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Scratching the Surface of Willistown Politics (and washing my hands afterwards)

Willistown Township is a beautiful place to live, but there is a political underbelly that is far less attractive than the scenery & much less visible as well. It's time to bring it into the light.

My name is Chris Smith, like the holiday.  I moved to Willistown Township seven years ago.  I love Willistown's beautiful pastoral farms, rolling green hills, charming old stone cottages, quaint neighborhoods, friendly earthy people and even the occasional dirt road.  It's a truly nice place to live and has a grace and character reminiscent of the English countryside.  It reminds me of the countryside around Newbury, Berkshire County, in the UK where my mother is from and the setting for the well-known children's book, Watership Down and, more recently, the popular PBS series Downton Abbey (the amazing castle where it is filmed is just outside of Newbury).  I'm uplifted every time I drive around our little square of Chester County and am happy to have settled here.  But there is a part of Willistown that isn't as gracious and hospitable as a little English town and I struggle to understand why, so I'm going to share my experience with you.

I'd been politically active before moving to Willistown so it seemed natural that I'd become involved in politics here.  I was born when John F. Kennedy was President and as a child struggled like many to comprehend the events of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the Peace Movement, Watergate and the Cold War, all events created by hatred for others.  I was brought up with empathy for those less fortunate with the frequent reminder "But for the Grace of God, there goes you."  Instilled in me were the importance of working hard in school to get a good education and using that education to help others.  I learned that the strength of a democracy is the sum of the talents and the contributions of the individuals that comprise it so the better each of us became and the more we gave to our country the better our country would be.  The looming spectre of communism and it's repression of individual rights so integral to our way of life in the 1960's and 1970's, capped by the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979, made my generation starkly aware of the fragility of democracy and our perilous leadership in the world.

I voted for Ronald Reagan for a second term as President.  I didn't agree with him on social issues, but at the time his leadership on the world stage was what we needed.  Strange to think that today President Barack Obama is almost more conservative than President Reagan.  I identify as a Democrat primarily because  social issues, such as a woman's right to choose, care for the poor and equality for all citizens, are generally most important to me.  However, I consider myself fiscally more conservative and believe, like many Republicans, in balancing budgets, strong national defense, government efficiency, etc.

So, why all of this peering into my soul?  Well, because it baffles me that three people who know very little about me would seemingly take a position that my talents and potential contribution to my community should be invalidated simply because of the political party with which I'm registered.  Norm McQueen, Bill Shoemaker and Bob Lange comprise the Board of Supervisors for Willistown Township.  They are registered Republicans.  As far as I know, Willistown's Board of Supervisors has had only Republicans serve on it for close to 150 years and that's fine except that long-standing one-party rule is exactly what we don't like about totalitarian, fascist and communist governments.  In fact, we've had one-party rule in Willistown longer than any currently active oligarchy in the world!  And so, you may be asking, what's wrong with that?  An oligarchy is defined as a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people.  Sound familiar?  Sound like something you'd support? If so, then you might also be a fan of China's Communists, Iran's Islamic Republic Party and Kim Jong-un.  Oligarchies can be malignant or benign, but over time almost always turn malignant as power concentrated in one group of people tends to lead to corruption, ineffective governance or tyranny.  Oligarchies are generally not the most effective form of government and my recent experiences with Willistown's Supervisors, which I suspect mirrors the experiences of many others, illustrates that point.

A few years ago, I heard that Pennsylvania law provided for the formation of Environmental Advisory Committees within each township whose purpose was to provide guidance to each township's planning and zoning committees on matters concerning the environment.  I had volunteered for many years for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and wanted to continue voluntarily giving my time for environmental causes and thought what better way to do that than volunteer in my own township to serve on the Environmental Advisory Committee.  Turned out, they had an unexpired term that needed to be filled and I managed to be appointed to it.  At the time, I was becoming more active in local politics, which I'm fairly certain came to the attention of the Supervisors.  At the end of the unexpired term, the Supervisors asked me not to return.  No explanation was given.  I hadn't even accomplished much in the eight months or so that I served on the Committee.  The Supervisors ignored the Committee such that it's existence was merely token in nature.  We learned about composting and talked about how we could get more input into the planning and zoning process in Willistown, but ultimately everyone who served on the Committee became frustrated with the meaningless of it.  In essence, the Supervisors slowly suffocated it until they finally announced it's elimination recently even though there were sufficient persons willing to volunteer to serve on the Environmental Advisory Committee provided it were utilized within the township government as the Commonwealth had intended.  Are you seeing yet how the Supervisor's actions are like those in an oligarchy?

More recently, I learned of the passing of a longtime member of Willistown's Zoning Hearing Board and that another member had at about the same time moved outside of Willistown.  The Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) is comprised of three members and an alternate so this left the ZHB with just one member and an alternate.  With my desire to serve my community and my background in real estate law and real estate, I felt compelled to offer my services and applied to fill one of the vacant ZHB positions.  I could find no information on Willistown's website about the vacancies or application procedures so I sent a letter on July 27, 2012, to the Township Manager, submitting my name for consideration.  I enclosed my resume with the letter.  A week later, when I hadn't been contacted about my letter, I sent an e-mail to the Township Manager asking if he'd received it. He replied that he had and had given it to the Supervisors.  I've attached all of these correspondences to this blog.

I have received no further communications from the Supervisors, Township Manager or anyone affiliated with the township.  I didn't even receive a "thank-you" for applying for this volunteer position.  I received no instructions as to the process for appointing new members to the ZHB.  They didn't even have the courtesy to tell me that they would be nominating and voting on new members to fill the vacancies during their regular Board of Supervisors meeting on August 20, 2012, more than three weeks after they'd received my letter applying for one of the vacancies.  In fact, the agenda they posted on the Willistown Township website for that meeting merely stated as one of the agenda items "Appointments to Boards and Commissions."  Typical of the communications shortcomings of our township governance and the underhanded manner in which some business is conducted, the agenda gave no details as to which boards and commissions would have appointments made to them that night.  As it turned out, only the ZHB vacancies were filled on August 20th according to the posted minutes on the Willistown Township website.  And that alternate position?  Either hasn't been filled or no longer exists according the the website.  It's not much, but I'd take it.

Very important decisions are made by the ZHB and yet, no public notice was made of the vacancies and it appears most of Willistown's 11,000+ residents had no idea the vacancies even existed.  Shouldn't we make sure those that sit on our ZHB are the best qualified to make zoning decisions for us?  As I see it, I'm not the only Willistown taxpayer that has been treated discourteously by our Supervisors.  By not conducting a proper search within our township for qualified persons to sit on the ZHB we have all been treated discourteously and, worse, undemocratically.  I wasn't even asked to interview for one of the positions so I've a very strong hunch that the treatment I received is attributable to my political affiliation.  It's one thing to be given a fair shot and fail, but there's no justification for completely ignoring the legitimate offer to volunteer of a tax paying resident of our township.  Leave the ugly politics in Washington and keep it out of Willistown.  We're all better off if civility is exercised.

I'll now make my last point about this unfortunate experience.  The two men who were appointed to fill the vacancies on the ZHB are Republican Committee Persons in Willistown.  The already sitting member on the ZHB, another man, is a Republican Committee Person in Willistown.  All three current members, therefore, of the ZHB are Republican Committee Persons.  It would seem that the path to a seat on the ZHB is through membership on Willistown's Republican Committee, which Norm McQueen happens to chair.  Are you smelling an oligarchy?  There's a very strong odor of oligarchy now and, frankly, I'd rather be locked inside of a Radnor Hunt horse stall on a hot July day that hasn't been cleaned in a week than see what is happening to the governance of our township.  Apparently, Republicans not interested in a Committee seat, Democrats and Independents need not apply for important township volunteer positions, that is, if you even are aware of the vacancies.  Governing power in Willistown is being concentrated and controlled by a very small group of people.  This cannot be good.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

guest12 November 09, 2012 at 03:52 PM
MacQueen told Easttown Republicans that he, MacQueen, favors repeal of the rape & incest exception in the current PA abortion law. Perhaps Smith's pro-choice views precluded his consideration.
Abraham November 09, 2012 at 05:58 PM
Chris, Willistown is an extreme example, but the same issues exist in other townships and with local school boards. Tuesday's election showed that the Republican party is in serious trouble. They will be able to hold on to power in isolated and traditionally conservative pockets like Willistown, but they are in big trouble nationally. I thought this fact was very telling - In 1988 GHW Bush received 60% of the white vote and won more than 400 electoral votes. On Tuesday Romney won 60% of the white vote and lost. On Tuesday, women made up 53% of voters, non-whites 28% and young people (under 30) 24%. The GOP has to do something beyond nominating Marco Rubio to appeal to a wider spectrum of the population.
John Q Public November 09, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Emma Goldman also moved to a nice place of her own free will. Then she immediately set about relentless criticism with plans to remake into an image of her old country. Chris Smith follows in that ignoble tradition of subversive troublemaker.
Chris Smith November 09, 2012 at 09:48 PM
I'm afraid your analogy is misplaced. I'm only asking why our Willistown Supervisors (I'm assuming you're not one of them, but can't tell since you've chosen to be anonymous unlike myself) can't extend common courtesies to their own constituents and perform their services in a democratic manner. Isn't that what you want too? Did you like the late night payraise the Pennsylvania legislature gave itself some years ago? How are the actions of our supervisors any different than that of the Pennsylvania legislature that was so uniformly criticized? We don't have to agree - that's part of democracy, but it's not necessary to resort to name-calling to make your point. Treat others with the same respect you would like for yourself. That's all I'm asking of you and our supervisors.
John Q Public November 09, 2012 at 11:48 PM
It's simply obnoxious to move to an area, uninvited as is your right, then immediately move to disrupt its residents. I know you think that is your patriotic duty or something ... but that's what makes activists so annoying -- and dangerous. Freedom of association comes with the duty of discernment. We enjoy that freedom only because we trust fellow citizens not to rampage over long-established institutions and social organization. You violate the duty of that right and complain when the natives give you the cold shoulder. Well, I'm not sure what you expected -- rose petals? And yes I use a <i>nom de plume</i>, also my basic right as an American and as a U.S. citizen, because I've learned from experience just how "active" some ideologues can be imposing themselves unwelcomed and unwanted. (Your own deposition details the extraordinary effort made to impose yourself on Willistown. What more will you do? What is the limit of the Zealot's need to slay dragons -- or tilt at windmills? My experience is they are relentless -- just as your prototype Ms Goldman was relentless despite all warnings to the contrary.)
Chris Smith November 10, 2012 at 01:34 AM
And the native Indians sent your ancestors an invitation to cohabitate I'm guessing? :o)
Gimme Some November 10, 2012 at 01:57 AM
Ha! The guy engages you as a man and all you do is snark? Loser.
Janis November 10, 2012 at 03:15 AM
I COMPLETELY agree with you Chris Smith!!! Sadly, Board of Supervisors in all too many townships are running rampant with these practices and beliefs. It is however the publics right to know through transparency what our elected officials are doing. Check out this website: localintegritygroup.org Best of luck!! P.S. - ignore John Q Public......if he or she has to operate anonymously......then they shouldn't be heard!!!!
Leo Sinclair November 10, 2012 at 03:21 AM
Hello Mr. Smith, Because of things like this we recently decided formed a local nonpartisan, grassroots organization in East Goshen Township, called the Local Integrity Group. It's great to see others speaking out. Not enough people do it around here. Thank you In East Goshen, you have Supervisors masquerading as Republicans. It seems you have to be Republicans in order to be on a Board or Committee. There's nothing wrong with being a Republican, I know, because I am one; however, it doesn't give them the rights to discriminated someone based on their party affiliation. (By the way, as a Republican I expect to see LESS SPENDING and SMALL government. The Republicans in this area seem to think otherwise. I believe they need to take a good look at themselves before judging others.)
Leo Sinclair November 10, 2012 at 03:22 AM
Republicans believe that the United States were founded on the fundamental principle that individuals have certain rights and freedoms which cannot be infringed upon and may be restricted only to the degree necessary to preserve the rights of others. Republicans believe the money you earn is yours and that government in a free society has the right to take only as much as is needed to perform those limited functions, which are appropriate to it. Republicans believe the traditional family and the values it fosters are the foundation of American society and their preservation is essential to our Nation's continued success. Republicans believe parents have the right to determine the values with which their children will be raised and to have the widest possible choice among public, private and religious schools and that competition will improve public education. Republicans believe that the free enterprise system is the most effective engine of economic progress. Republicans believe high taxes, runaway government spending, and over-regulation of business and farming punish initiative and stifle economic growth.
Leo Sinclair November 10, 2012 at 03:23 AM
Republicans believe that with freedom comes responsibility and that individuals must take personal responsibility for their own actions and our criminal justice system must be based on this idea. Republicans believe that your property is yours and you have the basic right to make use of it without unreasonable government restrictions. Republicans believe the preservation of our rights and freedoms must be entrusted to a strong national defense and of the ability of the United States to negotiate with other nations from a position of strength. Republicans believe it is imperative today to re-affirm the traditional freedoms and values of America to preserve our great Republic. Republicans believe there can be differences of opinion and that such differences such result in opponents, not enemies. Republicans believe that all of America's citizens can enjoy the rights and freedoms of our country without diminishing the rights of others. Republicans believe that public servants, particularly those whom we elect to office, must be held accountable to the highest standards of ethical conduct. "If a man cannot be trusted with the government of himself, can he be trusted with the government of others?" [Thomas Jefferson]
Ellen Sinclair November 10, 2012 at 12:37 PM
Mr. Smith, Your words ring so true with what we have experienced in East Goshen Township. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments. It becomes very frustrating to think the time you would like to volunteer is smashed to little bits because of a political machine hard at work to keep the status quo. There have been numerous situations not unlike yours that we have also experienced in a mostly Republican world in East Goshen Township. We have also tried to make changes to our communitiy that we moved to because of the same reasons you live where you now live. We have come to realize that until a critical moment occurs where a large percentage of the residents are outraged, change will never happen. I smell oligarchy in East Goshen Township!! Thank you for expressing your concerns and sentiments about local government in a public forum. We hope many read your article and the following comments as well. It is up to the local government to keep their residents informed and to make decisions that is best for them and not what is best for their political party.
guest12 November 10, 2012 at 03:48 PM
The Willistown comparison is not Republicans vs. Democrats. Norm MacQueen has built a dynasty of family and friends. He alone has five or six positions and has been on the ballot for two offices twice in the last few years. Job Hog. Citizens other than MacQueen's family & friends need not apply. The concentration of power has ruined the Township. Is this New Jersey? Multiple jobs & cronyism
area man November 10, 2012 at 07:12 PM
"ruined the Township" ...are you kidding? You must not be a Willistown resident. We've got great people, great nieghborhoods and amazing open space. Taxes haven't gone up in years. I say, whatever they're doing, keep it up.
area man November 11, 2012 at 05:10 AM
Sinclairs, I imagine you and your organization have the best motives at heart, but do you think it wise to impune the integrity of an entire Township's leadership based on a rant by a disgruntled resident who lost his most recent run at Supervisor and just announced at the polling places throughout Willistown he's planning to run again. Do your homework. If you want to be relevant, chose your friends wisely. Good luck in E Goshen. The recent WEGO fiasco leads us all to believe you've got your hands full over there.
Chris Smith November 11, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Area man - do you think it's wise to dispute the facts that I've stated by trying to characterize me as someone who is ranting and disgruntled? Do you have any evidence proving my facts inaccurate? Why have the only two critical comments to my blog been ones that attack my character by anonymous writers rather than addressing the content of my blog. Are you capable of engaging in a legitimate debate with civil discourse?

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