New leadership, new commissioner in 2017.
As Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro prepares to leave office to assume the role of Pennsylvania Attorney General, his departure signals a new era for the board.
Democratic Commissioner Val Arkoosh has already taken over the responsibilities of commissioners’ chairwoman, and once Shapiro resigns in January, his seat will be filled with a Democrat chosen by Montgomery County judges.
In the waning weeks of 2016, the commissioners took time to ponder what the board will look like moving forward.
Arkoosh, who was appointed by the judges when her predecessor Leslie Richards left for a role in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration in early 2015, took over as chairwoman after Shapiro stepped down following his election to statewide office in November.
“I was thinking about who could lead the county. If I were to leave or if I were to step down or what have you, who could become the chair and be the leader? And that was really the test that I went through, the analysis that I went through. Val was the obvious right choice,” Shapiro said of Arkoosh’s appointment in 2015.
Arkoosh is leading a board that has an uncertain future, as the process of determining a new commissioner cannot begin until Shapiro resigns. Meanwhile, minority Republican Commissioner Joe Gale has had conflicting viewpoints with Arkoosh on a number of issues since he took office in January 2016.
“I’m not overly optimistic,” Gale said of his colleague. “During the two years she’s been here, there have been tax increases. If that projects the future, I would not want to see more tax increases.”
Arkoosh’s approach to governing comes with a unique perspective. With her background as a physician, she said she sees the impact on the health of the county’s residents and families in every one of the decisions the board makes.
“I find that we have so much divisive government at all levels today, and when I point out to somebody that the way that we build a transportation project and how that interfaces with our built environment, that might be the difference between our mom or dad being able to age in place in the home that they love and having to go into a facility,” Arkoosh said.
“If we get that transportation piece right and we get the sidewalks and the street crossings and all those things right, it will allow many more people to stay in their homes because they can get to the grocery store safely. They can walk down to the corner drugstore and get their medication.”
Her commitment to public health, in addition to the education she received in her early days on the board, has combined to give her a number of ideas about how to improve the way the county serves its residents.
“There are three areas that I think about all the time as I’m making decisions, and those are making sure that the county provides a high level of quality services, that we’re accountable to taxpayers and all of our constituents here in the county, and that we’re transparent,” Arkoosh said.
Visions for the future
With the operating and capital fund budgets for 2017 passed, some of the decisions for 2017 have already been made. But commissioners Arkoosh and Gale already have ideas for what they want to focus on in the coming year and beyond.
Both commissioners mentioned connecting with each of the municipalities in the county to find way to build, restore and connect with other municipalities.
Gale said he would like to connect with township and borough officials, using his background in real estate and finance to find ways to put new life into revitalization efforts.
“I work closely with the planning commission, the municipalities,” Gale said. “I’d like to see more improvements with Norristown, the county seat, so I plan on furthering my efforts with the local officials here in Norristown.”
Arkoosh said that sustainability initiatives can have a major impact if different levels of government work together.
“Our planning department has been working with communities all over the county to make them aware of opportunities like the LED streetlight plan,” Arkoosh said. “That may seem like a small thing in a municipality, but if you take that times 62 municipalities, if the entire county did that the energy savings from that would be huge. That’s just one example.”
Arkoosh also has a vision for a more connected health and human services department. Utilizing information technology to connect services within the county to hospitals, non-profits and other organizations, Arkoosh said that a database that would help these institutions communicate would “finally close that link.”
She explained, for example, that a hospital could alert the county that a patient was suffering from food shortages, the county could connect them with a food pantry. Through the database, the food pantry would be able to provide information about whether the patient showed up at the pantry or whether there were other needs that were not being met, and the county could circle back and see if more or different services would be beneficial.
“So that whole system, I hope, will truly be integrated and we can talk to each other. That would be game-changing, actually,” Arkoosh said. “I don’t think there’s any other place that has fully done it.”
While Gale and Arkoosh can connect on some issues, the issues that divide them draw the most attention.
“Last year when they raised the tax 9.87 percent, there was not one comment from the public. This year we had over 100,” Gale said. “Because I did my job as an elected official to educate and inform the people of issues going on in the county and that was a result. And also my predecessor was supportive of the budget last year and it was a unanimous vote so that doesn’t generate the attention that someone who is in opposition and has a different mindset.”
Gale sees his role as the minority Republican on the board as a way to make sure the interests of those who voted for him are represented, even if his opposition has been overruled by his colleagues each time he voted ‘no.’
“I think that’s healthy. I’ve said it at the board meetings. There’s no sense of having three commissioners if you agree on every issue every single time,” he said. “And I view this form of government, two in the majority, one in the minority, to have checks and balances, and I bring that to the table.”
The opposition has occasionally caused things to get heated at board meetings and press briefings, however. What Gale calls exposing cronyism and wasteful spending, Arkoosh calls “stunts and gimmicks.”
“I firmly believe that diversity of opinion makes us stronger,” Arkoosh said. “There’s a big difference in providing constructive ideas and solutions and pulling stunts and gimmicks at the last minute. I’m hopeful that there will be three people here in January that want to govern. But if not, I’m confident that there will be two people here who want to govern, and we will govern.”
The big question mark that looms over the board is the soon-to-be vacant chair currently occupied by Shapiro. Once a new commissioner takes that seat, it could change the way the board functions as a whole.
“There’s a lot of variables, the dynamics will change on the board and there will be new personalities and that all factors in,” Gale said.
The judges will consider input from Democratic Party leaders, including Arkoosh, as to who would make a good replacement for Shapiro.
“I really felt that when you go through this process you want to choose someone who is ethical, who is hardworking, who is smart, even if they don’t know all the intricacies of how county government works, you can learn that,” Shapiro said of his experience considering candidates to be appointed when Richards left.
Arkoosh has not let on as to who she might recommend for the position.
“I don’t know who that person is yet. Obviously I intend to suggest to the judges someone who I believe is highly competent and would be an excellent governing partner and most importantly would want this position for all the right reasons which is that they’re actually here to govern,” she said.