Oxford Borough Council candidates take part in forum
● By Steven Hoffman
Public safety, sidewalks, the borough’s debt, and views on economic development were a few of the topics addressed by candidates for Oxford Borough Council during a forum on the Ware Presbyterian Village campus on Oct. 22.
There are six candidates competing for three seats on council, while two other candidates are vying for a two-year unexpired term that opened up in July. No matter how the election on Tuesday, Nov. 5 unfolds, there will be some new faces on borough council starting in 2020. Council vice president Peggy Ann Russell is the only one of three incumbents who are seeking re-election, as longtime council members Sue Lombardi and John Thompson opted not to run again after twelve and eight years on council, respectively.
The Oct. 22 forum offered the candidates an opportunity to share their visions for Oxford with the community.
There are three republicans running for the three seats on borough council: Mary Lou Baily, Philip Harris, and Michele Rich-Ianieri. The three democrats competing for those seats are Kathryn Goodley Cloyd, Mary Higgins, and Russell. For the two-year unexpired term, the republican nominee is Randy Grace, while the democrat on the ballot is Richard Winchester. All four democrats in the race have aligned their campaigns under a “Vision for Oxford” banner, while Baily and Harris have linked their campaigns.
The forum, which was moderated by the League of Women Voters of Chester County, started with the candidates taking turns making two-minute opening statements. Next, the candidates took turns responding to questions that were posed by the moderator, but submitted by audience members, with 90 seconds allotted for each answer. The candidates then made a closing statement to conclude the forum.
The questions focused on the following: the priorities that each candidate would have if they were elected to council; the biggest challenge currently facing the borough; how each candidate would handle disagreements about issues; how each candidate would communicate to residents about borough issues so that the public is informed; and how Oxford Borough can address traffic issues.
Through the opening and closing statements and the responses to questions, the audience learned about each of the candidates.
Here’s a look at what each candidate said (candidates are listed in alphabetical order):
Mary Lou Baily is the Main Street Manager for Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. and is responsible for overseeing all the downtown events. Her duties allow her to work closely with volunteers, business owners, Borough Council, Oxford Police Department, the Union Fire Company, and many others to plan the events. She also currently serves on the borough’s Planning Commission. Baily believes that her experience will benefit her in the role as a borough council member.
She talked about her background and love for the Oxford community. Baily was born and raised in southern Chester County and is a graduate of Avon Grove High School. She earned an architecture degree from Temple University, and moved to Washington D.C. to follow her passion for working for non-profits.
After marrying her husband and having their first son, they rediscovered the joys of life in southern Chester County, and in particular they fell in love with Oxford.
“We chose to put down our roots here in Oxford,” Baily said.
She said that one of her priorities as a council member would be to ensure that the streets and neighborhoods remain safe. She would encourage neighborhood developments, perhaps through the Elm Street program, which promotes neighborhood development similarly to how the main street program promotes the business district.
Baily said that she wants to continue building a business-friendly environment by crafting regulations and communicating a clear process to new businesses. A strong business district will, in turn, reduce the tax burden on all residents by boosting borough revenues.
Baily pointed out that another advantage of focusing commercial and industrial growth in Oxford Borough is that it allows the townships to maintain more open space, which is important to the quality of life of residents because so many people value the rural character of the area.
Kathryn Goodley Cloyd also expressed her enthusiasm for the small-town charm of Oxford.
“I’ve lived in many places, but Oxford is my favorite place,” she said, explaining that she moved to Oxford after serving in the United States Army. Cloyd has been a resident of Oxford Borough for 31 years, and raised her family here.
She was very involved as a volunteer in Oxford schools, and only started thinking about a run for a seat on Oxford Borough Council after attending a Sidewalk Committee meeting and learning of the plight of homeowners who were faced with replacing sidewalks and curbs within the year. After listening to the residents’ concerns, she was motivated to work on her own to find several grants that provide funds for this type of project.
“I presented my research to council, which ensured that further action would be taken,” Cloyd explained. “The result is that the borough has submitted a request for $1.8 million in grant money for sidewalks and curbs in the affected area. I pledge to continue to press for grants that will directly help residents.”
Cloyd said that if she were elected, she would work with the other members of borough council to improve the outreach to Oxford residents because the community is strengthened when more citizens are involved in the decision-making process.
She said that when the new borough hall opens, parking should be made free to those wishing to attend council meetings. As a council member, Cloyd said, she would work with the other council members to deliver “careful incremental progress.”
Cloyd identified safety issues and sidewalk improvements as priorities. Speeding in town is always a concern, she said.
Of all the candidates running in this election, the person with the most experience as a council member is Randy Grace. He previously served a four-year term on council, and earlier this year he was appointed to fill a vacancy. He is seeking to win the seat that has two years left on the unexpired term.
Grace works as a data center operations manager for a company in Exton, and he and his wife, Lori, also own a business, the Maroon Hornet, in downtown Oxford.
Grace talked about his record as a council member, noting that in three out of the four years that he was on council, they were able to adopt a budget without a tax increase. During his time on council, Grace served as the chairman of the Public Works Committee and was a member of the Police and Public Safety Committee. With his previous experience on council, Grace is already very knowledgable about the budget and how it is developed. He is a proponent of revitalization in the downtown, and as a business owner himself, he understands what the other business owners in town are experiencing.
Grace said that it is important for the borough to continue improving public safety, and he would like to see even more police patrols in the downtown.
He said that the next council must come together to help make the parking garage a success as a boost for economic development.
“If we don’t do that, we’ll all feel the pain of it,” he said.
Philip Harris is a lifelong resident of the area who was born in Unionville. He explained that his family extends back six generations in southern Chester County. He works at a wholesale distribution company, and he explained that one thing he learned from his experience in sales is the importance of building relationships.
Harris said that mounting debt is the biggest challenge that the borough faces, and a balance must be struck between progress and financial responsibility. He pledged to be fiscally conservative in using taxpayer dollars.
Harris said that he would prioritize establishing a capital reserve fund for the parking garage so that money is there for when maintenance costs arise and debt-service payments need to be made. He would also like to see the borough adopt an investor’s package to help streamline the process for people who want to be involved in commercial activity in the downtown.
“I also want Oxford to be a town of inclusion,” Harris said, noting that the community is very diverse.
Mary Higgins moved to Oxford four years ago, which gives her a different perspective, she said.
“I see our borough with what I call ‘beginner’s eyes,’” Higgins said, pledging to work to ensure that the local government works for all borough residents.
“I stand for a government that stands for you,” Higgins told the audience. “I promise to be fiscally responsible with your tax dollars.”
Higgins said that her priorities as a council member would be to bring people together in the spirit of cooperation and to have equitable enforcement of the borough codes. Higgins explained that she has heard from some residents who think that the borough codes are not enforced equally, making them feel not as important as other residents.
She said that one of her goals is to help strengthen the bonds in the community.
“We need residents and businesses on the same side of the table,” she explained.
Higgins has a background as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Before that, she served as the Ombudsman for the City of Charleston, South Carolina. In that role, she served as the bridge between the city government and the citizens.
Michele Rich-Ianieri said that she never had any aspirations to run for an elected office, but then she did not like the process that Oxford Borough Council used when making decisions about the parking garage project. She didn’t think council members listened to the concerns of residents, especially when it came to concerns about the costs of the project.
“I’m running because creative budgeting and positive thinking can work, but then someone must be accountable,” she said.
Rich-Ianieri has been a resident of Oxford Borough since 2004 and she works in human resources.
As a council member, she pledged, she would support efforts to alleviate the financial burden on residents by being careful with the spending of taxpayer dollars. She would like to increase the productivity of revenue-generating departments in the borough.
She also wants the borough to take steps to address public safety issues, including property crimes.
Rich-Ianieri said that she would like Oxford Borough to utilize methods of communication like text message alerts and email lists, to communicate with borough residents, similar to how the Oxford Area School District does.
Peggy Ann Russell is the vice president of borough council. It’s been a busy four years, and when responding to the question about priorities after serving on council for four years, she said that it’s hard to narrow them down to just three.
Russell said that, after some of the divisiveness surrounding the parking garage discussions, it is important to “bring unity back to this community.”
Russell noted that it was never a goal to run for political office, but she was encouraged to do so by a number of residents, and she launched a write-in campaign during the election four years ago. Now, she gets re-elected, she will be one of the most experienced members of council.
Russell is retired from Prudential Insurance, where she worked as an agent. She earned an undergraduate degree in business administration from Lincoln University, and a master’s degree in spiritual direction with a post-graduate certificate in pastoral counseling from Neumann University. She moved to Oxford Borough in 1981 and has been involved in a number of different organizations. She is a founding member of ACE Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance of Oxford and has been an associate with the School Sisters of Notre Dame since 1990.
Although she consistently voted against the parking garage project, one of the reasons she wants to serve another term is to ensure that there is some continuity on council so that completion of the project can be handled in the most financially responsible way possible.
Although Russell said that she never intended to enter politics, during the closing statement, she demonstrated some political astuteness by not just talking about herself, but instead focusing her comments on how all four democratic candidates fit together as a team with a vision for the future of Oxford. She promised that the slate of candidates would be ready to hit the ground running on Jan. 6, 2020, if they win the election and are sworn in that evening.
Dr. Richard Winchester emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility and honest government, which are two of the tenets of the democrats’ platform.
The retired Lincoln University professor decided to run for the two-year unexpired term following Oxford Borough Council’s decision on July 15 to make an appointment to fill a vacancy on the council just an hour after formally accepting the resignation that created the vacancy.
Winchester and his wife Connie moved into Oxford Borough five years ago, but they have strong connections to the community that go back nearly five decades. Winchester was a history professor and a vice president for academic affairs with Lincoln University between 1961 and 2000.
Winchester said that the next borough council must be financially responsible when making decisions because Oxford is grappling with a number of financial challenges. The expenditures that went into the parking garage project leaves the borough with less financial flexibility.
The Oxford Area Sewer Authority is facing financial issues that could impact the borough and its residents. Water rates are a concern, too, especially if Aqua does eventually purchase the Chester Water Authority. Infrastructure upgrades are needed, too.
“We need to be fiscally responsible. The garage is up now, so we need to pay the bills,” Winchester said.
He added that another priority for borough council must be to work toward improving the safety for pedestrians. Speeding traffic is one concern. Another is that many borough residents walk to the shopping centers on the edge of town. The lack of sidewalks for a stretch of that area makes the walk unsafe.
Winchester said that some of the issues with the biggest impact on Oxford Borough, such as how to meet the sewer and water needs of the area, or how to best provide police protection to the community, can be addressed with the cooperation of the neighboring municipalities.
“The issues are regional,” Winchester explained, “and we need to think regionally about them.”
He said that improving cooperation between the municipalities would be one of his goals.
“We need their cooperation on a lot of issues,” Winchester said. One illustration would be talking to Lower Oxford Township about installing sidewalks for the stretch of Third Street near the shopping center.
“We also need to regionalize the police,” Winchester said, explaining that the borough has a good police department. When emergency calls occur, the Oxford Police must respond when the call goes out, even if it’s in Lower Oxford Township or East Nottingham. The borough shoulders the burden for these costs, even though the incidents they are responding to are taking place in a neighboring municipality.
Harris also agreed with the idea of pursuing regional policing as an option. It was just one of several instances in which the candidates agreed with each other on important issues. Higgins even commented at one point about how there is more agreement than disagreement about Oxford’s future.
“I don’t think there is anyone sitting up here today who doesn’t want the town to thrive,” Higgins said.
“We’ve heard some great ideas tonight,” Harris said. “Win or lose, I will support any one of these people. This is about Oxford. Let’s bridge the gaps…and fight for Oxford.”
The forum concluded with a reminder for everyone to go out and vote on Tuesday, Nov. 5.