Democracy Dies in Darkness

To the surprise of absolutely no one who has been paying any attention to the shenanigans of the Lower Saucon Township council in the last two years, at their organizational meeting on Monday, January 3, they took another giant step toward drawing the curtain on citizen involvement in township business.  By a 4-1 vote (Mrs. deLeon dissenting), they passed Resolution #31-2022, Revision of Agenda Policy and Code of Conduct for Council Meetings.  Basically the resolution relegated public comment to one period before the business meeting begins, limited to 3 minutes per resident commenter on agenda items, and to one period after the entire meeting is complete, limited to 3 minutes per resident commenter on non-agenda items.

What This Means for Wednesday’s Meeting

How, you might ask, will this change to the policy really make any difference?  We can still comment.  To get a good idea of how this works, let’s look at the upcoming meeting on Wednesday.  

There is only one agenda item under Township Business – A. Discussion Regarding Library Services.  It comes AFTER the public comment period.

So suppose you’re a township resident who really wants to support continued connection with the Hellertown Area Library.  You want to comment on that with your 3 minutes of time.  What exactly are you going to say that will be directed at the proposed actions of the council?  How will you know what those proposed actions are?  

You can’t find them on the agenda.  All it says is “Discussion Regarding Library Services.”  The supporting documentation only says “Council will be discussing library service issues and after the discussion may take official action on library service issues.”  What will that official action be?  How can you comment on it intelligently?  How can you make alternative suggestions to what they might propose?  How do you know if they’ll propose any action at all? If they don’t, library membership will cease on January 31. How about if they’re proposing to re-join Bethlehem Area Public Library which is much more expensive? Or some other more distant library?  Remember, you can only comment in that brief period before the business meeting begins.  You have no idea what they’re planning to do.

The Library is rallying supporters to attend the January 19 meeting as a show of strength for continued connection with the Library.  I’m assuming they’re hoping that quite a few people will want to speak to that subject.  To what end?  The council members will have no requirement to listen to what they say or act on what they support.  You’ll have no opportunity to ask specific questions about any part of what they discuss or decide.  You’ll be – to be blunt – muzzled.

Now do you see how this works?

If you want more detail on the other travesties imposed by this resolution, please refer to the last issue of Saucon Shenanigans (You’re About To Be Muzzled) where I go into detail on the variety of ways that dissent is stifled, including changes to the agenda process that prevent anything that the majority doesn’t want discussed from being added to the agenda.

Josh Popichak in his two articles on the council meeting in Saucon Source provides a detailed description of the debate around both the revision of the meeting rules and the objections to the proposed withdrawal from the Hellertown Library.  I urge you to read them both.  

In addition to what we’re about to witness on Wednesday, the January 3 meeting gave us a pretty good idea of the kind of shenanigans we can expect going forward.

Skipping the Public Comments

Following the opening activities of the Jan. 3 meeting, President Sandra Yerger explained the public comment procedure and then skipped right over it to the election of the council president.  It just whizzed right by, in spite of the fact that there was a large number of citizens present including at least one woman with a poster supporting the Hellertown Library.  Did Yerger think they were there just for the fun of it when there was no library item on the agenda?

Instead of public comment, the council elected Banonis as president.  No surprise there.  He of course immediately took over. Then in a bizarre move, the council elected brand-new, no-experience-necessary Jennifer Zavacky as vice president.  With three other council members with experience, why would you elect the newbie?  Not sure, unless you’re looking for a rubber stamp in that position who has no experience with township business.  

At this point, the person with the poster supporting the library brought it to the attention of the council that they seemed to have forgotten about the public comment period.  Oops!  Someone noticed!  There followed comments from no fewer than (by Banonis’ count) 18 residents, all uniformly opposed to severing ties with the Hellertown Area Library and/or considering connecting to another area library.  Not only were there several children in the audience accompanying their parents, but there was also this young gentleman – second-grader Lincoln Haupt – who rose to speak about his positive experiences with the library and who urged the council “to find ways to get more people to these programs–not cut the programs.”

Lincoln Haupt addresses the Lower Saucon Township Council.

He received a round of applause from the audience and platitudes from Banonis which is more than most speakers received.  Most of the time they would have noticed that Banonis couldn’t even be bothered to look up from whatever was of such enormous interest on the desk in front of him.

It was disconcerting to hear how many of the speakers were shocked and surprised by the council’s consideration of abandoning the library because they could have seen it coming.  Saucon Shenanigans has been pointing out this kind of high-handed maneuvering for quite some time.  And in fact, we’ve seen something like this movie before.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane.  We don’t have to go far, only back to the Fall of 2020.  If you recall, Banonis and Carocci had been more than a bit annoyed at the time about how long it was taking for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and the Steel City Fire Company to complete their merger.  This was in spite of the explanations from both fire companies about the difficulties in completing a merger that required PA government involvement during a time of Covid lockdown.  Remember, this was even pre-vaccines.  

In a maneuver that would be much harder to pull off now since the changes in the Sunshine Act this past summer, at the October 7, 2020, council meeting, after the business portion of the meeting was over and during the reports portion, Carocci introduced a motion to add a footnote to the 2021 budget that would put a tight timeline on the merger accompanied by punitive financial actions if the merger were not completed.  Apparently he felt that the fire companies were disrespecting the Council and not showing appropriate deference to a group that was giving them money.

Let’s be clear – what we witnessed in that whole process was simple bullying, a power play to get what they wanted.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fire companies missed the deadlines and then the Council opted to ignore their own budget footnote and bless LSFR with money and cut Steel City out of the agreement. 

Now along comes the Library which apparently disrespected the Council back in the Winter of 2021 when there was some confusion over the choice and seating of a new library Board member. At the time there were none-too-subtle allusions to the amount of funding that LST provides.  Now, with the new 5-year agreement being negotiated, Carocci and Banonis start talking about withholding funding from the library. 

Don’t be misled.  This is not about saving the township money (other library affiliations would be much more expensive) or improving library services (instead they’d disappear).  This is all about control and power and bullying.  Use funding as a cudgel to get what you want; in this case, apparently, more Board representation although the explanations for what’s holding up the signing of the agreement are pretty murky.  They might not be so murky if there had been an agenda item at the Jan. 3 meeting for a library update or if the solicitor had been there during any of this discussion since he seems to be playing a pivotal role in all this back and forth.

At least one peculiar complaint seemed to involve the fact that Hellertown wanted to be credited with the in-kind services it provides to the Library each year (the Library exists on borough property and pays the tiny rent of $1) in which case Lower Saucon wanted credit for the capital investment they made when the original agreement was made.  Seems to me, they don’t need lawyers working this out.  They need a competent accountant who can explain to the Lower Saucon Council the difference between current recurring expenses and amortized capital investment. 

Is this the kind of modus operandi we can expect for at least the next two years?  Is this good government?  

Public Comments Objections and a Clarification

Now let’s look at some of the comments raised by township residents in opposition to the change in the public comment policy.  As you may recall, I predicted that Banonis would provide a lot of blah-blah about orderly meetings necessitating these changes. In addition to that blather, he hauled out the hoary Republican justification that they were just trying to run the township “like a business.”  Thankfully, one township resident pointed out that a governmental body is not a business and should not be run like one.  Citizens are not shareholders; we are constituents.  Townships provide services to residents; they don’t sell products to customers. And their constituents have the right to raise objections directly to the council.

Barrett Geyer, whose comments you can read in detail in the Saucon Source article, also made the trenchant point that despite the new policy saying that “the purpose of Public Comment is not for residents or taxpayers to engage in argument or debate with members of Council, the Administration, or other residents…,” that is in fact exactly what the point of Public Comment is.  And it’s Council’s job to sit there and listen.

There were a number of objections to the vagueness of the wording of the policy and the lack of definition of many of the terms.  That of course is a feature, not a bug, so that Banonis can interpret the policy in whatever way suits him. Even Newbie Zavacky raised the point about the definition of “groups of people” and the limit to no more than two members of a group being allowed to speak.  It was “clarified” that that applied only to “organized” groups.  So take heed – if you’re coming to comment at future meetings, don’t join a group to do it.  Just have you and your 20 friends show up as individuals so you each can get your 3 minutes to speak.

And here’s a perfect example of how you can expect Banonis to try to enforce this policy.  Your blogger rose to ask why Mrs. deLeon’s request to have an agenda item added to the Jan. 3 meeting was denied, apparently by Township Manager Leslie Huhn.  Banonis tried to shut down the comment by claiming it was more of a question than a comment and therefore impermissible.  Really?  I think not.  I informed him that I was a member of the public; it was a comment about township behavior and it dealt specifically with a non-agenda item – and then proceeded with my question.

Huhn then replied that she was the one who did not include it on the agenda.  When I asked by what authority, she replied with a section from the Lower Saucon Administrative Code.  The problem was that the section she read had nothing at all to do with who could authorize the content of the agenda.  It dealt only with the requirements of producing the agenda (i.e. typing it up) and posting it in a timely fashion.  The township manager has no authority over the content of the agenda.  Of course by the time she had finished reading all of that and Mrs. deLeon had responded to some other points Huhn had made, my 3 minutes were up.

This is what is known by the politically correct term “gaslighting.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it means deliberately misleading others by misinterpreting information that clearly means something else.  I was always taught to call it lying.  I expect we’ll see a lot more of this.

As to the 3 minutes, I would suggest that if you are commenting and someone on Council uses up your time, that you employ the Congressional response “reclaiming my time” in order to complete your thoughts.

Courtesy of Josh Popichak from Saucon Source

What Can You Do?

If this is the kind of behavior we can expect for the next two years at least, it’s going to be a long slog.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.  

Keep showing up.  Fill the Council chamber even if you say nothing all meeting. Make them know you’re watching.

Question everything.  They will try to give you as little information as possible. Keep asking.

— When they try to shut you down during public comment, keep talking. Request your additional two minutes. Then request more and make them vote on it.

Use the communication channels that Banonis himself seems to want you to.  Email Council members, often and on topic.  For some reason, it seems, you should also copy Huhn on any emails.  Not sure why unless it has something to do with forcing those emails to be available for Freedom of Information Act or Right to Know requests.  I’ll research that.

Talk to your neighbors and tell them what’s happening.

Keep asking why the meetings aren’t livestreamed.  They’re hoping you’ll forget.  During the first year of Covid, there were often 30-40 viewers on those Zoom calls, sometimes more.  Some in-person meetings over the summer had less than 10 attendees.  

As my fellow Lehigh alum, Marty Baron, so pointedly added to the Washington Post masthead, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Here at Saucon Shenanigans, we’ll keep the light on.

Next Council Meeting – Wednesday, February 16 – 6:30 PM – Township Hall