John Mack - Newtown Supervisor

Economic Development Committee Discusses Proposal for a LI/OLI Overlay District

I attended the in-person September 21, 2021, Newtown Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting because I wanted to learn more about “Economic Development projects for 2022 budget” – which was an item on the agenda.

This was the first mention I have seen of the 2022 budget in ANY official agenda for a public meeting. Not even us supervisors know what projects will be in the proposed preliminary 2022 budget, which will not be presented to the Board of Supervisors (BOS) until October 18, 2021.

However, the EDC discussion actually focused on the Bucks County Planning Commission (BCPC) REVISED proposal for Planning Services to Develop an Overlay District to the LI and OLI Zoning Districts. For background, view the video: "Township Planner Presentation on Rezoning the OLI & LI Districts." Members did not have the revised proposal to review at this meeting.

The discussion focused on the process for approval of the proposal and how members of the EDC would be involved in the BCPC process if the proposal is approved by the BOS, which will vote to approve it or not on at the September 22, 2021, BOS meeting. They also discussed what an Overlay entails.

Overlay District Permits New Uses

Overlay Zoning is a regulatory tool that creates a special zoning district, placed over an existing base zone(s), which identifies special provisions in addition to those in the underlying base zone. The overlay district can share common boundaries with the base zone or cut across base zone boundaries. Regulations or incentives are attached to the overlay district to protect a specific resource or guide development within a special area.

Mary Donaldson - an EDC member - explained how an overlay to the LI and OLI zoning districts would allow for additional uses that are currently not permitted:

Mack's Newtown Voice · EDC Discussion of Overlay to the LI and OLI Zoning Districts

The EDC spent considerable time talking about possible new uses for the districts that the Overlay would allow. Restaurants, for example, were mentioned. You can find all the possible uses in a May 4, 2021 presentation before the Newtown Planning Commission by Township Planner Michele Fountain. You can also listen to that presentation.

Posted on 22 Sep 2021, 11:45 - Category: Development



Residents Accused of Being “Lazy”

It was a sad night at the September 8, 2021, Newtown Board of Supervisors meeting.

The debate over hybrid Newtown Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings, which would allow residents the option to attend and participate via Zoom or other technology, continued at the September 8, 2021, BOS meeting.

In a comment to the BOS, Newtown Grant resident John D’Aprile was of the opinion that the township should not spend money on hybrid meetings so that “lazy” residents can attend. “Why should we cater to someone who is lazy and does not want to come to meetings?,” quipped Mr. D’Aprile.

Uber Refuses Guide Dog!

Meanwhile, at the August 25, 2021, BOS meeting, resident Terry Christensen, Chairman of the Board of Friends Village, said that he supports the hybrid option, as many of the Friends Village residents are not able to attend meetings in person anymore, but are still very eager to participate in local government matters.

In response to my questions, Mr. Christensen said that he is visually impaired and unable to drive and has taken Ubers to recent meetings. He cannot stay late as it becomes difficult to arrange for a ride later in the evening; he has also been refused a ride because he has a guide dog.

BTW, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a guide dog should be able to go anywhere that a blind person can go.

Adding Insult to Injury!

In my opinion, Mr. D’Aprile’s comments are an insult to residents who are NOT lazy such as the elderly, the handicapped, and anyone susceptible to COVID infections. Mr. Christensen was able to attend only because of the kindness of another citizen who gave him a ride – with his guide dog!

Yes, residents can watch BOS meetings that are simulcast on cable TV. But more and more people – especially the elderly – are doing away with expensive cable TV and using streaming media such as Youtube. Newtown does NOT stream its BOS meetings via digital media such as Youtube. Even if it did, it would not be advisable to allow unedited comments from anyone, including trolls and non-residents.

Yes, residents can send comments via email or postal mail to the township to be forwarded to all supervisors, but these comments are NOT read aloud at public BOS meetings and are NOT included in the official minutes of meetings. Basically, you are out of luck making your opinion known to other residents unless you attend the meeting in person.

What You Can Do To Help

This underscores the need to have hybrid BOS meetings that give residents - not just supervisors - the OPTION to attend and participate virtually. If you agree, PLEASE SIGN MY PETITION! To date, 180 people have signed. All signatures will be sent to the supervisors.

Posted on 09 Sep 2021, 11:19 - Category: Discrimination



Residents Say YES To Hybrid In-Person/Online Public Meetings

A hybrid in-person/Zoom Middletown Township
public supervisors meeting.

Now that emergency measures are no longer mandatory but with COVID variants emerging, the Newtown Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings and other public meetings are exclusively live in-person events. Residents, regardless of their age, disability, or susceptibility to COVID, must attend to make their views known.

There is no need to put the public at risk. Many residents overwhelmingly support "hybrid" public meetings that make it easier for them to attend important public meetings such as BOS meetings by giving them the option to not only attend in person but also to attend virtually via Zoom or some other remote technology.

My Petition

As of 15 September 2021, over 191 people - including 151 Newtown Twp residents - signed my petition asking Newtown supervisors to support "any and all efforts to allow remote/online participation of residents in Newtown Township Board of Supervisors' meetings via Zoom or some other appropriate technology."

Download the Petition Signatures or see the signatures embedded at the end of this post.

As a Newtown Supervisor, I strongly believe that hybrid meetings will allow more residents to attend meetings and participate in local government. A well-informed, actively involved citizenry is something that every community needs to aspire to and work to cultivate. Modern technology like Zoom is both effective and affordable to accomplish this.

Public Comment on "Lazy Citizens"

In a comment to the BOS at the 8 September 2021 public meeting, Newtown Grant resident John D’Aprile was of the opinion that the township should not spend money on hybrid meetings so that “lazy” residents can attend. “Why should we cater to someone who is lazy and does not want to come to meetings?,” quipped Mr. D’Aprile.

I was not able to attend this meeting myself because I tested positive for COVID-19 and was under quarantine. BOS Chair Phil Calabro also could not attend because of an undisclosed health issue.

In my opinion, Mr. D’Aprile’s comments are an insult to residents who are NOT lazy such as the elderly, young families with children, the handicapped, and anyone susceptible to COVID infections. 

Remote Access Denied to Disabled Planning Commission Member!
Not only is it best practice for the public to be able to remotely attend and participate in BOS and other important public meetings, commission and committee volunteer members must also be given this option - especially handicapped and/or immuno-compromised members.
 
Recently, I received this email from Kierstyn Zolfo, a member of the Newtown Planning Commission:

My name is Kierstyn Zolfo, and I live on Greenbriar Lane here in Newtown. For the past three years I have volunteered on the Newtown Township Planning Commission. I also have a chronic medical condition that leaves me immunocompromised. I am under explicit instructions from the specialist who oversees my treatment that I am to avoid indoor spaces with groups of people, especially those with unknown vaccine status. This is why I am not delivering this public comment in person.

During 2020 and the first half of 2021, the Planning Commission held its meeting via Zoom, and I had no difficulty participating. But the return to in-person meetings this year did not go smoothly. The only option the township has provided for those of us on the Planning Commission who must participate remotely is an old office phone equipped with an obsolete speakerphone. This hardware slowly deteriorates in quality as it is used until about 45 minutes into any call, when it stops producing human language and instead emits a stream of unintelligible blurps and squeaks.  It is an inadequate option.

Other, smaller neighboring communities have managed to upgrade their municipal facilities in order to provide hybrid meetings with audio and visual capabilities. We only have an inadequate, broken speakerphone here in Newtown for the Planning Commission. 

Newtown Township has legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But more important than that, as a board, you have a duty to the dozens of volunteers who, collectively, give hundreds if not thousands if hours of their own time each year on this Township's boards, councils and commissions to ensure this community thrives. We deserve better from you than a broken phone... and more from you than months of delay.  

Please implement a phased solution to solve this problem. Please replace the existing, obsolete phone with a new model that is designed for conference call usage to serve as a temporary solution as you determine the technology upgrades needed in this facility to fulfill your obligations under the ADA.

I know I am not the only volunteer who has had to endure this obstacle in the past few months. Please take these take the steps necessary to ensure we can safely continue to give our time to our Newtown community.

Other Local Townships are Doing It!

Middletown Township: Nick Valla, Assistant Middletown Township, PA, Manager, presents an overview of how his township learned to run "hybrid" public meetings that allow the public to participate in person or remotely via Zoom. Listen to this podcast: Middletown Township Hosts Successful "Hybrid" Public Meetings

Doylestown Township: Doylestown's webcasts of BOS meetings show how technology can improve communication between supervisors and residents. The May 4, 2021, meeting was interesting not just because of the passage of a Juneteenth resolution, but because it demonstrates that live meetings can include participation by residents via Zoom as well as in person. Read this blog post: Incorporating Zoom Into Live BOS Meetings

Warrington Township: Fred Gaines, Warrington Township Supervisor, said "Warrington Township has decided to continue Hybrid Meetings as a way of ensuring maximum visibility of Board of Supervisor and Planning Commission meeting.  (We have nothing to hide. ) ARA [COVID relief] funds were used to 'beef up' our audio-visual capability.  Meetings are screened on a local TV Channel and residents can actively participate on the "Zoom" platform.  Many of our volunteer committees including Communications, EAC, Park & Rec., Open Space and Veterans Affairs also take advantage of the facilities and hold their hybrid meetings using Zoom."

Harris Township: Amy Farkas, Harris Township Manager/Secretary/Treasurer, said "Harris Township is doing hybrid meetings. We've worked with our local cable access channel (C-Net) to provide a zoom option and to also live stream our meetings on Youtube. C-Net has a device called an Owl that is a 360 degree microphone and camera. It enables the zoom audience to fully see, hear and participate in the meeting.

"As a side note, we've had much more interest in the Youtube stream, as both our Board and Planning Commission meetings are being watched in real time. It really does add a layer of transparency, as it gives residents the option to come to the meeting, watch Youtube, zoom, stream it after its over or watch it on our cable channel.

"All of the municipalities in the Centre Region and our Council of Governments are doing hybrid meetings. Our elected officials don't want to go back to the old way of doing things."

Petition Signatures

Posted on 05 Aug 2021, 01:21 - Category: Governance



Mack’s Guide to the Newtown Township Website. Lesson 2: How to Access Financial Information

This lesson will show you how to access important township financial information. It specifically will focus on how to find Bills Lists (and Treasurer’s Reports) on the township website and how to analyze the data for useful insights. [View the Video below.]

As a resident, you may be interested to see exactly how you tax dollars are being spent, by whom, and who gets those dollars. The Bills List is a great way to find that information.

As always, the first step is to go to the homepage, which is www.newtownpa.gov.

The logical place to start is Finance Department page, which you can access via the DEPARTMENTS drop-down menu (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Newtown Finance Department Webpage

There’s lots of interesting financial information here such as the approved and annual budgets, financial statements – which are yearly audits - and monthly treasurer’s reports, etc. These are high-level data, but not data about who gets paid for what. We’ll look at the Treasurer’s Report at the end of this lesson.

But there is no folder for Bills Lists!

OK, so here’s my first secret I have for finding the Bills Lists: You have to open the GOVERNMENT drop-down menu and roll your mouse pointer over “Boards and Committees” and then careful move the pointer over to the submenu and click on “Board of Supervisors.”

This will bring you to the Township Board of Supervisors page, which you may think is not the most likely place to find Bills Lists. Stay with me and we will find out why the Bills Lists are available from this page.

Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen below the pretty faces of the five supervisor guys and up will pop “Supervisor Meeting Minutes & Agendas” with a list of years (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Bottom of Newtown Supervisors Webpage

Suppose you are interested in seeing one or more Bills Lists approved by the BOS in 2021.

Although this list does not mention Bills Lists, if you click on the year 2021 you will see a “Bills List” folder along with folders for Agendas, Minutes, Treasurer Reports and Zoom Meetings! [View the video below.] These are all items that Supervisors might be interested in and so they are located on this page. That’s my guess anyway. If it were up to me, I would include the Bills List folder on the Finance Department page as well.

Anyway, let’s click on the Bills List folder to open it. Let's look at the Bills List for July 14, 2021, which is at the end of the list. [View the Video below.]

Note that all the Bills Lists are PDF documents. If you click on "07 July 14", you will see a preview of the July 14, 2021, Bills List.

 
SIDEBAR: The naming of files is very perculiar! "07 July 14" by itself would not let you know what this file is about. I only know it's the Bills List for July 14, 2021, because of the folder names it is stored in (i.e., 2021 Bills List). I have no idea what "07" means! It may have something to do with Google docs, which is used by the Township to store documents.

You can scroll down this preview and see every invoice that needs to be paid or was paid in this cycle (actually these are bills that were approved to be paid at the July 14, 2021, BOS meeting; that's why Bills Lists are found on the Supervisors page). For example, on page 1 you will see a bill for $1,213 from Bella Commercial Services for June Janitorial Services/Parks.

Up at the top of the screen you should see several options such as printing or sharing the document. You also can download the document. Let’s try that. [View the Video below.]

Click on the downward pointing arrow and voila! The document should open up on your computer if you have a PDF reader set up to automatically open PDF files when downloaded.

A Secret About PDF Files

There are two types of PDF documents: ones that are “searchable” and ones that are NOT. A searchable PDF file is a PDF file that includes text that can be searched using the standard Adobe Reader “search” function. In addition, the text can be selected and copied and pasted into other applications such an Excel spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, the Bills List PDF documents are NOT searchable. You call tell that by the shape of the cursor, which is a crosshair rather than a bracket.

Let me show you what that means if you try and search for information. [View the video below.] Say you want to find bills related to legal fees related to the proposed Wawa on the Bypass. Now, you don’t know if this Bills List includes any invoices for that so you logically would use the PDF reader’s search function to find any Wawa-related legal bills. Let’s try that.

Type Wawa into the search box and click on “Find Next in Current Document.” Whoops! “No matches found.” Oh, well, I guess there aren’t any such bills.

But wait! Even if you search for a word you know is in this document such as “Newtown” it says not found! That can’t be right. What’s going on?

In order to search for text in a PDF file, it must be a converted to a searchable PDF file. Because I have the proper software, I can convert this non-searchable/non-readable Bills List into a searchable/readable document by using the Adobe’s built-in OCR Text Recognition function.

[BTW, early on in my Supervisor career, I got the township to post only searchable Minutes of meetings show that residents can sift through these sometimes lengthy documents to find what they are looking for without the need to have and know how to use OCR Text Recognition software.]

Now that this is a searchable PDF, if we search for "Wawa" what we find is that there are two bills from KILKENNY LAW LLC related to WAWA, one posted in MAY21 for $1,764.00 and one posted in JUN21 for $2,254.00.  [View the Video below.]

There is no information about what these bills are for. To learn that, you must request copies of the invoices. But I can tell you that these bills are for representing the township at the Zoning Hearing Board opposing Wawa’s requests for variances to the zoning. For more on that, listen to my audio clips from the July 8, 2021, ZHB meeting.

Let’s see what we can do with the KILKENNY LAW FIRM data.

Basically, now that the PDF file is readable, it is possible to copy and paste the data into an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, this involves a few steps. I’ll skip the details and show the results. As you can see, the total for KILKENNY bills is $13,157.67 and bills for Wawa make up 30.5% of the total. See Figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Kilkenny Law Data in and Excel Spreadsheet.

That’s interesting, but what is more interesting is an analysis of how much money the township spent on legal fees for a whole year, including a breakdown of how much was paid to each law firm and for what general purpose. I did this for 2020 (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4: Summary Section of 2020 Law Firm Bills Spreadsheet

First, you can see that there were more than 200 bills from law firms paid in 2020 for a total of $161,111.16. [View the Video below.] This happens to be 8% over the 2020 budgeted amount of $149,000.

I broke down the bills into 3 broad legal categories: Solicitor, Litigation, and Labor. 73% of the 2020 paid bills were for “solicitor”, which is a fancy term for a lawyer advising the various committees and boards regarding correctly applying local, state and national laws. Only 16% involved “litigation.” The KILKENNY fees for Wawa, for example, fall into that category.

In 2020, the budget allocated $65,000 to pay for solicitor fees from KILKENNY. Actually, KILKENNY was paid nearly $126,000, which is 78% of the total legal fees paid by the township in 2020.

Treasurer's Report

Unfortunately, I cannot do this type of analysis every year for every type of expenditure. The Treasurer’s Report is a good source of information of this sort but on a monthly basis.

For example, we can go back to the Supervisor webpage and access the May 2021 Treasurer’s Report. Figure 5 shows the page related to POLICE SERVICES for that month and Year-to-Date and compares that to what was budgeted.

Figure 5: POLICE SERVICES page from the May 2021 Treasurer’s Report

While the Treasurer’s Report is very informative it does not break down payments into specific categories such as legal fees paid to specific law firms for which purpose. So, I still rely on the Bills List for that sort of detail.

I hope you found this lesson interesting. Perhaps you will do your own different analysis and get back to me about what you learn.

View The Video

Posted on 21 Jul 2021, 01:17 - Category: Communication



June 2021 Newtown Fire & Emergency Services Report

According to the the June 2021 Monthly Report for the Emergency Services Department (ESD) and the Newtown Fire Association (NFA), there were 111 combined calls for service that month. The breakdown according to the type of call/incident is shown in the following chart:

There was a total of 111 calls/incidents in June, 2021.
EMS=Rescue and Emergency Medical Service;
Good Intent Call=Someone thought there was a fire or emergency but it turned out otherwise (e.g., smelled smoke, but no fire or cause found).

Of the 111 calls/incidents in June, 2021, 90 (81%) were in Newtown Township and 12 (11%) were in Newtown Borough. The rest were in Northampton Twp (5), Middletown Twp (3), and Lower Makefield (1). The locations of these calls are shown in the map below (multiple calls to the same location are not shown):

NOTE: To determine which calls were made by the paid Newtown Twp ESD (NT-ESD) versus those made by the volunteer NFA, you must refer to the June 2021 Monthly Report, which includes the date and time of day of each call. NT-ESD operates 5 days a week from 6 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday. NFA handles calls on weekends and other times during the week.

Posted on 18 Jul 2021, 01:19 - Category: First Responders



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