Henry reflects on ten years as mayor of Oxford
● By Steven Hoffman
On Jan. 3, 2006, Geoff Henry took the oath of office to become the eighth person to serve as the mayor of Oxford since the position was established in 1961. His first duty as mayor was to swear in the council members who were taking office that night, and then he presided over the reorganization meeting. Since then, it has been a decade filled with proclamations and parades, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, ride-alongs with the police, and meetings—lots of meetings. The Chester County Press thought that the ten-year anniversary would be an appropriate time to talk to Henry about his work while in office. When his current term reaches its conclusion at the end of 2017, Henry will have served as mayor for as long as anyone ever has in Oxford, and he will have put his own stamp on the office. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mayor Henry,” said Oxford Borough Council member John Thompson. “During the last four years that I've served on council, he has done a wonderful job. He keeps us [borough council] and the public well-informed. He is always finding a way to recognize those people that are doing something good for the borough and the Oxford community.” Henry’s supporters—and there are many—say that he is thoughtful, fair, diligent, trustworthy and professional. He’s also very involved, and has proven that he’s willing to offer his time and talents to many different organizations and groups in Oxford. “If you live in a community, you need to be willing to give something back to the community,” Henry explained. He grew up just outside Johnstown, Pa., He earned a bachelor of arts degree in Political Science from Millersville University and then a master’s degree in aging/long-term care administration from the University of North Texas. His father was an administrator at a Presbyterian living facility, and he decided to follow in his footsteps. Henry and his family moved to Oxford in 1978, and they took an instant liking to the town. Before long, he joined the Civic Association and the Rotary Club. “The Borough of Oxford is a very giving community,” Henry said. “There is a lot of benevolence here.” Oxford resident Peggy Ann Russell said that she first met Henry around 1982. “My first memory of Mayor Henry is when I met him in his role as administrator of Oxford Manor,” she explained. “I was interested in renting an advertised apartment in the Ware Mansion and he was the contact person. He was especially helpful, and when I wanted reassurance that the fireplace actually worked, he brought in logs and we lit a fire to make sure.” Henry first held elective office in Oxford in 1987, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy on borough council. It was a challenging time for the town of Oxford, as a deal for PepsiCo to open a bottling facility on property that had been used as spray fields fell through. In the aftermath, the town’s borough manager, solicitor, and council president all resigned in quick succession. Henry was a stabilizing presence on council. He eventually ran for a council seat in 1988 and won election. He served as the council president from 1988 to 1991. He was once again called upon to fill a vacancy on council in 2004, and served through 2005. It was during this time period that Henry had a discussion with then-mayor Harold Gray, who told him that he wasn’t going to seek another term as mayor. He encouraged Henry to seek the position. Because of his experience on borough council, his work on various committees, and the conversations with Gray, Henry felt that he was prepared for the duties of the position. Those duties are spelled out in Chapter 10A of the Pennsylvania Borough Code. The most important duty of a mayor in boroughs like Oxford is to oversee the operations of the police department. The mayor can administer oaths and affirmations, and during emergencies the mayor is charged with preserving the public peace in the borough. “The general public has a misconception about the duties of the mayor,” Henry explained. “Sometimes, the best thing that I can do is to listen to a resident and then report what they said to the borough manager.” On Nov. 8, 2005, Henry was elected mayor of Oxford by a margin, earning 59 percent of the vote. Henry estimates that he spends about 75 percent of his time involved with duties related to the police department. Henry has worked effectively with Police Chief John Slauch and the other officers in the department that has about a dozen full-time officers and four or five part-time officers. Henry was involved in the search process that resulted in Slauch’s hiring as the chief in 2005, and the two have had a very good working relationship. “I’ve been blessed during the 10 years because I’ve only had one police chief to work with in that time,” said Henry. “The police force has been relatively stable, too. We’ve had very little turnover.” The experienced police department has helped improve public safety in Oxford. “Over the last several years, the number of police calls has fallen,” Henry said. Slauch agreed that he and Henry have established a good working relationship through the years. “We work very well together,” Slauch said. “I think a part of that is that we’ve known each other for a long time. He was instrumental in convincing me to apply for the job. Our relationship is one where we have respect for each other, and an understanding of what our roles are.” Slauch said that Henry is always supportive of the police department, and is always willing to spend the time necessary to work with the police chief on issues that may require his attention. The police chief explained that he and the mayor are usually able to reach a mutual agreement on how to proceed. Being responsive to concerns from residents has been a priority for the mayor. When residents on the east side of town grew concerned about rising nuisance crimes in the neighborhood, Slauch and Henry encouraged them to form a town watch to be the eyes and ears for the police department. Henry and Slauch are now working to find ways to increase the visibility of police officers in Oxford’s business district after merchants said that this would be beneficial. With only two officers on duty at one time, it’s sometimes hard to have the level of visibility that some would like. The police department is adding an officer to each shift to increase the visibility and potentially save some money by reducing the amount of overtime that is necessary each month to provide adequate shift coverage. Henry and Slauch are also working to update the police department’s policy and procedure manual, an enormous task that would allow the department to earn additional certifications. Henry has also taken steps to boost civic pride during his time in office. Jerome Rodio, the owner of J&K Slightly Touched Furniture & Antiques for the last seven years, said that he has seen Henry's enthusiasm for Oxford displayed in many different ways. Rodio explained that the mayor often attends community activities like the First Friday events, and will stop by J&K Slightly Touched to talk with customers, many of whom are visitors to town. “I introduce him as the mayor and he talks to people and they readily respond to him,” Rodio explained. “He really gets along well with others.” In 2007, Henry introduced the Citizen Recognition Awards to honor those citizens whose service to the community has helped make Oxford a better place to live and work. The awards have recognized the efforts of dozens of business leaders, borough employees, churches, and non-profit organizations. “The Citizen Recognition Award is something that I’m extremely proud of,” Henry said, adding that he hopes that the program will continue after he leaves office. One of Henry’s favorite duties as mayor is to officiate at wedding ceremonies. He’s officiated for at least 19 couples so far. He also regularly issues proclamations raising awareness about different issues. Russell, who helped found the ACE Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance, said that Henry has always been supportive of the group's efforts to bring attention to a global problem that impacts the Oxford area because of its proximity to so many major routes where human trafficking is known to take place. “He stands with us each year at our candlelight vigil,” Russell explained. Officiating weddings, handing out awards, and issuing proclamations are all pleasant things to do, but Henry has also handled the more demanding challenges of the job with unwavering thoughtfulness and political courage. In late 2013, Oxford Borough Council approved a budget for 2014 that necessitated a tax increase of one-half of one mill, from 11.50 mills to 12 mills. Henry felt that the burden on taxpayers was already too great, and after careful consideration, he felt like he had no choice but to veto the budget—even though he knew that council was likely to vote to override the veto. “I struggled with that long and hard,” Henry said. “I felt strongly enough to stand by my convictions, and I’m not sorry that I did it.” With the borough facing serious budget constraints, he also donated his mayoral salary of approximately $1,500 back to Oxford, and he continues to do that each year. “That’s not a lot of money, but it was a way for me to show that I’m concerned about expenses,” Henry explained. The mayor also encouraged borough council to spend more time working on the budget each year to make sure that spending is kept as low as possible, and in the last few years there has been much more public discussion about the spending plan. “I’m very pleased with the conversation about the budget that now takes place,” Henry said. “Council asks questions about the budget, and that's good.” Just as his relationship with Chief Slauch has been effective, Henry also has maintained a good working relationship with council members through the years. “I really appreciate that they allow me to have input at the meetings,” Henry explained. “I’ve been given this opportunity to talk about the issues.” One illustration of Henry's ability to work with council to take on a difficult issue is his advocacy for common-sense gun legislation that would attempt to keep guns out of the hands of violent people. In the aftermath several school shootings in 2011 and 2012, mayors across the country were supporting an effort to crack down on illegal guns. Henry encouraged Oxford Borough Council to join other towns in support of a resolution that called for common-sense solutions to reduce gun violence. It was a resolution, not an ordinance, and council's approval wouldn’t have had any practical impact locally. However, the proposed resolution garnered a great deal of community interest, especially from gun rights advocates wary of the government—any government at any level—attempting to infringe on their rights. Councilman Thompson was not in favor of the resolution, either. “The mayor and I did not see eye-to-eye on the subject of gun control,” Thompson explained. “I was very unhappy with the two attempts to pass a resolution supporting gun control measures. We saw how the community felt about the subject.” Henry and Thompson worked on rewriting the resolution until they came up with a compromise that they could both support. Council eventually voted in favor of the compromise resolution. Thompson said that it was a learning experience that helped him understand what to do when there are differences of opinion. “I was glad that the mayor and I were able to come together and help pass a common-sense resolution,” he said. “We will never see eye-to-eye with regard to the subject of guns, and that's fine. I would never hold that against him. He has shown me a lot during the last four years, and I am glad to serve with him.” Henry, who currently serves on the Advisory Board of the National Every Town for Gun Safety organization, said that he has no regrets about supporting a resolution that he felt strongly about because it would help keep people safe. “It created a lot of discussion about the issue, which I was happy about,” Henry explained. “I’m still passionate about that issue. We need to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.” Communities like Oxford have been seeing a rise in the availability of drugs, especially cheap but deadly drugs like heroin. An organization in southern Chester County was attempting to raise awareness about the issue. Henry did his part by helping to organize a town hall meeting to discuss the drug problems in the area. Rodio said that he is impressed by how Henry sets aside political ideology to work for the betterment of Oxford. “I would say that he reaches across the political aisle,” Rodio explained. “He's a Republican, and he's a very fair person in his political views. He is willing to work with anyone to get something accomplished. He works well with others.” In addition to his work as mayor, Henry also serves as the chair of the borough’s planning commission. He is also one of Oxford’s representatives on the Oxford Area Recreation Authority board, and currently chairs that board. He has also has been active with Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. He previously belonged to the Oxford Sports Boosters, and he's also an elder in the Oxford Presbyterian Church. With that level of involvement in the community, and with connections to so many different people and organizations in the Oxford area, Henry has always managed to be a good advocate for the borough and its residents. He has encouraged borough officials to use social media to communicate with local residents. He maintains his own Facebook page to keep everyone updated about his activities. He also helped with developing a webpage for the police department. He just recently asked borough council to consider video-recording the council meetings so that residents can view them on the Internet. The mayor was also instrumental in having the Borough register with NIXLE, which is a free service used to make residents aware of events and emergency situations. “The real struggle is to get the citizens involved, and to keep them informed,” he said. He has also worked to get young people involved in government. Henry wants to start a program where fourth- and fifth-graders are encouraged to participate in an essay contest about local government by spending a day with the mayor. He also supported a junior council member program that has given several local high school students the opportunity to serve in that role. He also supported the Oxford Area Youth Advisory Council, which was former council member Andrew Atkinson's idea. “One of the enjoyable parts of the job is going to schools to read to the kids,” Henry explained. The mayor has also worked to increase the cooperation among the local municipalities, and to get elected officials to work together. A regional comprehensive plan was successfully completed over the course of several years, and a regional park was also developed as a result of a cooperative effort from municipalities in the area. “We’re all in the Oxford community and we need to work together,” Henry explained. Ed Herr, the president of Herr Foods who has been strong supporter of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. through the years, said that he has always been impressed with Henry's commitment to Oxford. “Mayor Henry is one of my favorite people,” Herr said. “He is always very good at attending various events. I like his personality, and he had a heart for creating solutions for those in need. I enjoy talking to Mayor Henry because he really cares about Oxford and he listens to people.” One of the ongoing issues facing Oxford Borough is the need to revitalize the downtown with a stable and vibrant businesses. Henry has long been a proponent of having more people in the area support businesses in the commercial district because those businesses, and their owners, do so much for the Oxford community. He also frequently attends events in the commercial district. “He's always made himself readily available,” said Sue Cole, who previously served as the executive director of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. for six years. “There are a lot of demands on his time, but whenever he would have an opportunity, he would participate in activities.” Cole explained that Henry served on the First Friday Committee that helps plan the popular monthly events that bring the community together. He also leads Christmas tree-lighting each year, attends ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new businesses, and even participated in several different celebrity bike races during community events in town. When the Girl Scouts help decorate the town's business district for the holiday season, Henry presents them with a key to Oxford, which the Girl Scouts love, Cole explained. “He is active and willing to share his thoughts on what will make things better,” Cole said. “He has a lot of ideas and suggestions. Overall, you feel like he really cares about what could make things better for Oxford. It's hard to think about Oxford without thinking about Mayor Henry.” Henry hasn't announced whether he plans to run for another term in 2017. After being elected in 2005, he was unopposed in subsequent elections in 2009 and 2013. While he hasn't given much thought to a legacy as mayor, he does hope that some of the things that he started will continue. “I would hope that whoever would succeed me would continue to take an active role in social media, he explained. “I would hope that they would continue the awards program. And I would hope that they would not make major changes to the police department.” One thing is certain: for as long as Henry is a resident of Oxford, whether he is its mayor or not, the town will have an enthusiastic—and capable—advocate. “I’ve always described Oxford as a quiet bedroom community that has a real small-town charm. I deeply love living here,” Henry said. “It is a great place to live and work. I would like to make a small difference in what happens to the town. It’s had its struggles, but the borough is on the right track.” To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org. SLUG: Profile Mayor Geoff Henry Oxford Borough mayors, 1961-present John H. Ware III, Burgess (1956) Title changes to Mayor (1961) Lewis B. Cauffman (1962) John I. Watson (1966) Francis L. Maule (1970) John W. Roberts (1975) Paul E. Andriole (1982) W. Donald Pierce (1990) Harold Gray (1994) Geoffrey L. Henry (2006) .