‘I love where Oxford is headed’
● By Steven Hoffman
In the weeks since Phil Harris joined the short list of men and women who have served as mayor of Oxford Borough, he has been busy meeting with residents and business owners and the leaders of a variety of organizations in the Oxford community. His goal has been to talk to as many people as possible because it is these residents, business owners, and community leaders who are laying the groundwork for the borough’s future.
Harris was appointed to serve as mayor by Borough Council on Dec. 16, and he was officially sworn in eight days later.
“Being appointed as mayor is truly an honor,” Harris said.
He jumped into the new role with fervor, doing ride-alongs with police officers, meeting with officials from organizations like the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce, the Lighthouse Youth Center, the Oxford Senior Center, Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., and the Oxford Arts Alliance. The Harris family attended an MLK Day community celebration at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church. Harris also met with numerous business owners, some of whom he already knew through his work with a local distribution company.
What has surprised him most is that there are so many people doing good things in Oxford, and yet that stands in opposition to so many of the comments on Facebook and community message boards that suggest that the town is headed in the wrong direction.
“A lot of people and organizations like the Oxford Area Neighborhood Services Center and Lighthouse Youth Center are doing tremendous work,” Harris explained. “We see an inspired community working for the collective good. This is in direct conflict with the various Facebook narratives many have come to know. We’re making a name for ourselves. It’s not all rosy, but it’s not all what you see on Facebook, either.”
Harris wants to help shine a spotlight on the good initiatives that are taking place in the community and to let everyone who is working for the betterment of Oxford know that he is here to help.
Becoming the mayor of Oxford Borough wasn’t a part of Harris’s plans when he and his wife, Mandie, moved to Oxford with their two children. In fact, as recently as November 2019, his goal was to win a seat on Oxford Borough Council. But the slate of Democratic candidates swept the seats that were up for election. But then, less than a month later, Lorraine Durnan Bell resigned as mayor, creating the vacancy that Harris was selected to fill at the last council meeting of 2019.
So far, he’s been impressed with just about everything Oxford has to offer—the dedication of the business owners who have invested in the town, the generosity and kindness of the leaders of nonprofit organizations that work to help those who need it most. He loves the architecture of Oxford’s buildings and has been impressed with the talented local artists, including school students, who showcase their artwork at the Oxford Arts Alliance. He’s impressed by the projects and activities planned by OMI, as well as the work of Oxford Borough Manager Brian Hoover. He’s excited about the prospect of Oxford having a theater in the downtown to attract visitors to the downtown.
“Oxford has so many wonderful initiatives, programs, charities, and churches,” he said. “This community is filled with so many amazing individuals and its potential is immeasurable.”
Oxford clearly has an enthusiastic and energetic promoter in its new mayor.
“I’m a high-energy guy and I want to bring that to this job,” Harris said.
He explained that this is his 27th year of handling sales for a local wholesale distribution company. Harris described the business as a “family-owned distributor” that primarily serves family-owned businesses—many of them owned by immigrants, and some of those businesses are located in Oxford.
As a result of all the experience working in sales, Harris is very comfortable meeting with different people and groups.
“I’ll have a conversation with anybody,” he said, explaining that one of his goals as mayor is help bring people together.
During his 27 years, he said, he has gotten to know many of the customers very well. He was always willing to help out in any way that was needed.
“I pride myself on fighting for these family businesses and doing what’s right for them,” he said. Through the years, Harris has even helped some of the business owners that he has worked with study for citizenship tests.
He has also owned a small residential construction company for the last 26 years, and the business relies heavily on referrals, so he knows how important it is to maintain a high level of ethics when doing business.
His work experience has also helped him be a problem-solver. One illustration of how he might bring this skill to his duties as a mayor came at one of the first borough council meetings he ever attended. There was a discussion that night about a request from the police department for $800 for the baseball card outreach program. The police officers are featured on these cards and they are distributed to the community, especially youngsters, so that borough residents get to know a little bit about the police officers who are serving the community. At the council meeting, there was no immediate way to fund the baseball card outreach.
Harris pointed out that the baseball cards are a way to help children understand that the police are heroes, and that they are there to protect them. After the meeting, Harris felt compelled to try to help out. He phoned then-mayor Lorraine Bell and asked if a corporate donation might be possible to help offset the costs of the baseball card outreach program.
He reached out to Hugo Sandoval, a business owner in town that Harris knew from his work at the distribution company. Hugo’s brother, Erik Sandoval is studying criminal justice and planning to enter the police academy. Hugo and Erik were more than happy to make a donation to support the police department’s outreach efforts.
“That’s the power of bringing people together,” Harris explained. “We’re only as good as the people from the community who participate.”
Before Harris even applied to fill the vacancy, he met with Oxford Borough Police Chief Sam Iacono to let him know that he might be applying for the position. Mayors of small Pennsylvania boroughs have the duty of overseeing the operations of the police department. The working relationship between a police chief and a mayor is an important one.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with the chief. He’s fantastic,” Harris explained.
Since he was named mayor, Harris has also worked to get to know the other police officers.
“I am so impressed with them,” he said, explaining that during ride-alongs, he has seen firsthand how skilled the officers are at handling the situations that they encounter on a daily basis.
One of the things he would like to see accomplished is to help work with the borough council members to get a new contract with the police department. The previous contract is expired.
“The men and women are working without a contract. They are out there every single day working hard,” Harris said.
He has also identified several other goals. Harris took part in meetings with La Comunidad Hispana, an organization that has been trying to establish a location in the borough for the last several years. He said that he has prioritized trying to help facilitate La Comunidad Hispana’s move into the borough.
“Our community needs this. We need more health services for residents,” Harris explained.
Oxford’s diversity is already a strength, Harris said, but he also wants to work on efforts that boost inclusion in town.
He explained that he wants everyone to feel comfortable at borough council meetings, and more outreach to the Latino community would be beneficial. Harris noted also that there are already a large number of Hispanic-owned businesses in town, and he would like to see an Hispanic Business Alliance formed as a way to ensure that those businesses thrive.
“OMI is fantastic about reaching out to make sure the Hispanic business owners are participating in events,” Harris said, adding that he could see someone like Raul Juarez, the owner of La Tienda and the new Taqueria Los Juarez, as a leader when it comes to making sure that the unique needs of Hispanic-owned businesses are being met.
While Harris is a relative newcomer to Oxford Borough, he and his wife are both longtime residents of southern Chester County. They are both Unionville High School graduates. Harris explained that they chose to move to Oxford, even though they could have moved anywhere in the county, because they liked the community and took a tour of the Oxford schools and found everyone to be so warm and welcoming.
His wife is an instructional aide who works in the school district, and Harris said that he wants to talk to principals and teachers as much as possible to learn about what students in the community are dealing with. These insights will help elected officials make decisions that help address the issues that exist.
Another effort that Harris supports is holding meetings at different parts of the community to make sure that residents in the various segments of Oxford Borough feel like they are being adequately represented. For example, he would like to hold meetings at Ware Presbyterian Village as a way to increase those residents’ participation in the local government.
He also wants to engage with various churches. “How could I truly be effective if I don’t get to know our pastors, priests, elders and parishioners?” he asked. “There is a wealth of ‘real world’ knowledge to be found in these places of worship. I will be rotating throughout the community, to learn of individual struggles, concerns, questions and initiatives. This is another way I hope to build trust and shape the future of our community.”
Harris would also like to facilitate activities that bring different groups together. For example, the police and teachers in the schools could take part in a ping pong tournament with students. This would help instill a sense of belonging in the youngsters, and it would also help them understand that the police and teachers are there to help them. Helping to bring the community together in a more unified way is certainly one more thing that Harris hopes to achieve.
The new mayor has a lot on his plate, and his term as mayor ends in less than two years now. He said that it’s nice being able to look to former mayors like Paul Andriole and Harold Gray and learn from how they handled the duties of the job. Harris said that he has received a great deal of help from former mayor Geoff Henry, who served in that role for 12 years, as well as Lorraine Durnan Bell, who has been willing to help out, too.
Harris said that he has been extremely impressed with the veteran council members as well as the preparation that the newly elected council members have put in between the time they were elected and now. Gone, Harris said, is any sort of rivalry between himself and the slate of Democratic candidates who won seats on Borough Council. The new council members were prepared and they were ready to hit the ground running when they took office, joining the incumbent members on a strong borough council. Now, Harris just wants to help in any way that he can.
Whether it’s a former mayor, a current or former council member, a business owner, a lifelong resident of the borough or someone who is just visiting the town for a day, Harris is ready to talk about how to make Oxford better.
“I want to work with everybody,” he explained. “I welcome every opinion. We all want the same thing—we want what’s best for Oxford. I love where Oxford is headed.”
Harris encouraged residents to contact him through the Oxford Borough mayor’s Facebook page or by email at email@example.com. He is also working on establishing regular office hours.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oxford Borough mayors, 1961-present
John H. Ware III, elected 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)
Lorraine Durnan Bell (2018)
Phil Harris (2019)
Oxford Borough seeks nominations for Citizen Recognition Awards
Oxford Borough mayor Phil Harris has announced that nominations for the Citizen Recognition Awards are now being accepted. The awards, which have been handed out since 2007, seek to recognize citizens or organizations that have made significant contributions that strengthen the fabric of the Oxford community. Nomination forms will be available at the Oxford police station, borough hall, and on the borough’s website at www.oxfordboro.org.