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

A Council Quickie – and a Serious Question

The May 19, 2021, Lower Saucon Township Council meeting was even shorter than the one on May 5. The meeting was gaveled in at 6:30 and adjourned at 7:10 PM. It amounted to a passel of resolutions to thank Saucon Valley area high school students for being junior council members, the approval of a “blessing boxes” program in two parks, approval of summer hours for the administrative staff, the hiring of a cleaning service and the submission of a grant application. That was it except for the usual housekeeping of approving minutes and financial reports.

A brief word about the blessing boxes. The program was approved but there is currently no timeline for their installation at Town Hall Park and Steel City Park. I’m sure when that’s nailed down there will be more information coming about this volunteer opportunity for township residents to help their neighbors who are in need. More details will be provided when there is an implementation date.

Since we have some extra time in this issue, let’s make a trip back to the 2021 budget that was proposed in October and adopted in December. Specifically, it might be interesting to find out what’s happening with those footnotes that were added to the budget relative to the funding of the fire department.

To refresh your memory, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci seemed almost apoplectic back at the October 7 meeting that the fire companies were not moving fast enough on their merger in spite of the ongoing pandemic and the fact that both businesses and governments were still essentially shut down. To “incentivize” completion of the merger, Mr. Carocci proposed three footnotes to be added to the 2021 budget that would supposedly make the merger happen faster. The footnotes were approved as part of the budget approval on December 16, 2020, over the objections of Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Stauffer.

The footnotes were as follows:

“Motion for the Township staff to prepare a proposed 2021 budget that will allocate $150,000 to Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and $50,000 to Steel City Fire Company to assist in the funding of their operations which payments will placed on the June __, 2021 agenda for approval. If the April 1st deadline is met, then payment may be authorized at the next regularly scheduled Council meeting. These amounts maintain the 2020 Township funding levels. However, none of the allocated funds in the 2021 budget will be payable unless the following condition is met:

“Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire completely merge their operations and become one legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law by April 1, 2021.

If by April 2, 2021, Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire have failed to completely merge their operations and become one legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law the allocated funds will be reduced by 50% at that time. Meaning – Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue would only be eligible for $75,000 and Steel City Fire $25,000 in Township funding in fiscal 2021.

If by May 1, 2021, Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire still have not completely merged their operations and become one legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law the remain [sic] allocated funds in [sic] will be reduced by an additional 50% at that time. Meaning as of May 1, 2021 – Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue would only be eligible for $37,500 and Steel City Fire $12,500 in Township funding in fiscal 2021.

If by June 1, 2021, Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City Fire have failed to completely merge their operations and become on [sic] legally merged fire company to the satisfaction of Township Council and under Pennsylvania and Federal Law. Lower Saucon Fire & Rescue and Steel City will not be eligible for any of the aforementioned Township funds during fiscal year 2021.

2021 Lower Saucon Township Budget – http://www.lowersaucontownship.org/pdf/2021final.pdf

In case you haven’t noticed, we have now passed both the April 2 and the May 1 deadlines and will have passed the June 1 deadline before the next scheduled Council meeting on June 16. Back at the April 7 Council meeting, Mrs. Stauffer raised the question of what was happening with the merger and had it been completed by the April 1 deadline. The reply was, in a roundabout answer from Solicitor Treadwell, “no” and she was “tut-tut”-ed by Mr. Carocci that it really wasn’t necessary to discuss that at the time. Nevertheless, Mrs. Stauffer made a motion to void the footnotes to the 2021 budget since they were clearly not going to be enforced as they had been passed. Her motion failed 2-3 with only Mrs. deLeon joining her to vote in favor.

So here we find ourselves coming up on a June 16 Council meeting, two weeks after the final June 1 deadline that said that the fire companies would receive zero-zilch-nada funding for the 2021 fiscal year. What exactly is going on? What was all the bluff and bluster back in October using the funding cudgel to force the merger by April 1 if there was no intention of actually enforcing it? The funding of the fire company hasn’t been on the agenda at all during 2021. It’s been essentially ignored.

Are Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, with Mrs. Yerger playing “me too,” really planning on defunding the fire companies? Is that really in the best interests of the Township? Or was it all just empty posturing?

Regardless of the answer, is this really what anyone would call effective leadership?

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, June 16, 2021, 6:30 PM

Next Township Elections – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Short and Sweet

The short part of the May 5 Lower Saucon Township council meeting was the meeting itself. It may have set a record for brevity. In less than an hour, the Council passed 8 resolutions (most of them recognizing award winners from the Hellertown-Lower Saucon Chamber of Commerce), approved a resident’s exemption request, approved the minutes and heard only a couple of reports. Resident George Gress asked if any planning had been done yet to return meetings to in-person. The answer was “not yet” since it would require re-opening the Township building and that will take more extensive planning. Governor Wolf had only just announced the revised occupancy limits on Monday.

Probably the most time was spent on a request from resident Donna Louder for the township to request that the Health Bureau conduct a new air quality test because of some odor complaints from the landfill. Apparently the last air quality test was completed in 2016 and since then there has been a change in what the landfill is permitted to accept. After some discussion about the necessity for the request, the proper process for handling the request, and how the prior test was conducted, the Council finally agreed to send a letter to the Health Bureau requesting a new test. This was deemed appropriate because it takes some time for a test to be scheduled and conducted and the letter would get the request in the queue.

The sweet part of the meeting was the acknowledgement of the retirement of K-9 Atos from the Lower Saucon Police force. Unfortunately because of the technological limitations of Zoom, those of us watching were only able to catch glimpses of Atos when his handler, Officer Steve Kunigus, was speaking, but he’s a fine-looking fellow who has apparently served the department and the township well. Both Officer Kunigus and Chief Barndt spoke highly of his performance. I’ll admit that as a long-time German Shepherd Dog owner I’m a sucker for any of these working dog breeds so it was wonderful to see Atos appropriately honored. He will be living with Officer Kunigus and his family. I’m sure we all wish him a long and happy retirement. His successor, K-9 Titus, is already on the job and we’ll have a chance to meet him as things open up more.

And that was it. Mr. Carocci was absent so all the votes were 4-0.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 6:30 PM

***One important note: The primary election is Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Polls are open from 7 AM to 8 PM. There isn’t much choice involved in the Township Council races. There are 3 Republicans running for nominations for the 3 open seats and 3 Democrats running for nominations for the same 3 open seats.

However, there are a large number of judicial nomination races that are competitive across the state and within the county. There are also 4 ballot questions for consideration. Remember that independent voters can vote on ballot questions, so don’t stay home because you’re an independent. Your voice counts and the two questions on how PA handles state-wide emergencies are very important. Please do your research. I urge you to vote NO on questions 1 and 2. If you’ve watched our completely dysfunctional state legislature over the past umpteen years, you know you don’t want them trying to make a decision in an emergency like Covid.

Finally, because of the bizarre situation in PA that allows candidates to cross-file for school board openings as both Rs and Ds, it’s often difficult to tell who stands where on school board issues and policies. Sadly, the Saucon Valley school board has taken some disturbingly right wing turns in the last couple of years. If you’re concerned about that, do your homework and find out which candidates’ positions really align with your beliefs. It matters.

And if you happen to vote in Lower Saucon 7, be sure to say hello. I’m the Judge of Election there.

Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Whole World is Watching. Well, Hellertown Is.

Last week’s Lower Saucon Township Council meeting had a decidedly different vibe to it. It was much more low-key, ticking along at a brisk pace, checking things off on the agenda. There was a resolution observing International Firefighters’ Day on May 4, a handful of resident requests for variances, a lot line adjustment, some administrative resolutions. All dispensed with fairly rapidly with 4-0 votes (Mrs. deLeon was absent).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There was the adoption of a Feral Cat Trap/Neuter/Return agreement whereby the Township will provide vouchers that will cover the $35 cost for residents who trap a feral cat and take it to No Nonsense Neutering for the procedure. Hopefully, this will resolve the feral cat problem in Steel City that Ms. Civitella brought to the Council’s attention earlier this year. Ms. Huhn was appropriately thanked for her rapid and effective response in providing the information necessary to deal with this issue.

In tax-related news, the filing date for EIT final returns was moved to May 17 so that it will correspond to the Federal and State tax due dates. No penalties or interest will be collected on any taxes paid by May 17.

Seasonal workers for Public Works will be paid $14.63 per hour and the Police Department has received its spiffy new uniforms!

As I said, a fairly uneventful meeting. So uneventful, in fact, that at several points when Mrs. Yerger requested a motion for an agenda item, there was an awkward pause before another Council member so moved. None of the usual two-step jockeying to be the mover or seconder. Mrs. Yerger herself even moved at least one item that I recall.

But as we’ve come to learn, it’s the non-agenda items that often generate the most interest. That was the case on April 21 as well.

First, Mrs. Stauffer provided a detailed report on the activities of the Hellertown Area Library (HAL) during this past year as they coped with all of the challenges of Covid-19. She provided data on library usage and descriptions of alternative programming that outlined a robust response to the pandemic. Mrs. Stauffer is the Council’s liaison to the Library.

Then, in the public comment period on non-agenda items for non-residents only (the very last item on the agenda), Julia Sefton, President of the HAL Board addressed the Council in response to the variety of issues that had been raised at the previous Council meeting on April 7. She outlined the normal reorganization process of the Board and how it was disrupted this year by both Covid and by LST Council’s desire to advertise separately for the one Board opening. She explained that they are an all-volunteer board and that they are perhaps not as skilled in parliamentary procedure as they should be. She acknowledged that allowing outgoing Board member Janie Hecker to make a motion at their previous Board meeting was incorrect, although she did point out that Ms. Hecker had every right to attend that meeting as a private citizen. She just should not have been recognized as a Board member or allowed to participate as such.

Ms. Sefton also made it clear that there was no disrespect meant to the LST Council by any of the HAL Board’s actions. She apologized for any consternation that might have caused and reiterated HAL’s appreciation for the substantial support provided to the Library by the Township. She committed to the Board’s taking a closer look at their procedures and correcting anything that might run counter to accepted practice.

Attorney Treadwell volunteered his time to help the Board work through their processes in conjunction with the Hellertown Council solicitor if that would be useful. Ms. Sefton graciously accepted. Mr. Banonis then said that it wasn’t necessary for the HAL Board to apologize and that he appreciated their taking the time to explain what had happened at the last HAL Board meeting. He and Mr. Carocci then fell all over themselves explaining how valuable the Library is to the community. Quite a turnaround from two weeks prior.

With that, the meeting adjourned in almost record time.

And then I realized what had been happening. I’d noticed at the beginning of the meeting that there was a larger-than-usual number of Zoom attendees. I didn’t think much of it since sometimes variance requests and zoning issues attract support people for the petitioner (lawyers, engineers, neighbors) and they tend to drop off when that agenda item is completed. But they were all still there at the end of the meeting. Unusual. Until someone pointed out that those additional people included the Mayor of Hellertown, Hellertown’s council-appointed liaison to the HAL Board, and a good many members of the HAL Board, obviously there to witness the report by Mrs. Stauffer, the comments by Ms. Sefton and the subsequent response.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what effect all of those witnesses might have had. But I’ll make one observation of my own. Neither Mr. Banonis nor Mr. Carocci took the opportunity in this feel-good mutual Library admiration moment to apologize for the belittling remarks and accusations that they leveled at Mrs. Stauffer on April 7.

Ah well, baby steps.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

UPDATE: In my last blog, I promised to inquire about what differences there might be between the “Council packet” that Council members receive and the supporting material that is posted on the township website along with the meeting agenda. Ms. Huhn said that there should be no difference in those materials – everything in the Council packet should also be on the website. She also asked that if someone notices a discrepancy to let her know. She did point out, and she was absolutely correct in this, that she said in the April 7 meeting that the background material on the Planning Commission nominee – Mr. Woosnam – had been EMAILED to the Council members, not included in the Council packet. So my apologies to Ms. Huhn for incorrectly reporting what she had said about the distribution of Mr. Woosnam’s information.

I did request, on behalf of those of us who are playing along at home, that in the future that kind of information, when emailed, would also be available to Zoom meeting attendees.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, May 5, 2021, 6:30 PM

Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

No, You Cannot Mute Your Fellow Councilperson Because She’s Objecting to What You’re Saying

*SIGH* As I sat through the April 7 Lower Saucon Township Council meeting, I was thinking how lovely it was that Spring had arrived and that most of the items under discussion at the meeting were about various activities returning to some semblance of normal and of the parks opening back up. I was thinking that commenting on this meeting would be a refreshing change from the usual snide remarks and ugly behavior that has come to be typical. Boy, was I wrong!

Let’s start with the pleasant part of the evening. McMahon Associates updated their work with the township on the WalkWorks Grant. They are at the point where they are soliciting input from the residents on ways that we can make the township more accessible to walking, biking and other means of transportation besides cars. They have created a website at traisr.net/LST where you can enter your suggestions for improved walk/bike-ability and pinpoint the location on the map. There are about 15 comments there, as of this writing. I’m sure there are many others who have noticed places where changes would be helpful in improving access and safety. I encourage everyone to take a look and provide your comments now. The entire project must be completed by September, so early input is a good idea if you want your contributions considered.

And yes, Jason Banonis, I’m sure that this is exactly what McMahon has done on their previous projects, and I’m sure it has worked well. But as someone who has worked successfully in the same industry for 13 years, I know that any consultant worth her salt is open to suggestions for improvements or other ideas for consideration as Ms. Manbeck, the McMahon consultant, acknowledged. Your knee-jerk defense of McMahon’s approach was unnecessary and fairly pathetic, probably causing people to wonder why someone with no background in that area would need to jump to their defense. So nice job – you undercut exactly what you were trying to bolster.

On to other pleasant things. The Community Center will be conducting a truncated summer recreation program, limited mostly by ongoing Covid concerns. But it will happen, as opposed to last summer when it had to be completely canceled. The Hellertown-Lower Saucon Chamber received approval for a Movie Night at Town Hall Park on July 23. The Township will be applying for a couple of grants to assist with the improvement of trails in Polk Valley Park.

There was extensive discussion of the possibility of implementing a feral cat TNR (trap, neutral, release) program in the Township in response to some significant concerns that had been raised at the February meeting by Laura Civitella. Ms. Huhn provided quite a bit of information on the types of programs available in the Valley and what other municipalities are doing to cope with this difficult issue. It was clear that there will be ongoing discussion as to the cost and feasibility of implementing a program and Ms. Civitella seemed quite happy with the township’s response to her concerns.

Photo by Petr Ganaj on Pexels.com

From here on, things go fairly rapidly downhill, so if you don’t want to muck around in the swamp, you can stop reading and pretend that LST is well-run by a group of mature civic leaders. Of course, you’d be wrong.

First, Tom Carocci tries to amend the March meeting minutes to report something that wasn’t actually said. Mrs. deLeon had stated that Ms. Hecker was not on the Hellertown Area Library board when the current director was appointed. This was apparently determined after the meeting to be incorrect. So Tom tries to get the minutes changed to say that Ms. Hecker WAS on the HAL board when the current director was appointed. For one thing, this had exactly zero importance in relation to the topic under discussion at the time and, second, you cannot amend meeting minutes to say something that wasn’t said. Meeting minutes have to accurately reflect what was stated. If what was stated is incorrect, that point can be made at the next meeting and then the minutes of that subsequent meeting (the one on April 7) will reflect the correction of the fact without changing the accurate reporting of the original meeting. Nevertheless, Mrs. Yerger was about to accept the incorrectly corrected minutes when Attorney Treadwell intervened to prevent the error. Does anyone even bother to read Robert’s Rules of Order except for the Solicitor? And me?

Next up we have another in the continuing saga of appointing people to township boards without providing any information to the community. There was a vacancy created on the Planning Committee. I believe a couple of people applied for the position. Ms. Huhn, as part of her manager’s report, recommended that Doug Woosnam be appointed to the position. The Council voted him in 5-0. Here’s the problem. I believe it was Ms. Huhn who said that the applications from the applicants were included in “your council packet.” But they were not included in any of the material posted online with the agenda. I know. I looked through all 146 pages at least 2 times, partly because I was trying to find out what the gentleman’s last name was since no one bothers to spell it out for listeners or put a slide up on the screen. And it’s not on the agenda as an item for the meeting. This was the same problem with the person appointed to the Library Board last month – no information, not even a spelling of her name, which turns out to be Sara Phillips, not Sharon Whoever. 

I’m wondering what the difference is between the “council packet” and what we get to see online. With the exception of items that will be handled in an executive session, why should there be any difference? Perhaps you’re wondering the same thing, Gentle Reader. I’ll ask.

And now things get really ugly. In a standard maneuver, Jason or Tom (in this case Jason) raises an issue very late in the meeting under the “reports” section that rightfully should have been discussed as an agenda item. But by not making it an agenda item, he can be sure that no one he’s about to attack will be able to respond to the issue because they have no idea it’s coming. You’ll recall the same tactic was used back in October regarding the directive to the fire companies to complete their merger or risk losing funding – introduced late in the meeting in the “reports” section, not as a separate agenda item, no time for the fire companies to prepare a response. 

This time it’s about the recent Library Board meeting following the Township’s informing the Library Board that they were going to solicit additional applicants and prior to the Township’s voting on adding Sara Phillips instead of the Board’s recommended nominee, Janie Hecker, to the Board to represent LST. Apparently the Library Board allowed Janie Hecker to remain on the Board through the Feb. 23 meeting since no replacement for her had been appointed, even though her term had officially expired on December 31, 2020. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that they figured the LST council would do what they’ve always done and appoint the person that the HAL Board had recommended, so there would be no lapse in representation. But the Council didn’t (see last month’s Saucon Shenanigans). They appointed Ms. Phillips instead and so now Jason’s shorts are all in a twist. The Library is showing “disregard for the taxpayer and the money that’s being provided to them.” He doesn’t know how they can do this. “Why doesn’t this organization follow basic parliamentary rules?” I don’t know, Jason. Why doesn’t the township council do the same? (see above)

In case you’re confused, here’s the timeline, roughly:

  • HAL Board tells LST they recommend Janie Hecker for the position (sometime before LST meeting on Mar. 3)
  • LST (not clear on whose authority) informs HAL Board that they will be advertising and seeking additional applicants
  • HAL Board cannot hold new year organizational meeting because appointment is up in the air
  • Feb. 23 – HAL Board holds regular meeting, allowing Janie Hecker to participate
  • Mar. 3 – LST Council decides not to accept HAL’s recommendation and appoints Sara Phillips instead
  • Mar. 23 – Ms. Phillips attends first HAL Board meeting as LST representative
  • April 7 – Tom says that all of this means that LST is being held in “low disregard” and what are they doing for the $100,000 per year that the Township gives them.

Now all of this might just be chalked up to really poor communication between the Board and the Council that has now been resolved except for two other components.

One is Jason and Tom’s continued reference to the $100,000 that LST provides to HAL and their demand that the township look into this more thoroughly. Is this prologue to an attempt to defund the library, just like the budget footnote threatens to defund the fire company? One thing I have learned over this past year is that when Jason uses words like “we must be stewards of the taxpayer’s money” or to similar effect, there’s more to it than appropriate fiscal responsibility. This guy has more tells than John Boehner’s latest memoir.

The second component – and this is the really ugly part – was the series of ad hominem (or more correctly ad feminem) attacks on Mrs. Stauffer as the council liaison to the Library. Jason questioned how she could have let such a thing happen. Had she reported this to Ms. Huhn? Why didn’t she step in and prevent Ms. Hecker from voting? He seriously impugned her capabilities to be the liaison to the library, parroted, of course, by Tom at every opportunity. (Tom, you will recall, REALLY wanted to be the library liaison and was clearly upset last year when Mrs. Stauffer was chosen instead.)

Jason said he didn’t expect that Mrs. Stauffer could provide an answer to this at the meeting (duh – you sprang it on her with no warning). When Mrs. Stauffer tried to respond to this deluge of accusations, he then hit the low point for the year as he made a motion to “mute Mrs. Stauffer until I have finished my remarks,” immediately seconded by Tom (Abbot and Costello didn’t have a better sense of timing). I would say the reaction of the other council members was stunned, followed by a chorus of “you can’t do that” and “that’s against the Sunshine Law” and eventually it was dropped, not withdrawn, dropped. (cf. “why doesn’t this organization follow basic parliamentary rules?”)

So let’s pause at this point and observe that the stench of hypocrisy here is worse than the odor from a poorly managed landfill on a hot July afternoon. You’ll recall that back at the June 3, 2020, Council meeting, Mrs. deLeon was chastised by Jason and Tom for interfering in a report being put together about the landfill. What she did was suggest that the report include a picture that represented how methane leaks from landfills (which is different from how methane is vented into the air at, say, a wastewater treatment facility) so that people who read the report would better understand what the problems are. But no, that was overstepping her authority as simply a liaison to the Committee. She had no right to offer that kind of input or request that picture be inserted. And eventually they forced her out as liaison to the Landfill Committee.

Fast forward to April. Now Mrs. Stauffer is chastised for not inserting herself (as liaison) into the Library Board’s actions and preventing Ms. Hecker from voting. And apparently she should have reported this all, somehow, to Ms. Huhn? Let me point out that Mrs. Stauffer does not work for nor does she report to Ms. Huhn and it is not dereliction of her duty that she didn’t report Ms. Hecker’s involvement in the meeting to her. Ms. Huhn had no authority to do anything about it anyway.

Second, Mrs. Stauffer is not the HAL Board’s parliamentarian. It is not her responsibility to be sure that the HAL Board conducts its business correctly. It is her responsibility to report the Library’s concerns and actions to the township council. That’s what a liaison does (look it up!). In fact, I doubt she has any authority to prevent the HAL Board from taking any action since she is just one vote among many.

All of which leads back to the question – what’s really going on here? Is this trumped-up indignation to begin to lay the case for defunding or reducing funding for the library? Or is it just more of the same nasty, middle-school playground “gotcha” animus we’ve seen pointed at Mrs. Stauffer ever since the Court chose her last year instead of someone else’s pet candidate and the attempt to unseat her failed? At one point Jason said he’d like “to ask for a little bit of courtesy.” As far as I can see, he hasn’t extended any courtesy to Mrs. Stauffer for more than a year so I don’t see how he merits any right now, at least not without an apology to Mrs. Stauffer first.

Do you know who I feel badly for? The Saucon Valley HS students who serve as junior council members. They are exposed to these horrendous role models of community “leaders” meeting after meeting. I hope they are appalled and that they are not taking this as appropriate examples of how elected public servants should act. Because if they think this is the right way to behave, we’re all doomed.

For months I have tried to give Jason and Tom the benefit of the doubt but this is ridiculous. These are grown men acting like spoiled brats whenever they don’t get their own way or like bullies in the school yard picking on girls. Mrs. Stauffer will be on the Council until the end of the year. She’s not running for re-election. There are 15 more meetings left. Grow up.

One More Thing Before We Go

PRO-TIP: If you think you’d like to run for township council, perhaps you should attend at least a few meetings before you through your hat in the ring. It’s never been easier since they’ve been on Zoom all year. It would go a long way toward improving a candidate’s credibility.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 6:30 PM

Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021.