Political Profile: Democrat Heidi Morein Challenging Charlie McKeown in Ward Seven

Ward Seven candidate for commissioner Heidi Morein

When you first meet Heidi Morein of Rowland Park, who is vying to be the next Ward Seven commissioner, she comes across as pretty low-key and easy-going. Just don’t get this college communications instructor and mother of two started on citizen involvement and community improvement. She’s been active wherever she’s lived, initiating with her husband, Jon, a Town Watch program in Roxborough, participating in the Old City Civic Association or, most recently, joining Cheltenham’s Historical Commission after she and her family took up residence here in 2005.

While always interested in electoral politics from afar, what catapulted her into the Ward Seven race against incumbent Republican Charlie McKeown was the direction of the Ashbourne Country Club project, a townhouse development by Matrix Ashbourne on 103 acress, which she calls a “debacle,” or at least one in the making. She sees a lack of proactive sustainable planning as the root of a misdirected development that she believes, if built, will be disruptive to the community and in direct conflict with environmental imperatives. The project is now bogged down in the courts and there is widespread speculation as to whether it will ever get built.

While aware of the need for a more robust tax base, Heidi believes a head-long rush for ratables was a major factor in moving ahead with the poorly conceived 222-unit project. “The pressure to bring ratables into the township is part of what made that decision that probably worked against our community’s greater interest in terms of environmental impact and having sustainable growth as opposed to unsustainable and disruptive growth. I think that pressure drove the failure to have more responsible zoning and to think through the environmental impact and to think about what other uses for that land there might be.”

The Boyer Road resident lauds the contribution of the group, Concerned Citizens for Ashbourne (CC4A). “I think we lacked a fair amount of leadership coming from Charlie (McKeown, the ward’s commissioner), so CC4A stepped into that void and said: ‘Hold on. This is too much development creating too much density and putting too much pressure on an infrastructure already needing fixing’. . . What are the environmental and quality of life impacts coming from this kind of development?

“Prior to catastrophic flooding that we had last summer, we didn’t think of ourselves as living in an area where we can watch cars floating down the street . . . So I think that that most recent experience of flooding has probably meant that the environmental impact of any development has to be that much more scrutinized. It was being scrutinized before – again because CC4A filled the void that Charlie’s leadership left, so CC4A had to step in. He was in touch with them, but I think Charlie has been more reactive than proactive.”

Morein is hopeful that the election comes at just the right time so that with a change at the commissioner level – if she wins – combined with the hold-up in the courts and a depressed market, there will be some breathing space to rethink the scale of development and perhaps negotiate changes with Matrix.

Morein readily admits that she’s been educating herself about the serious environmental and sustainability issues that Cheltenham is confronting and that she has a lot more work to do. “We face some very critical issues of land use and zoning and environmental impact and sewage and storm water runoff, and any development now is going to bring pressure on an infrastructure that is already failing and needs probably to be wholesale reconstructed and rebuilt at a tremendous cost into the future.”

On the positive side, she says, is that greater visibility of the problems should bring more players to the table with leverage to improve conditions in the township. Agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the state department of environmental protection (DEP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are being pressed to deliver and elected officials will have to step up and keep the pressure on.

In keeping with her commitment to citizen involvement, Morein wants to make sure that the township’s Sustainability Committee has the opportunity to play a major role in mapping out future plans. She is so impressed with the talent and motivation of residents willing to invest their time to further their community that she is adamant that the committee not be relegated to “window-dressing.”

Through her travels doing door-knocking around the ward, Morein has become even more convinced that opening up the process to creative thinking by committed citizens can bring the township major dividends. She has met many neighbors ready to roll up their sleeves and share innovative ideas on infrastructure improvements and development approaches.

Regarding the possibility of slashing the cost of trash collection through privatization or other measures that reduce labor costs, Morein says she would have to find out more, but that she was very uncomfortable with any reorganization of services in which the township has less control and is therefore less directly accountable to residents when there are problems. Plus, she is against layoffs except as a very last resort.

Promoting business development is, she says, an important role for the township, and, as an example, she is excited about the development of the Creekside Food Co-op and the township’s role in supporting it by waving some fees to help get it off the ground. She believes that Creekside is a unique entrepreneurial venture, with residents devoted to it, that can be a landmark presence for Cheltenham. She hopes that the township can find additional ways of assisting new and expanding businesses.

Morein is an unqualified supporter of the Human Relations Commission proposal now under review by the township’s Public Affairs Committee, which her opponent chairs. She thinks it would be an important vehicle for realizing greater fairness and equality for those who are discriminated against on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, but also a way for Cheltenham to show itself as the diverse and forward-looking community that it is.

Finally, Heidi thinks that an important criterion for being a successful commissioner, especially these days, is the ability to work well with the school board. She believes that she will be able to develop strong relationships there that will help to bring the boards together for strategic collaborations in the general interest of township residents.