Infighting Over Police in Rural Montgomery County Ripping Apart Once Tight-Knit Towns

EAST GREENVILLE -- How to police two tiny boroughs here in rural northwest Montgomery County has dominated public debate for months.

But recently, the civil discourse has devolved to the point that, at a town meeting last week, a former councilman told the mayor that "you would be stoned" if the mayor marched in a Halloween parade for local children.

Another contentious meeting is scheduled for Monday night, as the mayor will again try to defend dismantling the Upper Perkiomen Police Department. Its demise would end a longstanding partnership of towns whose history stretches back to William Penn.

East Greenville and Pennsburg have shared the police force known locally as Upper Perk for almost 40 years. A third adjacent borough, Red Hill, which is even smaller than its neighbors, left the partnership in the late 1990s to go with state police coverage. 

East Greenville Council voted in September to cut ties, though it left open the possibility for mediation.

Borough Mayor Ryan Sloyer, who has served in that role since 2001, describes rising costs for the police department, which employs a police chief and nine officers, as the main reason for ending the partnership.

Sloyer, who some residents have called on to resign over the months-long bickering about police, put forth a plan last month to create a borough police force that would consist of a chief, an officer and two or three part-time officers. It would also utilize state police coverage about 25 percent of the time. He said his plan will save the borough $800,000 over four years.

His opponents, including some of the community's business leaders, dispute his numbers and blame him as the biggest reason for the planned split of the Upper Perk force. During an acrimonious meeting Oct. 27, former borough Councilman Joseph Rock complained to the governing body that they were puppets of Sloyer. Then he said Sloyer had so alienated himself in the community that the mayor could not even march in the recent Halloween parade.

"At the Halloween parade, you stood on the sidewalk," Rock said from the podium. "You can't go in the Halloween parade in this borough because you would be stoned. You understand that? You would have that much fear that you can’t even go in the Halloween parade with kids from elementary school. It’s terrible."

Sloyer admitted in an interview with that, at times, his push for his own police force has felt like "political suicide." But the son of parents who themselves were longtime Republican leaders in the region said he plans to run again for mayor in 2017.

"I actually look forward to a campaign against Keith Gerhart," Sloyer said in an interview Thursday. Gerhart is a former Council member who has announced he will challenge Sloyer next year. Sloyer didn't have a challenger in his last two re-election bids. "We've done a lot for this borough and we'll continue to do a lot."

Meanwhile, in Pennsburg, the mayor there has been pushing a plan to not only save the police partnership with East Greenville, but expand it to four neighboring towns: Red Hill, Green Lane, Marlborough and Upper Hanover.

Mayor Vicki Lightcap said the joint department would bring into one organization all of the towns and boroughs that are in the regional school district. Her plan is considered a longshot.

The six municipalities encompass the Upper Perkiomen Valley. The Perkiomen Creek begins in the hills just west of the valley, which is also where the four counties of Berks, Bucks, Lehigh and Montgomery come together. The region's population is 20,336, according to 2015 Census estimates.

The creek eventually winds its way to a meeting point with the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge National Park.

The breadth of the valley can be seen from a vista along Kutztown Road near the offices of the local newspaper, Town and Country.

Since 1899, the paper has covered the ups and downs of Upper Perk. Its current owner and publisher, Larry Roeder, has roots in the valley dating back eight generations.

He called the current political climate "embarrassing" for an area that's always been "a tight-nit, small-town, loyal community."

Roeder is also a former longtime member of the Upper Perkiomen Police Commission, which oversees the department and is made up of representatives from East Greenville and Pennsburg.

He served on the commission in the 1980s and 1990s. That was a time when, he said, the towns could solve their problems by talking to each other.

He has lamented the current political climate in his weekly paper's editorials.

"At a recent meeting of the Upper Perk Police Commission, there were three attorneys sitting at the table: one for East Greenville, one for Pennsburg and one for the Police Commission," Roeder wrote in an Oct. 20 editorial. "There was a time, for many years, when there wasn't a need for even one attorney to attend the Police Commission meeting."

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