New lead­er­ship, new com­mis­sioner in 2017.

The Boyertown Area Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kait­lyn Foti kfoti@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @kait­lyn­foti on Twit­ter

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.

New lead­er­ship

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.”

Bad blood

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.”

New per­son­al­i­ties

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.

Joseph Gale

Val Arkoosh

Josh Shapiro

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