Inside Pottstown Pa
Borough Councils and civic engagement go hand in hand. For the past two years, I have had the unique opportunity to attend Pottstown Borough Council and committee meetings, diving headfirst into the intricate workings of local governance. As an engaged citizen, I sought to uncover the inner workings of the decision-making process, witness firsthand the challenges faced by our community, and understand the collective effort required to drive positive change. In this article, I will share my experiences and shed light on what I discovered about the process.
History of Borough Councils and Civic Engagement
A brief history of Pottstown’s origins began in 1761 and was named Pottstgrove in honor of its founder, John Potts. Later, in 1815, the name Pottsgrove dropped when the borough became incorporated as Pottstown. Pottstown is in Montgomery County and was originally a dairy farm community.
Fast forward, Pottstown has struggled with revitalization. For decades, it has been a low-income community, a low-funded school district, and an abandoned manufacturing community. Recently, it worked with a growing homeless population and made headline news in California when our borough zone officer gave a local Church a fine for serving the poor.
After living in Philadelphia for eight years, I moved to Pottstown, PA, in 2018. Born and raised in New York, I found Philadelphia to be a slower way of life. It was less frantic than New York and a nice place to raise my baby boy at the time, eight years old. I needed a change. I was right about moving to Pennsylvania.
It was a great decision, and the change ignited a passion I never knew existed. The love of real estate and how to amplify Black Homeownership in a city with a steady decline felt empowering. After working several years as a real estate agent, I found a community named Pottstown.
I was selling two homes for a client in Pottstown and would drive from Philadelphia to Pottstown several times a week. I noticed a shift in my mindset and physical body while driving for almost one hour. It was refreshing, and I wanted more of it. I made the change permanent. The quiet street, the friendly neighbors, the diners, the breakfast cafes, the avocado toast, and the beautiful Charlotte Street reminded me of the brownstones in Harlem and New York. Also, I loved the birds chirping. I bought them birdhouses and a bird bath for their enjoyment.
Borough Councils and Civic Engagement
What else was there to do, I thought. After 01.06, I found the answer- engage in the political process. I jumped in to volunteer with the local Democrat Party, and within a few weeks, I was on the ballot for school board director and won. (more about that experience in another article) Next, I attended every Pottstown Borough Council meeting for two and a half years. Below is what I learned
Civic engagement is my duty as an American. What I learned in school is citizen participation is our priority. Voting, attending meetings, serving on committees, making charitable donations, and, for some, serving as an elected official is at the root of our democracy. My family consistently voted. My mom taught us how important it was to vote. I remember going with her to vote, and she would tell me stories about how blacks died for this right and that we shouldn’t take advantage of that. And how right she was about voting, so I went to the meetings to do my civic duty.
However, what I found was the exact opposite of all those principles. I was naive in an unimaginable way, and I’m struggling to overcome the painful reality that democracy doesn’t exist. It’s a fraud, and I will explain why. Over two years, I dedicated myself to attending Pottstown Borough Council meetings and committee meetings, eager to gain insights into the inner workings of our local governance. However, my journey uncovered a disheartening reality.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of attending these meetings was witnessing noncitizen participation. Pottstown is a small community of approximately 20,000 members. However, I saw only two people engage Pottstown residents passionately, voice their concerns, share ideas, and hold elected officials accountable for their actions.
Non-Civic Engagement at Borough Council Meetings
Unfortunately, It became evident that active citizen engagement differed from what the borough wanted. I saw evidence of virtual meeting rules changing without proper notice, questions raised at meetings going unanswered for months, and visible frustration with civic engagement. It appeared as if the Borough Council sat on a perch looking down on us with disgust. It may not be the case, but it is how I felt. I asked myself, is that why citizens do not engage?
Borough Councils, Civic Engagement, and The Complexity of Decision-Making:
Behind the scenes, decision-making in local governance is a complex process. I observed council members needing to engage in detailed discussions and debate various viewpoints but said nothing. They remained quiet on many hot topics, almost ignoring that they existed. The process often involved them not considering different perspectives, a lack of weighing budget constraints, and the apparent inability to explore long-term implications. It became clear that the council needed help to balance community interests, financial considerations, and legal requirements. And my sadness and disappointment continued.
Lack of Diversity and Representation:
While attending these meetings, one glaring issue was the need for more diversity and representation among committee members. The overwhelming presence of white men dominated the decision-making bodies, creating an imbalanced manifestation of our community. This lack of diversity hampers the ability to fully understand and address Pottstown residents’ diverse needs and perspectives. Pottstown, similar to the changing demographics of the US, comprises almost 20% Black and possibly another 15-20% of other minorities, such as women, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Also, there is diversity in race, culture, religion, and class. It’s a beautiful community, and I needed clarification. The current mission of the borough is to revitalize the community. How can this happen when you disregard a considerable segment of the population?
Manipulation of Rules and Procedures:
It was disheartening to witness instances where the rules and procedures that govern these meetings were bent and twisted to suit the interests of a select few. Misusing these rules resulted in biased decision-making, sidelining the concerns and voices of community members who challenged the status quo. This manipulation erodes trust and undermines the legitimacy of the governance process.
Civic Engagement Attacks and Intimidation:
Speaking up and asking questions during these meetings should be encouraged as a fundamental part of citizen engagement. However, I observed a disturbing pattern of personal attacks and intimidation directed toward individuals who dared to question the decisions or actions of the council. Such behavior creates an environment of fear and discourages open dialogue, hindering the democratic process.
In April of 2023, towards the end of my two-and-a-half-year meeting marathon, I posted a picture of an empty room of a supposed committee meeting in full swing on social media. Boy, did I get attacked verbally by some of those in the leadership. It wasn’t the only time, however.
My time for attending these meetings will end or change in purpose.
I started to shift my civic engagement into observation.
In May, my mom died. I knew it would happen since the beginning of the year. But I still felt a tremendous loss. I felt disengaged. I believed I wasted so many hours attending the meetings when I could have spent them with my mom. I’ve since let go of those feelings because I spent a lot of time with my mom, even letting go of multiple commitments as soon as I received the bad news at the beginning of the year. However, I continued to realize that my duty to attend the meetings needed to stop or change. Here’s what I also learned.
Civic Engagement and Limited Accountability and Transparency:
Transparency and accountability are the pillars of good governance. Regrettably, my experiences at these meetings exposed a lack of accountability and transparency. Critical decisions were sometimes made without adequate explanation or public input, leaving residents disconnected from the process and their voices unheard. This opacity breeds skepticism and undermines trust in the local government. For example, during meetings, I learned that accountability and transparency are not the goal. I heard things spoken of in this public setting that were shady at best. I continued to be sad. But as I continued to ask questions and prompt for more accountability, I learned the following.
Inadequate Community Engagement:
Meaningful community engagement is vital for effective governance. However, I observed a need for more proactive efforts to engage and involve community members in decision-making processes. Opportunities for public input were limited, and community concerns were often dismissed or downplayed. This disconnect between the council and the community perpetuates a sense of powerlessness among residents.
Borough Councils and Civic Engagement: Conclusion
Borough Councils and civic engagement go hand in hand. My two-year journey attending Pottstown Borough Council and committee meetings was marked by a disheartening realization of the negative aspects overshadowing the process. The lack of diversity, manipulation of rules, personal attacks, and limited accountability all undermine the principles of good governance. Pottstown must address these issues collectively, striving for a more inclusive, transparent, and accountable local governance system. That is when change and revitalization occur. Until then, Pottstown will continue to struggle for decades to come.
We can work towards transforming the governance process by raising awareness, demanding equitable representation, fostering respectful dialogue, and promoting transparency. It is our collective responsibility to demand change, ensuring that our local government truly serves the interests of all Pottstown residents. Together, we can strive for a more inclusive and fair community where every voice is valued and heard.
Someone other than me should continue to do this work.
I am leaning towards being “still” and documenting what I see.
By Deborah Ann Spence, Fierce Realty Corp