A Conversation with Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach

Host, David Martin sat down with Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach at the annual National Association of Counties conference as part of a series of conversations with those in and around county government. Our own Good Government Show questionnaire.

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A Conversation with Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach Transcription

David Martin: This is the good government show.

Christian Leinbach: I really think that that is what good government is. You you go to a community and you ask the people, what do you think of your community? If immediately they start pointing out the problems, there’s prob that’s probably a good indication that there is a lack of good government in that community. If rather they point out and say, Boy, we are so proud of our park and recreation facility here in Berks County or Adams County, Colorado.

I think that those are things that indicate that you have good government in place because government shouldn’t be about the people that are elected as much as it should be about the community they serve.

David Martin: Welcome to the Good Government Show and a good government show extra. I recently attended the National Association of Counties Annual Conference. This is where many of the nation’s county officials gathered to share ideas, set a course for the coming year and promote good government. I talked to many county leaders and asked them to define what good government means to them and how they measure their success.

Here on this special edition of the Good Government Show, Are there answers? It’s our own good government show questionnaire. And for our final conversation of the good government show extras, I had a conversation, one of the best friends of our podcast, Christian Leinbach, Berks County, Pennsylvania. And here’s a bit of a disclaimer. Christian and I have had many, many conversations both on and off the record, and we always have lively chats.

So this was no different. And I’m going to come back to that conversation right after this.

The Good Government Show is sponsored by NACO. That’s the National Association of Counties County Government is actually the oldest form of government in the in the United States and touches more people directly. Think about it. Roads, highways, hospitals, schools, recycling, law enforcement, water and sewers. In most of the country, those services are maintained by the county. That’s county government. NACO is a nationwide organization and they represent all 3069 counties across the USA. NACO helps county government work better together, do things like sharing best practices and as we see in this and other episodes, when county government works well, well, that’s just good government. The Good Government show gets many of our stories from NACO. So thanks for the stories and thanks NACO for working to support good government.

The Good Government Show has a new sponsor, OurCo. That means our community. OurCo find a way to make county government and change makers even more effective. The folks at OurCo provide a platform that blends in-person and digital interactions to connect people in a more human way. The mobile app transforms meaningful conversations and reliable data into actionable insights that inspire positive change.

It’s sort of like a flash poll. Want to know if the community would rather have a dog park or a bike trail? OurCo can get you an answer immediately. Engage your citizens, groups and officials. Learn their wants and needs. Build trust and build programs and policies that advance your county, your job creators, and your constituents. Visit ourco.com.

Welcome back to the Good Government Show. If you like what you hear, then please like us and follow us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and rate the podcast on the platform you’re listening to right now.

Your comments help us continue to tell these great stories and of course, listen to season two of the Good Government Show. And now here’s my conversation with our friend Christian Leinbach.

Welcome to the good government show. This is a good government show, Extra. I’m your host, David Martin. And I’m here with an absolute one of the best friends of the pod ChristianLeinbach, a commissioner from Berks County, Pennsylvania. We’ve talked many times. It’s always great to talk to you. Thanks for coming back and talking to us today, David.

Christian Leinbach: It’s always great to be on the good government show.

David Martin: Thank you. And we are coming to you from the National Association of Counties Annual Convention. We’re out here in Adams County in Denver, Colorado. And we’ll just start quickly. What has been the biggest takeaway for you from this convention?

Christian Leinbach: I think one of the biggest takeaway is, is the session we just came out of with Eric Pages on economic development and it’s economic theory then and now. And it’s looking at in the post-pandemic world, one of the biggest stats I pulled away is that most new jobs are created by local entrepreneurs, people that are already in your community, he said.

He’s interviewed about 10,000 entrepreneurs in the last 10 to 15 years. It’s good. It’s good data, yeah. And he said when he interviews, entrepreneurs ask him, Why is your business where it is? This is because this is where I grew up. This is where I live, where I live. And I built my business here. And those businesses, those entrepreneurial, entrepreneurial businesses are responsible for about 80% of new jobs on a year to year basis.

David Martin: So if people are looking for jobs, they should be looking around their own community. And if folks like yourself are looking to create jobs, you should be looking around your own communities.

Christian Leinbach: Looking in your own community. You’ve said one of the worst things you can do is spend a lot of time and a lot of taxpayer money trying to win that one big economic win where you attract Amazons, the big one that everyone wants to talk about, he said. The data on that is that of all the businesses that have moved into a new area of the businesses, only 5 to 6% of those businesses say that tax incentives had something to do with the decision.

He said the data is really weak on this idea. They’re going to spend millions of dollars attracting businesses into our communities. You need to work with the businesses that are already there and be a community that welcomes entrepreneurial startup businesses.

David Martin: We’re going to shift gears a little bit. We’re going to do something on the good government show we never usually do. We’re going to talk politics, you and I. Okay, we’re going to talk politics. So the good government show and Christine and I have had many, many discussions over breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we invariably retreat to our different sides.

We are not on the same side politically. You are you’re a Republican and have been running as a Republican and working for the party for a long, long time. I have been a registered Democrat for a very long time, but right now in this country, there is certainly a lot of conversation about the left versus the right. Tell me, you know, from your perspective as a county commissioner in Pennsylvania, which is certainly a county in play politically, what’s going on? What are you seeing? What’s happening?

Christian Leinbach: What’s changed for me? And I’m 63 years old, so I’ve been around this a long time. The political environment is as acidic and problematic as I’ve ever seen it in my life, not the days of Watergate or Vietnam, where there were these big issues, but where you see local political parties both on the Democratic and Republican side. And it seems like the extremes I don’t want to say they’ve taken over, but they are the loudest voice in the room and it is making it very hard in some cases to focus on doing the business of the people.

David Martin: Well, that’s why I was going to ask you about is it, you know, like does this have an effect when you’re sitting in your seat?

Christian Leinbach: Oh, it does. If you just look at it without picking on a party, you look at the election issue and the accusation since the 2020 election. Right. Just in Pennsylvania, we’ve lost over 40% of county election directors. They have not been able to handle the constant attacks, the constant accusations without evidence in most cases.

David Martin: Now, have you had it? So you’ve had issues in your county.

Christian Leinbach: We’re we’re on our third election director. So actually no fourth election director since August of 2020.

David Martin: Really?

Christian Leinbach: Really.

David Martin: And prior to that, how long had the director served?

Christian Leinbach: 30 years.

David Martin: Really? Yeah. How does that affect your ability to run a fair election? Give us hope.

Christian Leinbach: It’s difficult because you lose that experience, and that’s the institutional and institutional knowledge is vitally important in Pennsylvania. That’s the big issue that county commissioners have raised to the legislature and it raised even in our local communities, say, wait a minute, be careful what you say and who you go after. If you want to come after somebody on elections, come after the county commissioners we oversee.

And so I’ll be very blunt. This past spring primary, we had some problems in Berks County. They didn’t have to do with election fraud, but they had to do with some equipment, electronic poll books that didn’t work properly.

David Martin: But I mean.

Christian Leinbach: We took the responsibility.

David Martin: But there’s always something there.

Christian Leinbach: There is, yeah. But it’s key that leaders take responsive ability. And I said publicly, we will find out and we’re going to share publicly, probably in about a week. Here’s what happened. Here’s exactly why it happened. Here’s what needs to be done to fix it. But if you want to blame somebody, talk to Christian Leinbach. And my colleagues have said the same thing.
We are not going to publicly point out a department staffer. We take responsibility, but we’re an environment right now. Everybody wants to blame everybody else. An election is just one example. But I think the second issue is people don’t want to talk about issues. You want you and I enjoy.

David Martin: Yes.

Christian Leinbach: I mean, we actually enjoy talking about why we are where we are.

David Martin: It’s always, always fun to have a conversation with a friend who you can you’re one of the few Republicans I can actually speak to and have that kind of conversation with. And is it I mean, are you finding that across the board.

Christian Leinbach: You need to be able to do that? I will tell you, in county government, as a rule, Republican and Democrat occasionally and independent, you find that most county leaders are focused on what is the problem, what is the best way to solve that problem, and how do we come together to get that done? Because at the end of the day, has that changed?
There’s pressure right now. Yeah. To take a political position.

David Martin: Have you ever seen that before?

Christian Leinbach: Not quite like it is right now where you get punished as a Republican or as a Democrat, if you seem like you’re working too closely with somebody from the other side of the aisle, is a person say that doesn’t say personal, it feels very personal. And that probably is the most difficult thing I have to handle. I’m in my 15th year and there are days because I love my job or I did.

David Martin: Is it true you did love your job? You love.

Christian Leinbach: My job. And the last two years it hasn’t been fun. Is the way I would describe it, and it is personal. And again, if you really are engaged in something and you get attacked again and again and accused of things that just simply aren’t true, it really wears on you guys.

David Martin: Or a Democrat.

Christian Leinbach: Or just because you don’t believe what certain constituencies claim to be the current truth. So it’s it’s a challenging time. The future will tell us whether it’s long term or not.

David Martin: Let’s talk about the future. Do you have reason to be optimistic?

Christian Leinbach: I’m a student of history and that was.

David Martin: A long pause.

Christian Leinbach: And this feels more like 1857 than 1967.

David Martin: Yeah.

Christian Leinbach: And I don’t know, I when people are screaming at each other and you see that in a large degree in the public place, the village. Yeah. You have to be concerned. How do you resolve things if you can’t talk to each other?

David Martin: Right.

Christian Leinbach: How do you resolve it? I don’t know what the answer is. I hope that I’m wrong. I hope it is more like 1967. I mean, we you look at 67, the late sixties, the Vietnam conflict, the riots, the race riots, MLK assassination, RFK his assassination. And in the 72, with Watergate, a pretty tumultuous time economy bombing in the seventies.

Right. But we came out in the eighties were not that bad and the nineties got even better. So, you know, you hope that that’s what happens, but it doesn’t feel that way right now. We feel like an extremely divided nation, more along the lines of 1857 to 1965.

David Martin: Well, we’re going to we’re going to bring some optimism back. So let’s do that. So we have some questions I’ve been asking folks here at the convention, and I want to ask you some of the same questions. What is good government to you? You give me give us your definition of good government.

Christian Leinbach: I think good government comes down to good people. And what is it? People that care more about the people and community that they serve than themselves. I think one of the biggest problems we have today is the idea of individual responsibility and individualism, rugged individualism. Teddy Roosevelt that was really important in the founding of our country, somehow has shifted with many people to arrogance and pride.

And it’s all about me. I think good government is about people that understand I’m here, not for me, not for my political future. I’m here for the people that elected me, for the community. We’re not going to always agree, but if you have that attitude and other people around you in government, whether elected or appointed people, you can get things done.

I’ve seen that. I’m involved right now with two other counties in the formation of the school river passenger rail authority in southeastern Pennsylvania, Montgomery, Chester and Berks County. The comments over the last two years is so that we’ve never seen.

David Martin: Where this is. This is a train line that would run from where to where.

Christian Leinbach: It would run. It’s Amtrak. So it would run from Redding to New York and D.C. via Philadelphia, the city of Redding.

David Martin: So this would link it a lot of it was Lincoln.

Christian Leinbach: It would link in these three counties and specifically three communities in each of these three counties that have been disconnected for decades.

David Martin: Would it be like a commuter line into New York or something else?

Christian Leinbach: Intercity not commuter like SEPTA where has more stops. It’s inter it’s it’s an Amtrak line. But that process we have Democrats and Republicans working together because all of us believe it is in the best interest of our three counties to restore passenger rail service. And when we kicked off our meeting on July the sixth, I said to the board members, the authority board members, it is amazing what we can accomplish when we have a common goal.

We’re committed to work together and it really doesn’t matter who gets the credit.

David Martin: That would be good government.

Christian Leinbach: That is good government.

David Martin: All right. So how do people know? Citizens know if their government is and their government and their leaders are effective in providing good government?

Christian Leinbach: Well, it reminds me of a Supreme Court justice who once said, I can’t define personal defeat, but I could tell you what it is when I see it. You went right to for good. Yeah, but I really think that that is what good government is. You, you go to a community and you ask the people, what do you think of your community?

If immediately they start pointing out the problems? There’s prob that’s probably a good indication that there is a lack of good government in that community. If rather they point out and say, Boy, we are so proud of our park and recreation facility here in Berks County or Adams County, Colorado. I think that those are things that indicate that you have good government in place because government should be about the people that are elected as much as it should be about the community they serve.

David Martin: So in your position as county commissioner, what do you use as your personal yardstick, your, you know, criteria for whether you’re providing good government?

Christian Leinbach: I think there’s a couple of things most politicians will tell you. The only poll that matters is the one that happens on Election Day. But if they’re honest.

David Martin: That’s certainly good yardstick.

Christian Leinbach: If you wait until Election Day to find out how things are going, I think you’re in you’re in trouble. Okay. The number one thing that I employed when I was elected and actually my wife and I talked about it shortly after Election Day in November of 2007. And that was you took a lot of time and effort to get here where I want an election.

David Martin: Right.

Christian Leinbach: I need to keep that same type of commitment, which means going out, talking to people, being available, not being afraid of having somebody stand up in a town hall and fire away. And I do that. I continue to do town halls even. I’m not running this year. I’ve had several town halls already this year I return phone calls.

I talk to people I especially love and I don’t want to say I’d like to, but talk to the people that are angry to find out why they’re why they’re angry. So that’s how you measure.

David Martin: Well, as a county commissioner, you know, you’re not, you know, high on a hill or living somewhere else. You live in that. You live you live in the community and you go to the grocery store and you go to the gas station and you go to the local restaurant. I mean, is do you have to put on your game face every time you leave your house?

I mean, do you walk around in a sauce, in a t shirt to grab a car to get.

Christian Leinbach: Something that works? Sometimes I keep my sunglasses on when I go in the store, but people still recognize me. And what will happen often is someone have come up to me and say, Commissioner, I know you’re here with your family, but can I ask you a question? And I always tell them, unless I’m in an emergency situation, I tell them absolutely.

Because when I get to the point that I can’t do that out in the community, then it’s probably time for me to retire. Now, you sign up for that when you’re in local government. Local government is guess what? Local, local. I live there. And so but again, that’s part if you don’t do that, if you try to separate separate yourself, you have your executive assistant interface with all your constituents.
You’re afraid to go out into public meetings, whether they’re town halls and the town halls. I do get up, give an update, open it up to Q&A. I don’t, you know, say say to someone, you can’t talk about this. Talk about that. Now, if they bring up something that’s federal, I may say to them, we’re really not involved in that issue.

Let me suggest you call Congresswoman so-and-so. But being available does two things. One, it lets the public know here’s somebody that isn’t afraid and in fact, willing to come out and hear what I have to say. And two, it sends a message of transparency versus often and even at the local level, you’ll find you never see certain people unless it’s election.

David Martin: Time that it’s the effort. So what should people what should people look for? How should what would you tell people to look for to know that they’re getting good government from their elected officials?

Christian Leinbach: Well, first of all, if you don’t know who your county officials are and you’re engaged with what’s going on in your county, there’s probably an issue.

David Martin: Okay.

Christian Leinbach: You should have.

David Martin: Know who, know your leader, know who your.

Christian Leinbach: Leaders are. And if you can’t, you start looking to find out who they are. And there’s somebody that’s, you know, in an office, but you don’t ever see them out in the community. You can’t really connect with them. You can’t talk to them. That’s a signal that you have a leader that is not connected well to the community.

David Martin: This means you may have to take your sunglasses.

Christian Leinbach: Off, you mean. Yeah, but I think there’s a flipside to also and I say this as cautiously as I can, there’s a lot of pressure on elected officials and is involved as I am. There are times I just I need I need a break.

David Martin: And so you set your wife to the store.

Christian Leinbach: Or we go to eat two counties over for dinner there? Is there is a limit. So you give some of your elected officials a break, especially at the local level, because they are much more embedded in the community that they serve. But I would argue if they’re not embedded in the community they serve, I really wonder how they can serve it well.

David Martin: So if people feel like they aren’t getting good government, if they feel like their leaders aren’t effective, if they feel like they’re not getting what they should be out of government, what should they do?

Christian Leinbach: I think the first thing they should do is if they have a specific issue with a specific person is reach out to them. Don’t go flying off the handle letters to the editor and all the other steps that people often go to social media, blast the person, contact them, and when you contact them, try to be clear and concise.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Don’t make an accusation. Say, commissioner, lying. Mark, I heard you say this where I read this on social media. I read this in the paper. I don’t agree with that. And I would like to know why you said that or why you believe that that is absolutely legitimate. But I cannot tell you how many times and I can think of people right now who email me on a fairly regular basis.

And we’ll start out by saying, if you even read this, I’m sure you won’t agree with anything. I have to say. And you make some other derogatory remark. Yeah, I still respond to most of these people, but I will tell you this.

If I do take a deep breath, I go, okay, I’ve action. Even though I’ve been in a long time, I start typing a nasty email response and I’ve learned, wait a minute, wait a minute, no, delete it, rewrite it, rewrite it.

David Martin: Is it hard to respond to social media?

Christian Leinbach: Social media I rarely respond to. In fact, I will tell you, it’s I’ve come to the point where I use it, I think, pretty effectively to get a message out. But I’ve gotten embroiled in a back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And too many times in the past, and you can’t win. So as a rule, I don’t really engage a whole lot on social media when I get tagged and people know what that means, I don’t have a choice.

I normally look at it, untagged it, and do everything in my power not to not to respond.

David Martin: So as a long time county commissioner involved in government at different levels, government’s not always pretty.

Christian Leinbach: No one.

David Martin: Ever give the.

Christian Leinbach: Message. It’s not always good.

David Martin: And it’s not always good. What would you like people to know about the inner workings of government when you sort of pull the curtain away? What would you like people to know about?

Christian Leinbach: I think that the thing that I’ve thought about the most is how many times in the past I’ve jumped to conclusions, even as an elected official about some other elected official or some other situation. And then I find later on there’s a whole litany of things that were going on that I had no idea about. And then my initial reaction was wrong.

I would ask the public to step back and ask the question, Is it possible that there are other things that are involved in this situation that I have no idea about? And if that is the case, asking a question versus making an accusation is a much better way to handle. And again, I’ve been guilty of that, but the longer I have been in the role I am, I am much less likely to attack somebody else because I realize, you see, and it’s a cliche, but you see the tip of the iceberg when you see the quote on social media or you’re seeing.

So you’re saying the media should be informed. Big is I right? That is that’s it. And the other thing I’m being informed do not accept at face value. Yeah talking points from anybody I don’t care if they come from a preacher, a priest, if they come from a politician, if they come from some celebrity, if they come from me.

I’ve actually had people contact me who are supporters of mine and say, We want to help you. The commissioners meeting. Can you get a list of talking points for us that we things we can bring up? And I said, no. What I want people to do is to be able to know what they believe and why. And so often when I talk to people, whether they’re supporters or they’re people that are in opposition, I find that their understanding of the issue is extremely shallow because most of the time they heard it somewhere, somebody they respect, somebody that they may worship, and that’s gospel.

This person said it, but they can’t read it to send it. But a reader. Yeah, that’s what I.

David Martin: Saw on Facebook. Yep. All right.

Christian Leinbach: Or I saw it on the 24 seven news media cycle.

David Martin: Okay. Before we go, let’s let’s leave on a positive note. Give me one or two of your favorite examples of a great government project that worked or is working. Well.

Christian Leinbach: One that we both know about that I participate in almost every nine weeks is the graduation for the R three program in Berks County, where our Berks Connection pretrial services works with people coming out of our jail or coming out of our treatment courts. They may not have even gone into jail and over nine weeks to get training in the trades.

They literally just this week won a grant from, I believe, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor. Okay. To teach welding. I don’t know if you know this. In the manufacturing area, welders are at a premium high pay great benefits and there just aren’t enough of them around. The R three program, though, has been in operation. I believe we’re in our fifth year in Berks County.

Right. And has changed lives, not just the lives of the people that now have so filling jobs. They’re living in our community. They’re not. The recidivism rate is like 6%. Yeah, they are. And their families in many case have been transferred.

David Martin: I think one of the things that I took away from that story, the revitalizing Redding story that we did in season one of the good government show was the most important thing that they do in that program is teach people how to work, teach people to get to work on time, bring your lunch, you know, show up, ready to go, show up dressed for work, you know, like it.
And that takes a changing mindset.

Christian Leinbach: I’ll give you one other example from several years ago. Children use is one of the more difficult areas in any county government. Sure, you have families that are in crisis for a lot of reasons and a couple, an African-American couple from Virginia. So I’m in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Right. Contacted our office and they were extremely upset about their efforts to try to become foster parents for their granddaughter, who was in the CPS program with Berks County.

Now, I will tell you, most times when we get stories from people in children and youth, there’s tons of information left out and ends up to be dramatically different. In this case, what they told us was true and what we found out is the attorneys for the children, they’re called guardian ad litem. Staff, had a philosophy that great grandparents were not a good option as foster parents because they were too old.

I got engaged with this along with my executive assistant. I remember standing eye to eye with the guardian ad litem and telling her, You will never do this if these were my grandchildren. Sure. And I remember.

David Martin: It’s a case by case basis. It is a.

Christian Leinbach: Case by case. Some are horrible. These parents were great. And here’s the amazing thing. I remember a year plus later, those grandparents invited my executive assistant and I to the courtroom where they not only had they already got their granddaughters of foster child, but they adopted her, even though those are the things that you look back and you say, that’s why I’m here, okay?

That’s why I’m here to make a difference in people’s lives. And in this case, it was a Berks County, a little girl from Berks County whose grandparents were from Virginia.

David Martin: Well, we’re going to we’re going to end right there on a happy note again, Christian, Lindberg County commissioner from Berks County, Pennsylvania, and absolutely one of the best friends of the pod. We wouldn’t be here without you. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming. Thanks for chatting.

Christian Leinbach: Thank you, David. And thank you to the good government show.

David Martin: If nothing else, I think this conversation with Christian leaned back proves that to people who may look at issues from different angles and different points of view can still have a really good conversation. So there you go. Are good government show extras. Five really interesting conversations with some real insight into how government works and what we can all do to make sure we are getting good government.

If you missed any, give a listen to all five of the good government show extras. And of course, listen to season two of the good government show. I’m Dave Martin. Thanks for listening.

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The Good Government Show is produced by Valley Park Productions. Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder are the executive producers. Jason Stershic is our producer and editor. Some transcriptions were done by Kofi Ajeasi Ampah. Our hosts are me, David Martin and Carol D’Auria. Join us again for the Good Government Show, wherever you listen to podcasts.