And the Beat Goes On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this really the best way to run a township?

One more thing before we go

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

Source: NYTimes

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

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

Whose Park Is It, Anyway?

The Great Republican Party Pavilion Rental of 2020 has come and gone. Here’s a brief recap of the event.

Saed Hindash for LehighValley Live
  1. They came. Far more than the 100 on the original rental request. More than the 150 on the revised request. More than the 200 that is the occupancy rate for the pavilion. Possibly as many as 250.
  2. They ranted about law and order, freedom and private property.
  3. They violated multiple ordinances, tried (unsuccessfully) to intimidate the press who were on public property, and required additional work from Public Works and the police department to ensure the safety of the park.
  4. They left, taking their steaming pile of hypocrisy with them, thankfully without any violence although some attendees were clearly armed.

At least one Councilperson attended the event, Mr. Banonis, who apparently did not find it necessary to point out to the organizers of the event that they were, in fact, violating Township ordinances. Perhaps that’s because he’s the Vice-Chair of the group that organized the event but who knows. I don’t know if any other Councilpersons were there.

An email from Carol Schneider on behalf of the Township to Lee Snover of the organizing sponsor dated the day of the event reminded Ms. Snover that the pavilion had a capacity of 200 and that they were expected to adhere to the rules and regulations for use of the pavilion which Ms. Schneider referenced in the letter. She especially pointed out Rule #17, to wit:

No person shall commit any of the following acts within any Township Park:

17. Posting or displaying any sign, banner, or advertisement of a political or commercial nature.

Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

Ms. Schneider also reminded Ms. Snover of the requirement to comply with “PRPS guidelines that were previously provided and CDC guidelines.” Needless to say, Rule 17 was flagrantly violated and there was little in the way of mask-wearing or social distancing per PRPS or CDC guidelines within the pavilion itself.

Earlier in the day, Public Works employees were seen cordoning off areas of the park, presumably for parking control, and Chief Barndt had already indicated that additional police personnel had been engaged for the time of the event. None of this comes for free. I believe that Mrs. deLeon has requested information on the exact costs to the Township of this event as well as a review of the regulations for pavilion rentals vs. event approvals for the October 7 meeting.

It is reassuring that there will be follow-up and accountability for how this event was handled. Quite a point was made at the Township Council meeting on September 16 about the fact that this was a “private event” and that there was no difference from other private rentals of the pavilion. Let’s put to rest the concept that this was a private event. A private event is one where specific attendees are invited to attend by the event sponsor, the number of attendees is under the sponsor’s control, and the sponsor has some control and/or responsibility for the behavior of the attendees. Obviously none of these conditions pertained. Ms. Huhn and Mr. Treadwell said they had reviewed prior pavilion rentals and had not found occasions when they had been declined. I wonder how many of those prior rentals required Public Works to make preparations for parking or for the police department to hire additional officers?

All of which brings me to a much larger point. Just whose parks are “public parks” and what is the appropriate way to view their usage? Let’s consider a few points:

1. Who Should Have Priority?

The current Parks and Athletic Facilities Use Policy currently includes this explanation of how use of the parks is to be prioritized: “It is the policy of Lower Saucon Township to prioritize the use of park facilities to non-profit and not-for-profit organizations in the Saucon Valley. The Township has established four (4) categories of users which shall be followed in the allocation and scheduling of park facilities.”

The four categories are: 1) the Township itself, 2) local recreation providers, 3) local civic, business and/or educational groups, and 4) other contracted organizations (basically everybody who doesn’t fall into categories 1, 2, and 3). This seems like a reasonable approach and under this structure, the sponsoring organization for the September 17 event definitely falls into Category 4, the lowest priority requester of facilities.

2. How Do You Determine Appropriateness of Use by a Group?

The Use Policy continues with this information on how it will be determined that groups can use the parks: “The Township reserves the right to set priorities for usage based upon, but not limited to, the following: the number of participants, the residency of the participants, and the overall impact of the group or organization on the recreational needs of the Township.”

What happens when the requesting group misrepresents the size of its group? What happens when the purpose of the event causes widespread community concern about safety issues? What happens when the requesting group has no control over the behavior of its attendees? Shouldn’t these be taken into consideration?

3. Who Pays the Bill?

Township parks are maintained by the tax dollars of the people who live in the township. When the township incurs additional cost for the maintenance and safety of the parks, as happened with the Sept. 17 event, that money comes out of the taxes paid by the citizens if there is no prior agreement with the group using the parks. When a group is permitted to simply “rent the pavilion,” there is no included acknowledgement of the need to pay for additional Township costs unless there is specific damage caused by the event, in which case the Township is entitled to recoup repair costs. When a group requests an Event permit or a Special Events permit, the group accepts responsibility for the additional costs as well as a more stringent liability agreement.

4. What Kinds of Activities Are Undesirable?

I find it interesting that there is a Rule 17 in the Rules and Regulations already. It indicates that at some point the Township Council specifically determined that blatant politicking and obvious commercial activities were not an appropriate use of the parks. In other words, the basis for the refusal of the rental of the pavilion was already inherent in the rules for the use of the pavilion for this particular event. And in fact, Rule 17 makes sense from the township citizen’s perspective. If you have paid tax dollars to maintain a recreational area for you and your community, do you want it to be used for either commercial money-making activities or for partisan political events? Shouldn’t a citizenry be allowed to draw the line at what is permissible on “their” property? Certainly a political event to hear speakers rant does not qualify as a “recreational” use of the property.

An attendee attempts to block the press from photographing the event on public property. Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

What Does All This Mean?

I hope that the Township Council takes this event as a learning experience. It seems clear that there has already been considerable thought as to the appropriateness of political activity on public park property. It is not a matter of which political party is sponsoring the event. Public tax dollars should not be used to underwrite the costs of political events of this nature. This type of event should be held on private property where the property owner can assume the liability of any safety issues and the costs of additional preparation and security.

If the Township reviews its policy and decides that political parties should be allowed to use its facilities, then they should be charged a market rate for their use along with the costs of additional services provided by the Township such as parking and enhanced security. The Township should require an Event permit that requires Council approval in order to remove the Township Manager from the awkward position of having to make a judgement of appropriateness. And the Township should be prepared to enforce its prohibitions against “signs, banners and advertisements.” Otherwise it’s just a toothless dragon.

Public Discussion

If you were concerned about how this entire affair was handled or if you would like to see the Council take action to prevent putting citizens in this position again, Mrs. deLeon has requested that this issue be placed on the agenda of the next Township Council meeting on October 7 at 7 PM. If you would like to have your input heard, please plan to be at the Zoom meeting that evening. You can register to attend the meeting here.

Saed Hindash for LehighValleyLive

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, October 7 – 7 PM

Media Resource Links:

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/mccloskeys-draw-large-crowd-of-trump-supporters-for-lower-saucon-rally/ar-BB199Pjz?ocid=sms

https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/swingcounty/2020/09/in-trump-stump-rally-lehigh-valley-republicans-cheer-on-the-mccloskeys-who-pointed-guns-at-st-louis-protesters.html