Bensalem’s “Mini Mayor” reflects on 23 years of government work

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Matt Schickling / Times photo – Barbara Barnes at her desk. The longtime Bensalem “Mini Mayor” will retire at the beginning of the New Year. 

If you tried to contact Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo at any point in the last two decades, you probably heard Barbara Barnes’ voice — ”Mayor’s office,” she’d say, in the familiar way most people say their own names.

What most people don’t know is that they were already speaking with the Mini Mayor.

It’s an unofficial title, of course, but one that seems fitting for those who know anything about Barnes’ tenure in the township. Officially, she’s been an administrative assistant to DiGirolamo from day one of his administration when it began some 23 years ago.

She’s been the mayor’s right-hand woman, his first line of defense, the person he trusted to handle issues residents bring to the township and much of the day-to-day government work.

Effective the first day of the New Year, Barnes is retiring. She’ll be off to Florida by the end of January, where she plans to study a second language, try her hand at the piano and finally, hopefully master the intricacies of pinochle.

It’s often said that government work is thankless. You won’t hear any of that from Barnes, but you might hear some good stories — she’s got a lot of them — told from a unique perspective that the township will surely miss when it’s gone.

“Joe DiGirolamo inherited an administration that was not good. We had a multi-million-dollar deficit. Our police force was understaffed. Infrastructure was crumbling,” Barnes recalled during an interview with the Times last week. “And you know what, he ran the township like a business, and within a few years, we had a surplus.

“It was nice to be a part of that.”

She said she has “the deepest respect and admiration” for DiGirolamo, but it wasn’t always that way. As she remembers it, the first time they spoke was an argument.

Barnes was a Bensalem councilwoman by the time DiGirolamo was plotting his run for mayor. That year, the budget talks were a hot topic, and Barnes was trying to cut down on the overspending.

She had already served a term on the township’s school board and was deep into her only term as a councilwoman, so her understanding of the local government was finely tuned in.

She wanted to implement an earned income tax back then, she wanted to charge for the free summer recreation program the township had because, from her view, people were using it irregularly and it cost the township a pretty penny to run.

“He was like a dog with a bone,” Barnes said of DiGirolamo’s disagreement with her policies. “I had to say, ‘Sir, it’s 2 a.m. This is my seventh or eighth budget meeting. I’m going to do what I feel is right, but if you’ve got the courage of your convictions, how about you run for office?’ ”

“We became friends after that,” she said, laughing.

When the time came for DiGirolamo to run for mayor, he actually called Barnes to make sure she wasn’t. He didn’t want to run against her, Barnes said, but she had no plans to run anyway.

By then, she was fed up with what she called “the entrenched powers that be,” and had fielded more than her fair share of threatening phone calls from anonymous residents over her proposed tax. She also lost her second run at council, a half-hearted effort, she said, that was stifled in the primaries.

She did, however, get an intriguing offer from DiGirolamo.

“If I get elected,” Barnes recalled the mayor saying. “I want you to be my second-in-command.”

“I’ve been with him ever since,” she said, with a shade of pride.

The first time she went to a public function with DiGirolamo, maybe a chamber of commerce meeting, Barnes guessed, the organizers were distributing name tags, one of those “Hello My Name Is…” deals. They didn’t have one made up for her, so Barnes took matters into her own hands.

“I took it, and wrote Barbara Barnes, Mini Mayor,” she said.

Some people there didn’t think it was the best idea. There was a notion that the mayor might feel slighted.

“He saw it and said, ‘Well look at her. She’s half the size and twice as wise,’ ” Barnes said.

The two still didn’t agree on everything. Barnes said when the amphitheater was being constructed at the municipal complex, she lobbied for a swimming pool or an ice-skating rink, for example. But DiGirolamo always valued her perspective, and all of the extra hours.

Barnes remembered days when the township would shut down during snowstorms. Often, workers would be given the day off, and stay at home sipping hot chocolate or whatever else grownups do on snow days.

Not Barnes. She would be picked up by the mayor or anyone who could drive her into work to man the phone lines.

She spoke about the first especially bad storm early on, when she decided to sleep at the township building. She was the only one there, and forgot to pack dinner. She also didn’t know that the heating system dropped on her wing of the building overnight to conserve energy.

She bundled up, and scrounged some quarters for the vending machine. She survived the night, subsiding on candy and snacks, and continued her work the next day.

In many ways, that’s the attitude she always brought to the job.

Even as the days count down to retirement and she recalled all of this in her office, down the hall from DiGirolamo’s, it didn’t look like someone was moving out.

The phone was ringing, Post-in notes hung from her computer with reminders for the week, the paperwork on her desk still required some attention.

“What do I do?” Barnes paused and considered the question for a few moments. “Whatever needs to be done.” ••

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