Summit leaders urge a call to action
‘We have to speak … with a voice that resonates so well it can’t be ignored.’
by Evan Brandt
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Last in a series of articles on Building One Pennsylvania, a summit held July 16
LANCASTER – “Worshiping the problem,” was the phrase Pottstown Schools Superintendent Reed Lindley used when describing some of what he saw during the Building One Pennsylvania summit on July 16.
He was concerned that people from across the state, from the older established towns some call First Suburbs gathered into a gymnasium at the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, had spent too much time identifying the common problems they shared, and how they came about, and not enough time talking about how to solve them.
Lindley was not alone.
Other leaders from other parts of the state echoed his concern, saying things like “this is a great event, but if we don’t leave this event today with a plan in place, this is just a pep rally of like-minded people,” which was how it was put by Loren Kroh, chairman of the board of YorkCounts, a group which struggles to get 72 different governments to agree on a direction for the future.
“This is about action. This is about taking these ideas and putting them into practice,” said Jose Urdaneta, a member of Lancaster’s city council.
“The world doesn’t yield just because you say ‘I have a good idea,’” said Myron Orfield, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota.
“We can’t just gather together, put our arms around each other and hum ‘reform,’” Orfield said.
Karen Miller, a former two-term mayor of Reading, warned the group that “‘turf’ and ‘the way things have always been done’ are the two most powerful forces in nature.”
In addition to identifying solutions, the group also needed to face the reality that change would not come easily in a state known for its entrenched politics.
“We’re facing Pennsylvania’s famous ‘policy creep’ versus ‘policy change’ and we have to aggressively make the case,” said Miller, who is now chief of staff for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“We’re going to have to challenge beliefs and complacency,” said Miller, who has also held positions with the Berks County Community Foundation, the Pennsylvania Economy League and was Pennsylvania’s Secretary for Community Affairs from 1987 until 1994.
“We need to put the people in Harrisburg and Washington on notice that haphazard tactics, the off-loading of responsibility and inattention are unacceptable,” Miller said.
“We have to become advocates for our communities,” Urdaneta said. “These are man-made problems; we have the solution in our hands.”
“We have to speak to the Legislature with a voice that resonates so well it can’t be ignored,” said Kroh.
“It’s time we stopped talking to ourselves and having rational conversations
with rational people with data to support our arguments,” said Todd Vonderheid, a former Luzerne County commissioner and current president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry.
“If it means to get action we have to get the biggest blow-up animal we can find and stand on the steps of the Capitol and scream louder than anyone else, then that’s what we’re going to have to do,” he said.
While it might not take extremes of that length, Orfield told the group that “it will take three hard legislative sessions to bring about reform. In the first you won’t make any progress at all, in the second you’ll see some movement and by the third, if you push hard enough, you can start to get something done.”
He would know.
A former Minnesota state senator and representative, Orfield authored a series of laws that created regional governance and reformed land use and fiscal equity laws in the area around Minneapolis-St. Paul.
“They say in Pennsylvania nothing ever changes,” Orfield said. “But the rest of the country is moving toward this, you can, too, if you start working together the way so many other states have.”
Quoting President John F. Kennedy, Orfield said: “If we fail to dare, if we do not try, the next generation will harvest the fruit of our indifference – a world we did not want – a world we did not choose – but a world we could have made better, by caring more for the results of our labors.”
Tom Carroll, a member of the Pottstown Borough Authority and Preservation Pottstown, wants to make sure Pottstown is part of that effort.
During an authority meeting Tuesday, he chided the borough for not being part of the push.
Having just discussed the efforts which will be necessary to be successful in another round of grant funding, Carroll said Pottstown is missing an opportunity to get help in those areas.
“This is a lobbying group being formed and what (engineer Tom Weld) is talking about is what they’re trying to do. And here’s an opportunity to get in with a group of people and be part of that voice, but I get there, it was so disheartening to look at the list of people involved and see that our leaders are not represented,” Carroll said.
“All these other municipalities are willing to participate and ours is not,” Carroll said. “I see it time and time again, our leadership is not represented. We live in a bubble. Others around us are changing, but it doesn’t happen here.”
Ultimately, the authority agreed to vote at its next meeting on joining the First Suburbs group.
It will take that kind of effort, that kind of willingness to put egos, agendas and turf to the side and work together for the common interest if established towns like Pottstown, Norristown and Coatesville are to thrive, the organizers of the Lancaster summit said.
“Most of our governments are flat-out broken,” G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, told the audience, “and we as Americans allowed them to be broken.”
Further, he said, “we have allowed the polarizing elements of our culture to dominate the rhetoric of our discourse and the time for that must end. Pennsylvania has too long been a reform backwater.”
Madonna said, “We all know governments don’t plan well; just as far as the next election, the next vote. With the culture in Harrisburg and Washington, we say it’s not possible for the changes to be made with the people we have sent to office.”
But that’s not true, Madonna said.
“It doesn’t really matter whether you are liberal or conservative, you have to pull together a coalition of like-minded people to bring about changes you want,” Madonna said. “If this group can’t do it, nobody can.”
Speaking at the conclusion of the conference, Jacquelynn Puriefoy-Brinkley, a founding member of the First Suburbs group which helped to organize the summit, told the audience, “We can’t make these changes unless we bring all these people into our circle.”
A member of Yeadon Borough Council, Puriefoy-Brinkley said, “This is the most important work I have done in my lifetime and I’ve come to believe we can’t wait for the policy makers to do it, we have to move them do to it.”
She concluded: “We will only change things if we’re powerful, organized and strategic. Whatever happens to us will happen to us because we allowed it to happen.”