September 24, 2018
When 29-year-old Mark Barbee was elected to serve as mayor of Bridgeport, Montgomery County last November, it was a historic moment for a municipality that’s seen better days a rock-skip across the Schuylkill River from Norristown.
Barbee – the former councilman who drew 454 of the 864 votes cast – would be the first openly gay, African-American mayor of this tiny blue-collar borough. But less than a year later, the only history being made is far from good.
In the nine months since his swearing-in, Barbee has been the focus of death threats, profane tirades at public meetings and a slew of racially charged comments – both veiled and otherwise. It’s gotten so bad that friends say they worry whether he's safe to walk home alone from Borough Hall at night.
Much of the discord stems from controversy within the borough's 12-officer police department.
After just two months on the job, Bridgeport Police Chief Mark Shannon quit. He claimed, in a statement, that Barbee attempted to impose a “political agenda” upon him after announcing more aggressive patrols near the section of town where Barbee lives, which is considered “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Council meetings have devolved into screaming matches with residents telling their elected officials to grow up and, in at least one instance, on-duty police officers applauding the mayor’s critics. (According to Pennsylvania Borough Code, the mayor "shall have full charge and control of the chief of police and the police force.")
One councilman – who resigned and then rescinded his resignation before the legislative body could accept it – stormed out of a meeting after allegedly asking Barbee why he'd cite a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote about equality since "he's been dead for a long time."
At another meeting, that councilman screamed "F*** you, you're an a**hole” at Barbee several times on his way out of council chambers. He hasn’t returned for the past three council meetings, much to the dismay of his constituents.
Ratcheting up the discord even further, several councilmembers have entertained the notion of changing to Home Rule Charter to eliminate the borough police department and turn over responsibility for public safety to officers in Upper Merion Township, which surrounds the borough on three sides.
Dozens of the borough’s fewer than 5,000 residents who packed the traditionally emptier council chambers for the past several meetings said they’re angry, embarrassed, concerned and worried about what they’ve seen unfold from those elected to represent them.
Just a few days after yet-another heated council meeting in mid-September, Mark Barbee took a seat in a booth at a cozy little diner in Willow Grove.
He was quick to smile broadly, laugh loudly and answer uncomfortable questions. If the idea of people in positions of power working to undermine his authority has gotten to him, he does a pretty good job of hiding it. In fact, he was able to laugh it off to a certain extent, thanks to the absurd behavior he's witnessed in the past several months.
Over lunch, he shared details of his path to the mayor’s office and the resulting chaos.
Originally from Rapid City, South Dakota, he came to Montgomery County when his mother, who was raised in Norristown, retired here years ago. When he left the family house in Plymouth Meeting in 2010, he moved to Bridgeport.
“The community, hometown feel reminded me of South Dakota. I live for that. I love it,” said Barbee, who successfully ran for a seat on the seven-member borough council in 2013. “I think Bridgeport is going to be great. Sure, we’ve ran into some speed bumps, but I believe in what we can, and will, be.”
“Police officers clapping and cheering as I’m being ridiculed? If this was Philly, it would be national news." – Bridgeport Mayor Mark Barbee
Not unlike many Philadelphia neighborhoods or suburban towns seeking to revitalize, shifting demographics have meant finding a way to mesh younger newcomers with old-timers who may not be as keen on – or resist outright – efforts to change. The challenge is balancing those efforts while maintaining an old-town feel.
“We want to make changes as we go along while acknowledging the existing culture,” said Barbee, who set out to attract new businesses to town such as the brewpubs, restaurants and veterinary hospital that arrived in recent years and the rock-climbing gym under construction. “That resonated. Businesses are coming in. We are starting to do well.”
In March, a local newspaper ran a lengthy feature about Barbee and his hopes of revitalizing an “old mill town” into a destination for eating, drinking, strolling and raising a family. It was a puff piece, but one that didn’t sit well with some folks in Bridgeport.
Barbee recounted a conversation with Council President Bill Lawless Sr. – the town official who stormed out of a later meeting and rescinded his resignation – as an example.
"What’s with you putting gay and black in that article? Are you saying I can’t be on council because I’m white?" Lawless asked, according to the mayor.
"And he wasn’t the only one,” Barbee recalled. “Say a word about race and some people immediately get defensive. That’s when I watched (the pushback) start.”
Things would devolve further within weeks when, a few months into his mayoral tenure, Barbee proposed the formation of a human relations commission in the borough. He was hoping to implement an “anti-discrimination policy” in town, much like other municipalities.
The ordinance was designed to prohibit “discrimination in housing, commercial property, employment and public accommodations based upon actual or perceived race, color, sex, religion, ancestry, genetic information, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status, marital status, age, mental or physical disability, veteran status or the use of guide or support animals and/or mechanical aids.”
When a motion to draft the ordinance was offered at the April 10 council meeting, three members voted against it: Council Vice President Randy Bennett as well as Bill Lawless Sr., and his son, William Lawless Jr.
(At the same meeting, the newly sworn-in police chief announced the plan to institute aggressive patrols in borough hotspots, including the area “below-the-tracks,” from Front to Fourth streets between DeKalb Pike and Mill Road, a section of town near where Barbee rents his home.)
A trio of residents then spoke up to say they “did not feel Borough needs this ordinance and … the Borough did not discriminate,” according to the meeting’s minutes.
Among the legalese in the 12-page ordinance was this section:
“The Borough prides itself on the diversity of its citizens and residents, and the harmonious relations which have been fostered in the Borough by a widely practiced and recognized attitude of respect among all citizens.”
Two weeks later, the ordinance was approved by 4-3 vote, but passage wasn’t the intended victory for Barbee, who was named by Gov. Tom Wolf in August to the commonwealth’s first statewide LGBTQ Affairs Commission.
“There are people in the (borough) administration who I don’t believe share that vision, particularly as it pertains to inclusion,” Barbee said. “I certainly can’t say I’ve been treated like that.”
He brought up several slights, ranging from the former mayor's name continuing to appear on the borough’s quarterly newsletter after his election – he thinks it was intentional since the new council members' names were listed – to offensive and threatening social-media posts, and comments about the way he talks.
“I’m big on being myself,” he said. “On Facebook, I’ve been getting a lot of complaints about the ‘jive talk.’ President Pizza himself said, ‘You even talk different. You think you’re better than us.’”
“People are allowed to be racist. Where I struggle with it is when it’s elected officials making those sorts of comments.” – Mark Barbee
Barbee said that’s not the case, but defended their right to express ignorant thoughts.
“People are allowed to be racist," he said. "Where I struggle with it is when it’s elected officials making those sorts of comments.”
At an April meeting, Barbee said the elder Lawless asked why he didn’t bring up issues about equality while he was on council.
After the mayor cited the MLK quote – “The time is always right to do what is right” – the councilman snapped, saying the civil rights leader has been dead for a long time so why bother citing his quotes, according to Barbee.
Councilman Randy Bennett wondered aloud if the council would be passing legislation next to “protect people wearing green sunglasses.”
Barbee said those details were initially left out of the meeting's minutes but they would be amended after he asked at a May 22 meeting that Lawless's refusal to apologize for the King comment be added to the record.
That meeting would prove to be a turning point in Barbee’s brief tenure as mayor as Shannon publicly announced in a prepared statement that he would resign effective August 31, alleging that Barbee was overstepping his bounds:
“When I was appointed chief, I believed the mayor was going to delegate the authority to direct the police department. It became clear to me that the mayor felt compelled to override some personnel changes I was making based on what he perceived, and still perceives, as being based on a political agenda or others.
“This lack of trust does not bode well for the department. I did not sign up for the political struggle that continues here. I accepted the position to help fix a situation that has been bad for years.
"Now that I know this is not what is planned by all, I am stepping back so the borough can figure out how it will move forward.”
The resignation, of a chief said to be handpicked by Lawless Sr., was just another spin of the revolving door at the helm of a Bridgeport force composed of eight full-time and four part-time officers.
The department, which responded to 4,264 calls for service last year, down from a recent high of 6,939 in 2012, has seen six different leaders in the past eight years, and that's worrisome to residents who connect with their officers in a tight-knit way.
Barbee unsuccessfully tried to set up a meeting to broker peace after the announcement, publicly stating that he didn’t want Shannon to resign. Still, he stands by his questions about the chief’s stepped-up patrol plan that sparked the discord between the two.
“When he said there would be aggressive patrols in the ‘most-troublesome areas,’ I asked about data and he didn’t have any to support it. I felt like that was racial profiling, because that area is largely minority,” Barbee said.
Bridgeport police Officer Shannon Sell said that there is some validity to Barbee's concerns. A departmental outcast who has been "harassed and retaliated against" – she reached settlement with the borough on a harassment complaint in 2014 – Sell mentioned a conversation she had with Lawless not too long ago when asked about the proposed targeted enforcement.
"What he said to me near his house was that 'there are Mexicans in a white van up there. You need to find a reason to get them out of there,'" she said this week. "Then, the chief sent out a memo about targeted patrols. You're pretty much saying 'Bill Lawless, the person who handpicked Shannon specifically, doesn't want Hispanics here.'
"In my opinion, the borough is so small that there is no need for targeted enforcement."
For his part, Barbee did not want his name attached to supporting such a move.
“The mayor runs the police department so I’d bear responsibility for that,” he continued. “It’s the whole ‘below the train tracks’ narrative. It’s real. People will look down on you if you live there. I’ve experienced it since I live on that side of town. Even if I didn’t, it’s not unreasonable to request data. I just couldn’t accept that.”
“For the police to refuse to cite that sort of behavior and take on the threats, the question is who can they be depended on to protect if they’re not even going to protect the mayor?” – Mark Barbee
Neither could some residents, but for different reasons. Some likened Barbee’s questions to accusing the chief of being racist. Among the public messages posted on Facebook in the wake of that meeting (all quoted verbatim):
• “Before you know it this mayor will be filing a complaint with Wawa because some lighter color donuts are above the chocolate ones in the bakery case.”
• “Last night I seen what Black Emoji icons would look like watching the faces made by ‘Not My mayor.”
•“Is he hi? He’s squinting like a Chinese welder.” (Commenting on a Photoshopped picture of Barbee with a police badge on his dress shirt near the words “Detective Racist.”
• “The so-called mayor is a joke. Black, gay, and don’t even own property in town. Jerry Nicola probably turned over in his grave when he won.”
• “As a good ol’ boy from the port, I would say the best thing he could do is resign and don’t look back and move his ass out of town before the linch squad comes to town.”
John Pizza, the council president who has a cousin on the police force, also weighed in on Facebook, verbatim:
“This is what happens when someone that has no knowlage over steps his boundries and causes problems that should not have occurred and I mean the mayor. He needs to go all he is doing is making us go backward I would like to see a recall vote on him we hired the best of the best and his interfering with the department led to this.”
At that meeting, Barbee called Pizza out for his comments. He deemed the diatribe “a comedy of grammatical errors to say the least.”
The council president took offense. Moments after presenting a scholarship award to a graduating senior, Pizza responded to Barbee, “You want to talk about grammar? I ain’t got no education. I’m from Bridgeport.”
“It’s unacceptable and doesn’t help move the town forward at all. I’m glad that people are paying attention to it." – Kyle Shenk, Bridgeport councilman
Many of the personal threats were deleted but Barbee admitted “we got receipts” – in the form of screenshots.
To Kyle Shenk – a first-term councilman who ran alongside Barbee and whose platform included fair, equitable policing – the reactions were beyond the pale.
“It’s unacceptable and doesn’t help move the town forward at all. Personally, for the mayor, it’s really hurtful,” Shenk said. “He knew he’d get some attention, but what’s happened is unacceptable for the town and for my friend. I’m glad that people are paying attention to it.”
Barbee said he felt like the chief's resignation was a set-up.
Though the resignation was said to be secret until that night, council chambers were as packed as he’d ever seen them, with the crowd heavily tilted against Barbee.
When the elder Lawless called him an “a**hole,” loud applause came from many in the audience, including seven officers in uniform, only one of whom was off duty at the time, according to the mayor.
“Police officers clapping and cheering as I’m being ridiculed? If this was Philly, it would be national news,” he said, noting that a video recording of the session conveniently didn’t show the areas where the officers were standing.
To Sell, the police officer, that was part and parcel of a situation in which council members have demanded resignations from her and Barbee.
"They're not quiet or shy about it," she said. "They've said 'we don't need you or your kind' here."
Lawless’ harsh words, delivered directly to Barbee’s face, prompted the mayor to reach out to a police department that didn’t seem to like him all that much in the first place.
“Bill Lawless should’ve been cited for disorderly conduct. Chief Shannon disagreed and forwarded my request and his refusal email to Lawless,” Barbee said. “After that, things radically changed....That’s when the death threats and overtly racist comments about me started. The plan was to run me out of town.
“For the police to refuse to cite that sort of behavior and take on the threats, the question is who can they be depended on to protect if they’re not even going to protect the mayor?”
Barbee said two death threats arrived via Facebook, including the “linch mob” message sent by a resident named Brent N. Jones. (Jones didn’t respond to a Facebook message seeking comment.)
Both the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission learned of the threats from residents. The status of those investigations – and an earlier State Police inquiry – is unknown.
Renee Martin of the PHRC said she “can’t confirm or deny any investigation around possible death threats made against the mayor of Bridgeport.”
Kate Delano, spokeswoman for the district's attorney's office, noted that “we cannot comment on any active investigation, or even the existence of an investigation, unless and until it results in criminal charges being filed.”
When word got out about the investigations, though, the threats stopped and the meetings calmed down, at least for a while. Barbee said the campaign to oust him from office didn’t relent, though.
That would be the first step in a potential process to disband the borough's police department and have officers from Upper Merion Township take over patrol duties. (Shenk said those officers drive through the borough regularly as it is.)
It also would strip the mayor of police department oversight, and Barbee wondered if his position would even be safe.
That motion passed 4-3 with Pizza, Bennett and both Lawlesses voting in favor. Soon thereafter, the younger Lawless resigned his post and the elder would stop attending meetings.
Months passed with no updates regarding the proposed home rule change, but Barbee would discover that locks were changed and computers were moved from offices that he no longer shared access.
To Barbee, this all comes back to him questioning the need for aggressive patrols. If provided proof they were necessary, he said he would’ve signed off on the push. Instead, it fueled Bridgeport’s ugly political war.
“Given the pattern of events, it’s difficult for me to accept that this doesn’t have anything to do with me being the mayor,” Barbee said. “The fate of the mayor’s office has not been discussed, is what I’ve been told. Like I’m gonna believe that. I want to work to make Bridgeport better and will do that until my last day if it should come.”
For his part, Shenk said the potential police merger was not a way for critics to take a shot at the mayor. It’s about being “as fiscally responsible as possible” regarding a line item (the police department) that eats up a major chunk of the borough’s budget, he said.
If things quieted down over the summer, they picked right back up with angst aplenty at the council’s meeting on September 11, just one day after Barbee posted a lengthy memorandum about the police chief issue.
With Lawless still serving in absentia, it was Bennett's time to scream before a standing-room-only audience.
After Pizza got into a verbal spat with an Upper Merion Boat Club representative who came seeking parking relief for an upcoming regatta, Barbee swore Megan Nolan onto the borough council to fill the spot left vacant by the younger Lawless. (Said Bennett from his council seat to Nolan, “I can’t imagine why on earth you’d want to do this to yourself.”)
Before long, Barbee again broached the home rule proposal, asking “What is it that makes this necessary, and the best course of action?”
Pizza responded that it’s merely being explored as a way to prevent future tax hikes.
“Before we do anything, we’ll come before you,” he said to the residents in attendance, some of whom remain unconvinced that actions are being taken behind closed doors. “You can have a voice in this, but as of right now, nothing is set in stone about it. Nothing will be hidden from anybody. We made no agreements with anybody.”
Barbee said he “adamantly" opposes the move as it could mean 12 police officers who’ve established close relationships with the community could find themselves out of work.
“I would like a seat at that table,” Barbee said, referring to a committee that his foes adamantly claim has not yet been formed. They say there's only been one meeting with Upper Merion officials.
That's when Bennett started yelling at Barbee, claiming that he “destroyed” the former chief’s life.
“Leave Mark Shannon alone!” screamed Bennett, who said the former chief had been slighted on social media in previous days. “Let Mark Shannon go live his life. You got your way. He escaped this insanity.”
Residents were taken aback. To them, it all but confirmed the stigma that leaves people in Upper Merion looking down on Bridgeport residents as “scum,” went the thinking of one resident who stood up to be heard.
“Y’all get offended when he says something you don’t like,” said resident Brianna Austin of Barbee. “He speaks for us and I thank the mayor for being willing to do that. We are all worried about new police coming in because of how much our community means to us.”
“The mayor is black and gay, and they all have a problem with it. Everything this man has proposed has been shot down. Let the man do his job.” – Resident Kara Kern
Another resident, Linda Chandler, said her 7-year-old daughter told her before the meeting, "Mommy, don’t let them take away Officer Sherman.”
“I really don’t care about money," resident Carmella Salmons told council. "You’re going to tax us no matter what. If we have to pay more to keep the police department, we pay more to keep the police department.”
Then, she threw in a dig at Bennett: “When you’re up there, act like you should be up there.”
Just before the meeting adjourned, longtime resident Gina Plisievwicz addressed Pizza directly.
“Jack, do you remember the last time we tried to do this? What happened?” she asked.
“A public outcry,” came the response.
“I fought for the Bridgeport Police Department then, and I will do the same thing now,” she said.
Though Pizza wrote in an email last week that he'd make himself available for an interview, he did not respond to several follow-up emails.
Lawless Sr. and Bennett had agreed to discuss the state of affairs with PhillyVoice over breakfast last Wednesday – news of the planned interview made its way around the borough grapevine within hours – but those plans fell through. Neither responded to follow-up calls and emails seeking comment.
Everyone in Bridgeport expects the meetings – the next one is Tuesday night – to remain packed for the foreseeable future, primarily because of the police-consolidation controversy.
Asked whether he has any regrets about taking his new job, Barbee said, “No, not yet.”
He conceded that coordinated opposition has left him on the brink of tears. Getting locked out of the police department – the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back – has only inspired him to redouble his efforts on behalf of his constituents. But he remains worried about his safety.
“With the death threats, I certainly took them seriously,” he said. “When I was walking home two, three blocks, my friend Cassandra pulled up, saying, ‘What are you doing out here by yourself? Mark, they got guns.’"
Then, another friend who was out walking with her kids when she saw Barbee walking asked a question fueled by the death threats: "You know they’re talking about killing you, right?”
Resident Kara Kern, who attended the September 11 meeting, told council members that they’d better shape up or she’ll work to get them voted out of office.
Residents deserve to know what’s going on with the proposed police merger, especially since she, as a lifelong resident, has been on the receiving end of look-down-the-nose dismissal from Upper Merion residents, she said.
“It’s a circus down there,” she said of council meetings. “They’re pointing fingers at the mayor about the chief resigning but he was never given any answers to the questions he asked.”
Why has Barbee faced so much vitriol?
“The mayor is black and gay, and they all have a problem with it,” Kern said. “Everything this man has proposed has been shot down. Let the man do his job.”
And that’s exactly what Barbee said he hopes to do.
“There needs to be some changes, and I’m inclined to make those changes if given the opportunity,” he said. “I’m not going to let a board of seven people overrule the majority of the electorate.”