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October 15, 2018

After backlash, Bridgeport Council won't pursue police merger with Upper Merion

Borough mayor credits pressure stemming from PhillyVoice report for prompting officials to do 'the right thing'

Controversies Police
Carroll - Bridgeport borough Montgomery County Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Mayor Mark Barbee, seen standing in the neighborhood "below the tracks" in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, has faced death threats and racial attacks in the 10 months since he was elected. They continued with a 'vague' threat tied to the October 23, 2018 meeting.

Bridgeport, a tiny Montgomery County borough located along the Schuylkill River between King of Prussia and Norristown, will keep its police department.

That news, which emerged from last Tuesday’s Borough Council meeting, was welcomed by elected officials and residents who packed previous meetings in a vocal show of support for the town's 12-officer force.

The issue was also a flashpoint in a nasty controversy pitting some council members – two of whom have resigned in recent months – against Mayor Mark Barbee.

He saw the potential move to consolidate the force into Upper Merion Township’s department as a way to take power away from his office via a proposed Home Rule Charter change.

Despite those suspicions, which turned recent council meetings into aggressive showdowns between the fractured camps, the borough solicitor and others said it all came down to dollars and cents.

Specifically, the merger  something that had been proposed at various times over the years – was all about saving money for taxpayers. 

When Upper Merion emailed a seven-page “Police Services Agreement” to borough solicitor Salvatore F. Bello in early October, it quickly became evident that there would be no savings. And just like that, the heated issue found resolution.

“To this day, I’ve only scanned it because I was told if there was no indication of significant savings, we would not be moving forward with it,” he said. “It was a matter of not wasting any time if there wasn’t going to be savings.

“The definitive costs alone were significantly more. When this began, people were curious to see if there would be savings. When there were no savings, there was nothing left to do from my perspective.”

Borough Councilman Kyle Shenk agreed with Bello’s assessment, saying the proposed agreement had savings ranging anywhere from “roughly net zero to potentially (costing) a little more.”

Both also agreed that the process brought more residents to council meetings than at any time in recent memory, and to hear so many locals championing their beloved department’s knack for connecting with residents was absolutely a positive, and something Shenk hopes continues.

“I think they felt pressure from the events in the article and from the public. They felt that and did the right thing.” – Mark Barbee

Barbee concurred with that sentiment, but maintained on Monday that he remained suspicious about the initial push to examine potential regionalization.

“I commend (council) but at the same time, it was very evident that pieces of this process were moving along when it was unbeknownst to me,” he said. “It still remains unexplained why council was so adamant about me not being a part of those communications (between the borough and township early on in the process).

“I don’t believe this was handled in a transparent way. I can only hope if (the merger idea) comes up again in the future, council will do the right thing and notify the public and myself or whoever’s mayor at that time.”

Barbee said he believed that a recent PhillyVoice article chronicling the ugliness that saw him fielding death threats and attacks based on his race and sexuality – he’s Bridgeport’s first-ever gay, African-American mayor – forced the consolidation force’s hands.

“It absolutely played into it. I think that’s evident in the discussions at meetings since then, and how  council directed the solicitor to work on a hate speech resolution before it was even on the agenda,” he said. “That (resolution) came right before (council president) John Pizza’s public statement about the article. It absolutely played a role in their decision.”

Pizza did not respond to an email request for a comment on Monday morning.

“I think they felt pressure from the events (in the article) and from the public,” Barbee said of a council that saw two members who pushed for a potential merger resign from the board in recent months. “They felt that and did the right thing.”

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