Sunday, March 29, 2015

'That's the Way We've Always Done it'

There is a saying in The Mercury newsroom which, sadly, often applies as much to The Mercury newsroom as it does to Pottstown.

"That's the way we've always done it."

It is meant to indicate a failure of curiosity or ever questioning why you are doing something that may be, at best, obsolete or, at worst, counter-productive.

Most often, it is simply an excuse.

In some ways, Pottstown's leaders are doing things differently or, to be more accurate, they are doing different things.

There's a difference.

For example, the borough has used grant money to install solar-powered, smart recycling and trash containers along High Street that are only emptied when they're full.

That's different.

The Mosaic Community Land Trust is pursuing a model of affordable housing in which a first-time homebuyer owns the house, but not the land the house sits on; the idea being that it cuts the price and then gives the land trust right of first refusal to sell to another first-time homebuyer when the original buyer moves on, instead of an "investor" who wants to cut a perfectly good home up into tiny, sub-standard apartments.

That's different.

The Pottstown School District has become a leader in early education efforts, forging a partnership with child care providers. The partnership is called PEAK, and its  aim is to ensure as many children as possible are ready for kindergarten when they get there.

That's so different other districts in the state are looking to us for advice.

But those differences represent a "what" not a "how."

How you do things is at least as important as what things you do. The ends rarely justify the means (please no "if you could go back in time and kill Hitler" questions).

And even though Pottstown is indeed trying to do new things as it stumbles its way toward an undefined future, it is not a unified future agreed upon or endorsed by a broad majority of the population.

And that's because it still does new things the "way" it has always done everything.

As many have lamented, Pottstown has had trouble agreeing on what it wants to be in mid-life.

That's because we keep trying to pursue a fractured future the same way we always have -- with an automatic preference for secrecy, turf wars and "policy by personality."

Some say its a failure of vision, or a failure of leadership, but that's a subject for another day.

But I just want to talk about one of those things today -- automatic, institutionalized secrecy.

I'm sure its no surprise to you given the amount of attention The Mercury has been giving lately to apparent violations of the Sunshine Law.

Let's start with the school board and its recent (and in my opinion flawed) decision to begin talks about the future of a valuable community asset behind closed doors.

Everyone assumes that The Hill School wants to buy Edgewood. Given the school's location, it makes sense, and they probably do.

Mercury Photo by John Strickler

The former Edgewood Elementary School
But six months from now, the clueless members of the school board will be complaining about how the community is speculating without any facts and it will be their fault.

That's because when ALL the facts were presented, the public was excluded.

That leaves the public with the choice of deciding whether or not the school board, which barred them from the meeting where the facts are presented, are presenting them with all the facts.

To make matters worse, despite what they may think, most school board members are not exactly masters of explanation or communication.

The worst thing about this is how stupid it is. The board and the administrators like to mouth the words that they want more participation from the public and this was the perfect opportunity to get just that.

Instead, they told the public "just wait outside here in ignorance while we go and get the real scoop, and then we'll decide what you can handle."

There really was no reason to go into executive session Monday night.

Unless you're talking about selling to a particular buyer, which is at least defensible for talking terms in private, the board excluded the public because their lawyer said they could.

It's not that they really wanted to exclude the public so much as it's a habit. Because of years of operating this way, it's just the school district's default position.

Somewhere along the line, they've forgotten that although they take on an admirable sense of ownership of this school system and its assets, it is owned by the taxpayers and the taxpayers have a right to participate in deciding its fate.

To do that, they have a right to all the facts, not just the ones the administration and the solicitor have manipulated the board members into revealing.

But, it feels right because  "that's the way we've always done it."

As for the borough authority and the infamous e-mails, that's a bit more disturbing on several levels.

(See the link above in case you have no idea what I'm talking about)

In this case, there is, it seems to me, a greater likelihood of "intent" to keep things from the public than a simple "same-as-it-ever-was" mentality as seen with the school board.

And that's because it took more forethought.
Photo by Evan Brandt

Pottstown Borough Hall

Let's look at the technical aspects first, and by that I mean technology as well as the technical letter of the Sunshine Law.

Laws are forever trying to catch up to technological innovation, and the Sunshine Law is no exception.

The law makes little recognition of things like e-mail, texting, Skype, or of the instant messaging capabilities of Facebook and Twitter and the dozen others I've never heard of.

All of those technologies can be used to have what Terry Mutchler, the first (and now former) executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, calls "a virtual meeting."

The Sunshine Law anachronistically, considers a meeting to be physical; everyone in the same room, announced to the public in advance. But do you need to announce a meeting in advance if everyone participating is sitting in their own living room?

Then there is the question of "deliberation," a word on which many Sunshine Law disputes have crashed or survived.

What is deliberation. At regular intervals, the Pottstown School Board holds "workshops," closed to the public. The rationale is, there is no "deliberation," they're all just learning to get along with each other.

So the question of "deliberation" becomes key under several scenarios.

Consider: If three members of the borough authority have dinner together at a Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association meeting and talk about water and sewer pipes, is that a majority "deliberating" public business? Hard to say. We could hardly wish that folks making crucial decisions about our infrastructure be LESS educated on the subject by being barred from going.

On the other hand, knowing they won't be called on it, does such an opportunity make for an irresistible temptation to have that "sensitive conversation" that might be blown up into a newspaper headline?

It's a difficult choice while navigating murky ethical waters without inserting the possibilities for mischief made possible by technology.

That's why I would argue for a more expansive definition of both "meeting" and "deliberate," erring
on the side of public transparency.

So while Vincent Pompo, the solicitor for the borough authority argues that the e-mails about changing the practice of not charging firehouses for water and sewer were not deliberation; merely Authority Manager Mark Flanders informing the members of a change in policy, I would ask one simple question: What would have happened if one of the three members who responded objected?

If Flanders proceeded anyway in changing the policy of which firehouses get charged for water and sewer services, he would be doing so without the endorsement of a majority of the board. I not sure even he is quite brazen enough to do that.

On the other hand, not moving ahead with it because of a failure to secure the endorsement of the majority is an inherent admission that there was deliberation of a public policy.

Then of course, there is the question of whether the policy of not charging firehouses for water and sewer actually exists.

As you will hopefully read in today's edition of The Mercury, we filed a Right to Know request for a copy of the new policy Flanders said he is enacting, or one of them anyway.

In his e-mail to the authority members, Flanders wrote "we will begin billing for usage in the social club, banquet bingo halls/rental facilities."

Mercury Photo by Kevin Hoffman

Borough Authority Manager Mark Flanders
But after the Phillies Fire Company questioned their bill at a meeting this month, Flanders sang a different tune, and said it was all about the alcohol being sold in the Phillies barroom.

The North End Fire Company, which is cooperating with the borough-led fire company merger just as the Phillies are not, has a banquet hall/rental facility.

But so far as we have been able to determine North End is not being charged for water and sewer services (even though those renting the facility can serve alcohol at their events, provided a paid North End fireman is doing the serving.)

Multiple attempts to learn from the North End Fire Company whether they are receiving a water/sewer bill have failed, and Flanders did not respond to an e-mail asking that question. So, as is apparently now the new normal, I filed a Right to Know request to see the water/sewer bill for that firehouse.

In five business days, when the borough responds, I expect to informed that no such document exists, thus confirming the Phillies are being charged and North End is not.

"No such document exists" is the response I received to my Right to Know request for the new policy on charging firehouses. A response to my follow-up question -- essentially, "can I have a copy of the old policy?" -- is due sometime next week.

So the nice thing about a policy that is not written down -- and there are such things according to Montgomery County District Atorney Risa Vetri Ferman -- is that they can be whatever you want them to be as circumstances require.

Which -- wait for it -- is the way Pottstown has always done it.

Sadly, there was at least a glimmer of hope that we would change the way we do things when Flanders took office.

As I wrote about in Janurary of 2013 (and was recently reminded of), one of the first things Flanders did after he got the Borough/Authority Manager job, was institute a new vision statement and new set of core values for borough hall.

Among those core values is: "Equity - We will treat everyone and every situation with EQUITY and fairness."

The new "Core Value Statement" shown at left and posted in the lobby of borough hall includes the following goals for the conduct of the borough's business:

We will obligate ourselves to account for all of our actions, accept responsibility for them, and disclose the outcomes in a transparent manner.

Setting high standards in our personal, professional and organizational conduct, we will strive to uphold the public trust by conducting ourselves with integrity in furtherance of the borough's mission.

We will demonstrate respect by how we treat each other, by the contributions that come from our diversity, by the productivity of our relationships, and by a job well done no matter what the job.

Trust is the condition and resulting obligation of having confidence placed in oneself. Therefore, we accept the challenge to display integrity and character in every aspect of our functions.

You can decide for yourself if these values are being exhibited in how the borough is currently conducting its business, or if we continue to stumble along doing things the way we've always done them.


  1. Is the Borough Manager compensated by the Borough, the Authority Manager compensated by the Authority, How is this handled?

    The School Board Solicitor said that they can hold an executive meeting and exclude the public, but what he did not say that they can include the public in any and all meetings. When they hold an executive meeting they should inform the public for what reason. Each executive meeting should have a tracking number, one of the most frequent excuses that they use is personnel and if you count how many time this is used it leads me to believe that there is also a management problem leading the personnel to have so many personnel executive meeting, they are basically called to pull the wool over the publics eyes.

    There reason nothing ever changes is because they all get paid weather they make changes or they don't makes changes, so why complicate yourself just do nothing and take the money and in time you will receive your pension and live happily ever after.

    Yes I am done for now

    1. The borough manager and the authority manager are the same person, Mark Flanders, and half is salary comes from the borough budget and half from the authority budget.

      Forgive me, but I cannot resist: And that's the way they have always done it.

      When the the school board holds an executive session, they do announce the reason, most often citing one of the four reasons the allows for one to be held -- personnel, collective bargaining, real estate or pending or existing litigation.

    2. Also, I forgot to add, although each entity pays half the borough/authority manager's salary, the authority has no formal role in choosing the manager. He is hired solely by borough council.

  2. Take a look at this

    These Authorities are supposed to have by laws it may be a good idea to get a copy of them to shed some light on these matters