A Few Answers Generate More Questions

The June 16 meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council provided some answers to the questions raised on this blog about the funding for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and the Steel City Fire Company. It also raised some other, more disturbing questions about the proposed merger.

To briefly recap, by a 3-2 vote last year (Ms.Yerger, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci in favor), a footnote was added to the 2021 township budget that required the completed merger of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Fire Company by April 1, 2021, in order for the fire companies to receive their regular contributions from the Township, $150,000 for LSFR and $50,000 for Steel City. Failure to meet that date would trigger a series of additional deadlines with stepped-down funding culminating in cancellation of all funding if the merger was not completed by June 1. Despite requests from Mrs. Stauffer in the Spring, no information on progress on the situation was shared with the exception of a “no progress” comment from Solicitor Treadwell at the April 7 meeting. At the June 16 meeting, Mr. Carocci made a motion to fully fund LSFR for the budgeted $150,000. In discussion on the motion, he shared the timeline of the attempts to complete the merger on the part of each of the fire companies. To make a long story short, LSFR has repeatedly attempted to move the merger forward while Steel City has repeatedly rebuffed actions to make progress. As of the end of March, Steel City had only been willing to agree to a merger of operations but wanted to postpone the legal merger for at least another 1-2 years. Based on that information, the Council voted 5-0 to approve funding only for LSFR for 2021.

Mr. Carocci then provided additional information regarding the future of the merger. In reviewing Steel City’s IRS Form 990, Solicitor Treadwell noticed an unusually large donation to Steel City of $50,000 from The Boston Foundation, a donor-advised fund, followed by a transfer of $40,000 from the fire company to an injured officer who lives in New Jersey. Because of the unusual nature of the transactions, Solicitor Treadwell contacted counsel for the Steel City Fire Company with a host of questions regarding the transaction. The response from the fire company’s counsel had been received only late on the afternoon of the Council meeting and had provided insufficient information to answer the questions raised.

So we now have an answer as to whether Lower Saucon Council is going to fund LSFR (yes – 100%) or Steel City (not as of this moment) and we have some better understanding of why they made that decision. All good. But along the way, there are new questions.

Obviously the largest one is what to do about the proposed merger? Since further discussion on LSFR’s role in the Township is on the agenda for the July 21 meeting, we can expect to hear more about that shortly.

Mrs. deLeon raised the question of why Solicitor Treadwell had not shared the letter he wrote to Steel City’s counsel with the LST Council. She indicated that he should have copied the council members. Mr. Treadwell pointed out that he had been tasked with participating in the merger negotiations and this was part of the due diligence that he was conducting. He also pointed out that if he copied council members on every piece of correspondence that he produced, that they would be inundated. While he apologized for not sharing the letter, I think that instead the Council owed him a big thank you for his thoroughness in scrutinizing Steel City’s 990. He caught something that could be a major liability for a merged fire department and that raises legitimate questions about how Steel City handled the entire transaction.

The bigger question that should be raised beyond Mrs. deLeon’s concern is why there was no reporting on the status of the merger at all from January till June. The detailed timeline Mr. Carocci provided showed that there had been actions that had been taken over that time period, but none of that was reported. When Mrs. Stauffer appropriately raised the question in April, there was no sharing of the status of the negotiations which at that time apparently were already fraught. And although Mr. Carocci apologized profusely for not providing any of the information that he referenced at the June 16 meeting in time for it to be included in the council packets or on the website, the fact is that it shouldn’t have taken until June 16 for that information to be compiled. Where was a report at the March Council meeting or the April one or the May one? Mr. Carocci is the liaison to the fire companies. Why couldn’t he have provided something sooner? Is this his definition of transparency?

Moving on . . .

Natasha Manbeck of McMahon Associates provided a status report on the draft of the Active Transportation Plan being developed as part of the WalkWorks Grant. She acknowledged the contributions of many LST residents and indicated that the Draft will be presented in August for public comment. Anyone with comments in the meantime can send them to Diane Palek, the Township’s administrative assistant (adminasst@lowersaucontownship.org).

Frank Thompson of the Parks & Rec Board presented Logan Kade’s proposed Eagle Scout project to construct an information kiosk at Heller Homestead Park to the Council. The Council approved the project, 5-0.

Bill Ross of the Lower Saucon Authority gave a detailed explanation of Senate Bill No. 597, requesting that Council submit a letter opposing the bill. He explained that it places additional onerous requirements on public water authorities in the state (including Lower Saucon’s) that are unnecessary to guarantee the quality of water and will make the public authorities vulnerable to takeover by private entities. The Council agreed to provide such a letter, 5-0. Mr. Ross encouraged anyone who was listening to contact their state senators and voice their opposition to the bill as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be a LST Council meeting if there weren’t gratuitous swipes at fellow Council members and attempts to impugn their integrity. In the discussion about the bids received from Keystone Collections and Berkheimer to provide tax collection services to the Township, Mrs. deLeon raised a question about the fact that Keystone (which had the lower bid) had also requested space in Seidersville Hall for an in-township office whereas Berkheimer did not. Her concern was whether the two bids therefore represent an apples-to-apples comparison and whether, if Keystone were awarded the contract, would they be paying for their use of the space? A reasonable question.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Mr. Banonis, however, had to jump in to point out that perhaps Mrs. deLeon had other reasons for raising the questions because doesn’t Mrs. deLeon’s sister work for Berkheimer? The implication was that this was suspicious. Mrs. deLeon then tossed the question to Solicitor Treadwell, asking if there was a conflict here. Attorney Treadwell’s response was “not technically under the Ethics Code.” But Mr. Banonis just couldn’t let it rest. According to the minutes, he hastened to assure us before he made the motion to approve the bid from Keystone that “he doesn’t have any immediate family members that work for Keystone, he has no parents, no children, he doesn’t think he has any siblings as he’s an only child, he doesn’t have any aunts, cousins or uncles who work for either Berkheimer or Keystone” so he could make the motion in good conscience and with a clear mind. Mrs. Yerger, not to be outdone in gratuitous snark, then seconded “based on the fact that she has no relatives working for either Keystone or Berkheimer.” Come on, what is this? Fifth grade? Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah. Or maybe it’s an attempt at humor. If so, don’t give up your day job.

Finally, and most importantly for those of us who love spending our time attending these meetings so you, Gentle Reader, don’t have to (although you should), the Council decided to return to live, in-person meetings starting with the next one scheduled for Wednesday, July 21. If you’re planning to attend, be prepared to show up at Town Hall at 6:30 PM.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, July 21, 2021 – 6:30 PM AT TOWN HALL

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Whole World is Watching. Well, Hellertown Is.

Last week’s Lower Saucon Township Council meeting had a decidedly different vibe to it. It was much more low-key, ticking along at a brisk pace, checking things off on the agenda. There was a resolution observing International Firefighters’ Day on May 4, a handful of resident requests for variances, a lot line adjustment, some administrative resolutions. All dispensed with fairly rapidly with 4-0 votes (Mrs. deLeon was absent).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There was the adoption of a Feral Cat Trap/Neuter/Return agreement whereby the Township will provide vouchers that will cover the $35 cost for residents who trap a feral cat and take it to No Nonsense Neutering for the procedure. Hopefully, this will resolve the feral cat problem in Steel City that Ms. Civitella brought to the Council’s attention earlier this year. Ms. Huhn was appropriately thanked for her rapid and effective response in providing the information necessary to deal with this issue.

In tax-related news, the filing date for EIT final returns was moved to May 17 so that it will correspond to the Federal and State tax due dates. No penalties or interest will be collected on any taxes paid by May 17.

Seasonal workers for Public Works will be paid $14.63 per hour and the Police Department has received its spiffy new uniforms!

As I said, a fairly uneventful meeting. So uneventful, in fact, that at several points when Mrs. Yerger requested a motion for an agenda item, there was an awkward pause before another Council member so moved. None of the usual two-step jockeying to be the mover or seconder. Mrs. Yerger herself even moved at least one item that I recall.

But as we’ve come to learn, it’s the non-agenda items that often generate the most interest. That was the case on April 21 as well.

First, Mrs. Stauffer provided a detailed report on the activities of the Hellertown Area Library (HAL) during this past year as they coped with all of the challenges of Covid-19. She provided data on library usage and descriptions of alternative programming that outlined a robust response to the pandemic. Mrs. Stauffer is the Council’s liaison to the Library.

Then, in the public comment period on non-agenda items for non-residents only (the very last item on the agenda), Julia Sefton, President of the HAL Board addressed the Council in response to the variety of issues that had been raised at the previous Council meeting on April 7. She outlined the normal reorganization process of the Board and how it was disrupted this year by both Covid and by LST Council’s desire to advertise separately for the one Board opening. She explained that they are an all-volunteer board and that they are perhaps not as skilled in parliamentary procedure as they should be. She acknowledged that allowing outgoing Board member Janie Hecker to make a motion at their previous Board meeting was incorrect, although she did point out that Ms. Hecker had every right to attend that meeting as a private citizen. She just should not have been recognized as a Board member or allowed to participate as such.

Ms. Sefton also made it clear that there was no disrespect meant to the LST Council by any of the HAL Board’s actions. She apologized for any consternation that might have caused and reiterated HAL’s appreciation for the substantial support provided to the Library by the Township. She committed to the Board’s taking a closer look at their procedures and correcting anything that might run counter to accepted practice.

Attorney Treadwell volunteered his time to help the Board work through their processes in conjunction with the Hellertown Council solicitor if that would be useful. Ms. Sefton graciously accepted. Mr. Banonis then said that it wasn’t necessary for the HAL Board to apologize and that he appreciated their taking the time to explain what had happened at the last HAL Board meeting. He and Mr. Carocci then fell all over themselves explaining how valuable the Library is to the community. Quite a turnaround from two weeks prior.

With that, the meeting adjourned in almost record time.

And then I realized what had been happening. I’d noticed at the beginning of the meeting that there was a larger-than-usual number of Zoom attendees. I didn’t think much of it since sometimes variance requests and zoning issues attract support people for the petitioner (lawyers, engineers, neighbors) and they tend to drop off when that agenda item is completed. But they were all still there at the end of the meeting. Unusual. Until someone pointed out that those additional people included the Mayor of Hellertown, Hellertown’s council-appointed liaison to the HAL Board, and a good many members of the HAL Board, obviously there to witness the report by Mrs. Stauffer, the comments by Ms. Sefton and the subsequent response.

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what effect all of those witnesses might have had. But I’ll make one observation of my own. Neither Mr. Banonis nor Mr. Carocci took the opportunity in this feel-good mutual Library admiration moment to apologize for the belittling remarks and accusations that they leveled at Mrs. Stauffer on April 7.

Ah well, baby steps.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

UPDATE: In my last blog, I promised to inquire about what differences there might be between the “Council packet” that Council members receive and the supporting material that is posted on the township website along with the meeting agenda. Ms. Huhn said that there should be no difference in those materials – everything in the Council packet should also be on the website. She also asked that if someone notices a discrepancy to let her know. She did point out, and she was absolutely correct in this, that she said in the April 7 meeting that the background material on the Planning Commission nominee – Mr. Woosnam – had been EMAILED to the Council members, not included in the Council packet. So my apologies to Ms. Huhn for incorrectly reporting what she had said about the distribution of Mr. Woosnam’s information.

I did request, on behalf of those of us who are playing along at home, that in the future that kind of information, when emailed, would also be available to Zoom meeting attendees.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, May 5, 2021, 6:30 PM

Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

And the Beat Goes On

Remember the brouhaha back in the fall about the use of the Township pavilion by a political party for a rally? Remember how it surfaced concerns about inconsistencies and deficiencies in the pavilion rental policy and the parks usage policy? Remember the concerns that were raised about the enforcement of the rules and regulations regarding both pavilion rental and special events? Remember how thorough discussion of it got tabled sine die because:

  1. Budget season was coming up and that work was far more important than hashing out problems with the parks policy, and
  2. There was a request of Ms. Huhn to get additional information on the policies and procedures of other municipalities and how they handle similar information, and
  3. The Parks and Recreation Committee wanted to study the issue and weigh in on what they felt would be an appropriate solution?
Saed Hindash for LehighValley Live

Well, the issue reappeared as an agenda item at the March 3 Township Council meeting. Was there information presented about the policies and procedures of other municipalities and how they handle similar information? Not that I heard. Were there recommendations from the Parks and Recreation Committee on how to correct some of the inconsistencies and deficiencies? If there were, they were not included in the council packet that was posted on-line accompanying the agenda.

What was presented was a copy of the current “Request for Pavilion Rental” form with the words “Is this a political event? Yes / No” handwritten on it with an asterisk indicating that a political event required a Special Event Permit and a copy of the current “Special Event Application” with “political event” also handwritten under “type of event”. Ms. Huhn also stated with corroboration from Attorney Treadwell that in the future the township would be putting up “No Parking” signs in order to be able to enforce the regulation that no one can park on the grass.

In the comment period, there were questions raised about how the regulations would be enforced, since they clearly were not at the September 17 event. Attorney Treadwell pointed to the “No Parking” signs as the solution. When questioned about the harassment problems about which resident Stephanie Brown complained in person to a police officer at the event and that she subsequently raised at the October 7 council meeting and the flouting of park regulations regarding political banners and crowd size raised by resident Victoria Opthof at the same meeting, Attorney Treadwell deferred to Chief Barndt, who was not at the council meeting, as to why no action was taken that evening. Treadwell’s reply seemed to boil down to the police having discretion as to what complaints they want to respond to or not and since they didn’t respond, too bad. Gee, I hope if someone breaks into my house that the police use their discretion to decide to come arrest the guy.

Back at the October 7 meeting, resident and Parks and Rec Board member Katrina Schreefer had raised concerns that she had attended a Parks and Rec meeting on October 5 at which the Board seemed reluctant to take up the issues of park regulation enforcement. In the minutes of the subsequent Parks and Rec meeting on November 2, the Board moved a recommendation to Council that they put a capacity limitation on each park and pavilion and if the application exceeds that number, it automatically requires a special event application. Nothing was mentioned about that at the Council meeting on March 3. As Ms. Schreefer had brought up in October, the Parks and Rec Board did not recommend any other changes specifically to deal with regulation enforcement. They have not addressed any of these issues since.

And while the Parks and Rec Board seems to be very impressed with how detailed their rules and regulations are, let me share with you one sentence from the Fees & Charges section of the Parks & Athletic Facilities Use Policy, dated 6/19/13:

“Any event or activity which the Fee Schedule of this section indicates as a “Special Event” shall be subject to the provisions of the Special Event Permit Application procedures (under development).” [emphasis added]

Really? Under development since 2013? That sound you hear is the can being kicked down the road.

Moving on

One other peculiar action took place at the March 3 meeting. There was an agenda item to appoint a new member to the Hellertown Area Library Board because of the resignation of a member whose term runs through 12/31/21. Mrs. Stauffer, as liaison to the Library from the township, nominated Janie Hecker who had been recommended by the Library Board for the position. Apparently past practice has been for the township to accept the Board’s recommendation and elect that person to the Board. Also in the past, the Board has advertised the position and historically there have been few applicants, usually only one. But this time, when the Board sent over its recommendation, the Township, through Ms. Huhn, informed the HAL Board that the township would be advertising and conducting their own search. This apparently resulted in two additional applicants.

Now it was hard to follow what process was used, but apparently Ms. Huhn did advertise the position and sent some or all of the information from the applicants over to the HAL Board. It didn’t seem as if anyone in the Township office or anyone on the Township Council had actually interviewed any of the applicants and it was unclear if the HAL Board had interviewed any of the applicants either, although they knew the person they had recommended from her prior service. There was no information on any of the applicants (cover letters, resumes, etc.) provided in the documents that were publicly posted with the meeting’s agenda.

Instead, there was a lot of huffing and puffing from Mr. Carocci and Mr. Banonis about how the Board’s recommended nominee had previously served on the Board and the Township needed new blood and someone else should have a chance and it was the Township’s right to appoint whomever it chose (that part is correct) and they didn’t have to take the HAL Board’s recommendation (also true) and on and on and on. Mr. Banonis, in particularly high dudgeon, claimed that the other two applicants were being “shunned” by the Council in favor of the HAL Board’s recommendation. He then took the opportunity to present in detail one of the applicant’s credentials, someone named Sharon, last name unintelligible over Zoom. He neglected, however, to mention anything significant about the other applicant’s credentials. Perhaps she should feel “shunned.”

Long story short, Janie Hecker’s nomination was voted down and Sharon Whoever was elected to the HAL Board. But there are two larger issues here that should be considered.

First, one of Sharon’s credentials is that she is actually an employee of – wait for it – the Bethlehem Area Public Library. You remember the BAPL. That’s the library that the Township Council quite a few years ago went to great pains to divorce us from, over the objections of a large number of LST residents, myself included. But when Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon raised the issue of this being a possible conflict of interest, Mrs. Yerger pooh-poohed the whole idea as ridiculous. After all, why would there be a problem that someone on the Hellertown Library Board actively works for the library from which the Township had so acrimoniously separated?

Second, and more importantly, is the question of how do these kinds of decisions get made in the Township? Who told Ms. Huhn to advertise for the HAL Board vacancy? I’m sure she didn’t get up one morning and just decide to do it on her own. So where did the direction come from? It wasn’t by a vote of Council. There has been no agenda item to that effect in the past year. It wasn’t from Mrs. Stauffer, the Council liaison to the Library, who might be the obvious person to make that request. So who decided that, this time, LST had to do its own advertising and find its own Library Board member?

And who interviewed the applicants? Who vetted their credentials? Who on the Township Council knows enough about the workings of the library to be able to make a credible judgement about who is the best fit? What about the mysterious third applicant? Who is she and wasn’t she entitled to a thoughtful consideration also?

This is a recurring theme with this Council. Last July, there were two openings on the Zoning Board that were handled in a similar manner – five applicants, no interviews in public or private, no vetting beyond Ms. Huhn’s confirmation that they were all township residents, no questions permitted, just the bulldozing of two candidates who suited Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci with Mrs. Yerger again playing yes-person. For more detail, you can read Saucon Shenanigans from July 25, 2020.

Here’s the point. This is not how you get the best government for your township or the best volunteers for township committees and boards. This is not transparency. This is not following an agreed-upon process. This stinks of outdated, backroom cronyism – who you know and who knows you.

Sharon Whoever may turn out to be a fine member of the HAL Board. The two Zoning Board members may be doing a bang-up job. But might one of the other people have been better? We’ll never know. In fact, we’ll never even have had a chance to make the comparisons because this Council made sure you wouldn’t see the process or the alternatives.

Is this really the best way to run a township?

One more thing before we go

This isn’t directly related to the township council but it does have to do with Saucon Valley and the kind of shenanigans that go on around here. Why, in the middle of another dramatic escalation in Covid case counts in Northampton County, has the Saucon Valley School District school board returned to in-person meetings? Where do they think we live? Texas?

Source: NYTimes

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 7, 2021, 6:30 PM

Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

More Housekeeping. More Civility.

Last week’s meeting of the Lower Saucon Township council was again devoted primarily to township housekeeping matters. It was a relatively short agenda. The new Junior Council Persons for the 2020-2021 school year were welcomed on board. The execution of a DUI grant was authorized. There was a quarterly report on the Bethlehem landfill, a discussion of LED streetlights, and the submission of the 5-Year Capital Plan (more on that later). On the whole, a well-run meeting with a high level of collegiality and all 5-0 votes.

I especially want to applaud the civility with which the council members approached some disagreement about an upcoming meeting regarding the Creek Road development request. There was no disagreement on the fact that the Council is absolutely opposed to the development of that property as requested. The disagreements came in relation to how best to handle the Township’s response to the developer’s latest legal maneuver. Since the City of Bethlehem is actually the governing zoning authority, Lower Saucon is only an interested party and the sense of Council was that they didn’t want to lose that standing in any future considerations by the City of Bethlehem.

There was extended discussion around the best way to do that. Some supported sending a letter, some supported sending a township solicitor, some supported a Council member attending in person. The rather lengthy discussion was eventually amicably resolved with everyone having an opportunity to state his/her position and be thoroughly heard. On the whole, well done.

However, for those of us playing along at home, it seemed that the entire discussion could have been wrapped up much more expeditiously if the township solicitor, Attorney Treadwell, had taken the time at the beginning of the discussion to simply lay out the various options. Most of the discussion was protracted because Council members didn’t have a clear idea of how the various solutions protected or didn’t protect the Township’s position. If the solicitor had listed the options, along with the resulting township status of each action and the possible outcomes, everyone would have been starting from a common baseline of knowledge of the law regarding the situation.

For example, if he had said, “if you choose option A, your legal status will be X and the possible outcomes will be 1, 2, 3. If you choose option B, your legal status will be Y and the possible outcomes will be 4, 5, 6.” You get the idea. I have observed a number of solicitors over the years and I know that some of them prefer to not enter Council discussions without being directly invited or questioned, but in this situation, it would have been helpful.

Part of my purpose in creating this blog was to provide additional opportunities for Lower Saucon residents to access information they might find helpful and also to encourage more residents to be involved in Township decisions. To that purpose, there were two upcoming plans that I’d like to bring to your attention in case you’d like to read more about either of them

5-Year Capital Plan – 2021-2025

As mentioned above, one agenda item was the submission and review of the 5-Year Capital Plan (2021-2025). This is the plan that lays out anticipated capital expenses (as opposed to operating expenses) for the Township for the next 5 years. Township Finance Director Cathy Gorman, who is a true Township treasure in her custodianship of township finances, has produced a very detailed document explaining the purposes of a 5-year capital plan, the areas that it encompasses, and then all of the numbers to back all of that up. You can find the plan by clicking on the heading of this section.

This Plan is the blueprint for generally big-money expenditures and it should track with Township objectives. The Plan is up for its annual review. It does not get adopted until the regular budget cycle for 2021. As we approach the end of the life of the landfill in the Township, the funding for the Capital Plan becomes an issue of some significance since it has been primarily funded to date by tipping fees.

I urge you to take a look at the Capital Plan, familiarize yourself with the kinds of areas it covers, and provide any questions or input to Council through the normal channels. I had asked Ms. Gorman if she would consider preparing a short, executive-type summary for the Plan for those who are not into serious number-crunching which she agreed to do. I don’t see that on the site yet, but hopefully it will be coming soon. In the meantime, she provides a very clear, detailed explanation of the contents of the Plan.

Saucon Valley 2020 Comprehensive Plan Update

I’ll let the words of the Saucon Valley Partnership’s website listing speak for themselves: “The Saucon Valley Partnership (consisting of Hellertown Borough, Lower Saucon Township and the Saucon Valley School District) will be soliciting feedback, through upcoming hearings, regarding our Multi-Municipal Comprehensive Plan update and your participation is appreciated. Please take some time to view the interactive story map, click here to access the proposed updates to the growth in our community.”

Again, this is a long-range plan for a broader swath of the Saucon Valley than just the Township. It’s worth a look if you want to see where the area is headed. It’s a very cool site full of fascinating data and hard work envisioning the future of the Saucon Valley area.

The Partnership is taking questions and input from the public. You can find meeting dates and sites on the Township website. It’s another way to keep up-to-date on the possibilities for the future.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, September 16 – 7 PM