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Chester County Press

Editorial: A travesty of mistrust

05/24/2019 12:06PM ● By Richard Gaw

On May 15 at about 7 p.m., sitting at the front of the meeting room at the Kennett Township Building, township supervisors Scudder Stevens, Dr. Richard Leff and Whitney Hoffman each held the twin look of sadness and resignation in their eyes, as if they had just emerged from a fallout shelter and surveyed the scorched-earth destruction of what they had attempted to build, now in pieces all around them.

Inconveniently, the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors meeting happened to fall on an evening just days after the release of a statement, issued to all township residents on May 10, that said the township had begun exploring suspicious transactions in its bank accounts. For the next hour, Stevens responded with a prepared statement and promptly fielded questions from residents. While his two colleagues remained silent during the exchange, Stevens responded with clarity and with well-chosen words that reflected a delicate combination of confusion, anger and sadness. Stevens provided no specifics; he was not allowed to for fear of spinning his thoughts into speculation and potentially interfering with the investigation.

Nearly a dozen times, Stevens reached into his satchel of rhetoric, and conjured up that old chestnut of a word that he used to tell township residents what he wanted from government, back in 2011 when he first ran for the board. He used the word that helped get him elected – and re-elected – a word used to describe an alternative to what he called the back-room politics of the previous administration.

He used the word that his colleagues also used when they ran successfully for the board a few years later. On May 15, Stevens used the word that he has used – or at the very least, implied – in nearly every interview he has given to this newspaper in the last eight years.

During the hour Stevens and his colleagues spent attempting to explain how in the name of sound government something like this could ever happen in the richest township in the State of Pennsylvania – the word “Transparency” never rang so hollow, nor meant as little.

Two days later, after new information was discovered and brought before them, the supervisors dismissed township manager Lisa Moore, who had been on paid administrative leave as the investigation began to unfold in late April.

Separate findings by the Chester County District Attorney's Office and Marcum, an accounting firm hired by the township to conduct a forensic auditing of the township's books, are not expected to be completed until fall.

As we wait to find the details of this sordid mess – how much was stolen, how long this fraud has been happening and how it was conducted without suspicion under the supposed eyes of an administration that preaches accountability – we are right to cast aspersion and to have serious doubt toward a township that has led its residents down the pathway of controversy too many times before.

In the last ten years alone, there has been the suspected misuse of the township's credit card; the alleged fabrication of the township's 2008 and 2009 audit reports, supposedly conducted by an accountant named Ed Johnson who was never identified, either by the township or after an exhaustive research by this newspaper; the swirling controversy surrounding the aftermath and possible cover-up of two automobile crashes by the township's former police chief – a case that is still in litigation; and the latest, a 3-0 vote last December that approved a 475 percent local tax increase to residents in order to pay for a new emergency services fund, a tax that residents called “bloated,” “unsustainable” and “gigantic.”

During this decade, this newspaper has come to look at the governance of Kennett Township the way a teacher does a student who is both brilliant and reckless, noting that each great accomplishment is met with an equal degree of foolishness. For every report of a soaring total asset ledger, there has been a matching storm of controversy. Every wise investment and every acre saved for conservation is quickly followed by a shell game cover-up done in the shadows, or a severe lapse in judgment, or an incident that festers for years like an open wound – and all of it, every success and every failure, is done right before the eyes of the residents of Kennett Township.

And yet, it is this latest bout of disturbing news – and the former township manager's possible role in it – that threatens to bring this township’s entire foundation of trust tumbling down like house of cards, unlike any other Chester County municipality in recent memory.

While this editorial does not bring down the gauntlet of guilt upon everyone associated with the governing of Kennett Township – past or present – it excoriates the many who have wrongly manipulated it for their own gain; who have used it to patch up their reputation or twisted its power in an effort to help them save face before their constituency. In the wake of this corruption and these misappropriations, they have convened to repurpose Kennett Township not as a shining light of high ground but as a laundromat with a hefty bank account.

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists -- to protect them and to promote their common welfare -- all else is lost,” said Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States.

How Stevens, Leff and Hoffman navigate the township through the ugly revelations that are likely to be revealed by the fall is anyone’s guess, but as the most prominent elected officials in this township, the burden falls on them, but it also falls on the residents and taxpayers of Kennett Township to choose between acceptance or a demand for accountability….because when trust has been entirely evaporated, what else is there?