Two-year term on Oxford Borough Council now on ballot
● By Steven Hoffman
When Oxford Borough Council appointed Randy Grace to fill a vacancy on council at the July 15 meeting, the thinking that evening was that the appointment was for the remainder of an unexpired term that extends through 2021.
It turns out, however, that Phillip Hurtt’s resignation from borough council came in time for the position to be added to the ballot for the November election, with candidates vying for the two-year unexpired term. As a result, Grace’s appointment extends through the end of this year. New council members, including the winner of the race for the two-year term, will be sworn into office early in 2020.
Once it became apparent that the two-year term would be on the ballot, Grace subsequently decided to run for the seat, while Dr. Richard C. Winchester, a retired professor, announced his candidacy for the position as well. Grace is the Republican nominee on the ballot, while Winchester is the Democratic nominee.
It did not take Winchester long after the July 15 meeting to decide to run for the two-year term on borough council. He thought that borough council made a mistake by accepting a resignation of a council member and making an appointment to fill the vacancy on the same evening, without informing the residents of the borough that a vacancy existed.
In an Aug. 7 letter to the editor that was published in the Chester County Press, Winchester wrote:
“I agree with those Oxford residents who are outraged at the process Borough Council used to fill the vacancy created when Phil Hurtt moved out of town.”
He continued, “there was no advance notice of this vacancy, no advertisement of it, and no real opportunity for anyone other than the hand-picked candidate to apply. The common practice in Chester County, one that Oxford usually observed in the past, has been to publicize a vacancy and then create a window for interested candidates to apply. There was no good reason to abandon this fair and open procedure now.”
Winchester concluded that letter by announcing his candidacy.
With Winchester’s entry into the race, when Oxford Borough voters go to the polls next month and they reach the spot on the ballot where the two-year unexpired term is listed, they will have a choice between two experienced candidates with lengthy qualifications.
Grace, who has lived in Oxford for the last 19 years, previously served on Borough Council for a full four-year term. He explained that he expressed interest in filling the vacancy in July for one reason—he loves Oxford.
“I’m just trying to help,” he said.
During his time on council, Grace served as the chairman of the Public Works Committee and also served on the Police and Public Safety Committee. Grace believes that that experience will be useful to a borough council that is losing two of its three most experienced members at the end of this year.
Grace also said that he approaches issues with common sense and a common person’s point of view, which helps him keep issues that come in front of council in perspective.
Grace points with pride to his record as a council member. He was an advocate for revitalization in the downtown. In three of the four years that he served on council, the annual budget was adopted without a tax increase.
“We wanted to get the spending under control,” he explained, adding that financial issues are always important for the borough.
Grace works as a data center operations manager for a company in Exton. He and his wife, Lori, also own a business, the Maroon Hornet, in downtown Oxford, which gives him a front row seat to what’s going on in the business district. As a business owner himself, he understands what other business owners in town are experiencing. He believes that it’s very useful having a business owner on borough council to provide insights into what’s happening in the business district day to day.
Grace talked about how he sees great benefit to having an economically vibrant community. He said that he would like to see more events to bring people into town, so that more people see how great Oxford is. An economically vibrant downtown also boosts revenues to the borough, reducing the burden on residents. Grace said that it’s a symbiotic relationship between the business district and the residents—one can’t thrive without the other.
With his previous experience on council, Grace is already very knowledgable about the budget and how it is developed, and he also knows all about the parking garage that is being constructed in the downtown as a key component to the borough’s revitalization efforts.
Grace looks at the new parking garage, which will open in 2020, as something that will help attract a larger employer to the downtown. A new, larger employer would be a boost to the existing shops and restaurants. The increased commercial activity will create jobs and generate revenues for the borough.
“I think the town is at a crossroads,” Grace said, explaining that it’s important for the borough to continue to attract businesses to the downtown. “We need to maintain that momentum that we’ve had.”
He added, “It won’t happen at one time, in one fell swoop. It’s going to take time.”
Grace said that he also believes strongly in not allowing partisan politics to play a role in borough council’s decision-making process.
“The town is too small for partisan politics,” Grace said. “We want to focus on what’s best for the homeowners and the business owners in Oxford.”
He also wants borough officials and residents to refrain from fear-mongering efforts.
“I am not a fan of the negativity online,” he said. “I think we need to get back to being more civil with each other.”
He also wants the council members themselves to be more positive when it comes to working with each other. Grace believes that the negativity that a few council members directed toward the parking garage hurt the borough’s efforts to secure additional funding for the project, potentially costing borough taxpayers thousands of dollars. Debate and disagreement is fine—council members won’t always agree with each other, but how they handle the debates and disagreements does matter.
To that end, he had nothing but complimentary things to say about Winchester, his Election Day opponent.
“Dick is a very respected man,” Grace said. “I have a ton of respect for him.”
He also said that, as a business owner in town, he is very accessible to anyone who has an issue that they want to discuss. He can be found most evenings in his shop on Third Street.
“I want to continue to serve my community in any way possible,” Grace said of the decision to run for council. “Everything I’ve done is for the betterment of Oxford.”
Winchester is running for a seat on borough council because he, too, wants to serve the community.
When Winchester and his wife, Connie, moved to Ware Presbyterian Village five years ago, they planned for a more relaxed pace in their senior years. Winchester readily admits he had no plan to ever run for Borough Council until the events that unfolded at the July 15 meeting. He felt the issue was important enough to stand up and do something to ensure that the local government is working as well as it should to represent the citizens.
He explained, “The prompt for my decision to run for Borough Council was the process used to fill the vacancy created by Phil Hurtt’s resignation. I raised this issue in my letter to the Chester County Press on August 7 and, if elected, my first goal will be to create with others a fair and more democratic policy for filling vacancies.”
Although Winchester and his wife moved into Oxford Borough five years ago, they have strong connections to the Oxford area that go back nearly five decades.
Winchester is a retired history professor and a vice president for academic affairs with Lincoln University who enjoyed a 39-year career in education. He graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia and Ursinus College in the 1950s, and earned a PhD in the next decade. He married Connie in 1958, and moved to the Oxford area in 1961 when he took a teaching position at Lincoln University.
He and Connie were involved in the modern civil rights movement. In 1961, when he was still a relatively new professor at Lincoln University, he was approached by some students at the school who were concerned that the Oxford Hotel was still refusing to allow black people to rent rooms there. One of the students had inquired about a room and was told that there weren’t any available. Soon, Winchester was on his way to Oxford, overnight bag in hand, to see if there were any rooms available for a young, white professor. It turns out that there was. Later that same day, Lincoln University students were picketing the Oxford Hotel—Winchester among them. Soon, John H. Ware III, a highly respected businessman, intervened. He called the owner of the Oxford Hotel and emphasized the importance of doing the right thing and fully integrating the Oxford Hotel. After this successful effort to integrate the Oxford Hotel, Winchester and his wife continued to advocate for civil rights during turbulent times for the country. They marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in August of 1963, and also made significant contributions to the Oxford community. Connie was a co-founder of the Neighborhood Services Center, and Winchester was the co-founder of the Oxford Educational Foundation. He served on the Oxford School Board for a decade, including four of those years when he was selected to be the president of the school board. So while he has never served on borough council, he has experience serving as an elected official.
Winchester said that one of his priorities, if he were elected to borough council, would be public safety.
“We must slow the speeding on the streets into town, and ticket the people who run the light on Route 10,” he said, explaining that ensuring the safety of pedestrians who shop in the stores in the two shopping centers on the edge of town is a priority. Improving the conditions of sidewalks throughout the borough is another goal.
Public safety also includes concern for drug abuse and sex trafficking, issues that must stay on the radar, according to Winchester.
He also expressed particular concerns about economic matters that the borough is grappling with.
“The biggest challenges for the new borough council are going to be the fiscal challenges. We’ve had some economic news in the last 60 days that we were not hoping for,” he explained, referring to the news that the borough did not receive a grant for the parking garage that they were hoping to receive to offset some of the costs of the project. Additionally, the Oxford Area Sewer Authority was notified, again, that it needed to make good on two debt-service payments, totaling about $1.2 million, that were missed in 2016.
Oxford Borough and the other three member municipalities agreed to back the $27 million loan that the Oxford Area Sewer Authority took out to expand the wastewater treatment system, with Oxford accepting responsibility for the largest share of that loan—at more than 40 percent. For the $1.2 million in missed debt-service payments, Oxford Borough’s portion amounts to more than $500,000. The borough is not in a good position to simply write a check that large.
Winchester has been a regular attendee of Oxford Area Sewer Authority meetings, and is very aware of how the Sewer Authority’s financial issues, as well as the potential sale of the sewer system, could impact local residents. He noted that Oxford Borough already has the highest municipal property tax rate of any borough in the county, and the costs associated with the Oxford Area Sewer Authority’s financial situation represents another potential burden.
The borough’s reserves are already strained, he explained, and there are a lot of needs that must be addressed with limited resources. Winchester noted that there are infrastructure needs for the borough’s water system are pressing, and could impact the borough’s budget.
In the last few years, as borough officials extensively discussed the parking garage, Winchester expressed a lot of skepticism regarding the project. But the project is well underway, and soon the parking garage will be open.
“Now, the task is to make sure that every dollar is well-spent,” Winchester said.
Another goal he would have as a council member would be to find ways to expedite discussions at council meetings so that the work can be accomplished more efficiently. He would be a stickler for Robert’s Rules of Order, he said, as well as due process.
Winchester also pledged, if he were elected to council, to work to meet the needs of the entire community.
“There are a lot of needs that are currently unmet,” Winchester said. “I will listen to all the voices, not just the loudest ones.”