An Interview with Elizabeth S. Rogan

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.