20 Aug 2014
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Councilwoman's Residency Questioned in Doylestown

Marlene Pray has moved out of the political ward she was elected to represent.

Councilwoman's Residency Questioned in Doylestown

Define temporary.

That is at the heart of a debate over the home address of one member of Doylestown Borough Council.

Marlene Pray has moved out of Ward 1, which she was elected to represent. She says the move is temporary, the result of personal issues.

"I’ve moved into Ward 3, but I remain an elected council person for Ward 1," Pray announced at a council meeting in December 2012. "It is my intention to move back into Ward 1." 

But that is not enough to satisfy one vocal critic of Doylestown Borough Council.

Richard Schoenkopf, who lives on East State Street, has demanded that Pray step down.

"Ms. Pray, out of consideration for first ward residents, should resign," Schoenkopf, 83, said at a recent borough council meeting.

"Her house didn’t burn down, did it?" Schoenkopf demanded.

"No, my family did," Pray responded from the dais.

Schoenkopf, who has previously called for all nine members of council to resign en masse, threatened unspecified legal action over Pray's move.

"Have you signed a lease in your neighborhood?" Schoenkopf asked Pray. "If I have to file a lawsuit, I’ll file a lawsuit."

Mayor Libby White told Schoenkopf that Pray's move was not made by choice.

"That is a hardship," White said, "and it may be a heartbreak, as well."

Though Doylestown Borough encompasses only about 2 square miles, it is divided into three political subdivisions. Each ward elects three members to borough council.

Pray won election in November 2011, representing Ward 1, which included her home on Forest Drive. But personal issues forced her to leave the home recently.

Pray said Monday that she initially looked for a rental in Ward 1 but couldn't find anything she could afford. After being assured that temporarily moving out of her ward would not pose a problem, she moved with her young son to a rental home she owns near the SEPTA station. It is in Ward 3, one-third of a mile from the boundary with Ward 1.

"My family fell apart, I went through a separation, and I am living where I can afford to live right now, as a single mother," Pray told Patch.

While candidates for borough council must must have lived in their ward for at least a year before filing nominating petitions, once elected, the guidelines are vague, says the borough's solicitor.

"Not surprisingly, the general assembly’s language was not clear," said borough solicitor David Conn, when Schoepkopf asked about the legal ramifications of Pray's move. "Temporary relocation does not have any impact."

Doylestown has faced similar issues before.

"Twice in my tenure here we had council people who had the same circumstances and had to temporarily leave their homes," borough manager John Davis said Monday. "The legal advice from our solicitor then, Mr. (Chuck) McIlhinney Sr., was the same as our solicitor's advice now - that it was possible to temporarily relocate without jeapordizing your office."

In fact, another council member faced the same situation and received the same advice in 2010.

"I was going through a divorce and I wasn’t sure I’d be continuing to live in the ward," said Don Berk. "At the time, our solicitor said to me that so long as my intention is to return to the ward, I could continue to represent it, which made a lot of sense to me. Doylestown is only two square miles."

But because Conn and Pray are in a relationship, borough leaders took Conn's advice and started seeking out a second opinion on the matter.

Council president Det Ansinn said Monday he has taken the issue to the Bucks County District Attorney and the state's borough association, with little result.

"I went to the DA for an opinion. The DA has opted not to weigh in," Ansinn told Patch. "Our borough manager asked the Association of Boroughs for an opinion. Their opinion came back completely ambiguous."

As for borough council itself, Ansinn said the governing body has no authority over the service of another member.

"This may be an issue for Marlene and her constituents, but as far as council goes, there’s nothing actionable for us here," Ansinn said.

Pray said Monday that any constituents who want to discuss this or any other issue are welcome to contact her.

"I've gotten four calls in the last week from people in Ward 1 who know that I’m their representative and am taking care of their concerns," Pray said. "I welcome anyone to contact me with any concerns or questions that they may have."

Meanwhile, Pray said she continues to search for a suitable, affordable home in Ward 1.

"I want to move back there, for council, certainly," she said, "but also because I want my son to attend Linden Elementary."

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