Of Hair Salons, Taco Trucks, and Chili – How Politics May Destroy the Fishtown Neighbors Association

As some of you may know, there is currently ongoing litigation with me and the Fishtown Neighbors Association. Normally during litigation you’re not supposed to talk about it for fear that anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. But according to the FNA’s last pleading submitted to the court:

[T]his matter deals with an issue of public concern. We have allegations that an individual used his position as the president of a civic association, comprised of members of a discrete community, to obtain a significant monetary grant for a private client without the association’s full notice. Even more significant, this individual happens to be an attorney, who is bound by certain ethical obligations. If he truly engaged in such conduct, then not only does the Fishtown community need to know and be able to openly discuss his conduct, but also, on a broader scale, the legal community ought to know about this conduct and should be able to openly debate the ethical implications of it.

I agree.

Let’s talk about it…

A brief background: I moved to Fishtown in 2006 because it was close to Temple Law, where I went to school. I lived under Dr. Slobodinsky’s office on Girard Ave, bounced over to Hewson Street the next year, and eventually bought my house at Boston and Memphis in 2009. I’ve maintained office space in 2424 Studios since 2010, and opened up my neighborhood law practice in 2012. Most of my law practice involves zoning. I have lived and worked in Fishtown for many years now.

I based a lot of my career and social life on doing local community activism. I spent three years in a leadership role with the Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA), serving as a board member at large, Vice President, and President.

Some of the more fun things I did was save historic banks on Front Street, fought a methadone clinic, and testified before the Philadelphia City Planning Commission about the new Fishtown zoning map. Through the FNA, I created a program called “Zoning 101” to help neighbors navigate the Philadelphia zoning process. And sometimes I helped people find  lost cats.

The FNA, which had previously been run out of individual board members’ homes and a P.O. box, moved its headquarters to my law office at 2424 Studios so that we had a permanent meeting space and somewhere to store our supplies. Mugshot Diner generously catered board meetings at no cost.

The FNA Chili Cookoff was also held each year in the 2424 Skybox. The owner generously donated the space to the FNA. It was convenient because all the supplies were housed in the FNA’s office on the third floor. I’m told that neighbors found the space to be easily accessible and child friendly. Plus, free beer.

Volunteering for the FNA was my passion. It was a pleasure to be part of a growing neighborhood, and hopefully make things around me better. I’d spend an average of three days a week in meetings and engaging in community activism. In my spare time, I would screen projects with the FNA Zoning Committee, and help write anti-SLAPP laws through Crosstown Coalition.

A year later, I’ve been excommunicated from the organization. The Chili Cookoff is now held at the Fillmore. The FNA no longer has office space and is run out of the Free Library. The organization’s bylaws were recently amended so that business owners are excluded from serving on the Board of Directors. Unlike civic other civic associations, the FNA will no longer help business owners apply for grants. Litigation is pending.

What happened?

It all starts with a small hair salon on York Street…

The Salon Blush PTSSD Grant Application

SugarHouse Casino is required to give a certain amount of money away each year to the neighborhood as part of their Community Benefits Agreement. It’s disbursed through an entity called the Penn Treaty Special Services District (PTSSD). They never give away all the money.

Money from PTSSD comes from SugarHouse Casino – not the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As such, they are allowed to give money to anyone that they want to. For instance, PTSSD gave grants to The Spirit Newspaper and Bamboo Wifi, both of which are for-profit businesses. PTSSD was criticized for awarding $74,000.00 to Finnegan’s Wake, a bar that many people considered to be a nuisance. (The owner of Finnegan’s later withdrew the request in light of public criticism.)

Salon Blush is a hair salon and photography studio on York Street. The owner approached me about applying for a grant from PTSSD. She is a lifetime Fishtown resident, and had been seeking ways to obtain funding to fix her facade, improve beautification to the storefront, and install security cameras. PTSSD  recently gave a grant to the businesses along Girard Avenue for the same exact purpose. Salon Blush is a pro bono client of mine, just like many other small businesses in the neighborhood. I get my hair cut there, and sometimes we talk about small business compliance issues over a bowl of soup at Thang Long.

Salon Blush initially submitted the PTSSD grant application on her own. However, PTSSD said the grant application had to go through the FNA. This made no sense, because the FNA doesn’t determine if the grant gets issued or how much money is dispersed. Those decisions are made entirely by the PTSSD’s own Board of Directors. FNA has absolutely no involvement with how PTSSD uses its money.

Nevertheless, we put in Blush’s grant application through the FNA because that is what they told us to do. No formal board meeting was held, nor was nor was one required to be held under the bylaws. Instead, the FNA’s Business Committee chair was copied on the email to PTSSD at the email business@fishtown.org. It was also discussed at length in the salon with another board member.

Salon Blush was told by PTSSD to obtain three estimates for the work, and then their board would hear out her request. Essentially, this gave Blush the opportunity to have a meeting with PTSSD’s board, who could then accept or reject her proposal.

Personally, I got nothing from helping Salon Blush out with the grant application. Not even a bowl of soup. I simply thought it would be good for York Street and the community at large.

In my opinion, PTSSD should be helping local small businesses with projects that will benefit the neighborhood.

Neil Brecher and the FNA’s Reaction to the Blush PTSSD Grant Application 

Much of the money that PTSSD gives to the FNA ends up going to fund RiverCity Festival, a party thrown by Neil Brecher each year.

Neil Brecher found out about the PTSSD grant application and contacted the FNA’s newest board member and attorney, Jamie Ware. I recently had asked Jamie to join the FNA board because I believed she had a background in non-profit law. We had served on the Zoning Committee together in prior years. A few weeks before this happened, Jamie unfriended me on Facebook, I believe due in part to my political beliefs.

I met with FNA’s Vice President, Shaun Christopher, at Fishtown Tavern to discuss the Blush PTSSD grant application. He told me that people were making a fuss over it. I told him that I didn’t feel like dealing with the drama and had planned on taking a leave of absence anyway because I was running Christopher Sawyer’s campaign for sheriff, which probably presented a conflict of interest anyway. I’d be back in November as a board member at large when the campaign was over. In the interim, I’d remain active on Zoning Committee and Crosstown Coalition. After our meeting, I resigned as President. If the board had an issue with Blush’s grant application, they could simply withdraw it by sending an email.

I figured that was the end of that and decided to take a vacation out of the country.

But no, apparently that wasn’t enough. Neil Brecher circulated emails demanding that I be “called to the carpet” over the Blush PTSSD grant application:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-2-19-43-pm

It’s common knowledge in the neighborhood that Neil Brecher doesn’t like me. I believe his animosity towards me stems from a breakup with a girl that we both dated a few years ago.

In response to Neil’s emails, Jamie Ware and the FNA organized a meeting with the FNA’s Board of Directors, its Committee Chairs, and other people involved in the organization. This meeting was held while I was out of the country. I had no way of knowing that it occurred or defending myself.

At this meeting, I was accused of engaging in fraud, self dealing, and even criminal activity. It was also said that my actions jeopardized the FNA’s status as a 501(c)(3).

None of this was arguably true. But these accusations were extremely serious.

After the meeting, Neil Brecher then circulated an email reiterating that the Blush PTSSD grant application was a deliberate fraud on the organization, illegal, and put its 501(c)(3) status in jeopardy. Specifically, Brecher wrote that:

I’m sure that everyone is convinced that Jordan is lying through his teeth that he thought putting the FNA on the PTSSD application was just a mistake, that it was a force of habit. The very first section of the grant form is as below. Not to mention, once the notification came that the FNA had open grants, he should have known that he’d made a ‘mistake’ and should have immediately withdrawn the illegal grant apptication. There’s no mistaking what he was doing. He was deliberately defrauding the FNA.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-6-37-02-pm

Neil also felt that he had been disrespected:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-6-38-28-pm

In response to what was said at the meeting, an FNA Committee Chair circulated an email stating that their overreaction was unwarranted, and in fact a liability for the organization. He wrote to Jamie Ware that:

Even in internal communications and with a s small group, you want to be very careful about using phrases like “fraud” and “self-dealing” even as hyperbole. These have an impact on people. They have real meaning. And you’re saying them about someone for whom they could have real damages in their career (i.e. the dreaded “real economic damages”) who is also uniquely position to make us pay for their use. And frankly, neither phrase is supported by what happened. Cathartic, yes. But it’s a potential liability with absolutely no upside.

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Neil Brecher then also insinuated that I improperly used money from the FNA in order to get my logo placed on the Kensington High School football team’s practice jerseys:

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The reality is that I made a charitable donation to the team. Neil did not bother to ask me or the team before making these insinuations. This is the truth:

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-10-30-05-pm

Neil’s emails were then circulated to people who aren’t even part of the FNA and don’t live in Fishtown, causing the entire incident to spread like wildfire through the rumor mill.

According to former president Shaun Christopher in a sworn affidavit, absolutely no investigation was conducted into these allegations. Rather, people simply believed Jamie Ware because she is an attorney, and Neil Brecher because he is a former FNA president.

As a result of these unsubstantiated allegations, the FNA decided to excommunicate me entirely from the organization. I was removed from the Zoning Committee and as delegate to Crosstown Coalition. The FNA also abruptly moved its headquarters from my office space at 2424 Studios to Girard Ave, which involved signing a commercial lease for a significant amount of money (later PTSSD gave the FNA a grant to help pay for the office space, who then moved to the Free Library.)

Blush’s grant application was withdrawn, and she was never allowed to meet with the PTSSD.

A few weeks later, Jamie Ware then demanded that Shaun Christopher, president at the time, also resign from the organization due to a criminal conviction that is decades old. He had volunteered for the organization for about two years. Almost the entire 2015 FNA board resigned along with him.

Shaun Christopher has since left the neighborhood as a result.

Jordan Learns He Has Been Excommunicated in his Absence

When I returned back to the country, I showed up to an FNA Zoning Meeting to screen projects and present one myself, just like I have almost every other Tuesday for the last three years. When I showed up, I was told by the Zoning Chair that I wasn’t allowed to be there, and that “They didn’t tell you?” Another member of the Zoning Committee said something along the lines of “Wow, I’m surprised you’re willing to show up here after what happened.”

I was furious.

In response, I sent Jamie an email threatening to file a Writ of Summons. A Writ of Summons is a legal document that allows a person to obtain documents and information through the court. At the time, all I knew is that a meeting was held about me in my absence, and that what was said wasn’t good.

After I cooled down, I sent a long email to the FNA Board, Committee Chairs, and other people in the organization explaining what happened with the Blush PTSSD Grant application. I told Jamie to simply make a private retraction and to reinstate my prior positions in the organization, and from there we would chalk whatever happened up to a “mea culpa.” After, we’d all go out and have drinks at Loco Pez.

This is the email that I sent the FNA saying that we all just needed to shake hands, put this behind us, and move forward:

https://www.scribd.com/document/325152883/AJR-Email-to-FNA

The FNA refused.

Instead, they lawyered up.

The FNA Amends their Bylaws to Exclude Jordan

I picked up the phone and called the FNA’s lawyers, and explained that this whole incident had spiraled out of control. All we needed to do was sit down, eat some tacos at Loco Pez, and put this behind us. I’d even buy.

During my talks with the FNA’s lawyers, I explained that I could nominate myself back to the board of directors without Jamie’s consent. Rejoining the board would simply mean showing up to a meeting in November and nominating myself. However, I’d rather resolve this dispute like neighbors and get back on the same page so that we could work together for the community.

It’s fairly common knowledge that I live exactly 350 feet north of York Street, placing my home technically in ORCA. However, I’ve maintained office space on the south side of York Street since 2010, which made me eligible to serve in FNA leadership positions.

While I was having these talks with Marshall Dennehey, the FNA also retained the Center City law firm of Clark Hill to serve as their “general counsel.” I have never heard of a civic association having a law firm serve as their general counsel – usually it’s a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood simply donates services pro bono.

The FNA’s bylaws had not been amended since about 2005. However, they were amended in October 2015 (while my discussions with their other lawyers were going on) to exclude business owners who do not live in Fishtown from serving in leadership roles. The amendments also require anyone who resigns from the FNA Board of Directors to remain off the board for a period of one year.

The bylaw amendments were pitched to the neighborhood as “routine changes.” In a private text message, current FNA president John Consolvo told Jamie Ware:

I think the best approach in demeanor tonight is that nothing in new bylaws is a big deal, all just typical standard language, gauged other civics bylaws. No thing to see here, blahblanlah.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-12-14-51-pm

The FNA Says Either Accept Excommunication or “proceed as you see fit”

After months of going back and forth with their lawyers, the FNA agreed to call a “special meeting” with me in October 2015 – the month that the revised bylaws were voted on by the community. I told them it would probably be more productive to just grab some tables at Interstate Draft House and hash this out like neighbors instead of lawyers. However, per their lawyer:

The Board has agreed to call a special meeting on Wednesday, October 21, 2015 at 7:30 pm to listen to your position. Due to scheduling conflicts, the Board is granting you 15 minutes. Please come prepared with the specific settlement terms you seek. Be aware that there will be no back and forth between you and the Board. The Board will listen to what you have to say. If you make settlement demands, the Board will take them into consideration and vote on them at a later time. Also, as per my conversation with you, to the extent you seek to be nominated for a position on the Board, this position is a nonstarter for the Board.

Lastly, as I indicated last time we spoke, Jamie will not meet with you outside the presence of the Board.

I responded that I didn’t think that would be a productive way to resolve a dispute, and instead just find some time when everyone had more availability. Their lawyer responded:

This is not a mediation. This is the date and time that was voted on by the Board to allow you the opportunity to “be heard by the Board” as per your 10/15/15 email, below.

Let me know if I should advise the Board to cancel the special meeting. If this is canceled, the Board is not going to call another special meeting.

You will be the only person speaking at this meeting. If you keep things succinct, and you come with specific settlement demands, I think that’s sufficient time.

So, one evening in October of 2015, we had a very awkward meeting in that format at the FNA’s office on Girard Avenue. The owner of Salon Blush came with me, but they said she wasn’t allowed inside and instead had to wait out in the cold. At the meeting, I explained to the new FNA board what happened, and told them that I simply wanted to work together. No one else spoke or addressed me.

Two days later I received an email from their lawyer:

Please be advised that on October 23, 2015, the Board of the Fishtown Neighbor’s Association held a Special Meeting wherein your proposed settlement terms were discussed at length. The Board, by vote, came to the following decisions. First, your request for a board position was denied. Second, the Board approved the issuance of a statement thanking you for your service to the FNA, which will include a copy of your resignation email, provided that you execute a release that we will draft and will include all current and past Board Members and Committee Chairs.

The Board is not interested in continued negotiations; if you do not find this offer acceptable, proceed as you see fit.

Jamie Ware’s Husband, Darren Smith, Sabotages Jordan’s Zoning Meeting

Suit was filed in January of 2016 after the FNA refused to engage in any sort of dialogue.

On February 9, 2016, I presented two zoning projects to the neighborhood. One way to know I was presenting that night was through the FNA’s Zoning Listserve. Jamie Ware is a former member of the Zoning Committee.

That evening about 40 people showed up. After I put on my presentation, I left the room during deliberations. While I was outside, Darren Smith, Jamie Ware’s husband (who is an attorney) stood up and addressed the audience, which included my neighbors, friends, current clients, and former clients. He told everyone that I had “ethical issues”, “character concerns”, my “credibility was in question” and that I had “sued all the neighbors.” Smith also suggested that I could be using this meeting to collect evidence. He did not disclose that he is Ware’s husband, and none of his concerns were zoning related.

Both projects were shot down.

Ware and her husband Darren live more than half a mile from the project.

That night, one of my zoning clients called after and said they could not use me for zoning work in Fishtown anymore as a result.

The FNA, FABA, and NKCDC Refuse to Help Salon Blush Obtain a PTSSD Grant While Helping an FNA Board Member Obtain One On Her Street

Because of this incident, FNA now refuses to help any private business apply for PTSSD grants, and says that instead those who are interested should go through Fishtown Area Business Association (FABA) and New Kensington Development Corporation (NKCDC).

Accordingly, the owner of Salon Blush approached the NKCDC’s Commercial Corridor Coordinator, Sam Thomas, about applying for a PTSSD grant though through NKCDC and FABA. Sam Thomas told her NKCDC does not help private businesses apply for PTSSD grants.

What Blush didn’t know is that Jamie Ware and Sam Thomas are friends. These are text messages between Sam Thomas and Jamie Ware, calling Blush’s owner a “bloodsucker”, a “piece of shit”, and then offering his connections:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-12-05-37-pm

Sandy Saltzman, Executive Director of the NKCDC, also privately weighed in on the lawsuit in emails with Jamie Ware, although she admitted that she doesn’t know anything about the case:

Jamie, just heard about what happened the other night, I am appalled that a “professional” would do something like that. While I don’t know all that happened, I am upset that this can put a black cloud over all non-profit organizations. What we do is thankless enough without having to worry about frivolous law suites. I don’t know if there is anything we can do to help support you at this time, but please know that we are behind you. Good Luck.

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After turning Salon Blush away for help, NKCDC and FABA then proceeded to help several businesses along Girard Avenue obtain a PTSSD grant for exactly the same purpose – beautification and security cameras.

Interestingly, current FNA board member Catherine Jennings is the president of FABA. She also owns a business on Girard Avenue.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-10-38-57-pm

The FNA Asks Leo Mulvihill, an FNA Board Member’s Attorney, to Conduct Zoning 101

Leo Mulvihill (my former law partner), Laura Tepper, Jill Betters, and others had a Facebook group where they gossiped about me, my girlfriend, and this lawsuit. This is just a small fraction of the things that were said:

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-10-30-13-am

Leo Mulvihill was recently asked by the FNA to conduct Zoning 101, a program I started while in the FNA.

Leo also represents FNA board member Catherine Jennings, and formerly represented Neil Brecher in this lawsuit.

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Leo Mulvihill and his client, FNA board member and FABA president Catherine Jennings

The Mediation: FNA Settles the Case, Reneges, and then their Lawyers Withdraw

After all this transpired, I received a call from the FNA’s lawyers at Marshall Dennehey. We all agreed that this entire thing had gotten completely out of hand and that cooler heads needed to prevail. I told them I had thought that all along.

They asked me if I would engage in a formal mediation. I told them that I don’t think we need a private mediator and that sitting down over a few beers would probably be more productive.

The FNA disagreed. So we hired a private mediator, a well respected retired Court of Common Pleas judge, and split the cost of a mediation.

Neil Brecher declined to attend.

I can’t get too into the contents of what happened, but talks quickly fell through. The FNA and Jamie Ware were adamant about excommunication.

Eventually, FNA made an offer that would end this litigation involving partial reinstatement and a donation to the Kensington High School Football team.

I was willing to accept it, because I figured once everyone started working together again we would simply put the matter behind us and focus on what’s important – serving the community. I memorialized the agreement into writing and sent it over to the FNA’s lawyers. It took me fifteen minutes to draft and was five pages long, mostly containing standard language.

After deliberating on the settlement agreement for over a month, I received a call from the FNA’s lawyers at both Marshall Denney and Clark Hill. They told me that the FNA had reneged on the agreement, and instead wished to settle the case on monetary terms. I was told that the FNA simply could not live with a settlement that involves any sort reinstatement to the organization.

I declined and thanked them for their time.

A week later, both Marshall Dennehey and Clark Hill withdrew from representing the FNA.

Where It Stands Today

The FNA Chili Cookoff has been moved to the Fillmore and out of 2424 Studios. After over a decade without major changes, the FNA bylaws have been amended to exclude business owners from serving in leadership roles. Unlike the NLNA, the FNA will now not help private businesses apply for PTSSD grants. Salon Blush is unable to get help from any of her local civic associations, even though she is a lifetime Fishtown resident. The FNA has no office space and instead now resides in the Free Library, and their mail delivered to a P.O. Box. Shaun Christopher has been run out of Fishtown.

Three separate law firms are now involved in this litigation and I’d imagine that at least five figures have been spent on lawyer fees.

Trial is scheduled for 2017, and a money judgment may be entered against the organization.

Neil Brecher still plans on throwing a big party next month using money from the PTSSD.

But on the bright side, one person has been excluded from participating in the FNA.

And the taco trucks are gone.

mi_pueblito_food_truck

4 Responses to Of Hair Salons, Taco Trucks, and Chili – How Politics May Destroy the Fishtown Neighbors Association

  1. B.J. says:

    Sorry to hear you went through this, Jordan. I previously served on my town council and in my brief foray into local politics, was disgusted by the kind of petty backbiting that goes on. It seems that local government and community organizations attract 2 kinds of people – idealistic, civic-minded folk who want to roll up their sleeves and help, and little Napoleonic toddlers who want to live out their “House of Card” fantasies and cause trouble for trouble’s sake. Ultimately its the people that suffer, because the latter discourage the former from getting involved – look at you, man, you just tried to help ppl, and you got your name maligned and all this stuff hurled at you. Its quite unfair. I’m sorry you’re going through this, please be assured of my prayers.

  2. […] original post which was since banned pointed to this blog maintained by Rushie where he explains the reasoning behind the lawsuit against the civic […]

  3. […] I tried to help Salon Bush apply for a grant from SugarHouse Casino. Neil Brecher said it was illegal, a deliberate fraud on the FNA, and that my conduct could jeopardize the organization’s 501(c)(3) […]

  4. […] a complaint filed by Rushie, a former FNA president who is not on the board of FNA made an accusation that Rushie was engaging […]

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