The May 18 meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council looked pretty straightforward. A couple of resolutions, a few business items and then the issue that most people were interested in – “Discussion on Library Services.”
Before we go any further, can we take a moment to discuss how deliberately suppressive the comment policy is? Residents and taxpayers of the township (no one else) can each speak for 3, count ‘em, 3, minutes on an agenda item before the meeting really gets underway. The total information provided for the item “Discussion on Library Services” is exactly that, the title. No supporting documentation. No wording of a motion that might be introduced. Nothing.
Let’s look at what the Office of Open Records says about what should be included in agenda items: “The agenda should include all issues to be deliberated on and any planned official action, such as votes.” As you’ll see, there was definitely a planned official action to be voted on. Banonis didn’t just make it up off the top of his head. But there was no hint of that in the agenda.
The OOR goes on to clarify further, based on the findings in the case Reading Eagle Co. v. Council, 156 Pa. Commw. 412, 416-17 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. 1993) – “It is advisable to use the same standard for agendas, whereby the description of the agenda item must be ‘of sufficient specificity to inform…that there is, in reality, a specific, discrete matter or area which the board has determined should be discussed (deliberated and/or decided by official action).’ In sum, avoid general cryptic terms and provide as many specific concrete details as possible.”
But there was no indication that there would be a motion to basically remove the township from consideration as a “direct service area” from the Hellertown Area Library’s application for state funding for 2023, thereby ending the township’s relationship with HAL and its residents’ access to the Library’s services AND the PA Access system. If there had been, informed residents could have commented on that proposed motion. But informed comment is not what this Council is looking for.
To boil it down, the Council wants out of any agreement with HAL for 2023 but expects HAL to continue to provide services through the end of 2022. They want to give HAL the $50,000 that they’ve been trying to push on them since January and which HAL has twice refused (don’t you just love men who can’t take “no” for an answer?) as well as $32,000 which they calculate as the amount of State money that HAL would get for 2023 if they did include LST in their “direct service area.” Boy, is that big of them. But they’re going to give them that $32,000 in 2022, not 2023. And at that point they then wash their hands of any relationship with HAL and if you want library services you are, in very crude terms, SOOL.
It’s so great to live in a township where the council members really care about their residents. No books for Ms. Kozo’s 10-year-old daughter and no support for Ms. Socha’s grandson who overcame his speech disorder thanks to the help he received from the library personel. No library services for the young man who addressed the Council in January explaining how much he loved the library. Plus the literally thousands of other residents who are members of the Library. We don’t need it. Nobody uses the library anymore – just ask our solicitor.
The excuse for all this was, of course, that both HAL and Hellertown Borough turned down any further discussion of “regionalization.” In Banonis’ words they turned down the “regionalization proposal” but of course there was no actual proposal, no outline of how to move forward, no suggestion of how this might have been accomplished. In words we’ve heard a lot recently, there was no there, there. It was smoke and mirrors to make us think they were actually doing something when in fact they were doing nothing.
Or were they doing nothing?
Turns out, they’ve been up to quite a bit that they haven’t bothered to share with the residents.
Thanks to a Southern Lehigh School Board meeting that was held on Monday evening, June 13, we now know quite a bit about what they’ve been up to. On May 12, someone from LST wrote a check to Southern Lehigh Public Library for $50,000. The previous check for $50,000 written to SLPL on January 20 that had been rejected by the Library was voided a couple of months ago. The new check was presented for the Helping Hands Campaign, an annual fundraiser of the library. Considering that the top level of giving for the campaign is $10,000 and that for every $50 you give, you get your name on a bookplate, there are going to be a hell of a lot of bookplates for LST in that library.
The Southern Lehigh Public Library has not, however, accepted the check or cashed it. It is apparently still under consideration. In the past, the Library rejected the pressure to take LST’s money. However, the business manager of the school board, when questioned as to whether the check came with any strings attached, reported that our very own solicitor, Mr. Treadwell, had confirmed in writing that there was no expectation of any kind of services for the donation. Hmmm.
All of this came as part of a report to the Southern Lehigh School Board about a meeting that was held that included all of the donor municipalities to the Library – Upper Saucon, Upper Milford, and Coopersburg – as well as the school board business manager, the state representative for the district, and – ready? – a couple of LST people. Of course, not enough to create a quorum or they’d have to tell you they were at the meeting. But it definitely included Carocci and, as best I can tell from the rather bad audio on the meeting tape, Treadwell.
Why did this come up at the school board meeting? Because the school board is considering its budget for next year and hey, if LST’s gonna come up with $50k for the Library, why we could just reduce our support for the library by that much. The school district currently provides $71,000 per year to SLPL.
So connect the dots. We now have LST council people trying to push their way into the Southern Lehigh Public Library, where they’ve been told once they’re not wanted (remember those men who can’t take “no” for an answer?), which the Southern Lehigh School Board now sees as a way to reduce their contribution to the Library to ease their budgetary shortfall which means they have an incentive to pressure the Library to take the money. In short, if the Southern Lehigh School Board takes that route, LST taxpayer money will effectively be underwriting the budget of the Southern Lehigh School District. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I pay my taxes for.
There’s more – so much more – but that’s enough for one blog. There’s a Council meeting tomorrow night. The library (any library) is not on the agenda but you could still show up and tell them what you think.
I’ll have another issue out soon.
Oh, and Zavacky quit. ‘Bye, Felicia!
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, June 15, 6:30 PM – Township Hall
As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.
While it’s morally satisfying to call out the repugnant behavior of four members of the Lower Saucon Township Council in their dealings with both township residents and other municipalities, and while it’s very important to continue to keep township residents up-to-date on what is happening, the reality is that it’s not moving the problem towards resolution.
To date the LST Council members (Mrs. deLeon always excepted) have dragged their feet, gaslighting us and showing exactly no interest in spending the time and energy necessary to resolve the problem. They have deliberately obfuscated the issue with detours and sidetracks and flat-out lies. So I’d like to lay out a process by which we might actually get to resolution.
With all due respect to Pastor Spohn’s well-intentioned attempt at mediation, the fact is that this problem is an LST problem, pure and simple. LST Council created the problem; they exacerbated the problem, and they have refused to deal with solving the problem.
Hellertown Borough and HAL have a functional bilateral agreement that delivers library services to Hellertown residents to both parties’ satisfaction for 2022. Where they go for 2023 and beyond is up to them. If they have to continue without LST’s participation, that will be up to them to decide.
Before anything else, as a gesture of good faith, the LST Council needs to agree to 1) pay its budgeted support to HAL for the remainder of 2022 and 2) drop its threat to sue the library. Without that minimal action, HAL should immediately cut off all services to LST residents for lack of payment. LST budgeted $107,168 for HAL for 2022, or $8931/month. Based on LST’s population, the state provided HAL with $22,968. LST paid for one month of services for January. The state money covered an additional 2.6 months of services. That amount was exhausted on April 18.
Next, these questions need to be answered:
Do the residents of LST want library services? We know that as of January there were 3,328 residents who were members of the library (2,513 adults/815 juveniles). The 2020 census counts 11,094 residents in the township. So 29.998% of LST residents held library cards. Let’s call it 30%. But that number doesn’t necessarily represent the number of residents who want to have access to a library. There may be far more who at least want access even if they don’t currently utilize it. And that number doesn’t include children who don’t hold their own library cards but use the facilities on their parents’ cards. There hasn’t been a survey about library services since back in 2014? 2015? when LST cut ties with the Bethlehem Area Public Library.
So let’s get an accurate count. There’s a primary election coming up in a little over 3 weeks on May 17. Let’s set up a table outside each of the polling places in the township and ask every voter one question: Do you, as a resident of Lower Saucon Township, want library services? Yes or No, as simple as that. No complicating questions about how to pay for it or clouding the issue with “regionalization” or anything like that.
Do you, as a resident of Lower Saucon Township, want library services?
Collect each person’s name, address and how many people are in their household. This will cover juveniles who cannot get library cards on their own.
After that, cross reference the responses with the resident lists and send a letter with a self-addressed, stamped postcard to every resident who has not responded on May 17 that asks:
Do you, as a resident of Lower Saucon Township, want library services?
At the same time create a page on the township website where residents can respond to one question:
Do you, as a resident of Lower Saucon Township, want library services?
Set a deadline. Count up the responses.
What is the minimum number of responses required for this to be deemed a valid survey? And what is the minimum threshold that is required to pursue library services for the township? 0%, 10%, 30%, 50%, some other number? The LST Council should be forced to set both these numbers before any results are tallied.
It is at this point that we come to a crucial question. Does the LST Council even have any intention of providing library services to its residents at all? It’s a legitimate question because up to this point, their actions (and remember, watch what they do, not what they say) have indicated that they are driving us down the path to losing all library services on December 31, 2022.
If they have no intention of providing library services to LST residents, they should be required to state that clearly before July 1, 2022, so that HAL will know not to include LST population numbers in their 2023 request for state funds. If they refuse to state their intentions clearly and in writing before July 1, 2022, HAL should, for its own protection, not include the LST population numbers in their 2023 request.
If the answer is “no,” then let them take their chances at the ballot box in November 2023.
If The Answer is Yes
Step 1. Agree to a One-Year Extension of the Agreement with HAL to Cover 2023
Step 2. Appoint a Library Committee
If the LST Council does intend to go forward with providing library services for its residents, the next question is:
What is the best way to provide library services?
In order to answer that question, the Council should appoint a Library Committee tasked with determining what the various possibilities are for funding library services for the Township. The committee should be composed of township residents who are willing to commit the time and energy to investigate the various options and have indicated their support for the township providing library services. The committee should NOT include:
Council members except for one Council liaison and that should be Mrs. deLeon since no other Council members have voted in favor of continuing library services to this point.
Members of the HAL Board
Employees of HAL
Members of Friends of HAL
The township solicitor
The following people should be asked to provide subject matter expertise if requested by the committee but should not have a vote on the committee:
Members of the HAL Board
Employees of HAL
Members of Friends of HAL
The township solicitor
Representatives from the Office of Commonwealth Libraries
Representatives from other municipalities and libraries
Other subject matter experts as deemed necessary by the Committee
Step 3. The Library Committee Charge and Deadline
Charge the Library Committee with determining what the various possibilities are for funding library services for the Township. This might include but not be limited to:
Continuing a relationship with HAL on a bilateral basis
Reinstating a relationship with HAL in conjunction with Hellertown Borough
Implementing a library tax to support an agreement with HAL
Entering into a regional library arrangement which does not currently exist, dependent on the regulations of the Office of Commonwealth Libraries
Provide whatever funding and administrative support is needed by the Committee.
Set a deadline for the Committee to complete its work and submit its report.
Step 4. Town Hall Meeting
Schedule a town hall meeting of at least one hour to hear the results of the Library Committee’s work and provide for public discussion of the options presented. Arrange for the meeting to be livestreamed or, better, available through interactive video.
Step 5. Adopt and Implement One of the Committee’s Recommendations
Because the LST Council will have previously committed to providing library services to its residents, the Council will then be expected to choose one of the available recommendations and begin implementation as early as possible.
There you have it – one path to fixing the library problem. I’m certain there are a number of equally viable possibilities as well as a number of tweaks that would make this path more effective. Whether this is the best option or not, it is a process for movement towards resolution. It is not a continuation of the foot-dragging gaslighting that we’ve watched since almost a year ago.
It is the least the township residents should expect of their duly elected “leaders.”
Usually I wait a week or so before writing about the latest township council meeting, but not this time. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of listening to these clowns lie to our faces about what’s going on with the library issue.
At tonight’s meeting, the library question was again not on the agenda. Mrs. deLeon read into the minutes during her report time the revised letter from Ken Solt, the president of the HAL Board extending the offer to discuss an agreement until April 22. The letter was sent on March 29. It was not put on the agenda because, according to Banonis, there weren’t two Council members who wanted it there. Mrs. deLeon then asked a very pertinent question. How many of the other agenda items had been requested by two Council members? Not the interim Township Manager. He doesn’t count. Not the township Financial Manager. She doesn’t either. Nor the Solicitor. The rules that Council adopted on January 3, 2022, require the consent of two Council members for an item to be added to the agenda. Answer from Banonis?? Crickets!!!
I think going forward, Council needs to be required to list the two Council members who have requested that an item be put on the agenda. Every. Single. Agenda. Item. If there aren’t two names, it’s not a legitimate agenda item and can’t be discussed or acted upon. Thank you, Law of Unintended Consequences. And remember, those rules require that the request for an agenda item be in writing.
Then in his report, Banonis read the same letter that Mayor Heintzelman read to the Hellertown Borough Council at their meeting regarding a meeting that was held on April 13 among Pastor Phil Spohn of Christ Lutheran, Ken Solt, Tom Rieger (President of Hellertown Borough Council), Mayor Heintzelman, Banonis and Zavacky (who conveniently was not at tonight’s council meeting, so she couldn’t answer any questions. I’m guessing she had more important things to do.). You can read it in its entirety in this Saucon Source article. He then said he’d have nothing more to say on the matter – but of course he did.
The excuse for no immediate action on the library issue was – ta-da – regionalization. In further discussions among the Council members about why this item was not on the agenda, Carocci kept claiming that “they need more time to report” on regionalization and “we’re gonna wait till we hear back from them.” These statements can be found at time marks 1:12:07 and 1:13:46 in the recorded video of the meeting available on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page. Who are these “they,” kemo sabe? Some magical, mystical group that’s going to be meeting and solving this problem? No.
Once again, we have to question Carocci’s reading abilities. Read the letter carefully. It states, “Lower Saucon Township expressed the idea of regionalizing library services with other communities. . . .This is a new concept being presented to both Hellertown Borough and the library.” So clearly the concept of “regionalization” was presented as a stalling tactic by – surprise – the LST representatives who were at that meeting – Banonis and Zavacky. Carocci was trying to imply that “they” were somehow not the people from LST.
The letter then says, “All parties agreed to take the concept back to their respective bodies, receive initial reactions and create conversations of thoughts and concerns, which will be used toward possible further discussions.” Great idea. But when questioned by Mrs. deLeon about why this is not on the agenda to be discussed? Again, crickets. When she asked If it would be added to the April agenda for discussion, the response was the insane answer that Carocci gave at 1:12:07 – “they need more time to report”. To report WHAT? The Sunshine Act requires that the Council have discussions like this in public. If it’s not on the agenda, how can it be discussed? If they’ve agreed to “take the concept back to their respective bodies, receive initial reactions and create conversations of thoughts and concerns,” how can that happen if it’s not on an agenda? Are they going to hold small group discussions of less than 3 Council members at a time to try to avoid the Sunshine Act? Is this now a working group of Banonis, Zavacky, Rieger, Heintzelman, Solt and Spohn? When’s the next meeting scheduled for? What’s the process? What’s the timeline?
And if they’re going to work on “regionalization,” where is the Office of Commonwealth Libraries in this little dance? You can’t just decide on your own to do “regionalization”. Or how about this consideration that one of our residents brought up in the public comments? What other library is going to have any interest in joining a regional pact that has anything to do with LST? The whole Valley has watched this circus unfold. Our own neighbors don’t trust this clown car of Council members. Why would any other sentient human or intelligent institution?
And here’s one more flat-out exaggeration from Banonis. “We’ve discussed regionalization.” (time mark 1:13:25). Yeah, if by the definition of “discuss” you mean the word fell out of his and Zavacky’s mouths once or twice during the January 19 shitshow.
And the final pertinent question: while LST Council is taking its sweet old time to work out this whole “regionalization” idea (which according to the letter may or may not work out at all and which will certainly take a lot of time – think, years), why aren’t you negotiating an interim agreement to pay LST’s share for the library services it consumes? If there’s no agreement by July 1, then HAL doesn’t include LST in its home territory when it applies for next year’s state funding and, come December 31, LST loses its current library services. No question about that.
Wake up. We’re all being played. LST Council is dragging its feet to get as much free library service as possible, as long as possible, on Hellertown’s dime. HAL is still under threat of a lawsuit if they cut off services to LST which, as best I can tell, they have every right to do. And they are operating on a sharply reduced budget which gives the lie to LST’s claim that they’re doing all this to “improve library services” for their constituents. Hellertown’s footing the bill for 2022 HAL operations over and above what they should be paying for their size relative to LST. And Bozo and his buddies are laughing at all of us, hoping we’ll give up on something they don’t want to provide anyway.
Coming up on a Lower Saucon Township Council meeting next Wednesday, April 20, and once again there is no agenda item for negotiations or an agreement with the Hellertown Area Library.
We’re now 3½ months into 2022 and to date the Council has managed to avoid doing anything productive as far as the Library is concerned. In January following a specious recounting of the timeline of interactions between the Library, LST and Hellertown Borough by Banonis, the Council (minus Mrs. deLeon) voted to cut funding in half and refused to sign an agreement going forward, wanting to just “be a donor.” Not surprisingly, the Library turned that down but graciously allowed LST residents to still use the library’s facilities for another month.
In February, despite a request from Mrs. deLeon to put the Library on the agenda, the other four council people didn’t consider that important enough and so another month passed with no substantive action. Of course, there was a report by Zavacky on the status at that meeting which was filled with gobbledygook and nonsense.
In March, the issue once again did not make the agenda despite a substantive proposal being provided by the Library to the Council which required no more than the Council agreeing in writing to negotiate a new agreement. Not SIGN an agreement, just NEGOTIATE one before July 1, 2022. With a week to consider that, the Council still couldn’t come up with a decision. Council member Carocci could, however, again spew malarkey about how the Library was still considering taking the check from January (HINT: they weren’t. They voted that down at the public January 25 Library Board meeting but, hey, why let the truth hinder the spin?).
The latest update is that weeks ahead of the April 20 council meeting, the Library has extended the deadline for the Council to agree to negotiate (again: negotiate NOT sign on to) a new agreement. And has once again graciously agreed to continue to provide library services to the delinquent citizens of LST. But still no item on the April 20 agenda. In the past we’ve been falsely informed that you can’t put an item on the agenda unless there is action to be taken (that’s not true). But now there is something to take action on – an invitation from the Library to negotiate a new agreement. So why isn’t it on the agenda? Here’s one hint: if they put it on the agenda, they have to let the public comment on it at the beginning of the meeting. Hmmm, that might mean more people would show up and comment. Probably don’t want that.
What’s Behind All This Delay?
There’s been quite a lot of speculation about what is behind all of this library nonsense and why it’s taken so long to get it resolved. After all, when the whole situation blew up in January, Hellertown Borough managed to resolve their portion of it in about 2 weeks. Setting aside the conjecture that much of this is a result of personal animus, let’s look at the whole Library issue from a completely different perspective. What if, in fact, the Council never did intend to sign the agreement with the Library and has no intention now of resolving the issue in favor of continuing library service to the LST residents.
Look at the facts in that light. Discussions on the new 5-year agreement began almost a year ago, in Spring 2021. They dragged on and on. Whenever Kristen Stauffer, the previous Council library liaison, would raise concerns or seek guidance on where the Township stood on budgetary issues, she would be belittled or ignored and no progress would be made. Former Township Manager Leslie Huhn was in charge of working with the Hellertown Township Manager and Library personnel to work out the new agreement. But somehow the usually capable Ms. Huhn couldn’t manage to get those 3 entities to work together or, supposedly, to respond to her, although we now have a more accurate timeline that indicates that probably wasn’t the case. Of course, she’s now conveniently gone – resigned – so we can’t get her input on this.
Wouldn’t all that be very useful if you really didn’t want to sign a new agreement? Hellertown Borough, seeing the December 31 renewal date coming up fast, responsibly took action to guarantee library services for its residents. LST punted time and time again due to “concerns” and Solicitor Treadwell claimed he couldn’t share the concerns with the public. Then LST fashioned a guaranteed-to-be-rejected insulting solution of cutting support in half and signing no agreement. Now, according to them, it became the Library’s fault that we’re in the situation we’re in. And they changed the rules for putting an item on the agenda to guarantee that Mrs. deLeon, the only real library supporter, can’t get anything considered going forward.
So in January the four Council members spring the new 50% cut/no agreement motion on the public with no mention on the agenda of what the “library services discussion” would entail; in February Mrs. deLeon can’t get a second Council member to agree to put the item on the agenda because of the lies about “no action to be taken;” in March the excuse is that the request came on too short notice to put it on the agenda (another falsity since the Sunshine Act provides for last-minute and emergency additions to agendas) and Mrs. deLeon again cannot get a second to put it on the agenda although she reads it into the minutes, and now it’s April and it’s still not on the agenda.
What’s behind all of this? Why not sit down and negotiate and work this out like reasonable people and elected public servants? I have two ideas that may or may not be intertwined.
Idea #1 – Bullying Gone Bad
We’ve watched members of this Council over the past two years employ bullying tactics in the place of honest negotiation to get what they want. The whole Steel City/LSFR merger issue comes most prominently to mind. You just push and pressure and turn the screws until your opponent caves. Other bullying tactics were employed in relation to the delay in approving the Covid bonuses for the police department until after their contract was agreed to. More subtle, perhaps, but arm-twisting no less. And then, miraculously, there was another $500 per person available after they approved the contract, beyond what every non-police employee had gotten!
In the case of the Library, I think the groundwork was laid last February when Carocci began making noises about LST being disrespected by the Library and asking what we were getting for our money. Did he do anything to actually find an answer to that question? No, he just wanted to get the idea out there. Typical Fox News tactics. The approach all through 2021 was to ratchet up the pressure on the Library to get whatever terms it was LST Council wanted. Of course, we don’t really know what those terms were because according to Treadwell, he couldn’t share any of that with us, but there were vague comments about “financial issues” and “concerns about management.” But nothing you could really check out. Just insinuations.
Of course the assumption might have been that as the December 31 deadline approached that the Library, always short on funding and dependent on the support of the Borough and the Township, would just fold. But then, two things happened.
Oops, Not What They Expected?
First, Hellertown Borough threw a monkey wrench into all of that when, as good public servants do, they stepped up and signed the agreement on behalf of providing library services to their residents. And then, when the December 31 date came and went and LST came up with its insulting “we just want to be donors” solution on January 19, the Board of HAL said thanks, but no thanks. We’ll work this out another way.
All of that left the LST Council scrambling. They have a constituency that clearly wants library services and they’ve backed themselves into a corner. Southern Lehigh Public Library (SLPL) has publicly stated they’re not interested. Bethlehem doesn’t want them back. They now either have to negotiate honestly with HAL which most bullies would see as “losing” or they have to admit that they’re fine with LST residents having no library, something for which I would hope they would pay dearly at the ballot box.
The analogies to Putin in Ukraine are ironic. Someone badly miscalculates, executes incompetently, and has no viable Plan B.
Idea #2 – You’re Not Entitled to Library Services
One thing we’ve watched consistently from the ultra-right authoritarian playbook since the Reagan era and most explicitly over the last five years is the concept that it’s not the responsibility of government to provide services to the public that the entitled white people (usually male) in charge don’t feel they have a right to. While this is often used in a racial context, it can just as well be a class issue. We’ve heard some of this from people up on that rostrum in Town Hall with statements like, “nobody uses libraries anymore,” “you can just order the books you need from Amazon,” “only 30% of the residents use the Library,” and the observation that HAL is not as convenient for most LST residents as the SLPL (the implication being that the only people that count live in the southwest quadrant of the township).
In this explanation, LST Council is more than happy to steal services from HAL for as long as HAL (who are suckers in their opinion) is willing to supply them and then, when that ends, we’re all just out of luck. Or perhaps we will have forgotten about it. It’s in this context that the threat of a lawsuit is useful. The idea is that the Township has the funds to sue the “poor” library and so the Library will just kowtow to the township’s demands.
Nowhere in this scenario is there any understanding of elected officials as public servants or as people who represent the entire township instead of just a precious few (probably those who can afford Amazon and contribute to their campaigns). This is, to put it mildly, despicable. It is also not, by any explanation, how a democracy is supposed to work.
But How About Pickleball?
Be aware that these condescending comments and rules only apply to those things that the elected Council members consider not of interest to them. When it comes to pickleball, on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter how many people might use those courts if a Council member wants them. To that point, tell us, Zavacky, what were the results of the survey that you conducted to find out what percentage of residents might use those pickleball courts? You did do that, right? Took a survey? Oh no? Really? Well, my guess is that when you do, there are going to be a lot less potential users than the 3,328 residents that would represent 30% of the most recent census numbers. But then, you don’t care, do you?
Two more library things. Saucon Source reported on March 28(!) via Ken Solt, President of the HAL Board, that the Township had sent the Library a check for $41,644.67, an amount which reflects a deduction for library services the township paid for in January as part of their agreement extension. Give it up. What part of “we turned your check down” don’t you get? It had been over 2 months since the Library voted not to take it.
Second, in the “for what it’s worth” department, if I were on the Board of HAL, I’d give the money back to the Commonwealth for the amount that covers LST and then close off all services to LST residents except for those that are available to any citizen of the Commonwealth, i.e. walk in the door, read the books/contents, leave. No borrowing, no PA ACCESS cards, no meeting rooms, etc. Or charge LST residents individually for use of the facilities.
Stop letting LST Council take advantage of your kindness and stop letting them hide behind the ongoing services, hoping that no one will notice that nothing’s happening. When the services stop, a lot more residents will start complaining.
Here are a few other thoughts:
Back at the October 27 meeting, our new state representative Milou Mackenzie showed up to tell us all about how she’s here to help the residents of LST. Well, Milou, where are you now? Bob Freeman has been very visible in trying to facilitate discussions between the state’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries and HAL and Hellertown Borough. Where are you? What have you done?
A big shout-out to our interim Township Manager, Peter Marshall, for calling out the appalling state of whatever it is that passes for “minutes” of Township meetings. Those multi-page abominations have nothing to do with the definition of minutes in Robert’s Rules of Order. And if you want to argue that they’re transcriptions of the meetings, they’re virtually useless for that too because there’s no attempt to turn the transcriptions into understandable sentence structure. There are incorrect words, misspelled words, run-on sentences with unclear attributions as to who is speaking. Thank you for pointing out that whatever we’re paying for them is a giant waste of township money. Please, get this man some chairs just for calling attention to that.
YOU NEED TO SHOW UP AGAIN AT THE APRIL 20 COUNCIL MEETING. ONCE AGAIN, YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AROUND UNTIL THE END. BUT DON’T GIVE UP. THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE COUNTING ON!
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 20, 6:30 PM – Township Hall
As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.
As of today, it has been 43 days that Lower Saucon Township has been freeloading off of the Hellertown Area Public Library. The township has paid not one cent toward the use of those facilities and yet the Library has graciously allowed the residents of the Township to continue to use them. How does it feel as a resident to be required to accept charity from a far less richly endowed borough like Hellertown or a non-profit institution like the Library? Aren’t you just a little ashamed? Does it bother you that we’ve become a laughingstock in the Valley? “Oh, Lower Saucon. Isn’t that where they pulled out of the Library? What’s wrong with those people?”
And yeah, yeah, I know the nonsense about the State grant money. I’ll get to that in detail later.
The February 16 Township Council meeting featured so much manure being shoveled at us accompanied by such high grade gaslighting that I’m frankly astonished that Town Hall didn’t spontaneously combust. Let’s review what we had to sit through for almost 4 hours.
First, the Council couldn’t even be bothered to put the library on the agenda, despite Mrs. deLeon’s best efforts. Instead, they buried it in Council reports which meant there could be no public comment until the end of the meeting. Then they made sure the meeting ran just as long as possible, starting with a resolution honoring a township Scout which – in Banonis’ own words (draft minutes, page 2, line 53-54) – “Normally we don’t read these resolutions, but he thinks it’s an important milestone that we should read it as well as the next one.” The next one honored the Saucon Valley wrestling team and required not only the reading of the entire resolution along with each individual team member’s name and acknowledgement but also team and council pictures while the entire audience waited. That ate up a good half hour.
In addition to the usual developer items, bid authorizations, contract approvals and various other quotidian items, there had to be a number of approvals and authorizations to cover the vacancies created by the resignation of Leslie Huhn, Township Manager, the openings for a finance clerk and administrative assistant, the hiring of an interim township manager, and a temp part-time clerical employee. Does anyone else find that a disturbing amount of staff turnover? Things that make you go “hmmmmm.”
On the subject of Ms. Huhn’s resignation, I’d only like to point out that it was somewhat disheartening that after her 20 or so years of service to the Township, that the Council couldn’t be bothered to cobble together a resolution to thank her for her service. You could formally thank a Boy Scout for building a kiosk but not Ms. Huhn for two decades of service? Setting aside the various conjectures about the timing and cause of her resignation, she was a competent employee with a ton of institutional knowledge and replacing her will be challenging, both because of the current employment challenges in the country and the Township’s low public regard. Couldn’t the Township have managed at least a formal thank-you instead of the kind of haphazard “gee, we’re sorry to see you go” that we got instead? I guess not.
Before we get to the library though, there were a few other agenda items worth mentioning. Once again we were treated to the politically motivated announcement of the fact that Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky were giving up their Council compensation for not just this year but, wait for it, their entire terms. Yes, yes, I know it supposedly had to be included in the minutes, but if you read the solicitor’s explanation of why, it says in case the Township provides benefits like healthcare, etc. it has to be on the record. We don’t. And you could have reported it in Council or Township Manager’s reports and it would have made it into the minutes. Mrs. deLeon made a good point as well. Why wasn’t this done at the organizational meeting if this was their intention? Why wait? Bigger audience?
One important point on this issue. Later in the meeting, Banonis incorrectly claimed “there was a statement of accepting money from the landfill, he can say publicly that he never accepted anything from the landfill . . . just so that record is clear.” (draft minutes, page 12, lines 36-38). He’s referring to a statement I made, (draft minutes, page 1, lines 48-50) where I said that he, Carocci and Zavacky “were provided with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of political support” from the PAC funded by the company that owns the landfill. I did not say that anyone had accepted money from the landfill, only political support. He, as well as the other two, did indeed accept that political support in that they never repudiated that support and silence can be construed as acceptance.
This meeting also saw the consideration of quotes for livestreaming of Council meetings. Carocci almost immediately moved to table the consideration of quotes until a permanent township manager is hired because “[i]t’s a lot of money and a complicated system and he wants to have the permanent Township Manager look at these proposals and decide with that persons [sic] input what the best is for the Township. He will have to live with the system.” (draft minutes, page 14, lines 2-4). Don’t you love the assumption that the new township manager will be male? But I digress.
If we assume that there is some validity in that argument (some, not a lot), then let’s move to a more compelling question. In March 2020 as we have all been recently reminded by the media, the world shut down because of Covid. The March 18, 2020, council meeting was cancelled, but by April 1, council meetings were back in session and were being streamed via the Zoom app which provided not only video of the meeting but also two-way audio, permitting not only township officials and the councilmembers to comment but also allowed public comment, just like always. That system worked fine until Council went back to public meetings in June 2021 – in other words, for more than a year.
If it’s necessary to wait for permanent equipment and a full-fledged system until there’s a permanent township manager, then why in the name of common sense can’t we simply reinstate the previous system to provide livestreaming and two-way communication just like before? Has everyone gone braindead and can’t remember how to do that? Or is it that this council really doesn’t want all those pesky residents to see what’s going on or, even worse, comment on it? Funny how Hellertown can do it, but Lower Saucon can’t.
FYI, 1000 people have viewed the livestream from the January 19 meeting and 695 viewed the livestream from February 16. I would say that represents a significantly interested constituency. During the February 16 meeting, there were more than 85 people watching the meeting as it livestreamed. In January there were over 100. I will point out that it should not be necessary for a volunteer resident to have to provide a service which is so clearly desired by the township AND SHOULD BE PAID FOR BY IT and which they have already proven themselves capable of doing without a $17,000 system. Not only that, but a Facebook livestream can’t provide two-way communication like the previous Zoom set-up could. But then maybe that’s the point.
And Now to the Library
According to Zavacky, the library issue was relegated to her council report and not an agenda item because there was nothing to vote on. This is arrant baloney. Let’s look at the word salad she used to explain why it was in the report section and not an agenda item. (Draft minutes, page 16, lines 17-22). “As an update, that’s why it’s an update and not on the agenda, in terms of official action on what this Council would take, that would be things like recommendations that we need to be made by an agency pursuant to the statute ordinance, executive order, the establishment of policy, the decisions we need to make on agency business or vote on. We have nothing to vote on today so that comes from the Sunshine Act and it has to be done here [meaning in the reports section].”
Okay, that’s not what the Sunshine Act says. What it does say is this, §709.(c.1)(i) Notification of agency business to be considered. “. . .the agency shall post the agenda, which includes a listing of each matter of agency business that will be or may be the subject of deliberation or official action at the meeting . . .” It later says in §712.1(a) that “. . . an agency may not take official action on a matter of agency business at a meeting if the matter was not included in the notification required under section 709(c.1).” It then goes on to indicate what the exceptions are to being able to take action without previous notification.
So for those who are not used to reading legislative gobbledygook, let me explain what that means. First, you’ll notice there is NOTHING in the Act that refers to what items MUST be included in the reports part of an agenda. Second, the Act speaks to what MUST be included in an agenda if the Council wants to take action on it, but it does not prohibit other things from being included in the agenda. In fact, the agenda for February 16 included an item that took no action or deliberation, i.e. the aforementioned letters renouncing compensation by Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky. So they could have been included in the Council reports since that would have gotten them read into the minutes if that was all that was necessary.
Next, I’m sure you all remember these immortal words from Banonis at the January 19 meeting, (from the approved minutes, page 2) “For a period of seven months in 2021, from May through December, the library board apparently chose to exclude Lower Saucon Township from negotiations on a new agreement.” (Page 4) “The library in Hellertown rejected every effort, every single effort by our Township Manager and Solicitor over a period of eight months.” (Page 5) “They didn’t, they ignored us. They never contacted us. Our Township Manager contacted them repeatedly and they ignored our requests.” And yet here at the February 16 minutes is Zavacky with a sheaf of papers showing all the interactions between LST and Hellertown Borough and HAL. How could that be? Well, she did start back in July 2020 which of course is irrelevant to the discussions we’re having now. But she then went on to (draft minutes, page 18 line 11 through page 19 line 16 – 58 lines of minutes) outline communications back and forth among Hellertown Borough, HAL and LST from the Summer of 2021 through November 16, 2021.
What’s the truth here? Was it that “they never contacted us” or was it the reams of paper that Zavacky offered to put up on the Township website? Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find that posted anywhere? If you find it, let me know.
Two More Items Related to the Library
Southern Lehigh Public Library Statement
Shortly before the February 16 meeting, Bruce Eames, the president of the Southern Lehigh Public Library Board put out a statement that said, among other things, “we do not want to be involved in this fight and have made that very clear to both LST and HAL on several occasions. SLPL’s Board of Directors feel that it is in the best interest of all involved for LST and HAL to continue negotiating and come to an agreement. It is not SLPS’s intention to shop our services to additional municipalities and organizations. [emphasis added] We currently serve Upper Saucon Township, Lower Milford Township, Coopersburg Borough and the Southern Lehigh School District. That service area has worked very well for many years and our plans are to continue that relationship for the foreseeable future. There have been reports of a possible financial donation being offered by LST to SLPL, but no action has been taken and we believe this is on hold.[emphasis added]”
Carocci apparently has difficulty understanding what this plain English statement means. In response to a comment by Jo Ellen Thomson in the public comment period that Southern Lehigh Public Library “had made it public they are not interested in this at this time,” (draft minutes, page 34, lines 4 and 5), Carocci responded (page 34, lines 10 and 11) “I also want to say you are misinformed, SLPL is on hold and they want to continue to negotiate, to talk. So you’re wrong. You were misinformed.” No, Carocci, she wasn’t. You are. SLPL didn’t say they had put the issue on hold. They said that their understanding was that the issue was on hold – BY LST. Notice it says “believe.” If they had put it on hold, they would “know,” not “believe” it. Apparently you don’t understand the meaning of “no means no.”
OCL Appropriations for Libraries
Finally, and this is probably the most insulting part of this whole issue, is the implication that somehow HAL was trying to pull a fast one by including LST’s population numbers as part of their service area when they applied for the annual grant from the state. According to the Office of Commonwealth Libraries (OCL) website “laws are enacted each year that detail how state aid is distributed.” As anyone who knows anything at all about how the state operates knows, funding is determined based on a fiscal year that runs from July 1 – June 30. HAL’s application for a state grant was submitted in Summer 2021, probably after July 1 when the new fiscal year began. At that time, they would have had no inkling that LST would renege on its commitment to support the library or refuse to sign a new agreement. So there is nothing untoward about their including LST and its population in their service area.
HAL was approved for a grant of $35,662.87 for FY 2021-2022. That means from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022. The OCL website says that payments are made to local libraries in January/February “during each fiscal year (July-June).” So for Carocci to claim “They applied for the grant, they got the grant, and it’s for the calendar year.” (draft minutes, page 25, line 40) is just plain wrong. The state doesn’t work on a calendar year basis. It cannot appropriate funds for the second half of 2022 because it does not have an approved budget. Having managed any number of state grants in my working career, I know this to be true. And anyone who’s lived in Pennsylvania during one of those years when the legislature can’t get a budget passed knows that the State shuts down on July 1.
Here is the screenshot from the file on the OCL website titled “2021-22 State Aid Projections” with the dollar amount that matches the amount that HAL has indicated that it received from the State.
Nowhere does this indicate that the grant is for the calendar year 2022. If that’s what Carocci heard, he needs to get his hearing checked. HAL, like all the other libraries, will need to apply for a grant for the remainder of 2022 after July 1 when the new budget is passed. My guess is that this is why HAL, in their current proposal, requires that an agreement be signed for 2023 before July 1, 2022, so that they will know going forward whether to use the LST figures in their application to the State or not.
The fact that HAL agrees to not terminate services to LST before the end of 2022 even if LST refuses to sign an agreement for 2023 is a gift to LST. What they are offering is to provide services to LST from July 1 through December 31 even if LST does not enter into an agreement for 2023 and beyond, even though HAL will not be able to include LST in its request for funds for 2022-2023 which would cover the second half of 2022, a period when LST would be getting services in return for their contributions but HAL would not be receiving funds from the State. I know this is confusing but hey, that’s why we pay the council members the big bucks. Oh yeah, I forgot. They don’t take the money.
So enough with the crap about HAL “threatening” LST to cut off services. You don’t pay for them; you don’t get them. Instead, you become freeloaders. And frankly, as a resident, I don’t appreciate being forced into that category.
One more thing. In the October 22 issue of Saucon Shenanigans, I laid out a detailed process by which all three parties to the Library could reach an agreement on funding the Library. Perhaps you might want to revisit that. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble.
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, March 16, 6:30 PM – Township Hall
As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.
As I was completing the latest issue of Saucon Shenanigans on Monday, Ken Solt, president of the Hellertown Area Library board, released a proposal that the HAL board had sent to the Lower Saucon Township council on Monday for their consideration. However, the council has refused the Library’s request to be put on the agenda for the upcoming March 16 meeting. Therefore, as of this writing, this proposal will not be on the agenda and any public comment on anything regarding the Library will be relegated, once more, to the very end of the meeting.
What You Need to Know
You can find the entire proposal here as published in Saucon Source.
There will undoubtedly be quite a lot of gaslighting about how the Council can’t respond that quickly, can’t meet in time, yada, yada, yada. That’s baloney. They could have put it on the agenda for Wednesday and chose not to. In addition, the proposal only requires a written response from the Council as to whether they intend to negotiate the proposal into an agreement or whether they don’t intend to negotiate the proposal, in which case it will be withdrawn. If they can’t make that simple decision in 7 days, they have no business claiming to operate in the best interests of the Township.
This is a good-faith offer on the part of the Library to provide a stabilizing agreement for the remainder of 2022. It is more than the Township has produced to resolve the problem.
The contents of the proposal are basically in line with the conditions in the prior agreement. There are no hidden “gotchas”.
It provides for revision of the Library’s by-laws to add one more Lower Saucon member to be appointed by the LST Council, bringing the total number to 3.
It requires the Township to rescind its threat of a lawsuit.
You will probably be ignored. That doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to speak.
I urge you to read the proposal in its entirety so that you aren’t hoodwinked by deliberate misinterpretations of it at Wednesday’s meeting.
As of 11 PM Monday, March 14, the Council agenda had not been amended to include discussion of this proposal. If that changes, I will update the information here.
I will also, as a public service, livestream the meeting on Wednesday, March 16 on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page. However, I implore you to attend in person if at all possible to show your support for at least this interim agreement.
The regular issue of Saucon Shenanigans will be out on Tuesday reviewing all the nonsense from the February 16 meeting. Don’t miss it!
In the last three weeks since the outrageous Lower Saucon Township Council meeting on January 19, there have been so many unanswered questions raised, questions that the LST Council hasn’t deigned to address. But the biggest one is:
Before we get to those though, let’s do a brief recap of what has transpired.
January 19 – Lower Saucon Township Council, by votes of 4-1 (Mrs. deLeon dissenting each time) and completely ignoring the expressed desires of residents who attended the meeting in person and objected to the actions, passes three resolutions to:
Decline to sign a new agreement with Hellertown Area Library (HAL) and instead give them a “donation” of $50,000 minus the amount already paid for the January 2022 extension. This equals less than half the total amount budgeted for HAL in the 2022 LST budget.
Direct the LST solicitor to begin litigation against HAL if they refuse to provide services to LST residents after the extended MOU expires on January 31.
Cut a check to the Southern Lehigh Library for $50,000 as a “donation” for the Southern Lehigh Library to provide services to LST residents.
January 25 – HAL Board of Directors declines the LST check.
January 26 — Lower Saucon Township Manager Leslie Huhn resigns effective February 25.
— Hellertown Borough (HB) Council meets in a special meeting to hear comments from the public (not limited to Hellertown residents) on the HAL situation. In the HB Council presentation, Mayor Heintzelman rebuts the distorted timeline presented at the January 19 LST meeting, providing dates and times of communications among LST, HB and HAL personnel on agreement negotiation. The HB Council instructs its administrative staff to immediately create an agreement between only HB and HAL to be ready for adoption by February 1.
January 30 – At a special meeting, the HAL Board passes a motion to continue to provide full library services “which are under our control” to all LST residents through February 28 while negotiations with LST Council representatives continue. These services are provided without any additional funding from LST (i.e. for free). The letter explaining this is posted to the LST website.
January 31 – HB Council meets in a special meeting and adopts a 2-year agreement between HB and HAL to provide for library services to Hellertown Borough only. The agreement provides funding for the Library at the already-budgeted rate for 2022 and adds a supplementary funding of $75,000 to the Library from Hellertown’s American Rescue Plan funding.
February 3 — HB delivers $75,000 supplemental payment check to HAL.
— LST Councilperson Zavacky posts a statement on township letterhead on the township’s Facebook page and website reporting a meeting scheduled for Feb. 4 between “LST and HAL Board leadership” as well as the intention to “include related information, updates, and documentation for our residents and fellow Council members to review for the upcoming LST Council Meeting on February 16, 2022.”
February 6 – HAL Board of Directors meets and revises by-laws, removing all LST-appointed Board members effective immediately. They recommend appointment of Pam Hahn to fifth Hellertown seat on HAL Board.
February 7 – HB Council approves HAL by-laws changes and appoints Pam Hahn to the fifth HB-controlled Board seat. The HAL Board now has the full complement of five Hellertown Borough-appointed members. Two additional members who are residents of the Saucon Valley School District area can still be appointed by the HAL Board.
The Council also instructs its Borough administration to suspend all Intergovernmental Committee and Partnership participation by Hellertown Borough with LST until such time when a formal review can be conducted and presented to HB Council for further action. Subsequently, Hellertown declines to participate in the February 9 Saucon Valley Partnership meeting.
So that’s where things stand as of February 9. So many questions.
First and foremost,
Why did the LST Council take the actions it did on January 19?
Why did they refuse to sign the new agreement?
What objections did they have to the agreement?
Why did they repeatedly refuse to share those objections publicly with the residents?
Why did they repeatedly put the onus on the Solicitor as being the one who was raising concerns but then not require him to explain what those specific concerns were?
Why was the reporting of the agreement negotiation communications with HB Council and HAL so seriously distorted?
Why did LST Council put the newest and least experienced councilperson in charge of negotiations?
Why did they let her make the motion that resulted in destruction of the agreement with the Library after only 16 days on the job?
Why after 8 months of agreement negotiations was there suddenly a big rush to make this decision on January 19? Why were these concerns not raised earlier?
Why did they choose to ignore all of the comments by the public on January 19 that supported a continued agreement with the Library?
Why was the only emailed comment that was read into the record one that was in opposition to continuing the agreement with the Library?
Why weren’t any of the other emails received by Council members read into the record?
If there were serious concerns about the quality of the services being provided to the residents, why was there no polling of the residents during the 8 months of negotiations to determine what those concerns might be? Or public hearings? Or small group meetings? Or surveys? Or any other form of acquiring resident input?
Why was there no consideration of what an alternative solution to the (undisclosed) concerns might be short of refusing to sign a new agreement and offering only a “donation”?
Why was LST Council unaware of what the ramifications would be if HAL refused the check?
Why did LST Council authorize a check for library services to Southern Lehigh Public Library (SLPL) when they
— apparently had no idea if SLPL was interested in or willing to accept it?
— apparently had no idea if SLPL was legally able to accept it?
Why did LST Council not consider the effect on other intergovernmental relationships and partnerships with Hellertown Borough before taking the unilateral action of refusing the tripartite agreement?
Why did LST Council authorize litigation against HAL when the expiration of the agreement on January 31 severed any legal requirements on the part of HAL to provide library services to a township that was not paying for those services, especially in the possible case that HAL might reject the donation check (as they did)?
Why didn’t LST Council which includes two attorneys and its solicitor know that was the case?
Why has LST Council not found this issue important enough to its residents to have scheduled a special Council meeting(s) sooner than its regularly scheduled February 16 meeting? Hellertown Borough has already held two special meetings in the meantime to resolve the issues that LST forced on them.
Why was LST Council not aware of what the possible ramifications would be on library access for its residents if HAL chose to decline the “donation” check? Why did they not learn that from the Office of Commonwealth Libraries (OCL) prior to taking the action on January 19?
Why is LST Council implying that it’s the lack of response from the OCL that is delaying resolution of these issues?
In short, WHY DID THE FOUR MEMBERS ON LST COUNCIL DO THIS? AND WHAT WAS THE RUSH?
What can you do?
Keep asking questions by email to Council members.
Keep raising questions in social media.
Keep sending letters to the print media.
Put a sign on your lawn demanding they fully fund the library (you can get them at the library).
Show up at the February 16 Council meeting and ask any or all of the above questions.
Be aware – if they refuse to put the library on the agenda, you’ll have to wait until the very end of the meeting to ask questions about it as a “non-agenda” item. Stick around.
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, February 16, 6:30 PM – Township Hall
As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
– Charles Dickens
It’s been quite a week in the Saucon Valley. Let’s pick up where we left off on Wednesday.
Wednesday evening January 26 at 7 PM brought the Hellertown Borough Council special meeting to discuss the situation with the Hellertown Area Library. The 250 or so attendees via a hybrid meeting of in-person, Zoom and Facebook livestream heard Mayor David Heintzelman tell a far different story than the fairy tale that was spun by Lower Saucon Council President Jason Banonis the previous Wednesday. The main difference was that Mayor Heintzelman brought the receipts – meeting dates and attendee names, email exchanges with dates and times, records of phone calls – a complete accounting of an attempt to reach consensus in plenty of time before the year end expiration of the tripartite Library-Borough-Township agreement. It’s a bit difficult to honestly claim that Hellertown “went dark” when there’s all that data. Facts, pesky things.
Borough President Tom Rieger sandwiched the mayor’s timeline between a history of the Library’s creation and existence in Hellertown and a well-conceived plan for how to work the Borough’s way out of the chaos that Lower Saucon’s actions threw them into. But before the Council took up consideration of Mr. Rieger’s proposal, he first opened the floor to public comment by (wait for it) the public – translation: anyone who had come to the meeting in person or via Zoom (livestream does not permit two-way communication) could comment at whatever length they found necessary. Now there was a novel concept for anyone who has recently attended a Lower Saucon Township Council meeting where comment is limited to LST residents and taxpayers ONLY at no more than 3 minutes each and in carefully sequestered time periods.
Amazingly, with so many attendees and almost an hour’s worth of commenters, there was nowhere near the chaos that had reigned at the LST meeting the previous week. Everyone was treated with respect and given a chance to share their views.
When everyone had had a chance to speak, Mr. Rieger explained again his proposal for how to move forward with the Library. As he so succinctly put it, “Hellertown Borough Council cannot control the actions of another public governmental body.” Lower Saucon’s actions had put Hellertown Borough in the untenable situation of being a signatory to a tripartite agreement that was due to take effect on February 1, 2022, that had been signed by only two of the parties and rejected by the third. It was, in other words, an invalid agreement. To remedy the situation and provide Hellertown residents with the library services that they want and are willing to pay for, it was imperative that a new two-way agreement be drafted for the Borough and the Library to sign to cover services going forward.
To that end, the Hellertown Borough staff was authorized to draft a new agreement directly with the Library to be presented to the Council hopefully for consideration and/or adoption on February 1. That two-year agreement would also stipulate the funding to be provided by Hellertown at the same level as 2021 as well as an additional $75,000 emergency allocation from the borough’s American Rescue Plan funds as the Library reassesses its budget and the services it can provide. Let me point out that that additional $75,000 to the library could, with the support of the Borough council that was voiced that evening, possibly provide the basis for library access for all the school children of the Saucon Valley School District, including those whose parents live in Lower Saucon and would not otherwise be eligible. The council also urged consideration of a mechanism to provide veterans in the Township with library access who would otherwise be cut off. All of that is just a flat-out generous gesture.
Mr. Rieger also added one prudent recommendation to his statement. “It is my opinion that our community vision is no longer shared with Lower Saucon Township Council and that must be addressed. I believe the time has come to re-exam every joint project, committee, organization and intermunicipal agreements we have with Lower Saucon Township.”
And the people said, “Amen.”
While I doubt that it felt like it to the library and borough leadership who had to slog through this past week and grapple with these unwanted problems, it was in fact one of the best of times I have seen in local government in a long time. Hellertown Borough leadership rationally analyzed the situation they’d been thrown into, honestly assessed what actions were in the best interests of their constituents first and foremost, laid out the options for their people and charted a course forward that puts them back in control of their own fate. The Library leadership made those same calculations the day before Hellertown did.
For those of us who live in Lower Saucon, you could posit that it was the worst of times. In four days we will lose our library access as we know it. We have township leadership which seems almost completely divorced from the wishes of its constituents and seems unperturbed by that disjunction. And did I mention? The township manager resigned on Wednesday.
But I prefer to see the glass as half full. Hellertown is now fully aware of the character of the leadership of the Township and so they will be more likely to be careful of any future partnerships they enter into. If there is to be any hope of broader community collaboration, it can only be successful if both sides enter an agreement with transparency and honesty.
And perhaps more Lower Saucon residents will be aware of the problems that Saucon Shenanigans has been trying to alert them to over the last 19 months. Events like this last week don’t just “happen.” They build over time until they finally erupt into view. But there are always fissures of smoke and noxious gas that seep out before the explosion, that give hints of the dysfunction underneath. If there is ever to be hope of a successful Saucon Valley that includes Hellertown and Lower Saucon working in true partnership, perhaps it’s a prerequisite that all of this mess be cleared away.
I agree with Tom Rieger. The best could very well be yet to come. For Hellertown and the Library, I suspect it will come fairly quickly. For LST? We’ll see.
ICYMI, last evening the Board of the Hellertown Area Library met via Zoom and rejected the $50,000 check offered by the Lower Saucon Township Council.
The agreement expires on January 31 and after that, Lower Saucon Township residents have no library services.
Nice work, Banonis, et al. I’m sure that’s the outcome all those people who voted for you were looking for.
Word is from those on the Zoom call that Newbie Zavacky, our illustrious library liaison with all the bright ideas like “I just want to be a donor,” wasn’t on the call. Probably would have taken too much of her time. With no library, she’ll have a lot more free time now.
Hey, Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, you need to fix this now! I feel my property values dropping as we speak. Who wants to live in a community that can’t even figure out how to support a library properly?
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.
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.”
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.
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