. We should be grateful that Worcester's finances are in such good shape, even with a local property tax that costs Worcester residents only a few tens of dollars per year. (Local property taxes for the communities surrounding us are more typically several hundreds of dollars per year.

      Why would anybody want to vote for such a person? We can't think of any reason.

      We believe in competent fiscally responsible leadership by people who DO have a positive vision for our community's future. That is why we support Susan Caughlan for re-election as one of your supervisors. She has been endorsed by Worcester's Republican Committee. (See the post below from March 23.) We encourage you to follow her campaign on susanforworcester.com and facebook and to vote for her in the primary election on May 19.


April 17: New faces for Methacton School Board... worth a look

      Over the last few years we have watched with dismay the increasingly bizarre and belligerent actions of the Methacton School Board. They are wasting tens of thousands of dollars of OUR tax dollars to appeal a perfectly reasonable decision by Worcester's Board of Supervisors about lighting two fields at the high school. A few years ago they built Skyview school as a result of fatally flawed population projections, ignoring valid criticisms raised at the time by John Andrews and others, More recently they completely botched an attempt to get community support for closing one or two elementary schools as a result of current and predicted future enrollment decreases, which were also predicted by Andrews and others. Their clumsy attempts to engage in a community dialog are too little and much too late.
      To top this off, the current crop of candidates endorsed by Republicans includes Scott Misus, who owes almost $12,000 in unpaid property taxes! (See THIS LINK.) You can blame this outrage on the Lower Providence Republican Committee, which has a 20-8 vote advantage over Worcester's Republican Committee. Why they chose to endorse a person with this history remains a mystery.
      With this background, it should come as no surprise that we encourage you to look at four new faces who are running for School Board. We do not know anything about them, including their party affiliation. It might be that they have surfaced only because of the currently hot school closing issue. But, it might also be the case that they will give the School Board the wakeup call it so badly needs. They deserve AT LEAST a chance to be heard and considered. You can learn more here:
facebook
web site

April 2, 2015: Conditional Use Hearing on Center Square Golf Club development ends

The conditional use hearing for development of the Center Square Golf Club was concluded on April 1. To summarize, The Cutler Group has submitted plans to purchase the Center Square Golf Club and develop it as a "Residential Life Care Facility" 55+ community with 164 single-family "villas" and 170 "carriage homes," plus a physically separate facility containing "141 senior independent living/assisted living/personal care & memory care units" run by a separate corporation. The very ambiguously defined relationship between the residential and continuing care part of the development is much different from the situation at Meadowood, for example. In the latter case, individuals "buy in" to a lifelong relationship which ranges from totally independent living to skilled nursing care. Residents do not own property at Meadowood. In the former case, residents own their homes and there is no guarantee of a continuum of services.
      The Cutler Group wants this plan to be accepted simply as an alternative business model for a continuing care community. Many residents view this plan simply as a thinly disguised attempt to place very high density housing on a parcel that would support no more than 75 single-family homes (and probably significantly fewer because of the terrain) as a straightforward residential development.
      Sorting this all out is, of course, the purpose of the conditional use hearing, and the Board of Supervisors will now consider its decision over the next few weeks. Aside from the merits of the application, there are interesting questions about the mechanics of the conditional use hearing. The purpose and conduct of conditional use hearings are spelled out in Section 913 of Pennsylvania's Municipal Planning Code. There must be a public hearing:

"(a) Where the governing body, in the zoning ordinances, has stated conditional uses to be granted or denied by the governing body pursuant to express standards and criteria, the governing body shall hold hearings on and decide requests for such conditional uses in accordance with such standards and criteria. The hearing shall be conducted by the board or the board may appoint any member or an independent attorney as a hearing officer."

There are more details in Section 908 about how to conduct a hearing:

"(1) Public notice shall be given and written notice shall be given to the applicant, the zoning officer, such other persons as the governing body shall designate by ordinance and to any person who has made timely request for the same. Written notices shall be given at such time and in such manner as shall be prescribed by ordinance or, in the absence of ordinance provision, by rules of the board. In addition to the written notice provided herein, written notice of said hearing shall be conspicuously posted on the affected tract of land at least one week prior to the hearing."

"(3) The parties to the hearing shall be the municipality, any person affected by the application who has ade timely appearance of record before the board, and any other person including civic or community organizations permitted to appear by the board. The board shall have power to require that all persons who wish to be considered parties enter appearances in writing on forms provided by the board for that purpose."

The same conditions apply to conditional use hearings – not just zoning hearings. For conditional use applications, the "conspicuously posted" requirement has been translated into sending letters to affected residents living within a pre-determined distance from the project subject to development. What that distance should be is not spelled out in the MPC. In the case of the Center Square Golf Club, the distance was apparently set at 800' although at least two residents who live FAR from the property were also admitted as parties because the applicant's attorney did not object to their request. (The Solicitor could have rejected those requests and we believe he should have done so.)
      There has been considerable public interest in and opposition to the proposed development for the reasons outlined above, extending far beyond the boundaries used for establishing who could be a party. Widely distributed emails and postcards urged residents to attend the hearings and express their opposition. Were they allowed to do so? No. Worcester's Solicitor, who runs these hearings, made clear that non-parties would not be allowed to give statements during or after the hearing.
      What is the basis for this decision? In conditional use hearings, Supervisors listen to evidence for and against an application presented in a testimony/cross-examination format much like what takes place in a court. Their role approximates that of both judge and jury. Because of this quasi-judicial format, one could argue that allowing individuals other than actual parties to comment on the proceedings is roughly equivalent to jury tampering or ex parte (improper) communication with a judge in an attempt to bias the Supervisors' decision.
      The MPC is silent on the question of involvement by non-parties. A 2004 document written by Matthew Moyer, then but not currently a staff attorney for PennFuture (Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future), states:

"... parties with standing, such as adjacent owners, may participate in a conditional use hearing as protestants. Protestants will be provided with the opportunity to present evidence and testimony. In addition, the municipal governing body should provide members of the public with the opportunity to comment on the requested conditional use approval prior to the governing body rendering its decision." {emphasis added)

OK... "should," but not "shall," as would be the case if this requirement were part of the MPC. The bottom line appears to be that allowing public comment after the hearing is closed could bias the decision-making process and could provide grounds for appealing any decision which the Supervisors make. With contentious applications, this possibility outweighs whatever value might be obtained from comments by non-parties.


March 29, 2014: DeLello and Phillips withdraw from primary election

Two individuals who filed petitions to appear on the Republican primary election ballot for Worcester Supervisor, Jim Phillips and Rick Delello, have withdrawn. No Democrat filed a petition for this position.

March 23, 2015: Worcester Republican Committee endorses Susan Caughlan for Re-Election to Worcester's Board of Supervisors

      On March 16, the Worcester Republican Committee held a meeting to consider endorsing a Republican candidate for Susan Caughlan's Board of Supervisor seat. The part of the meeting where candidates presented their vision for our township and answered questions from the Committee was open to the public. Members of the public were not permitted to question candidates. The decision was announced publicly, but the public was not present during the committee's deliberations.
      The individuals who filed petitions to appear on the primary election ballot (May 19) included Caughlan, Jim Phillips, Jim Mollick, and Rick DeLello. Yes, we know... DeLello has run for Supervisor several times in the past as a Democrat and has served on Worcester's Democratic Committee for man years. Earlier this year he switched his party registration to Republican.
      The decision to endorse Caughlan, by secret committee ballot, was:

Caughlan, 5 votes
DeLello, 2 votes
Mollick, 1 vote
Phillips, 0 votes

The Republican Committee allows its members to vote for themselves, so it is obvious where Mollick's single vote came from. (Mollick was not allowed to be present when committee members were hearing from the other candidates.) Because of the secret ballot, the source of Delello's two votes are unknown. The deadline for candidates to withdraw their petitions is March 25, so stay tuned...

February 4, 2015: Update on over-capacity schools

Follow THIS LINK for a letter from School Board Chairman Chris Nascimento regarding the School District's response to its new student enrollment projection study. The letter announces a Public Hearing for February 23, 2015 to start discussions about closing Audubon and Arrowhead Elementary Schools as a consequence of declining district enrollments. Already, the five elementary schools have an excess capacity that is almost 500 students greater than the current enrollment and the remaining three schools (Skyview, Arcola and MHS) have an excess capacity of almost 840 students. This excess is projected to increase during the next five years.
      While we understand that "future projections" are just projections, the decline in student enrollment since the peak in the early 2000's is already a fact, and it is also a fact that the School District and School Board grossly misinterpreted and/or mis-applied a student enrollment projection study done at the time. Although we also understand that the current School Board is not responsible for the actions of previous Boards, we can't help but wonder if current decisions about how taxpayer money should be spent are being made any better.
      Mr. Nascimento notes in his letter that even talking about closing schools "is likely to be an emotional and stressful time for many involved." We expect that this is will turn out to be a monumental understatement, with public reaction exacerbated by the School Board's "promise" to raise school taxes for the 2015-16 school year by "only" 1.9%. Stay tuned...!

February 2, 2015: Methacton School District population projections: Why we never needed Skyview School

Back in the early 2000's, MSD presented some student population growth projections which, to anyone with basic mathematics skills, were flawed on their face. For example, the District based population growth in future years on a previously projected population for the current year even after the actual population for the current year was known to be less than that projected value. The image below shows an example. Instead of basing K-5 population projections for the future on the actual 2006-07 school year K-5 population, the projection was based on some higher number, presumably a projected value for the 2006-07 school year that turned out to be too high. Although the differences may seem small, they are actually significant. As shown on the chart, every 100 students represents roughly 4 classrooms (for class sizes of 25). Consistently faulty future student population projections lead to serious miscalculations about the need for future facilities – translation: serious miscalculations about the need for future tax increases. At the time, several residents complained at public meetings about these projections, but their complaints were ignored.

Now, after overbuilding facilities, MSD has, much too late for taxpayers, issued a new report on student enrollments, past and future. The total 2004-05 student population was 5,338 and at the time the District convinced itself, based on faulty projections, that the population would continue to climb. What actually happened? What will happen in the future? The graph is from the "PEL Presentation" referenced in the summary. Students populations have already declined precipitously and are projected to continue to decline in the future. Based on this chart, using a class size of 25, the District will need 39 fewer classrooms in 2014 than it did in 2007. Even if we assume there may be some school-to-school inequities in space, this is an astounding number roughly equivalent to two elementary schools! We urge everyone to keep this chart in mind the next time your School Board considers raising property taxes. So far, all they have done is promise to raise taxes for the 2015-16 school year by no more than the "index value" 1.9% increase allowed under Act 1 (by not taking advantage of the many loopholes that typically allow increases beyond the index value). Although we should perhaps be grateful that our School Board has bothered to take even this modest step, in our opinion it can in no way be considered as an action which fully takes into account current and projected realities!


January 16, 2015: Frank Bartle's misrepresentation of what happened at the Conditional Use hearings for the lighting project + an osolete system?

At the January 12 "Special Meeting" of the School Board, attorney Ftank Bartle was asked to comment on the Conditional Use permit granted by Worcester's Supervisors and, essentially, to justify the District's decision to appeal the conditions of the permit. However, his justification bears little relationship to what actually happened during the hearings.
      Bartle claimed that the Supervisor's decision to allow 50/30-footcandle lighting at the football stadium and 30/20-footcandle at the auxiliary field is arbitrary and inconsistent with lighting levels required for safe play. This is simply not true. Evidence presented during the hearing was overwhelmingly clear that 30-footcandle lighting is safe for all field sports played at Methacton High School. These levels are recommended by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America in its publication RP-6 – a publication about lighting for sports facilities entered into evidence by the School District – and affirmed by Mr. Tom Lemons, a professional engineer and independent lighting expert who has served for decades on the IESNA's sports lighting committee. A 30-footcandle level is also recommended for facilities the size of MHS by at least four states which have published lighting guidelines: Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. It is inconceivable that the IESNA, a professional organization representing all facets of the lighting industry, and state high school athletic associations would publish recommendations which would produce unsafe lighting conditions for student athletes!
      The distinction made by the Supervisors between the football stadium and the auxiliary field is not arbitrary. It is, in fact, based on recommendations found in RP-6. Higher lighting levels are recommended based not on player safety, but for facilities with significant provisions for spectators. Where spectators are farther away from the action on the field, higher lighting levels are appropriate for spectators to follow the action on the field. The football stadium at MHS seats less than 1500 spectators and falls within the capacity guidelines found in the four state standards mentioned above. According to the School District's own testimony (repeated several times) the new auxiliary field will not have any seating for spectators.
      Bartle also grossly misrepresented the testimony from Karen Murphy, the Township's independent lighting consultant. She was consistent in her recommendation that 30-footcandle lighting was safe for high school sports and her written reports are perfectly clear on this point. Her original report from September 2013 (before the conditional use hearings started) stated that based on the seating capacity of the football stadium, 30-footcandle was appropriate and that 20-footcandle lighting was appropriate for the auxiliary field (with no seating). She then stated that "The applicant should consider revising all calculations for this reduced illumination requirement, or provide testimony as to why this board should consider illumination levels above ethose outlined in the IESNA RP-6-01."
      At the conclusion of testimony at the hearing, Ms. Murphy submitted another written report, which outlined some additional scenarios for field use, such as broadcasting of nighttime games, none of which were even suggested by the School District. That report stated that "... 30fc is the minimum safe level for high school games [the Lighting Ordinance requirement]" but (in her interpretation of lighting guidelines based on IESNA recommendations) "... 50fc should be used for games played in stadiums with capacities around 1,500 [as opposed to the auxiliary field with no seating capacity]; and 20 fc should only be used for high school practices." While this recommendation is not exactly in agreement with recommendations from RP-6 and several state athletic associaations, as noted above, MS. MURPHY NOWHERE STATED IN HER WRITTEN REPORTS OR TESTIMONY THAT 50-FC LIGHTING IS REQUIRED FOR THE SAFE PLAY OF HIGH SCHOOL FIELD SPORTS.
      Also, during her testimony, Ms. Murphy (a former Division I lacrosse player) specifically denied that higher lighting levels were justified based on player safety and she specifically rejected Bartle's suggestion that the improving level of lacrosse play at the high school level justified overriding the lighting recommendations found in RP-6. It is also interesting that during Ms. Murphy's testimony, Bartle tried diligently to discredit her qualifications but now attempts to use her testimony as a justification for the School District's position. The bottom line is that, contrary to Bartle's assertion that the Supervisors ignored Murphy's advice, their decision about lighting levels is, in fact, precisely aligned with her recommendations.
      You might think that with all its bluster and whining about the safety of our student athletes, the School District must have some inside knowledge of requirements for safe nighttime play of field sports. You would be wrong! Very early in the field design discussion, a meeting report from Marc Singley, an employee of Architerra, the School District's consulting firm for this project, noted that the School District had no background or preference about lighting systems. A February 4, 2013 memo from attorney Eric Frey to School District administrators and School Board members stated that "The definitions [for lighting levels] are not black and white, but I would suggest that we listen to our expert [Robert Zoeller]." The problem for the School District was that Zoeller, a salesman for Musco Sports Lighting, is not a professional engineer, lacks any of the professional credentials available through the lighting industry, and has never served on ANY IESNA lighting committee. To bolster Zoeller's testimony, at the last minute the School District hired Shawn Good, a professional lighting design engineer who serves as a "practioner instructor" at Penn State but who has also never served on an IESNA lighting committee. Not surprisingly, Good's testimony was that in his personal opinion (he admitted to not having done any research on the topic), 50-footcandle lighting was required for safe play of some field sports. However, testimony showed that Good's lighting design firm proposed field lighting for a high school in Fairfax County, Virginia, which was lower than Good's personal recommendation. The online sports schedule for Edison High School shows that all the field sports played at MHS, including lacrosse, are played at night at that school. Fairfax County Public Schools is one of the largest school districts in the nation and their published uniform standard for lighting at all their high school athletic fields is 30 footcandles. Is it reasonable to conclude that Fairfax County doesn't care about the safety of its student athletes??
      You might also think that if there were any evidence of safety problems arising from following the IESNA lighting recommendations, the School District would have presented it. But, the School District presented no such evidence, from which a reasonable person can conclude only that THERE IS NO SUCH EVIDENCE!
      We urge everyone to make clear to your School Board that its appeal of the Conditional Use permit is unjustified, a waste of taxpapyer dollars, and an action that will serve only to delay getting our students the facilities we all agree they deserve.

Here is something else worth considering when you evaluate the performance of your School Board and District administrators in this matter. As can easily be seen from searching online, there is currently a tremendous surge in the development of LED-based lighting systems for outdoor sports facilities. Currently, these systems have a somewhat higher initial cost, but their performance characteristics and much lower operating and maintenance costs over a system life of 25 or more years make them a choice that is not only more economical, but which also reduces glare and light trespass. While continuing to tout its metal halide lighting systems, based on a technology which has been around for decades, Musco Sports Lighting (the only lighting vendor considered by the School District) is actively filing multiple patent applications for LED-based sports lighting systems. The result? Your School District is in the process of purchasing an old-technology lighting system which will be obsolete the day it is turned on and which, over its lifetime, will waste more taxpayer dollars!


January 9, 2015: John Harris sentenced in child pornography case

The deeply disturbing and sad case of former Worcester Supervisor John Harris was resolved, at least at some level, when Harris was sentenced yesterday to three months in jail. Although The Reporter and The Times Herald reported that the sentence was for from three to 23 months, this was apparently not the case. It is also reported that Harris will be allowed work release during the day. Harris will have to inform state police of his address for the next 15 years, but the court ruled that he did not need to be classified as a sexually violent predator.
      The judge noted that Harris' many years of service to his community could not (and we agree should not) be an excuse for his "unacceptable" criminal conduct. Although his attorney argued that Harris did not distribute child pornography, but only stored it on computers and viewed it in his own home, the judge dismissed this as a mitigating circumstance. As he pointed out, even those who do no more than download child pornography play an active role in creating and maintaining a market for the ongoing victimization of children. Although it is often questioned whether jail time actually has the effect of deterring crime, we cannot help but believe that this example will have that effect.
      As profoundly disturbing as this entire episode has been, we are also disturbed and disgusted by the actions of those individuals in our community, most prominently from the "sports crowd" associated with the recent conditional use hearings about lights at Methacton High School, who have sought to create a guilt by association between John Harris and anyone and everyone who has had any contact with him over the years. Those who know Harris have uniformly expressed their outrage and shock at conduct so totally at odds with his public personna.
      Many people have to deal with their own internal demons at one time or another. Usually those demons remain private. Sometimes they do not. We ask that you keep in mind the religious admonitions about throwing stones and that you speak out against crude and vulgar attempts to use this ugly incident as a vehicle for character assassination. As for those who are responsible for these attempts, shame on you! You, too, have a responsibility to children and you, too, need to take resonsibility for your actions.


December 23, 2014: That Didn't Take Long! School Board Votes for Indefinite Delay of Lighted Fields at Methacton High School

Yes, without even thinking it over, on December 18th, the day after Worcester's Board of Supervisors voted to grant a Conditional Use Permit for the installation of two lighted fields at Methacton High School, your School Board voted unanimously to appeal the Supervisors' decision. Considering the speed with which the School Board took this vote, with not one word of discussion, we can only assume that the Board and its attorneys had ALREADY decided to appeal the Permit, no matter what it contained. After all, taking this vote on the same day as the decision was posted online at Worcester's website hardly gave anyone a chance to read and discuss the decision, let alone give any thought about what to do next.
      At the School Board meeting on the 18th, attorney Frank Bartle gave the same tired arguments we have all heard for so many months – basically that Worcester residents don't care about the safety of student athletes and Worcester's Supervisors imposed restrictions that they had no right to impose. His comments at the School Board meeting sounded not like an honest assessment of the facts, but rather like someone trying to convince everybody, maybe including himself, that he hadn't been responsible for delaying the lights project for many months and wasting many tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
      Make no mistake about it. The School Board's decision to appeal the Conditional Use Permit will delay the installation of lighted athletic fields at the high school. For how long? Nobody knows... The School Board's decision will cost taxpayers many more thousands or tens of thousands of tax dollars, depending on how how courts respond to the appeal. How much? Nobody knows...
      Make no mistake about it. This halt to the lighting project is NOT the fault of Worcester residents or Worcester's Board of Supervisors. Everyone had a chance to present their case during the Conditional Use hearings and the Supervisors considered all the testimony. The School Board's petulant knee-jerk reaction does a disservice to every taxpayer and every student athlete in the district. It is up to YOU to hold the School Board and the School Administration accountable! The District can drop its appeal at any time and start spending its time and energy on completing the field upgrade project.


December 21, 2014: Conditional Use permit issued for lights at Methacton High School

After more than a year of conditional use hearings, at its December 17 meeting, Worcester's Board of Supervisors finally granted a Conditional Use Permit that will allow the installation of lights on two fields at Methacton High School. Supervisors Bustard and Caughlan voted to approve the Permit and Supervisor Quigley voted against. Contrary to the misinformation disseminated by the School District and the "sports crowd," there was never any doubt that this permit would be issued – it was required by the wording of the Lighting Ordinance. All that was ever in doubt was the conditions that would be imposed. This has been a long and very contentious process which may or not be at an end, depending on how the School District responds.

What did the School District ask for in its Conditional Use Application?

What neighbors living around the school wanted was Neither side got all of what it wanted. The entire Conditional Use Permit is available HERE. Here is a summary of the provisions: The requirements to mitigate parking problems, install fencing to reduce trespass across adjacent properties, and pay for landscaping are especially important, considering that the School District's consistently proclaimed position has always been to ignore concerns about such matters and insist that illumination levels and pole height (which remains at the 85-foot maximum level specified in the Lighting Ordinance) were the only topics which could be dealt with in the Conditional Use Permit. It is worth pointing out that illegal parking is already a problem around the high school – a problem the School District should have dealt with many years ago. Ditto for fencing around the property, both as a safety measure for students and to prevent the property trespass issues which, again, should have been dealt with years ago.
      The School District's all-too-typical arrogance also extended to not even bothering to make a case during the hearings for what their actual needs were for nighttime events. It was therefore left to the Supervisors to conclude that four nights per week, which allows eight nighttime events per week if both fields are used, was more than adequate to meet those needs. The School District's position was apparently based on their interpretation of wording in the Lighting Ordinance, which gives the "lights out" times as 9:00 on Monday through Thursday and 10:00 on Friday or Saturday. This is not the same thing as saying that nighttime events are therefore automatically allowed six nights per week.
      As for the field illumination levels, we continue to believe that 50-footcandle lighting at the football stadium, even if only for football and lacrosse games, is not justified based on the testimony presented during the hearings. The argument that 50-footcandle lighting was required to ensure the safety of players for some field sports was made almost entirely by Robert Zoeller, a Musco sales representative who is not a professional engineer and who lacks any of the professional credentials available through the lighting industry. He was, in fact, allowed to testify as an expert witness not because of his professional credentials, but in spite of his lack of any such credentials. Other testimony, including from the Township's own lighting consultant, concluded that 30 footcandle illumination was safe for any field sport played at Methacton High School.
      Whether the Board of Supervisors' decision will be sufficient to induce the School District to accept the Conditional Use Permit conditions offered to them remains unknown at this time. But, everybody should be clear on this point: If the School District chooses to appeal the Board's decision, responsibility for the resulting indefinite(!) delay in providing these new facilities for our student athletes and the waste of many more tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars rests squarely with the School Board.

This process raises at least two issues which should concern all of us:

We believe that the behavior of the School District and its Board of Directors during this process has been reprehensible. It has laid bare the arrogant behavior that has been in evidence for many years. It has wasted time and tax dollars by its adversarial approach to the Conditional Use hearings. It has continued its long-standing policy of blaming Worcester officials and residents for its problems. The remedy, as we have suggested previously, is to CLEAN HOUSE at the next School Board election.
      There was some inspiration to be found in this process. Some Worcester residents came together to oppose not the construction of lighted athletic fields, but only the School District's arrogant give-us-everything-we-want approach. Yes, they constitute one of Madison's "factions." But, their goal was never, as consistently and erroneously claimed by the sports faction, to block or delay the field upgrade project, including lighted fields. Throughout the entire hearing process, not a single party spoke against installing lighted fields. They conducted themselves professionally and with considerable effect in the complex legal environment of the hearings. They never stooped to the name-calling, intimidation, and misrepresentations of the give-us-everything-we-want crowd. They sought only to protect their rights using the mechanisms that were made available to them. In short, they behaved as responsible citizens should.
      In this context, consider the behavior of those individuals in our community who claim to have no love for the School District's actions and, at the same time, claim to represent those who claim their problems are being ignored by our local government. Why did these individuals not side with residents whose only goal was to protect their own interests? We believe the answer is clear: Those individals are not concerned about YOU, but only about their tired political agenda of disrupting the functioning of our local government. Pathetic.


December 20, 2014: Are you grateful yet? (Part 2)

According to a December 19th article in the Times Herald, Lower Providence Supervisors have just approved another tax increase to finance debt service payments (7.8%) plus an additional 3.4% increase for contractually obligated pay hikes for police and nonuniformed workers. This will increase the local property taxes on an average home assessment of $167,232 from $266.23 to $295.45. The millage rate was 1.512 mils in 2013 and 1.762 mils in 2014. The newly approved rate is an additional 0.25, bringing the 2015 rate to 2.012 mils. Worcester's local property tax rate will remain the same for 2015 – 0.05 mils.
      Also, as a follow-up to our December 3 posting about Franconia Townships budget problems, the Philadelphia Inquirer subsequently reported on December 9 "that for five years, the town improperly used restricted funds [certain state funds or funds for open space preservation, for example] to cover up an unbalanced budget." Franconia taxpayers will now have to pay back, with interest, more than $1.3M misused for operating expenses from 2000 to 2013. This is something that has never happened and never will happen in Worcester! Worcester has no debt other than money borrowed to finance improvements to sewage treatment systems; that debt is the responsibility of the users of those systems, not Worcester taxpayers in general. Are you grateful yet?


December 3, 2014: Are you grateful yet?

A front page article in today's Inquirer should make all of us very happy to live in Worcester. According to this article, Franconia Township, with a population of just over 13,000 and a proposed budget of about $5.2M for 2015, is $3.2M in debt as a result of having operating deficits as high as $922,000 per year in the years from 2011 through 2014! According to the Township Manager, who has been on the job only three months, "They were using a lot of reserve funds. If you start using one-time fixes, that's not sustainable."

Franconia's current local real estate property tax millage rate (tax per $1,000 of assessed value) is 1.5475 and the millage proposed for 2015 is 1.842, an increase of 19%. This would raise average local property taxes from about $250 to about $300 per year. This average tax would be more in Worcester because of the higher average assessed value. Worcester's local real estate property tax millage rate is 0.05 – no more than a few tens of dollars per year!

A major difference between Worcester and Franconia is that out of Franconia's proposed $5.27M 2015 budget, more than $2.46M, or almost half, is required to support its police force. The police union has already filed a grievance against the township as a result of layoffs proposed to balance its budget. Like many townships of its size, Worcester relies on state police for its law enforcement needs, at no cost. Worcester currently generates only about $47,000 per year from its real estate tax. In order to support a police force the size of Franconia's, the real estate tax millage (the only source of revenue over which municipalities have direct local control) would have to be increased by at least a factor of 50, or to at least 2.5.

The Inquirer states "As the township descended into debt, it... invested $4.4 million for farmland preservation." However, this is a very misleading statement. That $4.4M could not have been used to reduce the budget deficit because, as noted on the Franconia Township website (http://www.franconiatownship.org/details/budget-finance.aspx), those funds come from a 0.25% Earned Income Tax approved by voters in 2001 for open space preservation. "The tax, which is paid only by Township residents, is a dedicated tax in which funds can only be used as described above and cannot be comingled with operating funds. The revenue generated from this tax cannot be redirected or restributed for other purposes." (Since it is an earned income tax, and not a real estate tax, any resident who has no earned income, a retired person for example, does not pay this tax.)

Contrast the situation in Franconia with our own. Our elected officials have maintained a healthy cash reserve and manage its use prudently. Worcester always balances its budgets and it has never been in debt even with a local real estate tax rate that is nearly zero. (Personal earned income taxes are the township's primary source of revenue.) Please keep these facts in mind the next time you hear the usual whiners complaining about Worcester's finances! Are you grateful yet?


November 24, 2014: Cost of "lights brochure"?

We have received the following email, reproduced in its entirety. Did the "lights mailer," already an egregious waste of taxpayer money at $6,046, really cost twice that amount, or was the second transaction listed below only a transfer from one fund to another. We would like to know to whom both the listed checks were written.

"Re the blog November 14 posting there may a mystery as to who approved the "lights mailer" but there is also a mystery as to the total cost of that mailer. One amount of $6046.00 approved for payment at the October 28 School Board meeting, shown on the list of bills under: Fund Accounting Check Summary GENERAL FUND CHKING - From 09/13/2014 To 10/16/2014

p. 5 under Check # 00182533 RED MAVERICK MEDIA LLC ATHLETIC PROJ MAILING.............$6,046.00

and now up for approval at the November 18 School Board meeting THE SAME amount from a different Fund

Fund Accounting Check Summary TD CAPITAL RESERVE - From 10/17/2014 To 11/06/2014

under Check # 00050628 RED MAVERICK MEDIA LLC HS LIGHTS INFO BROCHURE........... $6,046.00"

November 14, 2014: Who approved the "lights mailer"? We still don't know

We have received this email regarding the question we have raised previously about who was was reponsible for the egregious postcard mailer sent (apparently) to every household in the school district (see October 31 and September 24 postings):

In response to your question, "who approved the mailer?", if you watch the September, 16th school board meeting, you will see that I asked questions about the mailer. Who's idea was it for this mailer, when did the board vote to approve this expenditure and how much did this cost the taxpayers? Again, as always, I was met with silence. Funny, how Maria Shackleford wakes up from her "deep sleep" and questions an over $6,000 payment of taxpayers money and she receives an answer from our crack business manager Whiteleather. My suggestion is, stop telling your residents to show up at school board meetings. They don't care how the district is spending their money or they would be there front and center and holding their feet to the fire. Unfortunately, two of the directors from Worcester were re-elected and they keep voting against their residents. The current school board president once stated at a April 2012 finance committee meeting at Woodland Elementary School, "The taxpayers don't care what we do, do you see any of them here". Sadly, and I really hate to admit this, he is right! All taxpayers in the Methacton School District need to SHOW UP, STAND UP and SPEAK UP! Thank you for your time,
(a Lower Providence taxpayer)

November 5, 2014: voting for Governor in Worcester and surrounding communities

Despite an impressive national victory for Republicans and a lopsided 60%/40% victory for Wolf in the Governor's race in Montgomery County and 55%/45% across the Commonwealth, Worcester favored Corbett over Wolf. The table shows the numbers for Worcester and the communities surrounding it. (See https://electionresults.montcopa.org/. The percentages don't add up to 100% because of write-in votes.) Only Skippack joined Worcester in its support of Corbett. What does this say about party politics in Worcester? We leave that for you to decide!

MunicipalityCorbett/CawleyWolf/StackPercentages
Worcester1865161353.5%/46.3%
East Norriton1949265742.3%/57.6%
Lower Providence3626422246.1%/53.7%
Skippack1840172751.4%/48.2%
Towamencin2961314948.4%/51.5%
Upper Gwynedd2625313545.8%/54.3%
West Norriton2013297840.3%/59.6%
Whitpain3273399345.0%/54.8%


October 31, 2014: reader information about "lights" mailer sent by School District

Regarding our posting for September 24, we have received the following email:

At the last School Board meeting (10/28) School Board Member Maria Shackelford asked what item number 00182533 on page 5 of the list of bills was for - it is labeled RED MAVERICK MEDIA LLC ATHLETIC PROJ MAILING $6,046.00 Mr. Whiteleather's responded "the cost related to the brochure developed for the lights, Conditional Use Hearings for the lights for the fields."

Note: The video of this board meeting is online at www.methacton.org. The question about this charge was asked at around 58 minutes. Nobody expressed any opinion about this charge. If this cost is just for the mailing (a postcard and not a "brochure"), it doesn't include the robocalls made by Superintendent Zerbe which, in our opinion, were as least as egregious and misleading. We ask again of the School District: What were you thinking?? Who approved this beyond outrageous misuse of OUR taxpayer dollars??

September 24, 2014: email from reader

We have received the following email, which is quoted verbatim in its entirety:

As a resident trying to preserve the quality of life in our community, being part of the process has opened my eyes to how extensive the problems are within our public school system. Looking at the financial part alone, the idea of "balancing the wants and the needs" just doesn't exist. But the biggest, most damaging and on growing problem in our community and others is the constant funneling of misinformation thru media and parents this, sadly includes using students to push their agendas. Hopefully we will be able to adopt a plan that will prevent a negative spiral effect on Worcester and its future.

We assume this email is at least partly related to our previous post on September 17. In addition to the almost always inaccurate and truly disgusting content of social media surrounding lights at the high school (yes, there will be lights) it is also true that the School District itself is playing a major role in the misinformation being spread about this issue. Most egregious is the mailer recently sent by the School District, apparently to EVERY household in the district, in which the credentials of one of the witnesses at the conditional use hearing were misrepresented and in which the School District all but accused anyone seeking reasonable limitations on the illumination levels at and use of lighted fields of not caring about the safety of their own children. This mailer would have been outrageous even if it had been privately funded, but it is beyond outrageous for the School District to spend OUR tax dollars in this way.
      Based on the behavior of the School District and its attorneys during the Conditional Use hearings, who according to those who have attended them have been consistent in demonstrating not even the slightest interest in concerns of residents living around the high school, it seems abundantly clear that neither the School Board nor ANYBODY in the Methacton School Administration has any intention of adopting any plans that will prevent the "negative spiral" you have suggested. The School District has always tried to blame Worcester for its problems. Their behavior surrounding the "lights issue" strongly suggests to us an attitude that extends far beyond this particular issue.
      What can be done? Taxpayers and voters have essentially zero input to how the School District conducts itself. But we urge you to (1) Attend a School Board meeting to ask how much the "lights" mailer cost taxpayers, who wrote and approved it, and finally, "What were you thinking?"; (2) CLEAN HOUSE the next time you are able to vote for seats on the School Board!

September 17, 2014: Conditional Use Hearings for Lights at Methacton High School – Who Are the Terrorists?

Throughout the never-ending (but actually soon-to-be ended) Conditional Use Hearings which will allow lights to be installed at Methacton High School, we have kept silent. This is a quasi-judicial process and it is important to avoid attempts to influence the outcome one way or the other. But based on recent comments appearing online, we can no longer remain silent.
      One of the justifications for strong athletic programs at our schools is that competitive sports build character – honesty, perseverence, hard work, fair play on and off the field, etc. These are admirable goals which we assume everybody shares and which most of us would agree can, in fact, be attained through participation in team sports.
      Contrary to the misinformation spread online in social media, this is not a contest between those who want lights and those who don't. The two sides represent those who believe the School District should have permission to do whatever it wants to do, without any conditions, and those who would like to impose some reasonable conditions on nighttime activities, as required by Worcester's Conditional Use Ordinance.
      Despite the rather obvious fact that installation of two lighted fields at the high school for nighttime events absolutely WILL have negative impacts on neighborhoods around the high school, not one of the "reasonable conditions" parties has spoken out against installing lights on fields at the high school. Most of these people are parents, many of them with children already playing sports in Methacton's public schools. These individuals, YOUR neighbors, are doing no more and no less than what any of us would do to protect our rights to the reasonable use and enjoyment of our property.
      The hearing process has been long and frustrating, but there is not one single public example of even the most innocuous negative comment being directed by the "reasonable restrictions" camp against individuals in the "no conditions" camp.
      What about the "no conditions" crowd, those who would like Worcester Township to give permission to the School District to use lighted fields at the high school with absolutely no restrictions of any kind? How is this group doing when it comes to displaying the kind of character we are sure they would claim competitive sports help to build? They would like to use their numbers as a fundamentally un-American excuse for trampling the rights of other citizens. The misinformation they continue to spread about the hearings and everyone's role in them has been disgraceful – either deliberately false or woefully uninformed. They have accused YOUR neighbors of not caring about the safety of student athletes, presumably including their own children. They have abused and threatened anyone and everyone who disagrees with them, sometimes by name, most recently referring online to YOUR neighbors as "terrorists" and "disgusting scum" (yes, really).
      Is this the kind of "character" we want our children to see on display?? Does this group include parents responsible for their children's character development?? What are they thinking??
      So, we ask you to decide: WHO ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS??


August 14, 2014: Methacton School District revenue and economic development

At the August 5 School Board meeting, one of the topics under discussion was how to raise more money to offset the falling tax revenues for the school district. There is no doubt that school districts everywhere in Pennsylvania are under tremendous financial strains, due to the cost of pensions and the recession which began in 2008. Unfortunately, the money required to run our public schools comes overwhelmingly (about 78%) from local property taxes and it is just those sources that have been hit hard by the recession.
(See 2014 Methacton School District sources of income.)

Faced with the reality of a diminishing tax base and increasing costs, most of which are beyond Methacton's control, what can or should be done? The solution glibly offered all too often and without thinking through the consequences is: We can solve our revenue problems simply by encouraging more development. This is basically an "increase the supply" argument:

more development = more businesses + more people = more money

Not surprisingly, this argument is favored by developers and those who profit from development. But, does it hold up to close analysis?

The pro-development argument is currently being made in ways both general and specific by your School Board. At a "special meeting" on August 5, 2014, the agenda included discussions about how to raise revenues. What should be the role of Lower Providence and Worcester's governments? One of the suggestions was to work with township officials to encourage them to support more "economic development." Another suggestion was to offer tax abatements for new businesses, although that seems to fly in the face of using development to generate new and increased revenues. (In fairness, this appeared to be more in a "thinking out loud" mode than a serious proposal.) Superintendent Zerbe commented that the School District should develop partnerships with large employers to attract more residents to the district. Chris Nascimento said specifically that the more residents we have, the more revenue we get.

Jim Phillips (Worcester resident, married into the Sparango Construction family with development interests in Worcester, no children in public schools) offered this comment about Worcester: "you take Worcester, their whole movement has been green as long as we can, keep it green forever, open space." everytime they've blocked development rights in that community that's reduced our revenue in this school district. So when they put in whether it's act 319 which may reduce their taxes by 60% by keeping it a field, that takes away from our revenue. I remember times before you [Zerbe] arrived, we were losing $500,000, $750,000 a year to development rights being bought or stuff going into act 319. Soon as the market started taking a dive and they weren't developing land anymore, the property owners started putting their properties into act 319 to get the tax benefits. And we saw where we had a $500,000 on the negative side for our revenues. So we need to have a dialog with the townships and remind them. You go to Plymouth Township where they have all the malls, their taxes are cheaper. The same house in Worc. that's $15-20,000 in taxes is $3500 to $5500 So, it's just the mantality of the townships and we have to say, look, you guys aren't helping with this because here we're getting more kids in and our expenses are going up , but our revenues, we got to keep raising taxes. We have to put some burden on them also. It really comes down to their planning of the communities also. So I think it's something we should have a dialog to see what they're doing. "

First of all, Worcester doesn't "block" development rights! No municipality can do that. Municipalies have their own zoning codes, which reflect the wishes of their residents, and they must abide by state laws regarding the rights of property owners. Through a comprehensive community development plan (which Worcester has), municipalities can encourage certain kinds of development and discourage others, but saying they can "block" development is a gross misrepresentation of the facts, sounding like something a developer would say whenever he doesn't get everything he wants. And, we find it interesting that Phillips referred to Worcester as "that" community and not "my" community and that he apparently views "all the malls" as something that would be a good thing for our community!

MunicipalityMunicipality MillageLocal MillageTotal Millage
Plymouth20.11031.624.8523
Lower Providence27.91.58232.644
Worcester27.90.0531.102
It is true that Plymouth Township, in the Colonial School District, has a lower school tax millage rate than the Methacton School District. For comparison, the table shows school, local, and total (including Montco) millages for Plyimouth, Lower Providence, and Worcester. Note that Worcester's local tax rate is only 0.05 mills!

http://www.montcopa.org/index.aspx?NID=622

Rates for any school district evolve over many years and Plymouth's current rate may or may not be due entirely or even mostly to the commercial development in that township – there is no way to do a "with and without" analysis in retrospect. Methacton's current school tax millage rate and increase over the last decade is roughly in the middle of all Montgomery County school districts, as shown in this analysis done last year by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
As for the amount of taxes paid by homeowners, Methacton's website has done a calculation for an average (median?) assessed value within the school district:

tax = millage x assessment
0.02790 x $180,767 = $5,043
http://methacton.org/domain/11

For the same assessed value in Plymouth:

0.0201103 x $180,767 = $3,635

One could argue that the same house in Worcester might be assessed at a higher value than the identical house in Plymouth Township because of Worcester's quality of life, but that is another discussion and would certainly not result in Phillips' numbers making any more sense. It may be true that homes in Worcester tend to be more expensive than in some neighboring communities, but that doesn't justify the property tax comparison Phillips has given.

In any case, the school property tax difference is decreased once you take into account local property tax. For the same house, the local plus school tax would be $5532 in Worcester (a difference of only only about $9 due to local property taxes) and $3924 in Plymouth because of the nearly $300 in local property taxes assessed there.

It is true that some owners of larger land parcels in Worcester have put their land into Pennsylvania's Act 319 agricultural preservation program. That Act dramatically reduces their property taxes indefinitely, as long as the land is maintained and used as required under the program. This negatively impacts property tax revenues. But Worcester Township has absolutely no control over this program. The program makes it possible for property owners who want their land to remain undeveloped to obtain tax breaks that makes it financially feasible for them to do so. There is no evidence to support Phillips' congtention that landowners used Act 319 during recent years because they couldn't sell their land to developers. Landowners across the state have taken advantage of this program for many years, in good economic times and bad. The more likely explanation is that those property owners simply do not want to open their land to development under any circumstances. No property owner should be criticized for keeping Worcester open and green, regardless of his or her motivation. Although Phillips didn't actually criticize landowners in his comments, it seems obvious that pro-development interests would much rather have property owners sell their land for development than take advantage of Act 319 or put their land under a conservation easement.

Act 319 tax benefits are limited to parcels of 10 or more acres, which severely limits its use even in Worcester. Locally, by far the biggest single impact on property tax revenues has come from downward reassessments requested by commercial property owners and homeowners and granted by Montgomery County. Once granted, reassessments represent a permanent loss of income. Upward reassessment of individual properties is not allowed; only a county-wide reassessment can do that.

In Worcester, the largest single revenue loss has resulted from multiple downward reassessments granted to Morris Road Investors LP for what is popularly known as the "Ford/Visteon" property on Morris Road. (See Montco County property records website.) In the table below, the bottom row, in bold font, shows the current assessment and the school taxes paid at the current 27.9 millage rate. The other rows show previous reassessments since 1998 (when the last county-wide assessment was done) and the school taxes that would be paid at those assessed values, at the current rate. Thus, the current loss to the School District is more than $600,000 per year – money that cannot be recovered through an individual upward reassessment even if an improving economy causes this property to once again increase in commercial value.

DateAssessed valueTaxes to School District
Jan. 1998$37,000,000$1,032,299
Jan. 2000$34,500,000$962,549
Jan. 2008$22,815,000$636,538
Jan. 2011$16,269,000$453,905
Jan. 2013$15,528,500$433,245
Nov. 2013$15,400,260$429,667

There is no more reason to blame commercial interests or individual homeowners for asking for reassessments based on changing economic situations than there is to blame property owners who put their land into Act 319. They are doing only what they are entitled to do and what is in their financial interests. Homeowners may still be "under water" with their mortgages and they may be struggling with unemployment or underemployment issues. Commercial interests have responsibilities to owners, shareholders, partners, and employees. The Morris Road site is underused and its owners have not yet been successful in attracting new tenants, so on its face, the reassessment does not seem unreasonable. It is also true that in a place like Worcester, some landowners are strongly committed to preserving the unique quality of our community even if that commitment comes at a price!

What about the argument that each new residence increases property tax revenues to the School District? Yes, it does. But, that is far from the whole story! the difficulty with depending on residential development to solve a school district's revenue problems is that the property taxes paid by individual homeowners do not come even close to offsetting the cost to educate the children of the families who own those homes.

Compare the school taxes per household with the school district cost per student. For Methacton, the cost per student is more than $11,600, ranking it 123rd highest of Pennsylvania's 588 school districts. (See http://www.homesurfer.com/schoolreports/view/schoolrankreports.cfm?state=PA.) (Note also Methacton's relatively high debt per student compared to other districts in Pennsylvania.)

If one makes the modest assumption that each residence permanently adds one child to the public school system, every 25 new homes represents, over the long term, a classroom (with staffing both direct and indirect) which must be added to existing school facilities. Even assuming only 1/2 student per residence doesn't balance the revenue vs. cost equation. This means that by far the most likely scenario over time is that increasing the school population will result in increased property taxes without providing long-term solutions to the revenue problem. Even if this is a simplistic analysis, it nevertheless clearly indicates that building more homes while at the same time keeping school property tax rates constant is a losing strategy which will never solve revenue problems for Methacton School District! In fact, it is much more consistent with the facts to conclude that the more population increases, the higher property taxes will be.

What about commercial development? It is true that a new business generates tax revenue that wasn't there before. But for the development-centric argument to work, the "more money" generated by more development must produce a net financial gain to the community. That is, it must be shown that the gain in tax revenues from development will outweigh the costs associated with that development. There are direct financial costs of development to any community, but there are also less tangible but equally important costs of losing open and green spaces, community character, and quality of life.

In the last 15 years across Montgomery County, there have been only a couple of instances where school district taxes actually went down, temporarily for a year. Even holding down increases in school property will inevitably be more than offset by increased local taxes to pay for the services demanded by development. Several studies of the net costs of development in and around Montgomery County have been done in recent years. The financial argument against using residential development as a "silver bullet" for school finances, as set out above, is straightforward. But more than that, the studies invariably show that the overall financial costs of residential and commercial development are always higher in the long run than the gains from tax revenues. Those studies also show that it is predominantly developers who benefit from development, while the costs of that development are disproportionately borne by residents. Simply put, developers never really pay their own way and sooner or later residents (taxpayers) get stuck both with the financial bill and the depreciation in their community's quality of life. Despite what you are told by pro-development interests, new commercial development never has never provided, and never will provide, a financial "free lunch" for communities.

Finally, there are the quality-of-life issues. There have been attempts to quantify the economic value of open space, for example. But, those of us who appreciate Worcester have made a conscious choice to live here because we appreciate its unique quality of life. We do not need to have "proof" that open spaces have economic value. We simply do not want to look like or be like the mall-supported communities that surround us. Those who do not share that view are welcome to live elsewhere.

Is a "pro preservation" position biased in its assessments? Possibly, but it is compelling in its reliance on facts rather than living in the thought-free zone where "more development" is automatically accepted as the solution to every revenue problem. A few school districts have examined the facts, accepted them, and found alternate solutions.


May 21, 2014: Petrauskas resigns from Methacton Board of School Directors

At its May 20 meeting, Methacton's School Board unanimously accepted Joyce Petrauskas' resignation. Petrauskas was not at the meeting. As noted previously, the problem was not just her Florida DUI conviction, but the fact that she lied about the incident more than once, claiming that she had not been arrested for a DUI. This is unacceptable behavior for anyone, let along someone in her position of trust. The Board has 30 days to select a replacement to complete her term, which would have ended in 2015.

May 21, 2014: Control of Worcester Republican Committee remains in good hands

The election on May 20 has chosen the Worcester Republican Committee. This was not the primary election for these eight positions, but the election, with the results effective immediately. Thankfully, the Committee remains in the control of people who share a commitment to and a collaborative vision for our community.

DistrictCandidate, votesBallot position order
East 1 (Bethel Hill United Methodist Church)Hayes, 104
Quigley, 96
Landis, 79
TOTAL 279
Hayes
Landis
Quigley
East 2 (Variety Club Camp)Mollick, 201
McKeever, 169
Phillips, 168
Weed, 149
TOTAL 687
Mollick
Weed
Phillips
McKeever
East 3 (Central Schwenkfelder Church)Bustard, 113
Leahan, 104
TOTAL 217
Bustard
Leahan
West (Worcester Community Hall)Steigerwalt, 141
Fichtner, 100
Sobocinski, 96
TOTAL 337
Steigerwalt
Sobocinski
Fichtner

      It is interesting that, in every case, the person with the top ballot spot won. This was not true for the second highest vote getter. Most election observers consider ballot position to be extremely important, especially in local elections where it is often the case that there is poor name recognition for at least some of the candidates. However, the margins between the top and second vote counts here indicate that more was at work in this election than ballot position. The top vote getters need to be given credit for diligent work among their constituencies.
      There is some good news and bad news for everybody in these results. The bad news from our perspective is that the Republican Committee will have to tolerate James Mollick for another four years. But, there is also good news. It is clear that the Mollick/Phillips/Quigley camp viewed this election as an opportunity to take control of Worcester's Republican Committee. (The abnormally high voter turnout in Mollick/Phillips' district, East 2, supports this conclusion.) They failed.
      At East 1, Supervisor Steve Quigley came in second behind Wini Hayes, a surprising result given Quigley's large base of support in and around the Milestone development. Why did he run for this seat? Previously, when he was first elected to Worcester's Board of Supervisors, he resigned his seat on the Republican Committee, declaring that he believed it inappropriate for a Supervisor also to serve on the Republican Committee. So much for that principle! This may or may not be a legitimate concern but, in any case, it is common for individuals to hold both positions, especially in small townships. Art Bustard, the current Chairman of Worcester's Board of Supervisors, serves on the Committee with no apparent conflicts.
      We believe the obvious answer to the Quigley question is that he sought this seat only in the hopes of joining Mollick and Phillips in taking over the Republican Committee. Serving on the Committee requires some work and it also requires supporting Republican candidates, especially those endorsed by the Committee – a requirement that is at considerable odds with Quigley's support for Democrats in the recent past. (We might be tempted to admire Quigley's willingness to take a more bipartisan approach if it weren't so obvious that his motivation was to undermine the Board of Supervisors and if the Democrats he supported actually had anything positive to contribute to our community.
      In East 2, the one-vote victory by newcomer Jay McKeever over Jim Phillips should be applauded by anyone who cares about our community. McKeever, a long-time Worcester resident with an impressive corporate-oriented resumé, deserves tremendous credit for undertaking and prevailing in a very hard campaign. We wish that Rick Weed, another long-time Worcester resident active with our fire department, could have joined him on the Committee.
      The most stunning result of this election was Cathy Sobocinski's decisive loss to Jeannie Steigerwalt in West. Sobocinski was widely considered to be unbeatable because of the large network of supporters from her church. The problem with Sobocinski is that she has expressed absolutely no interest in Worcester, its residents, or its issues. She has been replaced by Ken Fichtner, another person who has no apparent interest in Worcester. He is reportedly a far-right member of Montgomery County Young Republicans. What this will mean for the Worcester Republican Committee remains to be seen.


May 13, 2014: School Board Member Joyce Petrauskas convicted on DUI charge in Florida

(See December 4, 2013, posting.) Former School Board president Joyce Petrauskas has had her day in court in Florida and on May 8 she was found guilty of a DUI charge in a jury trial. As we have noted previously, this incident is of importance not so much for the facts themselves, which are bad enough, but because Ms. Petrauskas apparently lied in public on more than one occasion – claiming that the charges were all part of an internet conspiracy against her. The School Board, which at least had the common sense not to re-elect Ms. Petrauskas as School Board President, should now demand her resignation as well.

January 31, 2014: "Old news" worth repeating

Faced with the prospect of an out-of-control Methacton School District budget and a planned $5.5M(!) loan to upgrade Methacton High School's athletic fields, it is worth repeating this "old news" from the July 21, 2013, Philadelphia Inquirer. (At that time, by the way, the field upgrade budget was "only" $4.5M!) In an article titled "Taxes soar, schools still struggle," this article points out that "Overall, school taxes in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have increased more than 40 percent in the last decade, in some cases two or three times the inflation rate." The table below shows increases for Montgomery County schools over the past decade, with rankings in rate of increase relative to the other three suburban counties. With its 39% increase since 2003-04, Methacton is already in the middle of the pack when it comes to tax increases. What do you think is going to happen when the debt and debt service comes due on the currently contemplated borrowing?!
      Hardly anybody denies that MHS' athletic fields are in need of upgrades. However, the School District's insistence on building two new synthetic turf fields with a lighting system that nobody but Musco's salesman believes is justified (see previous posts) has driven the project cost far beyond original estimates. Even worse, the School District's unconscionable refusal to work with Worcester Township on its land development plans (required – not optional) and its egregious handling of its Conditional Use application continues to saddle taxpayers with additional and easily avoidable expenses. Legal costs just for the Conditional Use hearings already amount to many tens of thousands of dollars with no end yet in sight. This is great news for the District's attorneys but, of course, terrible news for taxpayers and our district's students. These are YOUR tax dollars that are being wasted. It is YOUR children who suffer while this project is being delayed because YOUR School Board continues to act irresponsibly. The School Board will change direction only if YOU demand that they do so. What are you waiting for?!


January 27, 2014: MHS lights Conditional Use Hearing Drags On

The 5th edition of the contentious Conditional Use Hearing about lighting MHS athletic fields dragged on again on January 23. Almost all of the three-hour hearing was devoted to cross-examining Musco sales representative Bob Zoeller. Although he was accepted by Worcester Township Solicitor Jim Garrity as an "expert witness" in order to allow his testimony in the first place (over the objections of the neighbors' attorney), it is increasingly clear that Zoeller's testimony has had little to do with expert advice and everything to do with a salesman doing what you would expect a salesman to do – trying to sell an expensive system that cannot be justified on the basis of independent expert opinion and Worcester's lighting ordinance. As noted in previous posts, the School District's request for 50/30-footcandle lighting on both fields (the football stadium and the new auxiliary field) has been dismissed as excessive in three independent reviews. The School District itself has never claimed any expertise in lighting requirements and is, instead, going along with the "recommendation" from Zoeller that appears to have no foundation in reality and which, more importantly, does not take into account Worcester's lighting ordinance provision that calls for the minimum lighting levels required for safe play.
      The School District's apparently indefensible position on field lighting levels is now further aggravated by a subpoena from the neighbors' attorney ordering Zoeller to appear at the next CU hearing with all the data used in the preparation of proposed lighting plans submitted as part of the SD's CU application. Because Zoeller is not a registered professional engineer and does not even have an "LC" (lighting certified) certificate, he cannot speak directly to the data and methods used to prepare the system plans. The plans, from Musco, did not carry a professional engineer's seal. As a result, it is not possible to independently verify those plans.
      According to Jim Garrity, Worcester is required to issue the subpoena, regardless of how the supervisors feel about its motivations, usefulness, or wisdom. The problem from the SD's perspective is that Musco apparently consistently refuses to release information about their systems that is routinely provided by other sports lighting manufacturers. Hence, when the SD's attorney protested at the end of the hearing that Zoeller "can't" provide the requested information, we believe that what he actually meant is that Musco, through Zoeller, won't release that information as a matter of policy.
      What next? Is this one project worth the time that Musco's sales representative has spent on it? (Zoeller claimed to have worked on the design of 80 fields during 2013.) Will Zoeller's entire testimony be stricken from the CU record because the subpoened data won't be provided? Will the SD be able to get a judge to stop the subpoena? Will Musco simply decide to back out of this project in order to protect what it believes (in contrast to the rest of the sports lighting industry) is proprietary information? Stay tuned...!
      The "sports crowd" has already jumped back on their favorite "blame Worcester" bandwagon over this latest turn of events. As usual, this attitude has little to do with the facts. Our guess is that, given a real choice, Worcester's supervisors would not issue the subpoena. They, like everyone else, want to move forward with this matter. We will say it one more time: The delays in the Conditional Use Hearing process are caused by, and ONLY by, the School District's refusal to negotiate with Worcester residents as asked by Worcester Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Bustard. By refusing to do this, the School District has delayed this portion of the fields upgrade project by many months and, in the process, is wasting YOUR tax dollars on attorneys' fees that simply cannot be justified.
      We suggest that, intead of continuing to buy into the entirely spurious "blame Worcester" game, Lower Providence AND Worcester residents should let their School Board know in no uncertain terms that they need to do their job. They need to sit down with neighbors, go through the Quinn/Harris Document, listen to unbiased experts about an appropriate lighting system, and come to the Worcester Board of Supervisors with a mutually acceptable plan. The terms of such a plan are already in place and, if implemented, could end the Conditional Use fiasco in a matter of minutes rather than many more months. WHY DO THEY REFUSE TO DO THAT??


December 4, 2013: The "Petrauskas Incident"

Up to now, we have avoided comment on this very unseemly incident. For those of you living in a cave somewhere off the grid, last February police in Pinellas County, Florida, stopped Joyce Petrauskas (Methacton School Board President at the time, lower left in the photo below) for driving erratically. She was subsequently found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.14, well over the Florida limit of 0.08. Locally, nobody was aware of this incident until October, when based on information from we know not where, Ms. Petrauskas was challenged at a School Board meeting by a member of the audience.
      That challenge led to Ms. Petrauskas at first denying the charges and subsequently giving various versions of what had happened, centering around claims that she is the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. However, this appears to be delusional, an outright lie, or a truly impressive conspiracy involving the entire Pinellas County legal system. Others – not us – have dug up the court records. Here is the link to the Pinellas County court docket. Logon as a Guest.
      Yes, we understand how the U.S. innocent-until-proven-guilty system works, but the blood alcohol level result just by itself is either part of the giant conspiracy or sufficient cause for concern. Ms. Petrauskas has requested a jury trial. For all we know, this is standard practice by attorneys specializing in DUI defense. We understand that people make mistakes and sometimes, perhaps uncharacteristically, perhaps not, behave in ways they should not. For all we know, Ms. Petrauskas will be acquitted. But, the first rule of crisis management is to get out in front of the issue by telling the truth, followed by apologizing as appropriate and taking remedial action. Ms. Petrauskas seems oblivious to these rules. As a community, we cannot afford to give a pass to people in positions of responsibility who decline to take responsibility for their own actions.
      It is not so much the nature of the incident itself (which, if it did happen, is bad enough), but Ms. Petrauskas' handling of the incident that we find immensely sad and disturbing. C. S. Lewis is credited with having said that "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching." It appears that Ms. Petrauskas has failed this test! The School Board has at least removed Ms. Petrauskas as its President at its organization meeting yesterday, but when alcohol and other substance abuse is an issue for every high school in our country, and when personal integrity is a message that every responsible adult wishes to convey to our children, we believe it is inappropriate for Ms. Petrauskas to continue to serve on our School Board in any capacity.
      If Ms. Petrauskas wishes to challenge this conclusion, we invite her to do so. If we are wrong, we will not hesitate to admit it. But absent a plausible exculpatory explanation,
Joyce Petrauskas should resign from the Methacton School Board, effective immediately!





November 30, 2013: Bad Zoning Hearing Board Decision on a Baseball Scoreboard at Methacton High School


      Worcester's new sign ordinance continues our township's prohibition against internally illuminated signs of any kind. Recently, Methacton School District submitted a request for a variance to allow construction of a 36' x 10' scoreboard (yes, really!) on its new baseball field. Yes, a baseball field needs a scoreboard and it might be true that scoreboards without illuminated LED or LCD numerals are no longer available, so this seems like a reasonable request. However, the township should not want to put itself in the position of granting this request as a variance because of the unintended consequences of granting such a request – more people asking for variances to get internally illuminated signs!
      A prposed solution was to define a scoreboard (used for no other purpose than recording scores during games) as NOT a sign, in which case there is no reason to grant a variance. However, the size of the scoreboard requested, 360 square feet, is outrageous. As residents pointed out at the hearing, such a sign is appropriate for a large college baseball stadium, but not for a field with limited spectator facilities such as the one at Methacton High School. Here is a link to a website that shows three versions of baseball scoreboards. Note that the images on this page are all about the same size, but the actual sign sizes are dramatically different. The third example, 20' x 6' would be perfectly adequate for the field at MHS.
      This is just another in an ongoing series of poke-in-the-eye requests by the Methacton School District that ignore both the letter and spirit of our township ordinances – one more in a series of actions that put the lie to the District's and School Board's often-repeated claim that it wants to be a "good neighbor" to the residents of our township. It is also a prime example of why our Supervisors should be more willing to send our township solicitor to ZHB meetings to oppose variance requests, in order to improve the chances of consistent application of the rules for granting variances. Those rules, including meaningful definition of a "hardship" as required by our zoning code, are meant to protect our quality of life, but they are of no value if they are not actually applied by the ZHB.
      Unfortunately, on November 26, our ZHB approved the variance request, once again ignoring the need for an applicant to demonstrate an actual "hardship" and giving the School District everything they asked for, including the 36' x 10' scoreboard! The sign has to face away from Germantown Pike, will be shielded by landscaping, can be used only during games, and will not have any illumination other than the numerals themselves. It is unclear whether advertizing by the donor of the sign will be allowed.
      Regardless of the very minimal conditions imposed by the ZHB, This is definitely a THUMBS DOWN decision. The decision itself is bad enough, but the real problem is not with this one scoreboard, but with additional requests for more scoreboards on MHS property (which are sure to come) and the potential for requests from commercial interests to erect similarly over-sized internally illuminated signage in our township.
      The character of our township – our home – is most often degraded or enhanced not by the "big moments," but by decisions which may seem relatively inconsequential on their own. Often, these decisions are made by our Zoning Hearing Board. For each individual decision, not a big deal, you say? Not true! As this decision should demonstrate, there are no inconsequential decisions. These decisions will affect all of us – every resident – forever. They accumulate over time and end up permanently on one side or the other of the quality-of-life ledger for Worcester, either building on our community's legacy or chipping away at it.

November 6, 2013, Election Results

Yes, there really was an election yesterday. We haven't had much to say about it because there hasn't been much worth saying. The unofficial results from the Montco voter services website are depressingly predictable.
Worcester Supervisor
Stephen Quigley 994
Kevin Dunbar 441
Methacton School Director
Brenda Hackett4706
Jim Phillips2922
Herb Rothe III4418
S. Christian Nascimento2830
Yong Cho2372
Brian Earnshaw2629

      Who is Kevin Dunbar?? A Democratic Committeeman who hardly anybody has ever heard of and who, as far as we can tell, neither knows anything about nor cares anything about Worcester. He was clearly nothing more than a placeholder in this election, despite the fact that, to put it charitably, Stephen Quigley's lackluster performance as a Supervisor should have provided plenty of reasons to replace him. Apparently, Democrats and Republicans have the same problems trying to recruit good candidates for this thankless job. There was NO visible campaigning for this spot, but the fact that Quigley's vote total was more than twice Dunbar's should be pretty depressing news for straight-party Democrats in Worcester.
      As for the School Board elections, Brenda Hackett is the only new face. The endorsed Republican candidates were the top four vote-getters, although it is interesting to note that the top two vote totals, for Hackett and Rothe, were significantly higher than the totals for Phillips and Nascimento. Apparently the Democratic challengers, Cho and Earnshaw, made substantial inroads into those votes, indicating justified if (unfortunately) insufficient displeasure with Phillips and Nascimento; Phillips' performance has been particularly egregious, if for no other reason than the fact that he appears to be the primary School Board architect of the ongoing Conditional Use Hearing fiasco (see previous posts). Brian Earnshaw came within about 300 and 200 votes of unseating Phillips or Nascimento.


October 28, 2013: Third Night of Conditional Use Hearing: Where Are the Adults?

      The evolving conditional use hearing for lights at Methacton High School completed its third night of testimony. The three hours were taken up almost entirely with trivia about the need for upgraded fields and details, pole by pole, of where the School District/Architerra/Musco team would put lights around the two fields. The only useful testimony from Architerra's David Horn made clear that the Architerra/Musco relationship has precluded input from any other potential vendor for the lighting project (which everybody who has been paying attention already knew) and that the latest price tag on the lighting system for two fields is $705,000. Of that sum, $185,000 is being "blamed" on Worcester for their limiting of the height of poles (requiring more poles, in Musco's view), and requiring that the housings of light fixtures mounted below the top row be coated with a flat black coating to minimize reflected glare from lights on the rows above. Whether either of these amounts is accurate we do not know, but in any case they are not directly relevant to the conditional use hearing except for determining whether or not the School District has sought the least intrusive lighting system, consistent with the provisions of Worcester's lighting ordinance. (It has not.)
      After nearly 9 hours of hearings, only two School District witnesses have been heard! Our response to this ongoing slow-motion train wreck is to ask, "Where are the adults?" Certainly not on the School District side, which is continuing down the road of trying to get a lighting system which, as we have noted previously, has already been deemed inappropriate for Methacton High School by three independent reviews of the School District's conditional use application. (And this is even before testimony from lighting experts representing the neighbors' interests at these hearings.) The School District's position on this matter (or what we believe will be their continuing position when the Musco representative testifies) seems to us to be indefensible.
      On the other side, the cross-examination of witnesses by Mr. Jonas, representing neighbors, has been painfully slow and most often obscure, toward what end we do not know. But, it is important to remember that MHS neighbors, whose property values and quality of life are at stake, have repeatedly stated their willingness to agree to use restrictions as defined in the November 2012 version of the "Quinn/Harris document." The School District refuses to accept or even seriously consider this offer, despite Board of Supervisor Art Bustard's insistence that they should negotiate a settlement.
      The bottom line is that without a change in tactics by the School District, these hearings will continue for months, well into 2014. This delays the field upgrade project – all of the badly needed improvements, not just the lights. In the meantime projects costs will rise (because they always do) and Methacton School District and Worcester taxpayers will be billed for thousands of dollars per month in unnecessary legal fees.
      This should NOT be happening and we ask again, "Where are the adults in the room and when will they stand up and do their job?" Once they do stand up, these hearings will be over in minutes rather than months.


October 10, 2013: Second Night of Conditional Use Hearing on Lights at Methacton High School

      The second night started with Marc Jonas' cross-examination of Dr. Miller, now Methacton's former Acting Superintendent. This exchange revealted Dr. Miller as unengaged with and almost totally uninformed about the Conditional Use Application which is the subject of these hearings. He did not sign it (it was submitted by the School Board) and clearly he has not even read it. It is safe to conclude that this topic was not even on Miller's radar and the current situation has been driven entirely by the School Board and its attorneys. The only item of interest was Mr. Jonas' repeated attempts to solicit comments from Dr. Miller about how lighted fields would be used and by whom, and Mr. Bartle's repeated objections to this line of questioning. For the most part, Jim Garrity let Jonas ask the questions even though Miller had no answers. At one point Bartle tried again to narrow the scope of the hearing to lighting levels and not field use restrictions, but Garrity responded that this narrow view of the hearings was just his opinion, not shared by everyone. This is a critical point, as the Conditional Use Permit must include not just a definition of the lighting system, but also reasonable restrictions on how the lighted fields are used. This is a discussion the School District does not wish to have, but it seems apparent that it will be had over their objections.
      Next on the agenda was testimony by David Horn, Architerra's President. His credentials were challenged by Jonas, based on the distinction between an "architect" and a "landscape architect." It seemed that both Horn and Bartle were caught off guard by this challenge, but in the end Garrity allowed him to testify, as probably he should. Horn spent a lot of time explaining the obvious – that MHS fields are badly in need of upgrades and that the School District is planning to light two new turf fields. The nature of that lighting system was discussed only in passing.
      There was much to object to in Horn's testimony, and it is clear that these objections will be raised during Jonas' cross-examination. The next hearing is scheduled for 7:00, October 28. We assume the School District's next witness will be the salesperson from Musco Lighting, which prepared the proposed field lighting plans.
      We understand that these hearings (this one lasted three hours) can be long and tedious. But, the stakes for Worcester residents are very high, and will impact out community for decades into the future. We urge you not to lose interest. Public attendance is important even if public input (other than by designated parties) is not part of these proceedings.


September 27, 2013: First Night of Conditional Use Hearing on Lights at Methacton High School

   Our last comments on the lighting issue were in the spring of 2013. Between then and now, after Worcester's new Lighting Ordinance was passed, Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Bustard made it clear that he expected the the School District to reach a consensus with neighbors concerning use restriction and field illumination levels for one or two lighted fields at Methacton High School. In his opening remarks at the CU hearing, Bustard referred to this as the parties' "homework assignment." However, this did not happen because the School Board was admonished in April by attorney Eric Frey to hold no further discussions with neighbors, thereby setting the stage for a contentious Conditional Use hearing for which the SD has refused to do its homework.
    Instead, the School District submitted its CU application in June, at which time it asked for 50-footcandle field lighting and the right to hold lighted events 6 nights per week, year round. Although the 6 nights provision is in the ordinance, Chairman Bustard has made it clear that this was supposed to be a negotiable number. The ordinance contains no provisions limiting field illumination levels, leaving that critical matter to the CU hearing.
    The SD and a group of neighbors were represented by Frank Bartle and Marc Jonas, respectively. (Until recently, Eric Frey, also a partner at Bartle's firm, has been handling the SD's case, so one has to assume that Mr. Bartle believes Frey isn't now up to the task of representing the SD's position.) As expected, the attendance was large, including several students with their parents, responding to admonitions from the SD and its coaches that this meeting was critical to their chances to get lighted athletic fields. This was, to say the least, a misleading message for students. The SD will get lighted fields under restrictions to be included in the required Conditional Use Permit. As Worcester's solicitor Jim Garrity put it in his opening statement, "that [field lighting] ship has sailed."
    A CU hearing is a judicial process, with parties and testimony. What did happen on the 25th was first of all a lengthy procedure to determine who would get "standing." Standing is reserved for parties who are actually impacted by the proposed conditional use. This is fundamentally a matter of how far one's property is from MHS property boundaries. Everyone who asked for standing and who lived within 1000' of a MHS property boundary was granted standing. Mr. Bartle wished this limit to be set at 500', but was overruled by Mr. Garrity. Individuals with standing have a right to testify, to cross-examine witnesses, and to be represented by an attorney if they so choose.
    The sports crowd has maintained that it is only a handful of misguided neighbors who object to field lighting with no restrictions, but the meeting on the 25th should have put that argument to rest. Of the 20 or so people who were given standing (by attending the meeting and asking for standing) at least 18 of those were in the group of people who want only that their Supervisors do what Chairman Bustard has promised they would do: minimize the negative impact of lighted fields on residents' property values and quality of life. As far as anyone can tell, NOBODY from this group is opposing the field upgrade project, including lighted fields. It may well be that there will be objections to actually spending money for this project from many residents of Methacton School District, but that is a completely different matter, over which the Township has no control.
    Following the granting of standing, Bartle attempted to suppress a memo from Matt Schelly, from the Montgomery County Planning Commission, to the Township rendering an opinion on the SD's CU application. Bartle's tactic was to claim that Mr. Schelly was Marc Jonas' "subordinate" because Jonas is Chairman of the MCPC Advisory Board and also that Schelly was unqualified to render an opinion on a proposed lighting system because he was not a qualified lighting professional. Bartle's objection was overruled. The real reason for the objection was – no surprise – that Mr. Schelly's memo disagreed with the SD's request for 50-footcandle lighting on the athletic fields. The Township also entered into evidence a memo from the independent lighting consultant it hired, as required by the ordinance, in which she reached the same conclusion about the inappropriateness of the SD's proposed lighting system.
    Then, Bartle tried to claim that Supervisor Caughlan should recuse herself from any CU decision because of her alleged activities working against the field lighting project. Bartle even requested that Caughlan and her husband be subpeonaed to testify about these alleged activities. Mr. Jonas noted the chilling effect such a tactic would have on everyone's free speech rights were it to be successful. Apparently there is ample case law in Pennsylvania denying the application of such arguments to elected officials and their spouses. Caughlan gave a spirited defense of her position, noting that she has supported every BoS decision which led to the passage of the new Lighting Ordinance. Garrity denied Bartle's request.
    The evening concluded with testimony from Acting Superintendent Miller, in which in response to Bartle's prompting, he of course said that in every instance, the SD's CU application would meet every provision of the lighting ordinance and also of Worcester's Conditional Use code. Mr. Jonas objected on several occasions when Miller was asked to respond to more technical issues raised in the CU application. The situation with Miller is awkward because the SD has hired a new superintendent who has not yet started in that position. It is hard to see how any representations made by Miller about what he and/or the SD are or are not going to do can have any value because he will not be here to carry through on those representations. The meeting was adjourned before Mr. Jonas' cross-examination of Miller. Stay tuned for that...

    We believe that the School Board deserves failing marks for how they have handled this entire matter. They have been given ample opportunities to be the "good neighbors" they claim to be, but they have chosen not to take advantage of those opportunities.

    Every Methacton School District resident, regardless of his or her opinion about lighted athletic fields, should be appalled by School Board/School District actions. Not one School Board member has spoken out against these actions or suggested a different approach. As voters, we can do something about it. Elections for four seats on the School Board will be held this November.
    The next CU meeting is scheduled for 7:00, October 10.


July 21: Philadelphia Inquirer Article About Rising Property Taxes

On the heels of the cost escalation for the Methacton HS field project (see below), we note the article in the Sunday Inquirer which discusses rising property taxes in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. The numbers in the left-hand column rank property tax increases for the four-county area. At number 19 in the ranking for increases in property taxes over the past decade, Methacton is just in the top third of this group of 60 districts. Would this be less a matter of concern if those increased taxes were going toward the improvement of Methacton's academic performance rather than for $4.5M in athletic field improvements? That is for taxpayers to say!


July 21, 2013: Cost of Methacton HS Fields Upgrade Project Escalates

At the July 16, 2013 Board of School Directors Meeting, there was a presentation on the status of the athletic fields upgrade project. The "Concept K" version of this project includes a new synthetic turf field and replacing the existing the natural grass football field with synthetic turf, plus lights for the stadium and the new field. (Yes, the concepts really did start with "A" many moons ago!) As of March 2011, this project was budgeted at roughly $3.0-3.5 million dolllars.

Currently, the project cost has escalated to a MINIMUM of $4.543,434 (why people give estimated costs for million-dollar projects to the nearest dollar escapes us!). Add another $332,000 for an alternate second restroom facility. Some of the cost escalation is due to the need to fix storm water runoff issues. Although the School Board's typical reaction is to blame Worcester for forcing them to fix any problem with facilities, the fact remains that the water runoff problems have existed for many years and nobody has forced the School District to deal with them. At this point, considering newer and more stringent regulations from Pennsylvania's DEP and others, Worcester probably couldn't overlook these problems even if they wanted to. And, why would they want to? Improperly handled storm water causes problems on our roads (especially freezing in the winter, which is obviously dangerous), and it floods and erodes abutting residential properties. There is no reason why Worcester residents should have to put up with either of these problems.

The presentation also notes that the School District has filed its Conditional Use Application with Worcester Township -- required in order to install field lights. In complete disregard for previous "good neighbor" meetings (which we believe former Superintendent Quinn really did take seriously) and literally months of work to reach a consensus about how lighted fields should be used at Meethacton HS, the School District's application asks for virtually unrestricted nighttime use of both proposed fields along with a lighting system that is brighter than can be justified by any rational interpretation of industry standards. Shame on them!

Worcester residents need to be involved in the Conditional Use hearing process when it is scheduled in the next few months. You have a stake in the outcome -- on both financial and quality-of-life grounds -- regardless of where you live relative to the high school! Like nearly everyone else in Methacton School District, we agree that our high school's athletic facilities are badly in need of work. But, we also understand that the legitimate concerns of Worcester residents cannot be ignored. It is up to YOU to make sure that doesn't happen!


June 22: Response to June 21 posting

We have received a response to our recent posting, which is copied below in its entirety, unedited. We have included identifying information as it seems clear that was the writer's intent. Having read Mr. Allebach's blogs, we doubt that we share much in common about this issue. But, we nonetheless very much appreciate the tone and content of his e-mail, which is worth our readers' attention.
      We would like to point out that, aside from the very real and very serious financial considerations for a project that was originally budgeted at $3.5 million, not $5M, the "chaos" about the athletic facilities upgrade project to which Mr. Allebach refers (we have no reason to dispute his characterization) is due fundamentally to the ongoing strategy of your School Board to demonize and blame Worcester Township and its residents for all problems relating to this project, its hiring of an attorney (Eric Frey) whose goal appears to be to convince the School Board that ligitation over lighted fields (as though our School District needs to spend even more money on lawyers!) is inevitable, and the refusal of the School Board to respond to Worcester Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Bustard's clear message that he expects the School Board to negotiate a conditional use agreement for lighted athletic fields in good faith with residents of our community. (See the April 28 posting, below.) Regardless of your position on athletic facilities at MHS, everyone needs to understand this fact: By refusing to alter its approach to the matter of upgrading athletic facilities at MHS, including one or more lighted fields, by working collaboratively with Worcester Township and its residents, it is YOUR School Board and not Worcester Township and its residents that is wasting time and taxpayer dollars.

Good evening, I was reading the recent update on the site and I just wanted to point out two things about the post:

- MSD is pretty far away from "getting ready to spend millions of dollars upgrading the athletic facilities at MHS". At the Work Session this Tuesday, the Board itself didn't even know where to stand on the turf project. I did a post on my site about the chaos of the plans MSD has for the turf field. Another thing to note; the "turf project presentation" will be on the July School Board meeting--it will help to get residents out then to voice their opinion on the project.

- The tax increase, as of now, is slated at 1.85%, well under the original 2.95%. And since the SB declined to take out new money for the turf project (presumed to total to $5,000,000), the budget doesn't factor the project at all. The budget is due as of the next meeting, June 25th (actually, it's due before July 1st), so this appears to be the final tax increase.

Thank you for your time.
--Kyle Allebach
http://www.slashrage.com
http://about.me/kyleallebach

June 21, 2013: Time for a serious discussion about interscholastic sports in Methacton School District?

The purpose of this post is simply to start a discussion about the role of interscholastic sports in our community. We invite you to think about the questions we have posed and provide your input. We believe this is an essential discussion for our community, but a discussion which will NEVER be undertaken by our elected School Board unless it is pressured to do so. As always, it is up to citizens to speak out and demand a voice in the future of our community and, more directly, on how our tax dollars are spent.

Some facts:

Some questions:

June 3, 2013. Feedback from author of email shown in May 24, 2013 posting

The author of the May 24 email suggests that the 3rd paragraph be modified:
      "The administration also objected to 20% of its busing cost going to busing of non-public students. It is noted that while they were silent on the percent of resident students attending non-public schools, that percentage is 15%. Their parents pay school taxes and tuitions. Wouldn't their busing cost be 15 percent if they were Methacton students? So it's 1/3 more costly; big deal! Also note that busing is a pedestrian safety issue." We do not understand the argument that the cost to transport x% of Methacton students to non-public schools outside the district translates to an additional x% in costs. We believe it makes more sense to consider out-of-district busing as an "extra" expense because that x% of students would not need the same extra number of buses to transport them to public schools within the district. That is, the 20% extra cost required to transport 15% of students to non-public schools would largely be eliminated unless one assumes that are essentially no empty seats on the buses being used to transport students to public schools.

May 24, 2013. Comments on Methacton School budget

We present this e-mail from a reader unedited and in its entirety. We have inserted a few comments, in red font.
-----------------------------
Unsustainable

Finally, the Methacton administration presented a detailed budget on May 14. Some on the Board were noticeably pensive that it raises taxes by 2.09% (with a possible small cut before final adoption on June 25). Some ideas were presented for lower increases. I claim 2.95% [sic] is NOT “fiscally responsible to the taxpayers”. On the other hand, only three taxpayers attended the meeting. The first number, 2.09%, is the proposed increase. It takes advantage of some exceptions that allow an increase in excess of the 1.7% allowed under Pennsylvania's Act 1. Details about the budget can be found on the District's website.

It was stated pension costs (a rising percent of salary) are exploding and are unsustainable. I agree, but that’s out of school board control. Methacton School District, and many other districts, have been kicking this can down the road in the hopes that the folks in Harrisburg would fix the pension problem. They haven't, and the can has now been kicked into what is essentially a dead end from which there is no painless exit for taxpayers.

The administration also objected to 20% of the busing cost, just to bus non-public students. Wouldn’t it cost the same if they were Methacton students?
This comment refers to the fact that public school systems are required to transport students to private/parochial schools within a specified distance. This requirement means more buses (possibly nowhere near filled?) are needed for out-of-district trips that are longer than in-district trips and that would not otherwise be necessary, so it does not seem logical to suggest the costs would be the same if these students were going to Methacton's schools. This is, in fact, a classic example of an "unfunded mandate" tossed into the laps of taxpayers.

What can our Board control? One answer is the number of teachers. While other districts with rising taxes have rising enrollments, our enrollment is falling.

This fall enrollment will be about 5000 students. That’s an 8% decline from the peak of 5454, in 2006, and on the way to 4500 by 2020. Yet the budget calls for a drop of only 10 teachers (6 this fall), or 2%, to 423 from 433 in 2006. A detailed study, presuming perfect scheduling, calls for 20 fewer teachers, just in the high school. Despite any program changes and better efficiency, it seems ignored by the administration. Now, it is up to the Board to be fiscally responsible. Nevertheless, one Director, Mr. Rothe, wants to keep his daughter’s class size at 21; seemly irrespective of the local, miserable economy. (Interestingly, the only times in this century that required enrollment projections were publicly presented by Methacton were to 'sell' Skyview and Woodland expansions. The 2013 and 2020 projections shown above are independently developed and use accurate methodology).

Classrooms and buildings are also under local control. There will be 1460 empty seats this fall; that is 23% of available seats. With even lower ‘vacancy’ rates, other school districts (Chicago and Philadelphia, both under Democratic control) will be closing schools to save money.

Dr. Miller, as Superintendent in 2004, claimed we needed 6300 seats this year. Now as the Acting Superintendent he was silent on this issue, of course.
Following the departure of Timothy Quinn several weeks ago, Dr. Miller was appointed as Acting Superintendent. The active search now apparently underway for a permanent Superintendent indicates that the School Board (and perhaps Dr. Miller himself) wants Dr. Miller's tenure as Acting Superintendent to be short. The author of this e-mail is correct in his criticism of the deeply flawed student population projections that were made several years ago under Dr. Miller's watch. We, and others, pointed out at the time that those projections were mathematically flawed and would have produced erroneous results even if student populations really did increase – which, as this reader points out, they never did.

It is the current Board’s responsibility to realize that empty seats are unsustainable and divert resources. We do not need to use the Skyview building. A return to five K-to-5 schools would be better now, educationally and fiscally.

The budget affects taxes. After 30+ years of tax increase and enrollment in decline, Methacton taxes should be cut, not raised, IF this Board is fiscally responsible.

Directors need to see and hear protesting taxpayers at the June 18 and 25 meetings. 7PM, be there! We echo this sentiment and remind our readers once again that, in a democracy, we get the government we deserve. Deserving a better government entails being engaged in the process of government, as boring and time-consuming as that can sometimes be.


Results for May 21 primary

As expected, there was a very low turnout for this primary election. School Board Director is considered to be a nonpartisan position so candidates can and do cross-file with both parties. Here are the as yet unofficial results from the Montgomery County website.
Democrat Yong Cho's very strong showing in the Democratic primary suggests that the November election is not necessarily a foregone conclusion for the Republican candidates.
      In the unopposed primaries for Worcester Supervisor, the only point of interest was the vote totals – 131 votes for Democrat Kevin Dunbar and 403 for Republican Steve Quigley. Quigley received fewer votes than did Patricia Gramm for the obscure position of tax collector (418) (a position she has held unopposed for years) and only a few more than the votes cast for the even more obscure office of Worcester Auditor (Michael Herman, 393 votes). These results point not just to the general lack of enthusiasm for primary elections but, we believe, the sorry state of local politics in both parties. As noted previously, we are and remain appalled by the choices presented in this primary election.


May 18, 2013. Primary Election on May 21

      Of interest specifically to Worcester residents is the primary election for a seat on Worcester's Board of Supervisors. Unfortunately, regardless of your party, you are faced with poor unopposed choices – Kevin Dunbar on the Democratic ballot and current Supervisor Steve Quigley on the Republican ballot. Kevin Dunbar has never expressed the slightest interest in our community and we must view this as simply at "place holder" because Democrats have no real candidate to offer. Steve Quigley's performance during the past nearly 6 years has been very poor. As far as we have been able to determine, he has made not one constructive contribution to our community, and we fail to understand how he has managed to retain whatever popularity and support he has. Our position: We urge you not to vote for either candidate, in the hopes that a lack of support will somehow have an impact on these two individuals. For those of us who care about the future of our community, this is a VERY discouraging time!


April 28: Methacton School Board signals an end to its "good neighbor" policy on athletic field lighting. (Did it ever really exist??)

      At its April 2nd meeting, Worcester's Board of Supervisors passed its new lighting ordinance. The ordinance specifically requires that the School District must present their plans for lighted athletic fields at Methacton High School and their proposed uses at a conditional use hearing. Following the vote of the Board, Chairman Art Bustard made it clear that he expected the School District and Worcester residents living close to the high school to reach an agreement that was satisfactory to all parties BEFORE the conditional use hearing. This is in line with Bustard's oft-repeated promise to protect the property rights and quality of life of Worcester residents and to avoid unnecessary delays in completing the process.
      This seems like an entirely reasonable request, especially considering that a comprehensive set of use conditions has already been negotiated between a representative of neighbors (John Harris) and former Superintendent Timothy Quinn. This document, on the School District's website, strikes a balance which meets the needs of Methacton athletics and minimizes the intrusions on neighbors. Both sides offered compromises that indicate a genuine desire to work together to reach a consensus.
      How has our "good neighbor" School Board responded? They never responded to what has become known as the Quinn/Harris document. Instead, they hired an attorney, Eric Frey. He was the School District's spokesperson at the ordinance hearings and he is now responsible for the District's presentation at a conditional use hearing. At the April 23rd School Board Meeting (see this link for the video), Frey's and presumably the School District's position became abundantly clear. Rather than reaching out to the community, as Art Bustard has requested, Frey continues to misrepresent the neighbors group as an enemy of lighted athletic fields. In the process, he has misled the School Board in numerous ways, made some significant factual errors, and appears determined to involve the School District in litigation which could easily be avoided.
      The most egregious misrepresentation is that a small group of neighbors has threatened to block construction of a lighted athletic field no matter what happens at the conditional use hearing and that the issue will end up in the courts. The public record indicates otherwise. The neighbors' position, in evidence at several public meetings, has been to reach out to the School District in an attempt to expedite the process by eliminating the most serious points of contention about lighting levels and conditions of use. These are the actions of a group seeking to avoid litigation, not promote it!
      As for the facts, Frey continues to insist that an athletic field lit to a level of 50 footcandles (not "lumens," which is the term Frey used incorrectly several times) is required for the "safety" of players. Since Frey obviously has no expertise of his own on this subject, it is clear that he has been "fed" this position by the School District's "expert," a representative of Musco Lighting. However, Musco Lighting is a potential vendor for this system and their representative should not be the sole source of input to the School District about field lighting levels. Architerra, the firm hired by the School District to oversee the entire field upgrade project, has in the past dealt exclusively with Musco as a supplier for field lighting systems, which (as noted in the April 12 posting) places them in the position of acting as a "manufacturer's rep" rather than a source of unbiased advice to a client.
      In fact, at the ordinance hearing, testimony from an independent lighting expert and documentation provided by the attorney representing residents living around the high school demonstrated that there is ABSOLUTELY NO justification for a 50-footcandle field at Methacton High School. This matters because a 50-footcandle field will cost much more to install than a perfectly adequate 30-footcandle field. It will be more expensive to operate and maintain, and it will significantly increase light pollution from the system. An overlit field can also cause problems for players because of excessive glare. Stating over and over again that a 50-footcandle system is required for our students strikes us as a classic example of hoping that a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as the truth.
      More than once, Mr. Frey erroneously referred to the conditional use hearing taking place in front of Worcester's Zoning Hearing Board. For example (times are minutes and seconds from the beginning of the recording of the meeting),

According to Mr. Frey, the conditional use hearing is a zoning matter and "Zoning law is litigation." (15:14) In response to a question from Jim Phillips as to whether pro-lights groups can make a presentation at a conditional use hearing, Mr. Frey responded that "Most Zoning Hearing Boards would let that happen." (19:10)

Conditional use hearings have nothing to do with the interpretation of zoning ordinances, which is the responsibility of a Zoning Hearing Board! Conditional use requests are heard by Worcester's Board of Supervisors. All affected parties will have a chance to be heard. One has to ask – why would the School Board employ the services of someone so uninformed about the conditional use process?
      Mr. Frey also misrepresented (or poorly represented, to put the kindest possible interpretation on what he said) the decision made in Commonwealth Court which overturned the Common Pleas Court upholding of the approval of a variance allowing lighted athletic fields by Worcester's Zoning Hearing Board 20 years ago. At that time, the School District sought a variance to allow installation of lighted fields (with light poles taller than 12 feet) based on the assertion that without the variance they were being denied the reasonable use of their facilities. Approval of a variance requires that the applicant show a "hardship," a term which has a very specific legal definition. While local zoning boards are often lax about applying this definition, the courts actually have to follow the law and therefore they tend to be more rigorous in their interpretation of what constitutes a hardship. According to Mr. Frey, the Commonwealth Court ruling somehow prevented reasonable use of Methacton High School athletic facilities. Here is what the Commonwealth Court actually said:

      "The record reveals that... there is no threat to Methacton's football or band programs if these activities are conducted in the daylight hours. We see no hardship... We have not refrained from upholding the denial of variances in many instances, no matter how wholesome and salutary the purposes for them. Our Supreme Court has clearly and consistently stated 'the high standards of proof necessary to obtain a variance'... [T]he testimony... does not indicate that, without the variance, Methacton would suffer hardship or otherwise be denied the reasonable use of its facilities. Accordingly, we are constrained to reverse the common pleas court's order."

      That ruling is, of course, why the School District never again tried to obtain a zoning variance for athletic field lighting and it explains why the matter has now been dealt with through a change in Worcester's lighting ordinance. It is worth noting that even those Worcester residents who will be most affected by lighted fields and nighttime activities at Methacton High School have joined with others in our community to recognize the "wholesome and salutary" aspects of nighttime athletic events as a legitimate part of the educational mission of a public school system. But, this acceptance does not mean that the legitimate concerns of residents can or should be ignored or that the nighttime use of these facilities by community groups does not need to be constrained.
      Frey has also discouraged School Board members from talking about field-related matters because he has put himself in "litigation mode" and is apparently trying to get School Board members to buy in to this mindset. But, since when does a "good neighbor" policy prevent residents and taxpayers from discussing matters of concern with their elected officials? At this meeting Jim Phillips wanted to know how he could find out who these residents are. One wonders why... Given Mr. Phillips' record, we doubt that his intent is to engage his constituents in a civil and neighborly conversation. We believe it is much more likely that he wants to intimidate them, following the lead of the overwhelmingly and depressingly nasty comments posted online by the "lights crowd," for example, this oh-so-charming post on the "Methacton High School Lights" facebook page, "One way to get some traction here may be for the kids themselves to start protesting at the homes of those who are stopping this. These are neighbors to the school gumming up the works. They knew there was a school there when they moved in - tough noogies." Or the reader commenting on a Times Herald article referring to OUR friends and neighbors as "disgusting small-minded scum."

      Finally, Mr. Frey spoke about having an "executive session" to talk about the School District's conditional use application. Executive sessions (with no public attendance and not subject to public review or comment) can be held to discuss ongoing or potential litigation, but not just to discuss options about use restrictions. Claiming the need for an "executive session" used to be common in Pennsylvania as a way for public officials to avoid public scrutiny of their actions. However, to do so is a blatant violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. Why is the School Board insisting on treating the process of resolving the lighting issue as something that will inevitably lead to litigation. Even if they really believe this is the case, it is not at all clear that an executive session to discuss potential use conditions is even legal in the absence of any actual litigation or evidence that there is going to be litigation. Aside from the legalities, why would the School Board treat this as an adversarial process rather than making an honest attempt to address legitimate concerns? We would expect (some) lawyers to insist on taking an adversarial position, but it is not what "good neighbors" do! The actual good neighbors in this drama have reached out to the School District. Dr. Quinn apparently thought it was worth his time to participate in extensive discussions. The School Board has ignored that process. We deserve better!

      Regardless of one's opinion about whether Methacton High School needs lighted athletic fields, the School District's recent actions raise serious concerns about its relationship with the residents of our community, including those who are most affected by activities at the high school, and our elected officials. Through Mr. Frey, as the School District's and School Board' spokesperson on this matter, the School Board is deliberately thumbing its nose at Art Bustard's request that the District reach consensus with neighbors prior to a conditional use hearing and he is actively promoting the notion that litigation is inevitable. Anyone who has followed this issue objectively understands that ligitation is NOT inevitable and that neighbors have worked hard over the last year to avoid that result, which serves nobody's interests. It may not be unreasonable for the School District to get legal advice for managing the conditional use process, but why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for poor and uninformed advice that will delay resolution of the field lighting matter and will waste taxpayer dollars that should be used more constructively?! It is not reasonable to use a lawyer to create problems that do not otherwise exist. Our township has 60 days after receiving a conditional use application to schedule a hearing. Suppose that the School District came to the township together with representatives from neighbors living around the high school with a set of conditions representing a consensus between the parties. This is what Art Bustard has requested and if that consensus were reached, there would be no reason to take 60 days to schedule a hearing. The process would be quick – problem solved! Are there no adults on the School Board or in the School District administration who see the problems with their confrontational stance and who do not recognize the value of behaving differently? We urge every Worcester resident to make clear to School Board members amd the School District administration that we do not want the School District to waste additional time, energy, and OUR tax dollars on unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive confrontation.


April 12: New Lighting Ordinance Passed on April 2

      At a special meeting on April 2, our Board of Supservisors passed the long-awaited lighting ordinance that will allow Methacton School District to ask for approval to install lights on one or possibly two fields at Methacton High School. (The text linked here says it is a "proposed" ordinance but it is, in fact the ordinance that was passed.) Unfortunately, it is not a very good ordinance. It allows use of lighted fields up to six nights per week without restriction (!) and it does not include limits on the maximum field illumination allowed. Both of these shortcoming were opposed vigorously by residents, who hired their own independent expert to testify at hearings. Their opposition was ignored by our Supervisors, although Chairman Bustard continues to insist that these issues will be dealt with in a conditional use hearing -- more about that below.
      It should be noted that even though Worcester's solicitor claimed to have sought independent advice in the writing of the ordinance, the results certainly do not justify that statement. Improvements made to the original very poorly written draft were made only after testimony from an independent expert hired by neighbors around the high school. Other suggestions from that expert were ignored. As for the School District, its only "expert" input was provided by an attorney speaking on behalf of Architerra, the engineering firm hired by the School District to oversee the field upgrade project. Architerra has no in-house lighting expertise of its own and relies instead on input from Musco Lighting, a vendor so closely bound to Musco as to render their "advice" questionable, to put it very kindly. Architerra has never been involved in the design of an athletic field with lighting from a company other than Musco, which puts them in the position of serving as a "manufacturer's representative" rather than a source of independent advice for their clients.
      The very fact that the only truly indepedent advice about the contents of a lighting ordinance came from an expert hired by Worcester neighbors is troubling. The responsibility to write sound ordinances rests with the Township. It is outrageous that this responsibility has been ignored. One would think that Worcester should have learned this lesson from its noise ordinance, which is a joke because it contains wording in a critical provision that renders it unusable for any kind of meaningful enforcement against noise sources. But, they didn't.
      What now? As noted above, the lighting ordinance means only that the School District can now present a plan at a conditional use hearing for its field upgrades, including not only a lighting system but also the substantial amounts of work needed to resolve decades-old storm water runoff issues. In fairness to our Board, it is true that Chairman Bustard continues to insist, including on April 2, that this hearing will be responsive to residents' concerns about field lighting levels and conditions of use. Proposed conditions of use have been discussed extensively by neighbors and former Superintendent Tim Quinn, resulting in a proposed document detailing how lighted fields could be used. The conditions in that document are much more restrictive than what is in the new ordinance. They are designed to give our student athletes and community groups many new opportunities for using MHS athletic facilities while, at the same time, minimizing negative impacts on Worcester residents.
      The issue of appropriate field illumination levels is technical, but very important. The School District, on the "advice" of Architerra/Musco, is insisting that MHS needs a 50-footcandle field. However, there is ABSOLUTELY NO, repeat ABSOLUTELY NO justification for this level. Independent sources that have spoken on this issue agree that a 30-footcandle field is entirely appropriate for high school athletics, regardless of sport! This is not just a matter of numbers. Vendors want customers to believe they absolutely must have a 50-footcandle field. But such a field is much more expensive to install (at least $75,000 more expensive), operate, and maintain. It increases light pollution problems that extend far beyond properties immediately adjacent to the high school and an over-lit field can cause problems for players, too, because of excessive glare. Vendors should NOT be allowed to saddle our community with a lighting system it does not need!
      As troubling as our Township's dropping the ball on writing a truly effective ordinance is the ongoing disdain the "sports crowd" expresses for residents being asked to bear the negative effects of nighttime athletic events at MHS. These negative effects are indisputable, contrary to some claims to the contrary. Wherever studies have been done for neighborhoods in similar circumstances, the results are always the same -- there will be problems and property values will decline. The typical sports crowd reaction, on blogs and facebook pages, is "tough noogies" (an actual quote from one sensitive citizen). Neighbors have worked hard to reach consensus on this issue. By the time the ordinance was enacted, there was no longer any overt opposition to the lights themselves -- only pleas that neighbors' concerns be taken seriously rather than ridiculed and ignored. Good for them, and shame on the rest of you!
      All of us need to keep track of this issue as it moves forward. The School Board has never taken any formal action on the use conditions document linked above. Right now, the School District has no permanent leader and is facing huge financial problems, with higher property taxes for all of us in the immediate future, to levels that require invoking exceptions to the limits on tax increases that can be imposed without approval of a voter referendum. Pretty much everybody understands that MHS athletic facilities need to be improved. But, these field upgrades cannot be done without including the expensive work required for fixing storm water runnoff problems. Stadium lights? Perhaps a luxury that school district taxpayers should not be asked to bear. In any event, we believe that this project will be stretched out over several years. This is no doubt a big disappointment to those who thought that passing a new lighting ordinance would immediately give them what they want. But, it is clear -- and we believe this is a good thing -- that the road to that goal is going to be much longer than they thought! Stay tuned...


March 27, 2013: Methacton School District Superintendent and Director of Curriculum Resign

      At the March 26 Methacton School Board Meeting the resignations of Superintendent Timothy Quinn, effective immediately, and Director of Curriculum Diane Barrie, effective in June, were announced. Why? Because they were being investigated for an "inappropriate relationship." At least according to some, this relationship led to Dr. Barrie being plucked from the classroom into a higher-profile and significantly higher-paying job in Methacton's administration. Although Dr. Barrie was highly respected as a teacher and apparently was well qualified to be Director of Curriculum, the whole business literally screamed "INAPPROPRIATE," and no doubt created problems within the administration.
      As for Dr. Quinn, whatever his professional qualifications, he came to our school district under the cloud of another "inappropriate relationship" with his administrative assistant which led to his resignation for "personal reasons" after barely six months on the job as Superintendent of the Elizabethtown Area School District in Lancaster County. Newspaper reporting of that 2008 incident is still available online, HERE.
      Given that "giant red flag" history, which was well known at the time, why was Quinn hired at Methacton in the first place? The prevailing opinion at the time was that he was the best we could get because of the ongoing harassment of and legal challenges against the Board and School District from – yes, you guessed it! – Jim Mollick, a situation which made the job look very unappealing to potential candidates. You may, of course, treat this as pure speculation and nothing more. We tend to give it the weight of at least a half-truth.


January 18, 2013: (A Little) Progress on Lighting Ordinance

The January 16 BoS meeting was predicted to be a knock-down battle between rabid "pro-lights" and "anti-lights" residents. What happened instead was a surprisingly civil and conciliatory public hearing in which it became obvious that there aren't really any rabid anti-lights folks left, or at least none in evidence at this meesting. The issue is no longer whether or not there will be an ordinance allowing lighted fields at Methacton High School, but only whether the very real quality-of-life concerns of neighbors will be addressed. The pro-lights crowd was much more restrained than they have been in the past, at least partly as a result of Township Solicitor Jim Garrity's reminder that the purpose of the hearing was not to discuss pro- or anti-lights issues in general, but only the contents of the ordinance itself. However, their ongoing tendency to believe that they are the majority and that the majority should always get what it wants was still very much in evidence. As noted below in previous postings, this is not the way representative government is supposed to work — a point which both Art Bustard and Jim Garrity, to their credit, made abundantly clear in their introductory comments.
      The specific purpose of the public hearing was to determine whether the draft ordinance in its current form was ready to be voted up or down. However, it was clear from the outset that it wasn't. Even the School District's attorney agreed that some changes needed to be made. The neighbors' group was represented by counsel and presented testimony from an independent lighting design consultant who pointed out several weaknesses in the draft ordinance, including:

The consultant also stressed the need to consider the design of the lighting system in the context of the surrounding neighborhood rather than a more generic design that doesn't take into account the fact that this ordinance applies to a specific site. It is worth noting that the consultant's proposed changes to the ordinance would serve not only neighbors' interests, but also the interests of the school district, student athletes, and taxpayers, all of whom who deserve an ordinance which ensures that only a high-quality system will be acceptable.
      Despite Solicitor Garrity's claim that he had gotten advice from "many" different sources for his drafting of the ordinance, it is nonetheless clear that the current version is deficient in several significant ways. To cite one obvious problem not even directly related to possible disagreements about what standards should or should not be included in the ordinance, the current draft lacks a "definitions" section, which is standard practice for this kind of technical ordinance. Without definitions, ordinance provisions can be misinterpreted and challenged. (Worcester's noise ordinance, for example, has an extensive definitions section.) We fault the supervisors, as a body, for not requiring the Township to hire its own lighting design consultant to guide the preparation of this very technical ordinance. This would have expedited the passage of an ordinance which will now require at least one more advertising/public hearing cycle.
      The most interesting feature of the meeting on the 16th was Steve Quigley's absence. No explanation was given, but it was certainly surprising considering Quigley's longstanding let's-get-lights-right-now-and-don't-worry-about-the-neighbors position. In his opening comments Chairman Art Bustard noted that even if the ordinance were ready to be passed in its current form, he would not call for a vote in Quigley's absence. Because of the volume of testimony and public comment, the hearing was suspended, to be continued next month. Presumably, the many pro-lights people (including some students) who came to the meeting anticipating a final resolution were greatly disappointed although it is now obvious that they will relatively soon get the ordinance they have wanted for so long. Whether the School District is ready to spend several hundred thousands of dollars for lights in the broader context of the field upgrades and required storm water management fixes on MHS property is another story.

January 10, 2013: Worcester BoS Reorganization Meeting

At the Worcester Township reorganization meeting, required to be held on the first Monday of every calendar year, Art Bustard was re-elected as Chairman. Ken Dyer was replaced on the Zoning Hearing Board by John D'Lauro. Mr. D'Lauro is an attorney with deep family roots in Worcester. His presence on the board, along with attorney Michael Libor, will now allow the ZHB to manage variance requests in a professional manner — something that has not been true for far too long. Although one could view Mr. Dyer's removal as political payback for challenging Mr. Bustard in the 2011 Republican primary, the fact is that the ZHB was simply not able to deal with variance requests in a professional manner as long as Dyer kept his seat.
      Membership on the Planning Commission is unchanged. Perennial Democratic hopeful Rick DeLello was unsuccessfully supported by (Republican??) Steve Quigley for a seat on either the ZHB or the Planning Commission. Although the general concept of "citizen volunteers" resonates with everyone, the fact is that the Planning Commission and ZHB both need members with applicable expertise in order to do their jobs effectively. Mr. DeLello's problem is not that he is a Democrat in a Republican community, but that he has no relevant professional qualifications for either job and a public record long on talk and very short on action.


January 8, 2013: Misinformation and reason on the "football lights" issue

      There is currently an online petition being circulated in which supporters of lighted fields at Methacton High School are still indulging in their unending rants about how bad the current fields are and how much our community needs lighted athletic fields. They are still attacking their favorite targets — those pesky residents living around the high school who have the nerve to be concerned about the negative effects of nighttime activities at the high school! In a community as small as Worcester, all those residents are OUR neighbors and deserve to be treated with respect by everyone.
      Comments about the petition are not only disrespectful, but they demonstrate an appallingly inaccurate picture of what is actually happening. The petition falsely conveys the message that there is still huge amounts of opposition to the lighted field project. Here is a badly needed reality check. We don't know ANYBODY, including our neighbors living closest to the high school, who doesn't agree that MHS's fields are badly in need of repair and upgrading. Neighbors living around the high school are NOT the enemy! Consider this comment on the petition from John Harris, who has been involved in negotiations with the School District for several months:

I would just like to set the record straight. To the best of my knowledge, there are no neighbors of MHS who are actively opposing the very-much-needed field reconstruction project, or the addition of lights on one or more fields. Our goal, since the discussions with Dr. Quinn started, has been to minimize the negative impact of the lights on our neighborhood, while the students get the nighttime use of the facilities they are requesting. There are very few examples of other municipalities where this sort of project has been achieved without major conflict between the district and the neighbors. But the use conditions that have been discussed recently by the administration and the neighbors appears to offer a common middle ground that will allow the school to have virtually everything that has been requested, while the neighbors get some comfort that there will be reasonable limits to the use of the lighted fields. If we can all make this project happen without the usual community conflict, we will have achieved a goal as worthy as the project, itself.

      We do not know how this message could possibly be any clearer, nor do we see any rational reason to disagree with it. Neighbors are working FOR the implementation of this project, not against it!
      At the Township level, nobody who has been paying the slightest attention to this issue can have any doubt that an ordinance allowing lighted fields at MHS WILL be passed, and soon. The current draft version of the ordinance needs to be aired in public and some badly needed changes incorporated into the text. The ordinance will then need to go through an additional advertising cycle. At that point, hopefully, the process will be complete. Then it will be up to the School Board to apply for a conditional use permit in which it takes into account the conditions that have been painstakingly worked out in detail over the last several months.
      As the essay posted below points out, the function of our elected officials is not to follow a herd mentality that openly advocates tramplng the rights of individuals — OUR neighbors; its function is to work with all parties to find common ground that takes into account everyone's concerns. At this point we urge everyone in the "sports crowd" to take a deep breath, express some appreciation for the work that has been done to resolve this contentious issue amicably, and let the process work.


January 3, 2013: Lighted Athletic Fields, Public Opinion, and the Tyranny of the Majority (an essay contributed by one of our readers)

      Recently in Worcester, there have been some contentious issues about which different constituencies in our community have very different opinions. The prime example, prominent in the 2011 campaign for Art Bustard's seat on Worcester's Board of Supervisors, was whether to allow the construction of a new lighted football field at Methacton High School. Such a project requires a new ordinance to replace Worcester's existing lighting ordinance. Because there are houses very near the high school, allowing the construction of one or more lighted fields for nighttime activities will undeniably degrade the quality of life for those living near the high school.

      Those who are most eager to construct one or more lighted athletic fields at Methacton High School have argued publicly that our elected officials should simply allow "the masses" to decide such questions. The "sports crowd" is confident, rightly or wrongly, that Worcester's residents would favor changing our lighting ordinance and it has even suggested that this question should be addressed through a public referendum, the results of which should then determine how our elected officials act. Apart from the fact that Pennsylvania law regarding local referenda is very restrictive and would not allow such a question to be placed on a ballot, they believe (because they also believe they would be on the "winning side" of this issue) that this is how the American system of government should work. More recently, as a result of neighbors dropping their absolute opposition to lighted fields, and following many months of negotiations to reach a consensus about how lighted fields should be used in a way that minimizes problems for neighbors (see this link), the "sports crowd" has further asserted that a small group of neighbors (it is actually a pretty large group) should not even have the right to contribute their thoughts to the new lighting ordinance and any possible use restrictions that would be the subject of a conditional use hearing in the future to allow construction of one or more lighted fields based on the new ordinance.

      In fact, ignoring minority (or even individual) views by allowing "the masses" to control our government's actions is a fundamentally un-American view of how our system of government is supposed to work. Our Founding Fathers were very suspicious of a "pure" democracy in which the majority controls all decisions, and they were fearful of any form of government in which a majority could trample the rights of a minority. Most of these founding fathers believed that the "tyranny of the majority" (a topic which the 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in detail in his famous book, Democracy in America) was fundamentally no different from the tyranny of an absolute monarchy — specifically the form of government they wished to avoid. Other 19th century writers expressed the same distrust of rule by "the masses." The British writer, politician, and historian Lord Acton was suspicious not just of the process, but of the belief that allowing pure majority rule was even a fair expression of the will of the people. In his The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877) Acton wrote::

"The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections."

      Many political philosophers have objected to the idea that individual rights should be subject to public vote, and have asserted that the proper role of governments is protect minorities (including individuals) from oppression by majorities. This problem was addressed by James Madison in the famous Federalist Papers #10, published in 1787, in which he referred to "the violence of majority faction." Madison's "faction" is equivalent to what we would today call a "special interest group" which may be a majority or minority, in Madison's own definition, "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Madison considers the problem of "factions" to be not just a possible problem with pure democracy, but an inevitable one — "The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man" — which cannot be eliminated but which needs to be controlled:

      "There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease...

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government." (emphasis added)

      Madison believed the right of protection against majority rule flows from "rights of property." It is clear in context that he is thinking not just of protection against the literal taking of physical property, but also of what we might describe in modern terminology as "intellectual property rights" and other intangible rights including the right to enjoy one's property without interference. As Madison so elegantly wrote in March, 1792: "In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights." (http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s23.html)

      Madison is very clear that a pure democracy in which the majority determines every action is not equipped to solve the problems arising from factions: "... it may be concluded that a pure democracy... can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction." Indeed, Madison and other political philosophers saw direct democracy as an actual danger to individual rights. Madison's cure for this problem is to form the United States as a Republic and not a Democracy. The difference is that in a Republic, citizens do not pass direct judgment on every individual issue that must be decided, but delegate this responsibility to elected officials who are expected to serve the common good by thinking for themselves.

"The effect is... to refine and enlarge the public views [on an issue], by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom... will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves..."

In context, it should be remembered that the "public good" does not include results which overrule the primary governmental function of protecting each individual's private property rights.

      Madison was not naive enough to believe that forming a Republic rather than a Democracy was a perfect solution, nor that this form of government would not be subject to abuse. He viewed the Constitution not as a perfect solution, but as a "happy combination" that balances the common good against the tyranny of the majority. As a result, the word "democracy" appears nowhere in the Constitution and we "pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the Republic for which it stands..." This fear of a pure democracy, in which a majority is always able to trample the rights of minorities and individuals, explains why we have three co-equal and counterbalancing partners in our government — the executive, legislative, and judicial. It explains why we have a Bill of Rights, which enumerates rights specifically for the purpose of assuring that they cannot be overridden by any majority action. It explains why our legislative bodies have sometimes arcane rules to prevent the passage of legislation by simple majority votes.

      It is only relatively recently, in the 20th century, that the distinction between a Democracy and a Republic has been blurred in the public mind. No student in a 19th century civics class would have made this mistake! (The Pledge of Allegiance was first published in a popular children's magazine, Youth's Companion, in 1892.) What does this principle of protecting the rights of all citizens have to do with Worcester's Board of Supervisors and football lights? First of all, it is not at all clear how to determine what the "the masses" want because citizens are not required to express their opinions even when there is a formal mechanism for doing so, and the overwhelming majority tend not to be involved in public discussion. As Lord Acton would have agreed, in this environment it is essentially impossible to separate the noise of loud voices on both sides of any issue from a fair determination of what "the masses" actually want.

      But, the problem of determining what a majority wants is secondary to the more important point: the principle of not allowing any special interest group (Madison's "factions") to cause harm to other citizens. In the football lights issue, proponents think they deserve to get what they want regardless of whether they are actually a majority and, even worse, regardless of the consequences for others. This vocal group disregards the harm they will be doing to their fellow citizens living in the neighborhoods around Methacton HS. It is not possible seriously to argue that allowing lighted athletic fields at the high school will have any other result than eroding the quality of life and property values of families already living near the high school. The "sports crowd" frankly admits that a lighted field will not be used just for "Friday night football" plus practice time. The School Board's Property Committee has made clear its desire for lighted athletic fields to be a "community resource" in which many other groups not associated with the School District's legitimate educational mission will be encouraged to maximize the use of lighted fields in order to "prove" that they represent our tax dollars well spent.

      Not so incidentally, it is not at all clear that that an ordinance allowing lighted fields at Methacton HS can be written in a way that would permanently prohibit other organizations, whether public or private, for-profit or non-profit, or even individuals, from installing equally intrusive lighting. This would, of course, degrade the quality of life and property values of many more Worcester residents, including those who think a lighted football field is a good idea because they live nowhere near Methacton HS!

      In addition to the "sports crowd" (a large portion of which is not even from Worcester) we continue to witness the actions of a very vocal group of individuals in Worcester, including political wanna-bes and elected officials, trying to use the "football lights" issue to their political benefit. Their self-serving "finger in the wind" approach to decision-making does not constitute leadership and represents, at the very best, lazy government rather than good government. Our Founding Fathers, with their strongly held beliefs about the fundamental role government must play in protecting the property rights of its citizens, would be appalled by the idea of an elected government body or political wanna-be deliberately taking or supporting actions that would degrade the quality of life and property values of any of its citizens, especially when there is not even any compelling benefit to the "common good." Even if such actions really do represent the will of a majority, our Founding Fathers would call that tyranny. We agree! At the December 2012 evening Board of Supervisors meeting when the advertising of the lighting ordinance was authorized, some students from a Methacton HS government class were in attendance. Chairman Art Bustard suggested that those students would do well to read about the tyranny of the majority in Federalist Paper #10. This is excellent advice for all citizens — advice which the "sports crowd" clearly has not taken.

      On the other hand, the efforts of the School District Administration and Worcester residents over the past several months to define common ground that allows lighted fields to be built and used in a way that meets legitimate educational needs and also minimizes negative impacts on neighbors represents our form of government at its very best. We applaud, and our Founding Fathers would also applaud, those efforts at finding consensus rather than fueling confrontation and we expect the individuals we have elected to represent our interests to respect the work that has been done by embracing the conditions that have been accepted by both parties.


December 20: Update on Athletic Field Lighting Ordinance

At the Board of Supervisor's meeting on the 19th, supervisors unanimously agreed to authorize the advertising of the new lighting ordinance that will allow the construction of one or more lighted athletic fields at Methacton High School. At the beginning of the meeting, Chairman Art Bustard criticized the Times Herald for erroneously reporting a few weeks ago that the Board would vote on the ordinance itself. (See previous two postings below.) After advertising, there is a 14-day period before additional action can be taken. So, there will be a public hearing on the ordinance no sooner than the January BoS evening meeting. The draft of the ordinance is available here.

Recently, it has been the Board's policy to make the text of proposed ordinances, especially controversial ones, publicly available before advertising them to allow public comment and to minimize to the extent possible multiple public hearings at which it is determined that the wording of an ordinance needs to be changed and, as a result, re-advertised. Why this was not done in this case remainds a mystery, as it appeared clear from the very brief discussion of this ordinance that it is going to undergo some revisions as a result of a public hearing next month. The supervisors seem to accept the re-advertising process, which costs several hundred dollars and results in another public hearing after 30 days as just the "cost of doing business" as a township. The Cedars Village ordinance was publicly accessible for many months before and after its initial advertising. But, in that case, substantive public criticisms resulting in changes were made only during public hearings AFTER advertising. Based on that recent experience our supervisors could reasonably conclude that the only way to get residents to pay attention to an ordinance is to advertise it and then proceed to a public hearing on its contents. This seems pretty inefficient to us, but it does have the benefit of moving this entire matter towards a conclusion.


December 7: Update on Phillips' comments

After listening to the online recording of the December 4 School Board meeting, we see that the article in the Times Herald did not accurately reflect Mr. Phillips' comments in their context. So, Mr. Phillips gets our (almost complete) apology and the Times Herald gets our thumbs-down. What Phillips said was that at the previous Worcester Board of Supervisors' meeting, the Board did not vote to authorize advertising the ordinance, as required by law, but that they would vote on that issue on December 19th. As noted below, this is different from voting on the ordinance itself. Whether the ordinance is sufficiently well developed to warrant advertising is another question.

Our apology to Phillips is not entirely complete because Mr. Bustard cannot claim that the Board will vote to authorize (or not) the advertising of the ordinance. To make such a promise would imply collusion in private with another Board member, which would be a clear violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. We do not believe that Bustard would do this. The decision even to have a vote on this issue can be made only by the Board, not by any single member of the Board. Our guess (only a guess) is that Bustard might have said that this issue would be on the agenda for the December 19th meeting for discussion and possible action by the Board. What Phillips said was that the issue would be "on the agenda... for a vote." The wording is very misleading, but it is possible that Phillips was guilty of nothing more or less than trying to spin a conversation to his advantage rather than deliberately misrepresenting a conversation.


December 6: False statements from Jim Phillips, or just sloppy reporting?

If you wonder why we trashed the idea of Jim Phillips becoming our state representative as the result of November's elections (which of course did not happen), you need look no farther than his recent foray into the public eye. Following the December 4, 2012 School Board meeting, he was quoted in a Times Herald article the following day:

"WORCESTER — The Methacton School District Board of Directors announced that the Worcester Township Board of Supervisors will vote on the ordinance regarding the lights on the fields at Methacton High School at its meeting on Dec. 19.

Board member Jim Phillips, who serves on the board’s Property Committee, made the announcement at the school board’s monthly meeting on Tuesday night after speaking with officials from the township.

“After speaking with (Worcester Township Board of Supervisors Chairman) Art Bustard, he said that it will be on the agenda for (Dec.) 19th for a vote on the light and field ordinance,” said Phillips. “I would appreciate it for people to show support for Methacton and make themselves available for that.”"

Anyone who draws the obvious conclusion from this statement, that Worcester is going to vote to approve (or not approve) a lighting ordinance in December, is going to be disappointed because it is simply not true. Whether Phillips' statement was deliberately false or based on ignorance of the facts, we cannot say; we would not be surprised in either case. (This ordinance, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with a "field" ordinance. Perhaps the quote should have been "lighted field" rather than "light and field.")

There is a process involved in passing an ordinance. The text of every proposed ordinance must be publicly advertised and opportunities must be provided for public examination and comments before it can be implemented or not. This process is not an attempt by Worcester to "drag its feet" on this issue. The legal requirements are what they are, and they are in place to protect everyone's interests. Although the Township is apparently working on an ordinance, the text has not even been made available to the public, let alone advertised as required by law. We do not believe that Mr. Bustard would have misrepresented this process, so we must place the blame for this flagrantly inaccurate statement squarely on Mr. Phillips.

We concede the possibility that Phillips was misquoted, although we are not inclined to believe that without additional explanation. In any case, shame on the Times Herald for not checking the facts. This is simply sloppy reporting regardless of what was actually said. If Mr. Phillips would like to clarify his comments, we would be happy to provide him with that opportunity.


November 24, 2012: Finding out what's happening in Lower Providence; highly paid Methacton School District employees behaving badly?

Considering that, together, Lower Providence and Worcester constitute the Methacton School District, it is worth following what's happening in Lower Providence. Toward that end, we recommend the Lower Providence Out Loud blog. The current entry deals with the recently revealed alleged affair between Methacton Superintendent Tim Quinn (who according to the Lower Providence blog makes about $175,000 per year plus generous benefits and a bonus) and former Arcola English Teacher Diane Barrie, elevated to Acting Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment in December of 2011 and promoted this past April to Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment with a very hefty increase in salary to $103,500 plus generous benefits — much more than she could ever make as a teacher. For all we know, Ms. Barrie may be perfectly well qualified for this job (we do know that she was well regarded as a teacher at Arcola), but the present circumstances cannot help but raise questions about personnel policies within the Methacton administration. This whole "affair," whatever the facts turn out to be, raises many questions about how the School District is being run and who's running it right now.
      The School Board was already aware of this problem before the story made its way to Fox Channel 29 nightly news a couple of nights ago (it must have been a really slow news day!) and the Board had already hired outside attorneys to look into it. As tawdry as these kinds of indiscretions are, Fox TV reporting titillating e-mails in detail and chasing down the "culprits" with camera crews seems to us to be nearly as tawdry as the alleged affair itself. We do not know the source of this "news" leak to Fox but, as we all too often observe, nobody these days seems to retain any sense of shame about anything they do.
      Aside from the waste of everybody's tax dollars now being spent by the School District on attorneys to investigate this unseemly business, there is probably going to be an impact of more direct consequence to Worcester residents. The diversion of everybody's attention over this matter considerably muddies the water regarding the future of upgrading Methacton High School's athletic facilities, which nearly everybody agrees is long overdue. Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere, you also know that these upgrades include plans for lighting one or two new synthetic turf fields for Friday night football and other nighttime uses. The decades-long controversy over lighted high school athletic fields appeared to be heading toward an amicable resolution thanks to the months-long negotiations between Dr. Quinn and Worcester residents who live around the high school. (See the October 20 posting, below.) Now, what will happen next is anybody's guess. We can only assume that whatever influence Quinn had with the School Board is going to be diminished in this and other matters, with the result that a resolution on the lighting issue and the field upgrades will be delayed — an outcome nobody wants, regardless of their position on this contentious issue. Sigh...