Michelle Kichline's journey to becoming a county commissioner
By Steven Hoffman
It's a Friday morning in late January. Michelle Kichline has been a member of the three-person board of county commissioners for all of six weeks, but she has already settled into something of a routine—a busy routine.
This particular day started with an early-morning forum where the Chester County Economic Development Council presented a review of the previous twelve months of work and a preview of what the year ahead holds. Later in the day, Kichline will tour the emergency services training center, a centerpiece of the county’s efforts to ensure public safety.
Her schedule for the day before was even more demanding. That day started with a meeting of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a meeting that ran through lunch. Then Kichline hopped on a train back to Berwyn. She was in her office in West Chester in time for a meeting with Mark Rupsis, the county’s chief operating officer, in the afternoon. She stopped home long enough to briefly see her husband, Michael, and their two children, Amanda and Andrew, and to make sure that everyone had eaten dinner. Then it was time to leave for an awards banquet at a chamber of commerce.
Kichline doesn’t mind the busy schedule.
“I'm really excited to be a county commissioner,” she explained. “It’s something that, with my skill set, I thought I could serve Chester County well. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the residents of Chester County, and I take it very seriously.”
Kichline was sworn in as county commissioner on Dec. 16, 2014, to fill the unexpired term of Ryan Costello, who had been elected to the U.S. Congress in November. She joined incumbents Terence Farrell and Kathi Cozzone on the board of county commissioners, and while she relies on their wisdom and experiences, Kichline also comes to the job with some definite ideas about what kind of commissioner she wants to be.
“I keep my door open symbolically because I want people to know that they can always talk to me,” she said.
Kichline takes the job of governing seriously, whether it's working at the local level or overseeing one of the best-managed counties in the state. Perhaps this is because of the experiences of her parents, Bela and Angela Haris. In 1956, her parents fled their home in Hungary to escape the rule of the Communist regime. Even as young adults, they had the courage to leave everything behind for freedom.
“My parents grew up in an environment where they didn’t have the freedom to speak, to express their views,” Kichline explained.
Her parents came to the U.S. and chose to live in Chester County because of the great schools, strong communities, and job opportunities.
Kichline grew up in Tredyffrin Township, the county’s largest municipality, and she learned about the importance of local government at an early age. Her mother worked as the head of a department for Upper Merion Township.
As a teenager, Kichline did an internship with Tredyffrin Township, and was undecided as to whether she wanted to pursue a career as a township manager or as a lawyer. When she graduated from Conestoga High School, she decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania to major in political science. After that, she pursued a career in law, earning a degree from the Beasley School of Law at Temple University.
She clerked with a judge for a year, and then went to work for Wisler Pearlstine LLP, a law firm in Blue Bell, Pa. For more than a decade, Kichline represented school districts and municipalities. She counseled school administrators on a wide variety of issues, including employment and education law. In this capacity, she gained significant experience litigating education and employment law before the state and federal courts. She developed a specialty in special education law.
She was asked to join the Tredyffrin Township Zoning Hearing Board. Even though the demands on her time would be significant, Kichline thought it was important to be involved in local government. She discussed serving on the board with her husband, and they worked out a plan.
“I told my husband, these are the nights I am going to need to be out late with meetings and we figured out how we could both make it work. I think it’s very important that women get involved in local government,” Kichline explained.
She eventually became the chair of the Tredyffrin Township Zoning Hearing Board, the first woman to ever to hold that position.
“Every time you make a decision, you’re making a difference in the fabric of the community,” she said.
Next, Kichline was elected to the township’s board of supervisors. She was on the board of supervisors from 2010 to 2013, chairing the board for the last two years. With 30,000 residents, Tredyffrin Township is Chester County’s largest municipality. The annual budget exceeds $17 million. During the time that she was on the board of supervisors, the township refinanced its bonds and saved taxpayers nearly $2 million in debt service payments. The township also had a fully funded pension program. Kichline is proud of the fact that while she chaired the board of supervisors, the township passed a comprehensive update of its zoning codes to address the changing needs of the township.
“We looked at our zoning code and revised it to protect the little open space that the township has,” she explained.
During her time with Tredyffrin Township, Kichline played a role in the formation of the Business Advisory Council. This entity partnered with business owners and property owners to develop a strategic plan for attracting and retaining businesses in Tredyffrin. The plan included a comprehensive review of tax and zoning structures, as well as transportation needs.
In the same year that she joined the Tredyffrin board of supervisors, Kichline also joined the Paoli Transit Task Force.
Then, in Oct. 2013, she was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett as a Chester County commissioner to the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), where she serves as a member of its Audit, Labor, Operations, and Management subcommittees. As the chair of its subcommittee on strategic planning, she has been instrumental in articulating the DRPA’s role as a transportation provider. The DRPA has a $450 annual budget.
In 2014, she was part of the advisory group that worked with PennDOT, Amtrak, and Septa to obtain $30 million in funding for Phase One of the Paoli transit project. As a result of her work in Paoli, she was elected to the board of the Transportation Management Association of Chester County.
The work with the DRPA, in particular, helped prepare her to make decisions about projects that are large in scope, and how to work with large budgets.
After she became a county commissioner, Kichline was also appointed as the public sector co-chair of the VISTA 2025 Executive Alliance, a public/private economic development initiative for Chester County.
“I am excited about the VISTA 2025 focus on a balance of progress and preservation,” she said. “I am impressed with the quality of work that has been completed on the strategy so far. VISTA 2025 is an excellent platform that will guide our actions in support of Chester County’s economy for years to come.”
She plans to be active in reaching out to communities throughout Chester County to get volunteers for the teams and committees to work on the VISTA 2025 policies and documents.
Kichline has already decided that she wants to seek a full four-year term as commissioner, and has submitted her letter of interest and résumé to the Chester County Republican Party.
For now, she's looking to accomplish as much as she can during her time in office.
“What would matter to me is that we maintain the fiscal discipline that I inherited here,” she said.
Governing isn't always easy. There are a lot of difficult decisions that need to be made. Sides are often taken. It's sometimes difficult to get people to set aside their own interests to work together for the common good. Kichline doesn't see herself having any problems handling the day-to-day challenges of elective office.
All she has to do is think about her parents, and the courage that they displayed coming to the U.S. Her mother was just 18 at the time and had little more than the clothes on her back. That helps to put politics into perspective.
Even if the schedule is a demanding one, Kichline is prepared to do the work necessary to maintain Chester County's success.
“I’m fortunate that, in everything that I’ve done, I feel like I’ve been able to make an impact,” she said. “Now, I want to do the best I can as a Chester County Commissioner.”