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.

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.

Democracy Dies in Darkness

To the surprise of absolutely no one who has been paying any attention to the shenanigans of the Lower Saucon Township council in the last two years, at their organizational meeting on Monday, January 3, they took another giant step toward drawing the curtain on citizen involvement in township business.  By a 4-1 vote (Mrs. deLeon dissenting), they passed Resolution #31-2022, Revision of Agenda Policy and Code of Conduct for Council Meetings.  Basically the resolution relegated public comment to one period before the business meeting begins, limited to 3 minutes per resident commenter on agenda items, and to one period after the entire meeting is complete, limited to 3 minutes per resident commenter on non-agenda items.

What This Means for Wednesday’s Meeting

How, you might ask, will this change to the policy really make any difference?  We can still comment.  To get a good idea of how this works, let’s look at the upcoming meeting on Wednesday.  

There is only one agenda item under Township Business – A. Discussion Regarding Library Services.  It comes AFTER the public comment period.

So suppose you’re a township resident who really wants to support continued connection with the Hellertown Area Library.  You want to comment on that with your 3 minutes of time.  What exactly are you going to say that will be directed at the proposed actions of the council?  How will you know what those proposed actions are?  

You can’t find them on the agenda.  All it says is “Discussion Regarding Library Services.”  The supporting documentation only says “Council will be discussing library service issues and after the discussion may take official action on library service issues.”  What will that official action be?  How can you comment on it intelligently?  How can you make alternative suggestions to what they might propose?  How do you know if they’ll propose any action at all? If they don’t, library membership will cease on January 31. How about if they’re proposing to re-join Bethlehem Area Public Library which is much more expensive? Or some other more distant library?  Remember, you can only comment in that brief period before the business meeting begins.  You have no idea what they’re planning to do.

The Library is rallying supporters to attend the January 19 meeting as a show of strength for continued connection with the Library.  I’m assuming they’re hoping that quite a few people will want to speak to that subject.  To what end?  The council members will have no requirement to listen to what they say or act on what they support.  You’ll have no opportunity to ask specific questions about any part of what they discuss or decide.  You’ll be – to be blunt – muzzled.

Now do you see how this works?

If you want more detail on the other travesties imposed by this resolution, please refer to the last issue of Saucon Shenanigans (You’re About To Be Muzzled) where I go into detail on the variety of ways that dissent is stifled, including changes to the agenda process that prevent anything that the majority doesn’t want discussed from being added to the agenda.

Josh Popichak in his two articles on the council meeting in Saucon Source provides a detailed description of the debate around both the revision of the meeting rules and the objections to the proposed withdrawal from the Hellertown Library.  I urge you to read them both.  

In addition to what we’re about to witness on Wednesday, the January 3 meeting gave us a pretty good idea of the kind of shenanigans we can expect going forward.

Skipping the Public Comments

Following the opening activities of the Jan. 3 meeting, President Sandra Yerger explained the public comment procedure and then skipped right over it to the election of the council president.  It just whizzed right by, in spite of the fact that there was a large number of citizens present including at least one woman with a poster supporting the Hellertown Library.  Did Yerger think they were there just for the fun of it when there was no library item on the agenda?

Instead of public comment, the council elected Banonis as president.  No surprise there.  He of course immediately took over. Then in a bizarre move, the council elected brand-new, no-experience-necessary Jennifer Zavacky as vice president.  With three other council members with experience, why would you elect the newbie?  Not sure, unless you’re looking for a rubber stamp in that position who has no experience with township business.  

At this point, the person with the poster supporting the library brought it to the attention of the council that they seemed to have forgotten about the public comment period.  Oops!  Someone noticed!  There followed comments from no fewer than (by Banonis’ count) 18 residents, all uniformly opposed to severing ties with the Hellertown Area Library and/or considering connecting to another area library.  Not only were there several children in the audience accompanying their parents, but there was also this young gentleman – second-grader Lincoln Haupt – who rose to speak about his positive experiences with the library and who urged the council “to find ways to get more people to these programs–not cut the programs.”

Lincoln Haupt addresses the Lower Saucon Township Council.

He received a round of applause from the audience and platitudes from Banonis which is more than most speakers received.  Most of the time they would have noticed that Banonis couldn’t even be bothered to look up from whatever was of such enormous interest on the desk in front of him.

It was disconcerting to hear how many of the speakers were shocked and surprised by the council’s consideration of abandoning the library because they could have seen it coming.  Saucon Shenanigans has been pointing out this kind of high-handed maneuvering for quite some time.  And in fact, we’ve seen something like this movie before.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane.  We don’t have to go far, only back to the Fall of 2020.  If you recall, Banonis and Carocci had been more than a bit annoyed at the time about how long it was taking for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and the Steel City Fire Company to complete their merger.  This was in spite of the explanations from both fire companies about the difficulties in completing a merger that required PA government involvement during a time of Covid lockdown.  Remember, this was even pre-vaccines.  

In a maneuver that would be much harder to pull off now since the changes in the Sunshine Act this past summer, at the October 7, 2020, council meeting, after the business portion of the meeting was over and during the reports portion, Carocci introduced a motion to add a footnote to the 2021 budget that would put a tight timeline on the merger accompanied by punitive financial actions if the merger were not completed.  Apparently he felt that the fire companies were disrespecting the Council and not showing appropriate deference to a group that was giving them money.

Let’s be clear – what we witnessed in that whole process was simple bullying, a power play to get what they wanted.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fire companies missed the deadlines and then the Council opted to ignore their own budget footnote and bless LSFR with money and cut Steel City out of the agreement. 

Now along comes the Library which apparently disrespected the Council back in the Winter of 2021 when there was some confusion over the choice and seating of a new library Board member. At the time there were none-too-subtle allusions to the amount of funding that LST provides.  Now, with the new 5-year agreement being negotiated, Carocci and Banonis start talking about withholding funding from the library. 

Don’t be misled.  This is not about saving the township money (other library affiliations would be much more expensive) or improving library services (instead they’d disappear).  This is all about control and power and bullying.  Use funding as a cudgel to get what you want; in this case, apparently, more Board representation although the explanations for what’s holding up the signing of the agreement are pretty murky.  They might not be so murky if there had been an agenda item at the Jan. 3 meeting for a library update or if the solicitor had been there during any of this discussion since he seems to be playing a pivotal role in all this back and forth.

At least one peculiar complaint seemed to involve the fact that Hellertown wanted to be credited with the in-kind services it provides to the Library each year (the Library exists on borough property and pays the tiny rent of $1) in which case Lower Saucon wanted credit for the capital investment they made when the original agreement was made.  Seems to me, they don’t need lawyers working this out.  They need a competent accountant who can explain to the Lower Saucon Council the difference between current recurring expenses and amortized capital investment. 

Is this the kind of modus operandi we can expect for at least the next two years?  Is this good government?  

Public Comments Objections and a Clarification

Now let’s look at some of the comments raised by township residents in opposition to the change in the public comment policy.  As you may recall, I predicted that Banonis would provide a lot of blah-blah about orderly meetings necessitating these changes. In addition to that blather, he hauled out the hoary Republican justification that they were just trying to run the township “like a business.”  Thankfully, one township resident pointed out that a governmental body is not a business and should not be run like one.  Citizens are not shareholders; we are constituents.  Townships provide services to residents; they don’t sell products to customers. And their constituents have the right to raise objections directly to the council.

Barrett Geyer, whose comments you can read in detail in the Saucon Source article, also made the trenchant point that despite the new policy saying that “the purpose of Public Comment is not for residents or taxpayers to engage in argument or debate with members of Council, the Administration, or other residents…,” that is in fact exactly what the point of Public Comment is.  And it’s Council’s job to sit there and listen.

There were a number of objections to the vagueness of the wording of the policy and the lack of definition of many of the terms.  That of course is a feature, not a bug, so that Banonis can interpret the policy in whatever way suits him. Even Newbie Zavacky raised the point about the definition of “groups of people” and the limit to no more than two members of a group being allowed to speak.  It was “clarified” that that applied only to “organized” groups.  So take heed – if you’re coming to comment at future meetings, don’t join a group to do it.  Just have you and your 20 friends show up as individuals so you each can get your 3 minutes to speak.

And here’s a perfect example of how you can expect Banonis to try to enforce this policy.  Your blogger rose to ask why Mrs. deLeon’s request to have an agenda item added to the Jan. 3 meeting was denied, apparently by Township Manager Leslie Huhn.  Banonis tried to shut down the comment by claiming it was more of a question than a comment and therefore impermissible.  Really?  I think not.  I informed him that I was a member of the public; it was a comment about township behavior and it dealt specifically with a non-agenda item – and then proceeded with my question.

Huhn then replied that she was the one who did not include it on the agenda.  When I asked by what authority, she replied with a section from the Lower Saucon Administrative Code.  The problem was that the section she read had nothing at all to do with who could authorize the content of the agenda.  It dealt only with the requirements of producing the agenda (i.e. typing it up) and posting it in a timely fashion.  The township manager has no authority over the content of the agenda.  Of course by the time she had finished reading all of that and Mrs. deLeon had responded to some other points Huhn had made, my 3 minutes were up.

This is what is known by the politically correct term “gaslighting.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it means deliberately misleading others by misinterpreting information that clearly means something else.  I was always taught to call it lying.  I expect we’ll see a lot more of this.

As to the 3 minutes, I would suggest that if you are commenting and someone on Council uses up your time, that you employ the Congressional response “reclaiming my time” in order to complete your thoughts.

Courtesy of Josh Popichak from Saucon Source

What Can You Do?

If this is the kind of behavior we can expect for the next two years at least, it’s going to be a long slog.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.  

Keep showing up.  Fill the Council chamber even if you say nothing all meeting. Make them know you’re watching.

Question everything.  They will try to give you as little information as possible. Keep asking.

— When they try to shut you down during public comment, keep talking. Request your additional two minutes. Then request more and make them vote on it.

Use the communication channels that Banonis himself seems to want you to.  Email Council members, often and on topic.  For some reason, it seems, you should also copy Huhn on any emails.  Not sure why unless it has something to do with forcing those emails to be available for Freedom of Information Act or Right to Know requests.  I’ll research that.

Talk to your neighbors and tell them what’s happening.

Keep asking why the meetings aren’t livestreamed.  They’re hoping you’ll forget.  During the first year of Covid, there were often 30-40 viewers on those Zoom calls, sometimes more.  Some in-person meetings over the summer had less than 10 attendees.  

As my fellow Lehigh alum, Marty Baron, so pointedly added to the Washington Post masthead, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Here at Saucon Shenanigans, we’ll keep the light on.

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

SPECIAL ELECTION EDITION

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When I began Saucon Shenanigans in July 2020, I did so in response to some absolutely appalling behavior by elected council members that I had witnessed at repeated township council meetings over the previous few months.  I thought (hoped) that if I drew attention to how inappropriate and counterproductive such behavior was that mature, responsible adults would take positive action to improve.  In my first issue I wrote “My hope is that Council behavior will become more civil, collegial and professional as the year progresses, leading to better governance and better decisions. Increased transparency would be an improvement also.”

By and large, that hasn’t happened. Obviously my first mistake was to assume that I was dealing with mature, responsible adults.

And so here we are, 15 months later, with municipal elections fast approaching on November 2 and while I did not originally expect to endorse particular candidates in elections, I have no choice but to take a position on the best choices for Township Council and, because the local school board seems to have some of the same behaviors, Saucon Valley School Board.

SAUCON SHENANIGANS ENDORSES

For Lower Saucon Township Council Victoria Opthof-Cordaro 

George Gress 

Tom Roney 

For Saucon Valley School Board

Raquel Barbera

Vivian Demko

Robert Phillips

Tracy Magnotta

If you’d like more detail on why I’ve chosen to endorse these candidates, keep reading.

There are so many reasons why Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci do not deserve your vote to continue on township council.  I’ll try to keep it as succinct as possible.

Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

This is one of the guidelines I said I would use in writing this blog. That could hardly be more pertinent now when one looks at the egregious gaslighting that’s been pouring into our mailboxes from their campaign mailers.

“Cut your Earned Income Tax by 20% in 2021”  – NO

No, they didn’t cut your earned income tax by anything.  The statute that permits the collection of an additional .25% in EIT for the purpose of purchasing land for conservation has a sunset provision.  That means that it MUST be ended after a certain period of time.  The extra .25% has been in place for 15 years.  BY LAW, it must be ended.  They had nothing to do with it except to pass the facilitating ordinance, about which they had no choice.

“Refused Council pay – saving thousands of your dollars”  – MISLEADING 

This one appeared on a particularly ugly mailer implying that the Democratic candidates were trying to reap personal financial benefits from the Township by accepting the compensation provided for council members.  The applicable township ordinance regarding council member compensation reads as follows:

“Salary of Council members. [Amended 4-18-1990 by Ord. No. 90-6; 12-27-1995 by Ord. No. 95-9] (1) Each member of the Council, elected or appointed to office on or after the effective date of this chapter, shall [emphasis added] receive the maximum annual compensation provided and allowable by the Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. § 65606, titled “Compensation of Supervisors,” and by law.”

That does not say “may”.  It says “shall”.  It is not negotiable.  In fact, I would question whether it’s in violation of the ordinance to not accept the pay or whether the council person should be paid (with taxes, etc. deducted and reportable as income) and then, if they choose, donate it to wherever they like. At the May 6, 2020, council meeting, after that question was raised, the Council passed a motion to inquire of PSATS (the state advisory organization for municipalities) if a W-2 is required based on the fact that the ordinance says “shall.” While the motion passed, there has been no subsequent report on the answer to that question. Wonder why.

Incidentally, those thousands of dollars?  Do you know what compensation is for a township council person?  $3,250 per year.  That’s right.  Adding Social Security and Medicare taxes, it comes to $3,498.62 per year.  For 3 council people, that totals $10,495.88.  Do you know what the township’s budget is?  For 2022, it’s $11,765,557 or for just the General Fund, $8,458,775.

Some quick math

$10,495.88 divided by $11,765,557 = .0009 (that’s .09%) OR

$10,495.88 divided by $8,458,775 (for the General Fund) = .0012 (that’s .12%)

They’re touting that they will save the township a whopping 0.09% of the budget by not taking their compensation.  Or in relation to the General Fund – 0.12%.  I call that a rounding error.  And let’s not forget that their Republican council colleague, Council President Sandra Yerger, does take her compensation and has not signed on to reject it. In fact, her vote sank the resolution that Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci tried to jam through in May 2020 asking all council members to voluntarily forego their compensation.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Not only is that a miniscule amount of money in the township’s budget, it also raises the question of why do we compensate people at all for the job in the first place?  Perhaps because we value their service and appreciate the time they put in?  Or perhaps because we realize that it creates a consensual agreement between the citizens and their elected representatives that implies some responsibility of the elected representative to the people they serve? When you reject the compensation, are you also rejecting that responsibility?

If Lower Saucon Township were living on the brink of bankruptcy and had significant financial issues, this might (possibly) mean something.  But it’s not. It’s a political ploy, despite what Mr. Banonis claimed at the May 6, 2020, council meeting.  From the minutes: “Mr. Banonis said we’re not campaigning. … and it’s certainly not a campaign tool.”  Really?  Then why are you mentioning it in your campaign literature?  

And why did Mr. Carocci’s motion to request voluntary refusal of council compensation include “for the remainder of 2020 and all of 2021?”  Perhaps because he knew 2021 would be an election year?

Watch what they do, not what they say.

“Support our … fire services” – ONLY AFTER THEY BULLY THEM

Anyone who watched the shenanigans around the adoption of the 2021 budget back in October 2020 has to wonder what dictionary Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci get their definition of “support” from.  By the addition of a footnote to the 2021 budget, they required that Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and Steel City Fire Company complete their merger – in the middle of a pandemic and with state resources seriously overwhelmed – before they could receive any funding in 2021.  If the fire companies missed the deadline, then funding would be cut in incremental amounts down to eventually zero.  LSFR leadership objected strenuously.

The merger didn’t happen.  The deadlines passed. No funding was approved until June when all of a sudden it was just fine that they’d missed the deadline.  After all that bullying, they went ahead and fully funded LSFR and named them sole fire services provider for the township, cutting off Steel City.  

And then this October, Mr. Carocci, who loves to tout how he’s concerned about spending the residents’ money, arbitrarily suggested adding an additional $25,000, or a 12.5% increase, to the fire company budget even though LSFR had apparently not requested that amount, at least not in any public meetings.  Those poor people at the fire company must be suffering from whiplash.

“Support our … police” – UNLESS YOU’RE IN CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS

This hypocrisy has been covered in the most recent issue of Saucon Shenanigans (see the blog archives “What’s the Rush, Boys?”).  I urge you to read the details there.  It boils down to Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, abetted by Mrs. Yerger, approved $2500 per person Covid bonuses to all township employees EXCEPT the union police officers, supposedly because the township was in negotiation with the police union over a new contract.  Of course, the details of that agreement had already been accepted the same night that the bonuses were awarded and Mr. Banonis argued that one had nothing to do with the other except, apparently, it did.    

“Sound fiscal management” – BUT ABOUT THAT $920,000 EXCESS IN THE BUDGET           

It’s astonishing that no one ever asks why for several years now the township has been adopting a budget that contains such a huge excess. Yeah, yeah, they tout that they “permanently” reduced township taxes by 20%, but why do you need an almost $1 million slush fund each year? The excuse used to be that they were stockpiling money for when the landfill gets built out, but no one’s mentioned that lately.  (See below). And any planning for future development in the township to offset such a closure seems to have flown out the window in the last year also. Again, why is that?

And FYI, there’s no such thing as “permanently” reducing township taxes.  They can raise them again whenever they want to.

Follow the Money

That’s one of the other guidelines I said I would use in writing this blog.  So let’s look at a little history.

In 2015, the IESI Bethlehem landfill needed to expand to continue operations, an expansion called the Southeastern Realignment.  That same year, a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania suddenly popped up stating that it was supporting three Republican candidates for LST council – Sandra Yerger, the current Council president, Tom Maxfield, and Bill Ross – in the May 19 primary that year. The $20,950 in contributions to the PAC came substantially ($20,000) from the landfill company (IESI Bethlehem) as well as an in-kind contribution of $500 from IESI NY Corp which oversaw the Bethlehem landfill and $450 from residents of the township. The bulk of the money was paid to Mercury Public Affairs of NY for producing mail pieces and other services. And the in-kind services were provided by Andrew Moss, an attorney who worked for Progressive Waste Solutions.

The expansion was subsequently approved.  

Fast forward to 2021.  Another landfill expansion is again on the table, this one for the Northern Realignment. And just in time for the general election, up pops our old friend, Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania, only this time with a mailing address in Crompond, NY instead of in Hellertown.  This time they’re in it for much bigger money.  This PAC has received $75,000 in contributions from Waste Connections US, Inc., a firm headquartered in The Woodlands, Texas, that happens to be the parent company of – wait for it – IESI Bethlehem landfill.  And who is this “independent expenditure organization” supporting?  Why, the three Republicans running for LST Council – Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky.

Coincidence, you say?  This iteration of the PAC reports that its chairperson is one Andrew Moss of Cortlandt Manor, NY (sound familiar?). He conveniently has also provided a mailbox for the PAC.  And the mail pieces and other campaign literature, GOTV and political consulting services, website and internet services? All the work of one Mercury Public Affairs, now apparently headquartered in Tampa, FL.  

Of course, the local developer, David Spirk, who previously headed up Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania back in 2015 has been replaced by the above-mentioned Mr. Moss as chairperson and one Adwoa Boateng as treasurer, another New York state resident.  What’s with all this NY interest in Lower Saucon? But you can find Mr. Spirk as an in-kind contributor to the Zavacky Carocci Banonis for Lower Saucon Township Council Committee along with a few other prominent area developers.  

Then if we go back to January 2021 and remember that Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci, in a very ugly reorganizational meeting, forced Mrs. deLeon, who had decades of experience working as the council landfill committee liaison and who was content to remain as the liaison, out of her position so she could be replaced by Mr. Carocci, you might start to see some dots emerging that could possibly be connected.  Because of course you wouldn’t want someone with extensive landfill experience to be the liaison to support the township’s committee.  As I recall they objected that Mrs. deLeon was too confrontational.  Wouldn’t want that.

But, there’s probably nothing there.  As we all know, PACs are not permitted to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns and that never happens (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).  

On the other hand, if you find this all plausibly coincidental, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

Put all this together and ask yourself.  Is this who you really want running this township for the next two to four years? How do the residents of Steel City, butted right up against the landfill, feel about this? Do you think your concerns will be adequately addressed? And do you really want the boorish, arrogant bullying that we’ve witnessed over the last two years to be the face that Lower Saucon presents to the world?  

As to the third member of the slate, Mrs. Zavacky, well, you’re known by the company you keep.

Vote Opthof-Cordaro – Gress – Roney

School Board Choices

I don’t usually cover the Saucon Valley School Board but I have a few comments to make in that regard since how we educate our children is essential to the future of our world.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The current board is also engaging in a good deal of gaslighting as well.  There’s been a lot of mealy-mouthed equivocating on the subject of masking, at least until Governor Wolf took the decision out of the hands of such people as serve on the current board. (Thank you, Governor Wolf.). This should have been the easiest decision they had to make.  Their first and foremost responsibility is to keep our children safe and then, once that’s taken care of, to provide them with an effective education.  And while they love to tout that they were the only district to keep in-person learning available all last year, they fail to mention that they did it by requiring masking.  So faced with the same responsibility this school year, they dithered and vacillated and came up with a convoluted solution designed to guarantee no level of safety. And now they want you to re-elect them.  No thanks.

As for the Republican candidate who claims to be a victim of racism, any white man who wakes up in this country and claims he’s a victim of racism is either delusional or too uneducated to be allowed to sit on a school board.

Vote Barbera – Demko – Phillips – Magnotta

ELECTION DAY – TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2021 – POLLS OPEN AT 7 AM.  OR RETURN YOUR MAIL-IN BALLOT BY NOVEMBER 2 AT 8 PM