By Stephen R. McDonnell, Esq. On July 11, 2022, Pennsylvania passed Act 68, which limits…
The following article first ran in VISTA.Today, read daily by almost 30,000 Chester County residents and professionals:
These are certainly interesting times to be an attorney working for local governments in Chester County.
Land development and the local economy are booming. But so are the issues that local government officials face as they try to balance progress with preservation, as well as political change. VISTA.Today sat down with the Government & Education Law Department at the law firm Gawthrop Greenwood, to talk about it. Attorney Patrick McKenna chairs the department, which serves more than 20 local municipalities as solicitor for townships, boroughs, police departments, zoning hearing boards, planning commissions and municipal authorities regarding everything from zoning and land use matters, to employment issues, budgets, litigation and public contracts. McKenna is also the 2019 President of the Chester County Bar Association.
With Election Day not far behind us, is work for local governments going to change?
PATRICK MCKENNA, ESQ., GAWTHROP GREENWOOD: Although we saw historic changes this Election Day, we don’t foresee major changes in our practice. In our experience, both incumbents and newly elected officials have the best interests of the residents of their municipality as their top priority. In our practice, the objective is to provide legal guidance in their pursuit of that priority, and we look forward to working with new officials when they take office in January. Given our experience and the breadth of our law practice across Chester County, we also work with local government employees and consultants, who have institutional knowledge and experience. They help provide continuity, while serving communities through any political change.
What are the challenges that township supervisors, borough council members and other elected officials face in Chester County?
MCKENNA: Not surprisingly, the big challenges include impacts from land development, including traffic and stormwater, as well as balancing increasing wealth with affordable housing and services. But there’s another pervasive change we’re seeing right now that can be both positive and negative.
With the help of social media, our communities are better connected than ever, better organized and better informed. Civic engagement is higher, which is really encouraging as we see more people attending public meetings. But people may arrive at public meetings fueled by inaccurate information when it comes to legal developments, and that can lead to confusion in dialog. We’re there to clarify what the law requires, and communicate to our clients the legal processes, so that our clients have informed and meaningful discussions with their residents.
In the environment you just described, do community discussions at public meetings often become heated?
MCKENNA: It happens more so than it used to. When a public meeting becomes heated, there can be pressure on public officials to react in the moment. We’re there with our clients to lay out the legal processes that are available to the community, clarify what the law requires and communicate that to the public. With that resource beside them, our clients can focus more on interacting with the constituents standing before them. That leads to thoughtful decisions, with time for balanced reflection.
Your work spans Chester County, but also extends to Chadds Ford and Middletown. What should all of these communities be looking for in a lawyer?
MCKENNA: First, ask a prospective attorney this: How deep is your bench? Am I getting just you, or are there more attorneys I can rely on who are just as experienced in representation?
You also want your attorney to live and work where you do. When you are solicitor for a municipality, institutional knowledge of that community is an essential asset. For instance, our partners represent townships where they shop, where their kids go to public school, where they commute. You want your attorney to know the community’s values. That matters.
And finally, as a public official, people often approach you from every angle, every day, on a variety of issues. Our clients want their solicitor to provide prompt and thoughtful answers, solutions and support.
What advice would you give to residents who complain about the way their community is run?
MCKENNA: Elected officials truly are public servants; they get paid a small stipend and sometimes nothing at all. At the same time, the staff who work for a municipality are often paid below-market rates. They do this work because they truly care about the community where they live. No matter your dispute, never doubt their commitment and dedication to the community.
What is the government law landscape like right now?
MCKENNA: Continuously changing – more so than at any other time in our region’s history. But Gawthrop Greenwood’s breadth of experience transcends these fluctuations, and we have talent on both sides of the proverbial aisle. Government Law has been an integral part of the firm since it began. While some law firms don’t provide these services, we do it well and we’re growing.