It was a scene of political candidates dueling in head-on competition last Thursday night at Curtis Hall in Cheltenham. But there had to have been something missing.
There were no electric moments, no baiting, no nasty clashes, no incidents going viral, no instant drama of careers won or lost and certainly no post-event poll numbers that changed the complexion of any race. No, none of it.
Just 70-plus voters turning out for a chance to hear candidates and participate in a local forum with the civility and dignity that, well, democracy deserves. The event was put on by Citizens’ Call in conjunction with the Cheltenham Chamber of Citizens, Concerned Citizens for Ashbourne, Wyncote Civic Association and Wyngate Residents.
The forum featured three distinct panels of candidates vying for election on Nov. 3: the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners (Wards 1,2,3,5,and 7); Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and judges for the Court of Common Pleas. Candidates responded to predetermined questions provided just prior to the event, as well as those submitted by the audience. The evening was moderated by Citizens’ Call publisher Steve Strahs. You can view the entire two-hour forum on YouTube https://youtu.be/wVkV83igqNw. Or you can watch any of the three separate panel segments in this story (see above and below).
Township Board of Commissioners
First up were the local commissioner candidates Drew Sharkey (Ward 1 Republican incumbent, unopposed), Baron Holland (Ward 2 Democratic incumbent appointee), Melissa Bowers (Ward 2 Republican challenger), Brad Pransky (Ward 3 Democrat, unopposed), Daniel Norris (Ward 5 incumbent Democrat), Thom Estilow (Ward 5 Republican challenger) and Irv Brockington, a Ward 7 Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Charlie McKeowen, who did not attend. The candidates fielded questions ranging from the “walkability” of Cheltenham and business development and zoning to the deteriorating sewer system and tax-exempt properties.
When asked about their top three priorities, if elected, there was little difference among the candidates’ responses. Addressing the infrastructure needs of the township, especially the aging sewer system, and balancing the budget through thoughtful business development were on everyone’s list. Two mentioned the need for closer collaboration with the school district (Holland and Pransky) and most mentioned “constituent services” as a priority.
While all the candidates voiced support for making Cheltenham more “walkable” (and bikeable) by working to build more sidewalks and bike lanes, they all noted that the township faces other perhaps more pressing problems.
A question on how to best address the costs related to major improvements to the sewers, specifically, whether to sell off the system, illustrated some clear differences among the candidates. Holland and Norris said they are currently opposed to selling the system to a public authority or other entity but would keep an open mind. Bowers, running against Holland in Ward 2, said she would seek grants to finance sewer improvements but would examine all available options. Estilow took a position contrary to Norris, his Ward 5 opponent, expressing support for selling the system to a municipal authority. Brockington reported that his constituents are in support of selling the sewer system, although they express concern about future water bills increasing. Sharkey, who has spoken consistently in favor of some type of sell-off, encouraged voters to educate themselves on the issue and to attend commissioner meetings to express their views.
In response to a question about addressing the township’s more than $800,000 structural budget deficit by expanding PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) for exempt property owners (comprising about 10 percent of total assessed value), Pransky proposed that “we put together a program . . . that would work with some of these organizations to come up with something that would be palatable to them and that would increase our bottom line.” While the remaining candidates all weighed in with similar support for the concept, Holland added, “we also need to work collaboratively with unions, employees and residents to solve our budget problems.”
The candidates had two opportunities to address zoning-related concerns. In response to one of the moderator’s pre-determined questions about proposed revisions to the zoning code that would encourage business development, all the candidates agreed that the current code is antiquated and needs updating. All supported the need for rewriting the code with Norris saying he wants a code that will preserve the “quiet residential character” of Cheltenham while contending there are “places and ways to encourage commercial development which will provide services locally and provide tax revenue.”
A question from the audience about the powers and accountability of the Zoning Hearing Board asked the candidates how appointments are made and if they would improve the transparency of the process. Sharkey responded as if to defend the appointment of board members, as opposed to having them elected. “There is a reason why they are not elected. They are supposed to be inoculated from the political process. There is no input from either political party . . . They are not allowed to have outside communication with commissioners or developers,” he said. Sharkey framed the issue as “based on the law, not emotion.” He continued, “I understand that sometimes you’re not always happy with the way decisions are decided,” saying that he, too, had problems with some decisions. He also noted that there is an upcoming opening on the board – he did not cite who would be leaving – and said those who are interested can submit their resume for consideration. No other candidates volunteered responses.
On public safety, Ward 2 challenger Bowers contended that the township’s biggest problem is the lack of bike lanes and would determine how to move ahead to make changes. As a security professional with a degree in criminal justice, she said safety would be a top priority and hopes to work with the school district on emergency action plans.
Sharkey stated emphatically “we have the best police department in Montgomery County and PA.” He continued, “Considering the law enforcement atmosphere that we’re going through in this country, our police department has a fantastic relationship with this diverse community and it’s something we all should be proud of.” He said that the most predominant crime in the township is retail theft, adding, “there is no ‘public safety’ issue,” although he did agree with Bowers that street safety is important.
“The police department does an excellent job,” said Norris. “They work well with the commissioners and staff. They react to community concerns quickly and efficiently and appropriately, so they really do a great job,” he said. Norris suggested if there are any resident concerns, they should be aired.
Estilow, Norris’s Ward 5 challenger, made the point that the key response to make in all emergency situations, one emphasized by police, is simply to call 911.
Holland noted that there have been break-ins in various sections, citing Church Road and Lynnewood Gardens. He said police responded and have been doing “great work.”
The candidates’ closing statements expressed appreciation for the audience turnout and encouraged participants to get out and vote.
Montgomery County Board of Commissioners
Next up were the candidates for the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. Democrats Josh Shapiro and Val Arkoosh faced off against Republican Joe Gale. (The other Republican candidate, Steve Tolbert, did not attend.) The moderator explained that that there are three seats on the county board, and one is reserved for the minority party. Voters choose three candidates. In the introductions, Gale, 26, emphasized that he is a “non- endorsed” Republican candidate who, he said, represents the next generation of leadership. Shapiro noted that his is the first Democratic county administration in 150 years.
The first question was posed to the Democrats about the social costs of balancing the county budget after facing a major structural deficit inherited from the prior administration in 2012. The Parkhouse nursing facility with many residents Medicare and Medicaid-eligible, was privatized. Also, more than $5 million of the budget of Montgomery County Community College was cut, resulting in tuition increases and personnel reductions.
Shapiro responded that his administration has balanced the budget after five years of structural deficits and has enjoyed a surplus for the four years they have been in office. He noted that the $39 million in proceeds from the sale of the nursing home went directly into the depleted reserve fund and that the county budget no longer carries the expenses of operating the nursing home. Shapiro said that tuition at the community college remains lower than at the colleges of neighboring counties. Moreover, Shapiro maintained that social investments in the needs of seniors, children and those with intellectual disabilities are up. “Those investments happened because we got our fiscal house in order,” he said.
Gale was asked how he would handle the county budget and improve upon the current administration’s track record, given that he is calling for a higher bond rating, is against asset sales and opposes tax increases. He said he would use his finance background to restore the county’s AAA bond rating which it lost five years ago. The restored rating would allow the county to raise money to invest in infrastructure needs. The remainder of Gale’s response focused primarily on his ideas for revitalizing Norristown.
Although two questions, one from the audience, asked the candidates for specific actions and explanations on flooding and the county’s 2040 Shared Vision related to Cheltenham and other municipalities in similar contexts, the candidates mostly stuck to generalities. On the question of flooding during major storms and the opportunity for the county to bring together upstream and downstream municipalities – like Cheltenham – to broker solutions, Arkoosh noted that she works with the county Conservation District and that there are plans to hire an engineer who would assess storm water management plans involving future developments in the county. Also, the county is now working with municipalities in two watersheds to bring municipalities together “to solve the problems that are really affecting our downstream communities,” she said.
Gale pointed to the significance of Cheltenham’s excellent police force, the importance of maintaining Route 309 and the need to fill the Cheltenham Mall, adding to the local tax base. He said he hopes to work with the township in conjunction with the county planning commission “to make things even better.”
The candidates ended their session by outlining their top three priorities. The Democratic candidates want to continue their fiscally responsible management, address bridges and roads and other infrastructure needs in the county and work to maintain a high quality of life. Gale’s priorities would be to restore the county’s credit rating, to revitalize the borough of Norristown and to “restore moral character and common sense to government.”
Court of Common Pleas
Just as there is often a drop-off in the number of voters who cast ballots for judicial candidates, there was a modest drop-off in the number of those who stayed for the third panel on the Court of Common Pleas. There are three seats on the ballot with one candidate from each party running, five of whom attended the forum: Daniel Clifford (Democrat); Todd Eisenberg (Democrat); Risa Vetri Ferman (Republican); Stephen Heckman (Republican); and Natasha Taylor-Smith (Democrat). Greg Cirillo (Republican) did not participate.
The first question posed was on setting bail, specifically asking how the candidates would make decisions so as not to disadvantage those defendants who cannot afford to pay. Taylor-Smith, whose background includes working as a public defender and in private practice in family, personal injury and criminal law, now works for the Solicitor’s office of Montgomery County. She pointed out that bail is generally set at the district judge level, although motions for changes are addressed at Common Pleas. She said judges must focus on public safety and the likelihood of the defendant showing up in court, in addition to weighing the criminal charges involved. Taylor-Smith also mentioned the importance of self-awareness of one’s biases and her concern over the disproportionate involvement of people of color in the criminal justice system.
Heckman, a Bluebell resident who has worked as a prosecutor and as chief public defender of Montgomery County, emphasized bail criteria such as whether there is a criminal record of violent crimes, a record of showing up for court appearances and the level of family and community ties of the accused. He said race should play no role. Clifford, a Springfield resident with a 30-year family law practice and now a partner with Weber Gallagher, has been chair of the Springfield Zoning Hearing Board for 17 years. He emphasized the importance of the exercise of discretion for judges rather than meeting pre-set guidelines.
Vetri Ferman, an Abington resident, said a priority of her work as Montgomery County DA has been protecting the most vulnerable, including children and seniors. She said she agreed with colleagues on bail criteria and pointed to a protocol she worked out as DA with the Public Defender office for regular review of bail decisions to guard against racial, economic or other biases. Eisenberg, who grew up in Cheltenham, has been a public defender and worked in private practice in criminal, family and personal injury law and now handles civil litigation involving PECO for Friedman Schuman. He agreed that the primary criteria for setting bail are public safety and level of flight risk, and unless it is shown, for example, that the accused has missed court appearances or has no stable address, reasonable bail should be set. “It comes down to fairness and respect and not discriminating against anybody,” he said.
The second question was about the difference between a judge’s role in adult criminal court and in juvenile court. Clifford said there are different considerations taken into account for remedies and sentencing in juvenile court involving “how they arrived there” and knowledge of the child’s support system. Ferman said the first difference between the two is that the primary goal of the juvenile system is rehabilitation, not punishment. She supported diversionary programs such as Youth Aid Panels (also mentioned by Clifford) and other programs that offer mentoring and other services to young people who have made bad decisions to “get them to a place where they can lead productive lives.”
As a public defender in Philadelphia, Eisenberg said he found that the challenge for the system was rehabilitation, putting in place supports, “not just getting convictions.” Heckman noted that standards for juvenile justice are evolving, citing examples of Supreme Court prohibitions against the death penalty and life sentences. With juveniles, he said, “you have a chance to save and mold a life at that stage, where after that stage it may be impossible to do anything more than incarcerate.”
The focus on childen should be “turning that child into a more productive citizen,” echoed Taylor-Smith. Looking at whether the child has been abused or has adequate supports are key concerns, she said. And “moving the child away from the community . . . is one sure way to keep the child in the system.”
On the question of the value of having special court programs, such as the Drug Court, all of the candidates endorsed their importance. Eisenberg praised drug courts as a major innovation in the criminal system. “Those programs are great,” he said, “because what they do is take people who have problems and need treatment and instead of just going with mass incarceration, they get them treatment and help them move forward. Youth Aid Panels are great, as well, because it helps juveniles who have issues and it doesn’t get them burdened with convictions.”
“I think that we have to meet people where they are,” said Taylor-Smith. She said special courts reduce recidivism and are a way for the system to invest in people “with the energy, effort and expertise up front” rather than trying to rehabilitate people after incarceration. Heckman praised Montco’s Drug Court as “one of the finest” and listed programs for veterans and those needing mental health services as making contributions. He did single out DUI Court as “punitive,” saying that people with serious alcohol problems should be in in-patient programs and not in jail. He said special court programs “keep the right people in jail and the right people out of jail.”
Clifford called the court programs “good ideas” primarily because the judges assigned to them have special training and expertise on those issues. He said family court practitioners are advocating for a “Protection from Abuse” division because of the high number of protection orders filed and the need for judges hearing abuse cases to have expertise in that area. Ferman contended that an area where the courts need to improve considerably is in the mental health sector.
In response to a question submitted from the audience regarding the assessment of “dangerousness” of someone charged or convicted, Taylor-Smith said she would look to empirical guides such as prior offenses, general background and the specific crime involved. Heckman pointed to the use of a mental health evaluation in some circumstances and the availability of family and other supports. Clifford said that making that judgment is the most important decision a judge has to make and it’s one that requires discretion on the part of the judge. Eisenberg followed up, emphasizing the use of “common sense” and “reasonableness,” while Ferman framed the issue as basically about “risk” of danger to others.
In their concluding remarks, the candidates pointed to the strong impact that judges have on everyday life and thanked Citizens’ Call and the team of sponsors. One candidate said he wished the other 61 municipalities across the county had similar forums, which he and his fellow-candidates would be eager to attend. Voters were urged to take the time to learn more about the candidates before voting on Nov. 3.