By Richard L. Gaw
The decisions that will affect the future of governance in Kennett Township had its first public discussion on Oct. 8, when Richard Leff and Jim Przywitowski met before an audience of 100 to answer questions of vital concern to the township.
Leff, a Democrat, and Przywitowski, a Republican, are vying to occupy the seat soon to be vacated by Michael Elling on the township's Board of Supervisors, in an election that will take place on Nov. 5.
The event, sponsored by the Chester County league of Women Voters and held at the Red Room banquet hall in Kennett Square, featured a question-and-answer format rather than the traditional debate arrangement with statement and rebuttal. Each candidate was given 90 seconds to answer each question submitted by those in attendance to a moderator.
Over the course of 80 minutes, the candidates answered 25 questions on topics as far-ranging as conservation easements, opening up financial records to township residents, taxes, business development, bridges, and the changing landscape of the township.
In what has become the underlying theme of this election -- and served as the running dialogue of the evening -- was whether or not township residents will favor Leff's desire to further the initiatives of supervisor Scudder Stevens to provide a more transparent form of governance, or favor Przywitowski, whose campaign is strengthened by his more than 20 years as a volunteer in the township, including his involvement with the recycling committee, the safety committee, and the planning commission.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this election will be to address - and if possible, repair -- the contention between Stevens and his colleagues on the board, Elling and Robert Hammaker, which many in the township feel is driving a stake through its ability gain any foothold of cooperation and progress. The roots of this discord began in the spring of 2011, when Stevens, a Democrat, declared his candidacy to serve on the board, and at the same time sought to be given access to what the township deemed to be confidential records. The resulting argument caused a personal and legal quagmire - one that Stevens ultimately won - and, in the months since he defeated the incumbent Alan Falcoff in Nov. 2011, the township's board has largely been divided - with Stevens on one side, and Elling and Hammaker on the other.
In response to a question asking the candidates what they would do, if elected, to repair the broken dialogue of the current administration, each gave examples.
After Stevens' election, Przywitowski said he and others in the township's government said they organized a meeting with Stevens to "mend the bridges."
"We said, 'We cannot keep working this way,' he said. "I think you'll find that for anyone who really knows me, I don't look at political parties. I talk to all people, all comers. I talk to anyone who has an idea."
Leff mentioned that prior to Stevens' election, Elling, Falcoff and Hammaker shared an office on the main floor of the township building, but soon after Stevens was elected, the other supervisors moved Stevens' office to the attic of the township building. "I would not do something like that," he said. "If you don't have interaction, you miss out on what's important to people."
Leff was then asked that if he were serving on the board during the last two years, what, if anything, would have been different. Assuming that Stevens was also on the board, Leff said that there would be 2 to 1 votes on balancing the township's checkbook, acquiring professional assessment on open space, in developing ideas for future nature trails within the township."
If Przywitowski were on the board during that same period, his office would have been on the main floor with his fellow supervisors. "I would have forced myself onto them," he said. "It is a three-member board, and I would work with them to try to develop some type of relationship." He also said that the township would not have gone through the five-figure cost of what it took to defend the township against Stevens' request for township records.
From a transparency perspective, Przywitowski defended the township, saying that "everything in the township is open today. The difference is that at times, you need to get involved and ask." He admitted that the running of the township by the board in recent years has been "parochial," and said that under his leadership, he will continue to provide more information to the public.
Saying that the township has been run by a small group of people for too long, Leff said if elected, he would open up the township not only in the form of recruitment of more volunteers, but from an accounting standpoint as well. "The first thing I would do would be to publish the township's checkbook on line," Leff said. "The state of Pennsylvania does, so there's no reason why the township shouldn't."
In response to his detractors, who have categorized Przywitowski as a member of the township's "Old Boy Network," one led and influenced by local leaders like Elling, Hammaker and former supervisors Alan Falcoff and Tom Nale, Przywitowski devoted much of his opening statement to clarifying his connection with them, saying that although has has maintained a "respectful" relationship with these individuals, "with 'respect' being the key word, it does not imply 'agreement.' Surprisingly, I do believe that the township has room for improvement, but the key word is 'improve,' not to dismantle."
If elected, Przywitowski said that his number one priority would be to eliminate the township's real estate tax, which he said was equivalent to the growth of the township's surplus.
Leff criticized the township for what he called "a lot of lost opportunities" in open space possibilities over the last five years, saying that during that time, no significant deals were completed. He pointed to the two-phase Granite Ridge development, in which over 100 subsidized apartments, saying that the township did not properly plan for the infrastructure related to the project. Saying there was little the township could do regarding the Granite Ridge proposal, Przywitowski said that the proposal was done according to zoning standards. "It is a development opportunity," he said.
On the topic of open space assessment and acquisition in the township, Przywitowski said that it will be beneficial for the township to continue its practice of conducting own appraisal when considering the purchase of open space.
Leff opposed Przywitowski's viewpoint, and criticized the township for choosing to take on open space assessment and acquisition on its own.
""The township's been trying to go it alone for the past several years, and it hasn't worked," he said. "They kicked out land assessment professionals it had worked with, those who used to work with the township on appraisals an estimates, professionals who knew how assess land deals and how to acquire land grants."
Over the last five years, Leff said the township spent $350,000 to ease three building lots, with no public trail easement or access, and that they refused to offer more than $150,000 for seven parcels.
"With continued growth, we need to partner with professional land trusts, that open up the opportunity to acquire fund and matching money," he added.
For years, determining what to do with the township's surplus (the township's revenues are currently about $12 million, with about $2 million in its general fund and $2.5 million in its open space fund) has served as the cornerstone of debate throughout township circles. Before any of these funds are re-distributed, both candidates agreed that the township should conduct a needs assessment, in order to determine its spending priorities. Leff said that the first step would be to decide what the township's needs are, and then, if there is money remaining, determine how to redistribute the surplus back to township residents. If elected, Przywitowski agreed that the needs of the township's infrastructure would come first.
"That surplus has grown, but there are spending priorities, such as open space, road repair, where that surplus could disappear," he said.
Przywitowski said that he would be in favor of reducing the township's real estate tax, but retain the township's Earned Income Tax, which he said serves as the township's primary source of revenue. "It would be easy to just say, 'Let's reduce taxes. Let's make a future promise,' but the reality is you have to be smart enough to know what you're going to do in the future," he said. "So once we get our strategic plan, we can do an honest assessment."
Both candidates pointed to the potential of the Ways Lane area of Kennett Square as a key to luring businesses to the township.
"Two years ago, you the voters agreed that the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors needed changing," Leff said in his closing statement. "I believe that we need to end that management that we've been forced to endure under the leadership of my opponent and his colleagues. When you leave here tonight, ask yourself, 'What have each of us done in the past, and what are we likely to do in the future?'"
Przywitowski said that if elected, his top three priorities would be to eliminate the township real estate tax; to define objectives aligned throughout all commissions in the township, to be completed in a comprehensive plan which will be issued in 2014; and to develop a comprehensive trail plan in the township.