Commissioners Consider Township's Future Without President Reed
Two candidates, Bala Cynwyd residents Brian McGuire and Stuart Ebby, are being interviewed Wednesday for the soon-to-be-vacant Ward 13 spot.
In the aftermath of Bruce Reed’s announcement to resign as president of Lower Merion Township’s Board of Commissioners, commissioners’ immediate responses varied from completely surprised to completely unsurprised.
But since Reed’s decision was made public late afternoon Dec. 23, his fellow commissioners and the two candidates to be interviewed Wednesday evening for his Ward 13 position have all given some serious thought to what they’d like to see in terms of leadership for the board moving forward. Nearly everyone cited meeting length and partisanship as issues to be addressed.
Reed, whose resignation is effective Jan. 19, said he’d been considering resigning for months, although he felt it was important to stay on as president through several issues recently tackled by the board: an anti-discrimination law passed to protect local members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; the budget process that culminated in December with a 10.8 percent real estate tax increase for this year; and plans to move forward with construction of the Cynwyd Trail.
“It’s a pretty enervating existence, three weeknights a week out of the house, [this] week four weeknights,” Reed said. “I’ve done it now for seven years, and I’ve been president for over four years. It takes a toll on your personal life.”
More recently, there have been rumors circulating about the possibility of Vice President Mark Taylor resigning. While Taylor is aware of what is being said, he said it’s just that: rumors.
“I’m sad that Bruce is leaving,” said Commissioner Liz Rogan. “I know that there are people, from reading blogs, that are not sad he’s leaving. I think he was an asset to have, and I am disappointed, but certainly the township’s been around for a very long time and we have a lot of quality people here.”
Rogan said she hopes to see greater respect within the board, shorter meetings and a continued emphasis on the quality of life in the township going forward.
“I knew it was extremely aggravating for him to work on a board where the Democrats were under fire for being responsible for budgetary items and having to deal with tough issues,” Commissioner Brian Gordon said. “I think he was probably a little worn out from the partisan nature of the attacks by the Republican minority.”
Gordon said he was a little surprised to find out about Reed’s resignation and knows how hard Reed has worked, but he hopes Reed finds some satisfaction in what he accomplished as board president.
Gordon hopes to select a new president who is open-minded, thoughtful and effective, and to see someone who values the importance of local government, the environment and new ideas fill Reed’s place. He added that he doesn’t have anyone specific in mind.
Commissioenr Rick Churchill said he’d support “anyone but" himself for a leadership role on the board.
Churchill said he’d miss how Reed can articulate a position, regardless of whether he agreed with it, though he typically did.
“I was surprised that he didn’t finish his term, but there are just some demands made on people, and I think that he publicized some and kept others to himself,” Churchill said.
But Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig said he was completely unsurprised by Reed’s announced departure from his position. He said Bala Cynwyd resident Brian McGuire—“someone who began to come to budget hearings and meetings and very much appears to be Reed’s handpicked successor”—would likely be quite similar to Reed.
“I’m not remotely surprised, and I welcome it as an ability for the board to have a more effective leader,” Rosenzweig said.
Rosenzweig, a Republican, said his choice for a new board leader would be Democrat Cheryl Gelber, who he also nominated during the board’s last restructuring at the beginning of 2010. The issues most important to him include increased transparency, shorter meeting length, the encouragement of diverse opinions and an effort to limit taxing and spending.
Commissioner Jenny Brown said she would also be inclined to support Gelber for a leadership position on the board, as she did during the board’s last reorganization.
Brown noted that she’s disagreed with Reed on a number of issues, including fiscal policy and transparency, and that she would like to see his spot filled by someone she thinks would be more responsible about those policies in particular.
Gelber has even more support for a leadership role from Commissioner Lewis Gould, who said Gelber is not an avid partisan player and would work to promote openness and avoid contention.
Gould said he was not surprised by Reed’s resignation and predicts other majority members of the board will resign before reelection later this year “rather than face voters with a record of high taxation and high spending,” he said.
And Gelber herself said she would like to be considered for a leadership position “very much so,” although she would prefer to be vice president. She was surprised by Reed’s resignation, though she had heard rumors before his announcement.
“It’s a very difficult job and very time demanding, and more so even for him than for the rest of us,” Gelber said. “I can understand him having enough.”
She says she would prefer to see bipartisan leadership on the board, with perhaps a Democratic president and Republican vice president, though she doesn’t see that happening.
Gelber said in her seven years on the board, partisanship has never been as bad as it is now and that everyone shares responsibility for it. It also affects the public perception of the board, which she said is that the board is not in control.
“I would like to get to a point on this board of commissioners where people disagree and that’s fine, but they disagree with respect and they don’t start screaming at each other,” Gelber said, referencing a heated moment in the last budget meeting of 2010 during which some board members became ensconced in a shouting match. “We’re all volunteers, and we’re all trying to run a township we live in. An issue should not be so polarizing that we lose our temper in discussing them.”
Reed said it would be presumptuous of him to suggest who might lead the board next, but he did have an idea of who might fill his empty ward seat. Brian McGuire, one of the two candidates being interviewed by the commissioners Wednesday to fill Reed’s Ward 13 spot, said Reed approached him as early as October.
After debating whether he would apply and weighing the time commitment, Bala Cynwyd resident McGuire decided in mid-December he would submit his resume for consideration.
“I really do care a lot about the township,” said McGuire, who moved to Bala Cynwyd four years ago because of his wife’s job. “I really think that there’s a challenge now in terms of being able to maintain our quality of life here.”
He is particularly interested in budgetary issues and hopes to see less partisanship on the board with the introduction of a new president.
McGuire said he’d like to assist in working to make the board less partisan, adding that he has experience drafting public policy relating to health care and consumer protection with the consumer watchdog group Tennessee Citizen Action and more recently with AARP. In doing that, he worked well with politicians from both sides of the aisle, he said.
“We have to get back to a place where we’re talking to each other instead of at each other,” McGuire said. “I think we agree on things more than otherwise. Even on the budget, I’ve talked to some of the Democrats and Republicans. We don’t want to cut services for residents of Lower Merion, and that’s a big deal. If we can all hold hands on that, then we can talk about how we might be able to do that at a lower cost. If we can start there, I think that’s helpful.”
McGuire might be familiar to residents who follow the township meetings closely. The candidate spoke on multiple occasions supporting Township Manager Doug Cleland's originally proposed 12.7 percent tax increase, saying that the tax increase was slight compared to the services it preserved.
He is also a proponent of having shorter meetings, saying that topics of discussion should be placed on the agenda in advance and that meetings lasting until 1 a.m. or later could be violating the board’s Open Meeting Act because most people are no longer awake.
“Frankly, I think a lot of people are from here and have been here 20, 30 years,” McGuire said. “I’m looking at Lower Merion from somewhat of a new perspective. I really do appreciate where we live in a lot of ways in terms of what we have and wanting to do what it takes to keep it this way.”
Stuart Ebby, the other candidate and a long-time Lower Merion resident, holds similar goals as McGuire but has a different opinion of his qualification.
“This is an election to select a representative for the people of Cynwyd, but the people of Cynwyd don’t vote,” Ebby said. “It’s the commissioners from all of the other districts except Cynwyd that will be voting… And I think that they should ask themselves who the people of Cynwyd would choose if there were an election tomorrow, and I think that would probably be myself because I have such deep roots in the community. I’ve been here so long.”
Ebby, the father of Lower Merion School District Board President David Ebby, is a semi-retired business lawyer and decided to run for Ward 13 Commissioner when he read about Reed’s resignation.
“People think of lawyers as fighting with other people, but business lawyers have to bring people together,” Ebby said. “With people who start out really at opposite sides of the spectrum, you have to find ways to bring people together without insulting so that your business transactions will close.”
Ebby, like McGuire, said he looks forward to contributing to a less partisan board with restored civility. Some of his main concerns lie in how the City Avenue corridor will affect Bala and Cynwyd, and in budgetary issues.
“I think everyone’s concerned with the budget,” Ebby said. “We want to have the quality of services that we’ve had before and even better services, but at the same lower taxes. The problem is, you can’t do that, so it’s a question of finding priorities and finding compromises in ways that people feel comfortable with.”
Reed Reflects, Looks Ahead
Looking back on his leadership, Reed is most proud of historical preservation, City Avenue rezoning progress, and the maintenance of Lower Merion Township—which he attributed more to township staff than himself.
Lately, Reed has been concerned about potentially missed opportunities within the township because of a focus on curbing spending. While he said his view is not necessarily the majority view, he said he’d hope the board would take advantage of historically low interest rates to pursue new projects that would benefit generations to come. In particular, he hopes the board puts an emphasis on completing projects on the township’s libraries, which are among the best in the nation.
And what’s next for Reed?
“I have not read a book in six years,” Reed said. “This is so demanding of my time that I am looking forward to doing that… You can’t help but be scared with so much free time, how are you going to fill it? It’s going to be an adjustment, but I would like to exercise both my body and my mind.”
Ebby and McGuire will be interviewed by the Board of Commissioners at a special meeting to be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12 in the Township Administration Building.