Same township, same party, different voices05/04/2021 08:02PM ● By Richard Gaw
As Democrats Whitney Hoffman and Peter Doehring battle to win a primary race on May 18, the issue of trust is on the ballot, as Kennett Township continues to reel from an alleged embezzlement that has angered residents who demand accountability from their supervisors
By Richard L. Gaw
Soon after she was elected as the first woman on the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors in November 2015, Whitney Hoffman asked a township employee if the township should hire a forensic accountant.
Hoffman believed that forensic accounting was a good legal practice that would better ensure that the financial books of an entity would remain clean, especially during the time of her election, when she became the third Democrat on a board that had been traditionally filled by Republicans.
She was quickly told by the township employee that a forensic accountant was not needed for Kennett Township. She was told that the option was an expensive one and besides, everyone trusted everyone else at the township so it wasn’t necessary.
Hoffman did not press the subject any further.
The person Hoffman asked was then township Manager Lisa Moore.
“Lisa came with glowing recommendations from just about everybody who knew her,” Hoffman said recently. “I would hear so many people say that she was a pillar of the community, involved in just about everything. If you asked anybody about her, they’d say, ‘Lisa’s terrific. She knows how to get things done.’”
Hoffman began to see the accolades she had heard about, and one year, she nominated Moore as Chester County Citizen of the Year.
No matter how important Hoffman’s voice has been to the changing course of the township over the past five years, and how integral her personal initiatives have been achieved for the greater good of the township, she is well aware that all of her accomplishments are buried beneath the avalanche of a lengthy scandal involving Moore that dates back to before Hoffman’s time on the board, and yet still hovers above Kennett Township like an ominous thundercloud.
On Dec. 10, 2019, after an exhaustive investigation by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and a forensic auditor hired by the township, Moore was formally arrested for allegedly embezzling over $3.2 million of township funds. During the torturously slow months of investigation and in the immediate aftermath of Moore’s arrest, each of the township’s supervisors – then Board Chairman Scudder Stevens, then Vice Chair Richard Leff and Hoffman – came under attack by township residents for what many saw as a dereliction of accountability for township funds, and acts of blind faith afforded to an alleged criminal.
“We believed everything was perfect,” Hoffman wrote on her campaign website. “We operated with a sense of confidence, and almost hubris that it would continue in this fashion, unabated. And then we found out we had at least 3.2 million reasons to doubt everything.
“There is nothing more devastating than finding out you have been betrayed by someone you trusted -- someone everybody trusted,” she added. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent -- we all trusted Lisa Moore.”
As she heads into the last weeks of a campaign for a second term that begins with a primary vote that will take place on May 18 against her Democratic challenger Peter Doehring, Hoffman is in a fight for her political future.
“This has been an incredibly frustrating experience,” she said. “I know that these things happen in places big and small, but it doesn’t give me any solace. You always wish you had done more, asked more.
“The only way I got through May through December of 2019 and then after that is by telling myself every day, ‘If you really have had enough, you can quit any time you want to.’ But part of the job is fulfilling an obligation and promise I made to voters to finish the job, to do better and re-earn everybody’s trust.”
Were the government of Kennett Township currently riding high on the good faith expressed by its residents, Doehring would not be campaigning to become its next supervisor.
In fact, he stated on his website that were the township not embroiled in an embezzlement scandal, he would likely be voting for Hoffman in her campaign for another term as supervisor. Yet, hard against the lingering scent of the Moore scandal – and a trial that continues to be postponed -- Doehring finds himself listening to a narrative that seems to have burned itself into the township’s landscape.
“At the top of most people’s minds I have spoken with is the frustration at the outcome of the Lisa Moore scandal, and while a few other issues have come up, inevitably, the conversation continues to turn back to the alleged embezzlement,” he said. “I think the question is why hasn’t more been done to bring her to justice, and feelings of being appalled that this happened in the first place, and a general lack of confidence that maybe the township doesn’t have things in place to prevent it from happening again.”
In his campaign to become the Democratic candidate in a face-off against Republican Geoffrey Gamble in November, Doehring is lugging the issue of Trust in Leadership along with him.
“Voters assume that supervisors are supervising, but when you have such a debacle as what happened here, that erodes trust of the voters toward that government,” he said. “When I see that level of distrust translated into people not showing up to public meetings and staying home from the polls, that’s how democracy dies.
“When I see decisions being made that potentially erode trust, I get really concerned for the future of the township,” he added. “One of the things you learn in public service is that you have to work with others to get things done. The township can’t get everything done on its own. We need to build trust with neighboring townships and with organizations.
“The large question therefore is, How do we reengage the public and convince them that yes, we are being transparent and accountable?”
Doehring is attempting to answer a question that coincides with a resume that is a robust blend of altruism and collaboration. As a health and education executive, he served as the Director of Regional Programs for the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; served on the teaching faculty at Lehigh, Drexel, Penn and the University of Delaware; and been a licensed clinical psychologist, researcher, author and speaker.
For the past 20 years, his professional work has dovetailed with his work as a local volunteer and activist; he is the past board chair of The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County and served as an advisor of disabilities programming for the Kennett Area YMCA, among several other affiliations.
“I have spent my career helping with schools and hospitals focused on helping children with autism learn and grow, and there is a tremendous satisfaction in that,” Doehring said. “When I think of being able to work in the capacity of a supervisor, it would give me an opportunity to create an environment where people can work together in order to make an entire community grow. I have found that public service is tremendously satisfying, but instead of children and families, my role as a supervisor would be to help the township grow.”
While the principle stuff of Doehring’s message centers around the continuing fallout of the Moore scandal, his campaign kit bag also contains other issues he wants to tackle should he join Stevens and Leff in 2022: open space and trails, transparency and accountability and developing partnerships with community organization – all of which he said rests in the hands of the supervisors to fix. And yet, at the center of campaign, he said, is to repair the erosion of trust between the township governance, its residents and in the relationships it has with local organizations and agencies.
“My entire career has centered on building genuine partnerships that leverage the unique expertise and perspective of each party, across school and hospital programs and between state and local agencies,” he said. “I know how to bring organizations to the table, to discover common ground, and to achieve collective impact, whether leading statewide teams to develop model programs of school and community services for people with autism, or helping to design and then draft legislation that fund a statewide committee to coordinate outreach and services.
“As a supervisor, I will repair and re-invigorate partnerships with other municipalities and local agencies that have been allowed to languish.”
A township recovers
Although the imprint of the township’s embezzlement scandal has been generally traced to one perpetrator of the alleged crime, Hoffman has joined with Stevens, Leff, Manager Eden Ratliff, Director of Finance and Human Resources Amy Heinrich and other staff to clean up the mess Moore allegedly left behind. When the news first broke that a storm of financial impropriety was brewing in early May of 2019, Hoffman took a partial leave from her regular job as a telecommunications manager to help put the township’s financial house back in order. Her days at the Township Building sometimes lasted 15 hours.
The protocols the township has enacted over the past year have essentially moved its accounting methods from the “lone sheriff” days of Moore to a many-layered link of approvals and checks and balances, with upgraded software.
In addition, Hoffman has championed the township’s progress to make the township’s books fully transparent to the public, often reflected in the “fine-tooth-comb” meticulousness of township budget meetings.
“I have acted at every turn to make sure everything has been done to the highest possible standards to restore integrity and trust in the township,” Hoffman wrote on her website. “We have increased communications and made sure that every township resident gets their questions answered.
“This should not be the illusions of transparency but actual transparency,” she said recently. “It doesn’t mean that transparency is always easy. You get to see the lumps and not everything looks like a pretty picture all the time, but it’s real and it’s honest and I think it’s really the only way you can have a sound foundation.”
While the thick jungle of a scandal has often clogged the view in Kennett Township over the past few years, Hoffman has been on the right side of its progress, particularly in the area of acquiring additional open space and land purchase agreements that aspire to maintain the township’s generally rural landscape. Soon after her election in 2016, she spearheaded what became the Kennett Square Holiday Village at the Creamery of Kennett Square, and over the past year, has addressed the need for southern Chester County to upgrade its internet infrastructure in a coalition with the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network, various municipalities and area schools.
“I think I am most proud of the fact that I was wandering around with a tin foil hat on, talking about the internet five years ago, and now, with the pandemic, people are realizing that internet access is a big deal,” she said. “We were able to build a coalition in order to get the project up and running, and now everyone is working together, and it’s moving remarkably fast.”
Hoffman’s work with the township during the COVID-19 pandemic has extended beyond Zoom meetings and signatures on documents. She personally sewed over 1,500 masks for nonprofits like Kennett Area Community Services, Kendal-Crosslands Communities, Tick Tock Learning Center, Friends Home and Willow Tree Hospice. She also organized a blanket drive that accumulated over four carloads of blankets that were delivered to local families in cooperation with the Mighty Writers program in West Grove.
“I come from a background where if you see a problem and can help, you are obligated to do so,” Hoffman said. “It feels so good to help people. But it’s more than just writing checks. The hard work is important, and it’s also setting a good example.”
‘The lessons that Lisa Moore has taught us’
Doehring has been adamant in his campaign that his criticism of his opponent does not imply that Hoffman was an accomplice to the alleged embezzlement of more than $3.2 million in township funds.
“But there is a responsibility that all supervisors have to be accountable for that,” he said. “Is it fair that they find themselves in the position of rebounding from a scandal that had gone on for more years than they know? Of course not, but does it mean that we absolve them of any responsibility in the oversight that they did not provide? I don’t think we can.
“I think we should all be grateful for their efforts to keep the ship going straight as they uncover this mess that has probably gone on for many years, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold them accountable for things that probably could be done differently. It is one thing to make a mistake, and it’s another thing to not learn from that mistake. What I’m concerned about is whether this township has learned all of the lessons that Lisa Moore has taught us.”
Doehring denies that his campaign is that of a “one-note” town crier pointing out all of the wrongs of a township that has, in spite of a major scandal, continued to log new initiatives and achievements. Despite his differences with Hoffman – some of which have spilled out in the form of innocuous spats on social media – Doehring said that he and his opponent share the same basic principle: to make the community better.
“We have so much potential here, and if we can be specific in our vision and commit ourselves to doing it, I think we can regain public trust and enthusiasm for government,” he said. “The first message is that we as Democrats hold our leaders accountable. I think that sets a really strong message that if we think that our politicians have not done a good job, they’re out.
“There is no benefit to incumbency,” he added. “If you continue to vote for politicians who you don’t think are doing a good job, the system is done for.”
‘I can only be myself’
On Dec. 17, 2019, more than 500 township residents and stakeholders of Kennett Township attended a town hall meeting at the Red Clay Room in Kennett Square. For nearly four hours, they heard the township supervisors, forensic accountant Ricardo Zayas, investigative attorney Joseph Poluka and township manager Eden Ratliff discuss the findings of the recently-concluded investigation of Moore that led to her arrest ten days before.
For the majority in attendance, the meeting provided them with further insight to an alleged theft that had rocked their township. For a selected few, it was bloodsport, seen in their takedown of the township’s supervisors whose answers all seemed to have been crafted for them in advance, which further angered the audience, who demanded a real moment from them.
Hoffman, showing clear emotion, personally apologized from the podium.
“I have spent 55 years trying to have a sterling reputation,” she said. “My mother always used to say, ‘Your reputation is your most important and most fragile asset.’ To have someone else mess with that reputation? There is nothing more personal than that.
“I can’t be anyone else. I can only be myself, and when you are honest with people in good times and in bad, the more honest you are, the more you are trusted. That’s what trust is about. It’s about being straight with people.”
To learn more about Whitney Hoffman’s campaign, visit https://whitney4supervisor.nationbuilder.com.
To learn more about Peter Doehring’s campaign, visit http://www.peter4supervisor.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].