When Dolores Keesler was unexpectedly removed from her appointment as Damascus Township’s representative to the Upper Delaware Council (UDC), where she had been serving as chair following her election in January 2011, she was stunned.
That termination by Damascus supervisors, Keesler said, misrepresents the balanced perspective she feels she brought to her role. Various members of the UDC have publicly complimented Keesler for her conduct during UDC meetings. But even before she was elected chair, Keesler regularly asked tough questions when she felt it was necessary. It’s a practice that has gained her respect from some and wariness from others.
“I was very happy serving my community on the UDC,” she said, “then I was thrust into the limelight. My vision for the township includes protecting our clean water and air, improvement and maintenance of town infrastructure, transparency and open governance, disclosing conflicts of interest and a sustainable economy. ”
Early in 2011, the supervisors called Keesler in for a meeting and told her they had gotten complaints about her stance on gas drilling. Keesler told them she was striving to be fair and even-handed on the issue. “They labeled me anti-gas,” she said. “I am not anti-anything. I am pro. I am for our environment, for our river’s life. I’m for taking the time to make sure we get this right, so that our grandchildren can enjoy a productive and safe future here.”
While a large percentage of the land in the township is under lease, the number of leaseholders representing that acreage is estimated to be considerably smaller than the number of non-leaseholders who live and vote there. It is that portion of the citizenry that Keesler would like to see more fully represented in the township, where each of the current supervisors is a leaseholder with personal stakes in the development of natural gas.
Keesler has become increasingly unhappy with how township supervisors are conducting business. Beyond the issue of gas drilling, Keesler said she has a number of other concerns. “I want accountability,” she said. “I want to see the books.”
While considering what to do, she began receiving phone calls and email messages from other residents urging her to run for supervisor. “This has nothing to do with retaliation or revenge,” Keesler said. “It’s about what is the right thing to do.”
Despite being past the deadline for getting on the official primary ballot, she decided to run. Keesler said that both Democratic districts in the township are supporting her write-in candidacy. Last week, she and others mailed letters to 1,300 Democratic and Republican voters in the district, asking them to write her name in on the ballot for the primary election on May 17. Keesler is a write-in candidate for both ballots.
The letter highlights Keesler’s years of involvement with Damascus Township. That experience hearkens back to the days when township officials met in Elvin Swenson’s basement with barely enough room for a few chairs. When she learned in 1971 that the government was going to do something with the river, she went to see the supervisors, only to be told there was nothing they could do. She began reaching out to neighbors.
Today, Keesler seeks to correct the perception that she does not support private property rights. In fact, she fought hard for those rights as a result of the Tocks Island Dam Project, which forced the sale of her aunt and uncle’s beloved property containing the now public—and very popular—Buttermilk Falls. Despite the loss, Keesler says that she appreciates the National Park Service’s role in the region, cleaning up trash, performing law enforcement duties, enhancing river safety and protecting the natural resources.
Having participated in the long struggle and even longer healing process that ensued, Keesler anticipates a similar process related to natural gas development in the region. “People on both sides of this issue need to sit down together and seek common ground,” said Keesler. “Whether you’re a leaseholder or not, if something goes wrong, we all need to be on the same page to protect our way of life. That’s one reason why we shouldn’t rush into this.
“Our township is a valuable asset, and the citizens feel it should remain so. We are capable of going into the future with ways for the township to thrive, as other areas have done in similar circumstances. I have a belief in American ingenuity.”
Keesler’s parents owned a property in the Upper Delaware and she and her husband bought their own on River Road in 1965. She began teaching for the Wayne Highlands School District in 1975 and retired in 2001. A lay speaker for Callicoon United Methodist Church, Keesler says that her life has been an unpredictable path that tends to follow God’s lead.
As she rounds this next bend, she asks, “Where do You want me now?” And she’s confident of the answer.
“I set my foot in the river in 1954 as a child and knew this was home,” she said. “My first date and my first kiss happened here. My late husband and I became the parents of three children. Now I have six grandchildren who I hope will someday have the opportunity to live in the area and avail themselves of the wonderful richness I have experienced here. This is where I belong.”