This is a Leader?

I’m the Judge of Election for Lower Saucon 7. On Election Day, November 2, I had a couple very unpleasant interactions with a candidate for Saucon Valley School Board, Shamim Pakzad.   I subsequently prepared a statement that I submitted to Amy Cozze, Chief Registrar of Elections for Northampton County. I wrote it for two reasons: first, to confirm that we had handled the situation correctly and in compliance with the rules governing polling locations and second, to have a contemporaneous statement of the events on file with the County.

Ms. Cozze confirmed that we did indeed handle the situation correctly and in accordance with the voting regulations.

Mr. Pakzad was re-elected to the Saucon Valley School Board.  I think the residents of the school district have a right to know what their school board member thinks is appropriate behavior under the circumstances outlined.  Rather than re-tell the story, I’ve simply provided a copy of the statement I made to the Registrar of Elections below.


“STATEMENT REGARDING EVENTS AT LOWER SAUCON 7 POLLING SITE

Tuesday, November 2, 2021.


Prepared by:    Andrea Wittchen, Judge of Election. Friday, November 5, 2021

I was the Judge of Election for Lower Saucon 7 on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.  Lower Saucon 7 and Lower Saucon 8 share a polling site in the Se-Wy-Co Fire Company Social Hall at 3621 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bethlehem, PA 18015.

Shamim Pakzad was a candidate for the Saucon Valley School Board.  Early in the day, I saw him, I assume, voting in Lower Saucon 8 which I assume is his voting district.  Afterwards, he came over to where I was at the Lower Saucon 7 registration table and struck up a conversation with me.  I have spoken with Mr. Pakzad in the past by phone and over email and Facebook.  As the conversation was dragging on, I was about to suggest that I needed to get back to my election duties when he ended the conversation and left.

Later that morning, I noticed that Mr. Pakzad was again back in the polling site, this time speaking at length with the Republican poll watcher.  I was busy checking in voters but I estimate he was in the polling area for about 15-20 minutes.

After he left, I referred to my election workers polling guide to read up on who was allowed within a polling site because I thought I remembered that candidates were not allowed inside except to cast their own votes.  I did not find any reference on the list of people allowed inside a polling site to a candidate being allowed on the premises.

A few hours later, I noticed that Mr. Pakzad was again back in the polling site, this time talking with election workers at the Lower Saucon 8 registration table.  As I was walking over to the table, I heard him ask one of the workers how many people had voted in the precinct.  After he left, I spoke with both Kathy, the Judge of Election for Lower Saucon 8, and Jody, the deputy constable, and advised them that candidates were not permitted in polling areas.  I asked if he had provided any identification as a poll watcher, which I thought was unlikely, or some other classification that would permit him to be in the area.  They said he had not shown anything like that. They confirmed that he had been asking for a count of how many people had voted.

Because we share the same voting space, Kathy and I often confer on details of election rules and protocol so that we are doing things consistently.  She agreed that he should not be in the polling area.

Shortly thereafter, sometime before about 2:45 PM, for the fourth time Mr. Pakzad again entered the polling site.  I approached him and informed him that unless he had some type of certification as a poll watcher or other legal justification, that as a candidate he was not permitted in the polling area.  He then reached for the hand sanitizer and said he had just come in to use the hand sanitizer, couldn’t he do that?  I advised him that that was not acceptable and that he would have to leave.  He then said couldn’t he use the restroom?  I said no, not really, that he was not permitted in the polling area.  He kept pushing the point about using the restrooms until I agreed that if he used the back entrance to the area of the restrooms, which is completely separated from the polling area by closed doors, that he could access the restrooms that way.

He left, then came back to complain that the back entrance was locked.  Jody agreed to open the door for him so he could use the restroom.  Subsequently, throughout the rest of the afternoon, we found the door propped open and left it that way.  When it became dark and the weather became colder to the point that some of my election team, which was closest to the restroom area, began to complain of being cold, I removed the log that was being used as a prop and closed the door.  Someone then propped it open again.  I removed the log and closed the door again. Before I did that, I consulted with Frank, the constable, who agreed we had every right to keep that door closed.

I would like to point out that there is a Speedway right down the street from Se-Wy-Co which has restroom facilities that are accessible to the public.  In addition, we did not prevent – or for that matter even monitor – the use of the restrooms by voters, election workers, or poll watchers.

At the end of the day, after we had closed up the polls and were leaving to drive to the court house to return our election materials, Mr. Pakzad was waiting outside the building.  As I left, he accosted me and loudly complained that I had applied the rules inequitably, that he was the only person who had been denied entrance to the polling area. I explained that those were the rules and that I was maintaining the integrity of the area by not permitting him to be in there. I also pointed out that we had made accommodation for him to access the restroom without having to transit the polling area.

He claimed that other candidates had walked straight through the polling area and used the restrooms.  He specifically stated that Lori Vargo Heffner and Tom Carocci had walked through the polling area.  I replied that I had not seen them do that, possibly because I was not there when it happened (I was out of the building from about 3 PM to about 4 PM) or because I was involved with election tasks.  I told him that if I had seen them, I would have said something.  He kept loudly complaining that I had been deliberately unfair to him.  He kept it up until I entered my car.  There were a number of witnesses to his behavior including most of my election team and several members of the Lower Saucon 8 election team.

I would like to state that while it is true that he was the only candidate that I requested abide by the election rules and stay out of the polling area, he was also the only candidate who entered that space 3 times in addition to the time he was there to vote, which made me notice that he was, in fact, unauthorized to be there.  I did not see the other candidates he referred to, but they were definitely not in the space multiple times, requesting information from poll workers or conferring with poll watchers.  

I believe that I acted in accordance with my oath and with the rules outlined in the guidebook that I was given to follow.  I treated him politely but with firmness and insisted that he follow the rules just like every other candidate.  I feel that his returning at the end of the day and waiting for me to leave was aggressive and uncalled for and that the claim of using the restroom was simply a pretext to justify his presence in a place he was not supposed to be.  Before I told him that he had to leave, he had made no movement in the direction of the restrooms.”


FYI, according to voting regulations, candidates are only allowed in their own precincts to cast their votes.  They are not permitted to converse with other voters or poll watchers within the polling area. They are not permitted in any other precincts for any purpose.

Read This Before You Vote

I covered this subject in my special election edition last weekend, but Tyler Pratt of WLVR takes a much deeper dive into the story behind the PAC Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania and the landfill money that is funding it. If you want to know more about what’s happening, take the time to read it. https://www.wlvr.org/2021/10/landfill-owner-dumps-75000-into-lower-saucon-township-council-race/?fbclid=IwAR2ruYD3SMLMP_avDw-C7VXU0GUSePLj2TYCLCTUc6JuzGSd3cuLLg5DPVI#.YX3SRy-caCc

Also, just so you are aware of what the Banonis-Carocci-Zavacky crew has been up to, they sent a cease and desist letter this week to Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, George Gress and Tom Roney demanding that they retract statements that were virtually identical to what Mr. Pratt is reporting at WLVR. When the Democratic candidates rightfully ignored that attempt at bullying, the Republicans filed for an emergency injunction in court on Friday. The request was denied.

These are the same people who claim they’re going to bring “experienced sound decision-making” to township government. What a joke.

When Is a Council Meeting Not a Council Meeting?

Last night I attended what I thought would be a regularly scheduled meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council.  What I witnessed instead was a thinly disguised excuse to do campaign politicking, to demonize a neighboring borough official and allow at least one resident to throw a very public temper tantrum.  What a circus Lower Saucon has become!

Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. on Pexels.com

To the details

First, the Council approved the new 5-year police contract.  Virtually no discussion.  Vote: 5-0.

Next up was the approval of the Covid bonuses for the union police officers which really needed to be done before Election Day so no one could claim the Township Council didn’t love their police.  You’ll recall these were the bonuses that couldn’t be approved previously because, even though Mr. Banonis had said their payment had nothing to do with the police contract, Mr. Banonis had also said they should wait till after the contract was completed to be approved. Hunh? Anyway, when Mrs. deLeon again raised the objection to how this had been handled, saying it felt like the bonuses had been withheld till contract completion to exert leverage, Mr. Carocci hastened to say that Mrs. deLeon was disrespecting the police officers by suggesting that they could be influenced by such a maneuver. Wait – doesn’t withholding approval of the bonuses till after contract completion imply exactly that same disrespect?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

And then, just to show what great guys they are, they decided to up the bonuses to $3,000 instead of $2,500 like everyone else got because, hey, when it’s not your money, who cares?  It’s coming from the federal government and we all know we have nothing to do with supporting that.  Anyway, supposedly since the checks will be cut on the same day as the other bonus checks for the other employees, it’s all a wash anyway, right?

Well, no, it’s not.  What it’s about is how you treat the people who work for you. If there was any disrespect shown, it was by the Council not approving the police bonuses at the same time as all the others.  The bonuses are supposedly for showing up and doing your job during the very stressful time of Covid.  No other qualification necessary – you just had to show up and do your job – with money coming from American Rescue Plan funds which are available. Their handling of it sent a very clear message that the bonuses for police were on the table during contract negotiations, meaning that the bonus wasn’t solely predicated on your doing your job during Covid because they already knew the police did that back on October 6 when they approved the other bonuses.  For police officers, it was also predicated on agreeing to a new 5-year contract. 

Even if that wasn’t explicitly stated – and it wasn’t – you’d have to be blind not to see the implication.  From a human resource management perspective, this is crappy practice. In addition, we’ve now created a two-level caste system for the bonuses. Again, really shoddy HR practice.  

And while we’re talking about bonuses, let’s highlight Mrs. deLeon’s suggestion that the fire company volunteers should perhaps be receiving bonuses also. After all, they had to do the same things the police officers did – respond to dwellings where they had no idea if someone had Covid, enter the buildings not knowing what they’d find, treat people who might have been infected.  Why don’t they deserve bonuses too?  Maybe not as much since they’re part-time volunteers, but how about $500 each just for showing up last year?  That’s all the employees had to do to get their bonuses.

Somewhere in here we also got a cute little bit of performative theater from Mr. Carocci when he asked an audience member, presumably a police officer (I couldn’t see who it was), if he was happy with the new contract?  Oh yes, sir.  And was he happy with the $3,000 bonus?  Oh yes, sir.  What else did you expect him to say in front of a room full of residents and the Police Chief?

Then we had an update from Ms. Huhn on the Active Transportation Plan which Mr. Banonis went to great pains to point out she had moved up from the previous December 1 date at his request because . . . why? since, as Ms. Huhn acknowledged, none of this work can happen until next Spring.  Maybe to get it on the agenda before Election Day? But anyway, Public Works is going to draw up plans for some of the items in the first phase of the Plan which is a good thing.

Now comes the most ridiculous agenda item – Lower Saucon Fire Rescue – Update on Fire Calls in Steel City.  This was not an update. Ty Johnson, fire chief, simply presented the same data that had been presented before the vote in the summer to name LSFR the sole fire services provider for LST.  The data only covered January through May 2021.  Nothing new.  Nothing different.  And if it was new, it was unreadable in the tiny type on the Powerpoint slide.

But it did provide another opportunity to dump on the Steel City Fire Company and our neighbors in Hellertown. Mr. Banonis took the opportunity of this agenda item to then share some hearsay about something Tom Rieger, President of Hellertown Borough, had said in a meeting about an LSFR vehicle racing through the borough at high speeds which then gave Mr. Johnson the opportunity to complain that Mr. Rieger had not contacted him about it and wasn’t that awful. You get the idea.

Here’s the point.  The information about whatever Mr. Rieger said was off-topic for the agenda item. It’s also, frankly, none of the LST Council’s business.  As both the Council and the Fire Company never miss an opportunity to explain, LSFR is an independent entity, not controlled or managed by the township.  It’s between LSFR and Mr. Rieger to work out.

But it also provided the opportunity for the real fireworks display of the night.  Township resident Donna Louder spoke to make some complaint about Tom Rieger and his connection to someone who’s connected to the Steel City Fire Company who owns Quest Diagnostics putting a campaign sign on his business and violating 501(c)3 requirements and who knows what else.  It was pretty incoherent.  Mrs. Yerger informed Mrs. Louder that she was incorrect on her 501(c)3 claims as did I. Mrs. Louder than continued to rant about contacting the IRS and the Attorney General about Steel City and demanding an investigation, despite Mrs. Yerger’s admonitions to tone it down.  Mrs. Louder then verbally attacked Mrs. Stauffer when she entered the conversation with questions about what specifically Mrs. Louder was referring to at which time things really spiraled out of control with Mrs. Louder yelling and screaming at Mrs. Stauffer.  Eventually, she stopped after Mrs. Yerger repeatedly told her she was out of order. But later in the meeting she continued to be disruptive.

Here’s the pertinent question for Mrs. Yerger.  Why do you put up with this?  What happened to the 3-minute limit for residents to speak?  Why wasn’t that enforced?  You’re quick enough to enforce it during Public Comment. And when Mrs. Louder refused to settle down, why wasn’t she removed from the meeting?  Chief Barndt was right there.  At your request, he could have removed her. Other councils and school boards have done this.  


Perhaps if she had been removed, she would not have felt entitled to continue the harassment of Mrs. Stauffer after the meeting to the extent that Chief Barndt did have to intervene.  Does any of this have to do with the fact that Mrs. Louder’s husband is a Lower Saucon police officer and was there?

The point is all of this could have been avoided by not putting something on the agenda that was only a rehash of prior information and of no particular value.

Anyway, two small glimmers of hope – Ms. Huhn reported that the administrative staff had visited Hellertown to view their audio-visual set-up for livestreaming council meetings and that they would also be visiting North Whitehall Township.  Baby steps. And Chief Barndt found an organization that will take the Township’s outdated ballistic vests and deconstruct and recycle them for the cost to the Township of shipping them to the organization. That’s a very cool solution. Unfortunately it got derailed by Attorney Alan Mege who wanted the Council to consider donating them to the county courthouse because they are short of equipment. There were a number of concerns raised about donating expired safety equipment and the liabilities it might raise for the township. Nevertheless, the motion to ship the vests was withdrawn while the Township looks into the possibilities. Hopefully this will be cleared up soon. Deconstructing and recycling seems like a very good option.

So that’s what you missed last night. Nothing particularly of value but a lot of insight into the township’s dysfunction that is overseen by two council members who are running for re-election.  Is this really the kind of local government you want for the next 2-4 years? Keep it in mind before you vote on Tuesday.

ONE MORE THING BEFORE WE GO . . .

Why is Tom Carocci also on the ballot for Constable? As Kenan Thompson would say, “What’s up with that?” 

General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021 – Polls open 7 AM to 8 PM.  Mail-in ballots due in by 8 PM at Northampton County Court House

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, November 17, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

SPECIAL ELECTION EDITION

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

When I began Saucon Shenanigans in July 2020, I did so in response to some absolutely appalling behavior by elected council members that I had witnessed at repeated township council meetings over the previous few months.  I thought (hoped) that if I drew attention to how inappropriate and counterproductive such behavior was that mature, responsible adults would take positive action to improve.  In my first issue I wrote “My hope is that Council behavior will become more civil, collegial and professional as the year progresses, leading to better governance and better decisions. Increased transparency would be an improvement also.”

By and large, that hasn’t happened. Obviously my first mistake was to assume that I was dealing with mature, responsible adults.

And so here we are, 15 months later, with municipal elections fast approaching on November 2 and while I did not originally expect to endorse particular candidates in elections, I have no choice but to take a position on the best choices for Township Council and, because the local school board seems to have some of the same behaviors, Saucon Valley School Board.

SAUCON SHENANIGANS ENDORSES

For Lower Saucon Township Council Victoria Opthof-Cordaro 

George Gress 

Tom Roney 

For Saucon Valley School Board

Raquel Barbera

Vivian Demko

Robert Phillips

Tracy Magnotta

If you’d like more detail on why I’ve chosen to endorse these candidates, keep reading.

There are so many reasons why Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci do not deserve your vote to continue on township council.  I’ll try to keep it as succinct as possible.

Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

This is one of the guidelines I said I would use in writing this blog. That could hardly be more pertinent now when one looks at the egregious gaslighting that’s been pouring into our mailboxes from their campaign mailers.

“Cut your Earned Income Tax by 20% in 2021”  – NO

No, they didn’t cut your earned income tax by anything.  The statute that permits the collection of an additional .25% in EIT for the purpose of purchasing land for conservation has a sunset provision.  That means that it MUST be ended after a certain period of time.  The extra .25% has been in place for 15 years.  BY LAW, it must be ended.  They had nothing to do with it except to pass the facilitating ordinance, about which they had no choice.

“Refused Council pay – saving thousands of your dollars”  – MISLEADING 

This one appeared on a particularly ugly mailer implying that the Democratic candidates were trying to reap personal financial benefits from the Township by accepting the compensation provided for council members.  The applicable township ordinance regarding council member compensation reads as follows:

“Salary of Council members. [Amended 4-18-1990 by Ord. No. 90-6; 12-27-1995 by Ord. No. 95-9] (1) Each member of the Council, elected or appointed to office on or after the effective date of this chapter, shall [emphasis added] receive the maximum annual compensation provided and allowable by the Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. § 65606, titled “Compensation of Supervisors,” and by law.”

That does not say “may”.  It says “shall”.  It is not negotiable.  In fact, I would question whether it’s in violation of the ordinance to not accept the pay or whether the council person should be paid (with taxes, etc. deducted and reportable as income) and then, if they choose, donate it to wherever they like. At the May 6, 2020, council meeting, after that question was raised, the Council passed a motion to inquire of PSATS (the state advisory organization for municipalities) if a W-2 is required based on the fact that the ordinance says “shall.” While the motion passed, there has been no subsequent report on the answer to that question. Wonder why.

Incidentally, those thousands of dollars?  Do you know what compensation is for a township council person?  $3,250 per year.  That’s right.  Adding Social Security and Medicare taxes, it comes to $3,498.62 per year.  For 3 council people, that totals $10,495.88.  Do you know what the township’s budget is?  For 2022, it’s $11,765,557 or for just the General Fund, $8,458,775.

Some quick math

$10,495.88 divided by $11,765,557 = .0009 (that’s .09%) OR

$10,495.88 divided by $8,458,775 (for the General Fund) = .0012 (that’s .12%)

They’re touting that they will save the township a whopping 0.09% of the budget by not taking their compensation.  Or in relation to the General Fund – 0.12%.  I call that a rounding error.  And let’s not forget that their Republican council colleague, Council President Sandra Yerger, does take her compensation and has not signed on to reject it. In fact, her vote sank the resolution that Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci tried to jam through in May 2020 asking all council members to voluntarily forego their compensation.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Not only is that a miniscule amount of money in the township’s budget, it also raises the question of why do we compensate people at all for the job in the first place?  Perhaps because we value their service and appreciate the time they put in?  Or perhaps because we realize that it creates a consensual agreement between the citizens and their elected representatives that implies some responsibility of the elected representative to the people they serve? When you reject the compensation, are you also rejecting that responsibility?

If Lower Saucon Township were living on the brink of bankruptcy and had significant financial issues, this might (possibly) mean something.  But it’s not. It’s a political ploy, despite what Mr. Banonis claimed at the May 6, 2020, council meeting.  From the minutes: “Mr. Banonis said we’re not campaigning. … and it’s certainly not a campaign tool.”  Really?  Then why are you mentioning it in your campaign literature?  

And why did Mr. Carocci’s motion to request voluntary refusal of council compensation include “for the remainder of 2020 and all of 2021?”  Perhaps because he knew 2021 would be an election year?

Watch what they do, not what they say.

“Support our … fire services” – ONLY AFTER THEY BULLY THEM

Anyone who watched the shenanigans around the adoption of the 2021 budget back in October 2020 has to wonder what dictionary Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci get their definition of “support” from.  By the addition of a footnote to the 2021 budget, they required that Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and Steel City Fire Company complete their merger – in the middle of a pandemic and with state resources seriously overwhelmed – before they could receive any funding in 2021.  If the fire companies missed the deadline, then funding would be cut in incremental amounts down to eventually zero.  LSFR leadership objected strenuously.

The merger didn’t happen.  The deadlines passed. No funding was approved until June when all of a sudden it was just fine that they’d missed the deadline.  After all that bullying, they went ahead and fully funded LSFR and named them sole fire services provider for the township, cutting off Steel City.  

And then this October, Mr. Carocci, who loves to tout how he’s concerned about spending the residents’ money, arbitrarily suggested adding an additional $25,000, or a 12.5% increase, to the fire company budget even though LSFR had apparently not requested that amount, at least not in any public meetings.  Those poor people at the fire company must be suffering from whiplash.

“Support our … police” – UNLESS YOU’RE IN CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS

This hypocrisy has been covered in the most recent issue of Saucon Shenanigans (see the blog archives “What’s the Rush, Boys?”).  I urge you to read the details there.  It boils down to Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, abetted by Mrs. Yerger, approved $2500 per person Covid bonuses to all township employees EXCEPT the union police officers, supposedly because the township was in negotiation with the police union over a new contract.  Of course, the details of that agreement had already been accepted the same night that the bonuses were awarded and Mr. Banonis argued that one had nothing to do with the other except, apparently, it did.    

“Sound fiscal management” – BUT ABOUT THAT $920,000 EXCESS IN THE BUDGET           

It’s astonishing that no one ever asks why for several years now the township has been adopting a budget that contains such a huge excess. Yeah, yeah, they tout that they “permanently” reduced township taxes by 20%, but why do you need an almost $1 million slush fund each year? The excuse used to be that they were stockpiling money for when the landfill gets built out, but no one’s mentioned that lately.  (See below). And any planning for future development in the township to offset such a closure seems to have flown out the window in the last year also. Again, why is that?

And FYI, there’s no such thing as “permanently” reducing township taxes.  They can raise them again whenever they want to.

Follow the Money

That’s one of the other guidelines I said I would use in writing this blog.  So let’s look at a little history.

In 2015, the IESI Bethlehem landfill needed to expand to continue operations, an expansion called the Southeastern Realignment.  That same year, a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania suddenly popped up stating that it was supporting three Republican candidates for LST council – Sandra Yerger, the current Council president, Tom Maxfield, and Bill Ross – in the May 19 primary that year. The $20,950 in contributions to the PAC came substantially ($20,000) from the landfill company (IESI Bethlehem) as well as an in-kind contribution of $500 from IESI NY Corp which oversaw the Bethlehem landfill and $450 from residents of the township. The bulk of the money was paid to Mercury Public Affairs of NY for producing mail pieces and other services. And the in-kind services were provided by Andrew Moss, an attorney who worked for Progressive Waste Solutions.

The expansion was subsequently approved.  

Fast forward to 2021.  Another landfill expansion is again on the table, this one for the Northern Realignment. And just in time for the general election, up pops our old friend, Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania, only this time with a mailing address in Crompond, NY instead of in Hellertown.  This time they’re in it for much bigger money.  This PAC has received $75,000 in contributions from Waste Connections US, Inc., a firm headquartered in The Woodlands, Texas, that happens to be the parent company of – wait for it – IESI Bethlehem landfill.  And who is this “independent expenditure organization” supporting?  Why, the three Republicans running for LST Council – Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky.

Coincidence, you say?  This iteration of the PAC reports that its chairperson is one Andrew Moss of Cortlandt Manor, NY (sound familiar?). He conveniently has also provided a mailbox for the PAC.  And the mail pieces and other campaign literature, GOTV and political consulting services, website and internet services? All the work of one Mercury Public Affairs, now apparently headquartered in Tampa, FL.  

Of course, the local developer, David Spirk, who previously headed up Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania back in 2015 has been replaced by the above-mentioned Mr. Moss as chairperson and one Adwoa Boateng as treasurer, another New York state resident.  What’s with all this NY interest in Lower Saucon? But you can find Mr. Spirk as an in-kind contributor to the Zavacky Carocci Banonis for Lower Saucon Township Council Committee along with a few other prominent area developers.  

Then if we go back to January 2021 and remember that Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, in a very ugly reorganizational meeting, forced Mrs. deLeon, who had decades of experience working as the council landfill committee liaison and who was content to remain as the liaison, out of her position so she could be replaced by Mr. Carocci, you might start to see some dots emerging that could possibly be connected.  Because of course you wouldn’t want someone with extensive landfill experience to be the liaison to support the township’s committee.  As I recall they objected that Mrs. deLeon was too confrontational.  Wouldn’t want that.

But, there’s probably nothing there.  As we all know, PACs are not permitted to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns and that never happens (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).  

On the other hand, if you find this all plausibly coincidental, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

Put all this together and ask yourself.  Is this who you really want running this township for the next two to four years? How do the residents of Steel City, butted right up against the landfill, feel about this? Do you think your concerns will be adequately addressed? And do you really want the boorish, arrogant bullying that we’ve witnessed over the last two years to be the face that Lower Saucon presents to the world?  

As to the third member of the slate, Mrs. Zavacky, well, you’re known by the company you keep.

Vote Opthof-Cordaro – Gress – Roney

School Board Choices

I don’t usually cover the Saucon Valley School Board but I have a few comments to make in that regard since how we educate our children is essential to the future of our world.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The current board is also engaging in a good deal of gaslighting as well.  There’s been a lot of mealy-mouthed equivocating on the subject of masking, at least until Governor Wolf took the decision out of the hands of such people as serve on the current board. (Thank you, Governor Wolf.). This should have been the easiest decision they had to make.  Their first and foremost responsibility is to keep our children safe and then, once that’s taken care of, to provide them with an effective education.  And while they love to tout that they were the only district to keep in-person learning available all last year, they fail to mention that they did it by requiring masking.  So faced with the same responsibility this school year, they dithered and vacillated and came up with a convoluted solution designed to guarantee no level of safety. And now they want you to re-elect them.  No thanks.

As for the Republican candidate who claims to be a victim of racism, any white man who wakes up in this country and claims he’s a victim of racism is either delusional or too uneducated to be allowed to sit on a school board.

Vote Barbera – Demko – Phillips – Magnotta

ELECTION DAY – TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2021 – POLLS OPEN AT 7 AM.  OR RETURN YOUR MAIL-IN BALLOT BY NOVEMBER 2 AT 8 PM

What’s the Rush, Boys? (strap in – it’s a long one)

The pathetically underattended meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council took place on Wednesday, October 6, 2021.  Apparently very few residents considered it important to show up for discussion of the proposed 2022 budget, the marquee item on the agenda.

There were 5 members from the Chamber of Commerce in attendance to present a donation check of $810.19 to the police department from a fundraiser they held.  They promptly skedaddled once the presentation was over.  There were three representatives of the Hellertown council/mayor there. More on their concerns later.  They stayed for the whole meeting, to their credit.  Then there were a number of candidates for Council who have been reliably attending meetings for several months and Mrs. Zavacky who hardly ever bothers to show up. Beyond that, you could count the attendees on one hand and have fingers left over.

The housekeeping stuff all passed with 5-0 votes.  Mrs. Yerger announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Council had met in executive session and accepted the terms of the agreement that will result in a 5-year contract with the police department. The Council then officially passed the motion to accept it, 5-0.

That July Data Breach

On questioning from resident George Gress, we finally got an answer to the outcome of the investigation of the data breach on July 9. Solicitor Treadwell reported that the server had been infiltrated by unauthorized people but that no personal or sensitive information had been compromised.  There was no cost involved for the investigation beyond the $2500 deductible of the insurance policy.  It should be pointed out, however (although Solicitor Treadwell didn’t mention it), that remediation to the IT systems to prevent future hacks appears to come to more than $20,000 based on the figures listed in the 2022 budget.  This includes the replacement of 2 servers.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection completed its first Environmental Assessment Review of the Bethlehem landfill.  The report was sent to the landfill committee which had not met prior to the Council meeting.  The landfill committee chairman reported that they had done a good job.  The landfill needs to respond by December 24.  Mrs. deLeon requested that a report from the landfill committee be put on the agenda for after their October 21 meeting.  Watch this space.

On to the Budget

One small question I had raised in the last issue of Saucon Shenanigans regarding a surprisingly large increase in the Council Expenses account for next year was easily answered by Finance Director Cathy Gorman.  The 72% increase represented both some IT remediation costs but also, more significantly, funding in case all of the Council members choose to attend conferences in 2022.  Because of Covid last year, most conferences were cancelled or Council members chose not to attend, dramatically reducing the actual costs in that account.

Of more interest and concern was the extensive discussion regarding the funding for the Hellertown Public Library which gave rise to the question asked in the title of today’s blog.

Hellertown Public Library

In the budget proposed at the workshop session on September 15, LST’s contribution to the library was pegged at $100,264, the same amount as last year.  At that workshop session, Mr. Carocci had requested that Ms. Gorman refigure the budget with increases of both 5% and 7.5% for the library in 2022.  Those numbers came out to $105,277 and $107,784, respectively.  But Mrs. Stauffer, the Council’s liaison to the library, had also asked at that same meeting that Ms. Gorman come up with a per capita model that could be used for determining the township’s contribution.  

Mrs. Stauffer asked at this meeting for that per capita model and, doing calculations on the spot using the new census figure of 11,094 residents in the township, Mrs. Gorman came up with the figure of $9.66 per capita, which actually doesn’t match the budget number of $107,784. It comes out to $107,168.04 instead.  Supposedly that $107,168.04 number came from the library board’s proposal to the township, although that proposal was not available to view.  

Here’s where it gets weird.  A little history is in order.

When the township agreed to join with Hellertown Borough in supporting the Hellertown Public Library – a move that was decidedly NOT supported by a large number of LST residents who were not happy to lose access to the much better resourced and more professionally managed Bethlehem Public Library – a five-year agreement was created that covered the new relationship.  That agreement included the funding arrangement.  The agreement expired with the 2020 budget but, because of Covid and the difficulties in meeting, the budget figure for 2021 remained the same as for 2020 based on a memo from the library board to the Township requesting the same.

That means that a new 5-year agreement needed to be produced for this year or the previous one extended again.  

That agreement has apparently not been finalized or approved by either LST or Hellertown Borough.  In fact, the Hellertown Borough folks were at the LST meeting because they had not yet had an opportunity to discuss what they were going to do vis-à-vis the new agreement and they wanted to see what LST was planning to do.  Which raises the question, if there has been no finalized agreement or even extensive discussions, why were Mr. Carocci and Mr. Banonis so adamant that a number had to be inserted into the budget and the budget approved at this Council meeting?

FYI, in 2019, the budget adoption meeting was held on October 23.  Last year, the budget adoption meeting was held on October 28.  So clearly it was not necessary to pass the budget at this October 6 meeting.

This is not the way to run a township or a budgeting process, just haphazardly choosing a percentage increase in the budget for the library and then sticking it into the budget along with a reminder that anything in the budget could be adjusted by 10% after the budget was adopted and saying you’ll figure out later what the number should be.  Especially when there’s NO RUSH TO GET THIS DONE!

So let me, in the interest of civic improvement and waiving my usual $250/hour consulting fee, offer an idea for how a responsibly-run township should approach this.

1. The Library should have provided a draft 5-year agreement for review by both Hellertown Borough and LST in a timely manner prior to budget consideration.  [NOTE: meeting timely deadlines does not seem to be a strong point of the library leadership.  That needs to change.]

2. The draft 5-year agreement should include a budget for 2022 as well as a budget request for the amount of support needed from the Borough and the Township, on the assumption that the library has other sources of revenue such as fines, fees, grants, and private donations.  That budget should be created based on a thorough analysis of what the library’s real costs will be and the costs of any anticipated improvements or expansions, not on what they consider to be an amount that won’t annoy the Township or Borough.  

3. The budget request to the Borough and the Township should then be apportioned based on a clearly defined funding formula.  It would seem that a per capita cost based on current census numbers would be the most equitable.  For example, since LST has 11,094 residents and Hellertown has 6,132, the total budget request should be divided by 17,226 to determine the per capita number and then that number should be multiplied by the number of residents in each municipality to determine the actual dollars requested from each entity.  

[NOTE: there are other ways to allocate funding, such as by a percentage or by a percentage that takes into account the in-kind donation from Hellertown of having the library within their borders which possibly generates non-financial support needs from the Borough. Whatever the mechanism, it should be clearly explained.]

4. It would also be useful if the library would produce a 5-year projection budget to give the financing bodies some idea of what to expect down the road, highlighting any assumptions of population growth or per capita increase.

5. The Library Board should then make a presentation to both councils.  Preferably this would include the director of the library and the president of the library’s board as well as their financial person.  That presentation might include, in addition to the budget request, a review of what the library has accomplished in the previous year and what it hopes to change.  For example, the library has been doing good work on revising its by-laws, cleaning up its board rotation process and developing job descriptions for board members.  This would all be of interest in evaluating the budget request.  This presentation should NOT be left to the Council’s library liaison member since that member has no authority to make or change any of the library’s decisions.

6. After the presentation, each municipality could then debate the budget request and decide how they will respond to it. At this point, they could make an INFORMED decision on what the budget number should be, not a shot in the dark.  If there are concerns about how one municipality’s decision could affect another’s, there could be a joint workshop meeting simply for the sake of considering this one agenda item.  If the municipalities decline to meet the library’s requested budget amount, the library would either have to find other sources of revenue for that shortfall or reduce their spending.  The 5-year agreement should cover what the options are and what the municipalities’ responsibilities are in that kind of a situation.

7. There also needs to be a formal adoption of the 5-year agreement with the library.  Once that agreement, which includes the funding formula for future years, is in place, future oversight could include an annual status presentation from the library at the same time as each year’s budget request and discussion takes place. Before it’s adopted, the public should have the opportunity to both read and comment on it at a public meeting.

There. I fixed it for you.

Based on this year’s meeting schedule, even with the library missing the September 1 date to submit the budget request, the request to create a test budget at 5% and 7.5% for the library could have been made at the Sept. 15 meeting as it was (although a percentage increase is an arbitrary and ill-informed choice), the presentation from the library plus the informed budget discussion could have been made at the October 6 meeting and any differences with Hellertown could have been worked out then or at a subsequent joint workshop meeting.  That would have left plenty of time to adopt the new budget on October 27 in a similar timeframe to previous years.  

And we all know the Council makes the fire company jump through similar hoops every year for funding, so why should the library be any different?

If the LST Council isn’t willing to invest the time and energy to responsibly analyze the Hellertown Library budget request each year, then why don’t they just admit it and sign us back up with Bethlehem where all they have to do is write a check?

The draft budget was adopted 4-1 with Mrs. Stauffer voting no because of the handling of the library issue.

Again, what was the rush this year?

The other item irrationally discussed and jammed through was the decision to provide $2500 bonuses to 20 township employees from the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 funds.  When Mr. Carocci suggested it at the September 15 meeting, resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro asked why the uniformed police department members were not included in the bonus plan.  Mr. Carocci’s response was that he didn’t want to provide bonuses to the police department while they were in the middle of negotiations.  However, Solicitor Treadwell and Mr. Carocci himself admitted that the money for the bonuses was not coming from the township budget.  Mr. Carocci also described this as a bonus for township employees for doing their jobs through the Covid crisis. So there is no correlation between a contract negotiation that results in a budgeted township expense and has long-term implications and a one-time, one-off bonus that has no relationship to job performance or work rules or a union contract and is going to be paid for out of Federally-provided funds.  

Nevertheless, he persisted that the police should not be included in the bonus payment with a promise that they could be included after negotiations were completed.

Jump to October 6.  The first action of the meeting was to accept the terms of the 5-year agreement with the police union.  But when the item to award bonuses to township employees from the American Rescue Plan Covid-19 funds was presented for approval, again the unionized police officers are not to be included at this time.  So – you have an approved agreement with the police union but they’re still not eligible for the bonus – yet??  How does that work? Both Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Opthof-Cordaro raised that question, again, with Mrs. deLeon saying that it looked like this was holding the police department hostage to sign the 5-year agreement.  And again the response was that, well, the agreement wasn’t signed and Mr. Banonis rejected the idea of hostage-taking.  From the draft minutes of the October 6 meeting:

“Mr. Banonis: ‘It’s just a matter of reducing the terms of that [agreement] to a formal contract and having it executed. So this in no way is being used as leverage.’ Ms. deLeon said in her opinion one has nothing to do with the other. ‘You are treating a different…’ Mr. Banonis said ‘exactly, you are right, they don’t.'”

So which is it, Mr. Banonis?  Do the two things have nothing to do with each other?  Or is the bonus contingent on the police department signing the 5-year contract?  Or does it just look that way, because, gee, that’s a really good way to manage the relationship with the police department. Sounds like your mouth says the first thing and your actions execute the second. 

I wonder how our police department is feeling about being left out of the bonus process, at least for the time being.  All warm and fuzzy?  All appreciated for the work they did?  Maybe not so much?  Perhaps they should go talk to the guys in the fire department about their treatment at the hands of this council during last year’s budget process.

And then the other question is – what was the rush?  The Council doesn’t have to spend these funds by any specific date.  They could have waited until after the police contract was signed, if that was their preference, to award all the bonuses to all the people eligible.  Why’d you have to rush to get it done piecemeal?  Why not avoid even the impression of bullying or favoritism? That would be good township and personnel management.

The motion passed 3-2 with Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon voting no.

One More Thing Before We Go

It was heartening to see that Junior Councilperson Avia Weber wore a mask throughout the entire Council meeting.  Apparently mask-wearing is less of an issue for students than some would have us believe. Or possibly, they’re just smarter, more careful, and more considerate than most of the adults in the room.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 27, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Mail-in ballots can be returned as soon as you receive them.

Watch for the Special Election Edition, coming out this weekend.

Where Have All the People Gone?

The September 15th meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council was again sparsely attended.  Aside from the council members, the township staff and the police chief, there were only about 14 people present.  That included state representative Milou Mackenzie.  She was apparently there to toot her own horn about how available she is to help township residents with whatever it is they need.  Yes, we know.  That’s your job.  Too bad so few people could hear her remarks.

Photo by Jonas Kakaroto on Pexels.com

The other unfortunate thing about the dearth of listeners was that this was the meeting where the 2022 draft budget was presented by Director of Finance Cathy Gorman.  This is the time to get a good idea of where your tax dollars will be going next year and to make any suggestions of alternatives.  Sadly, there are very few township residents who are now adequately informed.

Ms. Gorman provided a review of the current financial state of the township as well as an analysis of where it will be at fiscal year end (December 31).  She then went into detail about each of the items in the budget.  I know – not scintillating Netflix stuff, but this is the stuff that counts, People!

Once Ms. Gorman finished, Mr. Carocci spoke up with his laundry list of changes that he wanted to see in the proposed budget.  They included a 2.5% salary increase for township employees, a $5-10/hour increase for Solicitor Treadwell, an additional $25,000 for the fire department, $20,000 additional for road maintenance, and an increase of either 5% or 7.5% of library funding with a matching percentage from Hellertown. 

[NOTE: These numbers are from my notes of the meeting.  As of this writing, the minutes of that portion of the meeting are missing on-line so I can’t verify them against the draft minutes.  I’ve asked Ms. Huhn to post the missing pages so that they are available for comparison.]

Mr. Carocci also proposed a bonus of $2500 per township employee to be taken from the additional funds provided by the American Rescue Plan, separate and apart from township expenses.  This would be as a thank you for surviving Covid.  It would cover 21 employees (administrative, police and public works) for a total of $52,500 but would not affect the township’s operating budget.There was no substantive opposition from anyone on Council to any of these changes so Ms. Gorman said that she would produce additional scenarios of the budget with the suggested changes for review.  FYI – the township expects to have approximately $1.65 million as a beginning balance going into 2022, so none of these changes make a substantial difference in the township’s financial situation. 

More on the budget and what to expect at Wednesday’s Council meeting below.

The other item of significance on the September 15 agenda was the presentation of an estimate to retrofit Council chambers to support interactive livestreaming of Council meetings.  There was only one proposal submitted which was by the firm that had done the previous audio-visual work in the township building.  The estimate was for $17,500 to provide the capability to both livestream meetings and to have interactive feedback from residents who are watching the livestream.  Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer in particular have been adamant about the need for such a capability.  And in fact, the dramatic drop in residents who participate in Council meetings, from an average of about 35 to 40 during Zoom meetings to a recent average of about 14 or 15, underscores the need for ease of accessibility to the meetings. It has been very disappointing that, even though Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer have repeatedly pointed out the need to get such a capability in place, we are now 3-1/2 months beyond the return to in-person meetings with no solution on the horizon, exacerbated by the other Council members’ deafness to the need (or perhaps their lack of desire) for such a capability.

That said, and I am a strong supporter of livestreamed, interactive meetings, Mr. Carocci raised a few salient points, most importantly that he was uncomfortable with only having one estimate for a project like this.  He also expressed concern that it was not clear who would manage such a system and whether the township had the in-house technical capabilities to make sure it was operable.  After considerable discussion of those points and others, the motion was tabled and Ms. Huhn was instructed to get at least two other estimates from other companies.  This is a prudent move.  Without in-house expertise on such a system, it will be difficult for the council to understand what exactly they’re paying for or whether any training that is purchased will be adequate.  In addition, although it was not brought up in the discussion, I found it concerning that the only estimate provided indicated there would be at least an 8-10 week lapse before the project could even be scheduled by the company.  Add to that the time to complete the project, and we’re looking at sometime in the new year before we have any hope of seeing a livestreamed Council meeting.  Hopefully, other companies will be more responsive.The rest of the meeting concerned mostly housekeeping issues and the Council was eager to adjourn as the lights had already flickered in the midst of a raging thunderstorm.

Looking Ahead

That said, let’s take a look at the next meeting which includes approval of the 2022 budget on its agenda.  This is a bit of a surprise since for quite a few weeks, the October 27 meeting has been identified as the budget approval meeting on the township website.  That designation has now disappeared from the website to be replaced with Wednesday’s vote.  I wonder why.  Last year it took place in late October.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The budget is up on the website along with Wednesday’s agenda.  It includes two scenarios – one that includes a 2.5% salary increase for township employees and a 5% increase for the library and one that includes a 3% salary increase for township employees and a 7.5% increase for the library.  What is also included in the budget are a bunch of items tagged “funding to address IT security recommendations.”  Totaling those line items that are identified as IT or, under Data Processing, major equipment and software, there appears to be an increase of $26,790 over the same costs last year and, compared to the numbers that were presented at the September 15 meeting, an increase of $23,090.  That’s a big change in just 3 weeks.

The question that pops to mind is: is this a result of the investigation into the data breach over the summer? There has been no report on the results of that investigation nor does there appear to be any report scheduled for the October 6 meeting.  Perhaps we’ll find out on Wednesday what required such a big adjustment.

A smaller question is related to a 72%+ increase in the Council Expenses line.  Nothing related to that was raised in the budget workshop session either.

All of these questions are why there really need to be more people paying attention to what’s happening in the township.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 27, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Mail-in ballots can be returned as soon as you receive them.

How a Shenanigan Works

The Ida-delayed Lower Saucon Township council meeting took place on Thursday, September 9 before a decidedly unimpressively-sized audience.  In fact, the room of about 15-20 people dwindled considerably after the introduction of the junior council persons for the 2021-22 school year.  Once they were introduced and appointed, the six students left.

The remaining ten or so audience members soldiered on.  Natasha Manbeck from McMahon Associates presented the final Active Transportation Plan funded by the WalkWorks Grant that McMahon Associates had put together for the township.  It included three categories of projects:  currently ongoing ones such as the Meadows Road bridge replacement, early action items that are of lower cost and less complexity, and other projects that will require more time and more cost.  There was not much time spent in detailing these projects so I suggest you take some time to look at the finished plan on the township’s website.

Two financial items were covered: presentation and review of the capital improvement plan 2022-2026 and a review of investment options.  The second item was particularly obscure, dealing with various financial instruments that could be used in the township’s bank account based on the fact that apparently the bank will begin charging additional fees if things stay as they are.  With no accompanying visual aids, it was not clear at all what the differences were.  Mrs. Stauffer tried to get some clarification, but that was fruitless. Since neither subject apparently required a vote, the Council moved on with just concerned-looking head-nodding.

After approving some Saucon Rail Trail events, the Council moved to cleaning up some more business left over from the fire service ordinance last month.  According to township requirements, Special Fire Police need to be appointed by resolution of the Council.  At the current time, the approved Special Fire Police include members of the Steel City Fire Company as well as Lower Saucon Fire Rescue.  Since the township is no longer utilizing the services of Steel City, it was necessary to rescind the previous appointments of all the Special Fire Police and then reappoint the LSFR Special Fire Police.  This was done by a vote of 5-0. 

After the vote, Mr. Kevin Kalman, Steel City Fire Police Captain, rose to object to the fact that he was having difficulty joining LSFR because their regulations require that he resign his membership in Steel City to be considered for LSFR.  Several Council members, particularly Mr. Carocci, pointed out that it was his decision to make and that LSFR did not need to have members who also belong to other fire companies since LSFR has mutual assistance agreements with other companies.

Moving On . . .

Following approval of a resolution to submit an application for a grant to Northampton County for a public works storage building, the Council approved a resolution proposed by Mr. Banonis that the Township give priority in the purchasing of items to those manufactured in the United States, subject to some possible exceptions for the inability to find equivalent items in either the U.S. or other democratic countries.  The word “democratic” was not defined. It will be interesting to see how this new requirement is applied when the Council takes up the purchase and installation of additional audio-visual equipment to provide interactive video for future meetings. Most electronics equipment is not made in the U.S. these days. 

Mrs. DeLeon had requested that a discussion of a mask mandate in the Township building and particularly for the Council meetings be added to the agenda.  Of course, as happens with discussions of this matter at other public meetings these days, at this point the conversation took a turn into an alternative universe as we were treated to all kinds of ridiculous rationales as to why this was unworkable or undemocratic or unhealthy (really?).  Absolutely no acknowledgement that acting out of a concern for one’s neighbor or one’s own children was a value that the Council might want to promote.  No acknowledgement from Mr. Carocci, Mr. Banonis or Mrs. Yerger that they gave a rap about the health of those attending Council meetings or doing business at the township building.  We even were treated to two township residents with disgustingly selfish justifications for why the poor little dears couldn’t stand to wear a mask and the old reliable argument about “freedumb.”  

I’m sure Mrs. DeLeon knew that her motion to require masks was DOA when she looked around the room and noticed that of the about 20 or so people there, only 3 (Mrs. Stauffer, Mrs. DeLeon and your trusty blogger) were wearing masks. And of course, it was voted down, 2-3, only Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer voting yes. But I give them both props for at least trying to show concern for the health and safety of their fellow citizens.  And on behalf of my two grandchildren, ages 1 and 5, I thank them as well.

A Classic Saucon Shenanigan

Now here’s where a classic Saucon Shenanigan comes in.  Following the vote on masks, Mrs. Stauffer suggested that an alternative solution might be to require that residents offer proof of vaccination before attending the meetings and, if they didn’t, that they would have to wear a mask.  That was met with another pile of bogus objections but the most bogus was Mr. Banonis’ claim that Mrs. Stauffer couldn’t offer a motion because the subject wasn’t on the agenda and the Sunshine Law, blah-blah-blah.  Mrs. Stauffer did not make the motion.

Watch this clever trick.  Within just a few minutes, Mr. Banonis made a motion to task Ms. Huhn with looking for funds for the projects in the Active Transportation Plan, to talk with the Public Works Department about what they could do on their own and to initiate talks with PennDOT about their possible partnership in implementation.  Wait. What? That wasn’t on the agenda.  You can’t do that.  Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. DeLeon quickly pointed out the hypocrisy involved.  But not to fear.  Here comes Solicitor Treadwell to the rescue.  Apparently you can make motions that are not on the agenda as long as “the matter is de minimis in nature and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into a contract or agreement”.

So—-Mrs. Stauffer’s motion really would have been in order?  But it was only when Mr. Banonis made his motion that the Solicitor felt compelled to jump in and offer legal counsel so that he could go ahead with what he wanted?  See – shenanigans.

Incidentally, these new revisions to the Sunshine Law are going to really put a crimp in Mr. Banonis’ and Mr. Carocci’s style.  If you recall, it was as a non-agenda item during Council member reports that Mr. Carocci moved last year that the footnote about the requirements for the two fire companies to merge before they received funding be added to the 2021 budget. That’s clearly out of line now.  Score one for good government.

Looking Ahead

As mentioned before, the agenda for the September 15 meeting includes a report on the quote received for additional A/V equipment to livestream future Council meetings along with the ability for remote viewers to participate.  It will be interesting to see how committed to transparent government this Council really is.  Zoom meetings over the past year have averaged around 30-40 attendees, occasionally quite a few more.  With the fire company issue resolved, that number has dropped dramatically with in-person meetings.  Hellertown Borough does this.  Will LST?

One More Item

Just a reminder that we have not heard any more about the data breach investigation that was mentioned at the July meeting.  It’s not on the upcoming agenda.  What’s up with that?

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 6, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Divorce, Lower Saucon Style

Lower Saucon Township Council held its August 18, 2021, meeting in person again and to the surprise of virtually no one in the packed meeting room, voted to designate Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole provider of fire services within the township, ending its relationship with Steel City Volunteer Fire Company.  The Council had requested Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell to prepare an ordinance to that effect following the July 21 meeting.

Because it was an ordinance, it was necessary to conduct an official hearing before the vote on the ordinance.  Scott Nocek, president of Steel City, rose to request that the Council delay the vote on the ordinance to the September 1 meeting. This was rather startling since the Council has been attempting to get Steel City to merge with LSFR since at least last summer, even adding footnotes to the township’s 2021 budget outlining criteria for each fire company to receive township funding in order to incentivize the merger.  After two meetings in a row where Steel City’s reluctance to? obstruction of? the merger had been outlined in detail, it wasn’t surprising that the question on the Council members’ minds, as well as I’m sure the bulk of the audience, seemed to be, “Why?  Why delay further?” 

It became clear that there had been a meeting of the two fire companies on August 3 to further discuss the merger.  Out of that came a request for Steel City to do some required paperwork to complete the merger.  But by the time of the August 18 meeting, the paperwork had still not been completed and submitted.   There then followed a long and often contentious discussion about who did or didn’t do what, by when, and why between Council members and Mr. Nocek.  There was reference back to an April 15 letter that Attorney Treadwell had sent to Steel City requesting information on some items that had appeared on Steel City’s 990 form that had still not received a response.  Mr. Nocek said he had the response with him that night and turned it over to Mr. Treadwell but that begged the question of why it took 4 months to produce the response.

Needless to say, nothing in the hearing changed anyone’s mind.  After closing the hearing, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance and LSFR became the township’s sole provider of fire services.

What followed was a discussion of how the 9-1-1 Center would be informed of the change in status even though the ordinance did not take effect for 10 days.  The Council authorized that a letter be sent informing them of the status change and that LSFR Chief Johnson make a call to the 9-1-1 Center immediately after the meeting, adding Fire Company 16 (LSFR) to the structured dispatch so there would be no lapse in coverage.

Once that was settled, there were a series of motions to deal with the new facts on the ground.  The Council approved funding a recruitment and retention event on September 18 (rain date: September 19) in Steel City to recruit firefighters for LSFR; to reimburse attorney’s fees associated with the merger and the review of the Steel City fire station building maintenance; to authorize the funding of capital improvements at LSFR fire stations and to authorize the release of payment number 2 for LSFR’s new ladder truck.  

At that point, with the business regarding the fire department concluded, the meeting room cleared out pretty quickly, from about 65-70 attendees to 19.

The Council proceeded to appoint two new members to the Lower Saucon Authority Board – Bob Davis and Bob Keich by a vote of 5-0.  Unlike in previous appointments, the resumes of the two candidates were included in the publicly posted council information.  It was nice to know something about their qualifications before their appointments.

The rest of the meeting was mostly housekeeping except for an interesting discussion of whether council meetings could be conducted in some type of hybrid format that would allow township residents to at least view and/or view and participate in regular council meetings remotely.  Ms. Huhn had prepared a packet of information on the types of systems used by other townships and boroughs.  Tom Rieger, Hellertown Borough Council president, was invited to share how Hellertown has implemented a hybrid system that allows both the livestreaming of their council meetings and the participation of remote attendees.  He reported it had cost them about $15,000 which could be covered by federal Covid relief funds.  Ms. Huhn was tasked with getting prices for a system similar to Hellertown’s.

Of course the best part of that discussion happened when Mr. Banonis, who waxed lyrical on the excitement and energy of so many residents at the meeting in person after the Covid shutdown, and who seemed to have quite a few other reasons why hybrid was somehow not as good as in person, mused as to whether the reason for so many attendees might have been the agenda for the evening (i.e. the fire company issues).  Yeah, do you think?  Since more than 70% of the attendees left after that was done with?  Mrs. Stauffer spoke up on the value of a hybrid model in reaching those who can’t make it to the council meetings in person, pointing out that it’s “not about us in the Council room” but rather about the township residents who might not be able to attend. There’s a thought that’s worth remembering at every council meeting.

Two More Items

The update to the Saucon Valley Partnership Comprehensive Plan will be voted on September 8 at 6 PM via a Zoom meeting. You can register for the meeting on the Township website through the Council web page. The updated plan can be found here: https://epd-pgh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=dfb95aee27934650b7a998bdaf170a44

Township resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro raised a question during public comment about the status of the data breach investigation that had been mentioned at the July meeting.  Attorney Treadwell said that there was no more additional information to share at this time except that the township’s insurance company had verified that the costs of the law firm hired to deal with the breach would be covered. 

Watch this space.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, September 1, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

How to Fill a Township Council Meeting

Lower Saucon Township Council was back to meeting in person on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.  In fact, the meeting room was standing room only.  That was undoubtedly attributable to the agenda item to discuss the designation of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole fire services provider in the township.  The meeting turnout comprised not just township residents but also a large contingent of members of LSFR who stood throughout the discussion about the future of fire services.

First, a brief history of fire services in the township.  There were originally four fire companies.  Leithsville and Se-Wy-Co merged in 2012. Southeastern was then absorbed in 2016 and LSFR was formed.  In recent years, an attempt has been made to consolidate Steel City Fire Company and LSFR into a single entity.  The difficulties that have been encountered in finalizing that merger, mostly caused by Steel City, are what led to the matter under discussion at the July 21 meeting.

Ty Johnson, LSFR Fire Chief, reviewed the fire company’s annual report.  He reported that LSFR has 67 members, making it the largest volunteer fire company in Northampton County.  They are also the third busiest volunteer company in the county. The bulk of the report showed a well-run operation in good fiscal condition.  The values outlined spoke to its responsibility to the community and its training statistics showed a commitment to keeping its firefighters safe.

The surprising information came in a comparison between Steel City and LSFR relative to both call volume and response times.  This data comes from a state-maintained database.

CALL VOLUME

                        2020                2021 (to date of report)

LSFR                716   (90%)      315    (93%)

Steel City         77     (10%)      24      (7%)

AVERAGE RESPONSE TIME

                        2020                2021(to date of report)

LSFR                1.22 mins        .69 minutes

Steel City         17.14 mins      7.21 minutes

Chief Johnson explained that “average response time” represents the amount of time elapsed between the time that dispatch contacts the fire company to request their service until the first person from that fire company is on the road to the call.  

Not surprisingly, there was considerable discussion around the fact that LSFR is already providing the bulk of fire services for the township and the huge discrepancy in average response times to calls.  Council members also discussed what would be required to make the transition to LSFR as a sole provider.  Attorney Treadwell responded that it would require the drafting of an ordinance which could be voted on at the August 18 Council meeting.  There was consideration of what the logistics of that kind of transfer might be and whether or not Steel City would continue as a fire company.  It was clear that there are many issues to be resolved if the Council approves the ordinance to turn all fire services over to LSFR.

The only input from Steel City came from Kevin Kalman, Vice President of Steel City Fire Company and the Fire Police Captain.  He stated that he had been advised by the fire company’s counsel not to speak at the meeting but that he wanted to address the Council. He refuted some of the claims about Steel City’s responsiveness and objected to remarks that had been made about Steel City’s training and readiness.  He went on to commit to facilitating an orderly transition of fire services from Steel City to LSFR if that is what the Council decides on.  However, he also pointed out that he was only speaking as an individual, not representing the fire company.  

When Mr. Carocci raised a question about the $50,000 donation to Steel City that Attorney Treadwell had previously flagged as questionable and for which the Council has received no response, Mr. Kalman pointed out that he was not with the fire company at that time and then reverted to the stance that he couldn’t comment on that.

Following some additional comments and input from township residents, all of it supportive of the proposed ordinance, the Council voted unanimously to direct Attorney Treadwell to draft the appropriate ordinance to designate LSFR as the sole provider of fire services to the township.  It will be voted on at the August 18 council meeting.

In Other News . . .

All the other agenda items passed unanimously and were generally of a “housekeeping” nature.  The Council agreed to purchase an 8.9 acre parcel of land on E. Raders Lane with $422,500 from the Open Space Fund to preserve the space.  

There was one slightly jarring item.  The Township was apparently informed of a potential data security incident on July 9 and moved to engage counsel with specific expertise in these types of breaches.  That will bear watching.

Finally, the feral cat neutering program must be working well.  Council authorized additional funding for the program because of its already-high utilization rate.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The August 18 meeting will again be in person at Town Hall.  There are quite a few items on the agenda relative to the consolidation of fire services as well as the appointment of a replacement member to the Water Authority Board.  

See you there.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, August 18, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Few Answers Generate More Questions

The June 16 meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council provided some answers to the questions raised on this blog about the funding for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and the Steel City Fire Company. It also raised some other, more disturbing questions about the proposed merger.

To briefly recap, by a 3-2 vote last year (Ms.Yerger, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci in favor), a footnote was added to the 2021 township budget that required the completed merger of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Fire Company by April 1, 2021, in order for the fire companies to receive their regular contributions from the Township, $150,000 for LSFR and $50,000 for Steel City. Failure to meet that date would trigger a series of additional deadlines with stepped-down funding culminating in cancellation of all funding if the merger was not completed by June 1. Despite requests from Mrs. Stauffer in the Spring, no information on progress on the situation was shared with the exception of a “no progress” comment from Solicitor Treadwell at the April 7 meeting. At the June 16 meeting, Mr. Carocci made a motion to fully fund LSFR for the budgeted $150,000. In discussion on the motion, he shared the timeline of the attempts to complete the merger on the part of each of the fire companies. To make a long story short, LSFR has repeatedly attempted to move the merger forward while Steel City has repeatedly rebuffed actions to make progress. As of the end of March, Steel City had only been willing to agree to a merger of operations but wanted to postpone the legal merger for at least another 1-2 years. Based on that information, the Council voted 5-0 to approve funding only for LSFR for 2021.

Mr. Carocci then provided additional information regarding the future of the merger. In reviewing Steel City’s IRS Form 990, Solicitor Treadwell noticed an unusually large donation to Steel City of $50,000 from The Boston Foundation, a donor-advised fund, followed by a transfer of $40,000 from the fire company to an injured officer who lives in New Jersey. Because of the unusual nature of the transactions, Solicitor Treadwell contacted counsel for the Steel City Fire Company with a host of questions regarding the transaction. The response from the fire company’s counsel had been received only late on the afternoon of the Council meeting and had provided insufficient information to answer the questions raised.

So we now have an answer as to whether Lower Saucon Council is going to fund LSFR (yes – 100%) or Steel City (not as of this moment) and we have some better understanding of why they made that decision. All good. But along the way, there are new questions.

Obviously the largest one is what to do about the proposed merger? Since further discussion on LSFR’s role in the Township is on the agenda for the July 21 meeting, we can expect to hear more about that shortly.

Mrs. deLeon raised the question of why Solicitor Treadwell had not shared the letter he wrote to Steel City’s counsel with the LST Council. She indicated that he should have copied the council members. Mr. Treadwell pointed out that he had been tasked with participating in the merger negotiations and this was part of the due diligence that he was conducting. He also pointed out that if he copied council members on every piece of correspondence that he produced, that they would be inundated. While he apologized for not sharing the letter, I think that instead the Council owed him a big thank you for his thoroughness in scrutinizing Steel City’s 990. He caught something that could be a major liability for a merged fire department and that raises legitimate questions about how Steel City handled the entire transaction.

The bigger question that should be raised beyond Mrs. deLeon’s concern is why there was no reporting on the status of the merger at all from January till June. The detailed timeline Mr. Carocci provided showed that there had been actions that had been taken over that time period, but none of that was reported. When Mrs. Stauffer appropriately raised the question in April, there was no sharing of the status of the negotiations which at that time apparently were already fraught. And although Mr. Carocci apologized profusely for not providing any of the information that he referenced at the June 16 meeting in time for it to be included in the council packets or on the website, the fact is that it shouldn’t have taken until June 16 for that information to be compiled. Where was a report at the March Council meeting or the April one or the May one? Mr. Carocci is the liaison to the fire companies. Why couldn’t he have provided something sooner? Is this his definition of transparency?

Moving on . . .

Natasha Manbeck of McMahon Associates provided a status report on the draft of the Active Transportation Plan being developed as part of the WalkWorks Grant. She acknowledged the contributions of many LST residents and indicated that the Draft will be presented in August for public comment. Anyone with comments in the meantime can send them to Diane Palek, the Township’s administrative assistant (adminasst@lowersaucontownship.org).

Frank Thompson of the Parks & Rec Board presented Logan Kade’s proposed Eagle Scout project to construct an information kiosk at Heller Homestead Park to the Council. The Council approved the project, 5-0.

Bill Ross of the Lower Saucon Authority gave a detailed explanation of Senate Bill No. 597, requesting that Council submit a letter opposing the bill. He explained that it places additional onerous requirements on public water authorities in the state (including Lower Saucon’s) that are unnecessary to guarantee the quality of water and will make the public authorities vulnerable to takeover by private entities. The Council agreed to provide such a letter, 5-0. Mr. Ross encouraged anyone who was listening to contact their state senators and voice their opposition to the bill as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be a LST Council meeting if there weren’t gratuitous swipes at fellow Council members and attempts to impugn their integrity. In the discussion about the bids received from Keystone Collections and Berkheimer to provide tax collection services to the Township, Mrs. deLeon raised a question about the fact that Keystone (which had the lower bid) had also requested space in Seidersville Hall for an in-township office whereas Berkheimer did not. Her concern was whether the two bids therefore represent an apples-to-apples comparison and whether, if Keystone were awarded the contract, would they be paying for their use of the space? A reasonable question.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Mr. Banonis, however, had to jump in to point out that perhaps Mrs. deLeon had other reasons for raising the questions because doesn’t Mrs. deLeon’s sister work for Berkheimer? The implication was that this was suspicious. Mrs. deLeon then tossed the question to Solicitor Treadwell, asking if there was a conflict here. Attorney Treadwell’s response was “not technically under the Ethics Code.” But Mr. Banonis just couldn’t let it rest. According to the minutes, he hastened to assure us before he made the motion to approve the bid from Keystone that “he doesn’t have any immediate family members that work for Keystone, he has no parents, no children, he doesn’t think he has any siblings as he’s an only child, he doesn’t have any aunts, cousins or uncles who work for either Berkheimer or Keystone” so he could make the motion in good conscience and with a clear mind. Mrs. Yerger, not to be outdone in gratuitous snark, then seconded “based on the fact that she has no relatives working for either Keystone or Berkheimer.” Come on, what is this? Fifth grade? Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah. Or maybe it’s an attempt at humor. If so, don’t give up your day job.

Finally, and most importantly for those of us who love spending our time attending these meetings so you, Gentle Reader, don’t have to (although you should), the Council decided to return to live, in-person meetings starting with the next one scheduled for Wednesday, July 21. If you’re planning to attend, be prepared to show up at Town Hall at 6:30 PM.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, July 21, 2021 – 6:30 PM AT TOWN HALL

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021