Council of Goverments shows a path ahead

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13 towns working together offer chance for smart, more efficient government

UPDATED (Sun 9 a.m.): adds comment on Saturday night legislative action

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
UTMikeColLogoCALN — It was a sight to behold. Elected officials from various parties, municipalities and even the County Commissioners, sitting down for a sometimes freewheeling and open discussion about how best to work together.

It was civil.

It was productive.

This is government?

Maybe, it is government the way it should be.

The Western Chester County Council of Goverments (COG) is made up of representatives from 13 municipalities (Coatesville, Atglen, Parkesburg, Caln,West Caln, East Fallowfield, Honey Brook, Modena, South Coatesville, East Brandywine, West Brandywine, Valley and West Sadsbury), a group that has been meeting since the fall of 2012, and is now in the process of filing paperwork to become an official 501c3 organization.

This past Wednesday night the COG had its regular meeting — a highlight of which was a back-and-forth conversation with County Commissioners Terence Farrell, Kathi Cozzone and Ryan Costello — on a wide range of topics from grants to transportation projects.

And while the details weren’t the kind that make headlines, a lot of talk about grant programs and emergency services coordination, it was the communication that emerged as the single-most important item. To the commissioners’ credit, they agreed that, they too, could be frustrated as information gets out to municipal governments, and at times it can be incomplete or even incorrect. All three made it clear that they felt the best method for solving such an issue was direct.

“When in doubt, pick up the phone and call us,” Costello said.

That sort of direct communication between neighboring towns in the Western Chester County area is now becoming commonplace, in part thanks to the COG.

County Commissioners Ryan Costello, Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell shared an informal, back-and-forth conversation with the members of the Western Chester County Council of Governments, Wednesday night.

County Commissioners Ryan Costello, Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell shared an informal, back-and-forth conversation with the members of the Western Chester County Council of Governments, Wednesday night.

The Western Chester COG isn’t completely unique in the county, there’s been a COG in the West Chester area for a while, and the Kennett Regional Planning Commission serves some of the same purposes among a handful of southern municipalities, as just two examples.

Still, such regional cooperation remains the exception rather than the rule — but if local government is going to become more efficient and less expensive, municipalities are going to have to find ways to work together, share equipment and resources. And these folks in the western portion of the county clearly seem to get it — one of the topics discussed Wednesday night was creating a master list of equipment from snow plows to roadside vegetation mowers, another, the possibility of pooling healthcare insurance to get better rates for employees.

But you have to give these folks credit, as the idea of doing something like this along the Route 30 corridor has been kicking around for more than 30 years, with nothing happening.

Terry Bruno, the South Coatesville Borough Council member who serves a president of the organization, credits the persistence of Ted Reed, the borough manager in Modena for nursing the organization to life, with the strong support of the Western Chester County Chamber of Commerce. In fact the COG was sparked in part by a 2011 planning and economic development report for the region spearheaded by the Chamber that brought many of the parties together initially.

Bruno, who shows clear passion for the subject, won’t tell you that she, too, was a driving force, and, in speaking with her, it’s evident that she sees both the possibility and the value in the years to come.

While it is often too easy to take shots at elected officials for lacking vision or being provincial, the Western Chester COG and other organizations are the road to a future where resources are shared, smart management keeps taxes to a minimum, economic growth is fostered, all while open space is protected. Everyone involved deserves a pat on the back — and more importantly — encouragement and maybe even participation from local residents.

* * *

Much to my surprise — not to mention those of observers much more experienced than me — there’s something like a chance a real transportation bill and a real liquor privatization bill will emerge from the state legislature this weekend, but it seems to be riding on a knife edge of interlocked negotiations.

Each house of the state legislature wants one — or more accurately, Republicans in both houses, as the Democrats uniformly oppose the liquor bill but are more supportive of the transportation bill — the Senate wants the transportation bill, but has been cool in the liquor bill, while the House is hot and bothered over liquor, but cool to the added taxes for the transportation bill.

Late Friday — too late according to our own state Sen. Andy Dinniman, who objected to debate in the wee, small hours of the morning — the state Senate passed an amendment to the liquor bill that, while not as far reaching as the House bill, does allow wine and spirits sales by beer distributors, beer and wine in supermarkets with cafes and beer sales at convenience stores. The proposal would phase out state stores in a given county when they were outnumbered two to one by private retailers. While not perfect, the bill has the support of Gov. Tom Corbett and looks like it could get support in the House.

The transportation bill is more complicated. While the state Senate has trimmed back the proposal closer to Corbett’s original $1.8 billion, many GOP state house members remain reluctant to sign on to what amounts to a pretty solid gas tax increase. Because a large number of Democrats support the concept, Republican leaders and the governor don’t need to even find a majority of of their state house members, just enough to carry the measure. While it is thought that the liquor bill’s passage through the Senate might be enough to sway some state reps, it’s unclear whether the votes will be there.

As a number of pending projects in Chester County depend on the passage of the bill — a number of which are long overdue — it’d be nice to see the legislature get it done, although it seems dubious any of our local representatives will be signing on.

While neither bill is perfect, they would both represent progress — and would be a big win for Corbett. Here’s hoping the legislature gets them both done.

With those two pieces, the legislature is also expected to complete a budget this weekend.

What you won’t see: anything about the pension bill. As I suggested some weeks ago, it’s pretty much dead on arrival.

UPDATE (Sunday Morning): as of this morning, it looks like the transportation bill is in deep trouble. While a number of Republicans are opposed to the bill because of the wholesale fuel tax increase, likely to mean a large increase for consumers at the pump, Democrats in the House bailed from the bill because of provisions in it eliminating prevailing wage for paving projects.

Aside from the obvious: Pennsylvania and Chester County have bridges in such poor repair that we are doing more than playing the lottery with motorists (and God forbid, what sort of fingerpointing will be we see when a school bus ends up in the Brandywine when a bridge finally gives way?) to play politics is completely irresponsible.

One of the fundamental jobs of the legislature is to maintain the roads and keep us safe.  Failing to get the transportation bill done abdicates both responsibilities.

Regardless of ideology, party label or whatever, voters need to remember which elected officials lived up to their responsibilities when voting in 2014.

* * *

Call me the grinch: but I’m really okay with elimination of county Jury Commissioner. This is not a knock remotely on either Mimi Sack or Martha Smith, both of whom I’ve known for a number of years. Both are dedicated public servants.

But, in part because of technology, I’m just having trouble justifying the need to have the position. For that matter, I’m struggling with the idea of a lot of the row offices: beyond Sheriff and Controller, I’m not convinced that any of them need to exist in this day and age.

Where cuts can be made without impacting services, they should be.

* * *

Despite the heavy lifting going on in Harrisburg this past week, news headlines reverberated around the nation when State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe prevented fellow State Rep. Brian Sims from speaking on the house floor about the Supreme Court rulings this week on same-sex marriage.

In justifying blocking Sims comments, Metcalfe said:

“I did not believe that as a member of that body that I should allow someone to make comments such as he was preparing to make that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said, what God has said, and just open rebellion against God’s law.”

Without doubt, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Their own. What they are not entitled to is to force everyone else to subscribe, agree and live by them.

This country was founded on nothing less than religious tolerance — the Pilgrims came to North America seeking freedom of religion. But our founding fathers from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams also understood that meant freedom from religion, too, if that was one’s choice.

Metcalfe’s comments and actions were not just inappropriate, but they were in a very real sense, against everything that this country was founded on and stands for.

Certainly, a robust debate is proper on a complicated matter, and Metcalfe should be free to make his opinion heard, but not stomp out opposing comment.

Using “God’s law” as an argument is equally inappropriate. Aside from the fact that many flavors of Christianity do not agree on exactly what that means, does not the state legislature represent people of all or no religious background? Or does Metcalfe — and those House members who have moved to support him — only represent the Christians who meet some sort of “holy litmus test?”

No. At the end of the day, this isn’t about faith or God, no matter what some folks might want you to believe. It is about whether we should tolerate someone acting like a bully and a thug on the floor of our state legislature.

When we condone that with silence, we are all diminished.

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