Leff vs. Tower: Candidates vie for Kennett Township supervisor seat
By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
In November 2013, Dr. Richard Leff, with no prior experience in Kennett Township politics, defeated Jim Przywitowski, a Republican with more than two decades of work with the township, in an election to determine the next Kennett Township Supervisor, by an unofficial vote of 1,083 to 867.
The basis of Leff's first campaign focused primarily on creating inclusiveness, introducing transparency in decisions, kick-starting economic development and providing an efficient use of pooled resources as the standard for how the business of the township should run.
On the strength of these talking points, Leff was elected to a six-year term, an election that served as the second in a three-part run that saw the election of fellow Democrat Scudder Stevens in 2012 and Democrat Whitney Hoffman in 2015.
Now, as he campaigns for his second six-year term on the three-person board, Leff has been knocking on the doors of his constituents with the two-fold necessity of a political incumbent: To reel off his accomplishments, and also respond to the criticisms that have been directed at this board and his place in it, over the past several years.
On the plus side, Leff has voted for the funding and acquisition of increased open space, trails and sidewalks and the improvement of the Five Points intersection. He’s also been involved in the township’s commitment to strengthen its police force by extending it to 24/7 coverage and hiring additional officers.
In direct contrast to the Republican-stacked board that preceded Leff and his colleagues – who were criticized by residents for running the township in virtual secrecy – the board has championed the efforts of the township to open the doors of transparency by upgrading its website, going all-in on social media, increasing its e-mail list and recording and streaming all public board meetings.
“When I first entered local politics, going door to door was nothing I thought I could do, but now that I'm an incumbent, I describe what we've done over the last six years, and then I ask residents what do they want in the township the future?” said Leff, whose campaign motto is “Preserving Our Past, Investing in Our Future.” “People love the open space [initiatives] happening in the township now.”
Leff is not the only candidate working the leafy neighborhoods of the township. His opponent, Republican Hunter Tower, has created a campaign whose bedrock tenets have been carved out of a growing belief among the constituency that the current board is over-taxing, over-spending and doing exactly what Leff, Stevens and Hoffman all campaigned against – demonstrating a lack of transparency.
Tower, who has served as the executive director of the Republican Party of Lancaster County since 2014 and is a member of the township's Zoning Hearing Board, has become the anointed voice of an opposition to the supervisors’ decision to raise the township’s property taxes by a whopping 475 percent – a 3-0 vote rendered at the board’s Dec. 6, 2017 meeting that went into effect in 2018 -- in order to pay for a new emergency services fund.
While the board argued that the fund was an outgrowth of the township’s financial commitment to its police force and its residents, their critics called it a spending spree on the residents’ dime. Tower said that the increase is often the first topic he hears during his meetings with township residents.
“They’re asking, ‘Why are we getting taxed so much, and why are we seeing so many police around here?’” Tower said. “When we had a two-member police force, no one batted an eye, and then suddenly, no one received a notification that the supervisors were going to approve this massive spending increase to pay for its police force.
“It all arrived in the dark,” Tower added. “From my standpoint, it’s very worrying that they did this in the middle of the night and never notified anyone, and then forced it on taxpayers and residents. If I'm elected, I will be a public servant, and that doesn’t seem to be the case with Rich or the rest of the current board.”
“When I started on the board, we had two officers and our record-keeping for crimes was on a little piece of paper,” Leff responded. “We had no standard reporting. Every year, we added one to two police officers, and there was no one who was asking us for fewer police officers.
“If [Hunter] thinks that things are that bad in Kennett Township, then why did he move here? If he thinks that things are bad here, what's he going to do to solve the problem?”
Another key difference in philosophy between Leff and Tower is in the area of investment in open space. On Leff’s watch, the township has received $6 million in grants that have gone to the preservation of about 380 acres as open space, including Barkingfield Park, the Kennett Greenway and the Spar Hill property.
The current board says they are merely working to fulfill the wishes of the township’s residents, and point to a township referendum that was passed on May 17, 2005, when 76 percent of residents voted in favor of devoting one-quarter of one percent of earned income tax toward the purchase of open space and farmland preservation. Ultimately, the township's goals are to preserve 30 percent of all land in the township.
Tower opposes all of that spending for open space, which has helped to whittle a $10 million surplus down to about $3 million – a 70 percent decline that he calls “unacceptable.”
“I’m not campaigning on less open space,” Tower said. “I am all about being financially responsible. I believe you should spend your money wisely, and not just spend it and hope for the best. I am all in favor environmental stewardship, but you need financial responsibility wherever possible.”
If elected, Tower wants to look for ways to cut township spending “and give it back to the residents.”
“Whether it is tax cuts or cutting spending in the budget, I’m all for it,” he said. “I want to scale back and give the hard-working taxpayers and our seniors a break, because they deserve it.”
Leff countered that the financial data that Tower is campaigning on do not reflect the real numbers.
“[Hunter] can twist the numbers any way he wants – and he's allowed to do that – but if you want to ask about where the township was six years ago and where is our reserve now – we had between $10-$12 million in reserve in a bank getting point-three interest,” Leff responded. “We now have about $6 million in the bank and about a $3 million loan balance on open space purchases. Of that $6 million, almost $3 million is in an investment account, getting substantially more return that what the prior supervisors were investing.
“I think he's reflecting the local Republican Party's diatribe,” Leff added. “For years, the township residents passed an open space tax by an overwhelming majority, and for years, the prior Republican leadership in the township collected that money and did almost nothing with it. We've spent the money that people have paid in taxes to preserve open space and given people access to it.”
If there is an unwanted albatross that hangs over Leff’s campaign – one that threatens to overshadow any achievements he has made in his first term and may impact his re-election -- it is the ongoing investigation of fraud in the township, which was first detected by the township’s bank in late April. While the township has attempted to keep the public informed of the dual investigation being conducted by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and the independent auditor hired by the township, there are some who attend the board’s meetings who believe that Leff and his colleagues were negligent in their duties to oversee the money going in and out of the township.
Rather than tuck it in a back folder of his campaign, Leff brings the topic up at every door-to-door conversation he has.
“I don’t let it lay fallow, because it’s my responsibility to let people know about it,” he said. “Part of the responsibility of being a supervisor is to let people know what's going on – good and bad. We've kept the public informed at every meeting. We’ve outsourced our payroll. We hired a township manager, and there will be greater changes and different systems in the future.”
Tower said that the investigation has been a huge part of his campaign, and he condemns the method the supervisors are using in an effort to keep the public informed. He also criticized the board for the limited information that it shares about the investigations at the beginning of every board meeting.
“Door to door, that’s what people want to know,” he said. “It’s a shame because whether it’s true or not, we have no idea, but the way it’s been rolled out to the public is that [former township manager] Lisa Moore is guilty. I hate that this is the kind of narrative that’s been played out in the township, because I’m a huge believer in law and order, and you are innocent until proven guilty.
“All of this has happened on the supervisors watch, as well, so they’re just as guilty. It’s shocking that you can put blame on somebody. I choose to wait until all of the facts roll out, but from my perspective – and when I talk to voters – it seems that this board is painting [Moore] in the corner as the perpetrator. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but it’s unfortunate that we can’t get a word out of the board. Surely they can tell us about what they’re doing with our taxpayer money.”
When Stevens sat at his first board meeting in January of 2013, he was the only Democrat there, and until Leff’s election a year later, he played the role of the political outlier, cautious with his voice and biding his time until he could see the day when he would have support. Should Tower defeat Leff on Nov. 5, he understands that he will be in the same position at the start of his term, with very little power to overturn a vote against Stevens or Hoffman. He recalled a board meeting last April when an older woman stood up to offer her opposition to the tax increase.
“She told the board that because of this tax increase, she had to choose between paying that and paying for her medicine,” Tower said. “That’s an amazing scenario to think about. Because you want to push this narrative, you have affected her, personally.
“I want to be the check to whatever the board is doing.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.