By John Chambless
The simmering tensions between the members of the Franklin Township Board of Supervisors came to a boil at the board's June 19 meeting over the issue of granting a license to hunters in the township's preserves.
When the board took up Resolution 2013-15 -- which would give the Franklin Sportsman's Association hunting rights in the township for the upcoming hunting season -- supervisor Paul Overton opened his remarks by reading an e-mail he had received from a representative of Base Camp Leasing. Overton had contacted the Indiana-based leasing company, which began in 1999, and currently has contracts in 25 states to lease open lands to hunters. The company acts as a middleman between landowners and hunting groups, handling contracts and legal details. In Franklin Township, the company had agreed to lease 183 acres in three of the four preserves for a total of $7,700, giving the township $5,775 in return.
Overton read the e-mail from Robert Rogers, the Eastern Pennsylvania leasing agent for Base Camp Leasing, which read, in part: "After conversations with some of the board members, it is very obvious that the services of Base Camp Leasing are not needed or desired at this time by some board members ... While talking with board members, each expressed their support or lack of support to leasing Franklin Township property through Base Camp Leasing in a thoughtful and logical manner, yet some used more colorful expressions than others,'" Overton read aloud, adding to the audience, "He's referring to some threats that were made toward him."
As supervisor Eric Brindle snorted dismissively, Overton finished the e-mail: "Neither Base Camp Leasing, nor I, want to be involved in the politics in this issue," he read.
Supervisor Brindle bristled at Overton's suggestion that the representative was threatened.
"I called him up, I took the trouble to go to his website and do due diligence and see who the company is," Brindle said. "I told him, 'You're going to have a lot of hunters here, it's going to be a real hot atmosphere.' I rather jocularly said, 'You better bring your body armor.' He took that as a personal threat, like somehow his life was going to be at risk if he came down here and talked to us. ... This guy is wrapped too tight. He's probably a Rambo wannabe."
"What I found out was that you were talking to a Pennsylvania State Policeman," Overton told Brindle.
"Oh, I knew that," Brindle said. "I told him, 'Go call the Avondale State Police and send them down.' You know what? They never showed up."
Overton responded, "I expect nothing less out of a guy who gives the finger to a senior citizen," in reference to a confrontation Brindle had at a supervisors meeting several months ago.
"Yeah, whatever," Brindle snapped back. "I'm 61. I'm a senior citizen myself."
Supervisors chairman John Auerbach explained his contact with the representative from Base Camp Leasing, saying, "I explained the situation to him about the FSA and I suggested that he would probably want to delay his presentation. This came to the board only two days before this meeting."
Overton made motion that the township should hire Base Camp Leasing as a way of getting income for the township, instead of letting the Franklin Sportsman's Association, a group of regional residents, use the preserves for free. He said that any paying group -- including the Sportsman's Association -- could use the lands, but should pay for the privilege.
"So no one wants to discuss this?" Overton asked the board members.
Brindle countered Overton, asking, "Should we charge people for the use of the trails, or the parking lot?"
"I don't understand why hunting is singled out and demonized," Auerbach said to Overton. "Everybody uses the land for all their recreational purposes, at no charge. Why do we single out hunters and make them pay?"
Overton replied, "Because hunters deter other other members of the community from using the park. No other group does that."
Supervisor Penny Schenk said members of the hunting group perform service projects and maintain the preserves in return for being allowed to use the lands. Overton countered that some of the township's 4,000 residents are afraid to use the preserves during hunting season, and emphasized that he has not wanted to eliminate hunting, but to restrict the duration of the season and ensure safety measures were followed.
Ultimately, the resolution to grant hunting privileges to the Franklin Sportsman's Association was approved by a vote of 3-1.
"There have been essentially no incidents this year, the hunters perform many service projects of significant value to the township. I see no reason to not renew their license," Auerbach said.
But Overton wasn't finished. He asked Schenk if she wanted to recuse herself from voting on the issue since her husband, Jeff Schenk, is a member of the hunting club. Brindle has also been a member.
Township solicitor Mark Thompson was at the meeting and said that since no monetary value could be firmly established for the hunting rights, there did not seem to be a conflict of interest.
Several members of the audience spoke in favor of the hunting group, saying that living with hunting season is part of being in a rural area like Franklin Township.
Jeff Schenk angrily confronted Overton, reading from notes that pointed out three instances in which Overton had voted to preserve open space. "Each of these examples resulted in taxpayer dollars being spent on over 200 continuous acres of open space that directly border supervisor Overton's property, at a cost of over $1.5 million," Schenk said. "Supervisor Overton did not recuse himself, nor was there a mention of conflict of interest. ... The record shows that supervisor Overton repeatedly voted to spend over $1.5 million in taxpayer money on properties he knew would increase the value of his property. If anyone is interested in a true conflict of interest, this is what it looks like."
Shenk said he would be contacting the press with documents supporting his claims. "I am done playing games with you. I will not be bullied by you anymore," he told Overton.
Overton asked what 200 acres Shenk was referring to, explaining that only the Pierson property touches his. "I don't believe there's a conflict," he said. "And the vote was 5-0, so if my attorney had advised me to recuse myself, and I certainly would have, then the vote still would have passed."
Overton asked Thompson if there was any conflict, and Thompson confirmed that supervisors voting for open space was not a conflict of interest.
An hour into the debate, Al Alpini, the vice-chairman of the hunting group, addressed the board. "It's the constant hurdles that were thrown at us by certain members of the board that created that hostility and tension between people," he said. "It's difficult to sit here and hear a club get bashed that's done nothing but good things for the township. ... We are for the community, first and foremost."