A cautionary tale for anyone thinking they can make a difference
A friend of of mine who follows my dealings with Jenkintown Borough recently related his own experience that spoke to the futility of civic engagement. My friend, an attorney and a one-time senior official in state government, possesses considerable political acumen. Earlier in his adult life, he and his wife also decided to get very much involved in their bucolic community just north of Boston. After months of frustration, they decided instead to just move.
Luckily for my friend, his current financial status insulates him from municipal shenanigans. My family? Not so much. Decisions made by Jenkintown Borough and Jenkintown School District affect us profoundly. We therefore have incentive to get involved and to make our positions known, but after our experiences of the past couple of years, rubber mallets to our heads would produce much the same result and take far less time.
Not here, not now, not ever
While our story began with a campaign to discuss the rationality of Jenkintown’s sidewalk ordinance, it evolved into a tale with a familiar theme; that familiarity breeds contempt. We approached the Borough not only asking for help, but we also presented an alternative plan that we thought was a well-reasoned and researched.
The Borough not only expressed no interest in discussing the matter, they took action to actually make matters worse for us. Meanwhile a council member publicly disparaged us on social media as crackpots, calling our ideas “quixotic”. We were not asking for the Borough to build a protective dome or to mow our lawn. We were asking it to reconsider an ordinance that hurt people financially and produced a substandard results. We characterized it as paying for steak and getting McNuggets.
Since this began, here’s a short list of what we experienced:
- Neighbors falsely accusing us of trying to evade our responsibilities
- A Borough Councilor flatly proclaiming, “This is the way we’ve always done it. This is the way everyone else does it. I see no reason to change this now.”
- That same borough councilor trolling my Facebook page and posting a comment on our website saying, among other things, “I pity your family.”
- A Borough Manager that conveyed false information to a judge about a decision to rescind the lien process used to pay for work the resident couldn’t afford
- The threat of fines from the county amounting to $185 per day if we didn’t complete the work
- Neighbors accusing us of misrepresenting ourselves in a GoFundMe campaign we launched in order to pay for the work
- The Mayor of Jenkintown blocking me from seeing any of his Facebook posts, Trump-style, including those that conveyed official information on public forums
A right to know (what we want you to know)
And finally, in an attempt to investigate possible improprieties of that trolling councilor, I filed a Right-To-Know request for emails sent to and from his borough email address. The Borough invoked their right to a 30-day extension, which I believed meant they needed time to assemble the evidence, redacted for reasons related to privacy.
Instead, I received a letter from the Borough with an estimate for computer forensic services for the amount of $3,800 to retrieve these emails. As an IT professional myself, I knew that such services would only be required if the Borough had not just deleted those emails, but wiped them clean from the server. This made little sense, for a couple of reasons.
First, the Borough apparently employs the use of Microsoft’s Outlook cloud services to administer their email, which means that the emails never really go away. Second, I had already spoken with another Council member about this and he offered to let me see his email account anytime.
No connections, no consideration, no service
The Borough’s letter suggested that I should write the the office of our borough solicitor, Sean Kilkenny, with any questions or concerns, and of course I had questions. The Borough’s letter indicated that the estimate I received was the lowest of three they solicited, so I asked for the other two since they expected me to pay them. Also, I wondered why I should even need a forensics firm for this, as it would imply that they deleted their emails. I wrote three letters over the course of a month, and I received no reply.
Further research showed me that document archival guidelines set forth by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determines that administrative correspondence, which includes emails, only need to be retained for “as long as administratively useful.” In other words, if Jenkintown lies to me and says that the emails didn’t exist, they have legal cover.
This is obstruction plain and simple. This means that if you have good reason to believe that your elected official is up to no good, a private citizen has no recourse and no right to see any official correspondence that might prove that fact. However, you can bet that if the FBI comes calling, those emails will magically reappear.
Our tiny little town would have you think that its size, demographics, and location would make it an almost idyllic community. Good school, easy access to transit, and a rich mix of housing types should make it the poster-town for small-town living. The dream of such a lifestyle does exist here, but it means avoiding any interaction with its government or attempting to have it address something that is not already on its agenda.
Welcome to small-town politics at its smallest.