Discussion with the Candidates

Why are you running for office?

Ira Winston:

  • I believe I can make a positive contribution.
  • My skills complement the skills of the current Council members
  • My career at the University of Pennsylvania is winding down and I am looking for new challenges.
  • I care about Narberth and its people

Cyndi Rickards: I was raised with the understanding you lose your right to complain if you do not get involved. I have been civically active for as long as I can remember and it is an honor to serve at the will of my neighbors. I am able to devote the time required to serve on the council at this point in my life and hope to bring my experience and skill set to help support our community.

Fred Bush: I want to help guide Narberth on a path to a sustainable future. I came to Council motivated to improve the Borough’s infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists — and to fix the sidewalks. While those are still important motivations for me, I’ve also been really encouraged by the commitment of my fellow Council members to climate action, and I look forward to fulfilling the challenge of our climate action plan and transitioning to 100% clean energy.

Michelle Paninopoulos: First, I care an awful lot about this town and it has been an honor to be trusted to serve on Council. I have learned so much over the course of my first term on Council, and have important contributions to make in stewarding the progress of the Borough at this time of transition. I’d like to have the chance to apply the lessons I’ve learned and the deep knowledge that I’ve gained by serving a second term.

How did you come to choose Narberth as your home?

Cyndi Rickards: Tom and I always hoped to purchase a home in Narberth. One day while visiting the Little Gym with my then two-year-old, Ali, I noticed a flyer for the “Old Finn Home”. It was sitting on the market for a while which was unusual at the time. Iona is a busy road and the enclosed front porch was falling off. In fact, the porch was so unlevel I had to climb through the window because the door would not open. No matter - it was Narberth. Neighbors tell us Mrs. Finn haunted our house. She was the matriarch and reportedly loved kids. Sixteen years later we never looked back!

Fred Bush: I want to help guide Narberth on a path to a sustainable future. I came to Council motivated to improve the Borough’s infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists — and to fix the sidewalks. While those are still important motivations for me, I’ve also been really encouraged by the commitment of my fellow Council members to climate action, and I look forward to fulfilling the challenge of our climate action plan and transitioning to 100% clean energy.

Michelle Paninopoulos: While my husband and I were house hunting after returning to the area from Minneapolis, one day I found my way onto Haverford Avenue, and I immediately recognized the district from some years before, when I had once gotten lost and ended up in downtown Narberth. I immediately flashed back: “yes, I remember this!” It was a special, timeless, out-of-the-way place, exactly as I’d remembered it. From that point forward, I became a frequent visitor, we purchased a twin on Rockland Avenue, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ira Winston: The owner of our rental condominium in Center City was selling so we decided to move to the nearby suburbs given that we would be starting a family.  We moved in 1986 and our son Zach was born in 1989.  Narberth was recommended to us by our cousins who live in Penn Valley and we fell in love with it.  Our realtor owned the Narberth Theater so she knew the area very well.

What are some of the challenges of providing services in a small borough such as Narberth and what are your ideas for addressing them?

Fred Bush: We have a small staff and, no matter how many great ideas Borough Council has, there are only so many projects that can be done. I’m writing this, for instance, in early March, and for the past month the Borough staff’s time has been almost entirely consumed with keeping the Borough streets and sidewalks clear of snow. Other projects have had to wait.

Losing individual staff members can also make it very difficult for the Borough to carry out its normal business, let alone developing new priorities.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to deal with this issue, other than to be aware of the constraints of staff time, and to ensure that we get “reality checks” from the Borough Manager about our ideas.

Michelle Paninopoulos: My thinking on this question has evolved over the three years that I’ve served on Council. When I ran for office in 2018, I was more in thrall to the idea that leaner, smarter services grounded in technology could bridge the gap for a small community like Narberth. And I still believe that smart deployment of technology can be an equalizer in many circumstances. A great example is the introduction of GIS, which has reaped enormous benefits and saved real money in planning, and will continue to do so years into the future. However, I’ve come to see that this is not enough. I think the Borough’s elected officials need to find stronger mechanisms to engage in appropriate oversight of our delivery of services across the board. And I think that Borough government should expand and innovate in ways that unleash the genius and experience of our community members to work helping us figure out how to meet our community’s needs.

Ira Winston:

  • Stormwater management is a very critical issue.
  • Development – responsible development is essential for the future of Narberth.  There is a need for investment in the physical infrastructure, including privately held properties and buildings
  •  Parking – a fair allocation of parking spaces is important but needs to be assessed in a manner that is consistent with actual vehicle ownership trends in our area.
  • Zoning – responsible zoning consistent with a respect for the historical nature of many of our properties

Cyndi Rickards: Narberth is a progressive town with tremendous opportunities. One of our biggest challenges is balancing the needs, desires, and taxes of our neighbors. Through an aggressive grant strategy, I hope we are able to support projects in the built environment, green and open space, and economic development as we welcome a new manager who shares this vision. 

How will you preserve Narberth's character as it becomes an increasingly desirable place to live?

Michelle Paninopoulos: The most important aspect of Narberth’s character is our residents and their commitment to the community. Even though Narberth is changing, I have been gratified to see that our boards and commissions continue to blend long-term residents with newcomers, and that people are being drawn to live in Narberth for the right reasons. The love for this town that inspires participation shows no signs of abating. If we keep that, we are fundamentally not going to lose our character. That said, Narberth has become so desirable that there is an extraordinary economic pressure leading to very rapid development. Some of this development, particularly in our downtown, has been needed. Personally, I voted against allowing buildings on Haverford Avenue corners to go to four stories, and I advocated for an ordinance limiting the height of buildings on the south side of Haverford Avenue to two stories. So I mean it when I say that I appreciate the need to keep progress and development within a temporal and physical scope that the community can manage. To that end, I have become a vocal supporter of the work that the Planning Commission is doing to craft a historical preservation ordinance to protect against the demolition and erasure of existing historic resources.

Ira Winston:

  • What is its character?
    • Small town with a big heart
    • Lifetime residence
  • Mix of people
    • Various ages
    • Income levels
    • Welcoming new residents – diverse for the future
    • Single and married
  • Walkable feel
  • Small town with the businesses to allow you to rely on the central district
  • Types of businesses
    • Support walkability (supermarket)
    • Support community
    • Support artists
  • Establish historic preservation standards that allow properties to be rehabbed instead of torn down
  • Maintaining the character of the downtown area
  • Actively managing the downtown
  • Ensure we maintain our open spaces
  • Bike/walk lanes
  • Supporting working families with youth programming

Cyndi Rickards: Narberth’s character is in its people. Folks do not move here for the large yards or affordable housing rather, they move to Narberth over other Lower Merion homes for our community spirit. As housing prices sore in our town we see buyers actively sacrificing space for this community spirit. This community fabric is woven as we walk downtown, participate in events, and work together to make change.

Fred Bush: Narberth’s charm, its proximity to Philly, and the excellence of the Lower Merion School District are going to continue to make the Borough very attractive to newcomers. On Council we’ve all been saddened by recent teardowns and we’re looking into options to make those less attractive to developers. We also need to ensure that our roads are safe, through traffic calming and an eye to complete streets. The form-based zoning code is designed to ensure that new construction fits into the neighborhood; as new buildings appear, we need to examine them with a critical eye and determine whether the code is doing its job.

How can Narberth stay vibrant in an ever-changing retail landscape?

Ira Winston:

  • Focus on not having empty properties
  • Support groups that want to fill the empty spaces – for example, with a co-op – by providing business developing support to groups or individuals that are interested in creating businesses that Narberth prioritizes
  • Play a larger role in recruiting businesses to Narberth – showcase us, etc.

Cyndi Rickards: Retail radically changed prior to Covid-19 and I fear the next iteration. We can continue to support our small businesses by financially contributing to the NBA and their growth. Additionally, increased density means more shoppers, which our store owners tell us they desperately need. We can bring more shoppers into our town by being a destination spot via regional bike infrastructure. Moreover, we may work with new borough staff to leverage economic development grants that may support our downtown.

Fred Bush: The downtown shops are heavily reliant on foot traffic, so we need more people passing through our downtown commercial area. The new downtown developments are part of the equation: I’m a strong believer in smart growth, which in Narberth means development in the downtown and train station areas. We also need to ensure that the downtown remains safe and attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists, and to monitor the parking situation, especially during construction projects.

Michelle Paninopoulos: Narberth is lucky to offer an authentic, tucked-away commercial downtown with access to public transportation, surrounded by affluent communities. A trip to Narberth is more than just shopping for its own sake; Narberth is a destination and our businesses with unique goods and services offer more than mere convenience shopping. There are a variety of ways that Borough Council can appropriately support our business district, including providing resources for marketing, and looking at ways to fund the transformation of public areas such as Station Circle. One area that government can take a role in is improving access. For example, Council partnered with the Narberth Cycling Club to win grant funding for bicycle infrastructure including a “Fixit” bike station, new bottle filling fountain, and racks and hitches throughout the downtown and Narberth Park. This infrastructure, together with future plans for way-finding and bike-protected routes, strategically positions Narberth as a hub and destination for regional biking. This is a win-win-win: good for the environment, good for business, and bikes don’t take parking spaces. Another initiative is the work of the Parking Study Task Force, a community-based group that has dusted off the 2016 Parking Study to provide Borough Council with a set of community-based recommendations. Among those recommendations will be downtown parking improvements.

What unique skill do you bring to Council that you feel makes you a valuable member of the Council team?

Cyndi Rickards: I hope during my last term citizens have felt heard and supported by me. We may not always agree, however, I try to return every call, email and respond to all comments. I strive to connect people and resources to help our borough prosper. In the future, I hope to utilize my professional background to evaluate and assess our public health and safety philosophy and approach.

Fred Bush: I’m good at gathering information and weighing odds. When I prepared some recommendations for the police budget, I looked through the budgets of dozens of municipalities in PA to compare them to ours, then tracked down national and Pennsylvania information about pension investments, and distilled this down into a presentation for Council. I think my colleagues value my willingness to take deep dives into these topics and come back with actionable information.

Michelle Paninopoulos: I resist letting prior commitments or work product lapse and try to avoid allowing the window for action to pass us by. I have often found myself listening closely for consensus, summarizing discussions to identify issues still in need of resolution, and then challenging us to identify specific, actionable steps, right then and there at the table, with clear lines of authority and a rough timetable for action. Without formal structure, good ideas fall by the wayside because we are a busy group of volunteers. Holding ourselves to a clear structure of distributed responsibility can help us to do more and do it in a more transparent manner. It also forces us to reckon with the availability or lack of availability of resources early on, which can help us avoid over-promising.

Ira Winston:

  • A history of working collaboratively
  • Volunteer experience with a hunger-relief organization
  • Data Analysis, Construction Management, Information Technology
  • Have lived in the borough for 35 years
  • Persistence and resilience
Where do you see the Borough in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?

Fred Bush: In five years, we’ll be starting to get used to the new bridge and its artwork. Narberth’s bike lane network will be a key stretch of the Main Line Greenway, connecting Philadelphia to Villanova. Electric vehicles will take advantage of the Borough’s many chargers, both public and private. In ten years, kids will play soccer on expanded athletic fields. Grown-ups will stroll through a redesigned Station Circle. Narberth will be one of the first communities in Pennsylvania to transition to 100% clean energy.

In twenty years, we’ll see the trees our Shade Tree commission has been planting grow tall and keep our children and grandchildren cool as they skip along the sidewalks. As Narberth gears up for its 150th anniversary in 2045, residents will prepare for a colossal fireworks display.

Michelle Paninopoulos: Right now and for the next few years, I would like to see Narberth try harder to operate in a more transparent manner. The Comprehensive Plan should be annually revisited and updated in a public setting, and used expressly to guide our next projects. I’d like to see residents provided tools to access more civic and government information without having to request them specifically, enabling all to use that information to hold government accountable and become partners to generate ideas and solutions. In a five to ten year period, trends we already see emerging will lead to our streets transitioning away from the highly car-centric uses encouraged by 20th century development patterns. Over a much longer time frame, it is possible that some of our public spaces will become people-focused in ways that presently are difficult to imagine. In addition, some of the changes in commercial and work expectations that a year of COVID quarantine has brought are likely to be permanent, with potential benefits to small government and businesses that can take advantage of virtual tools to allow them to market and and interact in ways that depend less on costly physical infrastructure.

Ira Winston:

Cyndi Rickards: In five years, I hope we can point to complete streets where walkers, bikers, and cars enjoy our thriving businesses and open space. In ten years, I hope our streets are lined with shade trees, we have community space for our theater, seniors, and kids. In twenty years, I hope our kids return to a community of tradition which is financially solid, environmentally friendly, and welcoming to all.

How do you balance collegiality and independence among Council colleagues?

Michelle Paninopoulos: I genuinely believe that collegiality and independence are not at odds provided that we are respectful as well as honest, and that we start with an assumption of good faith. Disagreements which become personal or frequently devolve into accusations of improper motive or bias have no place in a functioning organization. Less frequently acknowledged, perhaps, performative unity that silences dissent and minority opinions leads to a loss of institutional integrity and, ultimately, to attrition. We should not countenance personal attacks or name-calling at the table, but if every vote is unanimous, we are probably doing something wrong as well.

Ira Winston:

  • Making decisions within the legal framework
    • Avoid spot zoning
  • Listening to everyone’s perspective
  • Not being dismissive of other people’s ideas
  • Trying to inform colleagues about data-driven approaches, using data to demonstrate a point rather than instincts – more objective cases
  • Supporting decision-making with data and analysis
  • Setting aside your personal opinion on a topic for the will of the community in cases where they are not aligned.  No hobby horses.

Cyndi Rickards: Our current council respects each member’s individual skills and opinions. This team works together to represent our neighbors and support our town. It is rare to see a group that can respectfully disagree and I believe we are better for healthy debates.

Fred Bush: This is a topic I’ve wrestled with — there’s lots of research showing that groups that think very similarly do not always reach the best decisions, and our Council has a lot of unanimous votes.

One way to allow more dissenting voices to be heard is to ensure that people feel safe in bringing up doubts and competing opinions. While this has not always been the case in the past, I think that now everyone on Council feels comfortable disagreeing at meetings, and knowing that they will be treated respectfully.

Another key element is to listen to outside critics. We are fortunate in Narberth to have active boards and commissions that weigh in on Council matters, as well as an engaged public who follow Council meetings and decisions — they need to be heard.

What is Narberth's greatest strength, and what is its greatest challenge?

Ira Winston:

  • Strength
    • People
    • Walkability
    • Location
  • Challenge
    • Balancing desire for increased services against the tax burden in a community with diverse income levels

Cyndi Rickards: Our greatest strength is our people and love of community. Our greatest challenge is our size and utilizing our resources to meet our potential.

Fred Bush:

I think Narberth’s greatest strength is its tight-knit character. I’ve never lived anywhere with quite so many community groups or events. Longtime Narbs might take the 4th of July Committee or the Civic Association for granted, but their efforts really bring the Borough together and create a wonderful sense of belonging.

I think the biggest challenge is going to be navigating change. Beloved local businesses have closed. The pace of new housing has gone up considerably, from about one unit a year to dozens. Housing prices have shot up. There will be a new bridge going up soon, and new buildings in the downtown. The pandemic has made everything more difficult. But even once it’s past, there will still be a lot of adjustments to be made.

Michelle Paninopoulos: I think our greatest strength is our fierce independence and small size, both of which foster a sense of community. In addition, we are able to respond rapidly to changes. For example the resolve of the Mayor and Council and speed with which Narberth was able to react to the threat of COVID-19 is reflected in our lower rates over the course of the pandemic. Our lighter weight administrative apparatus also enhances our ability to accomplish certain kinds of projects more easily than a larger bureaucracy could. Some examples include making our streets safer, zoning for both growth and preservation, partnering with community groups on “pop-up” projects for testing innovative ideas.

But it is equally true that our greatest challenge is our independence and small size. The Borough provides a very broad range of public services with a very small staff and a budget that has no room for error. We are not “right-sized” for efficiency, as we suffer from an inability to benefit from economies of scale or to command the full attention of top outside professional providers. This also makes attracting and retaining staff a challenge. We lack layers of organizational cushioning and it requires a unique blend of talent, experience and interpersonal skill to succeed and derive satisfaction from the challenges inherent in this environment.