LANSDALE, Pa. - "Oh, captain, my captain."
It was like something out of a dramatic movie or novel: On Wednesday night, one by one, each Lansdale Borough department head, including the fire marshal and police chief, approached the podium and told President Jack Hansen and Borough Council it was a terrible idea to get rid of Borough Manager Timi Kirchner, and praised her leadership and partnerships that they said have made Lansdale Borough a town that is now headfirst in economic progress.
After nearly 45 minutes, council voted, 6-3, to keep Kirchner in her well-respected position. Dissenters were Hansen, Rich DiGregorio and Liz Troy.
"The staff has been wonderful to me. They are an amazing crew. They are one of the big reasons why I (took the position as borough manager)," Kirchner said after the meeting. "This is a great town and I love it, and I will continue to be dedicated to it. I deeply appreciate everything they had to say."
"You cannot discount the overwhelming support from the department heads," said Democratic Councilman Leon Angelichio on why he voted to keep Kirchner. "People work with her daily, and you want to have a good rapport with the people you work with. What is the plan in place? To dismiss the manager, can the borough run without one in the interim? Who takes the place? I'm not well versed on that. It did seem like the right thing to do tonight."
The motion to immediately terminate Kirchner from her job came at the hands of Hansen, in what many assumed was a spiteful action, as the Democrat was ousted from the presidency in a 5-4 vote only mere seconds earlier and replaced with Independent Jason Van Dame. Van Dame previously lost the majority vote in January for the presidency at the reorganization meeting.
Hansen said it wasn't about spite. It was about the public meetings that took place on the municipal complex, where, he said, several residents and councilmembers asked how much it was estimated to cost, "and we got a nice, long story but no rock-hard dollars."
"All we were told was we had the money in the bank. It took several weeks and was asked several times, and finally the cost came out. We work for the public, and when there's a number there, it should be known," he said. "I believe we need a new borough manager ... I don't want to be told a story. When I ask a question on dollars and cents, I want dollars and cents."
When asked why he did not talk to staff before making his motion to oust Kirchner, Hansen said, "That's a decision that we made by council."
"I made a motion and council didn't agree with me. It doesn't make you right," he said.
'Jack, I Can't Believe You Can't Look at Me'
Prior to the vote, various administrative department heads, councilmembers and residents pleaded with Hansen and council to reconsider his motion. Throughout most of it, Hansen hung his head and toyed with a pen in his hands. He never spoke up after the motion.
"Jack, I can't believe you can't look at me," McDyre said Wednesday night. "This is a huge mistake. Please take this off the table."
McDyre said he managed people for half his 28-year career in Lansdale, and thought he knew a lot. He threw it all out when Kirchner came on board.
"I learned so much from her as a mentor," McDyre said. "Timi brought everybody together. We accomplished more in the last four years that I dedicate to Timi. She's a mentor to everybody in this borough. Everybody."
McDyre said he could have retired years ago, but he wanted to stay to see the Madison Lot Redevelopment, the municipal building, and the new police station completed.
"Don't make this mistake," he said.
Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator Jay Daveler, who was chief of Fairmount Fire Co. for 44 years and who owns three businesses in Lansdale, said what was happening Wednesday comes at the worst time for Lansdale.
"If you take a look back, for years as fire marshal, I've been hearing about the project on Madison Parking Lot, about a parking garage, they've been talking about plans all these years to do this, and all these years it doesn't happen," he said. "We had a change in leadership. When Timi was brought on board, a lot of things started to happen."
Daveler praised Kirchner's track record. He said she is involved with and works directly with department heads, and spearheaded the municipal complex renovation, things that should have been replaced years ago.
"Everybody was on the same page in meetings: We need a new police department and a new borough hall. It was put together by the management group that Timi assembled. She has spent hours and hours putting together the Madison Lot. It was talked for years and years, and now in two years, we are looking at a $50 million project to develop the lot," he said. "Lansdale has made a really long stride forward in the last four years. There's lots of good things happening here."
"Dismissal of Timi would be a major, major, major mistake," he said. "I'm asking you to cut out the politics and look at what this lady has done. I'll tell you, Jack, if you get behind her and start working with her, she'll make you look good."
Director of Community Development John Ernst said the motion was a big mistake.
"I look back on the four years that I've had the distinct pleasure of working with Timi, and I cannot think of a better, more rewarding experience in my professional life than helping to guide this borough in the direction we can be proud of in many years to come," Ernst said. "I respect each and everyone of the staff."
Ernst was disappointed that no one on council asked Kirchner about her working relationship with the solicitor.
"I didn't hear that, not from one councilmember," he said. "The borough is in the process of undertaking close to $30 million of development. In the next three to four years, we are on track to have close to 850 new residential units in this borough. That is a huge number of projects coming into this borough. Much of the work has been done by the excellent team assembled here under the leadership of Timi, the guidance of Timi, and the ability for her to say, 'each of you should do your job and keep me in the loop because I respect you.'
Ernst said Hansen erred by not asking the staff how they feel about Kirchner's leadership qualities.
"I would ask, respectfully, as a both a staff member and a resident for almost 25 years, that you each thoughtfully consider how you will go about figuring out if this is the correct decision. And don't make a decision based on the wrong reasons," he said.
Finance Director and HR Director Brian Shapiro said he and Kirchner talk daily about what is the best decision for Lansdale.
"I respect and love working with Timi," he said. "Before Timi was here, in 2008, all our department heads were silos. We had no guidance. We were an island of misfit department heads. The greatest thing she has done is bringing a group together. You cannot find leadership like that anywhere you go. It's within her. She inspires me and inspires everyone else."
Utilities Director Jake Ziegler said he has always acted professionally in his long career with Lansdale.
"In the last four years, with Timi's professional leadership, it's been unbelievable. I hope you give this thoughtful consideration," he said.
Electric Superintendent Andy Krauss was choked up when he took the podium.
"I work for Timi, not Ms. Kirchner, not the Borough Manager—Timi. We're not a number on a timecard; we are people to her," Krauss said, who has worked for Lansdale for 11 years, including under former Manager Lee Mangan. Mangan was ousted as borough manager in 2010 by a majority council vote.
"There isn't a leader like her. The one big team picture to bring us all together, that's what Timi has," he said. "That's what should continue to happen. I ask you to think about us, and our families and this borough. She's the best thing that's happened to this place in a long time."
Parks and Recreation Director Carl Saldutti, an employee for 40-plus years, said, at the weekly management meetings, one can see the pride that Timi has for the accomplishment of the committees on council, and it is "a sight to behold."
"We have a good professional team. Timi is a good leader, and there's a reason when there's conferences either statewide or on a national level that Timi is asked to be one of the speakers. You don't get that without the respect of your peers in your profession," he said. "She brings talent and dedication to the borough. We'll be here until 11 p.m. tonight, but tomorrow morning, if you go by borough hall at 8 a.m., her car will be there and ready to start the day."
"Timi has a way about her, a dedication, a knowledge. She's cerebral and makes sound decisions," he said. "I hope that's not overlooked. We have a good one with Timi."
Public Works Supervisor Rick DeLong echoed what everyone before him had said about Kirchner.
"It is the truth: She has made us a family," DeLong said. "She's helped me through my early career as a supervisor. Everything is positive. Please think long and hard about this decision."
Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Dan Shinskie said he agreed with everything said about Kirchner.
"I would desperately miss her if she were not here. She has supported me in everything I have done or wanted to do," he said. "She has made everybody come together to work as a team."
GIS and IT Coordinator Bryan Poster said he began in wastewater doing some of the worst jobs one could ever imagine.
"I did what I had to do for my family. My family comes first, and working here is a career, not a job. It's a pleasure to come here and work," he said. "I wouldn't have had this opportunity If it wasn't for Timi going to each department and making everyone feel like they were a part of the big team. She noticed me and saw that this guy wants to do more. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be standing here right now. I appreciate everything she's done for all of us."
'How Dare You!'
"You should hang your head," said Councilwoman Mary Fuller to Hansen. "You're an embarrassment. And not to make eye contact—how dare you. How dare you tear this borough asunder. How dare you use this council for your vindictive ways and political hackery. You should be the one removed. I wonder how fiscally responsible and open and honest this can be."
Fuller asked Hansen if he even had a plan on what to do when there's a majority to vote to get rid of Kirchner.
"Do you think you're going to step in? I assume you have some other political contributor or somebody in your pocket that you're going to put forward. I beg you people to think about this," Fuller said. "(Kirchner) batted 1,000 on department heads coming forward to speak on her behalf, people who love to come to work everyday. She loves to come to work everyday. God help you if you can't see what's going happen."
Fuller said there was an enthusiasm and spirit Wednesday that, if it existed before, it had long been missing.
"I don't want to be a part of this crew if this is the kind of bullshit and antics you're going to play," she said. "It's a travesty. Listen to what people said, that's what's important."
Van Dame said the reason he applied to be a part of council is due to the direction Lansdale was going.
"Things have turned around considerably, and a majority of that is due to the leadership of our borough manager," he said, "and a council that had the foresight to look into the future."
Van Dame said he didn't play party politics during his campaign last year. They were all filled with animosity and campaign paybacks, he said, and he ran on a platform of getting away from all of that.
"Our decisions cannot be based on personal feelings. That's no way to run a business," he said. "The money they alluded to being spent is on council. We control that. To think we know enough to pull the manager out of the process and somehow make the borough a better place in that situation is preposterous."
"I strongly oppose this motion. Going forward, we open discussion up here and in committees and I'm happy to entertain ideas of how to do a better job," he said.
Councilman Denton Burnell said he was speechless.
"This is personal. This is spiteful. I'm looking at (Jack) and I'm looking at (Mayor Andy Szekely), and he knows it too. This is ridiculous. We've sat in this room and listened to everything that's been accomplished. You can put your head in the sand or your hands on your ears and say it's all buzz or spin or it's all (Kirchner's) idea. It's all ridiculous," he said. "I get it—you guys are angry, you're mad. Four years ago things did not go your way, Jack. I will admit maybe it wasn't handled in the best way. That's four years in past and we're now four years in the future. Andy, same thing, I know you've had your differences with her ... it's time to let it go. We've got to stop this bickering. We're better than this."
Burnell said Mangan's administration did not work together as a team and made the borough deficient. At one time, Mangan told council it had a real responsibility to raise taxes to do the right thing.
"Lee understood what needed to be done. We demonized him for being an authoritarian. I think he got a bad rap. But the work that (Kirchner) has done, there's no rational comparison between the way Lee conducted his affairs and what got done and the way that things are now," he said. "She has done wonders for this town at our direction. If we screwed up and gave her bad advice, that's our fault. What we seem to be mad about is she did her job too well, somehow. She deserves to be here."
Szekely admitted he and Kirchner did not see eye to eye. He said it was enlightening to see the department heads sing Kirchner's praises, even if it may be a conflict of interest.
"I'll agree with the fact that this is spiteful," he said. "I had no anticipation of this. With that, I offer an olive branch to Ms. Kirchner, putting our differences aside. Staff is one aspect of governance ... Lansdale is an amazing place. We can put our differences aside and not act in haste."
Szekely said he has battled with councilmembers and former councilmembers online about his stance on 311 Arts and the municipal complex and had not been completely "irrational."
"I've not been off the mark with my criticism," he said. "I think that, again, tonight is a learning experience."
Residents Rally for Kirchner
Former council president Matt West, who did not seek reelection last year for council, said there were three words he would think about every time he took the gavel to start a meeting: Strength, grace, wisdom.
"That does not exist on the majority of this council. That was one of the biggest reasons why I decided to step away. Illogical decision making, political B.S.—it's such a distraction," West said. "Mr. Hansen, you should be embarrassed."
"Sending you love," he then said to Kirchner. "Regardless of what happens, you'll be all right."
Kevin Dunigan, of Delaware Avenue, said the idea that Lansdale council consistently ends up on the front page of the newspaper is considered a good thing by the likes of writer Dan Sokil and Szekely.
"I consider it a laughing stock," he said. "The ability of grown men to disagree with any individual at a level that they are now, and continue, and continue to allow a personal disagreement to cloud your ability to make decisions that benefit anybody other than yourselves. Lansdale consists of the ones that elected you. To go out and do what each of you individuals want is a huge, huge injustice to the people that elected you."
He said Hansen wants Kirchner removed because of a personal grudge.
"It offends me as a taxpayer, and (it offends) the 16,000 people you were elected to represent," he said.
Minuteman Press owner Doug DiPasquale, of Delaware Avenue, who also oversees the Lansdale Business Association, said he has been a business owner for eight years. Now, he's not so sure he wants to be here anymore.
"I can't imagine how anybody—you, Jack in particular—can make this motion tonight. The only reason I can think of is what Mr. Dunigan said. If you put her skill level on any level what we need here, she's it. You're not it, Jack. if anybody should be removed, you should," he said. "If you lose her, I guarantee I'll move my business and leave this town, because it will go nowhere. God help Lansdale."
Richard Strahm, of Columbia Avenue, said he lived in Lansdale long before he even attended meetings. Now, he's vice chairman of the Economic Development Committee and sits on the board of Discover Lansdale.
"All of that is because of people who were previously on this council, and because of our borough manager. The work that she has done for this borough is unparalleled. It is a travesty, Jack, that you made that motion. It is an embarrassment for your borough," Strahm said. "Listen to the people; don't listen to Jack."
John Sigler, of West Mt. Vernon St., who sits on the parking authority, took the stand and said, "Uh, what!?"
"To change professional staff without even considering what would happen as a result of that, I would think very long and hard about trying to make any kind of investment in this town if that's the kind of tone we're going to have going forward," he said. "Boy, I hope the rest of you think about how you're going to handle this. This is where the future of what we've started is really a concern."
Robert Willi, of West Fourth Street, called council a "circus."
"When this council keeps being on the front page, it's a bad thing, unless it's something good. Whatever I'm reading and seeing through The Reporter or TAP is a joke," he said. "If you talk to the employees and some residents in this borough to remove a vital, important cog, somebody who came into this town and adopted it as their own and did everything she did for this borough. I don't know if you talked to employees to see how they feel? Right now, they want to work for Ms. Kirchner. If you bring someone else in, and they don't like that person, how many of them do you think would start leaving?"
Willi said he couldn't believe he wanted to sit on council at one point.
"You people embarrass me. You embarrass these citizens here. You embarrass the people who voted for you, with the antics that keep going on up here," he said. "You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Mark my words, what you do here tonight, will come back and affect us one way or another."
Signarama owner Mary Schwalje said she was appalled by the motion.
"Ms. Kirchner has brought professional change to this borough and led us through so many different things that has created a different atmosphere in this community," she said. "She has led us through the consultants, and they have created changes. She's led the staff, and they want to work extra hours because they believe in her."
Walter Brown, of Valley Forge Road, who unsuccessfully ran for council in the last election on the Republican ticket, said the projects going on right now in the borough are not good.
"Pretty shortly, we're going to have $40 million worth of debt on us. We aren't in a situation to pay for that unless our taxes go up," he said. "Bottom line: Our taxes are going up with the projects going on right now. I don't know if that's the sentiment of the borough."
"If we continue down the path that we've gone with the leadership we have, there's nowhere that we've spent too much money, there's no way we'll see the ceiling," he said. "This conversation is eventually going to have to be had. I think somehow Jack has seen something from Timi that I don't know where it's coming from. We have to get spending under control, and this may be the step in the right direction."
Former Councilman and Administration and Finance Committee Chairman Dan Dunigan, of Delaware Avenue, said Brown's statements in his campaign letters about the debt were "bullshit."
"It's exactly that. Leon (Angelichio) learned that the same stuff he put out was B.S. too when (CPA firm) Maillie Falconiero showed up and said this borough's financial position is unmatched. Whether you agree we should have spent something less, that's hindsight. You don't get votes up there in hindsight. We lob stuff up and those guys have to make real decisions," Dunigan said. "Normal businesses run on a debt-to-equity ratio 3 to 1. We are at about 0.3 to 1. While you may disagree that we could handle (what is now $29 million) worth of debt, everybody that knows finance will tell you, we can handle $200 million, if you were running a business. And that's crazy. 40? Not batting an eye at it."
Dunigan said someone asked him once how he made the votes he made when he was a councilman. "Very simple," he said, "I never made a vote for me. Vote for the benefit of the town you live in, not today, not tomorrow, but well into the future. You've got to live with your decision. Stand up on your two feet, be brave, be respectful."
Dunigan also said Hansen's motion was spite.
"That's 100 percent spite. I watched Jack push himself back, his face turned bright red. I sat beside him for four years; he did it all the time," Dunigan said. "That's his M.O. He's a political hack."