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Intelligencer, January 20, 2009

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Sierra Club dissolved


By Hilary Bentman, Intelligencer, January 20, 2009

After 25 years of working to protect the environment in Bucks, the club was deemed "dysfunctional," and dissolved by the state chapter.

Years of controversies over political endorsements, the influence of what some call outside agitators, and a problem with an internal election have resulted in the demise of the Bucks County Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club's Pennsylvania Chapter voted in November to dissolve the Bucks group, which had been in existence for 25 years, said state chairwoman Patti Fenstermacher.

Fenstermacher said the issues began in 2005, when "some individuals, instead of working together to deal with disagreements, were often disruptive at meetings, making it impossible to conduct orderly productive meetings."

Former Bucks Chairman Tom Szelagowski describes the situation as a group of outside people connected with political committees who essentially hijacked the endorsement process.

The Sierra Club is an environmental activist organization with 64 chapters in the United States and Canada. There are state chapters, and within each state are individual groups. There are more than 400 groups in total and 10 in Pennsylvania.

There were unsuccessful attempts to resolve the Bucks club's issues through both national and chapter mediation groups.

For the last few months, Bucks member Kathy McQuarrie and others have fought the dissolution of their organization by addressing the state chapter's executive committee and trying to appeal to the national organization.

Ultimately, their efforts proved unsuccessful.

McQuarrie argues that the people at the center of the club's problems have not been involved with the group for more than two years. She says the state's explanation for dissolution, therefore, is "not a very convincing argument."

Further problems developed in 2007, when, during an election to choose the club's new leadership, an investigation into a "suspected flawed election process" was initiated, said Fenstermacher.

The state chapter collected the sealed ballots at its Harrisburg headquarters. An appeals process was initiated, but the Bucks group was dissolved and the sealed ballots destroyed before the appeals process was concluded, she said.

But Fenstermacher said "the election situation, while occurring parallel to the dissolution, was not a very significant issue in that process. The decision to dissolve the group was not taken lightly by the chapter or national, but ongoing insolvable serious issues made this a last resort."

Dissolutions of Sierra Club groups are rare but not unheard of, said David Willett, spokesman for the national organization.

The Bucks County Sierra Club had approximately 2,000 members. Over the years, the group held environmental workshops and forums on a host of topics, from flooding to global warming, and what can be done locally to address it. The group had also sponsored a clean energy festival and was working on creating an environmental center in Wrightstown.

One of its members was responsible for uncovering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's mistake over the Watson-Johnson landfill site near Quakertown. EPA officials initially ruled no work necessary at the site after investigating what turned out to be the wrong property. The error was discovered and the site was added to the Superfund program.

But the organization is perhaps best known for backing candidates they believe will have the most positive impact on the environment. The local group made recommendations to the state chapter, which officially endorsed the candidate.

Here the group got into some hot water.

In 2006, the group recommended Republican Marguerite Quinn over Democrat Larry Glick for state representative of the 143rd District. But some members claimed they didn't know Quinn spent seven years selling homes for Toll Brothers, a development firm that has crossed swords with the environmental group.

McQuarrie said Quinn was chosen based on one person's recommendation, when typically several members are involved.

"It was a turning point in the organization," said McQuarrie. "It wasn't just the choice, it was the process."

The issue even led one executive committee member to resign in part because of her objections to the endorsement process.

In response, the club tried to be more open and transparent by creating a political committee, including two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent, to vet the candidates. By the Bucks commissioner race in 2007, candidates participated in a Sierra Club public forum and interviews, and answered questionnaires.

Politics aside, McQuarrie said it's a shame to see the county lose a group dedicated to protecting the environment.

"This county is very strong on environmental issues," she said. "This is something that we believe in."
Plumstead Township, PA