Notebook Worthy (U.S. Route 422 Forum Edition)

Audience members wait patiently for the start of Tuesday's forum on U.S. Route 422 tolling

ROYERSFORD PA – It’s been three days since hundreds of local residents packed into Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford for Tuesday’s (Sept. 13, 2011) highly hyped forum about proposed tolling on U.S. Route 422 between King of Prussia and the Berks County line. There have been thousands of words written about it, and an almost endless stream of images and video footage. For those who missed them, see the resource list at bottom.

For those who want a different perspective, here are jottings from a reporter’s notebook:

Those question cards just didn’t cut it

Aides to the several state representatives who sponsored the forum positioned themselves in the aisles of the school auditorium as the crowd streamed in. They were ready to hand out cards on which audience members could write their questions for panelists, which would then be read aloud by host Rep. Mike Vereb.

What the aides weren’t ready for was audience anger.

It quickly became clear to them that people had arrived at the high school intending to speak, to make their voices heard, to earn some personal peace by saying their piece. Some would have talked off the cuff. Some came with prepared statements; at least one was several pages long.

A few confronted the aides directly as the cards were distributed. “I don’t want this,” one man said to a female assistant, who held out a card and smiled as graciously as possible. “I want the sign-up sheet. I’ve got something to say. When do I get the chance?,” he growled. “This is supposed to be a public meeting. The public gets to talk at a public meeting.”

He wasn’t alone in the sentiment. If the pols in attendance learned anything new Tuesday, it may have been that they need to hold a second forum – somewhere down the road, as plans with 422 unfold – at which voters, drivers, riders, business owners and other citizens of all stripes can air their praise for or contempt of tolling, even if the purpose it serves is only cathartic.

The panelists had their say. The people seemingly still want theirs.

Seymour and Hoeffel: Daniels in the lions’ den

Their opinions were unpopular, and they knew it. They would be two against the multitude, and they knew that too. There they were anyway: Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, to explain and advocate for collecting tolls on 422 as a means to pay for its improvement.

Neither is a stranger to controversial topics – they’ve separately faced plenty of disgruntled folks before in different venues – and they appeared comfortable in the role again. One audience member, a woman waiting for the proceedings to start, was overheard using the word “stoic” to describe Seymour. Hoeffel was derided for being too chatty; his answers to questions occasionally ran longer than the crowd had patience for, and it jeered and grumbled.

At the panelists' table, before the show began: from left, Seymour, Huskey, Kampf, Toepel

Curiously, Seymour and Hoeffel were seated at the LEFT of the on-stage table facing the audience; three of the area’s four state representatives – Tom Quigley, Marcy Toepel, and Warren Kampf – were seated at its RIGHT; and newspaper editor Stan Huskey of The (Norristown PA) Times-Herald was seated at CENTER. No one involved in the forum seemed able to answer whether that positioning was planned, or simply chance.

Not all the scenes took place on stage

It’s been said politics is a blood sport without the mess of blood. Whether that’s true or not is for others to decide. Political forums like the one held Tuesday do indeed have their moments of conquest and vanquish, of drama and theatrics, of earnestness and hard work.

Which is which?

Clockwise, from left: Campion; Neafcy and Castor, and the Rev. Okon

Scene One: County Commissioner Bruce Castor, an outspoken tolling opponent and Hoeffel detractor who is running for re-election, arrived at the forum and stopped to say hello to Limerick (PA) Township Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Tom Neafcy. “I just came to see what would happen,” Castor said.

Scene Two: Gilbertsville resident Sue Campion operates a courier business that makes daily runs to locations all across the 422 Corridor. Tolling would increase her costs. She arrived at the forum with a hand-crafted sign that made her an instant celebrity. Every television cameraman in the place at one time or another trained an unblinking eye on its demand: “No new taxes on my ability to conduct business.”

Scene Three: Once the forum began the Rev. Alan Okon Jr., president of the high school, looked his usual priestly self: black slacks, black shirt and white cleric’s collar, black sport coat. He offered a warm welcome from the podium to audience members, many of whom likely were visiting his facility for the first time.

During the hour before, however, he was dressed in shirt sleeves and touching all the bases. He checked with the sound crew, the video crew, the lighting crew to ensure their needs were met. He shook hands with every state rep as they appeared, as well as House Deputy Press Secretary Tricia Graham, and asked if he could be of help. And he smiled easily, even though he also had to simultaneously prepare for the unexpected closing of his school the following day, due to a teachers’ strike.

You might have sworn he had Help From On High to remain stress-free.

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