Also, just so you are aware of what the Banonis-Carocci-Zavacky crew has been up to, they sent a cease and desist letter this week to Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, George Gress and Tom Roney demanding that they retract statements that were virtually identical to what Mr. Pratt is reporting at WLVR. When the Democratic candidates rightfully ignored that attempt at bullying, the Republicans filed for an emergency injunction in court on Friday. The request was denied.
These are the same people who claim they’re going to bring “experienced sound decision-making” to township government. What a joke.
Last night I attended what I thought would be a regularly scheduled meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council. What I witnessed instead was a thinly disguised excuse to do campaign politicking, to demonize a neighboring borough official and allow at least one resident to throw a very public temper tantrum. What a circus Lower Saucon has become!
To the details
First, the Council approved the new 5-year police contract. Virtually no discussion. Vote: 5-0.
Next up was the approval of the Covid bonuses for the union police officers which really needed to be done before Election Day so no one could claim the Township Council didn’t love their police. You’ll recall these were the bonuses that couldn’t be approved previously because, even though Mr. Banonis had said their payment had nothing to do with the police contract, Mr. Banonis had also said they should wait till after the contract was completed to be approved. Hunh? Anyway, when Mrs. deLeon again raised the objection to how this had been handled, saying it felt like the bonuses had been withheld till contract completion to exert leverage, Mr. Carocci hastened to say that Mrs. deLeon was disrespecting the police officers by suggesting that they could be influenced by such a maneuver. Wait – doesn’t withholding approval of the bonuses till after contract completion imply exactly that same disrespect?
And then, just to show what great guys they are, they decided to up the bonuses to $3,000 instead of $2,500 like everyone else got because, hey, when it’s not your money, who cares? It’s coming from the federal government and we all know we have nothing to do with supporting that. Anyway, supposedly since the checks will be cut on the same day as the other bonus checks for the other employees, it’s all a wash anyway, right?
Well, no, it’s not. What it’s about is how you treat the people who work for you. If there was any disrespect shown, it was by the Council not approving the police bonuses at the same time as all the others. The bonuses are supposedly for showing up and doing your job during the very stressful time of Covid. No other qualification necessary – you just had to show up and do your job – with money coming from American Rescue Plan funds which are available. Their handling of it sent a very clear message that the bonuses for police were on the table during contract negotiations, meaning that the bonus wasn’t solely predicated on your doing your job during Covid because they already knew the police did that back on October 6 when they approved the other bonuses. For police officers, it was also predicated on agreeing to a new 5-year contract.
Even if that wasn’t explicitly stated – and it wasn’t – you’d have to be blind not to see the implication. From a human resource management perspective, this is crappy practice. In addition, we’ve now created a two-level caste system for the bonuses. Again, really shoddy HR practice.
And while we’re talking about bonuses, let’s highlight Mrs. deLeon’s suggestion that the fire company volunteers should perhaps be receiving bonuses also. After all, they had to do the same things the police officers did – respond to dwellings where they had no idea if someone had Covid, enter the buildings not knowing what they’d find, treat people who might have been infected. Why don’t they deserve bonuses too? Maybe not as much since they’re part-time volunteers, but how about $500 each just for showing up last year? That’s all the employees had to do to get their bonuses.
Somewhere in here we also got a cute little bit of performative theater from Mr. Carocci when he asked an audience member, presumably a police officer (I couldn’t see who it was), if he was happy with the new contract? Oh yes, sir. And was he happy with the $3,000 bonus? Oh yes, sir. What else did you expect him to say in front of a room full of residents and the Police Chief?
Then we had an update from Ms. Huhn on the Active Transportation Plan which Mr. Banonis went to great pains to point out she had moved up from the previous December 1 date at his request because . . . why? since, as Ms. Huhn acknowledged, none of this work can happen until next Spring. Maybe to get it on the agenda before Election Day? But anyway, Public Works is going to draw up plans for some of the items in the first phase of the Plan which is a good thing.
Now comes the most ridiculous agenda item – Lower Saucon Fire Rescue – Update on Fire Calls in Steel City. This was not an update. Ty Johnson, fire chief, simply presented the same data that had been presented before the vote in the summer to name LSFR the sole fire services provider for LST. The data only covered January through May 2021. Nothing new. Nothing different. And if it was new, it was unreadable in the tiny type on the Powerpoint slide.
But it did provide another opportunity to dump on the Steel City Fire Company and our neighbors in Hellertown. Mr. Banonis took the opportunity of this agenda item to then share some hearsay about something Tom Rieger, President of Hellertown Borough, had said in a meeting about an LSFR vehicle racing through the borough at high speeds which then gave Mr. Johnson the opportunity to complain that Mr. Rieger had not contacted him about it and wasn’t that awful. You get the idea.
Here’s the point. The information about whatever Mr. Rieger said was off-topic for the agenda item. It’s also, frankly, none of the LST Council’s business. As both the Council and the Fire Company never miss an opportunity to explain, LSFR is an independent entity, not controlled or managed by the township. It’s between LSFR and Mr. Rieger to work out.
But it also provided the opportunity for the real fireworks display of the night. Township resident Donna Louder spoke to make some complaint about Tom Rieger and his connection to someone who’s connected to the Steel City Fire Company who owns Quest Diagnostics putting a campaign sign on his business and violating 501(c)3 requirements and who knows what else. It was pretty incoherent. Mrs. Yerger informed Mrs. Louder that she was incorrect on her 501(c)3 claims as did I. Mrs. Louder than continued to rant about contacting the IRS and the Attorney General about Steel City and demanding an investigation, despite Mrs. Yerger’s admonitions to tone it down. Mrs. Louder then verbally attacked Mrs. Stauffer when she entered the conversation with questions about what specifically Mrs. Louder was referring to at which time things really spiraled out of control with Mrs. Louder yelling and screaming at Mrs. Stauffer. Eventually, she stopped after Mrs. Yerger repeatedly told her she was out of order. But later in the meeting she continued to be disruptive.
Here’s the pertinent question for Mrs. Yerger. Why do you put up with this? What happened to the 3-minute limit for residents to speak? Why wasn’t that enforced? You’re quick enough to enforce it during Public Comment. And when Mrs. Louder refused to settle down, why wasn’t she removed from the meeting? Chief Barndt was right there. At your request, he could have removed her. Other councils and school boards have done this.
Perhaps if she had been removed, she would not have felt entitled to continue the harassment of Mrs. Stauffer after the meeting to the extent that Chief Barndt did have to intervene. Does any of this have to do with the fact that Mrs. Louder’s husband is a Lower Saucon police officer and was there?
The point is all of this could have been avoided by not putting something on the agenda that was only a rehash of prior information and of no particular value.
Anyway, two small glimmers of hope – Ms. Huhn reported that the administrative staff had visited Hellertown to view their audio-visual set-up for livestreaming council meetings and that they would also be visiting North Whitehall Township. Baby steps. And Chief Barndt found an organization that will take the Township’s outdated ballistic vests and deconstruct and recycle them for the cost to the Township of shipping them to the organization. That’s a very cool solution. Unfortunately it got derailed by Attorney Alan Mege who wanted the Council to consider donating them to the county courthouse because they are short of equipment. There were a number of concerns raised about donating expired safety equipment and the liabilities it might raise for the township. Nevertheless, the motion to ship the vests was withdrawn while the Township looks into the possibilities. Hopefully this will be cleared up soon. Deconstructing and recycling seems like a very good option.
So that’s what you missed last night. Nothing particularly of value but a lot of insight into the township’s dysfunction that is overseen by two council members who are running for re-election. Is this really the kind of local government you want for the next 2-4 years? Keep it in mind before you vote on Tuesday.
ONE MORE THING BEFORE WE GO . . .
Why is Tom Carocci also on the ballot for Constable? As Kenan Thompson would say, “What’s up with that?”
General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021 – Polls open 7 AM to 8 PM. Mail-in ballots due in by 8 PM at Northampton County Court House
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, November 17, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall
When I began Saucon Shenanigans in July 2020, I did so in response to some absolutely appalling behavior by elected council members that I had witnessed at repeated township council meetings over the previous few months. I thought (hoped) that if I drew attention to how inappropriate and counterproductive such behavior was that mature, responsible adults would take positive action to improve. In my first issue I wrote “My hope is that Council behavior will become more civil, collegial and professional as the year progresses, leading to better governance and better decisions. Increased transparency would be an improvement also.”
By and large, that hasn’t happened. Obviously my first mistake was to assume that I was dealing with mature, responsible adults.
And so here we are, 15 months later, with municipal elections fast approaching on November 2 and while I did not originally expect to endorse particular candidates in elections, I have no choice but to take a position on the best choices for Township Council and, because the local school board seems to have some of the same behaviors, Saucon Valley School Board.
SAUCON SHENANIGANS ENDORSES
If you’d like more detail on why I’ve chosen to endorse these candidates, keep reading.
There are so many reasons why Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci do not deserve your vote to continue on township council. I’ll try to keep it as succinct as possible.
Watch What They Do, Not What They Say
This is one of the guidelines I said I would use in writing this blog. That could hardly be more pertinent now when one looks at the egregious gaslighting that’s been pouring into our mailboxes from their campaign mailers.
“Cut your Earned Income Tax by 20% in 2021” – NO
No, they didn’t cut your earned income tax by anything. The statute that permits the collection of an additional .25% in EIT for the purpose of purchasing land for conservation has a sunset provision. That means that it MUST be ended after a certain period of time. The extra .25% has been in place for 15 years. BY LAW, it must be ended. They had nothing to do with it except to pass the facilitating ordinance, about which they had no choice.
“Refused Council pay – saving thousands of your dollars” – MISLEADING
This one appeared on a particularly ugly mailer implying that the Democratic candidates were trying to reap personal financial benefits from the Township by accepting the compensation provided for council members. The applicable township ordinance regarding council member compensation reads as follows:
“Salary of Council members. [Amended 4-18-1990 by Ord. No. 90-6; 12-27-1995 by Ord. No. 95-9] (1) Each member of the Council, elected or appointed to office on or after the effective date of this chapter, shall [emphasis added]receive the maximum annual compensation provided and allowable by the Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. § 65606, titled “Compensation of Supervisors,” and by law.”
That does not say “may”. It says “shall”. It is not negotiable. In fact, I would question whether it’s in violation of the ordinance to not accept the pay or whether the council person should be paid (with taxes, etc. deducted and reportable as income) and then, if they choose, donate it to wherever they like. At the May 6, 2020, council meeting, after that question was raised, the Council passed a motion to inquire of PSATS (the state advisory organization for municipalities) if a W-2 is required based on the fact that the ordinance says “shall.” While the motion passed, there has been no subsequent report on the answer to that question. Wonder why.
Incidentally, those thousands of dollars? Do you know what compensation is for a township council person? $3,250 per year. That’s right. Adding Social Security and Medicare taxes, it comes to $3,498.62 per year. For 3 council people, that totals $10,495.88. Do you know what the township’s budget is? For 2022, it’s $11,765,557 or for just the General Fund, $8,458,775.
Some quick math
$10,495.88 divided by $11,765,557 = .0009 (that’s .09%) OR
$10,495.88 divided by $8,458,775 (for the General Fund) = .0012 (that’s .12%)
They’re touting that they will save the township a whopping 0.09% of the budget by not taking their compensation. Or in relation to the General Fund – 0.12%. I call that a rounding error. And let’s not forget that their Republican council colleague, Council President Sandra Yerger, does take her compensation and has not signed on to reject it. In fact, her vote sank the resolution that Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci tried to jam through in May 2020 asking all council members to voluntarily forego their compensation.
Not only is that a miniscule amount of money in the township’s budget, it also raises the question of why do we compensate people at all for the job in the first place? Perhaps because we value their service and appreciate the time they put in? Or perhaps because we realize that it creates a consensual agreement between the citizens and their elected representatives that implies some responsibility of the elected representative to the people they serve? When you reject the compensation, are you also rejecting that responsibility?
If Lower Saucon Township were living on the brink of bankruptcy and had significant financial issues, this might (possibly) mean something. But it’s not. It’s a political ploy, despite what Mr. Banonis claimed at the May 6, 2020, council meeting. From the minutes: “Mr. Banonis said we’re not campaigning. … and it’s certainly not a campaign tool.” Really? Then why are you mentioning it in your campaign literature?
And why did Mr. Carocci’s motion to request voluntary refusal of council compensation include “for the remainder of 2020 and all of 2021?” Perhaps because he knew 2021 would be an election year?
Watch what they do, not what they say.
“Support our … fire services” – ONLY AFTER THEY BULLY THEM
Anyone who watched the shenanigans around the adoption of the 2021 budget back in October 2020 has to wonder what dictionary Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci get their definition of “support” from. By the addition of a footnote to the 2021 budget, they required that Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and Steel City Fire Company complete their merger – in the middle of a pandemic and with state resources seriously overwhelmed – before they could receive any funding in 2021. If the fire companies missed the deadline, then funding would be cut in incremental amounts down to eventually zero. LSFR leadership objected strenuously.
The merger didn’t happen. The deadlines passed. No funding was approved until June when all of a sudden it was just fine that they’d missed the deadline. After all that bullying, they went ahead and fully funded LSFR and named them sole fire services provider for the township, cutting off Steel City.
And then this October, Mr. Carocci, who loves to tout how he’s concerned about spending the residents’ money, arbitrarily suggested adding an additional $25,000, or a 12.5% increase, to the fire company budget even though LSFR had apparently not requested that amount, at least not in any public meetings. Those poor people at the fire company must be suffering from whiplash.
“Support our … police” – UNLESS YOU’RE IN CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS
This hypocrisy has been covered in the most recent issue of Saucon Shenanigans (see the blog archives “What’s the Rush, Boys?”). I urge you to read the details there. It boils down to Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, abetted by Mrs. Yerger, approved $2500 per person Covid bonuses to all township employees EXCEPT the union police officers, supposedly because the township was in negotiation with the police union over a new contract. Of course, the details of that agreement had already been accepted the same night that the bonuses were awarded and Mr. Banonis argued that one had nothing to do with the other except, apparently, it did.
“Sound fiscal management” – BUT ABOUT THAT $920,000 EXCESS IN THE BUDGET
It’s astonishing that no one ever asks why for several years now the township has been adopting a budget that contains such a huge excess. Yeah, yeah, they tout that they “permanently” reduced township taxes by 20%, but why do you need an almost $1 million slush fund each year? The excuse used to be that they were stockpiling money for when the landfill gets built out, but no one’s mentioned that lately. (See below). And any planning for future development in the township to offset such a closure seems to have flown out the window in the last year also. Again, why is that?
And FYI, there’s no such thing as “permanently” reducing township taxes. They can raise them again whenever they want to.
Follow the Money
That’s one of the other guidelines I said I would use in writing this blog. So let’s look at a little history.
In 2015, the IESI Bethlehem landfill needed to expand to continue operations, an expansion called the Southeastern Realignment. That same year, a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania suddenly popped up stating that it was supporting three Republican candidates for LST council – Sandra Yerger, the current Council president, Tom Maxfield, and Bill Ross – in the May 19 primary that year. The $20,950 in contributions to the PAC came substantially ($20,000) from the landfill company (IESI Bethlehem) as well as an in-kind contribution of $500 from IESI NY Corp which oversaw the Bethlehem landfill and $450 from residents of the township. The bulk of the money was paid to Mercury Public Affairs of NY for producing mail pieces and other services. And the in-kind services were provided by Andrew Moss, an attorney who worked for Progressive Waste Solutions.
The expansion was subsequently approved.
Fast forward to 2021. Another landfill expansion is again on the table, this one for the Northern Realignment. And just in time for the general election, up pops our old friend, Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania, only this time with a mailing address in Crompond, NY instead of in Hellertown. This time they’re in it for much bigger money. This PAC has received $75,000 in contributions from Waste Connections US, Inc., a firm headquartered in The Woodlands, Texas, that happens to be the parent company of – wait for it – IESI Bethlehem landfill. And who is this “independent expenditure organization” supporting? Why, the three Republicans running for LST Council – Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky.
Coincidence, you say? This iteration of the PAC reports that its chairperson is one Andrew Moss of Cortlandt Manor, NY (sound familiar?). He conveniently has also provided a mailbox for the PAC. And the mail pieces and other campaign literature, GOTV and political consulting services, website and internet services? All the work of one Mercury Public Affairs, now apparently headquartered in Tampa, FL.
Of course, the local developer, David Spirk, who previously headed up Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania back in 2015 has been replaced by the above-mentioned Mr. Moss as chairperson and one Adwoa Boateng as treasurer, another New York state resident. What’s with all this NY interest in Lower Saucon? But you can find Mr. Spirk as an in-kind contributor to the Zavacky Carocci Banonis for Lower Saucon Township Council Committee along with a few other prominent area developers.
Then if we go back to January 2021 and remember that Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, in a very ugly reorganizational meeting, forced Mrs. deLeon, who had decades of experience working as the council landfill committee liaison and who was content to remain as the liaison, out of her position so she could be replaced by Mr. Carocci, you might start to see some dots emerging that could possibly be connected. Because of course you wouldn’t want someone with extensive landfill experience to be the liaison to support the township’s committee. As I recall they objected that Mrs. deLeon was too confrontational. Wouldn’t want that.
But, there’s probably nothing there. As we all know, PACs are not permitted to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns and that never happens (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).
On the other hand, if you find this all plausibly coincidental, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.
Put all this together and ask yourself. Is this who you really want running this township for the next two to four years? How do the residents of Steel City, butted right up against the landfill, feel about this? Do you think your concerns will be adequately addressed? And do you really want the boorish, arrogant bullying that we’ve witnessed over the last two years to be the face that Lower Saucon presents to the world?
As to the third member of the slate, Mrs. Zavacky, well, you’re known by the company you keep.
Vote Opthof-Cordaro – Gress – Roney
School Board Choices
I don’t usually cover the Saucon Valley School Board but I have a few comments to make in that regard since how we educate our children is essential to the future of our world.
The current board is also engaging in a good deal of gaslighting as well. There’s been a lot of mealy-mouthed equivocating on the subject of masking, at least until Governor Wolf took the decision out of the hands of such people as serve on the current board. (Thank you, Governor Wolf.). This should have been the easiest decision they had to make. Their first and foremost responsibility is to keep our children safe and then, once that’s taken care of, to provide them with an effective education. And while they love to tout that they were the only district to keep in-person learning available all last year, they fail to mention that they did it by requiring masking. So faced with the same responsibility this school year, they dithered and vacillated and came up with a convoluted solution designed to guarantee no level of safety. And now they want you to re-elect them. No thanks.
As for the Republican candidate who claims to be a victim of racism, any white man who wakes up in this country and claims he’s a victim of racism is either delusional or too uneducated to be allowed to sit on a school board.
Vote Barbera – Demko – Phillips – Magnotta
ELECTION DAY – TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2021 – POLLS OPEN AT 7 AM. OR RETURN YOUR MAIL-IN BALLOT BY NOVEMBER 2 AT 8 PM
The end of a year, especially one as traumatic as 2020, always seems like a good time to take stock of where we are and so, at the last Lower Saucon Township council meeting on December 16, at almost the end of the meeting, Councilperson Jason Banonis put on his rose-colored glasses and provided us with a self-serving and highly congratulatory list of all the wonderful things that have happened in the past year. At the top of the list, of course, was the reduction in real estate and fire taxes followed closely by how the township handled the pandemic and weathered the fiscal challenges.
Now I’m certainly not going to turn down the tax relief – although I think it will eventually come at a future cost – but it’s safe to say that the circumstances that led to the reduction were pretty much outside of Council’s control. One factor was the decision several years ago – by a different Council – to decide to pay down Township debt. Another was the fact that LST happens to have a population heavily skewed towards people with jobs that were not lost during the pandemic, largely because, I suspect, many of our residents could transition to working from home. Because of that, revenue for the year actually increased. A third factor was the competent job that both Leslie Huhn, Township Manager, and Cathy Gorman, Finance Director, did in managing whatever additional costs were incurred because of the pandemic. But none of that was this Council’s doing. Keep that in mind if in future campaigns you hear the recurring refrain of “I lowered your taxes.”
The rest of the items on his list were relatively anodyne. What was missing were the list of the other “achievements” that this Council accomplished this year.
A Little History
Before I get to that list, a little history of how I came to writing this blog. I went to my first LST council meeting back on February 28. I was recovering from surgery and technically not supposed to be out of the house, but my neighbor, Kristen Stauffer, newly appointed to the Council, had called to tell me that there was a special meeting regarding her recent appointment and she was hoping I would be able to come to be supportive since she expected there would be some opposition to her appointment. So I bundled up and made my way to the Town Hall.
What I witnessed that night was simply appalling. Despite being legally appointed after a lengthy interview process with a judge brought in from Luzerne County so that there would be no conflict of interest with Northampton County judges (Mrs. Stauffer’s husband had recently accepted a position with Judge Morganelli), Mrs. Stauffer was demeaned and disrespected by her new fellow Council members, particularly Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci (himself only very recently appointed, not elected, to the Council). Her motives for running for Council were questioned. The fact that she had finished last in the election was thrown in her face. Her husband’s motives for resigning when he did were questioned. A resident who had lost out in the interview process for appointment to Mrs. Stauffer’s seat had filed a motion with the Court to have the appointment reconsidered on the basis of some, apparently inapplicable as it turned out, Court rule that made her appointment invalid. The Council first voted to ask Mrs. Stauffer to recuse herself from discussion and voting and then voted to have the township solicitor – who at one point came very close to telling Mrs. Stauffer to keep quiet – join the request for reconsideration by the Court. All this under the thin guise of “protecting the Township’s interests” in case Mrs. Stauffer’s appointment was invalid. There was a long, biased and completely irrelevant rehearsal of the history of the election and the subsequent inability of the Council to appoint a replacement for Mr. Stauffer provided by Mr. Banonis. There was more, so much more, but suffice it to say that it was one of the most disgusting displays of a complete lack of leadership and responsibility by public figures I’ve ever seen.
I hoped that the February 28 meeting was a one-off but, fearing it was not, I started attending all the Council meetings. There was little improvement so in July I began this blog hoping to shed some sunlight on what was happening. That has apparently not helped much either. So here’s my list of what the Council has accomplished this year.
This Year’s List of (Dubious) Accomplishments
Created an environment in which it is permissible to demean and disrespect fellow Council members, including using insulting ad hominem attacks
Challenged a legitimate Court appointment of a new Council member on a flimsy pretext
Jammed through committee appointments without discussion of the qualifications of all the possible candidates
Repeatedly antagonized township fire companies on the issues of merger and funding resulting in a bullying footnote in the 2021 budget that could potentially defund the fire company
Voted for a truncated public comment period that is applied capriciously and which forestalls significant debate on controversial issues
Created a troubling controversy over the appropriate application of pavilion rental rules which highlighted discrepancies in park policies and then ducked resolving the issue
Declined to make substantive progress on future revenue growth planning
And oh yeah, they passed a tax reduction.
Is this really how you want your Township Council to behave? Is this really what you elected them to do? Is this your idea of good governance or care for the people they serve? I know my answer to all those questions is a resounding NO!
These five people have to spend at least another year working together. None of them is going anywhere. I would propose that at their reorganizational meeting on January 4, among all the housekeeping details they have to approve, they adopt the following 2021 resolutions:
Treat fellow Council members with respect, as you would expect to be treated
Give each Council member a chance to complete their statements without interrupting
Eschew ad hominem attacks as well as churlish and loutish behavior
Remember that you were elected by the residents of LST and that you are responsible to them whether you choose to take a salary or not. Public service means just that – service.
Understand that leadership means sharing with township residents items of concern or interest whether or not they are covered in on-line committee meeting minutes
Respect everyone’s time by staying on-subject. Expect the same of residents and non-residents who are commenting
Get a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, read it and apply it for better-run meetings
Think how much more efficient and effective Council meetings would be. That’s my wish for 2021.
Next Township Council Meeting – Monday, January 4, 7 PM – Note: Monday, NOT Wednesday
Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021
The Great Republican Party Pavilion Rental of 2020 has come and gone. Here’s a brief recap of the event.
They came. Far more than the 100 on the original rental request. More than the 150 on the revised request. More than the 200 that is the occupancy rate for the pavilion. Possibly as many as 250.
They ranted about law and order, freedom and private property.
They violated multiple ordinances, tried (unsuccessfully) to intimidate the press who were on public property, and required additional work from Public Works and the police department to ensure the safety of the park.
They left, taking their steaming pile of hypocrisy with them, thankfully without any violence although some attendees were clearly armed.
At least one Councilperson attended the event, Mr. Banonis, who apparently did not find it necessary to point out to the organizers of the event that they were, in fact, violating Township ordinances. Perhaps that’s because he’s the Vice-Chair of the group that organized the event but who knows. I don’t know if any other Councilpersons were there.
An email from Carol Schneider on behalf of the Township to Lee Snover of the organizing sponsor dated the day of the event reminded Ms. Snover that the pavilion had a capacity of 200 and that they were expected to adhere to the rules and regulations for use of the pavilion which Ms. Schneider referenced in the letter. She especially pointed out Rule #17, to wit:
No person shall commit any of the following acts within any Township Park:
17. Posting or displaying any sign, banner, or advertisement of a political or commercial nature.
Ms. Schneider also reminded Ms. Snover of the requirement to comply with “PRPS guidelines that were previously provided and CDC guidelines.” Needless to say, Rule 17 was flagrantly violated and there was little in the way of mask-wearing or social distancing per PRPS or CDC guidelines within the pavilion itself.
Earlier in the day, Public Works employees were seen cordoning off areas of the park, presumably for parking control, and Chief Barndt had already indicated that additional police personnel had been engaged for the time of the event. None of this comes for free. I believe that Mrs. deLeon has requested information on the exact costs to the Township of this event as well as a review of the regulations for pavilion rentals vs. event approvals for the October 7 meeting.
It is reassuring that there will be follow-up and accountability for how this event was handled. Quite a point was made at the Township Council meeting on September 16 about the fact that this was a “private event” and that there was no difference from other private rentals of the pavilion. Let’s put to rest the concept that this was a private event. A private event is one where specific attendees are invited to attend by the event sponsor, the number of attendees is under the sponsor’s control, and the sponsor has some control and/or responsibility for the behavior of the attendees. Obviously none of these conditions pertained. Ms. Huhn and Mr. Treadwell said they had reviewed prior pavilion rentals and had not found occasions when they had been declined. I wonder how many of those prior rentals required Public Works to make preparations for parking or for the police department to hire additional officers?
All of which brings me to a much larger point. Just whose parks are “public parks” and what is the appropriate way to view their usage? Let’s consider a few points:
1. Who Should Have Priority?
The current Parks and Athletic Facilities Use Policy currently includes this explanation of how use of the parks is to be prioritized: “It is the policy of Lower Saucon Township to prioritize the use of park facilities to non-profit and not-for-profit organizations in the Saucon Valley. The Township has established four (4) categories of users which shall be followed in the allocation and scheduling of park facilities.”
The four categories are: 1) the Township itself, 2) local recreation providers, 3) local civic, business and/or educational groups, and 4) other contracted organizations (basically everybody who doesn’t fall into categories 1, 2, and 3). This seems like a reasonable approach and under this structure, the sponsoring organization for the September 17 event definitely falls into Category 4, the lowest priority requester of facilities.
2. How Do You Determine Appropriateness of Use by a Group?
The Use Policy continues with this information on how it will be determined that groups can use the parks: “The Township reserves the right to set priorities for usage based upon, but not limited to, the following: the number of participants, the residency of the participants, and the overall impact of the group or organization on the recreational needs of the Township.”
What happens when the requesting group misrepresents the size of its group? What happens when the purpose of the event causes widespread community concern about safety issues? What happens when the requesting group has no control over the behavior of its attendees? Shouldn’t these be taken into consideration?
3. Who Pays the Bill?
Township parks are maintained by the tax dollars of the people who live in the township. When the township incurs additional cost for the maintenance and safety of the parks, as happened with the Sept. 17 event, that money comes out of the taxes paid by the citizens if there is no prior agreement with the group using the parks. When a group is permitted to simply “rent the pavilion,” there is no included acknowledgement of the need to pay for additional Township costs unless there is specific damage caused by the event, in which case the Township is entitled to recoup repair costs. When a group requests an Event permit or a Special Events permit, the group accepts responsibility for the additional costs as well as a more stringent liability agreement.
4. What Kinds of Activities Are Undesirable?
I find it interesting that there is a Rule 17 in the Rules and Regulations already. It indicates that at some point the Township Council specifically determined that blatant politicking and obvious commercial activities were not an appropriate use of the parks. In other words, the basis for the refusal of the rental of the pavilion was already inherent in the rules for the use of the pavilion for this particular event. And in fact, Rule 17 makes sense from the township citizen’s perspective. If you have paid tax dollars to maintain a recreational area for you and your community, do you want it to be used for either commercial money-making activities or for partisan political events? Shouldn’t a citizenry be allowed to draw the line at what is permissible on “their” property? Certainly a political event to hear speakers rant does not qualify as a “recreational” use of the property.
What Does All This Mean?
I hope that the Township Council takes this event as a learning experience. It seems clear that there has already been considerable thought as to the appropriateness of political activity on public park property. It is not a matter of which political party is sponsoring the event. Public tax dollars should not be used to underwrite the costs of political events of this nature. This type of event should be held on private property where the property owner can assume the liability of any safety issues and the costs of additional preparation and security.
If the Township reviews its policy and decides that political parties should be allowed to use its facilities, then they should be charged a market rate for their use along with the costs of additional services provided by the Township such as parking and enhanced security. The Township should require an Event permit that requires Council approval in order to remove the Township Manager from the awkward position of having to make a judgement of appropriateness. And the Township should be prepared to enforce its prohibitions against “signs, banners and advertisements.” Otherwise it’s just a toothless dragon.
If you were concerned about how this entire affair was handled or if you would like to see the Council take action to prevent putting citizens in this position again, Mrs. deLeon has requested that this issue be placed on the agenda of the next Township Council meeting on October 7 at 7 PM. If you would like to have your input heard, please plan to be at the Zoom meeting that evening. You can register to attend the meeting here.