The Year in Review

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.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

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.

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2021 Resolutions

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.

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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

Whose Park Is It, Anyway?

The Great Republican Party Pavilion Rental of 2020 has come and gone. Here’s a brief recap of the event.

Saed Hindash for LehighValley Live
  1. 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.
  2. They ranted about law and order, freedom and private property.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

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.

An attendee attempts to block the press from photographing the event on public property. Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

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.

Public Discussion

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.

Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

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

Media Resource Links:

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/mccloskeys-draw-large-crowd-of-trump-supporters-for-lower-saucon-rally/ar-BB199Pjz?ocid=sms

https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/swingcounty/2020/09/in-trump-stump-rally-lehigh-valley-republicans-cheer-on-the-mccloskeys-who-pointed-guns-at-st-louis-protesters.html