Recently, a group of more than 50 concerned citizens gathered at a home in Villanova for a meeting organized by Rise Up: Indivisible Lower Merion. Indivisible is a national grassroots effort that helps citizens become more civically engaged through local organizing, specifically by targeting members of Congress. [Read more…]
Tuesday next week our readers in Lower Merion will participate in a rematch of the contest between the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners’ president, Elizabeth (Liz) Rogan; and filmmaker Andrew Karasik. In May, Karasik challenged the incumbent Rogan in the Democratic primary. In a closely contested election, Rogan secured her nomination for a third term as commissioner of Ward 7 with 398 votes to Karasik’s 362.
Lower Merion’s Ward 7 is a heavily Democratic district and no candidates filed to compete in the Republican primary. However, lacking any candidates of their own, 98 Republicans wrote in “Andrew Karasik” on their ballot, thus guaranteeing him the Republican nomination and a chance at a rematch in the November 3 general election.
With control of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners at stake, the two candidates for Lower Merion Township’s Ward 7 Commissioner responded to questions posed by The Philadelphia Jewish Voice.
1. What in your background qualifies you for being elected to the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners?
|Rogan: I started as the assistant director of planning and community development in Lower Merion Township in 1990 and moved on to be the director of the department in 1997 and continued to serve until the end of 2003. I joined the Board of Commissioners in 2004. I was elected to serve as board president to fill an unexpired term in January 2011. Then I was elected by colleagues in 2012 and again in 2014.||Karasik: Lower Merion is the only home I have ever known so it is a home worth fighting for. Beginning in high school, I worked as an advocate for this community, representing the youth of this township in front of the Board of Commissioners and the Board of School Directors. I served on the Coalition of Youth for Lower Merion and Narberth and, for my service, was named Montgomery County Youth Advocate of the year.|
|2. What do you see as the biggest issue for your ward, for the township?|
|Rogan: For the ward:
For the Township:
|Karasik: Ward 7 is one of the densest, most developed wards in the Township. Traffic is a nightmare and our roads are congested beyond reasonable levels. Yet, Ward 7 lies at the epicenter of increasing development in Lower Merion. With the potential development of Saint Charles Boromeo Seminary, the 250 apartments already approved at the Miriam Estate, and the 110 new units at the Palmer Seminary, Ward 7 is bursting at the seams. And on top of all that residential development, one of the largest Whole Foods on the East Coast is being built at an intersection already plagued by congestion. We need new commercial development and we need to enhance our community gems like Whole Foods, but we need to do so in a scaled manner. Placing that much commercial development at that intersection has been deemed by many I have spoken to as irresponsible. (Continued below.)|
|3. How has your professional life prepared you for an elected office?|
|Rogan: Working as part of Lower Merion Township’s staff provided direct working experience and understanding of organizational dynamics and structure – I know who to go to for what.It also started my professional network with other professionals in both the full spectrum of municipal operations… not just planning and development, but public works, parks, finance, human resources, information and emergency services, and not just at the local level, but at the county, regional, state and federal level.
I also developed working relationships with related professionals such as in law, engineering, architecture, developers and property managers as well as decision makers at local educational, religious and health care institutions.
I learned about wide range of grant funding programs and the value and benefit of partnering with nonprofit organizations.
Update: The Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association recognized Rogan at last week’s annual conference with their 2015 Leadership Award for an Elected Official. According to the citation, Rogan “has applied planning principles to the diverse challenges of a first-generation suburb, promoting the revitalization of older commercial centers, preservation of historic structures and natural areas, and community engagement for many projects…. Her leadership and advocacy have led to accomplishments for the Township, large and small, including innovative zoning revisions, an official map ordinance for public spaces and pedestrian paths, adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and redevelopment of key properties.” See the Lower Merion Township press release .
|Karasik: I’m a filmmaker and a school teacher who teaches film arts to kids. I’m deeply proud of what I do. In a world where so much of what we hear isn’t conversation but yelling; isn’t discussion but posturing, the gaps in society are so crushing sometimes — rich vs. poor, left vs. right, old vs. young, black and white. But we can bridge that gap — I see it happening every day. The arts are so valuable because they give us a language that bridges the gaps between people. Songs, stories, photos, and yes, films — shared ideas and experiences. Shared triumphs and pain that shows us we’re not all that different from each other. That we can get along and thrive together. The fundamental tenet of both teaching and filmmaking is listening. As a teacher, you must listen to your students. You must work with them and guide them into knowledge and development. If I dictate a student’s educational path, rather than guide them along it, their development will stifle and I will have failed as their educator. As a filmmaker, my job is to tell a story. But to tell that story, again, I must listen. I must let the story of my subject unfold rather than dictate the next plot line. As an elected official, I must listen to the residents. Together, we must synthesize our vision for the future, so that I can effectively advocate for them.Professionally, beyond my career, I serve on the Boards of numerous community groups in Pennsylvania, including on the Philadelphia Orchestra Maestro’s Circle Board and the Penn State University Alumni Council. Having been named to these boards is a true honor and underscores my commitment to working to build a better and more philanthropic community.|
4. What kind of impact did the visit to Lower Merion and vicinity of Pope Francis make, in your opinion, and what is the lasting legacy, if any?
|Rogan: It provided and enabled emergency services personnel the chance to work together directly – from the local, county, region, state and national levels – fantastic coordination and cooperation and communication exercise.It was a terrific PR value and opportunity to be seen on a national stage as a capable and sophisticated organization and community.
May the pope’s message of charity and compassion for your neighbors work to inspire our community to embody William Penn’s vision to become a tolerant and equitable community.
|Karasik: Pope Francis’s visit to Lower Merion was a highlight in the 300-plus-year history of this great township. To see Lower Merion showcased on a national stage was nothing short of remarkable.I was especially struck by His Holiness’ warmth and compassion and I think we can all take note of his message and leave one’s mark on the World and to touch everyone we meet in a positive way.|
|5. How will the Presidential elections of 2016 impact the township?|
|Rogan: A Democratic administration in Washington, D.C. will enable ongoing practices and policies to continue. For example, Federal cooperation and assistance support the repair and maintenance of Lower Merion’s infrastructure: salt in the winter, emergency aid in disasters, liquid fuels tax, etc.A change to a Republican administration risks a return to the previous policies of unfunded mandates. The Federal government mandated actions from state and local governments without providing technical or financial tools to implement the requirements.||Karasik: The 2016 presidential election will be one that represents a clear choice for the future of this country and that choice echoes here in Lower Merion: Do we want leaders who divide and separate us or do we want leaders who will galvanize us into working together for the common good. The township is divided. We are battling Narberth over traffic improvements at a key intersection, rather than working together to find the safest solution that makes everyone happy. Residents are fighting the township at every turn because they feel they have no other recourse — their rights have been trampled upon and their views have been disrespected. We need leadership that will bring everyone to the table with no preconceived notions and will work together to find cohesive solutions that benefit the community as a whole, not specific factions or ideologies.|
|6. Some development projects have been stalled for years, even decades. Which projects would you want to push forward? Which would you wish to stifle?|
|Rogan: Local governments do not control private development – that is up to private market forces, basically bankers decide what gets built or doesn’t since they are the source of construction and gap funding.I’d like to see Dranoff’s Cricket project in the ground and complete, as well as the train station’s reconstruction and the development of a parking garage for the train station.
I’d like to kill several of the proposed apartment developments that I believe are actually already underway on Rock Hill road and along the river off Righters Ferry Road. The caveat to that desire is that I would like the pedestrian trail along the river and the bridge that ties over to the Manayunk Movie Theatre to still move forward.
I guess it might also be wonderful if the Merriam Estate were never built since the loss of the woodland will be extremely sad. That said – again, I would still want the public access granted as part of the plan approval to pedestrian trails and Chinese garden on the property and into the Merriam Estate house… neither of those will occur if the plan does not proceed.
|Karasik: We need to comprehensively reexamine development in Lower Merion, and we cannot do so without a Comprehensive Plan. It is not enough to say it is in the works or that we are in the final stages. We needed a new Comprehensive Plan decades ago and our leaders dragged their feet, while allowing development to continue in the township without foresight or consideration of impact. This is irresponsible leadership. The very lengthy plan that now comes forward embodies a jumbled vision for Lower Merion, one that does not comprehensively improve our way of life, but rather develops parcels part and piecemeal. The redevelopment of Ardmore is a perfect example of this piecemeal development. By focusing our efforts over the last seven years on one out of scale project, rather than on the entire redevelopment of the Lancaster Avenue Corridor and the Ardmore Business District, we have set back the redevelopment of this key village core for years. Redevelopment in Ardmore cannot hinge on One Ardmore Place. We need a comprehensive redevelopment plan that looks at every major commercial property and works with each individual landlord to develop an intelligent and appropriately scaled mixed-use plan. (Continued below.)|
|7. Although the board of commissioners does not have authority over the school district and school board, what is your opinion of the state of Lower Merion schools?|
|Rogan: Lower Merion has wonderful new, modern facilities, both of the high schools and middle schools – as well as our six elementary schools… Management of the attendance districts is atrocious and the overcrowding being forced onto Lower Merion high school is shameful.I also question the administrative structure in the district which is extremely heavy in management layers as compared to actual teachers and support staff.||Karasik: As a proud graduate of the Lower Merion School District, I know firsthand the value of our schools. Our schools are turning out matriculating, successful young adults who are ready to make their impact on the world. And it is for that quality education that so many families continue to choose to call Lower Merion home. But we cannot allow the success of our schools to be endangered by a Board of Commissioners that rubber stamps development project after development project, overcrowding our classrooms even further. (Continued below.)|
|8. What is your plan for the next five years for Lower Merion Township?|
||Karasik: Lower Merion is at a crossroads. We now must decide whether we choose to accept the blind belief that the Township must grow to survive, or whether it is more important to maintain the character of our community and quality of life that have become the hallmarks of Lower Merion. I do not believe that these two paths are mutually exclusive.First and foremost, we must work to protect the interests of current residential property owners. They are the people who elect the Commissioner and Lower Merion is their home. Their interests must always be paramount and cannot come at the expense of development for development sake. Of course, we must reshape the Township as we move into the future. We must reinvent our commercial cores and must continuously make improvements in economic growth. But expanding residential development in Lower Merion in an unscaled and irresponsible manner, not only endangers our character of life, but works against economic growth. Lower Merion will continue to adapt and move forward. But it must do so under responsible leadership that fights for the vision of its residents rather than promotes an agenda of rampant change for the sake of change. If we can return the Township Commissioner to a position where the focus is on the individual Ward and on improving the daily lives of residents with tangible results — things like traffic calming, walkability, and additional open space — then the future of Lower Merion will be a bright one that usurers in a new era for my generation and generations beyond.|
Continuation of answers by Andrew Karasik
Question 2 continued: Other parts of Lower Merion are ripe for appropriately scaled mixed use or commercial development. Unfortunately that is not what has been approved. With almost 2,700 new residential units approved or in the pipeline in Lower Merion, with very little new commercial development, we are simply perpetuating congestion and more traffic, while doing little to help our economy. Logic would dictate that new residential development increases the tax base. And while this can be true, in an area like Lower Merion, where all residents, regardless of type of residence use resources at the same rate — and those resources, like our schools are not covered 1:1 by our tax dollars — new residential development will increase taxes and draw down on those resources. I am not anti-development. I am in favor of smart, scaled development that promotes economic growth by targeting commercial sectors with new mixed-use development opportunities. I am not for the simple expansion of apartment units because those units will bring new people closer to transportation centers, especially when those developments are pricing hard working families out of our Township and destroying affordable housing opportunities.
Question 6 continued: If One Ardmore Place is built without comprehensively redeveloping the areas around it, not only will Ardmore fracture, but we will have missed the greatest opportunity we have to build a true village core for Lower Merion. Within Ward 7, the development of the Merriam Estate has been in the works for decades. Yet unfortunately, this project also represents a failure of leadership. Development at the Merriam Estate is the perfect example of unnecessary infill that comes at the expense of open space and our quality of life. The Merriam Estate would make the perfect gateway between Lower Merion and Narberth serving as a passive park for residents of both municipalities to enjoy. Instead of taking advantage of this great asset, our leaders have allowed the building of 250 apartments and a parking garage. When the owners of the Merriam Estate sought to develop the property, they offered the Township possession of the main mansion house for no cost. Rather than seizing this opportunity to create a community gem — a community center or even a conservancy — in the middle of Wynnewood, the Township refused and allowed the mansion to be included in the development plans. The Township should have worked with the owners of the property to not only preserve the mansion, but the entire estate — making the owners whole by purchasing the property and creating a passive park for the community.
Question 7 continued: The unfortunate truth is that because of the high cost of educating our students in Lower Merion, new apartment development will also cause a great increase in our taxes. Currently, on average, the School District raises taxes by about 3.5% every year. As we build more apartments and more school-aged children move into those apartments (which continues to happen in every new development built in the township), the shortfall in taxes paid by apartment residents causes increased taxes on residential property owners. This is not a sustainable model and yet, rather than trying to reduce the tax burden on residential property owners, the Township seeks to further that burden by increasing development. In Lower Merion, often times the left hand does not talk to the right hand. I will advocate for a permanent liaison between the Board of Commissioners and the School Board to ensure a cohesive relationship between our two tax agencies. Unfortunately due to the structure of the School Board, there is little accountability to the residents of Lower Merion. Because School Board members are elected at large, they hold virtually no responsibility to the individual voter other than during election cycles every four years. If the School Board were structured similar to the Board of Commissioners, with each geographical area of the Township electing their own respective School Board member, we would greatly increase the responsibility and accountability of an entity which controls 78% of our tax bill.
— by Peter Dissinger
It is no stretch to say that distracted driving is an epidemic in today’s world. Whether texting, fiddling with the radio, calling a friend, or even using the GPS, there are so many easy ways for any driver to become distracted in an instant. This is especially true for teens, including myself. Maybe it’s a notification from our incredibly useful smart phones or even an inclination to be reckless, but research shows that teenagers are especially at risk for these types of behaviors. It may seem shocking to some adults, but from my perspective, this is not radical data; it is the real experience of so many teenagers (and probably adults as well).
Where is the Lower Merion’s Jewish shopper’s Main Street on a Friday afternoon? Genuardi’s kosher section, of course! It’s where we greet each other, catch up, and wish each other “Shabbat Shalom!” Now, Genuardi’s has been sold to Giant Supermarkets. What will this mean for our kosher section? We won’t know for possibly another ninety days, until this transaction is given final approval by the Federal Trade Administration. I have conducted an informal survey of a wide cross section of the Lower Merion Jewish community about what they would like from their neighborhood supermarket kosher section. By contacting synagogues of every denomination and several Jewish neighborhood list serves, I have reached over 5,000 Genuardi’s customers. The issues that are important to Genuardi’s kosher customers are size, supervision, and selection of products.
More after the jump.
Several people mentioned that they would like a spacious kosher section to shop in. They held up the Shoprite on Route 70, in Marlton, New Jersey as an example of what they would like. What Shoprite has done been brilliantly is that it has created the “Kosher Experience.” The “Kosher Experience” is a “store-within-a-store”. It is under the supervision of a Rabbi, with employees who are well versed in kashrut (kosher laws), and who provide outstanding service.
One member of the community informed everyone on the Lower Merion Shuls (Orthodox) List Serve:
The two Genuardi’s stores with kosher departments under Keystone-K supervision are scheduled to be converted into Giant stores during the next six months. Since Giant has a long existing relationship with a supervision agency that is not accepted by the community, this may not be good news.
It is very important to the most observant members of our community to retain the services of Keystone-K supervisors in order to be confident that they are complying with all the kosher laws when they are purchasing food from Giant.
Many members of the community would like an in-house kosher bakery. They especially requested many pareve (prepared without meat or milk products) baked goods.
Current Genuardi’s customers would like better quality fresh meat, and a greater variety of cuts to be available. All of the respondents thought the kosher meat should cost less, as it does at the ACME. Several suggested having a special sale each week on one item from the meat section. They explained that they host large groups of people for Shabbat dinner, and that it becomes prohibitive.
People are requesting a meat deli and a dairy deli where they can purchase fresh sliced cheeses and other high quality products. Especially requested are Cholov Yisroel dairy products.
Local residents long for a kosher salad bar, sushi, prepared sandwiches, freshly prepared meals, and prepared Shabbat foods.
People love getting imported Israeli products such as pickles, dips, frozen foods, and dairy specialties. The Shoprite on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia carries the best selection of all the area supermarkets.
One of the women on the Hadassah list serve wrote, “I shopped almost exclusively at Giant when I lived in MD and absolutely loved it. I’m excited about this change.” Giant’s acquisition of Genuardi’s is an opportunity to not just retain, but to upgrade our Main Street. Up to this point, members of our community have murmured about this among themselves. I have assumed the responsibility of bringing the community’s concerns to Giant’s management’s attention. No more murmurs! We are your Jewish customers, hear us roar!
Last month the Republicans on the Legislative Reapportionment Committee revealed their partisan state legislative redistricting plan minutes before rubber stamping it in a party line vote.
Concerned citizens across the Commonwealth stated their grievances with the plan by filing “exceptions” as mandated by the Pennsylvania State Constitution. In Harrisburg, on November 23, the Committee heard testimony demonstrating various objections to the redistricting plan.
Article II, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution says that State House and Senate districts “shall be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable” and that “unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”
The failure of released preliminary maps to follow the Pennsylvania Constitution left multiple counties, municipalities, and wards suffering. Amanda Holt explained what went wrong and how the commission can correct this.
no splits of political subdivisions are allowed unless leaving them whole creates a district which violates one of the other constitutional requirements of being compact, contiguous, or of equal population.
Her alternate redistricting plan dramatically reduces the number of counties and townships being split while preserving the compactness, population equality and contiguity of the official LRC plan.
For example, Liz Rogan, President of the Board of Commissioners of Lower Merion Township, explained how her township is being sliced and diced. Since redistricting after the 2000 census, Lower Merion went from being represented by two state representatives to three representatives and now, following the 2010 Census, this proposal will have Lower Merion represented by four House members. However, as shown in Amanda Holt’s plan and as mandated by the Pennsylvania State Constitution, Lower Merion need not and must not be divided into multiple legislative districts.
Liz Rogan’s full remarks follow the jump.
- Amanda Holt’s oral testimony: transcript and video.
- Amanda Holt’s Full testimony including maps & illustrations. (Large file may take a couple of minutes to load.)
- Holt website.
- Anyone who wishes to show support of Amanda Holt’s proposal may let the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission know through their contact page.
Testimony before the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission
Good afternoon. I’m Elizabeth Rogan and I serve as the President of the Board of Commissioners of Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County. However, today I am speaking for myself and on behalf of those I represent, as well as those living in Wards 4, 8 and 14, not on behalf of the full Board.
I’m honored to have this opportunity to testify before you today and thank you for your attention and for considering my comments. With all due respect for the time and energy of the individuals who worked to prepare the proposal, I am requesting you reconsider and revise the proposed plan.
It seems appropriate and timely to share a bit about myself to explain why I say I have the utmost respect for you and the individuals who prepared the redistricting plan. By way of background, I’m a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a professional in the field of planning and community development. Prior to taking office as a Commissioner in Lower Merion Township, I served as the Assistant and then the Director of Lower Merion’s Department of Planning & Community Development. But… way back when, in 1982, when I started my career, my very first assignment was to prepare and present a proposed redistricting plan to the City Council in Binghamton, N.Y. Well, that was certainly a real welcome to the grown up world of planning and politics!
And now, almost 30 years later, I find myself presenting testimony to you as a local elected official. Not quite what I envisioned oh so long ago!
So, on to the point of my testimony. Lower Merion is a First Class Township of 24 square miles that is now proposed to be represented not by 2, not by 3, but by 4 different House members. Since redistricting after the 2000 census, Lower Merion went from being represented by 2 state representatives to 3 representatives and now, following the 2010 Census, this proposal will have Lower Merion represented by 4 House members.
The venerable & non-partisan PA League of Women Voters states that redistricting should advance the fundamental purposes of a representative democracy, by giving the people a meaningful choice in electing their representatives, and, by holding government accountable to the people. The district boundaries should meet the following standards – in order of their importance:
- Protecting the voting rights of minorities.
- Promoting competitiveness and partisan fairness.
- Respecting political subdivisions and communities of interest.
- Encouraging geographical compactness and respecting natural geographic features and
I presume that by now you’re growing weary of hearing “why” it’s important to reapportion the
state’s population in a manner that creates competitive legislative districts. There’s no doubt that you’re committed to ensuring elected representatives are accountable to their constituents. And, theoretically there should be support for creating legislative districts that facilitate candidates having substantive debates and/or competitive races. And, most elected officials support the notion of seeking common ground with their opposition; and believe that bipartisan cooperation leads to better legislative outcomes.
Knowing why it’s important, and having, as my grandmother used to say, the “chutzpa,” to do something about it, are two very different things. Purposefully creating boundaries that meet the League of Women Voter’s standards could jeopardize your seat or that of a trusted colleague’s.
So, over the last two decades, the legislative boundaries created in our Commonwealth have
effectively eliminated competition and brought us to the point where re-election rates now exceed 98%.
Elected officials generally support and value the benefits of a representative democracy. I believe you would fight long and hard against attempts to wrest power from your constituents.
And, as successfully elected representatives, you likely work to actively and effectively represent your constituency. However, as redistricting changes the areas w/in a legislative district, perhaps by including parts of many different municipalities or by including several communities with distinctly different issues and/or interests, is that representative as effective and/or as available to their constituents as another representative whose district is geographically compact and includes constituents with common issues and goals? Do these outlying or minority constituents feel they have equal representation? My concern and point, is, that voters will certainly become more cynical and less interested in government and politics when the outcome of legislative elections continues to be effectively pre-determined.
It appears that the population of each proposed legislative district is between 61,000 and 64,000 people. Lower Merion, as a whole, is nearly that size, w/a 2010 population of 58,740; yet the current proposal divvies up the community and requires it to be represented by 4 House members. The need for any division is even more questionable when one considers that Narberth Borough, with a 2010 population of 4,282, is completely surrounded by Lower Merion Township, so, taken together, the population of both jurisdictions falls right within the average size of the proposed legislative districts.
If you refer to the display board, you will see that each representative will be faced w/the challenge of equally representing a diverse population, living in very different communities.
- As proposed, the 194th District includes the northeast corner of Lower Merion in Montgomery County, and various parts of Philadelphia County, including for example, Roxborough, Manayunk, Germantown and East Falls.
- The 166th District would include 2 Counties; a fraction of Montgomery County, that being the southeast corner of Lower Merion
Township. The remainder of the District is in Delaware County and includes small areas of Upper Darby, Marple and Radnor Townships, all most all of Haverford Township and a small section of Marple.
The 148th & 149th Districts are all within Montgomery County, but the state representatives would have to coordinate with and represent the varied interests of and residents in many separate jurisdictions.
- The 148th District includes 7 jurisdictions, the middle section of Lower Merion; all of Whitemarsh Township, Ambler, Narberth & Conshohocken Boroughs, more than half of Whitpain Township and two precincts in Plymouth Township.
- The 149th District includes 5 different municipalities; a long, narrow band of Lower Merion along the Delaware County line; all of Upper Merion Township, West Conshohocken & Bridgeport Boroughs; and a very small section of West Norton Township.
Certainly some may argue that having more representatives is advantageous, but as a professional planner, and someone who is committed to and believes in our American ideal of democracy, I ask you to resist the “status quo.” Please, rethink this proposal and revise it to create more geographically compact districts. Districts that respect political subdivisions, promote competitiveness and that protect the voting rights of minorities.
Thank you for your time and attention.
— by Bonnie Squires
Leslie Richards and Josh Shapiro were ecstatic with the response of fellow Democrats as they announced that they had received a call from Bruce Castor conceding the election, making the Democrats the winners of the Montgomery County Commissioner majority seats for the first time in history. For 140 years, the Republican party had dominated the suburban Philadelphia county’s politics, but November 8, 2011, became an historic day, as the Democrats won the county-wide election with comfortable margins.
This is also a historic election in that both Shapiro and Richards are Jewish. Preliminary figures have Shapiro with 87,965 votes and running-mate Ms. Richards at 86,014, to Bruce Castor’s 76, 635, and Jenny Brown’s 74,983. Castor is an incumbent Republican county commissioner, and Brown is a Lower Merion Township Republican commissioner. The top three vote-getters, Shapiro, Richards and Castor, will be sworn in January in Norristown.
Liz Rogan has served for eight years as Commissioner of Lower Merion Township’s 7th Ward and is now the President of the Board of Commissioners.
Ms. Rogan graduated with a BA in Biology and Environmental Sciences from SUNY Binghamton. After several years working as a planner for the City of Binghamton, she returned to graduate school and received a MLA from SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry in Landscape Architecture.
She is a former Director of Planning and Community Development for Lower Merion and worked for the Township for almost 14 years. She now works as a planning consultant for Upper Dublin and serves on the Community Advisory Committee for Strategic Planning for the Lower Merion School District High Schools. Ms. Rogan is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
She is running for reelection against challengers Ted Erfer (D) and Beth Ladenheim (R).
Alan Tuttle sat down to interview Liz.
PJV: What sustains you, what is most rewarding about what you do?
LR: I grew up with John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you.” I love the community, and I think I have a lot to offer. Occasionally people say “I was really glad you did this,” or I get feedback that they appreciated something I said, it feels good. My professional experience and my personal experiences are important to provide to the community, and it is important to have people involved. That is one of the reasons Lower Merion is so great to live in.
PJV: What are the biggest challenges? I assume that you hear more complaints than praise, being a public official?
LR: Sure. I think that when people are satisfied with the way things are going and are busy with their lives they just assume that things will go on as they have been. Usually I am contacted by people who have a problem or who have a concern about something. But I am out in other contexts so I do probably get an even amount of [positive and negative] feedback, but it is like being a teacher: you spend more time on the one or two kids that have the most challenging issues to deal with, but everyone else does not need as much time, so if someone has an issue going on, that takes more time, even if in absolute numbers the concerns aren’t more. I think the biggest challenges are with our economy: it has impacted everything, so while the unemployment rate in Lower Merion is half the national rate and most people are doing OK, it is a very diverse community, and there are people who are not doing well. So when you still have to provide services and it costs a certain amount of money, it has a different impact on people depending upon how they are doing. In addition to that challenge is the political rhetoric that used to be only at the national level, and now it is local.
PJV: What is the effect of the current anti-tax movement on the township and how you conduct business on the local level?
LR: I do not think that our processes have changed in the 21 years that I have been here. I used to be on staff, I participated with the Board as a staff member, and I have not seen processes change. We were an AAA-rated community when it was a Republican-led Board, we are still an AAA-rated community and we are Democratic-led. If you look at the Township tax rate over the 20-year period, it’s less than Consumer Price Index over that 20-year period. But people do not react to the 20-year period; they react to what they are dealing with at the moment.
Everybody on the Board and in the nation is very cautious and thinks twice before they agree to do types of expenditures. A demonstration of that is that the Township hasn’t filled a vacant position in almost 2-1/2 years. Managing a workforce by happenstance is not a good management technique. There needs to be a real discussion about what services people feel are vital, and what makes a community what it is and they want to contribute to. The conversation is not on that; it’s focused on the national level of “Don’t spend anything on anything.” So I think that is a different conversation than has ever happened in the Township in 20 years I have been here, and we have had bad economic times previously. That is what I mean by the rhetoric. The focus on “What is the value that people find when moving to Lower Merion?”; that keeps getting lost in people’s fear of what the future might hold because of the national economy.
Lower Merion does not have a close resemblance to what is happening nationally, though there are people who reflect that national experience. It isn’t like we are in a cocoon, but people live here because it’s a good value. Most people move into a community for both schools and services. The tax burden is lower than almost anywhere else. What I think about now, much differently than I used to 10 years ago when I was on staff is I try to find ways to diversify the tax base so there isn’t so much pressure on the residents who live here, and that is challenging. We aren’t so quickly looking to fill vacant positions. We were never very “fat” in terms of staffing, and I think that now we are beginning to see the impact of being down a crew and a half in the Streets Department, and being down two crews in the Trash and Recycling Division. So what I think about is how are we going to provide the services that people want in an effective, efficient manner, and how are we going to have the revenue stream that we need in order to be able to provide those services. It is a tricky balance, and I think that it is not a sound-bite conversation. It is easy to say ‘Look at how taxes have gone up.’
One of the Republican mantras has been the debt service. It depends how that issue gets framed, and it depends upon in what period of time you look at it. Mailings by the Republican Party start the year right at a point where we had a large tax increase, because there hadn’t been any large increases for 10 years… There was a very conscious decision 10-15 years ago that we were going to make sure that we kept investing in our infrastructure. So for example we rebuilt all of our firehouses and we did the improvements to the Administration building. Those decisions were made before that timeframe gets mapped. So those decisions that were previously made affect the numbers that are being used as an example of poor decision-making. I do not think that investing in our firehouses or our parks, or our Township Administration building were poor decisions. I think those are important things that will last the community for the next generation. I think that people appreciate that when people have a discussion about what the money was spent on. Those sound bites of “spending gone wild” or “taxes have gone through the roof” are not providing people with information on which they can make a good decision.
There can always be debates on both sides, and certainly there are. I think there is good value in discussions on what are appropriate things to spend money on. I think we’ve been doing a really good job. The investments we’re talking about with the library system are a good example. There are a lot of discussions of whether we should be doing one thing or another on the Bala Library, or should be doing any of the libraries right now. I think that the pattern of this township for the last 100 years has always been a very measured and effective management technique in terms of they do not panic when things are going bad, and they do not take drastic action. There is a long term plan, and that is the best way to manage a community. It is with a vision for what you want in the long term and doing things step by step. I think that investments in infrastructure are critical for maintaining our property values and maintaining the community we know of as Lower Merion. It is not an easy discussion to have, so I think my biggest struggle is finding a way of being concise with an answer (as you can tell by my rambling).
PJV: (Laughs) You’ve certainly covered a lot of territory, but you’ve obviously given it a
lot of thought. Another thing you touched on is the political nature of your position. Being a government official means that you have to engage in politics, so how is that for you? Specifically, what are your thoughts about the recent endorsement that the local Democratic Party gave you, and the call by some to have an open primary?
LR: It is challenging. People can argue: “I do not feel like a politician, I am a public servant.” But I am elected, and I am now the President of the Board. So it is certainly a legitimate thing to say I’m a politician. I just do not feel that way or think that way. So I find it very challenging politically.
For the endorsement process it was very rewarding to hear the pretty much unanimous position that there was going to be endorsement; it affirmed my belief that we [Democratic Commissioners] are all doing a good job.
PJV: I hear you saying that regardless of that specific decision that there needs to be more frequent interaction and communication between you as an elected individual and the party that you represent.
LR: How many committee people are there? Sixty-eight? There are a lot of people willing to put time in on this effort, and I think that some of them think of it as more of a national and state issue than local, which goes back to the idea that if things are going OK in your back yard you don’t worry about it too much, but there does need to be better communication, and that will only help the community continue on in the way that it has been: a great place to live. Certainly I’m disappointed I have a primary challenge, but I respect Ted’s desire to run.
I appreciate that: I like what I do, and I would think that he would enjoy it as well. I am
disappointed he felt it was necessary to make a challenge. The reaction from the committee was a pretty clear indication that I am doing the right thing… because Ted wasn’t looking for an endorsement, and I certainly wanted the Party’s endorsement, so I don’t think it’s comparable to what happened in the 14th Ward [when the Committee did not endorse the incumbent or the challenger]. The call for the open primary when you have the President of the Board of Commissioners, who has been a Commissioner for eight years, and who was asking for the endorsement; to not be endorsed… why would that be? Ted’s going to be on the ballot for the primary, so voters will have the chance to choose between the two of us.
PJV: How do you handle the tension between your private life and the life as a public servant? I know you spend a lot of hours in meetings.
LR: How do I handle it? (Chuckles) As best I can. I am up a lot of late nights, and I try to be efficient. When I am home and am with my kids, that is what I do. I am glad they are a little bit older now so it is a little easier. But it is a lot of juggling.
PJV: What, if any, influence does your religious background have on your life in government?
LR: Well, I think that I am accepting of people for what they believe in, and appreciative of difference of opinions. I believe that those differences are valuable, to be able to be discussed, to get to a good end result. I think that that is an approach that I have from my religious upbringing. I think it is an underlying ‘Who I am’ type of thing.. I think it’s important to serve and to give to the community, and I think that is a Jewish tenet, and is part of my life and part of my being on the Board of Commissioners.
PJV: If you were approached to run for higher office, would you accept the challenge?
LR: I would say ‘No thank you.’ I have no interest. I didn’t ever even think of being a local commissioner. But the local level is your back yard. It’s what I deal with every day. It’s getting my trash picked up, and having beautiful parks and having a dog park I can take my dog to if I get my permit, and it’s the libraries… it’s right here, it’s immediate effect. I like to be able to see that what I’m doing has immediate effect. As soon as you go up to different levels of office you lose that. You might have control over more money, but Lower Merion has a general fund budget of $50 million, which is a lot of money and a lot of responsibility, and I am honored and enjoy being part of the decision-making process in my backyard. I do not have interest in other political levels.
PJV: What would you most like to see accomplished in the Township while you’re a
LR: I would love to see our Board of Commissioners functioning as it has in the past, which is as an efficient, professional and organized policy-making body that got the business of the Township done in an orderly fashion. You can’t ever go back in time, but on a ‘running the Board’ basis, that’s what I would look for.
In terms of moving the community: I would like to be sure that the quality of the community we live in is retained for the future, that it can still be a diverse community; That we can still have the services that we have now and people can live here because the tax burden isn’t going to be
overwhelming…. We live in the most beautiful place, historically and environmentally. I feel really lucky, and I would like to have that handed down to my kids and their kids. That would be my ultimate goal.
If you are asking me for a very specific thing, I would like to see the libraries done. And I want
to go walking down the Cynwyd trail; it’s going to be open very soon. And I would like to see the tax base diversified, like the work we are doing in the City Avenue Special Services District and the work we’re trying to do in Ardmore; those things are important to the community for a lot of different reasons. I think economic development is critical if we are going to be able to raise revenue without having to tax residential property owners. To have those kinds of accomplishments would be great.
PJV: If you could change one thing about Township government, what would it be?
LR: The tenor of the conversations and the interactions would be a lot more honest and respectful, less partisan. I really don’t think that the “big D” and “big R” partisan issues have anything to do with how much you want to invest to make sure that our sanitary sewers and storm water systems and our roads and our police and our fire departments and parks and libraries [are in good shape]. I do not think those are equivalent. That is what I mean by having the tenor and the tone and the focus be nonpartisan.
PJV: Do you have a plan in mind for how you might influence the Board to return to that kind of tone and interaction?
LR: My plan is to be open, honest, and direct. I am available to talk to anyone when they want to talk. There is not decision making going anywhere other than where it’s supposed to be going on.
I don’t know if it is public yet, but I have contacted a parliamentarian to see if the Board would be willing to have him do an evaluation of our process, to see if he can come back with some suggestions to see how we can set up some rules and follow them. Roberts Rules is a specifically gifted tool that every government entity at every level uses to manage their public meetings. It didn’t have to be used really strictly in Lower Merion, but because of all the stuff that is going on, as what I see as partisanship. And it is not just Democratic and Republican partisanship but personality stuff. I think that the personalities on the Board are such that we need to have some better structure. A parliamentarian and Roberts Rules of Order is a great tool to be able to use. If the Board is willing to spend a few hundred dollars and have someone give advice on that. I know some do not want to have more meetings, but I certainly think we cannot have business going to tomorrow when we start at 6:00, it has to end. We cannot go beyond 11:00. Meetings going into the next day have got to end. My plan is to make that happen and whether it is just by managing parliamentary procedures properly, or having more meetings because we cannot the work done in the time we need to get it done, we will have to have more meetings. Because it is not fair to people
who want to provide feedback to have to sit there for hours. That is my plan for the short term.
PJV: Final question: Who are the biggest influences in your life as a commissioner/politician?
LR: I grew up when government was this “big bad evil thing” and we were in Vietnam and all these people were getting killed and assassinated. My two older sisters were five and seven older than me and they went to Woodstock. I did not have a lot of respect for government then, and then Nixon and Watergate happened in the early 70s. That did have an impact on me, not necessarily in a positive way, but in a way I want to be really cautious and honest. Other than Kennedy it wasn’t demonstrating what I wanted government to be. Then when I came on staff [in 1990] the Board was a pretty remarkable group. There was a point in time when there was a 7-7 board. I was really impressed by the professionalism and the conversations I heard in public meetings and when we were presenting staff reports to the Board in private meetings. I saw that the Board was not partisan politics; it was getting the job done.
PJV: Thank you very much for your time, Liz, and good luck with upcoming primaries and elections.
LR: Hope I do as well with the primaries as I did with the endorsement vote. I am confident that will happen, but I am never not nervous. I take it very seriously. The votes will show at the end that I am doing what the people of this community are asking for, and I will keep doing that. And then I will go on to the general. The Republican who will be running against me is a member of my synagogue [Beth Ladenheim]. She’s a very nice woman, and I am glad she is running, and I will look forward to talking with her about what her views are, and I think I will also be very successful in that one.