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Chester County Press

Editorial: The play's the thing in Kennett Township

01/04/2022 03:07PM ● By Richard Gaw

During the summer of 2019, at a time when Kennett Township was plunging knee deep into the big muddy of an investigation into its former manager, the township’s three supervisors embarked on a desperate journey to pull the township out of a quagmire that threatened to topple its governance and alienate its residents forever.

On Aug. 21, 2019, while the scandal involving Lisa Moore’s theft of more than $3.2 million from the township was entering its fourth month of investigation by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and other agencies, the supervisors publicly announced that after an extensive search that included 33 applicants, they had hired Eden Ratliff as the township’s new manager, replacing interim manager Alison Rudolf.

From the time he began his new position on Sept. 23 of that year, it quickly became apparent to the board that Ratliff was the right person at the most opportune time. Under his guidance, newly-hired Director of Finance & Human Relations Amy Heinrich ushered in a new system of township accounting and recordkeeping, one that permanently closed down the many loopholes and secret cracks Moore used to funnel township money into her own accounts. Ratliff joined several committees in the township, in Kennett Borough and throughout the county, and in the process began to be the face of a township that was pushing full throttle in its attempt to redefine itself past the highway signs of its disgrace – largely with Ratliff in the driver’s seat.

In recent months, however, it has come to the attention of some that Ratliff, in his earnestness to solidify the imprint of his impact in the community, has lost sight of the fact that there are speed limits assigned to progress and generally accepted rules of the road that need to be obeyed.

The most egregious example of Ratliff’s exuberance, his detractors claim, is his affiliation with Longwood Fire Company as a volunteer, which they argued served as a major conflict of interest during the township’s reorganization of its fire, ambulance and EMS service in 2021. With Ratliff serving as the township’s primary broker, the township voted to implement a new course, voting 2-1 to give exclusive rights for fire, ambulance and EMS to Longwood Fire Company. Adding another layer to their belief that the deal may have been unfairly influenced, an ethics complaint filed with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission against Ratliff pointed to the fact that Ratliff’s wife recently accepted a job at the fire company to become its new executive secretary.

While the Ethics Commission found no evidence of wrongdoing on Ratliff’s part, the township was left scrambling to explain the frighteningly glaring optics of their manager’s connection to Longwood Fire Company measured up with the contract that Ratliff helped to seal.

So what did the township do to address this oversight? In what has become the general rule of operations in Kennett Township, they spun it. In a carefully crafted statement that was later posted on its website, the township called the attacks on Ratliff “irresponsible allegations.”

In a statement attributed to supervisor Richard Leff, the press release said, “The Kennett Township Supervisors solidly support Eden Ratliff against these unfair and personal attacks. Plus – Eden’s expertise in policy-making and consensus-building combined with his years of volunteering, training and certifications in fire and EMS matters were invaluable in making sure everything in the Regional Fire and EMS Response Plan was done in full compliance with regulations and procedures. All of us are safer and more secure as a result.”

The release went on to further compliment Ratliff in part, saying that the formation of a regional fire/EMS response plan “has proven to be a big success for local residents, fire companies and the firefighters themselves. The ability of several fire companies to respond to emergency calls has dramatically improved, as have response times. Cooperation and camaraderie between fire companies is also dramatically increased, along with more cross training and support.

For those expecting an actual human moment in response to this or any conflict in Kennett Township, think again. Nearly every time a township official opens his or her mouth in a public forum, it arrives in the form of chlorine-clean PR speak, written persuasion, a singular homogenized message stamped with approval.

It’s happened before. On Dec. 17, 2019, the township held a forum at the Red Clay Room in Kennett Square to discuss the Moore investigation. Over 500 attended, and for generous portions of the evening, the supervisors read from a prepared script. Many in the audience that night caught on quickly to what was happening and responded in protest. This past Dec. 7, the board held another public meeting in order to provide closure on Moore, who was arrested on Oct. 4 and is serving a minimum of three years for her crimes at a women’s correctional facility in Pennsylvania. Once again, the board spent the first portion of the evening reading from statements that had largely been written for them.

Over the last decade, Kennett Township has been forced to confront far more serious issues and accusations than whether its manager’s affiliation with a local fire company represents a breach of ethics. And yet, while the information contained in the press release suggests that the township’s initiatives have led to a safer community and better communication among fire companies, that which is contained does not address the obvious conflict of interest that is still on the table for discussion and resolution – the very conflict that the state’s Ethics Commission reviewed.

This newspaper looks forward to reading how Kennett Township will continue to write its way out of this, its latest theatrical stage performance, still unresolved.

See you in the theater.