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Election 2023: Here are the candidates running for Berks County commissioner and what else you should know about the race
Karen Shuey - Reading Eagle Oct. 7,2023

The makeup of the Berks County commissioners could look very different next year. All three spots on the board will be on the ballot during for the Nov. 7 general election. And a pair of Republican incumbents and two Democratic newcomers will be vying for the slots.The Republican candidates are Christian Leinbach and Michael Rivera.

On the Democratic side, there is no incumbent. Former Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt stepped down from his post in January to take over as the county’s chief operations officer, and Lucine Sihelnik was picked to temporarily replace him after vowing not to run in the election. The Democratic candidates are former state Rep. Dante Santoni Jr. and Spring Township Supervisor Jess Royer.

The board of commissioners constitutes the chief governing body of the county. The commissioners serve on the salary, prison, retirement and election boards. In carrying out the management of county finances and property, they appoint a board for the assessment of real property in the county; formulate and approve the annual budget; set the annual county tax rates; supervise the conduct of elections; and provide for the care of prisoners.

Commissioners are elected to four-year terms and receive a salary of $110,338.

We asked the candidates to respond to three questions:

Question 1: What would be your top three priorities if elected?

Question 2: How would you describe your leadership style?

Question 3: How do you want the county to be different four years from now?

Dante Santoni Jr.
Party: Democrat

Age: 63

Background: Santoni, a Muhlenberg Township resident, served as a state representative from 1993 to 2010. He was also appointed to serve as a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.


Response 1: My first priority would be economic development, which includes but is not limited to passenger rail service from Reading to Philadelphia. This will help ease road congestion, reduce pollution and connect our county to the surrounding region.

My second priority would be to improve our county’s infrastructure by working with our state and local partners to receive the resources we need to improve our roads, fix our bridges and enhance our county parks system.

My third priority would be to ensure the integrity of our elections by making sure every vote is counted, denounce political extremism and violence, stop the spread of misinformation and defend the outcome of elections no matter who wins.

Response 2: I am a consensus builder. I have shown throughout my political career that I will work with Democrats, Republicans and independents to do what is best for our community.

I want to make Berks County a better place to live, work and raise your family. I believe that government, while not the answer to all our problems, can be an effective partner with our business and labor communities to enhance the quality of life in Berks. I will put all my effort into making county government that kind of dynamic, effective partner.

Response 3: I would like, in the next four years, for the following to occur: passenger rail service from Reading to Philadelphia  to become a reality; have a county public health department up and running to meet the physical and mental needs of our county; improve our roads and bridges; and work with the City of Reading to make it a vibrant, exciting place to live and work.

I would also like to ensure our regional airport meets the needs of our citizens and our business community; enhance our county park system to make sure people can enjoy the outdoors; work with our local law enforcement agencies to help make our communities safer; and make our county a destination for the region and beyond.

Jess Royer
Party: Democrat

Age: 37

Background: Royer serves as a Spring Township supervisor. He is a reference librarian at the Reading Public Library, a union leader and former chairman of the township zoning hearing board.


Response 1: My top three priorities are as follows:

1) To push back against warehouse development and focus our efforts on smart growth. All across Berks County we’ve seen warehouse developers trying to build in wooded areas, on farmland and too close to communities. Instead, I will support a planning process that promotes smart growth, built around livable and walkable communities that are connected to a viable public transportation and passenger rail system.

2) To ensure that we have fully funded and accessible elections — this means making sure precincts are staffed on election day, campaign finance filings are made available digitally to ensure transparency and that we make it as straightforward for voters to cast their ballot as possible.

3) To support our public spaces, employees and institutions. As a public librarian, I know firsthand how dedicated and selfless our public sector employees are. I will always be an advocate for the employees who dedicate so much of their time and effort to Berks County. Similarly, I know how vital libraries and parks are for the mental, physical and financial well-being of county residents. Lastly, I commit to never privatizing Berks Heim or Berks County Prison.

Response 2: As a township supervisor in Spring Township, department head at Reading Public Library and youth soccer coach, I aim to lead by example and consensus. I make a point of finding ways to play to the strengths of individuals and build trust with those who are looking to me to lead.

Response 3: We have been slowly emerging from the shadows of both a global pandemic and a sustained attack on democracy. If we take these threats seriously, the next board of commissioners has the opportunity to restore faith in government by ensuring that we are providing for the health of our community and the viability of the democratic process.

Additionally, with the restoration of passenger rail businesses will flourish, air quality will improve and we will once again be able to get to Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and beyond — all without needing to drive. I will be a voice for growth and progress, and look forward to a Berks County that has a higher quality of life and is more connected to the outside world than ever before.

Christian Y. Leinbach
Party: Republican

Age: 64

Background: Leinbach, a Tilden Township resident, has served as a commissioner since 2008.


Response 1: My top three priorities are as follows:

The economy and spending — Groceries, gasoline and housing costs are serious concerns. We need commissioners that make fiscal policy job number one. The Rivera/Leinbach record is clear. A Moody’s top AAA bond rating makes Berks one of the best financially managed counties in the entire U.S. We continue to pay down debt and protect your money. Rivera/Leinbach has a record of keeping spending and county property taxes low.

Transportation — Effective and safe transportation is key to a healthy economy and a place that people want to live and raise a family. The Rivera/Leinbach team is committed to the completion of Route 222 North, starting the West Shore Bypass, restoring passenger rail and growing the Reading Regional Airport to the number one general aviation airport in Pennsylvania.

Protecting and enhancing our quality of life — Berks continues to lead Pennsylvania in the Agriculture Preservation Program with over 78,000 preserved acres. The Berks County Parks & Recreation Department has some of the best county parks in the state anchored by Gring’s Mill, the Heritage Center and Antietam Lake Park. We authored and now are implementing the first private/public economic development strategy for Berks.

Response 2: The Rivera/Leinbach team believes in the value of our county team. No one person has all the answers. We believe that decisions must be made based on solid verifiable data. We believe leadership is more about one’s character and respect for others than it is about a title.

I took office in 2008 and have served as commissioner’s board chair since January of 2012. For more about me visit I’m responsible, at least in part, for a Berks County government team that functions professionally and without drama.

We seek the truth and the facts, and we make decisions in the best interest of the people we serve. We have a record of truly making Berks better, stronger and the kind of place that residents choose to live and work. Commissioner Rivera and I believe in the power of our team and that’s why we are running together.

Response 3: Four years from now there is one thing that the Rivera/Leinbach team wants to remain the same: Our commitment to keeping spending and county property taxes low and the maintenance of our Moody’s AAA bond rating, making Berks one of the three best financially managed counties in Pennsylvania and the entire U.S.

I would like to know that passenger rail service will be coming to Reading and that the Reading Regional Airport is no longer shrinking but growing in its aviation operations and well on its way to being the best general aviation airport in Pennsylvania.

In short, I believe that the Rivera/Leinbach team is helping to Make Berks Better and stronger. And in four years Berks can be even better.

Michael Rivera
Party: Republican.

Age: 53.

Background: Rivera, a Bern Township resident, has served as a commissioner since 2020.


Response 1: My top three priorities are as follows:

The economy and spending — We have been paying down our debt and making sound financial decisions, and we will continue doing that. Berks has a Moody’s AAA bond rating, being one of only three in Pennsylvania and in the top 4% nationwide. The Rivera/Leinbach team has a record of fiscal responsibility and it is something we will continue doing in the next four years.

Transportation — To be able to maintain and grow our local economy we need to be easily accessible through different forms of transportation. The Rivera/Leinbach team is committed to the completion of Route 222 North, starting the West Shore Bypass, restoring passenger rail and growing the Reading Regional Airport to be the number one general aviation airport in the state.

Protecting and enhancing our quality of life — Parks and outdoor recreation are an important part of public health. Rivera/Leinbach take pride in our county park system and the amenities and activities they provide our residents. The enhancement of our parks and outdoor activities are part of the Imagine Berks Strategic Economic Development Action Plan.

Response 2: Having a good team is essential to be able to run an effective organization.

The Rivera/Leinbach team has strived to build a strong senior leadership team with subject matter experts and department heads who are known statewide for their capabilities. Although I am ultimately responsible for making my decisions, I rely on them to provide me the information and insight I need to make informed decisions, and I value their input.

I believe in hiring the right person for the job based on their experience, knowledge and credentials — not on what party they belong to. The Rivera/Leinbach team makes decisions we feel are in the best interest of the people we serve. Commissioner Leinbach believes in the power of our team and that’s why we are running together.

Response 3: In my first response I mentioned what will be my top three priorities. I want to make sure that in four years the county continues to be in a solid financial position, that we have made fiscally responsible decisions and that we have maintained our AAA bond rating by Moody’s.

I want to see that the Reading Regional Airport has grown its aviation operations and is known for being best in its class. I want to see passenger rail well on its way to becoming a reality in Berks.

Due to the implementation of Imagine Berks, we want Berks to be a desired place to live, work, play, have a business and start a family. The Rivera/Leinbach team is committed to continue working hard to Making Berks Better.

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