On Thursday, January 26, Montgomery County Commissioners Josh Shapiro and Bruce Castor appeared on "Comment Please, by Univest," which is hosted by Darryl Berger. The radio program is taped and available on the web, should you care to listen for yourself.
It was difficult to listen and take notes. Darryl Berger is an exceptional interviewer and interweaves questions and follow-ups into the conversation in such a way that breaking it into specific questions is sometimes tricky. Both of the commissioners give thorough detailed answers. A skilled transcriptionist or someone who knows shorthand might be able to catch everything. I listen on my laptop and type at the same time. Interviews like this a much more interesting than those where the interviewees just repeat their talking points, but harder to blog about. If you have 45 minutes it is definitely worth the time to listen.
DB: How do you like being a county commissioner?
JS: it’s great. Every day is a new challenge. Great to work with Leslie Richards and Bruce Castor.
BC: I don’t like feel like I’m in the minority. I feel like a partner in the govt. Richards and Shapiro do that. Shapiro discovers a new challenge every day; they aren’t new.
CB: Last commissioners said Castor was not a partnership guy.
JS: We worked closely during transition period. We talked about our vision. We discovered we all three shared a lot of views. When we came into office we decided to do what the people deserve, run business in a bipartisan way. Bruce has a lot of law enforcement and public safety experience. Asked him to work with those areas. Just in first 3 weeks of administration that has begun to show benefits. He’s involved in all areas, but has a unique role in public safety.
BC: The nuts and bolts of govt in last administration had ground to a halt. Now the election is over. All of those things I said in the campaign were all true. Becoming obvious to the three of us, becomes a commonality of purpose. Everyone has to be honest and faithful and do their job. There may come a time that an issue comes before us that has a partisan slant. Hasn’t happened yet. Right now there are so many commonalities.
DB: Joint vision? Bruce spent most of career in courthouse. Leslie and Josh new to county govt. Where is commonality?
JS: We all agree that we want to keep our taxes low, actual workings of govt to be professional and reflect what is great about Montco. If you look at it, that’s what Commish Castor campaigned on. We hired best CFO in region, Uri Monson. He’s uncovered some of the messes that prior administrations have left for us. Operations of courthouse. Most folks don’t see on a regular basis. Many issues untouched or unresolved for many years. Not because work force isn’t going their jobs. Haven’t had the kind of leadership to provide that vision. When we walk the hallways, people know that when one of us talks we talk for that shared vision. That has not been existent for many administrations. I’m not worried about voting the opposite way Bruce does. We will stick to common purpose. Keep taxes low, services high. At the end of the day we will make progress. Folks want us to put aside partisanship and differences.
DB: Rarely have minority commissioners felt a full partnership.
BC: Part of the good vibes come from Josh’s leadership style. I didn’t know his style. While he certainly hasn’t told me this, it is similar to the style in the legislature of a committee, with people from both sides. Talk, listen to each other, craft something we are comfortable with. Sometimes he will come to me with an idea. I’ll have a different view and he’ll go with me. I may know more about what happens on a day to day basis in the courthouse. But I think this is his style.
DB: how important to hold people accountable, set tone, does it filter down?
BC: There’s an excitement in the courthouse. People are telling me they like what they are seeing. There’s pride in office. The govt is set up so roles check up on each other. Supposed to be bound by laws and rules. Previous administration had an opportunist and a dishonest chairman. Chief legal officer was an arm of chairman. Controller in over her head. Now we are erasing the bad image. People doing the job for the people.
DB: dysfunction in previous administration
BC: yes, Dems saw that. Removed Hoeffel from the ticket. Got good people.
JS: We were proud of our victory. Leslie Richards serving on DVRPC committee; that’s why she can’t be here today. I don’t spend a lot of time focused on the politics. The day after the election the politics was over. For me it was never really about achieving the political goal but winning the seats to be able to effectuate change. We’re making a difference and that’s what it’s all about. Neither of us interested in politics. We want to do our job and do it well.
DB: [asks Bruce Castor to remove his leather coat since it makes noise and is distracting] What are the big challenges?
JS: First priority. We’re working on a lot of things. Transition team will make report in 90 days or so. First priority is finances. Unfortunate that a county of our means should be struggling. Partly neglect partly bad decisions. Bruce said in campaign there were problems. We said no, not that bad. Have to say, Bruce was right. Debt, operating budget not tied to actual operating costs. Virtually no money in capital budget. Things are not in good shape. Take some time to dig out. Briefed by CFO, getting operational costs under control using zero based budgeting, depts taking cuts.
BC: One of the things that flows from what Josh is saying, we can’t implement any of the agenda items we think is important because we don’t have any money. All 3 commissioners have areas of expertise, me with public safety, Josh with public services, Leslie with planning. We still can’t do anything with capital problems, like radio problem. The courthouse needs repair. We can’t do any of those things until finances in control. There should be some recourse for public. Pervious commissioners up until a few days before election saying finances fine. Now after election new commissioners come in and see we don’t have any money. Our new cfo is heaven sent. We need cfo’s opinions and ideas.
DB: Do you agree?
JS: Tangible example. We are all committed for preserving open space. With this program you match the amount counties put in. We had a board meeting last week. Different proposals on the table. Some wanted us to commit a million or a quarter million. We could only put in $88K, and that was previously committed. We couldn’t invest that money because of dire financial situation. All three of us have said we need to hold off and get things in order.
DB: Are you angry about this?
JS: I vacillate between anger and disappointment, not directed at any one particular person. We know who’s been in charge over the last decade. I’m angry as a taxpayer. It doesn’t take a lot of work to get together and work on this. We have so many good people working for the county. There’s so much waste. Why are we buying technology that’s too expensive when there’s less expensive available. Sometimes bad decisions, sometimes people just didn’t’ care.
BC: The glue that was necessary to put things together. Each had to have positions to give out to their buddies. Josh much more diplomatic than I am. I’m outraged at the lies that went on for so long. When I was elected as part of majority I was isolated and the other two gave jobs to cronies. The sour grapes works for a while. Media beat up on me plenty. Then there began to be corroboration and then the media brought down the Matthews Hoeffel machine.
DB: Jim Matthews charged after grand jury. Is anything actionable right away?
JS: We appreciate the work of the grand jury. Any time people work that hard we need to take it seriously. We are working with District Attorney. Serious issues – rfp process, the way we govern the roles and activities our employees can have. We are having work groups review each of the ordinances and make recommendations and any policies that need to be put in place. It has involved every single office, even the independently elected ones. We expect to have reports back within next month or so. Expect we will have action before the board. We take that seriously and already begun to act on that. We recognize need for real reform and change. Not just changing because we’re the new guys but because we need to work more efficiently and effectively. I think you will see that in first 100 days.
BC: Those are the two most obvious ones we can work on right away. Overarching in the report is government was working in a dishonest way. Immediate thought – how can we legislate honesty in govt. I asked Josh and Leslie – we should fix those things that are evident and act in best interest of citizens and not legislate honesty. Lead by example. When former chairman had county solicitor being his campaign chair, collecting donations and giving out county contracts. We know intuitively that’s wrong.
DB: Did Jim Mathews commit perjury?
BC: Grand jury only acts on state law not federal law. Tax issues a federal issue.
DB: Process still has to play itself out. Innocent until proven guilty.
DB: Study county govt and restructure it. Seems arcane to elect the row officers we do.
JS: Certainly something we can look at. Bruce made some comments like that in campaign. First we need to get fiscal house in order. Certainly something we can look at in future.
BC: Have Home Rule study at some point. Would like to ask commissioners to appoint maybe 3 people to study issue. But those guys are doing other things now. County Solicitor Wynn McGarry, CFO Uri Munson, and COO Lauren Lambrugo. They are doing a lot. Maybe appoint a commission to look at it.
JS: Current system serving county quite well. As convoluted as the election systems seems (here’s three from each party, vote for two …), having three commissioners is very efficient. We should look at that at some point. At state level, we passed …
DB: what is a jury commissioner?
JS: Every week we have potential jurors come in. Jury commissioners handle that. We have one D and one R. At state level passed bill saying you can do away with jury commissers, have the ability to do that but not required.
BC: What Josh said about operating efficiently is true. One issue is two of us can’t discuss county government without the third. Sunshine law. Can be a pain. Not sure if will support getting rid of jury commissioners. I think they are of value.
DB: Have a tax increase. Castor voted for that. Small tax increase or reduce services.
BC: Draconian. I thought county would go bankrupt if taxes didn’t go up. Parks and historic sites would have to close. New commissioners couldn’t revisit it, can’t reopen budget. I’ve caught some flack for that from party.
JS: Bruce faced an absolutely awful choice, cut services because of past mismanagement or raise taxes because of past mismanagement. He stood tall when he could have wiped his hands and said I didn’t create this I won’t be part of it. Now we can work with programs that matter a lot of all of 3 us. If I can say this I thought it was ballsy of him.
DB: Pass through money, from state and fed, now less than before.
BC: True, and we had to borrow money to make payroll. We’ll work out way through it. We’ll provide the best services we can.
DB: Nice to have different factions working together.
JS: We look forward to being back on the show, and having Leslie with us. I look forward to having this level of communication continue. Everyone’s voices heard. That’s what people want, people working together for county’s benefit.
BC: Thanks for inviting me.