Mixed reviews for Barnard House Q&A

Fears of turning people away or requiring security to control an unruly crowd proved unfounded at Monday night’s Pocopson Township question-and-answer session on the Barnard House.

Attorney Thomas F. Oeste (from left) joins Pocopson Township Supervisors Ricki Stumpo, Barney Leonard, and Georgia Brutscher for Monday night's Q&A on the Barnard House.

Attorney Thomas F. Oeste (from left) joins Pocopson Township Supervisors Ricki Stumpo, Barney Leonard, and Georgia Brutscher for Monday night's Q&A on the Barnard House.

About 50 people attended the forum, which was designed to address conflicts that have surfaced during the past several months about the historic building, a former stop on the Underground Railroad that is being repurposed as the township municipal building and the home of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center.

However, a number of residents said the planned, two-hour presentation raised more questions than it answered. It also concluded nearly a half-hour earlier than expected.

The township supervisors agreed to hold the event at the Pocopson Home in response to a request from Elaine DiMonte, who is running unopposed for supervisor. DiMonte suggested that residents’ concerns, which include allegations of shoddy workmanship, ineffective oversight and spiraling costs, needed to be addressed before the project moved forward. Whether or not the historic building is well-suited to township administration has also been a source of contention.

A revised draft of the floor plan for the Barnard House was displayed at the meeting and is available for viewing at the township office.

A revised draft of the floor plan for the Barnard House, displayed at the meeting, is now available for viewing at the township office.

Thomas F. Oeste, an attorney hired to moderate the session, began by detailing the evening’s ground rules. He said that 163 questions had been submitted in advance by 12 residents and that after eliminating the duplicates, the answers were provided to him in writing, primarily by members of the Barnard House Steering Committee, which has been overseeing the renovations.

Oeste said 90 minutes would be allotted to reading the questions and answers aloud – with the supervisors’ taking turns – and the final half-hour would consist of follow-up comments and questions, with a two-minute limit per speaker. By reading quickly and allowing Oeste to handle the last section, the supervisors completed the first segment with five minutes to spare.

To access the questions and answers on the township’s website, click here.

During the follow-up session, eight attendees spoke. Three raised concerns about the project, particularly the need to assess residents’ support for it. Responding to an earlier comment that a referendum wasn’t feasible, DiMonte inquired about conducting a survey. Oeste asked the board if it wanted to respond.

“I don’t think we wish to respond to that now,” Supervisor Georgia Brutscher replied.

Resident Lisa Borel, who asked about how the township would ensure that its recycling center wasn't misused once it moved to space with public access outside the Barnard House, was promised an answer at a later time.

Five members of the audience, four of whom sit on the Barnard House Steering Committee, voiced support for the project.

Carol Haaf, a committee member, said, “The steering team is comprised of honest, thoughtful members, and it is a shame that they are being maligned instead of being treated with respect. Shame on us. It makes our township look bad.”

Representing the Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC), John A. O'Neal said KURC has been committed to the project for seven years. "We feel that such a unique opportunity cannot be lost," he said.

After the meeting, Supervisors’ Chairman Barney Leonard and Brutscher both said they thought the session went well, but about a dozen residents disputed that assessment.

“Unfortunately, many of the questions were not answered, and the validity of a number of the responses must be challenged,” said township resident Sean Rafferty.

As an example, Rafferty cited Leonard’s response to a question from resident Andrea Gosselin about any studies done on the township’s Denton Hollow Road facility that led the supervisors to rule out the possibility of expanding the current township building. Leonard said they would be provided. But Rafferty said he had already received a response to a Right-to-Know request on the subject that said the information did not exist.

Resident Randy Mims also took issue with some of the answers. He said he failed to understand how the Barnard House Steering Committee could have stated that the project incurred no cost overruns when a hardwood floor had to be redone because it was laid before the building had heat, causing it to buckle.

Sarah Mims, a longtime member of the township’s Historical Committee, said she disagreed with former Supervisor Steve Conary’s statement that only two choices existed: continuing the project at an additional cost of $650,000 or stopping it and paying back grants of $350,000.

Mims said she believes the building should be preserved, but she isn’t convinced that township administration represents the best use of it. She also said she was disappointed to learn that the Barnard House Steering Committee had only applied for five grants to defray costs; during roughly the same time period, she said the volunteers working on the Locust Grove Schoolhouse applied for more than 50.

Township records indicate about $730,000 has been spent so far on the project, and another approximately $75,000 is awaiting payment, bringing the total to more than $800,000.

DiMonte and Alice Balsama, who is also running unopposed for supervisor, echoed the frustrations.

“On the surface, some of the answers would appear logical; however, a majority of the answers were very misleading,” DiMonte said, adding that she remained disappointed that the supervisors continue to reject the idea of a survey. “Maybe the supervisors are just afraid of the outcome.”

Balsama said she was concerned that residents’ requests for financial disclosure on the Barnard House project had been misconstrued as personal attacks on the Barnard House Steering Committee. “I can recall no moment in time at any township meeting when anyone has made statements against any volunteer’s dedication to this project, and I find the repeated redirect from the business aspect to that personal strata nonproductive,” she said.

Both DiMonte and Balsama said the Barnard House conflict has strengthened their resolve to improve communication with residents, such as disclosing a project’s costs, both incurred and expected, on the township’s website.

The next township meeting is Monday, Sept. 28.



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