September 1, 2007

Letter to the Editor of the Intelligencer

Democrats will be different

September 1, 2007

To the Editor:

Twice in recent weeks the Intelligencer has published editorials suggesting that if Democrats Diane Marseglia and Steven Santarsiero win this fall's commissioners' race in Bucks County, it would not be shocking to see them adopt a “pay-to-play” policy similar to the current system in place in the Bucks County Courthouse — a policy so eloquently outlined by GOP heavyweight Vincent Deon in his recent e-mail to the party faithful.

I would like to know how you could draw such a conclusion. Are you basing this prediction on the past record of Democratic administrations in the county courthouse? If you are, then you would have to go all the way back to 1983 — the last time the Democrats won a majority on the county commission — to suggest that Marseglia and Santarsiero would be checking party registrations before they hire staff, retain attorneys, engineers and other consultants, and award professional services contracts.

There aren't many people around who remember the Democratic administration that served from 1984 to 1988, but I'm one of them. As a journalist for the Intelligencer and the Allentown Morning Call, I covered every administration of Bucks County commissioners from 1979 to 2006. Therefore, I believe I speak with something of an expertise when I tell you that Democratic Commissioners Carl Fonash and Lucille Trench did not practice pay to play and, for the most part, were not guided by the patronage system when they hired members of the courthouse staff.

That doesn't mean Fonash and Trench didn't hire Democrats. There is always a desire among incoming officeholders to reward the people who worked in their campaigns with jobs in their administrations. This is a routine and acceptable part of politics that goes back centuries and is practiced today on every level of government.

There is no question, though, that when it came to hiring people or awarding professional contracts, whatever tidbits Fonash and Trench were able to throw at their loyal campaign volunteers pale in comparison to the Republicans' institutionalized system of pay to play that Mr. Deon revealed in this summer's e-mail.

Indeed, as I recall, in the waning weeks of their lame-duck administration in 1983, the Republican commissioners who had just been voted out of office took a number of steps to ensure that the GOP patronage system would continue unabated during the four years the Republicans knew they would be out of power. The lame-duck commissioners started off by passing a totally bogus budget, slashing jobs and programs and cutting the tax rate to a ridiculously low level that can only be described as fictional. When Fonash and Trench took office a few weeks later, they were able to reopen the budget, restore the jobs and return the tax rate to its rightful level, only to be hounded by Republican leaders for the next four years with the accusation that they had raised taxes.

Next, the Republicans made dozens of 11th-hour appointments to stock the various county boards, commissions and authorities with GOP appointees, further extending their influence into the Democratic administration. And then the Republicans used their majority on the county salary board to artificially lower the salaries for all jobs the Democrats expected to fill, most of which were on the commissioners' staff. As such, Fonash and Trench were forced to offer jobs to a number of people at salaries well below what the former holders of those jobs, all Republicans, had been receiving.

Finally, a Republican lawyer obtained a federal court order that prevented the Democratic commissioners from firing most Republican jobholders, meaning that Fonash and Trench were forced to govern for the next four years with employees who were openly hostile to them and in many cases worked to undermine their bosses.

And so, when you publish editorials suggesting that Santarsiero and Marseglia would also adopt a pay-to-play policy, I suggest you look at history. If the two Democrats win election this fall, you can bet they won't. And it will be the Republicans who make sure they don't, because the Bucks County Republican Party is simply not willing to give up the very lucrative system of patronage it has carved out for itself over the years. Trust me, it will find a way to keep sucking the teat, and it doesn't seem to matter to the GOP who wins the election.

Hal Marcovitz
New Britain Township