Last week’s Lower Saucon Township Council meeting had a decidedly different vibe to it. It was much more low-key, ticking along at a brisk pace, checking things off on the agenda. There was a resolution observing International Firefighters’ Day on May 4, a handful of resident requests for variances, a lot line adjustment, some administrative resolutions. All dispensed with fairly rapidly with 4-0 votes (Mrs. deLeon was absent).
There was the adoption of a Feral Cat Trap/Neuter/Return agreement whereby the Township will provide vouchers that will cover the $35 cost for residents who trap a feral cat and take it to No Nonsense Neutering for the procedure. Hopefully, this will resolve the feral cat problem in Steel City that Ms. Civitella brought to the Council’s attention earlier this year. Ms. Huhn was appropriately thanked for her rapid and effective response in providing the information necessary to deal with this issue.
In tax-related news, the filing date for EIT final returns was moved to May 17 so that it will correspond to the Federal and State tax due dates. No penalties or interest will be collected on any taxes paid by May 17.
Seasonal workers for Public Works will be paid $14.63 per hour and the Police Department has received its spiffy new uniforms!
As I said, a fairly uneventful meeting. So uneventful, in fact, that at several points when Mrs. Yerger requested a motion for an agenda item, there was an awkward pause before another Council member so moved. None of the usual two-step jockeying to be the mover or seconder. Mrs. Yerger herself even moved at least one item that I recall.
But as we’ve come to learn, it’s the non-agenda items that often generate the most interest. That was the case on April 21 as well.
First, Mrs. Stauffer provided a detailed report on the activities of the Hellertown Area Library (HAL) during this past year as they coped with all of the challenges of Covid-19. She provided data on library usage and descriptions of alternative programming that outlined a robust response to the pandemic. Mrs. Stauffer is the Council’s liaison to the Library.
Then, in the public comment period on non-agenda items for non-residents only (the very last item on the agenda), Julia Sefton, President of the HAL Board addressed the Council in response to the variety of issues that had been raised at the previous Council meeting on April 7. She outlined the normal reorganization process of the Board and how it was disrupted this year by both Covid and by LST Council’s desire to advertise separately for the one Board opening. She explained that they are an all-volunteer board and that they are perhaps not as skilled in parliamentary procedure as they should be. She acknowledged that allowing outgoing Board member Janie Hecker to make a motion at their previous Board meeting was incorrect, although she did point out that Ms. Hecker had every right to attend that meeting as a private citizen. She just should not have been recognized as a Board member or allowed to participate as such.
Ms. Sefton also made it clear that there was no disrespect meant to the LST Council by any of the HAL Board’s actions. She apologized for any consternation that might have caused and reiterated HAL’s appreciation for the substantial support provided to the Library by the Township. She committed to the Board’s taking a closer look at their procedures and correcting anything that might run counter to accepted practice.
Attorney Treadwell volunteered his time to help the Board work through their processes in conjunction with the Hellertown Council solicitor if that would be useful. Ms. Sefton graciously accepted. Mr. Banonis then said that it wasn’t necessary for the HAL Board to apologize and that he appreciated their taking the time to explain what had happened at the last HAL Board meeting. He and Mr. Carocci then fell all over themselves explaining how valuable the Library is to the community. Quite a turnaround from two weeks prior.
With that, the meeting adjourned in almost record time.
And then I realized what had been happening. I’d noticed at the beginning of the meeting that there was a larger-than-usual number of Zoom attendees. I didn’t think much of it since sometimes variance requests and zoning issues attract support people for the petitioner (lawyers, engineers, neighbors) and they tend to drop off when that agenda item is completed. But they were all still there at the end of the meeting. Unusual. Until someone pointed out that those additional people included the Mayor of Hellertown, Hellertown’s council-appointed liaison to the HAL Board, and a good many members of the HAL Board, obviously there to witness the report by Mrs. Stauffer, the comments by Ms. Sefton and the subsequent response.
I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what effect all of those witnesses might have had. But I’ll make one observation of my own. Neither Mr. Banonis nor Mr. Carocci took the opportunity in this feel-good mutual Library admiration moment to apologize for the belittling remarks and accusations that they leveled at Mrs. Stauffer on April 7.
Ah well, baby steps.
UPDATE: In my last blog, I promised to inquire about what differences there might be between the “Council packet” that Council members receive and the supporting material that is posted on the township website along with the meeting agenda. Ms. Huhn said that there should be no difference in those materials – everything in the Council packet should also be on the website. She also asked that if someone notices a discrepancy to let her know. She did point out, and she was absolutely correct in this, that she said in the April 7 meeting that the background material on the Planning Commission nominee – Mr. Woosnam – had been EMAILED to the Council members, not included in the Council packet. So my apologies to Ms. Huhn for incorrectly reporting what she had said about the distribution of Mr. Woosnam’s information.
I did request, on behalf of those of us who are playing along at home, that in the future that kind of information, when emailed, would also be available to Zoom meeting attendees.
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, May 5, 2021, 6:30 PM
Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021
*SIGH* As I sat through the April 7 Lower Saucon Township Council meeting, I was thinking how lovely it was that Spring had arrived and that most of the items under discussion at the meeting were about various activities returning to some semblance of normal and of the parks opening back up. I was thinking that commenting on this meeting would be a refreshing change from the usual snide remarks and ugly behavior that has come to be typical. Boy, was I wrong!
Let’s start with the pleasant part of the evening. McMahon Associates updated their work with the township on the WalkWorks Grant. They are at the point where they are soliciting input from the residents on ways that we can make the township more accessible to walking, biking and other means of transportation besides cars. They have created a website at traisr.net/LST where you can enter your suggestions for improved walk/bike-ability and pinpoint the location on the map. There are about 15 comments there, as of this writing. I’m sure there are many others who have noticed places where changes would be helpful in improving access and safety. I encourage everyone to take a look and provide your comments now. The entire project must be completed by September, so early input is a good idea if you want your contributions considered.
And yes, Jason Banonis, I’m sure that this is exactly what McMahon has done on their previous projects, and I’m sure it has worked well. But as someone who has worked successfully in the same industry for 13 years, I know that any consultant worth her salt is open to suggestions for improvements or other ideas for consideration as Ms. Manbeck, the McMahon consultant, acknowledged. Your knee-jerk defense of McMahon’s approach was unnecessary and fairly pathetic, probably causing people to wonder why someone with no background in that area would need to jump to their defense. So nice job – you undercut exactly what you were trying to bolster.
On to other pleasant things. The Community Center will be conducting a truncated summer recreation program, limited mostly by ongoing Covid concerns. But it will happen, as opposed to last summer when it had to be completely canceled. The Hellertown-Lower Saucon Chamber received approval for a Movie Night at Town Hall Park on July 23. The Township will be applying for a couple of grants to assist with the improvement of trails in Polk Valley Park.
There was extensive discussion of the possibility of implementing a feral cat TNR (trap, neutral, release) program in the Township in response to some significant concerns that had been raised at the February meeting by Laura Civitella. Ms. Huhn provided quite a bit of information on the types of programs available in the Valley and what other municipalities are doing to cope with this difficult issue. It was clear that there will be ongoing discussion as to the cost and feasibility of implementing a program and Ms. Civitella seemed quite happy with the township’s response to her concerns.
From here on, things go fairly rapidly downhill, so if you don’t want to muck around in the swamp, you can stop reading and pretend that LST is well-run by a group of mature civic leaders. Of course, you’d be wrong.
First, Tom Carocci tries to amend the March meeting minutes to report something that wasn’t actually said. Mrs. deLeon had stated that Ms. Hecker was not on the Hellertown Area Library board when the current director was appointed. This was apparently determined after the meeting to be incorrect. So Tom tries to get the minutes changed to say that Ms. Hecker WAS on the HAL board when the current director was appointed. For one thing, this had exactly zero importance in relation to the topic under discussion at the time and, second, you cannot amend meeting minutes to say something that wasn’t said. Meeting minutes have to accurately reflect what was stated. If what was stated is incorrect, that point can be made at the next meeting and then the minutes of that subsequent meeting (the one on April 7) will reflect the correction of the fact without changing the accurate reporting of the original meeting. Nevertheless, Mrs. Yerger was about to accept the incorrectly corrected minutes when Attorney Treadwell intervened to prevent the error. Does anyone even bother to read Robert’s Rules of Order except for the Solicitor? And me?
Next up we have another in the continuing saga of appointing people to township boards without providing any information to the community. There was a vacancy created on the Planning Committee. I believe a couple of people applied for the position. Ms. Huhn, as part of her manager’s report, recommended that Doug Woosnam be appointed to the position. The Council voted him in 5-0. Here’s the problem. I believe it was Ms. Huhn who said that the applications from the applicants were included in “your council packet.” But they were not included in any of the material posted online with the agenda. I know. I looked through all 146 pages at least 2 times, partly because I was trying to find out what the gentleman’s last name was since no one bothers to spell it out for listeners or put a slide up on the screen. And it’s not on the agenda as an item for the meeting. This was the same problem with the person appointed to the Library Board last month – no information, not even a spelling of her name, which turns out to be Sara Phillips, not Sharon Whoever.
I’m wondering what the difference is between the “council packet” and what we get to see online. With the exception of items that will be handled in an executive session, why should there be any difference? Perhaps you’re wondering the same thing, Gentle Reader. I’ll ask.
And now things get really ugly. In a standard maneuver, Jason or Tom (in this case Jason) raises an issue very late in the meeting under the “reports” section that rightfully should have been discussed as an agenda item. But by not making it an agenda item, he can be sure that no one he’s about to attack will be able to respond to the issue because they have no idea it’s coming. You’ll recall the same tactic was used back in October regarding the directive to the fire companies to complete their merger or risk losing funding – introduced late in the meeting in the “reports” section, not as a separate agenda item, no time for the fire companies to prepare a response.
This time it’s about the recent Library Board meeting following the Township’s informing the Library Board that they were going to solicit additional applicants and prior to the Township’s voting on adding Sara Phillips instead of the Board’s recommended nominee, Janie Hecker, to the Board to represent LST. Apparently the Library Board allowed Janie Hecker to remain on the Board through the Feb. 23 meeting since no replacement for her had been appointed, even though her term had officially expired on December 31, 2020. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that they figured the LST council would do what they’ve always done and appoint the person that the HAL Board had recommended, so there would be no lapse in representation. But the Council didn’t (see last month’s Saucon Shenanigans). They appointed Ms. Phillips instead and so now Jason’s shorts are all in a twist. The Library is showing “disregard for the taxpayer and the money that’s being provided to them.” He doesn’t know how they can do this. “Why doesn’t this organization follow basic parliamentary rules?” I don’t know, Jason. Why doesn’t the township council do the same? (see above)
In case you’re confused, here’s the timeline, roughly:
HAL Board tells LST they recommend Janie Hecker for the position (sometime before LST meeting on Mar. 3)
LST (not clear on whose authority) informs HAL Board that they will be advertising and seeking additional applicants
HAL Board cannot hold new year organizational meeting because appointment is up in the air
Feb. 23 – HAL Board holds regular meeting, allowing Janie Hecker to participate
Mar. 3 – LST Council decides not to accept HAL’s recommendation and appoints Sara Phillips instead
Mar. 23 – Ms. Phillips attends first HAL Board meeting as LST representative
April 7 – Tom says that all of this means that LST is being held in “low disregard” and what are they doing for the $100,000 per year that the Township gives them.
Now all of this might just be chalked up to really poor communication between the Board and the Council that has now been resolved except for two other components.
One is Jason and Tom’s continued reference to the $100,000 that LST provides to HAL and their demand that the township look into this more thoroughly. Is this prologue to an attempt to defund the library, just like the budget footnote threatens to defund the fire company? One thing I have learned over this past year is that when Jason uses words like “we must be stewards of the taxpayer’s money” or to similar effect, there’s more to it than appropriate fiscal responsibility. This guy has more tells than John Boehner’s latest memoir.
The second component – and this is the really ugly part – was the series of ad hominem (or more correctly ad feminem) attacks on Mrs. Stauffer as the council liaison to the Library. Jason questioned how she could have let such a thing happen. Had she reported this to Ms. Huhn? Why didn’t she step in and prevent Ms. Hecker from voting? He seriously impugned her capabilities to be the liaison to the library, parroted, of course, by Tom at every opportunity. (Tom, you will recall, REALLY wanted to be the library liaison and was clearly upset last year when Mrs. Stauffer was chosen instead.)
Jason said he didn’t expect that Mrs. Stauffer could provide an answer to this at the meeting (duh – you sprang it on her with no warning). When Mrs. Stauffer tried to respond to this deluge of accusations, he then hit the low point for the year as he made a motion to “mute Mrs. Stauffer until I have finished my remarks,” immediately seconded by Tom (Abbot and Costello didn’t have a better sense of timing). I would say the reaction of the other council members was stunned, followed by a chorus of “you can’t do that” and “that’s against the Sunshine Law” and eventually it was dropped, not withdrawn, dropped. (cf. “why doesn’t this organization follow basic parliamentary rules?”)
So let’s pause at this point and observe that the stench of hypocrisy here is worse than the odor from a poorly managed landfill on a hot July afternoon. You’ll recall that back at the June 3, 2020, Council meeting, Mrs. deLeon was chastised by Jason and Tom for interfering in a report being put together about the landfill. What she did was suggest that the report include a picture that represented how methane leaks from landfills (which is different from how methane is vented into the air at, say, a wastewater treatment facility) so that people who read the report would better understand what the problems are. But no, that was overstepping her authority as simply a liaison to the Committee. She had no right to offer that kind of input or request that picture be inserted. And eventually they forced her out as liaison to the Landfill Committee.
Fast forward to April. Now Mrs. Stauffer is chastised for not inserting herself (as liaison) into the Library Board’s actions and preventing Ms. Hecker from voting. And apparently she should have reported this all, somehow, to Ms. Huhn? Let me point out that Mrs. Stauffer does not work for nor does she report to Ms. Huhn and it is not dereliction of her duty that she didn’t report Ms. Hecker’s involvement in the meeting to her. Ms. Huhn had no authority to do anything about it anyway.
Second, Mrs. Stauffer is not the HAL Board’s parliamentarian. It is not her responsibility to be sure that the HAL Board conducts its business correctly. It is her responsibility to report the Library’s concerns and actions to the township council. That’s what a liaison does (look it up!). In fact, I doubt she has any authority to prevent the HAL Board from taking any action since she is just one vote among many.
All of which leads back to the question – what’s really going on here? Is this trumped-up indignation to begin to lay the case for defunding or reducing funding for the library? Or is it just more of the same nasty, middle-school playground “gotcha” animus we’ve seen pointed at Mrs. Stauffer ever since the Court chose her last year instead of someone else’s pet candidate and the attempt to unseat her failed? At one point Jason said he’d like “to ask for a little bit of courtesy.” As far as I can see, he hasn’t extended any courtesy to Mrs. Stauffer for more than a year so I don’t see how he merits any right now, at least not without an apology to Mrs. Stauffer first.
Do you know who I feel badly for? The Saucon Valley HS students who serve as junior council members. They are exposed to these horrendous role models of community “leaders” meeting after meeting. I hope they are appalled and that they are not taking this as appropriate examples of how elected public servants should act. Because if they think this is the right way to behave, we’re all doomed.
For months I have tried to give Jason and Tom the benefit of the doubt but this is ridiculous. These are grown men acting like spoiled brats whenever they don’t get their own way or like bullies in the school yard picking on girls. Mrs. Stauffer will be on the Council until the end of the year. She’s not running for re-election. There are 15 more meetings left. Grow up.
One More Thing Before We Go
PRO-TIP: If you think you’d like to run for township council, perhaps you should attend at least a few meetings before you through your hat in the ring. It’s never been easier since they’ve been on Zoom all year. It would go a long way toward improving a candidate’s credibility.
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 6:30 PM
Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
Remember the brouhaha back in the fall about the use of the Township pavilion by a political party for a rally? Remember how it surfaced concerns about inconsistencies and deficiencies in the pavilion rental policy and the parks usage policy? Remember the concerns that were raised about the enforcement of the rules and regulations regarding both pavilion rental and special events? Remember how thorough discussion of it got tabled sine die because:
Budget season was coming up and that work was far more important than hashing out problems with the parks policy, and
There was a request of Ms. Huhn to get additional information on the policies and procedures of other municipalities and how they handle similar information, and
The Parks and Recreation Committee wanted to study the issue and weigh in on what they felt would be an appropriate solution?
Well, the issue reappeared as an agenda item at the March 3 Township Council meeting. Was there information presented about the policies and procedures of other municipalities and how they handle similar information? Not that I heard. Were there recommendations from the Parks and Recreation Committee on how to correct some of the inconsistencies and deficiencies? If there were, they were not included in the council packet that was posted on-line accompanying the agenda.
What was presented was a copy of the current “Request for Pavilion Rental” form with the words “Is this a political event? Yes / No” handwritten on it with an asterisk indicating that a political event required a Special Event Permit and a copy of the current “Special Event Application” with “political event” also handwritten under “type of event”. Ms. Huhn also stated with corroboration from Attorney Treadwell that in the future the township would be putting up “No Parking” signs in order to be able to enforce the regulation that no one can park on the grass.
In the comment period, there were questions raised about how the regulations would be enforced, since they clearly were not at the September 17 event. Attorney Treadwell pointed to the “No Parking” signs as the solution. When questioned about the harassment problems about which resident Stephanie Brown complained in person to a police officer at the event and that she subsequently raised at the October 7 council meeting and the flouting of park regulations regarding political banners and crowd size raised by resident Victoria Opthof at the same meeting, Attorney Treadwell deferred to Chief Barndt, who was not at the council meeting, as to why no action was taken that evening. Treadwell’s reply seemed to boil down to the police having discretion as to what complaints they want to respond to or not and since they didn’t respond, too bad. Gee, I hope if someone breaks into my house that the police use their discretion to decide to come arrest the guy.
Back at the October 7 meeting, resident and Parks and Rec Board member Katrina Schreefer had raised concerns that she had attended a Parks and Rec meeting on October 5 at which the Board seemed reluctant to take up the issues of park regulation enforcement. In the minutes of the subsequent Parks and Rec meeting on November 2, the Board moved a recommendation to Council that they put a capacity limitation on each park and pavilion and if the application exceeds that number, it automatically requires a special event application. Nothing was mentioned about that at the Council meeting on March 3. As Ms. Schreefer had brought up in October, the Parks and Rec Board did not recommend any other changes specifically to deal with regulation enforcement. They have not addressed any of these issues since.
And while the Parks and Rec Board seems to be very impressed with how detailed their rules and regulations are, let me share with you one sentence from the Fees & Charges section of the Parks & Athletic Facilities Use Policy, dated 6/19/13:
“Any event or activity which the Fee Schedule of this section indicates as a “Special Event” shall be subject to the provisions of the Special Event Permit Application procedures (under development).” [emphasis added]
Really? Under development since 2013? That sound you hear is the can being kicked down the road.
One other peculiar action took place at the March 3 meeting. There was an agenda item to appoint a new member to the Hellertown Area Library Board because of the resignation of a member whose term runs through 12/31/21. Mrs. Stauffer, as liaison to the Library from the township, nominated Janie Hecker who had been recommended by the Library Board for the position. Apparently past practice has been for the township to accept the Board’s recommendation and elect that person to the Board. Also in the past, the Board has advertised the position and historically there have been few applicants, usually only one. But this time, when the Board sent over its recommendation, the Township, through Ms. Huhn, informed the HAL Board that the township would be advertising and conducting their own search. This apparently resulted in two additional applicants.
Now it was hard to follow what process was used, but apparently Ms. Huhn did advertise the position and sent some or all of the information from the applicants over to the HAL Board. It didn’t seem as if anyone in the Township office or anyone on the Township Council had actually interviewed any of the applicants and it was unclear if the HAL Board had interviewed any of the applicants either, although they knew the person they had recommended from her prior service. There was no information on any of the applicants (cover letters, resumes, etc.) provided in the documents that were publicly posted with the meeting’s agenda.
Instead, there was a lot of huffing and puffing from Mr. Carocci and Mr. Banonis about how the Board’s recommended nominee had previously served on the Board and the Township needed new blood and someone else should have a chance and it was the Township’s right to appoint whomever it chose (that part is correct) and they didn’t have to take the HAL Board’s recommendation (also true) and on and on and on. Mr. Banonis, in particularly high dudgeon, claimed that the other two applicants were being “shunned” by the Council in favor of the HAL Board’s recommendation. He then took the opportunity to present in detail one of the applicant’s credentials, someone named Sharon, last name unintelligible over Zoom. He neglected, however, to mention anything significant about the other applicant’s credentials. Perhaps she should feel “shunned.”
Long story short, Janie Hecker’s nomination was voted down and Sharon Whoever was elected to the HAL Board. But there are two larger issues here that should be considered.
First, one of Sharon’s credentials is that she is actually an employee of – wait for it – the Bethlehem Area Public Library. You remember the BAPL. That’s the library that the Township Council quite a few years ago went to great pains to divorce us from, over the objections of a large number of LST residents, myself included. But when Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon raised the issue of this being a possible conflict of interest, Mrs. Yerger pooh-poohed the whole idea as ridiculous. After all, why would there be a problem that someone on the Hellertown Library Board actively works for the library from which the Township had so acrimoniously separated?
Second, and more importantly, is the question of how do these kinds of decisions get made in the Township? Who told Ms. Huhn to advertise for the HAL Board vacancy? I’m sure she didn’t get up one morning and just decide to do it on her own. So where did the direction come from? It wasn’t by a vote of Council. There has been no agenda item to that effect in the past year. It wasn’t from Mrs. Stauffer, the Council liaison to the Library, who might be the obvious person to make that request. So who decided that, this time, LST had to do its own advertising and find its own Library Board member?
And who interviewed the applicants? Who vetted their credentials? Who on the Township Council knows enough about the workings of the library to be able to make a credible judgement about who is the best fit? What about the mysterious third applicant? Who is she and wasn’t she entitled to a thoughtful consideration also?
This is a recurring theme with this Council. Last July, there were two openings on the Zoning Board that were handled in a similar manner – five applicants, no interviews in public or private, no vetting beyond Ms. Huhn’s confirmation that they were all township residents, no questions permitted, just the bulldozing of two candidates who suited Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci with Mrs. Yerger again playing yes-person. For more detail, you can read Saucon Shenanigans from July 25, 2020.
Here’s the point. This is not how you get the best government for your township or the best volunteers for township committees and boards. This is not transparency. This is not following an agreed-upon process. This stinks of outdated, backroom cronyism – who you know and who knows you.
Sharon Whoever may turn out to be a fine member of the HAL Board. The two Zoning Board members may be doing a bang-up job. But might one of the other people have been better? We’ll never know. In fact, we’ll never even have had a chance to make the comparisons because this Council made sure you wouldn’t see the process or the alternatives.
Is this really the best way to run a township?
One more thing before we go
This isn’t directly related to the township council but it does have to do with Saucon Valley and the kind of shenanigans that go on around here. Why, in the middle of another dramatic escalation in Covid case counts in Northampton County, has the Saucon Valley School District school board returned to in-person meetings? Where do they think we live? Texas?
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, April 7, 2021, 6:30 PM
Next Township Elections – Primary: Tuesday, May 18, 2021. General: Tuesday, November 2, 2021