Supervisor, Cranberry Township
A man is sitting on a park bench and is reading a newspaper. Suddenly in disgust, he throws the newspaper to the ground and yells, “All politicians are thieves!”
A man sitting next to him says, “Hey, I take offense to that statement!”
The other guys asked him, “Why, are you a politician?
“No,” he replies, “I’m a thief!”
In a few weeks you will all go from “concerned citizens” to the generalized title of “politicians”.
After two years as an elected official, I have my definition
of what a politician is. A politician is
an elected official who does not make hard decisions because of ignorance, or
to benefit themselves. Think about most
of the politician jokes you heard or will hear in the future: they are based on
politicians being stupid or dishonest. You,
as future elected officials, have made the first positive step to prevent one
half of the “politician” label by signing up for this excellent seminar. In these seminars, you will get an excellent
summary and introduction to what you can and cannot do as elected officials according
to PA law.
I attended these classes two years ago. I read everything available on the subject of local government before I attended the classes. I still learned so much, and it made me a better Township Supervisor.
For example, some surprises I came across: If you have zoning, you must zone for everything, including a porn shop. To state that you refuse to zone for a porn shop actually creates more of an opportunity that one will enter your community! Another surprise that I found out as an elected leader was that my role also included judicial elements, where I am not allowed to speak independently to a developer who has pending approvals, or even a concerned citizen about the specifics of a pending development. Discussing those issues privately without the other party present actually weakens the rights of our community. In Cranberry, we have a lot of developments and a lot of “concerned citizens”, but I make an effort to obey the rules and explain to the “concerned citizens” why I cannot talk about this development over the phone or one on one.
What I liked the most is that these classes gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with other communities where I was able to benchmark our strengths and weaknesses. It also made available new resources to get additional information and to learn more. We are fortunate at Cranberry to have a lot of hired staff who are experts in many areas, so my education continued by talking with them. Thus, from the “ignorance” part of the politician label, I felt I have worked hard to learn more by asking question after question. I encourage you to do the same thing and know that there is always something new to learn. Your community will benefit from the more you know.
The other part of the “politician” definition besides ignorance is making a decision or doing something that specifically “benefits you”. I know you will get a lesson on ethics, but this involves more than a potential financial gain by a broken moral compass. These are those decisions that may benefit your friend and neighbors: maybe paving their road ahead of schedule. Or, it could be making a decision that helps you get votes or eliminate future negative votes, such as when a neighborhood group wants to prevent a development from occurring, even though it is completely legal by state codes and zoning.
This is where you separate “elected concerned citizens” from politicians. It can be very hard to make the “right” decision. Each of you will more than likely run into that situation in the next few years. I hope you are wise enough and strong enough to do the right thing.
Even still, I can guarantee you that you will not make all the citizens happy. I arrived in Cranberry when it had one traffic light. I suppose my biggest criticism of Cranberry as it grew was the addition of more traffic lights. As a resident, I always felt that they should get permission from the people of the community before there was a new traffic light installed. How thoughtless of the Township to delay my drive home by installing another traffic light! But it was different about 10 years ago when the traffic had increased so much on Route 19 at the point where I entered and exited that I had to risk my life to cross over three lanes of traffic to go to work. Then, a traffic light at that location seemed like a great idea and had a lot of value to me!
My point is that my views back then were very typical to a lot of our residents. They are busy with their lives, they pay their taxes, and they expect the roads to be clear of snow and with no potholes. Other than that, they can be fickle. As you run into vocal residents, you are required to go back to your local government training, knowing the codes and laws, and establish your own community policies describing what you will and will not do in particular situations. Everyone wants to make a vocal resident go away happy, but solving their problem could bring other problems as a result, and possibly break the law!
One example: The biggest complaint that I get, besides speeding, is from residents who live on private roads. All roads for new development must meet certain standards before the Township will take them over. Many older homes were built privately with a gravel road. There may be about 10 to 15 homes on these roads. After 20 to 30 years, they see all the new roads in Cranberry and feel that as tax paying citizens, they should get their roads paved. That seems logical to me as a fellow citizen, but as a Supervisor you learn that there is a state law that prevents the Township from taking over roads that do not meet the current standards. The reason for this is that in the past, dishonest “politicians” would get their local government to put in a “private” road on land they owned. A private road does not qualify for liquid fuels funds, thus no money for paving is credited for these roads.
Another example dealing with zoning: A homeowner on a road is ready to sell, and he sure could get more money if it is zoned commercial! He may even be on a corner at a traffic light. Again, as a fellow citizen, it seems to make sense that his home would be in a commercial zone, but as an educated elected official, I know that this can have tremendous impact on his neighbors and on traffic. It is important to have a master plan and a methodical process to examine all the impacts of zoning.
My last example deals with our biggest complaint: speeding. We had a very vocal resident who wanted to meet because of speeding in the neighborhood and wanted more coverage to catch these speeders. Sure enough, many were caught. They were mostly people from the neighborhood, including the person who was very vocal! They are fighting the tickets in protest at the magistrate. My point is the resident is not always right. Your obligation is to first uphold the laws of the state, not just please the residents. This is where it can be hard to make the right decision.
I emphasize that you need to give thought to all that you do. Sometime logic does not apply, but the law does. Don’t avoid any issue, and take the time to examine the pros and cons to any decision that needs to be made. Try to educate yourself on the subject. If you have professional staff, talk with them to help you understand both sides of an issue. Talk with other communities, and of course, talk with your solicitor. If you have five or more council members, you can even debate the issue with one of them to understand their viewpoint or to give your views. Call LGA and talk with them. If they can’t answer your question, they will get you to the people who can. Just don’t make a “politician” decision: one of ignorance or one to benefit you. Make a decision as an “educated, elected, concerned citizen.”
Remember that it takes a lot of time and energy to stay informed, and this means much more than attending one or two meetings a month. In the last two years, I attended over 250 meetings for Township business.
I was also asked to talk about the reasons I wanted to run for office. As I mentioned, I did want to give back to my community. I am an engineer by degree, and I was fortunate enough to retire at a young age. I had many years of profit/loss responsibility for a medium size company. Because of my job, I never had the time to be very active in my community.
But I did enjoy our library and always donated to it. When I retired, I was asked to be a library board member, and that was the time that the state cut back funding by 50% to libraries. I was part of a group that helped the library resolve their financial problem without cutting their services. We were the only library in Butler County who were able to maintain services during that difficult time. From this, I was asked to also be on the board of the (BCFLS) Butler County Federate Library System and was one of a small group of people that helped keep the Bookmobile going when others tried to shut it down. I then had a few people ask me to consider running for Township Supervisor, and I did not like the thought of that! Running a campaign seemed like an awful way to volunteer!
But being involved in BCFLS, I started to discover some of the hard decisions that were made by past Cranberry Supervisors that benefited our community. One was to dedicate one mil of real estate taxes for the library. I took this for granted as a resident, but understood how few libraries were afforded this type of vision. Cranberry is very fortunate to have a beautiful library where it gets 200,000 visits a year. Their bold decision years ago helped create a beautiful asset for our community. They also made another bold decision to dedicate 2.5 mils for the fire department, which in turn actually increased membership to our department and allowed our community to have the highest rated “volunteer” fire department. This reduces our insurance rates, where a typical homeowner saves more on insurance than what they spend in taxes for the fire department. To be honest, I don’t think I could have made such a bold decision to increase taxes, but obliviously I see the benefits.
We are fortunate to have a professional staff who are experts in their areas, thus our involvement is more of a “Board of Directors”: setting direction and approving expenditures and developments as required by law, rather than running day to day operations. For those elected officials who are running day to day operations, my hats are off to you. It is a huge job, and my compliments for joining this endeavor.
Lastly, I want to touch on the value of local government. If you compare your local taxes paid a decade and two decades ago, you will find that the percent of taxes paid is approximately the same for a family today, or less than 1%. That is not the same for the State & the Federal government. You may remember a time when you paid 2.2% state wage tax, then 2.8% about 8 years ago, and today it is 3.07%. In the last decade, the sum of all state taxes has increased from 9.3% of family income to 10.2% today. In addition, our state is borrowing money for transit and to make road infrastructure improvements, and is passing other costs and responsibilities down to the local level. Don’t even get me started on the Federal level!
It is local government that does an excellent job in controlling cost and providing the most value for the tax buck. Make an effort to understand the tax history of your community and the value that you supply. Take time to educate your residents. Be aware of state issues and how they impact your community and responsibilities.
Best of luck to all of you, and remember: when making a decision, don’t become a politician!