“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”– Charles Dickens
It’s been quite a week in the Saucon Valley. Let’s pick up where we left off on Wednesday.
Wednesday evening January 26 at 7 PM brought the Hellertown Borough Council special meeting to discuss the situation with the Hellertown Area Library. The 250 or so attendees via a hybrid meeting of in-person, Zoom and Facebook livestream heard Mayor David Heintzelman tell a far different story than the fairy tale that was spun by Lower Saucon Council President Jason Banonis the previous Wednesday. The main difference was that Mayor Heintzelman brought the receipts – meeting dates and attendee names, email exchanges with dates and times, records of phone calls – a complete accounting of an attempt to reach consensus in plenty of time before the year end expiration of the tripartite Library-Borough-Township agreement. It’s a bit difficult to honestly claim that Hellertown “went dark” when there’s all that data. Facts, pesky things.
Borough President Tom Rieger sandwiched the mayor’s timeline between a history of the Library’s creation and existence in Hellertown and a well-conceived plan for how to work the Borough’s way out of the chaos that Lower Saucon’s actions threw them into. But before the Council took up consideration of Mr. Rieger’s proposal, he first opened the floor to public comment by (wait for it) the public – translation: anyone who had come to the meeting in person or via Zoom (livestream does not permit two-way communication) could comment at whatever length they found necessary. Now there was a novel concept for anyone who has recently attended a Lower Saucon Township Council meeting where comment is limited to LST residents and taxpayers ONLY at no more than 3 minutes each and in carefully sequestered time periods.
Amazingly, with so many attendees and almost an hour’s worth of commenters, there was nowhere near the chaos that had reigned at the LST meeting the previous week. Everyone was treated with respect and given a chance to share their views.
When everyone had had a chance to speak, Mr. Rieger explained again his proposal for how to move forward with the Library. As he so succinctly put it, “Hellertown Borough Council cannot control the actions of another public governmental body.” Lower Saucon’s actions had put Hellertown Borough in the untenable situation of being a signatory to a tripartite agreement that was due to take effect on February 1, 2022, that had been signed by only two of the parties and rejected by the third. It was, in other words, an invalid agreement. To remedy the situation and provide Hellertown residents with the library services that they want and are willing to pay for, it was imperative that a new two-way agreement be drafted for the Borough and the Library to sign to cover services going forward.
To that end, the Hellertown Borough staff was authorized to draft a new agreement directly with the Library to be presented to the Council hopefully for consideration and/or adoption on February 1. That two-year agreement would also stipulate the funding to be provided by Hellertown at the same level as 2021 as well as an additional $75,000 emergency allocation from the borough’s American Rescue Plan funds as the Library reassesses its budget and the services it can provide. Let me point out that that additional $75,000 to the library could, with the support of the Borough council that was voiced that evening, possibly provide the basis for library access for all the school children of the Saucon Valley School District, including those whose parents live in Lower Saucon and would not otherwise be eligible. The council also urged consideration of a mechanism to provide veterans in the Township with library access who would otherwise be cut off. All of that is just a flat-out generous gesture.
Mr. Rieger also added one prudent recommendation to his statement. “It is my opinion that our community vision is no longer shared with Lower Saucon Township Council and that must be addressed. I believe the time has come to re-exam every joint project, committee, organization and intermunicipal agreements we have with Lower Saucon Township.”
And the people said, “Amen.”
While I doubt that it felt like it to the library and borough leadership who had to slog through this past week and grapple with these unwanted problems, it was in fact one of the best of times I have seen in local government in a long time. Hellertown Borough leadership rationally analyzed the situation they’d been thrown into, honestly assessed what actions were in the best interests of their constituents first and foremost, laid out the options for their people and charted a course forward that puts them back in control of their own fate. The Library leadership made those same calculations the day before Hellertown did.
For those of us who live in Lower Saucon, you could posit that it was the worst of times. In four days we will lose our library access as we know it. We have township leadership which seems almost completely divorced from the wishes of its constituents and seems unperturbed by that disjunction. And did I mention? The township manager resigned on Wednesday.
But I prefer to see the glass as half full. Hellertown is now fully aware of the character of the leadership of the Township and so they will be more likely to be careful of any future partnerships they enter into. If there is to be any hope of broader community collaboration, it can only be successful if both sides enter an agreement with transparency and honesty.
And perhaps more Lower Saucon residents will be aware of the problems that Saucon Shenanigans has been trying to alert them to over the last 19 months. Events like this last week don’t just “happen.” They build over time until they finally erupt into view. But there are always fissures of smoke and noxious gas that seep out before the explosion, that give hints of the dysfunction underneath. If there is ever to be hope of a successful Saucon Valley that includes Hellertown and Lower Saucon working in true partnership, perhaps it’s a prerequisite that all of this mess be cleared away.
I agree with Tom Rieger. The best could very well be yet to come. For Hellertown and the Library, I suspect it will come fairly quickly. For LST? We’ll see.