Is This Any Way to Lead a Township?

Welcome to Saucon Shenanigans, a blog created to share my observations on the workings of the Lower Saucon Township Council with a wider audience in the township than the 50 or so citizens who Zoom in to Council meetings. In the days of robust local newspaper coverage, this would have been unnecessary because the Morning Call would have carried reports on Council meetings, decisions, disagreements and items of interest. But those days are long gone. The Call’s coverage is sporadic to non-existent. I’ve seen reporting by Bryan Hay from WFMZ occasionally and Josh Popichak does heroic work in trying to keep up with all the events in Saucon Valley for Saucon Source. But hey, the more information that’s out there, the better.

I’ll be clear. I am not a journalist or a reporter. I’m a blogger which means I get to share my perspective and I have no requirement to be “fair and balanced” as our friends at Fox News so laughably used to claim to be. What I will be is honest. I’ve chosen to do this because if, as my fellow Lehigh alum Marty Baron so boldly proclaims in the masthead of his paper, “democracy dies in darkness,” then my sense is that things are getting pretty dim and murky over there at Town Hall.

The closest government to a citizen is the local township council, board of supervisors, city council, what-have-you. They pass laws and make zoning decisions and appropriate your money in ways that have a direct impact on your day-to-day quality of life. But how much do you really know about them? Or what they do? And how do you find out? Until it directly affects you, most people have no idea.

Like most people, I didn’t pay close attention as long as it didn’t intrude on my life too much. I moved here shortly after Lower Saucon approved a .25% increase in the EIT to acquire open space, which I thought was a great idea. The township office people have always answered my questions politely and professionally when I had to call and my one or two interactions with the police were satisfactory. The newsletter was interesting. But then last winter things seemed to get weird.

Welcome to the Circus!

I knew from reporting in the Call and Saucon Source that my neighbor, Kristen Stauffer, had been appointed to a vacancy on the Township Council by the Court because the Council had been unable to come to a decision on its own. I thought that was fine. Kristen is a bright young woman, well-educated, a good neighbor and I was glad to see a younger person putting herself out there to serve the public. Fresh thinking is always a good thing to inject into the body politic. In fact, I had voted for her in the November election.

Then I learned that there was some action afoot to deprive her of the seat into which she had just been duly sworn. There was going to be an attempt to force the Court to have a do-over. That seemed strange and unwarranted. So, despite the fact that I was recovering from surgery and wasn’t supposed to be out and about, I hauled myself over to the township building for my first in-person council meeting, a specially called meeting on Friday, February 28.

What I witnessed shocked and disgusted me.

For a public forum of elected – or in the case of two of the Council members, appointed – officials, the behavior of several of them was rude, boorish, and arrogant. For whatever reason, Councilpersons Jason Banonis and Tom Carocci exhibited an intensely antagonistic attitude towards Mrs. Stauffer who said virtually nothing during the meeting, having basically been instructed not to by the solicitor. As best I could tell, the source of this antagonism was their anger that the judge had chosen her for the vacant position rather than one of the other applicants. The entire purpose of this specially-called meeting was to encourage the Court to investigate some recently-discovered rule that one of the unsuccessful applicants for the vacancy had dug up which the failed applicant claimed could potentially require a do-over of the entire process. The animosity at Mrs. Stauffer’s appointment was so thick you could cut it with a knife and the disrespect shown to her was insulting and revolting.

The end result of all this posturing and preening and waste of taxpayer money was that the judge reaffirmed that Mrs. Stauffer had been appropriately chosen. Gee, I was stunned (sarcasm intended).

Perhaps It Gets Better

After such an unfortunate introduction to the behavior at the Council meeting, I decided that perhaps it was a one-off. Everyone was having a bad night. Once the question of Mrs. Stauffer’s seat was settled, they would return to more professional, collegial behavior. And perhaps it would be a good idea to watch more closely what was unfolding in my township.

Enter Covid-19.

After a cancelled meeting on March 18 followed by a conference call to approve a disaster declaration for the Township, council meetings moved to a Zoom format beginning April 1 and since then I have attended all the meetings. The good news is that the Zoom format has apparently increased the amount of public attendance at the meetings, although most people do not participate. The bad news is that the behavior has not improved. In fact, at times, it has been even more egregious. The good news is – more people are seeing it first hand.

In the seven meetings since then I have observed flat-out bullying, consummate rudeness, shouting down opposing ideas, the use of Roberts’ Rules of Order as a cudgel, political pontificating that had nothing to do with an agenda item, insulting mansplaining and enough hypocrisy to choke a hippopotamus. After Mr. Carocci bragged that the June 17 meeting resulted in all 5-0 votes, implying an environment of equanimity, this past Wednesday’s meeting put the lie to all that putative harmony.

Why Does It Matter?

You may think, why does it matter? There are always people who behave rudely to others. As long as the work gets done, that’s all that counts.

My reply is – it matters for a number reasons.

  1. It intimidates people from participating. Not everyone enjoys the experience of being belittled or demeaned or mansplained for voicing a position different from the township leadership or simply for asking a question. Nor is everyone equipped with the verbal skills to present their ideas cogently in the face of a barrage of rudeness. It takes a lot of experience to maintain your calm when someone is distorting your words or attempting to shut you up. Hence, many people choose instead to remain silent.
  2. It inhibits the consideration of alternative solutions. When the answers provided by a select few council members are presented as the only option and any alternative possibilities are dismissed, ignored or treated as an annoyance, gradually fewer and fewer residents are going to be inclined to offer other ideas. The best governmental systems function with maximum input from people with different types of expertise and different perspectives who can perhaps see alternative solutions or effective modifications to proposed processes that are not as obvious to elected leaders who may be too far in the weeds to see other solutions. Or perhaps the leaders are stuck in “we’ve always done it this way” or “we’ve never done it that way” mode. I’ve heard those reasons way too often already in Council discussions.
  3. It blocks the sharing of important information with the public. In my opinion this is the most important consequence of these behaviors. Wednesday’s meeting provided a prime example of how easily this is accomplished.

A Case Study

There were two openings on the Zoning Hearing Board. There were five applicants who had submitted resumes which were passively posted along with the meeting agenda on the township’s website. Apparently it is unusual for there to be an overage of applicants for positions on township boards so in the past, for example, the sole applicant for one open position would just be rubber-stamped through after Leslie Huhn, Township Manager, verified the person met the minimum qualifications.

With this many applicants, Councilperson Priscilla deLeon said she had a few questions for the applicants. Council President Sandra Yerger immediately said there would be no questioning of the applicants. Mrs. deLeon objected. She was informed that she could have read their resumes found in her Council packet which Mrs. deLeon said she had done. There was an unwarranted snipe from Mr. Carocci about ”not doing your homework,” a baseless and insulting comment.

What followed is what I have come to describe as the Abbott and Costello two-step. Mr. Banonis quickly made a motion to not permit questioning of the applicants and Mr. Carocci immediately seconded. This is how Roberts’ Rules of Order can be misused and it’s a pattern that is repeated over and over again in this Council. This leads to a motion being on the floor designed to quash the sharing of information with the public. Public comments that followed supported having the questioning.

Mrs. Yerger raised concerns about the amount of time questioning would take and the fact that applicants had not been alerted to the possibility of questioning. A member of the public (full disclosure: me) offered an alternative work-around that would have addressed her concerns. The suggestion was ignored – not discussed, ignored. Mrs. Yerger then put forward the time-worn “we’ve never done it that way” explanation. And then, in what is always the final move of the Abbott and Costello two-step, Mr. Carocci loudly demanded that the question be called, cutting off discussion. Although kudos go to Ms. Huhn and, sometimes, Mrs. Yerger for usually trying to interrupt this freight train by at least checking if there are other residents waiting to speak. The motion to prohibit questions passed.

Mr. Banonis immediately, in the execution of the second two-step of the evening, moved to appoint Ted Eichenlaub and David Jauregi to the vacancies on the Zoning Hearing Board. Mr. Carocci seconded. The appointments were not made separately to have allowed discussion of either of the candidate’s qualifications. They were lumped together – all or nothing. There was no opportunity to nominate someone else for approval. And there was no, NO discussion of the comparative merits of the five candidates who applied.

As a quick overview, Mr. Eichenlaub seems to have been an investment banker most of his life working in New York City and Washington, DC. He listed no previous involvement with the township. Mr. Jauregui is in the semiconductor/IT business as an engineer. His resume also listed no prior involvement with the township although he was one of the failed applicants for the Council seat that Mrs. Stauffer holds and he was the person that raised the objections with the Court in the attempt to derail her appointment. George Gress is a lifelong resident of Lower Saucon, a former member of the Township Council and former president of the Se-Wy-Co Fire Company. He’s been a volunteer firefighter and is currently a Board member of the Lower Saucon Authority. Mr. Nicholas Lynn is a professional working in the construction industry. He specializes in HVAC and holds a number of trade certifications as well as serving on the Sheet Metal Licensing Board in Allentown where he consults with zoning officers on sheet metal codes. Ms. Donna Louder is also a lifelong resident of Lower Saucon, a former member of Township Council and listed involvement with a number of Township committees.

I’d love to tell you more or explain how the Council made its decision on the two it chose, but unfortunately, these descriptions were only available from the information on their resumes which Mr. Carocci indicated was all the information we needed to know. And I can’t tell you why he and Mr. Banonis were so set on having Mr. Eichenlaub and Mr. Jauregui appointed either, because there was no discussion of why they were preferable.

What I can tell you is that over the next several years there will be lots of zoning and development issues coming before first, the Zoning Hearing Board and then, the Council, especially with the future closing of the landfill and the need to find new sources of revenue to replace what currently comes from the landfill. So it might not be a bad idea to keep a careful watch over what gets proposed for zoning and development.

What Comes Next?

After giving the matter careful consideration, I’ve concluded that there appears to be a lot of opportunity for steamrolling in the future as this Council conducts Township business. That being the case, I thought it would be worthwhile to commit 22 Wednesday evenings a year to watching the events unfold more closely rather than just waiting for minutes to be published or for a newsletter to appear. So that’s what I’ll be doing – attending, whether by Zoom or in person if this pandemic ever ends, as many Council meetings as possible and reporting in my blog shortly thereafter.

I’ll be using 3 guiding principles:

  • Watch what they do, not what they say.
  • Trust, but verify.
  • Follow the money.

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. And I hope that more residents will feel empowered to speak up when they see things that trouble them or even if they just have questions.

If it doesn’t work, Election Day for three of the members is November 2, 2021.

Watch this space.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, August 19 – 7 PM

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