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Chester County Press

Supervisors sign off on ethics review of township manager

04/12/2022 03:49PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

The Kennett Township Board of Supervisors unanimously voted at their April 6 meeting to formally accept the Pennsylvania Public Official and Employee Ethics Act/Review of Potential Conflict of Interest Issues, as well as the independent review that determined that township manager Eden Ratliff was not in violation of any ethical or conflict of interest wrongdoing stemming from his – and his wife Gabrielle’s – connection to the Longwood Fire Company (LFC).

The findings of the review, recently presented to the township by Blank Rome LLP, a Philadelphia-based law firm, is contained within a 34-page report that is now available in its entirety on the township’s website.

The report served as an official and studied response to allegations levied at Ratliff that accused the township manager of using his role as a volunteer at the fire company to influence and broker its contract with the township to become its exclusive provider of fire and EMS services.

The report concluded that the process to consolidate the township’s fire and EMS began well before Ratliff was hired by the township in 2019, and also acknowledged that Ratliff was not a voting member of the Fire and EMS Commission in 2021 when the critical decisions regarding funding were made.

Another allegation levied against Ratliff contended that his wife Gabrielle’s employment with the Longwood Fire Company – which began last October – represented another ethics violation. In its report, Blank Rome concluded that “none of the Ratliffs was a ‘director, officer, owner, employee or [had] a financial interest’ in LFC, such as would be required to determine that LFC is a business with which Ratliff is associated.

“Finally, there is no evidence of any pecuniary benefit to Ratliff, a member of his immediate family, or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated,” the report concluded. “Ratliff and his family were volunteer members of Longwood Fire Company, on their own time and not as part of Ratliff’s duties as township manager, throughout most of 2021. They performed unpaid services to the community.”

“The township was entirely hands off on this,” said Joseph Poluka of Blank Rome, who with colleague Larry Beaser conducted the review. “They were like, ‘Do your thing, and tell us what you find.’ They accepted our conclusions, didn’t argue with our conclusions, and that was the end of it.”

In his summary, Beaser said that while the PA State Ethics Council stated that Ratliff can continue to provide volunteer assistance to the Fire and EMS Commission, the report recommended that as a policy matter, Ratliff no longer provide volunteer assistance to the Commission so long as his wife is employed by Longwood Fire Company.

‘We’re left hundreds of thousands poorer’

Through February, the township has been billed by Blank Rome in the amount of $127,000, and is awaiting its March bill from the firm.

During public comment, township resident Peter Doehring – whose Dec. 1, 2021 complaint filed with the State Ethics Commission helped to trigger the Blank Rome review – railed against the township for its decision to elicit the report.

“Instead of looking more broadly at how Kennett Township responds to the ethical concerns raised by its citizens, it focuses on the very same question already answered by the Ethics Commission, using the same standards,” he said. “Only one type of evidence could have led to a different conclusion than that reached by established experts in such matters – the Ethics Commission – and that evidence could have been found in a matter of hours.

“Instead, we’re left hundreds of thousands poorer with a report that treads virtually the same ground as the Ethics Commission, and that, to no one’s surprise, reached virtually the same conclusion as the established experts in this area.”

Poluka disputed Doehring’s comment, saying that the State Ethics Commission review reached no conclusions, given that the content of the complaint filed by Doehring to the Commission provided no evidence to merit a further investigation.

“There was no ‘foregone conclusion,’ but because of the concerns by Peter and other citizens, the board made the decision to retain Blank Rome to do a full review,” Poluka said.

New resolution raises arguments

After an hour-long and frequently heated discussion between board members and the general public, the supervisors chose to table a motion that if passed would direct that all township commission and committee chairperson titles be held by township residents.

Resolution 2022-9 will be voted on at the board’s April 20 meeting.

Authored by supervisor Scudder Stevens, the resolution authorizes and directs that the township solicitor David Sander will review and amend the respective ordinances and/or resolutions creating township committees, and that all committees will reflect the ordinance beginning on Jan. 3, 2023.

Stevens said that the resolution reflects a policy concern by the board that said that while the township is still very open to having non-township residents continue to serve on commissions and committees, that it is important that chairmanships be occupied by township residents only.

Referring to Lars Farmer of the Historical Commission and Christina Norland of the Trails and Sidewalks Committee, Stevens said that “there are two chairpersons who will be caught in the whiplash of this resolution if it is adopted.”

“The work of those two chairpersons has been highly valued and appreciated, and I concur with that,” Stevens. “This resolution does not remove them from these committees after reorganization. They will continue to be active members of their respective committees.”

While Stevens and supervisor Geoffrey Gamble voted to adopt the resolution, board chairman Richard Leff, speaking by Zoom from California, questioned why Stevens would put forth a resolution now – ten years after Stevens was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2012.

“Why now?” Leff asked Stevens, referring to the resolution.

“It seemed like it was an appropriate time when I realized that that was the situation, and I raised the question,” Stevens said.

“When did you realize the situation?” Leff asked.

“I don’t know, about six months ago,” Stevens said.

“Then why after ten years did you have this epiphany?” Leff said. “I am trying to understand why after ten years you think it is an inappropriate policy.”

“We all evolve, Rich,” said Stevens.

Referring to an email he received from Farmer, Leff told Stevens that Farmer felt urged by Stevens to give up his chairmanship of the Historical Commission, and soon after, he submitted a letter of resignation to the township.

Stevens emphasized that he did not influence Farmer to resign.

“I had no intention of influencing Lars to resign from his position,” he said. “He did that for his own choice and reasons. I did not pressure him in this regard in any way.”

The conversation turned to Norland’s role as the chair of the Trail and Sidewalks Committee. Leff read from letters of fellow committee members who praised the work Norland has done and urged the board to reconsider the motion, and several other members at the meeting and on Zoom expressed their appreciation of Norland.

Sometimes it works out that people who are passionate and knowledgeable on topic don’t necessarily work well in a committee structure where they can move things forward,” Leff said. “Christina has proven that she is able to do that.”

“While I respect your reasoning, I am not going to change my position,” Gamble told Leff. “I just think as a matter of principal that chair positions ought to be occupied by Kennett Township residents.”

Stevens denies vendetta

Stevens later stated that the ordinance is based on policy only and not directed as a vendetta of an individual or organization.

Leff disagreed.

“It just rings hollow that this is not an attempt to slow down the ability of our township to have trails and sidewalks, not only now but in the future for residents to come long after we’re gone,” Leff said. “To me, this is an attempt to try to limit the ability of [the Trails and Sidewalks Committee] to function, because that is the only committee who will be impacted in the next year.

“To me, it rings very hollow that this is not a vendetta on your part.”

“As to your conclusions about my motivations, you have continued to tell me what my motivations are and you are consistently wrong,” Stevens replied. “But you’re satisfied with them so you stick with them, but they have nothing to do with what I am doing.”

Some residents in the audience and on Zoom supported the resolution, one that if enacted would clear up what they felt in the case of the Trails & Sidewalks Committee is a conflict of interest. In addition to serving as the committee chairperson, Norland is the executive director of the Kennett Trails Alliance and the community engagement lead for Kennett Square Collective – two local entities who have been key stakeholders in the development of the 14-mile Kennett Greenway.

“[Christina Norland] is an employee of a public interest lobbying group with its own agenda,” said township resident Michael Guttman, a former member of the Trails and Sidewalks Committee. “Square Roots Collective owns property all over the township and its interest is in coordinating and dominating activities with other organizations so that it can control how those monies are spent.  

“This is saying absolutely nothing about whether the work she does appears to be effective or not. It has everything to do with how this township looks at potential conflicts of interest and the general and ethical behavior of those who are responsible for governments.”

After listening to both sides of the resolution, Leff proposed that an amendment to the resolution stating that in the event that a committee chair position can not be served by a township resident, then a non-township resident would be allowed to serve in that capacity.

In addition to a likely vote on the resolution at the board’s April 20 meeting, Gamble said that the supervisors are planning to review the structure of all township committees and commissions later this year.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].