It All Depends on the Definition of “Public”

Last night was another regularly scheduled meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council. We can dispense with most of the meeting in just a few phrases. Mostly housekeeping. All 5-0 votes or agreed-to tablings or “no action” actions. Township Manager Leslie Huhn was feted as Manager of the Year, an award she won at the LV Chamber of Commerce Mayors’ & Municipal Officials’ Reception Event. Congratulations, Ms. Huhn! All fine and dandy.

Now let’s jump to the elephant in the room – a particularly apt phrase. And this will get long because it’s complicated. The most time was spent on an item that didn’t make it on to the agenda but which has been the topic of significant discussion on social media as well as reporting by local media. That would be the approval of an application for use of the Town Hall Park pavilion by the Northampton County Republican Committee for an event to be held this evening at 5:30, featuring the couple from Missouri who are currently facing Class E felony charges for unlawful use of a weapon back in June.

This issue might never have surfaced at the meeting had it not been for several township residents (your blogger included) who raised important questions during the public comment period about the process that was used to determine that this application should be approved. I have absolutely no interest in debating the politics of this couple nor the event that took place in Missouri nor the reasons why anyone would want to hear from them. Likewise I have no interest in debating the First Amendment issues regarding their appearance. As a card-carrying member of the ACLU for decades, I am well aware of how challenging the Right of Free Speech can be to support at times.

Rather I’d like to look at the administrative processes that led us to this place. By Ms. Huhn’s description the application was received dated Sept. 10 to rent the Town Hall Park pavilion. Such a request for rental is generally handled administratively by the Township Manager. This time, perhaps because she was alert to the sensitive nature of the event, she conferred with Township Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell who advised her to handle it just like any other application for a pavilion rental. They apparently reviewed previous pavilion requests and concluded that those requests were seldom ever denied. So Ms. Huhn approved the request and the only item that needed to come before Council was a request to use amplification at the event. Strangely, this was not an agenda item, but Ms. Huhn explained she would have brought it up during her Township Manager’s report and the amplification was approved on a 5-0 vote.

Questions Raised

But an application for rental of a township pavilion does not address many of the questions raised by residents and Councilmembers deLeon and Stauffer. They included:

Who controls the size of the crowd? The application lists 150 attendees but the Facebook posting for the event around 4 PM yesterday already indicated 58 coming plus 174 interested for a total of 232. The pavilion is only listed as holding 200. And with all the attendant publicity and press coverage, what happens if many more than that show up?

-What about the safety of the attendees and the community if there should be any untoward incidents?

Will there be police coverage and, if so, who pays for it? The event sponsor? The Township? Why should the Township have to pay for that?

Who will enforce CDC mask-wearing requirements? And yes, despite Monday’s court ruling, those requirements still apply.

Who will enforce the Township’s own rules about not posting political signs or banners?

Why did the Township allow itself to undertake this kind of risk? Palmer Township had no problem turning down the event on exactly the grounds that were outlined by Lower Saucon residents.

The Answers Were Mostly Unsatisfying

No one controls the size of the crowd.

No one counts how many people are there or prohibits more from attending.

The police have a plan in place in case of “incidents.” Chief Barndt assured us that there would be extra officers on duty that evening and that their first concern was the community’s safety. Understandably, he did not share specific details of their plan.

The Township will pay for all that overtime and other safety costs.

The group itself will be expected to follow the rules and regulations they were given so, no, no one will be enforcing any of that.

And the Township was required to approve this application because of the First Amendment rights of the applicant, according to Attorney Treadwell.

Now Here’s Where It Gets Interesting

The Township also controls the use of its parks through event and special event permitting. The Township’s website is a confusing mess when it comes to figuring out what the characteristics are that determine a rental, an event or a special event. Under the Parks & Recreation/Forms & Documents section of the website you find two identical entries for Parks & Athletic Facilities Use Policy, both identified as 6/19/13 Ord. 2013-02, an Events Policy dated 12/7/16, and a Special Events Policy dated 3/4/15. You will also find an Event Application (although no Special Event Application) and a Request for Pavilion Rental.

What is clear in all this is that event and special event permitting are both far more stringent processes than just renting a pavilion. They have to be submitted 60 days in advance of the event. All costs incurred by LST shall be reimbursed by the event sponsor. Permit approval is required by Council vote. The sponsor has to submit a plan for crowd control and security and the additional cost of Township police will be borne by the sponsor. There need to be plans for parking, especially for spillover, and there are to be no sales without prior permission. All of which seems to go a long way towards answering many of the residents’ concerns. Of course, the 60 day application schedule would have made approval moot. The pavilion rental reservation will not be accepted less than 7 days prior to the usage date and, wow, isn’t this lucky, the Republican Committee got theirs in exactly 7 days before the usage date even though Palmer Township hadn’t yet turned down their application publicly.

So Why Is This Event Actually a Pavilion Rental Instead?

Well, according to Mr. Banonis, it’s because this “event” is private and not public. It’s being sponsored by the Northampton County Republican Committee and you have to register for it, according to Mr. Banonis. Ergo, it’s private. Except there’s one small problem. Let’s look at that Facebook posting again. See the red box?

I’d almost bet you that says “Public – Hosted by Northampton County GOP”. Nowhere does it say that registration is required. Nowhere does it say that attendance is limited. There’s no link to a registration site and, by the dictionary’s definition, “public” means that the public is invited. Anyone who has ever created a Facebook event knows that you have the choice to make the event public or private or to require registration or any other number of possibilities. This just says “Public.”

Things started to get a bit testy when Mrs. deLeon questioned why this was not defined as an “event” and why it hadn’t required an Event Permit and, therefore, Council approval. Mr. Banonis repeatedly insisted it was “private”. He questioned Mrs. deLeon’s ability to read the Facebook post properly. Later in the evening, one of the residents who had commented earlier called back to report that she had just clicked on “going” on the Facebook post, even though she is neither a Republican nor a member of the sponsoring Committee nor did she have to register.

You may find it interesting that Mr. Banonis was so adamant that this was a “private” event. The fact that he is the vice-chairman of the Northampton County Republican Committee might go a long way to explaining that. Except that curiously later in the discussion when he was asked if there would be other speakers at the event, he replied that he was only there at the Council meeting as a Council member, not as a representative of the event sponsor and that “I don’t know the answer to that question.” But again, when the issue of whether this is a public event or not came up, he quite readily insisted it was a private event and the public couldn’t just show up. It was kind of amazing how that Councilperson hat just slipped on and off his head as the evening progressed. I believe that Mr. Carocci is also a member of that committee but he didn’t mention that.

So Where Does This All Stand?

The event will happen based on the fiction that it’s a private event and the public isn’t invited. The Facebook post about the event has been removed and sadly, the Northampton County Republican Committee website (www.northamptoncountygop.com) is down as of this writing so there’s no information available there.

The Northampton County Republican Committee was incredibly prescient to have gotten their rental request in just under the wire. And it was really lucky that they were directed to apply for a pavilion rental rather than an event permit even though it doesn’t seem this is so much a private rental as it is a public event using Lower Saucon facilities. Good thing Ms. Huhn and Attorney Treadwell didn’t catch that distinction! Saved the event sponsor a lot of money. Of course, it will cost us taxpayers a lot but hey, it happens.

I think the Township needs to do some work on cleaning up its website so that the definition of an Event and a Special Event and the qualifications for a pavilion rental are a lot more clear. That should probably require Council to take a closer look at what those definitions and processes are too.

As for me, I’ll be staying home this evening. I’ll probably put my yard signs away for the evening and leave my outside lights on, just for safety’s sake. I trust the Lower Saucon Police Department but, it can’t hurt.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, October 7 – 7 PM