Sparks Fly Over Routine County Board Appointment

A routine appointment of a prominent figure in Lower Merion to a volunteer advisory board by the Montco Board of Commissioners today sparked some election year controversy. Of course, with the campaign for control of county government heating up, it doesn’t take much.

The selection of Bruce Reed for the Montgomery County Open Space Board, which advises the commissioners on open space acquisition and preservation, raised the more basic question of the appropriate means of recruitment and standards for selection of nominees to the hundreds of volunteer posts on the dozens of county boards and commissions. Some have important decision-making authority, such as the Montgomery County Community College Board of Trustees.

Not surprisingly, the disagreement fell along party lines and the Reed nomination by Commissioner Joe Hoeffel pointed to entrenched divisions between the two parties in Lower Merion, which are now spilling over countywide. A second nominee to the open space board, lawyer Mark Vasoli of Hatboro, sailed through unanimously without debate.

Reed, a lawyer and former president of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners, former member of the planning commission there and a current member and solicitor of the Lower Merion Historical Society, has been a polarizing figure in the township. “We don’t have Boss Tweed, we have Boss Reed,” quipped a post on the website of The Save Ardmore Coalition. He also recently resigned his position unexpectedly as member and president of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners.

“It’s a pretty enervating existence, three weeknights a week out of the house, [this] week four weeknights,” Reed said some months back in explaining his resignation. “I’ve done it now for seven years, and I’ve been president for over four years. It takes a toll on your personal life.”

The question of board appointments came to a head, though, when a county beat reporter (not this one) posed the following relevant, but somewhat artlessly expressed question, in response to the Reed nomination: “Why go out and get the same old retreads? Aren’t there normal people out there?”

The reporter also referenced Reed’s long-time defense of the township’s practice of holding pre-meetings of the board of commissioners which were conducted behind closed doors. Many Lower Merion residents, including some officials and even board members, have charged that the practice, which Reed championed, is in violation of the PA Sunshine Act. The law requires, with some significant exceptions, that meetings of most public bodies be open to the public.

The Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, for example, has “agenda” meetings, which are public and usually occur the day before regular business meetings. However, in late 2010, the county board was itself blasted by the Norristown Times Herald for “Breakfastgate,” the reviewing county business with staff over breakfast at a local diner. A grand jury then subpoenaed records of the board’s governing coalition, Chair Jim Matthews, a Republican, and Vice Chair Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat.

Democrats hold a majority on the Lower Merion board and views on the interpretation of the public meeting law there tend to split according to party affiliation, with most Democrats claiming that the closed meetings are lawful and Republicans arguing that they contradict the sunshine law.

Republican Commissioner Bruce Castor opposed the Reed appointment because “I disagree with his definition of the Sunshine Act,” adding that he was not aware of Reed’s position on open meetings until he googled him. Hoeffel, defending his nominee, said, “Commissioner Castor has a long history of voting against Democrats. These other reasons are pretty lame and I regret it. I’m offended at the way this board has been politicized.” He also noted Reed’s experience with and interest in the county’s open space program as a Lower Merion official.

But, as is often the case with county politics, this seemingly isolated Lower Merion conflict is more than that. Castor’s running mate for county commissioner, Jenny Brown, is on the Board of Commissioners in Lower Merion and has been a vocal opponent of Reed’s. Funny how politics and public policy positions tend to converge.