Is Jenkintown Matters Ethical?

Of all the overheated accusations hurled at Jenkintown Matters found on social media, a lack of ethics is maybe the most curious. According to at least one follower of the Jenkintown Community Page (group), citizens publishing research about their local government on their own blog without revealing their names is unethical. 

Ethics, as I understand it, helps us understand the difference between good and bad, and simply put, something “bad” deprives someone of their rights.

Jenkintown Matters formed last spring in response to revelations about the Borough’s secret internal discussions about contracting police services from Abington Township. The only reason any of us know about these discussions is because Jenkintown Matters filed right-to-know requests to get them.

All this information is now publicly available for any resident to do their own assessment and come to their own conclusions. I’ve yet to read anything on the JM site that, for instance delves into the private affairs of any borough official, elected or otherwise.

Shooting the Messenger

But for some, it’s not the message. It’s the messenger. Borough Council secretly votes to spend $20,000 on a media consultant to help them manage the blowback, but some take umbrage at the lack of a byline in the article exposing this?

Then John Higley, who joined our community only a year ago, piles on with might be the most specious claim.

My problem is not their activity, it’s their lack of transparency, standards, and ethics.

Let’s explore that last one for a bit.

I can give Mr. Higley some very good reasons why some of these residents choose to remain under the radar. 

This blog has my name all over it. And thanks to that, I’ve found myself verbally abused, not only by residents saying to my face “why don’t you just move already”, but also by council members insulting me and my family on social media. They and others have even stooped so low as demand my employer fire me. Worst of all, my daughter caught flak from her peers at school.

Some of us have the stomach for this. Many others well-remember Jenkintown’s documented history of weaponizing its zoning code against those that challenge its political agenda. 

So, Mr. Higley, what exactly is the ethics issue here? How have your rights been violated? This is local politics after all, not microbiology where a lack of ethics can get people killed.

What is Not a Lobbyist

Mr. Higley went on to describe Jenkintown Matters members lobbyists.

…they are acting as lobbyists. Lobbyists should be transparent, federally, they’re required to be, but this is municipal, so yeah, it’s probably all above board from a legal perspective, but that doesn’t make it right. I’m not concerned with or accusing them of any illegal or untoward activity. Everything I’m seeing looks like a group of concerned citizens with maybe too much time on their hands and a bit of arrogance regarding their abilities as non-journalists acting as journalists and lobbyists.

Mr. Higley equivocates. A lobbyist, as most of us understand the term, is a paid proxy hired to bring influence upon public policy on behalf of a special interest. A taxpayer meeting with their rep doesn’t qualify. I doubt residents are treating council members to dinner or vacations to get more action on business district revitalization — although that might not be a bad idea. 

Finally, a quick word about amateur journalism. I have no degree in journalism. I do, however, have forty years of experience as a designer, writer, and publisher. This blog represents only a small part of my work, which includes two books and a magazine and website I ran for sixteen years. Having been a news junkie from eleven years old, and having been on both sides of the journalism fence — as subject and reporter — I’m rather glad I don’t have a degree in the field. It’s a waste of money.

If Mr. Higley wants to cite ethical violations, he’ll find plenty in Borough Hall. Unfortunately, he claims he doesn’t have the time to research them. Maybe not now, but after he lives here a while, and the Borough finally does something to offend his sense of ethics — which it will — I’ll bet he finds the time.

Borough Finances — Who’s Responsible?

Mismanagement, opacity, and complacency combine to diminish the community. What’s next?

With the Borough’s finances now finally in such a state that it has to actually consider disbanding our police department, it bears reminding of what we wrote here in 2019: 

Make no mistake, Jenkintonians: We are sailing into some stormy seas. We ended the last fiscal year with a half-million dollar deficit, this despite ten years of national economic expansion. Our business district, which the entire community depends upon to stay solven, limps along. A weaker town center means higher school tax.

The Borough knew before Covid hit that it faced a grim financial outlook, and from the time we published this warning, matters got worse. Council’s Finance Committee chairman David Ballard today claims that prospects for 2024 look better, but with the school district recently announcing a 6% tax increase for its upcoming fiscal year, one might reasonably have some doubts. When faced with declining revenues, a business typically lowers its prices. Government usually goes in the opposite direction, which only corrodes the viability of the community it serves.

The Borough already knew of the looming $1.2 million sewer bill to cover our share of what we flush into Cheltenham’s system. 

The Borough then got hit with the reassessment of the Strawbridge Building suit to reassess their property tax bill. The Borough and the school district has to return approximately $200,000 and $800,000 respectively. Those numbers do not include legal fees or interest. 

The Borough knew of improperly received commercial taxes from a business in Cheltenham “for many years” and that it would eventually be required to transfer those funds with interest to that township. 

The Borough knew that it would have to finally pay Salem Baptist Church approximately $1 million for the easement it seized in more than twenty years ago — with interest and legal fees. The loan amount does not show up on the cash-basis budget because the borough borrowed the money to cover the settlement. Why this twenty-year legal battle finally concluded with the sale of the property to a major contributor to the county Democratic Party and to Sean Kilkenny is anyone’s guess. 

Finally, the Borough knew it would face the wrath of citizens, so it retained the services of Belleview Communications, a Philadelphia-based PR firm for two months last summer for $20,000 to help it strategize a campaign to douse the expected taxpayer outrage. In other words, the borough spent our money for guidance explaining how they mismanaged our money. (See the letter and invoices here.)

In a comment on the Jenkintown Community Page, David Ballard explained in considerable detail the situation from the Borough’s perspective, but his narrative mostly tells a tale of a reactive Council, rarely prepared or mindful of the pitfalls that this tiny borough faces. We might now rightfully wonder if Jenkintown can afford its own existence — at least if it hopes to retain an economically diverse population. Or maybe that’s somehow the plan? 

Towns have condemned entire neighborhoods to turn over the properties to commercial developers. Review the Kelo v. New Haven Supreme Court case to better understand how this happens. There the city used its powers of eminent domain to seize Suzy Kelo’s house and the surrounding neighborhood to make way for a new Pfizer office complex that they later canceled, leaving New Haven holding the bag.  

Citizens of this borough should rightfully be puzzled by the lack of public outreach by our own representatives. Frankly, I think it’s a normal and welcome thing to have open debate in representative bodies, and especially in the public sphere. Our Council, however, toils in a cone of silence. Council meetings typically end with a record of one unanimous vote after another, at least for the four years I attended nearly every one. 

Yet, I know first-hand of the dissent. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing three ex-council members who unleashed a torrent of criticism of their colleagues. 

While Mr. Ballard waxes eloquently on social media about the details in this devilish problem, we all must remember that this all happened under his watch. In the reality that exists outside of Jenkintown, his is a record that usually gets people fired. But in this one-party town, he knows full well — as do we — that his seat is safe as long as Jenkintown voters remain complacent.

Why the Borough is Broke

Mismanagement, opacity, and complacency combine to diminish the community. What’s next?

With the Borough’s finances now finally in such a state that it has to actually consider disbanding our police department, it bears reminding of what we wrote here in 2019: 

Make no mistake, Jenkintonians: We are sailing into some stormy seas. We ended the last fiscal year with a half-million dollar deficit, this despite ten years of national economic expansion. Our business district, which the entire community depends upon to stay solvent, limps along. A weaker town center means higher school tax.

The Borough knew even before Covid that it faced a grim financial outlook, and from the time we published that warning, prospects only worsened. Council’s Finance Committee chairman David Ballard claims that prospects for 2024 “look better”, but with the school district recently announcing a 6% tax increase for its upcoming fiscal year, one might reasonably have some doubts. When faced with declining revenues, a business typically lowers its prices. Government usually goes in the opposite direction, which only corrodes the viability of the community it serves.

The Borough already knew of the looming $1.2 million sewer liability to cover our share of what we flush into Cheltenham’s system. 

The Borough then got hit with the reassessment of the Strawbridge Building. The Borough and the school district has to return approximately $200,000 and $800,000 respectively. Those numbers do not include legal fees or interest. 

The Borough knew of improperly received commercial taxes from a business in Cheltenham “for many years”, and that it would eventually be required to transfer those funds with interest to that township. 

The Borough knew that it would have to finally pay Salem Baptist Church approximately $1 million for the easement it seized more than twenty years ago — with interest and legal fees. Why the settlement of twenty-year legal battle coincided with the sale of the property to a major contributor to the county Democratic Party and to Sean Kilkenny is anyone’s guess. The loan amount, like all the Borough’s loans, does not show up on the Borough’s cash-basis budget — only the interest. To learn about the loans and their terms, one must file a right-to-know request.

Finally, the Borough knew it would face the wrath of citizens when it all became public, so it retained the services of Belleview Communications, a Philadelphia-based PR firm last summer for $20,000 to manage the damage control. In other words, the borough spent our money to better explain how they mismanaged our money. (See the letter and invoices here.)

In a comment on the Jenkintown Community Page, David Ballard explained in considerable detail the situation from the Borough’s perspective, but his narrative mostly tells a tale of a reactive Council, rarely prepared or mindful of the pitfalls that this tiny borough faces. We might now rightfully wonder if Jenkintown can afford its own existence — at least if it hopes to retain an economically diverse population.

Or maybe that’s somehow the plan? 

Towns do condemned entire neighborhoods and transfer them to commercial developers. Review the Kelo v. New Haven Supreme Court case to better understand how this happens. There the city used its powers of eminent domain to seize Suzy Kelo’s house and the surrounding neighborhood to make way for a new Pfizer office complex that they later canceled, leaving New Haven holding the bag.  

Citizens of this borough should rightfully be puzzled by the lack of public outreach by our own representatives. Frankly, I think it’s a normal and welcome thing to have open debate in representative bodies and especially in the public sphere.

Our Council, however, toils in a cone of silence. Council meetings typically end with a record of one unanimous vote after another, at least during the four years where I attended nearly every one. 

Yet I know first-hand of the dissent that simmers on that board. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing three ex-council members who unleashed a torrent of criticism of their colleagues. 

While Mr. Ballard waxes eloquently on social media about the details in this devilish problem, we all must remember that it all happened under his watch.

In the reality that exists outside of Jenkintown, a record like his usually gets people fired. But in this one-party town, he knows full well — as do we — that his seat is safe as long as Jenkintown voters remain complacent.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Trevor Owens.

What the 15 Minute City Gets Wrong

Creating walkable communities need not be a contest between conflicting interests. Here’s how everyone gets what they want.

This story originally appeared in Randy by Name, our new Substack.

Recipe for an American Renaissance: Eat in diners. Ride trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.


Those of us who keep abreast of the sustainable development movement, as I have since about 1991, have lately heard of a new buzz phrase: the 15 minute city. The concept embraces many of ingredients in our Recipe, namely the walkable community, the shopping on Main Street, and the ride trains part. I knew this without even reading about it, and this video I watched confirmed my assumptions. 

What is the 15 minute city? Depending on which video you watch, it’s either a common sense plan to improve the environment, our health, and our happiness, or it’s a dystopian scheme designed by elites to corral us all into designated districts to keep closer tabs on our every movement. In my experience, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and as proposed, it promises to make no one happy.

Some parts of this make perfect sense: Live and work closer to what we need. Design and build for people and not cars. Keep your car, but don’t rely upon it so much. Personally, I love to drive, and I never saw a conflict between car ownership and walkable neighborhoods, but I must stress that the Recipe urges people to make the choice to live in such a community. It was never a blueprint for policy.

Both sides tend to ignore the origins of urban decline and the sprawl encircling it. Urbanists will blame auto companies. They blame the railroads for mismanagement and greed. And they blame developers for swallowing up pastoral landscapes to build homes that drain our cities of productive residents.

Suburbanites point the finger at poor civic management for the decay, crime and poor school performance. Meanwhile they defend their desire for more space and highways without acknowledging the tax benefits of home ownership and the hidden costs of building and maintaining so much low-density infrastructure.

Neither side seems to acknowledge how both their political traditions played in creating a national transportation policy in response to the demand for more and better roads. 

From City Beautiful to Urban Renewal

The twentieth century began with the “City Beautiful” movement, a concerted effort to bring more grandeur to cities previously defined more by industrial expedience than artful planning. Philadelphia, for instance, built its Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a veritable Champs Elysées connecting its Beaux Arts City Hall with a brand new classically inspired Museum of Fine Arts. Railroads constructed palatial passenger stations by the scores that proudly asserted the 20th century as the American century. 

Then comes the Depression, another World War, and in between, a World’s Fair that sold the American public on a bright future of free highways. People could soar, if not in the sky, then smoothly along impediment-free roads in their new automobiles. 

Up until this period, private companies provided most of our mass transportation and charged for access which reflected the actual costs of the service, and that mechanism guided the design of our cities and towns. In most of the western world, the important stuff stood at the center, like city hall, the general store, the post office, and the depot. Business and housing radiated out from those things. Further development was incremental but adhered to the pattern.

The advent of the automobile disrupted this tradition — not because of market forces — but because tax-funded highways removed the profit motive from passenger transportation. While this helped to create the most mobile society in history, it decimated a passenger rail system that was the envy of the world. It also created a nasty pollution problem.

By the 1920s, our rail network stretched across nearly 280,000 miles of track, most carrying passengers and going everywhere of consequence. Fifty years later, the passenger rail business nearly disappeared, and today we have less than half the total rail network. This was a political decision.

Pride of Place

Thomas Sowell wrote that “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” If true, then how does each side accept the inevitable trade-offs without creating resentment? We want people to take pride in their homes, but when someone imposes rules that conflict with their values, it threatens their happiness and makes that pride elusive.

I still consider myself an urbanist, but not one that sees the need for top-down solutions. Under this video on this topic, a commenter succinctly summarized that the 15 minute city requires “…bureaucracy to deal with the foreseeable unintended consequences of past central planning. Free market urban development tends to produce very efficient land use patterns without government planners, however this has been severely constrained by ‘good intentions’ for at least a century.” 

The pro-15 video I watched acknowledges but glosses over claims of opponents who predict less freedom of movement for those living within these cities. Will the 15 minute city assign fine-enforced quotas for automobile usage, especially if one still drives a gasoline fueled car? Inquiring minds want to know.  

I live now in a sort of 15-minute borough, so I say with some experience that having neighbors who do not value the features of urban living diminishes the experience for all residents. I don’t want to live next to someone who hates where they live. As a woodworker, I can assure you that when I turn on my surface planer, you’ll wish I lived an hour away.

And once my family and I move out to a more rural area, I simply ask that proselytizing but well-meaning urbanists don’t follow us. I want us all to have the opportunity to live in a place that makes us happy at a cost we can afford. 


If you’d like to read about the origin story of our country’s transportation policy, I strongly recommend the book Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century by Stephen Goddard.

For more information about the 15 Minute City, watch these videos and decide for yourself. Then come back here and comment!

Pro:

Con:

PHotos shows damage to a sidewalk apron in Jenkintown.

Walking the walk: government reporter explores the reasons for Fort Worth’s crumbling sidewalks

This article is republished by permission. 

During the holiday season, Fort Worth Report journalists are remembering their favorite stories of 2022. Click here to read more essays.

Fort Worth residents have been responsible for shouldering the full cost of sidewalk repairs in front of their homes and businesses, or face misdemeanor citations, for more than 60 years. Now, the city is considering a 50-50 cost share program with a particular emphasis on low-income homes, seniors and disabled residents.

I first learned about the plight of Cowtown’s cracked sidewalks when I moved into a home in 76104 and started taking daily walks. In some parts of my neighborhood, the path was smooth and fresh; in others, the concrete had cracked and disintegrated so much I hardly recognized it as a sidewalk.

Sidewalks in front of rentals, in particular, were often littered with large fractures and divots, the rentals’ owners far away from the realities of the area. A renter myself, I couldn’t help but notice the sidewalk beside my home didn’t look as polished as my home-owning neighbors.

So I hit the stacks like any good government reporter would. What I found surprised me: Fort Worth has required private homeowners to maintain sidewalks since the 1960s, but stopped enforcing the penalties included in that ordinance several decades ago. What’s resulted is a patchwork of sidewalks in various states of disrepair across the city, with little recourse for owners with lower incomes or disabilities.

I spoke to a disabled activist about the problem in June, who told me it shocked her how much worse Fort Worth’s sidewalks were compared to where she went to college in Austin. Our conversation prompted me to research what other Texas cities do and present their policies in a June article on the subject.

It came as a pleasant surprise when, four months after publication, city staff presented a proposal to city council to establish a cost-sharing program similar to Dallas. Under the proposal, the city would use a portion of the fiscal year 2023 PayGo funding, totaling $2.6 million, to develop the program.

The best part of being a local journalist is seeing the impact your reporting has in your own community. I can imagine a future where, 10 years from now, my walks through my neighborhood will be on new, secure concrete, without a crack in sight. Until then, I’ll keep walking on these uneven paths and reporting on the issues that matter most to the city I love.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.