In campaign for Kennett Township supervisor, "Trust" tops the ballot10/27/2021 09:32AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Commonly defined, “Trust” is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.
In its application, however, the word is slippery and elusive and delicate, and in political campaigns it is often a catch-all verb tossed liberally into the syntax of platforms and frequently an old chestnut tacked on to words like “Dignity” and “Character.”
In the waning days of two campaigns that will determine who will accompany Richard Leff and Scudder Stevens on the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors in January 2022, “Trust” is being tossed around so much that it may as well be on the ballot on Nov. 2.
One candidate – Democrat and incumbent Whitney Hoffman – used the word a few times in her victim impact statement to the Hon. David F. Bortner on Oct. 4, at a public hearing at a Chester County courtroom that ended with former township manager Lisa Moore being sentenced to a minimum of three years behind bars stemming from her admission that she had embezzled over $3.2 of township funds over an extended period of time while in her position.
“This betrayal by Moore plunged the township government into a crisis of trust and uncertainty,” Hoffman told Bortner.
“Since the day the embezzlement was first discovered, we, as public officials, have all felt betrayed, angry and devastated,” she said later in her statement. “Nearly three years later, we still do. Regaining the public’s confidence will take decades, if it ever happens. Once betrayed, trust returns slowly.”
During the course of her campaign, Hoffman has, by her count, knocked on over 900 doors in the township. At many of them – as well as in her mailing literature – she has claimed that while she and her fellow supervisors erred in the blind faith they had in Moore to conduct township business, she has also pointed to her record of championing policies and procedures designed to shore up the many loopholes in the township’s accounting system since Moore’s wrongdoings, chiefly as an indicator that she can be a trusted public official for the next six years on the three-person board.
On the other side of the
race for supervisor, Republican Geoff Gamble has been using the word “Trust” in an entirely
different context, illuminating that under Hoffman’s tenure, Moore stole $1,500 every single day for a period of six years, right under the nose of Hoffman, Leff and Stevens, because of their failure to
put proper accounting safeguards in place that could have prevented Moore’s
“My opponent characterizes this as a ‘betrayal of trust,’ and that Moore ‘fooled everyone,’” Gamble said in a recent recorded campaign video. “But ‘everyone’ was not elected to watch over Moore – only my opponent and her fellow supervisors were.
“The township manager, by the way, is the only employee who reports directly to them. People see what they want to see.”
As the often prickly, back-and-forth and tit-for-tat sparring match between these two opponents comes down to its final week, its narrative is reduced to a simple question for Kennett Township residents to decide: Do you want to vote for a supervisor who has dedicated the bulk of her time on the board over the past 18 months to repairing a township broken by the discord of trust, or do you want to vote for a candidate who wants to be the lone Republican on the board, helping to usher the township into a new era of responsible governance?
Gamble on the offensive
Over the course of Gamble’s campaign, he has been knocking on doors as well, and the response he has heard from many residents about the former township manager’s embezzlement has varied from confusion to fury, he said.
“The issue that I have seen over and over again has been the absolute anger on the theft of the $3.2 million, not only directed at Lisa Moore, but those who were asleep at the switch,” Gamble said. “Not one person – not a supervisor, not the auditors, not an employee – did a thing. How can it be that this went on every single day for six years, and nobody saw it?
“Most people I have spoken with who are supporting me think that these three (Leff, Stevens and Hoffman) should have resigned when all of this came out, and if they didn’t resign, they should have the moral integrity not to run again.”
Gamble – who served as the township’s auditor in 2003-04, scoffed at the township’s work over the last year to rectify its accounting and fiduciary measures – all of which have become a key selling point in Hoffman’s campaign for reelection.
“The horse was already out of the barn,” he said. “It’s too late, if not too little. When I was auditor, I made a recommendation at the time that the township have co-signers for checks over $2,000. It was ignored. In Whitney’s latest letter, she talks about the fact that the township manager’s allegiance and loyalty is to the township and its residents.
“[Eden Ratliff, the current Kennett Township manager] is not elected to anything. He is the only employee of the supervisors. The supervisors are responsible for their loyalty to the township. I see again this lionizing of the township manager, and that’s the same pattern that we saw when Moore was the manager.”
While Gamble’s key criticisms of Hoffman have been laser focused on what he calls “the sad truth” of the township not putting accounting safeguards into place that could have prevented Moore’s embezzlement, he has declared that he’s in step with his opponent on several issues, and a look at each candidate’s platform proves it.
Both are in favor of creating a more transparent form of government that includes a comprehensive system of accounting and fiduciary responsibility; both want to conserve additional open space, provide additional safeguards to safety and security; and both are backing large community-based initiatives like the construction of the new Kennett Library and Resource Center and the expansion of the Kennett Greenway.
The similarities generally end there. Taking on the role of challenger, Gamble has attempted to put his opponent on the ropes over the last several months, pummeling Hoffman with attacks about recent township decisions. He has criticized the township for having no comprehensive plan in place that spells out its ideas for the development of open space and trails, and for falling short of its goal to convert 30 percent of the township into protected land.
Gamble has also taken Hoffman – and the township – to task for what he is claiming is its failure to make long-term plans for the Spar Hill Farm that it purchased in 2018, which he believes has left the property stagnant of vision and inaccessible to the public. In addition, he has taken the township to task for what he feels is its irresponsible use of funding in its plans to construct the 1.5-mile-long Chandler Mill Road trail on the Kennett Greenway.
Gamble has also blasted the township for its overspending for its police force; the “burgeoning bureaucracy” of the township’s continuing to hire more staff; and Hoffman for supporting the selection of the Longwood Fire Company as the township’s single-source provider of fire and ambulance services, which he has said is a disservice to the Kennett Fire Company and will end up reducing fire and ambulance coverage in the township by 25 percent.
“When I say nothing is getting done in the township, it’s not just political hyperbole,” Gamble said. “It’s a fact.”
Hoffman answers back
In a recent letter sent to township constituents, Hoffman fired back at her opponent on several key issues, calling his accusations “bad information and twisted logic.” She wrote that the township’s decision to move to a one-source fire and ambulance provider was a “data-driven decision” that reorganizes and improves EMS, fire and safety services; reduces response time by up to six minutes; and saves the Regional Fire and EMS Commission over $250,000 and the township residents more than $25,000.
She also wrote that the township is very close to achieving its goal of converting 30 percent of its entire acreage to preserved open space, and that the future of the Spar Hill Farm property is still being discussed, and supports the township’s plan to elicit the public’s input for the future use of the property.
“I hear a lot of criticism from Geoff but I don’t hear that he has any better ideas,” Hoffman said. “What’s he going to do differently? I want to know if he has a plan, because so far the only plan I know is that he is only going to serve one term.
“Throwing pot shots is easy, but actually doing the job and having a plan and a sense of what needs to be done is something different. By saying that he only wants to serve one term, is he planning on being a placeholder, or does he really want to do something?”
If elected, Gamble said that his major priority for the township will be to get the money that Moore stole back into its bank account. He would also like to see the township develop an open space strategic plan, which may include updating a plan that was introduced in 2015, and subsequently rejected; continue to review township accounting standards; evaluate current staffing; and explore the idea of consolidating police service to the township.
While the majority of the accomplishments Hoffman has made during her tenure have been done in partnership with Leff, Stevens and township staff, she has spearheaded
a regional study to improve the township’s digital infrastructure, at no additional cost to township residents. She has also upgraded the township website to make it mobile phone friendly and streamed all township meetings.
Hoffman said that Gamble’s criticism of her “soft” skills as a supervisor has been unwarranted.
“I worry sometimes that Geoff portrays me as the little girl who is here running for office, who likes to work on the Holiday Village and make masks during COVID-19,” she said. “I think some of his comments have been patronizing and misogynistic in some ways, but ultimately, making those things happen are the kind of things that help build a better community.
“It’s helping people who have a need when they have a need. That’s the good part of the job. People may accuse me of being too parental, but it’s trying to look to the future and making plans.”
While Gamble has not sat on the township’s board, he feels his skills and experience – which include being a former president of the Kennett Consolidated School Board and “understanding the mechanics” of Kennett Township – are applicable to the job, which he has said will consist of a single term in office.
“I am as qualified to run for a job for the first time as anyone can be,” said Gamble, whose resume also includes receiving a Bronze Star in Vietnam, an attorney for DuPont, serving as president of the Delaware Bar Association and an honorary papal ambassador under Pope Francis. “I don’t need any more medals. I don’t need any more recognition. I am at a stage in life where I want to pay it forward, that’s all.”
Hoffman recalled the day in the spring of 2019 when the Chester County District Attorney’s Office told her, Leff and Stevens about their early findings regarding Moore’s embezzlement of township funds.
“They told us that this was the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “I asked them what the chances were that they were wrong, and when they said less than one percent, it became very clear as to what we needed to do.”
Largely because of the necessary investment of time and money – all of which have been achieved on Hoffman’s watch -- Kennett Township has committed itself to a more transparent form of accounting and fiduciary responsibility, but while it may have administratively turned the corner from the nightmare of an investigation that ultimately sentenced its former manager to at least three years in prison, the township – and Hoffman – still live in the shadow of recent memory.
Nearly the entirety of Hoffman being reelected rests on a township’s ability to trust its government again.
“I have spent 55 years trying to build a sterling reputation and being honest and straightforward with people, and to have that called into question by things that I did not do and have people actively lying to me is not fun,” she said. “I can’t go back and rewind what happened and fix the past. The only thing I knew I could do – and that was from the moment we knew this situation was happening – was to try to make the situation better, and leaving the township better than I found it when I was elected for the first time.”
To learn more about Whitney Hoffman’s campaign, visit whitneyhoffmansupervisor on Facebook, or https://whitney4supervisor.nationbuilder.com.
To learn more about Geoffrey Gamble’s campaign, visit www.Gamble4kennettsupervisor.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].