When Is a Council Meeting Not a Council Meeting?

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!

Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. on Pexels.com

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?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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

How a Shenanigan Works

The Ida-delayed Lower Saucon Township council meeting took place on Thursday, September 9 before a decidedly unimpressively-sized audience.  In fact, the room of about 15-20 people dwindled considerably after the introduction of the junior council persons for the 2021-22 school year.  Once they were introduced and appointed, the six students left.

The remaining ten or so audience members soldiered on.  Natasha Manbeck from McMahon Associates presented the final Active Transportation Plan funded by the WalkWorks Grant that McMahon Associates had put together for the township.  It included three categories of projects:  currently ongoing ones such as the Meadows Road bridge replacement, early action items that are of lower cost and less complexity, and other projects that will require more time and more cost.  There was not much time spent in detailing these projects so I suggest you take some time to look at the finished plan on the township’s website.

Two financial items were covered: presentation and review of the capital improvement plan 2022-2026 and a review of investment options.  The second item was particularly obscure, dealing with various financial instruments that could be used in the township’s bank account based on the fact that apparently the bank will begin charging additional fees if things stay as they are.  With no accompanying visual aids, it was not clear at all what the differences were.  Mrs. Stauffer tried to get some clarification, but that was fruitless. Since neither subject apparently required a vote, the Council moved on with just concerned-looking head-nodding.

After approving some Saucon Rail Trail events, the Council moved to cleaning up some more business left over from the fire service ordinance last month.  According to township requirements, Special Fire Police need to be appointed by resolution of the Council.  At the current time, the approved Special Fire Police include members of the Steel City Fire Company as well as Lower Saucon Fire Rescue.  Since the township is no longer utilizing the services of Steel City, it was necessary to rescind the previous appointments of all the Special Fire Police and then reappoint the LSFR Special Fire Police.  This was done by a vote of 5-0. 

After the vote, Mr. Kevin Kalman, Steel City Fire Police Captain, rose to object to the fact that he was having difficulty joining LSFR because their regulations require that he resign his membership in Steel City to be considered for LSFR.  Several Council members, particularly Mr. Carocci, pointed out that it was his decision to make and that LSFR did not need to have members who also belong to other fire companies since LSFR has mutual assistance agreements with other companies.

Moving On . . .

Following approval of a resolution to submit an application for a grant to Northampton County for a public works storage building, the Council approved a resolution proposed by Mr. Banonis that the Township give priority in the purchasing of items to those manufactured in the United States, subject to some possible exceptions for the inability to find equivalent items in either the U.S. or other democratic countries.  The word “democratic” was not defined. It will be interesting to see how this new requirement is applied when the Council takes up the purchase and installation of additional audio-visual equipment to provide interactive video for future meetings. Most electronics equipment is not made in the U.S. these days. 

Mrs. DeLeon had requested that a discussion of a mask mandate in the Township building and particularly for the Council meetings be added to the agenda.  Of course, as happens with discussions of this matter at other public meetings these days, at this point the conversation took a turn into an alternative universe as we were treated to all kinds of ridiculous rationales as to why this was unworkable or undemocratic or unhealthy (really?).  Absolutely no acknowledgement that acting out of a concern for one’s neighbor or one’s own children was a value that the Council might want to promote.  No acknowledgement from Mr. Carocci, Mr. Banonis or Mrs. Yerger that they gave a rap about the health of those attending Council meetings or doing business at the township building.  We even were treated to two township residents with disgustingly selfish justifications for why the poor little dears couldn’t stand to wear a mask and the old reliable argument about “freedumb.”  

I’m sure Mrs. DeLeon knew that her motion to require masks was DOA when she looked around the room and noticed that of the about 20 or so people there, only 3 (Mrs. Stauffer, Mrs. DeLeon and your trusty blogger) were wearing masks. And of course, it was voted down, 2-3, only Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer voting yes. But I give them both props for at least trying to show concern for the health and safety of their fellow citizens.  And on behalf of my two grandchildren, ages 1 and 5, I thank them as well.

A Classic Saucon Shenanigan

Now here’s where a classic Saucon Shenanigan comes in.  Following the vote on masks, Mrs. Stauffer suggested that an alternative solution might be to require that residents offer proof of vaccination before attending the meetings and, if they didn’t, that they would have to wear a mask.  That was met with another pile of bogus objections but the most bogus was Mr. Banonis’ claim that Mrs. Stauffer couldn’t offer a motion because the subject wasn’t on the agenda and the Sunshine Law, blah-blah-blah.  Mrs. Stauffer did not make the motion.

Watch this clever trick.  Within just a few minutes, Mr. Banonis made a motion to task Ms. Huhn with looking for funds for the projects in the Active Transportation Plan, to talk with the Public Works Department about what they could do on their own and to initiate talks with PennDOT about their possible partnership in implementation.  Wait. What? That wasn’t on the agenda.  You can’t do that.  Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. DeLeon quickly pointed out the hypocrisy involved.  But not to fear.  Here comes Solicitor Treadwell to the rescue.  Apparently you can make motions that are not on the agenda as long as “the matter is de minimis in nature and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into a contract or agreement”.

So—-Mrs. Stauffer’s motion really would have been in order?  But it was only when Mr. Banonis made his motion that the Solicitor felt compelled to jump in and offer legal counsel so that he could go ahead with what he wanted?  See – shenanigans.

Incidentally, these new revisions to the Sunshine Law are going to really put a crimp in Mr. Banonis’ and Mr. Carocci’s style.  If you recall, it was as a non-agenda item during Council member reports that Mr. Carocci moved last year that the footnote about the requirements for the two fire companies to merge before they received funding be added to the 2021 budget. That’s clearly out of line now.  Score one for good government.

Looking Ahead

As mentioned before, the agenda for the September 15 meeting includes a report on the quote received for additional A/V equipment to livestream future Council meetings along with the ability for remote viewers to participate.  It will be interesting to see how committed to transparent government this Council really is.  Zoom meetings over the past year have averaged around 30-40 attendees, occasionally quite a few more.  With the fire company issue resolved, that number has dropped dramatically with in-person meetings.  Hellertown Borough does this.  Will LST?

One More Item

Just a reminder that we have not heard any more about the data breach investigation that was mentioned at the July meeting.  It’s not on the upcoming agenda.  What’s up with that?

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 6, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021