Here’s the Excuse – “Regionalization”

Usually I wait a week or so before writing about the latest township council meeting, but not this time.  Frankly, I’m sick and tired of listening to these clowns lie to our faces about what’s going on with the library issue.

At tonight’s meeting, the library question was again not on the agenda.  Mrs. deLeon read into the minutes during her report time the revised letter from Ken Solt, the president of the HAL Board extending the offer to discuss an agreement until April 22.  The letter was sent on March 29.  It was not put on the agenda because, according to Banonis, there weren’t two Council members who wanted it there.  Mrs. deLeon then asked a very pertinent question.  How many of the other agenda items had been requested by two Council members?  Not the interim Township Manager.  He doesn’t count.  Not the township Financial Manager.  She doesn’t either.  Nor the Solicitor.  The rules that Council adopted on January 3, 2022, require the consent of two Council members for an item to be added to the agenda.  Answer from Banonis??  Crickets!!!

I think going forward, Council needs to be required to list the two Council members who have requested that an item be put on the agenda.  Every. Single. Agenda. Item.  If there aren’t two names, it’s not a legitimate agenda item and can’t be discussed or acted upon.  Thank you, Law of Unintended Consequences.  And remember, those rules require that the request for an agenda item be in writing.

Then in his report, Banonis read the same letter that Mayor Heintzelman read to the Hellertown Borough Council at their meeting regarding a meeting that was held on April 13 among Pastor Phil Spohn of Christ Lutheran, Ken Solt, Tom Rieger (President of Hellertown Borough Council), Mayor Heintzelman, Banonis and Zavacky (who conveniently was not at tonight’s council meeting, so she couldn’t answer any questions. I’m guessing she had more important things to do.). You can read it in its entirety in this Saucon Source article.  He then said he’d have nothing more to say on the matter – but of course he did.

The excuse for no immediate action on the library issue was – ta-da – regionalization. In further discussions among the Council members about why this item was not on the agenda, Carocci kept claiming that “they need more time to report” on regionalization and “we’re gonna wait till we hear back from them.” These statements can be found at time marks 1:12:07 and 1:13:46 in the recorded video of the meeting available on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.  Who are these “they,” kemo sabe?  Some magical, mystical group that’s going to be meeting and solving this problem?  No.  

Once again, we have to question Carocci’s reading abilities.  Read the letter carefully.  It states, “Lower Saucon Township expressed the idea of regionalizing library services with other communities. . . .This is a new concept being presented to both Hellertown Borough and the library.”  So clearly the concept of “regionalization” was presented as a stalling tactic by – surprise – the LST representatives who were at that meeting – Banonis and Zavacky.  Carocci was trying to imply that “they” were somehow not the people from LST.

The letter then says, “All parties agreed to take the concept back to their respective bodies, receive initial reactions and create conversations of thoughts and concerns, which will be used toward possible further discussions.”  Great idea.  But when questioned by Mrs. deLeon about why this is not on the agenda to be discussed? Again, crickets.  When she asked If it would be added to the April agenda for discussion, the response was the insane answer that Carocci gave at 1:12:07 – “they need more time to report”.  To report WHAT?  The Sunshine Act requires that the Council have discussions like this in public. If it’s not on the agenda, how can it be discussed?  If they’ve agreed to “take the concept back to their respective bodies, receive initial reactions and create conversations of thoughts and concerns,” how can that happen if it’s not on an agenda?  Are they going to hold small group discussions of less than 3 Council members at a time to try to avoid the Sunshine Act? Is this now a working group of Banonis, Zavacky, Rieger, Heintzelman, Solt and Spohn? When’s the next meeting scheduled for?  What’s the process?  What’s the timeline?

And if they’re going to work on “regionalization,” where is the Office of Commonwealth Libraries in this little dance?  You can’t just decide on your own to do “regionalization”.  Or how about this consideration that one of our residents brought up in the public comments?  What other library is going to have any interest in joining a regional pact that has anything to do with LST?  The whole Valley has watched this circus unfold. Our own neighbors don’t trust this clown car of Council members.  Why would any other sentient human or intelligent institution?

And here’s one more flat-out exaggeration from Banonis.  “We’ve discussed regionalization.” (time mark 1:13:25).  Yeah, if by the definition of “discuss” you mean the word fell out of his and Zavacky’s mouths once or twice during the January 19 shitshow.  

And the final pertinent question: while LST Council is taking its sweet old time to work out this whole “regionalization” idea (which according to the letter may or may not work out at all and which will certainly take a lot of time – think, years), why aren’t you negotiating an interim agreement to pay LST’s share for the library services it consumes?  If there’s no agreement by July 1, then HAL doesn’t include LST in its home territory when it applies for next year’s state funding and, come December 31, LST loses its current library services. No question about that.

Wake up.  We’re all being played. LST Council is dragging its feet to get as much free library service as possible, as long as possible, on Hellertown’s dime.  HAL is still under threat of a lawsuit if they cut off services to LST which, as best I can tell, they have every right to do. And they are operating on a sharply reduced budget which gives the lie to LST’s claim that they’re doing all this to “improve library services” for their constituents.  Hellertown’s footing the bill for 2022 HAL operations over and above what they should be paying for their size relative to LST.  And Bozo and his buddies are laughing at all of us, hoping we’ll give up on something they don’t want to provide anyway.

Don’t let it happen.  You have a voice.  Use it.

What’s the Excuse This Time?

Coming up on a Lower Saucon Township Council meeting next Wednesday, April 20, and once again there is no agenda item for negotiations or an agreement with the Hellertown Area Library.

No Action

We’re now 3½ months into 2022 and to date the Council has managed to avoid doing anything productive as far as the Library is concerned. In January following a specious recounting of the timeline of interactions between the Library, LST and Hellertown Borough by Banonis, the Council (minus Mrs. deLeon) voted to cut funding in half and refused to sign an agreement going forward, wanting to just “be a donor.” Not surprisingly, the Library turned that down but graciously allowed LST residents to still use the library’s facilities for another month.

In February, despite a request from Mrs. deLeon to put the Library on the agenda, the other four council people didn’t consider that important enough and so another month passed with no substantive action.  Of course, there was a report by Zavacky on the status at that meeting which was filled with gobbledygook and nonsense.

In March, the issue once again did not make the agenda despite a substantive proposal being provided by the Library to the Council which required no more than the Council agreeing in writing to negotiate a new agreement. Not SIGN an agreement, just NEGOTIATE one before July 1, 2022.  With a week to consider that, the Council still couldn’t come up with a decision. Council member Carocci could, however, again spew malarkey about how the Library was still considering taking the check from January (HINT:  they weren’t.  They voted that down at the public January 25 Library Board meeting but, hey, why let the truth hinder the spin?). 

The latest update is that weeks ahead of the April 20 council meeting, the Library has extended the deadline for the Council to agree to negotiate (again: negotiate NOT sign on to) a new agreement.  And has once again graciously agreed to continue to provide library services to the delinquent citizens of LST.  But still no item on the April 20 agenda.  In the past we’ve been falsely informed that you can’t put an item on the agenda unless there is action to be taken (that’s not true).  But now there is something to take action on – an invitation from the Library to negotiate a new agreement.  So why isn’t it on the agenda?  Here’s one hint:  if they put it on the agenda, they have to let the public comment on it at the beginning of the meeting.  Hmmm, that might mean more people would show up and comment.  Probably don’t want that.

What’s Behind All This Delay?

There’s been quite a lot of speculation about what is behind all of this library nonsense and why it’s taken so long to get it resolved.  After all, when the whole situation blew up in January, Hellertown Borough managed to resolve their portion of it in about 2 weeks.  Setting aside the conjecture that much of this is a result of personal animus, let’s look at the whole Library issue from a completely different perspective.  What if, in fact, the Council never did intend to sign the agreement with the Library and has no intention now of resolving the issue in favor of continuing library service to the LST residents.

Look at the facts in that light.  Discussions on the new 5-year agreement began almost a year ago, in Spring 2021.  They dragged on and on. Whenever Kristen Stauffer, the previous Council library liaison, would raise concerns or seek guidance on where the Township stood on budgetary issues, she would be belittled or ignored and no progress would be made.  Former Township Manager Leslie Huhn was in charge of working with the Hellertown Township Manager and Library personnel to work out the new agreement.  But somehow the usually capable Ms. Huhn couldn’t manage to get those 3 entities to work together or, supposedly, to respond to her, although we now have a more accurate timeline that indicates that probably wasn’t the case.  Of course, she’s now conveniently gone – resigned – so we can’t get her input on this.

Wouldn’t all that be very useful if you really didn’t want to sign a new agreement?  Hellertown Borough, seeing the December 31 renewal date coming up fast, responsibly took action to guarantee library services for its residents.  LST punted time and time again due to “concerns” and Solicitor Treadwell claimed he couldn’t share the concerns with the public. Then LST fashioned a guaranteed-to-be-rejected insulting solution of cutting support in half and signing no agreement.  Now, according to them, it became the Library’s fault that we’re in the situation we’re in.  And they changed the rules for putting an item on the agenda to guarantee that Mrs. deLeon, the only real library supporter, can’t get anything considered going forward.

So in January the four Council members spring the new 50% cut/no agreement motion on the public with no mention on the agenda of what the “library services discussion” would entail; in February Mrs. deLeon can’t get a second Council member to agree to put the item on the agenda because of the lies about “no action to be taken;” in March the excuse is that the request came on too short notice to put it on the agenda (another falsity since the Sunshine Act provides for last-minute and emergency additions to agendas) and Mrs. deLeon again cannot get a second to put it on the agenda although she reads it into the minutes, and now it’s April and it’s still not on the agenda.

What’s behind all of this?  Why not sit down and negotiate and work this out like reasonable people and elected public servants?  I have two ideas that may or may not be intertwined.

Idea #1 – Bullying Gone Bad

We’ve watched members of this Council over the past two years employ bullying tactics in the place of honest negotiation to get what they want.  The whole Steel City/LSFR merger issue comes most prominently to mind.  You just push and pressure and turn the screws until your opponent caves.  Other bullying tactics were employed in relation to the delay in approving the Covid bonuses for the police department until after their contract was agreed to. More subtle, perhaps, but arm-twisting no less.  And then, miraculously, there was another $500 per person available after they approved the contract, beyond what every non-police employee had gotten!

In the case of the Library, I think the groundwork was laid last February when Carocci began making noises about LST being disrespected by the Library and asking what we were getting for our money.  Did he do anything to actually find an answer to that question?  No, he just wanted to get the idea out there.  Typical Fox News tactics.  The approach all through 2021 was to ratchet up the pressure on the Library to get whatever terms it was LST Council wanted.  Of course, we don’t really know what those terms were because according to Treadwell, he couldn’t share any of that with us, but there were vague comments about “financial issues” and “concerns about management.” But nothing you could really check out.  Just insinuations.

Of course the assumption might have been that as the December 31 deadline approached that the Library, always short on funding and dependent on the support of the Borough and the Township, would just fold.  But then, two things happened.

Oops, Not What They Expected?

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

First, Hellertown Borough threw a monkey wrench into all of that when, as good public servants do, they stepped up and signed the agreement on behalf of providing library services to their residents.  And then, when the December 31 date came and went and LST came up with its insulting “we just want to be donors” solution on January 19, the Board of HAL said thanks, but no thanks.  We’ll work this out another way.

All of that left the LST Council scrambling.  They have a constituency that clearly wants library services and they’ve backed themselves into a corner.  Southern Lehigh Public Library (SLPL) has publicly stated they’re not interested.  Bethlehem doesn’t want them back. They now either have to negotiate honestly with HAL which most bullies would see as “losing” or they have to admit that they’re fine with LST residents having no library, something for which I would hope they would pay dearly at the ballot box. 

The analogies to Putin in Ukraine are ironic.  Someone badly miscalculates, executes incompetently, and has no viable Plan B.

Idea #2 – You’re Not Entitled to Library Services

One thing we’ve watched consistently from the ultra-right authoritarian playbook since the Reagan era and most explicitly over the last five years is the concept that it’s not the responsibility of government to provide services to the public that the entitled white people (usually male) in charge don’t feel they have a right to.  While this is often used in a racial context, it can just as well be a class issue.  We’ve heard some of this from people up on that rostrum in Town Hall with statements like, “nobody uses libraries anymore,” “you can just order the books you need from Amazon,” “only 30% of the residents use the Library,” and the observation that HAL is not as convenient for most LST residents as the SLPL (the implication being that the only people that count live in the southwest quadrant of the township).

In this explanation, LST Council is more than happy to steal services from HAL for as long as HAL (who are suckers in their opinion) is willing to supply them and then, when that ends, we’re all just out of luck.  Or perhaps we will have forgotten about it. It’s in this context that the threat of a lawsuit is useful.  The idea is that the Township has the funds to sue the “poor” library and so the Library will just kowtow to the township’s demands.  

Nowhere in this scenario is there any understanding of elected officials as public servants or as people who represent the entire township instead of just a precious few (probably those who can afford Amazon and contribute to their campaigns).   This is, to put it mildly, despicable.  It is also not, by any explanation, how a democracy is supposed to work.  

But How About Pickleball?

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Be aware that these condescending comments and rules only apply to those things that the elected Council members consider not of interest to them.  When it comes to pickleball, on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter how many people might use those courts if a Council member wants them. To that point, tell us, Zavacky, what were the results of the survey that you conducted to find out what percentage of residents might use those pickleball courts?  You did do that, right? Took a survey? Oh no?  Really?  Well, my guess is that when you do, there are going to be a lot less potential users than the 3,328 residents that would represent 30% of the most recent census numbers.  But then, you don’t care, do you?

As my friend Beau from the Fifth Column says, “It’s just a thought.”

Two more library things.  Saucon Source reported on March 28(!) via Ken Solt, President of the HAL Board, that the Township had sent the Library a check for $41,644.67, an amount which reflects a deduction for library services the township paid for in January as part of their agreement extension. Give it up. What part of “we turned your check down” don’t you get? It had been over 2 months since the Library voted not to take it.

Second, in the “for what it’s worth” department, if I were on the Board of HAL, I’d give the money back to the Commonwealth for the amount that covers LST and then close off all services to LST residents except for those that are available to any citizen of the Commonwealth, i.e. walk in the door, read the books/contents, leave.  No borrowing, no PA ACCESS cards, no meeting rooms, etc.  Or charge LST residents individually for use of the facilities.  

Stop letting LST Council take advantage of your kindness and stop letting them hide behind the ongoing services, hoping that no one will notice that nothing’s happening. When the services stop, a lot more residents will start complaining.

Here are a few other thoughts:

  • Back at the October 27 meeting, our new state representative Milou Mackenzie showed up to tell us all about how she’s here to help the residents of LST.  Well, Milou, where are you now?  Bob Freeman has been very visible in trying to facilitate discussions between the state’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries and HAL and Hellertown Borough.  Where are you?  What have you done?
  • A big shout-out to our interim Township Manager, Peter Marshall, for calling out the appalling state of whatever it is that passes for “minutes” of Township meetings.  Those multi-page abominations have nothing to do with the definition of minutes in Robert’s Rules of Order.  And if you want to argue that they’re transcriptions of the meetings, they’re virtually useless for that too because there’s no attempt to turn the transcriptions into understandable sentence structure.  There are incorrect words, misspelled words, run-on sentences with unclear attributions as to who is speaking.  Thank you for pointing out that whatever we’re paying for them is a giant waste of township money.  Please, get this man some chairs just for calling attention to that.
  • YOU NEED TO SHOW UP AGAIN AT THE APRIL 20 COUNCIL MEETING. ONCE AGAIN, YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AROUND UNTIL THE END. BUT DON’T GIVE UP. THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE COUNTING ON!

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 20, 6:30 PM – Township Hall

As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.

Lower Saucon, Home of the Freeloaders

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

As of today, it has been 43 days that Lower Saucon Township has been freeloading off of the Hellertown Area Public Library.   The township has paid not one cent toward the use of those facilities and yet the Library has graciously allowed the residents of the Township to continue to use them.  How does it feel as a resident to be required to accept charity from a far less richly endowed borough like Hellertown or a non-profit institution like the Library?  Aren’t you just a little ashamed?  Does it bother you that we’ve become a laughingstock in the Valley?  “Oh, Lower Saucon.  Isn’t that where they pulled out of the Library?  What’s wrong with those people?”

And yeah, yeah, I know the nonsense about the State grant money. I’ll get to that in detail later.

The February 16 Township Council meeting featured so much manure being shoveled at us accompanied by such high grade gaslighting that I’m frankly astonished that Town Hall didn’t spontaneously combust.  Let’s review what we had to sit through for almost 4 hours.

First, the Council couldn’t even be bothered to put the library on the agenda, despite Mrs. deLeon’s best efforts.  Instead, they buried it in Council reports which meant there could be no public comment until the end of the meeting.  Then they made sure the meeting ran just as long as possible, starting with a resolution honoring a township Scout which – in Banonis’ own words (draft minutes, page 2, line 53-54) – “Normally we don’t read these resolutions, but he thinks it’s an important milestone that we should read it as well as the next one.”  The next one honored the Saucon Valley wrestling team and required not only the reading of the entire resolution along with each individual team member’s name and acknowledgement but also team and council pictures while the entire audience waited. That ate up a good half hour.

In addition to the usual developer items, bid authorizations, contract approvals and various other quotidian items, there had to be a number of approvals and authorizations to cover the vacancies created by the resignation of Leslie Huhn, Township Manager, the openings for a finance clerk and administrative assistant, the hiring of an interim township manager, and a temp part-time clerical employee.  Does anyone else find that a disturbing amount of staff turnover? Things that make you go “hmmmmm.”

On the subject of Ms. Huhn’s resignation, I’d only like to point out that it was somewhat disheartening that after her 20 or so years of service to the Township, that the Council couldn’t be bothered to cobble together a resolution to thank her for her service.  You could formally thank a Boy Scout for building a kiosk but not Ms. Huhn for two decades of service? Setting aside the various conjectures about the timing and cause of her resignation, she was a competent employee with a ton of institutional knowledge and replacing her will be challenging, both because of the current employment challenges in the country and the Township’s low public regard.  Couldn’t the Township have managed at least a formal thank-you instead of the kind of haphazard “gee, we’re sorry to see you go” that we got instead?  I guess not.

Before we get to the library though, there were a few other agenda items worth mentioning.  Once again we were treated to the politically motivated announcement of the fact that Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky were giving up their Council compensation for not just this year but, wait for it, their entire terms.  Yes, yes, I know it supposedly had to be included in the minutes, but if you read the solicitor’s explanation of why, it says in case the Township provides benefits like healthcare, etc. it has to be on the record.  We don’t. And you could have reported it in Council or Township Manager’s reports and it would have made it into the minutes. Mrs. deLeon made a good point as well.  Why wasn’t this done at the organizational meeting if this was their intention?  Why wait? Bigger audience?

One important point on this issue.  Later in the meeting, Banonis incorrectly claimed “there was a statement of accepting money from the landfill, he can say publicly that he never accepted anything from the landfill . . . just so that record is clear.” (draft minutes, page 12, lines 36-38).  He’s referring to a statement I made, (draft minutes, page 1, lines 48-50) where I said that he, Carocci and Zavacky “were provided with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of political support” from the PAC funded by the company that owns the landfill.  I did not say that anyone had accepted money from the landfill, only political support.  He, as well as the other two, did indeed accept that political support in that they never repudiated that support and silence can be construed as acceptance.

Moving On

This meeting also saw the consideration of quotes for livestreaming of Council meetings. Carocci almost immediately moved to table the consideration of quotes until a permanent township manager is hired because “[i]t’s a lot of money and a complicated system and he wants to have the permanent Township Manager look at these proposals and decide with that persons [sic] input what the best is for the Township. He will have to live with the system.” (draft minutes, page 14, lines 2-4).  Don’t you love the assumption that the new township manager will be male?  But I digress.

If we assume that there is some validity in that argument (some, not a lot), then let’s move to a more compelling question.  In March 2020 as we have all been recently reminded by the media, the world shut down because of Covid.  The March 18, 2020, council meeting was cancelled, but by April 1, council meetings were back in session and were being streamed via the Zoom app which provided not only video of the meeting but also two-way audio, permitting not only township officials and the councilmembers to comment but also allowed public comment, just like always.  That system worked fine until Council went back to public meetings in June 2021 – in other words, for more than a year.

If it’s necessary to wait for permanent equipment and a full-fledged system until there’s a permanent township manager, then why in the name of common sense can’t we simply reinstate the previous system to provide livestreaming and two-way communication just like before?  Has everyone gone braindead and can’t remember how to do that?  Or is it that this council really doesn’t want all those pesky residents to see what’s going on or, even worse, comment on it?  Funny how Hellertown can do it, but Lower Saucon can’t.

FYI, 1000 people have viewed the livestream from the January 19 meeting and 695 viewed the livestream from February 16.  I would say that represents a significantly interested constituency.  During the February 16 meeting, there were more than 85 people watching the meeting as it livestreamed.  In January there were over 100.  I will point out that it should not be necessary for a volunteer resident to have to provide a service which is so clearly desired by the township AND SHOULD BE PAID FOR BY IT and which they have already proven themselves capable of doing without a $17,000 system. Not only that, but a Facebook livestream can’t provide two-way communication like the previous Zoom set-up could.  But then maybe that’s the point.

And Now to the Library

According to Zavacky, the library issue was relegated to her council report and not an agenda item because there was nothing to vote on.  This is arrant baloney.  Let’s look at the word salad she used to explain why it was in the report section and not an agenda item. (Draft minutes, page 16, lines 17-22).  “As an update, that’s why it’s an update and not on the agenda, in terms of official action on what this Council would take, that would be things like recommendations that we need to be made by an agency pursuant to the statute ordinance, executive order, the establishment of policy, the decisions we need to make on agency business or vote on.  We have nothing to vote on today so that comes from the Sunshine Act and it has to be done here [meaning in the reports section].”

Okay, that’s not what the Sunshine Act says.  What it does say is this, §709.(c.1)(i) Notification of agency business to be considered.  “. . .the agency shall post the agenda, which includes a listing of each matter of agency business that will be or may be the subject of deliberation or official action at the meeting . . .” It later says in §712.1(a) that “. . . an agency may not take official action on a matter of agency business at a meeting if the matter was not included in the notification required under section 709(c.1).”  It then goes on to indicate what the exceptions are to being able to take action without previous notification.

So for those who are not used to reading legislative gobbledygook, let me explain what that means.  First, you’ll notice there is NOTHING in the Act that refers to what items MUST be included in the reports part of an agenda.  Second, the Act speaks to what MUST be included in an agenda if the Council wants to take action on it, but it does not prohibit other things from being included in the agenda. In fact, the agenda for February 16 included an item that took no action or deliberation, i.e. the aforementioned letters renouncing compensation by Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky.  So they could have been included in the Council reports since that would have gotten them read into the minutes if that was all that was necessary.

Next, I’m sure you all remember these immortal words from Banonis at the January 19 meeting, (from the approved minutes, page 2) “For a period of seven months in 2021, from May through December, the library board apparently chose to exclude Lower Saucon Township from negotiations on a new agreement.” (Page 4) “The library in Hellertown rejected every effort, every single effort by our Township Manager and Solicitor over a period of eight months.” (Page 5) “They didn’t, they ignored us. They never contacted us. Our Township Manager contacted them repeatedly and they ignored our requests.”  And yet here at the February 16 minutes is Zavacky with a sheaf of papers showing all the interactions between LST and Hellertown Borough and HAL.  How could that be?  Well, she did start back in July 2020 which of course is irrelevant to the discussions we’re having now.  But she then went on to (draft minutes, page 18 line 11 through page 19 line 16 – 58 lines of minutes) outline communications back and forth among Hellertown Borough, HAL and LST from the Summer of 2021 through November 16, 2021. 

What’s the truth here?  Was it that “they never contacted us” or was it the reams of paper that Zavacky offered to put up on the Township website?  Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find that posted anywhere?  If you find it, let me know.

Two More Items Related to the Library

Southern Lehigh Public Library Statement

Shortly before the February 16 meeting, Bruce Eames, the president of the Southern Lehigh Public Library Board put out a statement that said, among other things, “we do not want to be involved in this fight and have made that very clear to both LST and HAL on several occasions.  SLPL’s Board of Directors feel that it is in the best interest of all involved for LST and HAL to continue negotiating and come to an agreement.  It is not SLPS’s intention to shop our services to additional municipalities and organizations. [emphasis added] We currently serve Upper Saucon Township, Lower Milford Township, Coopersburg Borough and the Southern Lehigh School District.  That service area has worked very well for many years and our plans are to continue that relationship for the foreseeable future.  There have been reports of a possible financial donation being offered by LST to SLPL, but no action has been taken and we believe this is on hold.[emphasis added]”

Carocci apparently has difficulty understanding what this plain English statement means.  In response to a comment by Jo Ellen Thomson in the public comment period that Southern Lehigh Public Library “had made it public they are not interested in this at this time,” (draft minutes, page 34, lines 4 and 5), Carocci responded (page 34, lines 10 and 11) “I also want to say you are misinformed, SLPL is on hold and they want to continue to negotiate, to talk.  So you’re wrong.  You were misinformed.”  No, Carocci, she wasn’t.  You are.  SLPL didn’t say they had put the issue on hold.  They said that their understanding was that the issue was on hold – BY LST.  Notice it says “believe.”  If they had put it on hold, they would “know,” not “believe” it.  Apparently you don’t understand the meaning of “no means no.”

OCL Appropriations for Libraries

Finally, and this is probably the most insulting part of this whole issue, is the implication that somehow HAL was trying to pull a fast one by including LST’s population numbers as part of their service area when they applied for the annual grant from the state.  According to the Office of Commonwealth Libraries (OCL) website “laws are enacted each year that detail how state aid is distributed.”  As anyone who knows anything at all about how the state operates knows, funding is determined based on a fiscal year that runs from July 1 – June 30. HAL’s application for a state grant was submitted in Summer 2021, probably after July 1 when the new fiscal year began.  At that time, they would have had no inkling that LST would renege on its commitment to support the library or refuse to sign a new agreement.  So there is nothing untoward about their including LST and its population in their service area.

HAL was approved for a grant of $35,662.87 for FY 2021-2022.  That means from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022.  The OCL website says that payments are made to local libraries in January/February “during each fiscal year (July-June).” So for Carocci to claim “They applied for the grant, they got the grant, and it’s for the calendar year.” (draft minutes, page 25, line 40) is just plain wrong.  The state doesn’t work on a calendar year basis.  It cannot appropriate funds for the second half of 2022 because it does not have an approved budget.  Having managed any number of state grants in my working career, I know this to be true.  And anyone who’s lived in Pennsylvania during one of those years when the legislature can’t get a budget passed knows that the State shuts down on July 1.

Here is the screenshot from the file on the OCL website titled “2021-22 State Aid Projections” with the dollar amount that matches the amount that HAL has indicated that it received from the State.  

Hellertown Grant – $35,662.87

Nowhere does this indicate that the grant is for the calendar year 2022.  If that’s what Carocci heard, he needs to get his hearing checked.  HAL, like all the other libraries, will need to apply for a grant for the remainder of 2022 after July 1 when the new budget is passed.  My guess is that this is why HAL, in their current proposal, requires that an agreement be signed for 2023 before July 1, 2022, so that they will know going forward whether to use the LST figures in their application to the State or not.

The fact that HAL agrees to not terminate services to LST before the end of 2022 even if LST refuses to sign an agreement for 2023 is a gift to LST.  What they are offering is to provide services to LST from July 1 through December 31 even if LST does not enter into an agreement for 2023 and beyond, even though HAL will not be able to include LST in its request for funds for 2022-2023 which would cover the second half of 2022, a period when LST would be getting services in return for their contributions but HAL would not be receiving funds from the State.  I know this is confusing but hey, that’s why we pay the council members the big bucks.  Oh yeah, I forgot.  They don’t take the money.

So enough with the crap about HAL “threatening” LST to cut off services.  You don’t pay for them; you don’t get them.  Instead, you become freeloaders.  And frankly, as a resident, I don’t appreciate being forced into that category.

One more thing.  In the October 22 issue of Saucon Shenanigans, I laid out a detailed process by which all three parties to the Library could reach an agreement on funding the Library.  Perhaps you might want to revisit that.  It would have saved us all a lot of trouble.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, March 16, 6:30 PM – Township Hall

As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.

Livestream of Council Meeting

As a community service, Saucon Shenanigans will be live-streaming this evening’s council meeting on its Facebook page – Saucon Shenanigans or @sauconshenanigans.

If you can’t make it to this evening’s meeting, you can watch it on the livestream. The recording will also be posted to the site afterwards.

FYI, there is no agenda item related to the loss of library services. Public comment for that will be delayed to the very end of the meeting under “non-agenda” items, although the livestream will not have the capability to comment. Zavacky might cover the library in her councilperson report. Who knows. But if that’s why you’re tuning in, be aware, you may have a wait.

Livestream of Council Meeting

As a community service, Saucon Shenanigans will be live-streaming this evening’s council meeting on its new Facebook page – Saucon Shenanigans or @sauconshenanigans.

If you can’t make it to this evening’s meeting, you can watch it on the livestream. The recording will also be posted to the site afterwards.

Or maybe you find it highly irresponsible of a township council to hold a public meeting with no masking requirements in the middle of the surging Omicron variant and don’t want to expose yourself.

Whatever your reason, join us by livestream instead.

You’re About To Be Muzzled

Welcome to the new year!  We have a lot of work ahead of us! Buckle up!

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

I know many of you are very concerned about the situation between the Hellertown Area Library and the LST Council.  That particular issue is not on the agenda for Monday’s Council meeting (more about that later), but there is something even more compelling on the agenda that needs to be confronted if we are to continue to work towards good government marked by transparency and accountability in this township. That is an attempt to revise the public comment and agenda-setting rules and regulations to clamp down on your right to present your comments to your elected representatives who, I will point out, work for you, the electorate.

This first meeting of any township in the new year is, by law, required to be an organizational meeting.   The agenda for the organizational portion is a laundry list of appointments, resolutions and approvals to set up the township to function in the new year.  While it’s tedious, it often goes fairly quickly.  Tucked into that list is election of Council president and vice-president for the new year.  Look for Banonis to be elected president.  Whoever is elected will take over immediately from Yerger.

After the organizational meeting is adjourned, the general business meeting will be convened.  This is why it’s important that you stick around through all the organizational fol-de-rol.

The first item under Township Business Items is Resolution #31-2022 – Revision of Agenda Policy and Code of Conduct for Council Meetings.  According to the supporting documentation, “Council Member Jason Banonis submitted the attached resolution for discussion and possible adoption.”  Here’s where the trouble starts.

LST resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, a lawyer, has provided a very concise explanation of the dangers inherent in this resolution.  With her permission, I include it here:

“Important takeaways from the proposal:

1. Residents will not be allowed to comment after each agenda item. Currently residents can comment at the beginning of the meeting [on non-agenda items] and after each agenda item. The proposal gives only one opportunity to speak at the beginning of the meeting [on agenda items] and that is all. [Ed. Note:  there is also an opportunity to speak on non-agenda items at the end of the meeting]

2. Only residents and taxpayers will be permitted to speak. Residents from Hellertown or any other municipality do not have any opportunities to speak.

3. If there is a common concern among attendees only 2 persons will be permitted to speak on that issue. The council President can cut off anyone who raises the same issue. 

4. Attendees may not “give” their time to other attendees to speak. 

5. Speakers may not question or criticize council members’ opinions or decisions. Council members have no obligation to answer questions or give dialogue on an issue.”

There’s a lot more in the complete resolution.  I suggest you read it in its entirety here (pages 49-54). where you can also compare it to the current rules that were put in place in 2020.

Much of the wording of the resolution is taken from Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act (Title 65, Chapter 7).  Of course much of it has been, shall we say, massaged for the purpose of controlling the audience.

There are some particularly egregious sections I’d like to point out.  Much of the introductory material – all the whereases – is laughable considering the past behavior of members of this council.  They are “authorized to establish a level of civility,” “promote an atmosphere of reasoned expression.”  The Council is a “strong advocate of free speech.” Really?? Gaslighting at its finest.  Go back and read minutes and blogs of previous meetings where residents and other council members were belittled, cut off, shouted down whenever the position expressed didn’t line up with the Banonis-Carocci point of view.  Ask Mrs. Stauffer if she feels that she was accorded an “atmosphere of reasoned expression” when the township’s solicitor came within inches of telling her not to speak at all. Or when Banonis made a motion(!) to mute Mrs. Stauffer in a discussion over library issues.  Or ask Mrs. deLeon about when Banonis implied that she had ulterior motives in the discussion of awarding the Berkheimer tax collector contract because Mrs. deLeon’s sister works there.

Be prepared when this resolution is introduced to hear a lot of blah-blah about more efficient meetings, less wasted time, staying on point, being civil.  It will all be bullshit.

Broad latitude is given to the Council president in the new resolution for determining what is “defamatory, contentious, scandalous, impertinent, redundant or disruptive.”  How exactly will those judgements be made?  Of course, one could argue that if the president applies the same standards as were applied the last two years to Council member behavior, there should be no problem.  All of that kind of behavior was tolerated.  Especially “redundant.” Does anyone remember sitting through Banonis’ completely redundant and superfluous recounting of the entire 2019 election cycle and judicial proceedings in his attempt to prove Mrs. Stauffer unfit for the seat to which she had just been legally appointed by the judge?  Somehow, I expect that the standards will suddenly be completely different.  

And also ask yourself, why are you as a resident subject to standards that are not applied to actual Council members?

FYI:  The resolution currently in place also allows for “scandalous, impertinent, or redundant” comments to be ruled out of order.  Guess they forgot that part in the last two years.

The Sunshine Act does not include any kind of detail regarding rules and regulations for conduct of meetings, giving the “agency” (read: township) the ability to adopt “by official action the rules and regulations necessary for the conduct of its meetings and the maintenance of order.”  But then there is one more, vitally important sentence in the Sunshine Act. “The rules and regulations shall not be made to violate the intent of this chapter.” (meaning the Sunshine Act). Do you think these rules and regulations sound like they meet that caveat?  I don’t.

Who Controls the Agenda?

As if all of this persiflage about public comment is not enough, let’s look a lot more closely at the new rules for creating a Council meeting agenda.  The current rules in accordance with the Sunshine Act say only that an agenda should be provided 3 days before a scheduled meeting.  The Sunshine Act does not speak directly to how to construct an agenda except in cases where there is an emergency, business arises 24 hours before a meeting or business arises during a meeting.  But Lower Saucon feels they need more control so witness this little beauty:

“Any Councilperson who wishes to have an item listed on an Agenda shall present a written request to the Township Manager, with sufficient detail to describe the item, at least 7 calendar days prior to the date of the meeting. The written request shall be accompanied by the assent of one other Councilperson to the request.” [emphasis added]

Currently, any Councilperson can request that an item be added to the agenda but now that person will need at least one other person to agree to it.  Hmmmm – let’s consider a hypothetical.  There’s a problem with – say – the landfill that Mrs. deLeon would like to have added to the agenda. Who is the second councilperson who will agree to that?  Banonis/Carocci?  You must be kidding.  Yerger?  She sometimes betrays a glimpse of an independent streak but I wouldn’t count on her vote.  The new member, Zavacky?  Let’s just say that it is not Republican Party practice to recruit people to run on its slate because they expect that those people will have independent thoughts and be willing to take independent action.  Especially when that slate is promoted with substantial financial support by a PAC run by the landfill’s owners.  So – no.  

What are the odds of an issue about the landfill (unless they need something approved) – or the library – or the livestreaming of council meetings – or anything else like that making it on to the township agenda under the new rules?  Practically nil. But, hey, you’ll get your lavish 3 minutes at the end of a Council meeting to bring up your concerns on that non-agenda item.

What Can You Do About This?

  • Show up for Monday’s Council meeting – 6:30 at Township Hall
  • Hang in there through the organizational meeting till the business meeting
  • When the new resolution is introduced and they call for public comment, speak up about why you object to these new rules and regulations – 3 minutes, cogent, direct

Why Isn’t the Library on the Agenda?

Now here’s an interesting event.  Mrs. deLeon requested – in writing – that an update on the library agreement situation be included on the agenda for January 3 based on the large number of inquiries and comments she had received from township residents.  Leslie Huhn, township manager, replied she didn’t think it was necessary.  Mrs. deLeon replied that she disagreed and again requested that it be put on the agenda.  It’s not there.

What gives Huhn the authority to make that decision? She’s a paid employee, not an elected official.  The new rule about a second Councilperson’s assent is not in place.  The answer:  she has/had no authority to do that. The library item should be on the agenda.

Also ask yourself, why did Banonis’ request for an agenda item get honored and Mrs. deLeon’s get ignored?

What Can You Do About This?

  • Show up for Monday’s Council meeting = 6:30 at Township Hall
  • During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting for non-agenda items, ask what the current status is with the library agreement.
  • At the same time, ask why Huhn refused to put the item on the agenda.
  • Ask what disciplinary measures will be taken to assure that this kind of employee overreach doesn’t happen again.
  • 3 minutes, succinct, cogent, direct.
  • If you don’t get a chance to speak at the beginning of the meeting, wait until the close of the organizational meeting and speak during the public comment period at the beginning of the business meeting.

Connect the Dots

I started attending township council meetings beginning in February 2020.  In that time I have observed the following:

  • Calendar Year 2020 – 21 regular council meetings, 2 special council meetings
  • Calendar Year 2021 – 17 regular council meetings
  • Calendar Year 2022 – 13 proposed regular council meetings (1 additional marked tentative)

Conclusion:  You get what you pay for.  Council people refuse compensation, then feel free to reduce amount of time spent on Council work

  • Calendar Year 2020 and 2021 – public comment limited to 3 minutes per speaker, before meeting – non-agenda items, residents; during meeting – agenda items, residents and non-residents; after meeting – non-agenda items, non-residents
  • Calendar Year 2022 – public comment limited to 3 minutes per speaker, before meeting – agenda items, residents; during meeting – none; after meeting – non-agenda items, residents

Conclusion:  Council has little interest in your comments or input

  • Prior to 2020 – agenda requirements unknown
  • Calendar Year 2020 and 2021 – agenda posted 3 days prior to meeting, items can be requested by any Councilperson; council minutes only appear when agenda appears
  • Calendar Year 2022 – agenda posted 3 days prior to meeting, items must be requested in writing 7 days before meeting, items must have assent of second Councilperson; Council minutes only appear when agenda appears

Conclusion:  Doesn’t matter if you’re an elected Councilperson, if the powers that be don’t want to discuss your issue, they won’t

Like I said, we have our work cut out for us.  Happy New Year.

Photo by Moritz Knöringer on Unsplash

Next Council Meeting – Wednesday, January 19 – 6:30 PM – Township Hall

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

What’s the Rush, Boys? (strap in – it’s a long one)

The pathetically underattended meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council took place on Wednesday, October 6, 2021.  Apparently very few residents considered it important to show up for discussion of the proposed 2022 budget, the marquee item on the agenda.

There were 5 members from the Chamber of Commerce in attendance to present a donation check of $810.19 to the police department from a fundraiser they held.  They promptly skedaddled once the presentation was over.  There were three representatives of the Hellertown council/mayor there. More on their concerns later.  They stayed for the whole meeting, to their credit.  Then there were a number of candidates for Council who have been reliably attending meetings for several months and Mrs. Zavacky who hardly ever bothers to show up. Beyond that, you could count the attendees on one hand and have fingers left over.

The housekeeping stuff all passed with 5-0 votes.  Mrs. Yerger announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Council had met in executive session and accepted the terms of the agreement that will result in a 5-year contract with the police department. The Council then officially passed the motion to accept it, 5-0.

That July Data Breach

On questioning from resident George Gress, we finally got an answer to the outcome of the investigation of the data breach on July 9. Solicitor Treadwell reported that the server had been infiltrated by unauthorized people but that no personal or sensitive information had been compromised.  There was no cost involved for the investigation beyond the $2500 deductible of the insurance policy.  It should be pointed out, however (although Solicitor Treadwell didn’t mention it), that remediation to the IT systems to prevent future hacks appears to come to more than $20,000 based on the figures listed in the 2022 budget.  This includes the replacement of 2 servers.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection completed its first Environmental Assessment Review of the Bethlehem landfill.  The report was sent to the landfill committee which had not met prior to the Council meeting.  The landfill committee chairman reported that they had done a good job.  The landfill needs to respond by December 24.  Mrs. deLeon requested that a report from the landfill committee be put on the agenda for after their October 21 meeting.  Watch this space.

On to the Budget

One small question I had raised in the last issue of Saucon Shenanigans regarding a surprisingly large increase in the Council Expenses account for next year was easily answered by Finance Director Cathy Gorman.  The 72% increase represented both some IT remediation costs but also, more significantly, funding in case all of the Council members choose to attend conferences in 2022.  Because of Covid last year, most conferences were cancelled or Council members chose not to attend, dramatically reducing the actual costs in that account.

Of more interest and concern was the extensive discussion regarding the funding for the Hellertown Public Library which gave rise to the question asked in the title of today’s blog.

Hellertown Public Library

In the budget proposed at the workshop session on September 15, LST’s contribution to the library was pegged at $100,264, the same amount as last year.  At that workshop session, Mr. Carocci had requested that Ms. Gorman refigure the budget with increases of both 5% and 7.5% for the library in 2022.  Those numbers came out to $105,277 and $107,784, respectively.  But Mrs. Stauffer, the Council’s liaison to the library, had also asked at that same meeting that Ms. Gorman come up with a per capita model that could be used for determining the township’s contribution.  

Mrs. Stauffer asked at this meeting for that per capita model and, doing calculations on the spot using the new census figure of 11,094 residents in the township, Mrs. Gorman came up with the figure of $9.66 per capita, which actually doesn’t match the budget number of $107,784. It comes out to $107,168.04 instead.  Supposedly that $107,168.04 number came from the library board’s proposal to the township, although that proposal was not available to view.  

Here’s where it gets weird.  A little history is in order.

When the township agreed to join with Hellertown Borough in supporting the Hellertown Public Library – a move that was decidedly NOT supported by a large number of LST residents who were not happy to lose access to the much better resourced and more professionally managed Bethlehem Public Library – a five-year agreement was created that covered the new relationship.  That agreement included the funding arrangement.  The agreement expired with the 2020 budget but, because of Covid and the difficulties in meeting, the budget figure for 2021 remained the same as for 2020 based on a memo from the library board to the Township requesting the same.

That means that a new 5-year agreement needed to be produced for this year or the previous one extended again.  

That agreement has apparently not been finalized or approved by either LST or Hellertown Borough.  In fact, the Hellertown Borough folks were at the LST meeting because they had not yet had an opportunity to discuss what they were going to do vis-à-vis the new agreement and they wanted to see what LST was planning to do.  Which raises the question, if there has been no finalized agreement or even extensive discussions, why were Mr. Carocci and Mr. Banonis so adamant that a number had to be inserted into the budget and the budget approved at this Council meeting?

FYI, in 2019, the budget adoption meeting was held on October 23.  Last year, the budget adoption meeting was held on October 28.  So clearly it was not necessary to pass the budget at this October 6 meeting.

This is not the way to run a township or a budgeting process, just haphazardly choosing a percentage increase in the budget for the library and then sticking it into the budget along with a reminder that anything in the budget could be adjusted by 10% after the budget was adopted and saying you’ll figure out later what the number should be.  Especially when there’s NO RUSH TO GET THIS DONE!

So let me, in the interest of civic improvement and waiving my usual $250/hour consulting fee, offer an idea for how a responsibly-run township should approach this.

1. The Library should have provided a draft 5-year agreement for review by both Hellertown Borough and LST in a timely manner prior to budget consideration.  [NOTE: meeting timely deadlines does not seem to be a strong point of the library leadership.  That needs to change.]

2. The draft 5-year agreement should include a budget for 2022 as well as a budget request for the amount of support needed from the Borough and the Township, on the assumption that the library has other sources of revenue such as fines, fees, grants, and private donations.  That budget should be created based on a thorough analysis of what the library’s real costs will be and the costs of any anticipated improvements or expansions, not on what they consider to be an amount that won’t annoy the Township or Borough.  

3. The budget request to the Borough and the Township should then be apportioned based on a clearly defined funding formula.  It would seem that a per capita cost based on current census numbers would be the most equitable.  For example, since LST has 11,094 residents and Hellertown has 6,132, the total budget request should be divided by 17,226 to determine the per capita number and then that number should be multiplied by the number of residents in each municipality to determine the actual dollars requested from each entity.  

[NOTE: there are other ways to allocate funding, such as by a percentage or by a percentage that takes into account the in-kind donation from Hellertown of having the library within their borders which possibly generates non-financial support needs from the Borough. Whatever the mechanism, it should be clearly explained.]

4. It would also be useful if the library would produce a 5-year projection budget to give the financing bodies some idea of what to expect down the road, highlighting any assumptions of population growth or per capita increase.

5. The Library Board should then make a presentation to both councils.  Preferably this would include the director of the library and the president of the library’s board as well as their financial person.  That presentation might include, in addition to the budget request, a review of what the library has accomplished in the previous year and what it hopes to change.  For example, the library has been doing good work on revising its by-laws, cleaning up its board rotation process and developing job descriptions for board members.  This would all be of interest in evaluating the budget request.  This presentation should NOT be left to the Council’s library liaison member since that member has no authority to make or change any of the library’s decisions.

6. After the presentation, each municipality could then debate the budget request and decide how they will respond to it. At this point, they could make an INFORMED decision on what the budget number should be, not a shot in the dark.  If there are concerns about how one municipality’s decision could affect another’s, there could be a joint workshop meeting simply for the sake of considering this one agenda item.  If the municipalities decline to meet the library’s requested budget amount, the library would either have to find other sources of revenue for that shortfall or reduce their spending.  The 5-year agreement should cover what the options are and what the municipalities’ responsibilities are in that kind of a situation.

7. There also needs to be a formal adoption of the 5-year agreement with the library.  Once that agreement, which includes the funding formula for future years, is in place, future oversight could include an annual status presentation from the library at the same time as each year’s budget request and discussion takes place. Before it’s adopted, the public should have the opportunity to both read and comment on it at a public meeting.

There. I fixed it for you.

Based on this year’s meeting schedule, even with the library missing the September 1 date to submit the budget request, the request to create a test budget at 5% and 7.5% for the library could have been made at the Sept. 15 meeting as it was (although a percentage increase is an arbitrary and ill-informed choice), the presentation from the library plus the informed budget discussion could have been made at the October 6 meeting and any differences with Hellertown could have been worked out then or at a subsequent joint workshop meeting.  That would have left plenty of time to adopt the new budget on October 27 in a similar timeframe to previous years.  

And we all know the Council makes the fire company jump through similar hoops every year for funding, so why should the library be any different?

If the LST Council isn’t willing to invest the time and energy to responsibly analyze the Hellertown Library budget request each year, then why don’t they just admit it and sign us back up with Bethlehem where all they have to do is write a check?

The draft budget was adopted 4-1 with Mrs. Stauffer voting no because of the handling of the library issue.

Again, what was the rush this year?

The other item irrationally discussed and jammed through was the decision to provide $2500 bonuses to 20 township employees from the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 funds.  When Mr. Carocci suggested it at the September 15 meeting, resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro asked why the uniformed police department members were not included in the bonus plan.  Mr. Carocci’s response was that he didn’t want to provide bonuses to the police department while they were in the middle of negotiations.  However, Solicitor Treadwell and Mr. Carocci himself admitted that the money for the bonuses was not coming from the township budget.  Mr. Carocci also described this as a bonus for township employees for doing their jobs through the Covid crisis. So there is no correlation between a contract negotiation that results in a budgeted township expense and has long-term implications and a one-time, one-off bonus that has no relationship to job performance or work rules or a union contract and is going to be paid for out of Federally-provided funds.  

Nevertheless, he persisted that the police should not be included in the bonus payment with a promise that they could be included after negotiations were completed.

Jump to October 6.  The first action of the meeting was to accept the terms of the 5-year agreement with the police union.  But when the item to award bonuses to township employees from the American Rescue Plan Covid-19 funds was presented for approval, again the unionized police officers are not to be included at this time.  So – you have an approved agreement with the police union but they’re still not eligible for the bonus – yet??  How does that work? Both Mrs. deLeon and Mrs. Opthof-Cordaro raised that question, again, with Mrs. deLeon saying that it looked like this was holding the police department hostage to sign the 5-year agreement.  And again the response was that, well, the agreement wasn’t signed and Mr. Banonis rejected the idea of hostage-taking.  From the draft minutes of the October 6 meeting:

“Mr. Banonis: ‘It’s just a matter of reducing the terms of that [agreement] to a formal contract and having it executed. So this in no way is being used as leverage.’ Ms. deLeon said in her opinion one has nothing to do with the other. ‘You are treating a different…’ Mr. Banonis said ‘exactly, you are right, they don’t.'”

So which is it, Mr. Banonis?  Do the two things have nothing to do with each other?  Or is the bonus contingent on the police department signing the 5-year contract?  Or does it just look that way, because, gee, that’s a really good way to manage the relationship with the police department. Sounds like your mouth says the first thing and your actions execute the second. 

I wonder how our police department is feeling about being left out of the bonus process, at least for the time being.  All warm and fuzzy?  All appreciated for the work they did?  Maybe not so much?  Perhaps they should go talk to the guys in the fire department about their treatment at the hands of this council during last year’s budget process.

And then the other question is – what was the rush?  The Council doesn’t have to spend these funds by any specific date.  They could have waited until after the police contract was signed, if that was their preference, to award all the bonuses to all the people eligible.  Why’d you have to rush to get it done piecemeal?  Why not avoid even the impression of bullying or favoritism? That would be good township and personnel management.

The motion passed 3-2 with Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon voting no.

One More Thing Before We Go

It was heartening to see that Junior Councilperson Avia Weber wore a mask throughout the entire Council meeting.  Apparently mask-wearing is less of an issue for students than some would have us believe. Or possibly, they’re just smarter, more careful, and more considerate than most of the adults in the room.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 27, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Mail-in ballots can be returned as soon as you receive them.

Watch for the Special Election Edition, coming out this weekend.

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

Divorce, Lower Saucon Style

Lower Saucon Township Council held its August 18, 2021, meeting in person again and to the surprise of virtually no one in the packed meeting room, voted to designate Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole provider of fire services within the township, ending its relationship with Steel City Volunteer Fire Company.  The Council had requested Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell to prepare an ordinance to that effect following the July 21 meeting.

Because it was an ordinance, it was necessary to conduct an official hearing before the vote on the ordinance.  Scott Nocek, president of Steel City, rose to request that the Council delay the vote on the ordinance to the September 1 meeting. This was rather startling since the Council has been attempting to get Steel City to merge with LSFR since at least last summer, even adding footnotes to the township’s 2021 budget outlining criteria for each fire company to receive township funding in order to incentivize the merger.  After two meetings in a row where Steel City’s reluctance to? obstruction of? the merger had been outlined in detail, it wasn’t surprising that the question on the Council members’ minds, as well as I’m sure the bulk of the audience, seemed to be, “Why?  Why delay further?” 

It became clear that there had been a meeting of the two fire companies on August 3 to further discuss the merger.  Out of that came a request for Steel City to do some required paperwork to complete the merger.  But by the time of the August 18 meeting, the paperwork had still not been completed and submitted.   There then followed a long and often contentious discussion about who did or didn’t do what, by when, and why between Council members and Mr. Nocek.  There was reference back to an April 15 letter that Attorney Treadwell had sent to Steel City requesting information on some items that had appeared on Steel City’s 990 form that had still not received a response.  Mr. Nocek said he had the response with him that night and turned it over to Mr. Treadwell but that begged the question of why it took 4 months to produce the response.

Needless to say, nothing in the hearing changed anyone’s mind.  After closing the hearing, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance and LSFR became the township’s sole provider of fire services.

What followed was a discussion of how the 9-1-1 Center would be informed of the change in status even though the ordinance did not take effect for 10 days.  The Council authorized that a letter be sent informing them of the status change and that LSFR Chief Johnson make a call to the 9-1-1 Center immediately after the meeting, adding Fire Company 16 (LSFR) to the structured dispatch so there would be no lapse in coverage.

Once that was settled, there were a series of motions to deal with the new facts on the ground.  The Council approved funding a recruitment and retention event on September 18 (rain date: September 19) in Steel City to recruit firefighters for LSFR; to reimburse attorney’s fees associated with the merger and the review of the Steel City fire station building maintenance; to authorize the funding of capital improvements at LSFR fire stations and to authorize the release of payment number 2 for LSFR’s new ladder truck.  

At that point, with the business regarding the fire department concluded, the meeting room cleared out pretty quickly, from about 65-70 attendees to 19.

The Council proceeded to appoint two new members to the Lower Saucon Authority Board – Bob Davis and Bob Keich by a vote of 5-0.  Unlike in previous appointments, the resumes of the two candidates were included in the publicly posted council information.  It was nice to know something about their qualifications before their appointments.

The rest of the meeting was mostly housekeeping except for an interesting discussion of whether council meetings could be conducted in some type of hybrid format that would allow township residents to at least view and/or view and participate in regular council meetings remotely.  Ms. Huhn had prepared a packet of information on the types of systems used by other townships and boroughs.  Tom Rieger, Hellertown Borough Council president, was invited to share how Hellertown has implemented a hybrid system that allows both the livestreaming of their council meetings and the participation of remote attendees.  He reported it had cost them about $15,000 which could be covered by federal Covid relief funds.  Ms. Huhn was tasked with getting prices for a system similar to Hellertown’s.

Of course the best part of that discussion happened when Mr. Banonis, who waxed lyrical on the excitement and energy of so many residents at the meeting in person after the Covid shutdown, and who seemed to have quite a few other reasons why hybrid was somehow not as good as in person, mused as to whether the reason for so many attendees might have been the agenda for the evening (i.e. the fire company issues).  Yeah, do you think?  Since more than 70% of the attendees left after that was done with?  Mrs. Stauffer spoke up on the value of a hybrid model in reaching those who can’t make it to the council meetings in person, pointing out that it’s “not about us in the Council room” but rather about the township residents who might not be able to attend. There’s a thought that’s worth remembering at every council meeting.

Two More Items

The update to the Saucon Valley Partnership Comprehensive Plan will be voted on September 8 at 6 PM via a Zoom meeting. You can register for the meeting on the Township website through the Council web page. The updated plan can be found here: https://epd-pgh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=dfb95aee27934650b7a998bdaf170a44

Township resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro raised a question during public comment about the status of the data breach investigation that had been mentioned at the July meeting.  Attorney Treadwell said that there was no more additional information to share at this time except that the township’s insurance company had verified that the costs of the law firm hired to deal with the breach would be covered. 

Watch this space.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, September 1, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021