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Why is an unpaid “volunteer” representing a private business managing the $5M Chandler Mill project?

In another post, we described Kennett Township (KT) manager Eden Ratliff’s empty promises to better understand the options for the $5M Chandler Mill Road (CMR) trail. This episode highlighted another factor contributing to years of delays and skyrocketing costs: Ratliff’s remarkable decision to effectively delegate management of the Kennett Greenway to an unpaid “volunteer” from the Kennett Trails Alliance (KTA). The result? There is no clear accountability or transparency, and tremendous potential for conflicts of interest.

Some context... Under normal circumstances, day-to-day responsibility for a township project would typically be expected to fall to a Township-paid professional employee or consultant supervised by the manager, who could be held accountable by the Board of Supervisors (BoS) for any problems. This is especially true for a large-scale capital project like the Greenway, which is projected to draw on almost over $8M in public funds over the next decade.

But the last two years have been anything but normal. Throughout this time, Ratliff and the BoS have effectively turned over full control of all Greenway-related projects like CMR to an employee of a local business  - in this case, the Chair of the KT’s Trails and Sidewalks Committee (TSC), Christina Norland. Norland is not contracted to perform this service, but represents the “Kennett Trails Alliance” (KTA) on TSC and, like the other members of TSC, is acting as a “volunteer”. This arrangement is even more unusual because Norland is not a KT resident, and KTA’s parent organization (Square Roots Collective) is a private business located outside of KT.

The degree to Ratliff has allowed KTA to control the multi-million dollar Greenway projects was made abundantly clear in the recent questions surrounding the optimal width for the CMR trail. During a public meeting on February 16, Ratliff and a majority of KT Supervisors agreed that “we should look into” our question about optimal width of the path. But in a TSC meeting just two weeks after that, Norland used her influence as Chair of TSC to lead the committee to summarily reject any such plan regardless of the potential benefits, after sowing confusion about the request with what we consider to be patently false claims (you can read the original email exchange here including Norland’s response to the TSC and the KT BoS, the general response to Norland’s claims, and the document fact-checking Norland’s specific claims). In these subsequent email communications, Norland was effectively speaking for the Township, with Ratliff serving only as a messenger. The result? KTA was allowed to completely ignore the stated wishes of the majority of the KT BoS to look into these options.

The decision to allow a private business to control multi-million dollar, publicly funded projects creates serious problems of public accountability and transparency. Without a contractual arrangement, for example, there is no way to hold a private business accountable for its actions. Without a contract, a private agency cannot be compelled to divulge any of its communications through Right to Know requests - for example, such requests could not compel KTA to release Greenway-related communications. And as a private business, there is no obligation to be transparent about its finances, its structure, and its interests, important questions which we will have to save for another post. In sum, Square Roots has all of the benefits of directing the project, without any of the responsibilities.

Perhaps the most significant risk of this kind of arrangement is, however, the potential for conflicts of interest. Do the interests of Square Roots diverge from those of Kennett Township? We believe that they do, and will begin to explore this in future posts. But you need look no further than the response to the escalating price tag. As the party responsible for paying for the bills, Kennett Township has an interest in controlling costs, even if this means reversing course and admitting that previous proposals for CMR were not realistic. Square Roots seems unlikely to have a comparable level of interest in cost control, but seems much more likely to have a much stronger interest in continuing to protect its brand by refusing to recognize that its “vision” for CMR or the Greenway were not realistic. So we believe that the costs to taxpayers will continue to increase as long as KTA remains in charge.

This conflict conflict of interest may also influence the guidance KT is getting from the design team. With KTA managing the CMR project, the trail design team is effectively reporting to Square Roots. Indeed, the design team never would have won their lucrative contract ($800K and counting in less than 12 months) had Square Roots not connected with and then promoted the team. Square Roots' recently proposed Red Clay Park promises to bring in even more money to the design team. Square Roots - not Kennett Township - has become the client of the design team, and so it seems reasonable to conclude that the design team may be more concerned about satisfying Square Roots than Kennett Township.

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