Judge Thomas Gavin ruled earlier this month that Pennsbury Township Supervisors' Chairman Wendell Fenton is barred from discussions or voting on matters regarding the Pennsbury Village project.There are shades of differences between private citizens, candidates for office and office holders. While all are equal in their rights, those in office should be more careful on how they approach matters and how they conduct official business.
And such may be the case here.
Mr. Fenton, among many other township residents, has been opposed to the project for years. He was so against it that he chose to run for office against former Supervisor Bill Reynolds, who supported the plan. He soundly defeated Mr. Reynolds in the 2005 primary.
The vote was indicative of the strong sentiment against the village idea as proposed.
But in his zeal, Mr. Fenton apparently crossed a line between citizen, candidate and supervisor, at least according to the judge.
Pennsbury Village Associates, the developer, filed a Writ of Prohibition saying that as supervisor and now supervisors' chairman, Mr. Fenton should be recused from voting on issues regarding the development because he could not do so impartially. Judge Gavin agreed.
The supervisor and others had signed onto a stipulation agreement that smoothed out many of the difficulties with the plan. However, he then "proceeded to undermine the agreement," the judge wrote in his decision.
And while fellow supervisor Charles Scottoline also ran his 2007 campaign for office in opposition to the plan, the judge ruled that he has since acted properly while in office, following the law to get the best possible plan, instead of being obstructive.
If Judge Gavin's assessment is correct, that Mr. Fenton was being obstructionist despite the facts presented before him, then this is the right decision.
However, the decision raises questions that go beyond the township level.
Should candidates for state or federal office be held to the same standards? If a member of Congress fervently and unabashedly believes Roe v. Wade should be overturned, should he or she be barred from any discussion on legislation that would have an effect on abortion laws? If in the judiciary committee, should they be barred from employing their opinion as a litmus test to determine who may or may not sit on the Supreme Court?
While the scope and impact of such a consideration is more wide-ranging than a land use plan in a township, the concept is basically the same.
At what point is a legislator or a supervisor to be considered obstructionist or someone who holds to principle? What standards are to be used?
The village plan has been one of controversy in Pennsbury for years, even while it was still in a preliminary stage of discussion. It became nothing far short of a verbal civil war pitting neighbor against neighbor, with sides formed based on the personalities of two political factions.
It would be nice if Judge Gavin's decision put an end to the bickering and finger pointing. What are the odds on that?