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.