So Many Questions

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 3HB 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.

A Tale of Two Cities (and a Library)

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  

– Charles Dickens
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

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.

NEWS Coverage

Saucon Source Article about Hellertown Meeting

Saucon Source Article about Township Manager Resignation

Morning Call Article about Hellertown Meeting

Morning Call Article about Township Manager Resignation

That’s An Improvement

Last week’s Lower Saucon Township Council meeting was as different from July’s meeting as night is from day. This month saw a dramatic improvement in the communication among the council members.

Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

At the August 19 meeting, there was no mansplaining, no use of motions as a bludgeoning tool, no rude interruptions or snide remarks. It was actually quite enjoyable for those of us citizens who join in to observe what’s happening in the township. Not only that, but there were even outbreaks of collegiality. There were two occasions that I observed where one councilperson ask for clarification or explanation and the answers were freely provided. Likewise, there was an offer that one councilperson would update another who might possibly have to miss an upcoming committee meeting.

There was excellent collaboration on the questions surrounding a request for further funding of a new ladder truck, a discussion that ended in a unanimous agreement to table the request until the September 2 meeting. There is apparently some concern over the painting of the ladder on the truck, both as to color and markings and a conflict with what the consultant had recommended. Mr. Banonis also raised the question as to whether workers’ compensation coverage could be compromised if the consultant’s recommendations were not followed. There was a thorough and civil discussion of the various ramifications and, at the appropriate point in the discussion, the motion to table was made.

I might be inclined to posit that Wednesday’s meeting went smoothly because it was, primarily, what I would call a housekeeping meeting. Most of the business items were straightforward – an extension of the disaster emergency declaration, the advertising of a public meeting and a request for bid for a water line installation, an extensive report on the impact of Tropical Storm Isaias by Township Manager Leslie Huhn with some further timely discussion of storm water regulations. The only item that seemed to stir significant passion was a rezoning request by Creek Investors LLC, but all of the council members agreed that they were still in opposition to the request. Every vote ended up being unanimous – 5-0.

I’d also like to point out that, as we are all learning, Zoom is not the most congenial method for conducting a meeting. It is very difficult to read another person’s body language or be certain when a person has stopped talking. All of the interpersonal cues that we rely on for smooth communication are made more difficult because of the inherent friction in the Zoom app, not to mention the technological difficulties that rear their ugly heads. At this last meeting, it seemed that the council members were much more aware of those obstacles and more careful that interruptions that may be caused by the drawbacks of the medium not be interpreted as intentional rudeness. Patience and grace in these difficult circumstances are excellent additions to the meetings.

Along those lines, I’ve noticed that Mr. Carocci has not been providing a video feed in the last couple of meetings. I don’t know if that’s a technology issue. If it isn’t, I think it would be helpful for all of us attending by Zoom if as least all of the council members could provide a video link. Being able to see our elected representatives is a plus. Of course if it’s a technology issue, well, such is life these days.

Perhaps as a reward for the improved cooperation at the August meeting, the council adjourned at 8:15 PM, a tribute to efficiency and, I suspect, no significant developer issues on the agenda. Kudos to all. I look forward to September’s meeting in the same spirit.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, September 2 – 7 PM