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I'm through playing nice – it's time to speak up

einhornA short time ago, I wrote a column about the hostility and animosity in Middletown. I didn’t think it would have much impact – just one column by one person. But I guess I thought – hoped – that something might kick in and make sense to someone. Maybe it did but, sadly, the tenor of the town has gotten even worse.  

I approached my responsibilities on Middletown Borough Council with high hopes and expectations that we could all work together with respect and civility. I looked forward to a council and a borough coming together for the good of the community. I knew it would be a big job and a difficult one; still, the reality of how idealistic my goals were was like a freezing blast of water on a cold day – shocking, painful and bone-chilling.

I am dismayed and disheartened by the lack of cooperation, consideration and respect that permeates our meetings both from within and without. Even worse are the manipulations and machinations behind the scenes.

The sharing of information occurs only when absolutely necessary –  and never far enough in advance for study by those voting. No one, excepting a minority, seems to much care what the public wants or thinks. Complaints are not addressed, concerns are not noted, calls are neither answered nor returned. Information is manipulated and disagreements are based on personal feelings, not true positions.  

My desire to work with my colleagues on council was and is sincere, but of late I have been shocked and disgusted by motives that are so transparent they are a slap in the face to the community. I know I campaigned on a platform of truth, trust and transparency, but this is not what I meant.  

I am most particularly distressed by several recent determinations rendered by council or one of its creations (i.e., the Industrial and Commercial Development Authority). So I have decided it’s time to stop playing nice and time to speak up – because someone has to say something, and I’ve never been one to shirk this kind of responsibility.

These are the issues I find most appalling:

• The refusal of council to ask for (not demand) an apology in an altercation between a borough appointee and a borough citizen. I said it at a public meeting, and I will reiterate here: Public officials should be held to a higher standard of behavior and therefore should NEVER insult the public – particularly at an open meeting to which everyone is welcome.


• The representation by certain council members and business owners that Penn State was involved in the planning or discussion of the possibility of bringing a Barnes & Noble bookstore to Middletown to serve as both a store for the public and the official bookstore of the college. The involvement of Penn State was denied by a representative of the university.

In addition, the plan for the project placed the bookstore in a building that the borough does not currently own and houses businesses that would most certainly be displaced to put these plans into play.

• The claim by the borough that grants and funds are being held up because the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. is impeding the completion of a borough audit by not cooperating with the borough and refusing to turn over its financial records. The fact is that GMEDC provided those same records in 2010. Where they went, no one seems to know.

Despite their original compliance, former GMEDC executive director Stefan Kosloski volunteered his time to help the borough restore the documentation. The GMEDC has continued to provide information to the borough despite the fact that they are being portrayed as uncooperative.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my husband serves on the board of the GMEDC and my son and other family members have donated hundreds of  hours of their time and talents to ensure the survival of the Elks Theatre. No one in my family has received any financial compensation from any work done for the theater or the GMEDC in general. I will abstain from voting on issues regarding the Elks Theatre and the GMEDC.)

• The treatment of employees. The borough lost two valuable employees by playing games and jerking them around until both lost patience and good faith and accepted jobs elsewhere, taking with them most, if not all, of the knowledge and skill needed in their areas of expertise and leaving Middletown operating on an even more skeletal crew than had previously existed.

• The negotiations for the Elks Building between the GMEDC and the ICDA entered into good faith by the GMEDC, who, contrary to aspersions cast upon the GMEDC, has kept the Elks Theatre functioning for years.

The one sticking point in the negotiations was the GMEDC’s request that it continue to run the theater under the ICDA’s ownership. The GMEDC currently holds 501(c)3 status and could continue to run the theater without interruption as a nonprofit, with all proceeds going back into the theater for renovations. Frankly, the GMEDC needs the help. Its fundraising campaign did not live up to expectations due to the borough’s threat of eminent domain, which discouraged large companies and organizations from contributing.

Assistance from the community, while enthusiastic, was not enough to cover the cost of repairs – much less the expense of  a digital projector.

After much negotiating, arguing and considerations on both sides, the IDCA recently voted to buy the Elks and award the running of the theater to a yet-founded local group without 501(c)3 status. My questions here: 1. Why? and 2. How long will the Elks remain without management while nonprofit status is sought? Who will run it? Will it have to be shut down temporarily? No one seems to be able to answer these questions.
Also of note, the attorney for the ICDA works for McNees, Wallace and Nurick.

• The retention of McNees, Wallace and Nurick, one of the most expensive law firms in the area. This firm is so expensive that council often meets without our solicitor present. Personally, that seems foolish to me, as there have already been mistakes made (i.e., the recent necessity of running an additional ad for the water and sewer rate issue because the original vote was not taken within the allotted amount of time), and violations committed (Sunshine Act in late 2013), among other things.

My understanding is that our solicitor should prevent and protect us from allowing these things to occur – but that would necessitate he/she being around when these items are being discussed or planned.  

• The refusal to work with the Press And Journal. The borough maintains that nothing positive is ever written about it in the P&J, and yet officials remain reluctant to speak with reporters, answer questions or make statements to the paper. On those occasions when they do speak with reporters, their inherent distrust precludes their ability to be forthcoming and cooperative.

It is noteworthy that the Patriot-News carries many of the same stories and asks many of the same questions.

There have been positive editorials and articles in the P&J despite these limitations, such as the Press And Journal’s recent editorial about the hiring of the next police chief.

In addition, the borough refuses to put ads in the Press And Journal even though the paper’s rates are comparable to the Patriot-News and boasts a wider local circulation.

Lastly, members of council are outraged when the paper questions their actions or makes inquiries into questionable behaviors on the part of council and its employees, retainers, etc. It is important to remember that is what a newspaper is supposed to do.


• Executive sessions held during the body of the meeting and lasting upwards of 90 minutes. It is not news to anyone that I find this disrespectful of the public and completely unnecessary. I have brought it up at public meetings and executive sessions. I have presented information to assure council members that it is both legal and legitimate to place executive sessions prior to the start of a regular meeting or at the end of a regular meeting but prior to adjournment so that public voting may still occur.

I know of no other borough or local governing body that holds these sessions while their constituents are left to sit for hours before the agenda items are discussed and public comment heard.  

• The complete disregard many members of council have for the public and the way this permeates the everyday functioning of some borough employees. No one in a community should have to call repeatedly to get an answer to a question, make a request, or lodge a complaint.

In my position on council, I have heard from numerous constituents who are dissatisfied with the ways in which they have been treated by some employees. There also are employees who are wonderful and responsive but who are limited in their ability to help.

In this same vein, I am disappointed to note that few council members actually attend special events held for the community. In fact, at one recent meeting, Mike Bowman chastised council members for not attending the Memorial Day parade and ceremony. I was absent this year, as I was out of town, but I regularly attend this event. In the past, I  have rarely seen other council people there.

I often see councilors Tom Handley and Ben Kapenstein and our mayor out and about at many events I have also attended. Of course, I have not attended every event so perhaps there has been a greater presence out and about than I have seen.

• The lack of integrity at play among council members, upper management employees and appointed officials. Internal investigations into questionable activities are not handled objectively, questions and concerns forwarded by the “minority” are dismissed or ignored or rudely addressed, information is withheld or manipulated, and personal feelings are used in place of actual information to make decisions.

Rumors are started and encouraged, people are disdained and spoken to in derogatory and condescending ways and council sits behind the rail or closed doors and performs as if on stage with a fourth wall separating them from the public.

People can make comments but not ask questions, people can lodge complaints but get no response, and council stares the public down with blank faces or adolescent eye-rolling.

We are not gods, we are not benefactors, we are not tyrants or kings. We are – we should be – public servants who listen, discuss, process, argue and make decisions based on facts, information and public opinion. Our process should be inclusive, not exclusive.

Our goals should be in alignment with the needs and wants of the community, not based on private agendas. That is what government should be – but that is not what government is in Middletown.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to and respect for my fellow council members Handley and Kapenstein, who have done everything in their power to represent the public and make positive changes for the community.

Councilor Scott Sites has spent far too many years fighting the good fight alone – I hope he can hang on a little longer now that his contributions are recognized and supported by some of us.

I also would like to thank Mayor James H. Curry III for his dedication to the people of this community and his courage to speak out and take action on our behalf.

Anne Einhorn is a Democratic member of Middletown Borough Council representing the Second Ward.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 July 2014 20:16

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A walk through Cuenca: Happiness, and no bugs

I just realized: We have been here for 18 months. This city, Cuenca, is really an interesting and beautiful place.

 

It is an old city in Ecuador that was founded in 1557 and has four rivers flowing through it. There are many small neighborhood parks, as well as nicely manicured linear parks that border the rivers with bicycle/walking paths and have the outdoor version of indoor exercise equipment. One can walk from one side of the city to the other side on the river paths.

Having grown up in Bainbridge and Elizabethtown, and having lived in Middletown, I considered myself a small-town boy. I never liked cities, and always felt uneasy in them.

In fact, on one visit to New York City, I had my only panic attack – and had to go to Central Park so I could breathe.

 

So when deciding to live in a city of 550,000 people, I had serious trepidation.

My fears were vanquished our first day here.

The city has a small- town feel and I am totally comfortable walking the streets day or night.

Cuenca lies one degree from the equator, hence one would assume that it would be very hot. Not so. The altitude of the city is 8,250 feet above sea level and because of that the weather is wonderful.

During the summer the daytime temperature is in the 70s and at night in the 60s. Here in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed – as you approach summer there we are going into winter here, which means our temperatures will be about 10 degrees cooler.

Because of the altitude the air is thinner and has less oxygen, which affects about 25 percent of tourists and new residents in a negative way. The main symptoms: Light-headedness and tiring quickly. But one becomes acclimated to the altitude.

Fortunately, I never experienced any such problems, but Olga, my wife, did for about the first 10 days.

The altitude’s big plus is insects – there aren’t any. In Middletown, we used to walk by the Susquehanna River and, unless we bathed in insect repellent, we were a black fly and mosquito buffet. We walk by the rivers here and ... nothing. 

There is much to do here. Cuenca is the cultural capital of Ecuador and has a plethora of museums, art galleries and historical sites. There is the symphony orchestra, the youth symphony orchestra and the youth orchestra. We have been to four performances in the past two weeks, and all for free.

There are four universities in the city. The largest museum and also Incan ruins are a 10-minute walk from our apartment.

There are about 52 cathedrals in the city. The oldest was built in 1567.  Most are magnificent architectural masterpieces.

A new state-of-the-art planetarium just opened in October and looks like the planet Saturn, complete with rings.

There are many parades and holidays. One of the longest parades in the world is the Christmas Parade [“Paseo del Nino Parade’’] on Dec. 24. It starts at 9 a.m. and goes until around 5 p.m. There are about 50,000 participants and about 200,000 spectators. And on the day I’m writing this, there is a parade to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the oldest high school in Cuenca.

The people here are very happy, friendly and laid back. Their attitude seems to be that they work to live, not vice-versa.

The crime rate is low. Unemployment is low. Thousands of Ecuadoreans that lived and worked in the U.S. for years are returning to Ecuador, mainly to Cuenca.

There is all kinds of construction in the city. A new $230 million light rail system is being built and should be completed in 2015.

Approximately 500,000 tourists visited Cuenca in 2013 and more are expected this year.

There is a fairly large expatriate community – the estimates are between 2,500 to 5,000. North Americans comprise the majority of ex-pats, but more Europeans are calling Cuenca home. Olga never felt at home in the U.S. after living there for seven years. She does here.

There is a Chamber of Commerce  for ex-pats that has seminars and events to assist the new “gringo’’ residents. We joined a group of volunteers that helps  University Of Cuenca students majoring in hospitality, (tourism, gastronomy, hotel management), with their English. Olga joined a fitness class and I joined the Veterans In Cuenca group, former U.S. military men and women.

Is our new home perfect? Of course not. I’ll delve into that later.

                                               Stay tuned,

                                       Eddy the Ex-pat

Ed O’Connor, a former resident of Middletown and Lower Swatara Twp., is an expatriate living in Ecuador.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 July 2014 18:29

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Thanksgiving leftovers

The turkey and stuffing are long gone. Place settings and cookers are tucked away. Family and friends are back in their routine.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 December 2012 16:43

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