Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The New Mike

The new Mike

The Intelligencer

Last week, I wondered which Mike Fitzpatrick would show up on the campaign trail for Congress. Would it be "Moderate Mike," circa 2006, proud of his Sierra Club endorsement? Or would it be a persona to fit the times, say "Tea Party Mike," who recites the 10th Amendment from memory and embraces "Drill, baby, drill."

After announcing his candidacy for the 8th District seat in a rematch with incumbent Democrat Pat Murphy, I realized we have "Mystery Mike." It is a mystery to me what he or his Republican Party will do to end the Great Recession. How would they restore economic vitality and make it so one need not choose between making the mortgage and buying health insurance?

His remarks before hundreds of well-wishers on the lawn of the Neshaminy Middle School Saturday were brief and bland.

Jobs, runaway federal spending and health care are the themes of his campaign. Naturally, he will hammer Murphy's claim that Murf is a [cough, hack, wheeze] "fiscally conservative" Blue Dog Democrat.

But what are Mike's ideas to resolve the present crisis? He didn't say. Maybe we should go to his Web site and click on the policy tabs.

Tough times call for clear solutions boldly stated. Unemployment in Bucks County is 9 percent. From the number of middle-aged men and women I see clerking at convenience stores and stocking retail shelves, underemployment is as bad.

But what does a vote for the county GOP's favorite son mean for these people - and for the ticked-off independent voters who will decide this race? Nothing was offered.

Mike told the crowd that trillions of dollars of government debt is a "national emergency." Of course. What will he do about it? He didn't say. How about channeling the economist Grover Norquist: "My friends, I am committed to reducing the size of the federal government until it is small enough to drag into the bathroom and drown in the tub."

Fighting words like that would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Bensalem to Springtown.

The lesson of the recent upset in the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts is that good ideas succinctly hand victory to an underdog. That quick-on-your-feet answers to belligerent questioners can turn the tide of a campaign - and history. ("It's not the Kennedy seat and it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat," Sen.-elect Brown said, and electrified the nation.)

Fitzpatrick fell flat when a belligerent questioner showed up to heckle him. The heckler marred the day by shouting obnoxiously, "How we gonna fix health care?"

In the crowd, pushing and shoving nearly turned into a brawl. The cops arrived. Fitzpatrick might have said: "Look - I will not support the health care status quo that just bankrupted Lower Bucks Hospital - or any government system that bankrupts the country."

But as shouting and confusion engulfed the event, Fitzpatrick continued reading prepared remarks: "I think that we need someone in Congress who's more concerned with the citizens of Bucks County than with extraneous photo opportunities. We don't need someone in Congress who's a rubber stamp for bad national policy or misplaced priorities."

He actually said "extraneous." At a rally. Egad.

Fitzpatrick runs in a Republican primary. There are at least eight other contenders aligned, more or less, with the Tea Party Movement. But on Saturday, the event felt uncomfortably like a back-door Republican coronation. The crowd was larded with Bucks County's GOP establishment, anathema to independents and tea partiers alike.

After Fitzpatrick finished, two candidates told me they will run as "outsiders." I asked Mike if his Republican establishment pedigree hurts him in the Tea Party era.

"I gotta tell ya - I'm an outsider," he said, and as the words sped from his lips, shrieking birds scattered from surrounding trees.

My jaw dropped like Obama approval ratings.

Mike is a good man who is blessed with a beautiful family. He is blessed with a miraculous recovery from cancer, which gives him moral credibility on health care. But it is the Democrats who are blessed with a (likely) Republican candidate whose positions on urgent issues are pastel and pending.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Lack of Leadership

A bit touchy, isn’t he? Is Middletown Township Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Gallagher supposed to be immune to criticism? In a recent Courier Times article, Gallagher said that “Chuck Thompson should let us have a meeting or two and see how we operate before commenting on this stuff.”

This “stuff?” Mr. Gallagher, this “stuff” is the public’s business. This “stuff” is important to the future of our community. This “stuff” involves taxpayer money, and when taxpayer money is at stake, there should not be a grace period of “a meeting or two” to observe how you operate. Your responsibility as an elected official to be fiscally responsible with tax dollars begins on day one, not after “a meeting or two.” Further, your misrepresentations are so transparent as to be ludicrous.

I know that others were concerned with your decision to put public comment at the end of the meeting and your disingenuous excuse was that you didn’t want the consultants to have to sit through public comment.

Since you didn’t even have minimal documentation at the meeting in which you appointed a new solicitor, I can only take you at your word that his compensation is exactly the same as the last solicitor, except that the hourly rate is $120 instead of $125 an hour.

I wonder if you even know that the solicitor is usually paid a monthly retainer to cover all time spent attending Board meetings, weekly staff meetings, telephone calls and e-mails between his office and the manager, directors, employees and the members of the Board of Supervisors. These items never appear as time charges on the general bill as they are all covered by the retainer.

The hourly rate is paid for any other work, such as writing ordinances, contracts, reviewing documents, litigation, etc.

Therefore, Mr. Gallagher, you aren’t saving any money by having the solicitor or other consultants sit through public comment. Furthermore, the solicitor and engineer frequently respond to public comments because they involve projects on which they are working. Not having them available for public comment is a disservice to any resident with a concern.

How contemptuous you are about public comment: “The only piece of true business at the reorganization meeting was approval of the bill lists and I called for comment on that. The other things were not public comment items.” Seems you have changed your tune from the few times you decided to attend a Board meeting to enlighten us with your criticisms. And if appointments are no longer “public comment items,” the township should be able to avoid frivolous lawsuits like the one you filed over this topic in 2008.

And speaking of disingenuous. The school board does indeed meet the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. So if you were truly interested in allowing these people the opportunity to attend the Board meetings, why not hold them on the first and third Tuesdays? Sure would have been a lot less confusing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Staying Safe

Forty-one burglaries in a two-month period in and around Forsythia Gate. More than 50 rightfully angry, frightened and frustrated people gathered in a neighborhood home to learn what is being done to solve the crimes and what can be done to deter future crime.

That was the setting last Thursday night as members of the Forsythia Gate neighborhood watch committee organized the meeting to listen to and query Acting Director of Public Safety Pat McGinty and liaison officer Paul Bingaman.

With the tension in the neighborhood building for the last few weeks, this meeting could have easily devolved into a rally demanding the Township hire more police and increase patrols. This is a simple reaction to a complex problem that is all-too-often exploited by politicians. But, it is not always a solution.

It is known that a seriously depressed economy with a high rate of joblessness inevitably leads to increased crime. It is also known that drug dependency – which also increases in seriously strained economic times – plays a role in this and other crime sprees. But when you add to that mix the fact that gold is now selling for more than $1,100 an ounce, an increase in burglaries is almost inevitable.

Director McGinty was stellar in the way he reassured the residents at the meeting, explaining how Middletown Township police officers, through strong detective work, identified the person involved in at least 24 of the burglaries, tracked him down and put him in jail. They are continuing to work on any accomplices he may have had, as well as tracking down those involved in the other burglaries.

More police officers or increased patrols may or may not have prevented these, or future, burglaries. Deterring crime requires both individual and community efforts:
  • Form neighborhood watch groups such as the one in Forsythia Gate, which is the only one in Middletown Township.
  • Get to know your neighbors and watch out for suspicious activities in your neighborhood.
  • Make it part of your routine before leaving your house and every night before going to bed to insure all windows and doors in your home are locked.
  • Keep valuables, such as cash and jewelry, out of sight.
  • Keep your vehicle locked and don’t leave valuables (i.e. navigation units, iPods, laptop computers, phones, etc.) in plain sight.
The Middletown Township Police Department provides information about how to form a neighborhood watch group on its Website and lists a number of actions all residents can take to help keep their neighborhood safe. Look for:
  • Someone screaming or shouting for help.
  • Someone looking into windows and parked cars.
  • Unusual noises.
  • Property being taken out of houses where no one is at home or a business is closed.
  • Cars, vans, or trucks moving slowly with no apparent destination, or without lights.
  • Anyone being forced into a vehicle.
  • A stranger sitting in a car or stopping to talk to a child.
Officer Bingaman suggested people keep a pen and paper near windows where they can write down anything they see that is suspicious, particularly if they can see a license plate. He pointed out that residents can call 215-949-1000 anytime to report suspicious activity that may not be an emergency. Tips will be followed up, he said.

The police are doing their work – and doing it well. Now it is up to all of us to do our part in keeping our community safe.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Mockery of Democracy

At the Monday night reorganization meeting of the Middletown Township Board of Supervisors, we got a glimpse of the kind of government we can expect from the Republican majority – and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

First and foremost, the decision of the Republican majority to schedule public comment at the end of the meeting is a blatant attempt to discourage residents from voicing their concerns or opinions. Combined with the fact that the start of the meeting was moved from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., residents may have to wait until 10 p.m. or later to address the Board.

Local government has been referred to as the purest form of direct democracy. It presents a forum in which any resident can come before their elected officials and speak their minds. The minds of those who stick it out will probably be numb before they get the opportunity to speak.

While I would expect nothing less from Tom Gallagher or George Leonhauser – both of whom prefer working in the shadows – I must say I am quite surprised that Pat Mallon and Drew Kreiling would agree to this. I expected more.

Secondly, the Republican majority has established a meeting schedule that may be confusing to some of our residents. As best as I can figure out, meetings will be held on the first and third Monday of each month. However, this will change if a holiday falls on a Monday, which happens quite frequently. In those weeks, the meeting will be held on Tuesday instead. What was the problem, Mr. Gallagher, with simply holding them on a day that would be unlikely to change – say the first and third (or second and fourth) Tuesday?

Third, I was astounded that there was no opportunity for the public to comment on motions. Mr. Gallagher was blowing through a beautifully choreographed set of motions without asking whether other Board members or the public would like to comment until Supervisor Robert McMonagle interrupted him on the motion to appoint a solicitor. This is especially ironic since Mr. Gallagher sued the past administration because of an oversight in allowing public comment before voting on a motion, and then sought an injunction when a meeting was scheduled to redo the motion – the appropriate curative action that was ultimately upheld by a judge. If asked, I wonder if he’d recommend someone following his lead and sue the new board for this violation?

Finally, motions were being made, seconded, and voted upon, in some cases, without even minimal documentation. Mr. Gallagher called for a vote on the appointment of a solicitor when Mr. McMonagle asked if Mr. Gallagher could provide the details of the contract – i.e., what the compensation would be. The dialog happened as follows:

Mr. Gallagher: “All in favor?”
Mr. McMonagle: “Is there going to be any discussion on that vote, Mr Chairman?”
Mr. Gallagher: “Sure.”
Mr. McMonagle: “What is the rate that the solicitor is being hired at or is it just open-ended?”
Mr. Gallagher: “No, it’s actually less than what the previous administration’s solicitor was.”
Mr. McMonagle: “Well, maybe I’ll rephrase the question. What is the rate that the solicitor is being hired at?”
Mr. Gallagher: “It’s the same, uh, monthly fee and $120 an hour.”
Mr. McMonagle: “Same as what?”
Mr. Gallagher: “As what was in the past.”
Mr. McMonagle: “So it’s not less than the previous solicitor?”
Mr. Gallagher: “The hours, the dollars amount for the hourly rate is less, yes.”
Mr. McMonagle: “OK, I just wanted to be clear on that.”
Mr. Gallagher: “The previous solicitor was $125 an hour. This solicitor will be $120 an hour. Is there any other discussion?”

The next motion and second involved the appointment of a township engineer and when Mr. McMonagle asked if there was a rate that the township will be charged, Mr. Gallagher’s answer was “yes, there is and I don’t have it with me.” It is beyond my comprehension that our elected officials voted on hiring a firm without knowing the rate. That is scary and irresponsible, to say the least.

As I said, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

In closing, it was interesting to see that Mr. Gallagher was so pleased in saving the township $5 per hour in legal fees. The reality is that, with legal fees for 2010 budgeted under $150,000, this will not make much of a difference. We do hope that this focus on saving money extends to doing something about police overtime, which topped $1 million in 2008.