A Tale of Two Meetings

October played host to not two but three meetings of the Lower Saucon Township Council. Two regular meetings were held on October 7 and October 21. The third meeting, on October 28, was a meeting specifically to review a draft budget for 2021. I’ll report on the third meeting in a subsequent blog.

I took off for a much-needed vacation the morning following the dumpster fire that passed for a Council meeting on October 7 and returned only shortly before the meeting on October 21. Since I had no intention of imposing memories of the October 7 meeting on my valuable away-time, I’m addressing both the October meetings together.

Was It the Length?

After a couple months of relatively collegial and productive Council meetings, the October 7 meeting proved that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Perhaps it was the length of the meeting (almost 4 solid hours) or the tediousness of the Bethlehem Landfill presentation or the inflammatory nature of the discussion on the pavilion rental policy, but the backbiting, mansplaining, belittling, bullying behavior reared its ugly head the longer the meeting dragged on.

The first bumps in the road appeared around the question of whether the Council should take a position on the Landfill’s current filing with the Zoning Hearing Board. The legal twists and turns of these landfill discussions are a bit difficult for the average citizen to follow. Apparently they were asking the Council for a special exception so that they would not have to install a berm on a realignment of the landfill. About this, there was unanimity as the Council voted 5-0 to approve the exception.

From there, the discussion progressed to what position the Council would take regarding the current filings the landfill company has before the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) and the Planning Commission regarding the Northern Realignment. What became concerning in the discussion was the seeming lack of trust regarding how the Zoning Hearing Board operates. Mrs. deLeon wanted legal representation from the Council in front of the Hearing Board even if the Council voted to take “no position” on the filings. Mr. Treadwell indicated that would not be necessary.

The discussion went round and round with no one clearly articulating what the relationship is between the ZHB and the Council. Isn’t the ZHB appointed by the Council? As such, don’t they in some way represent the Council? Aren’t they separately responsible for making sure the landfill company abides by the law? Isn’t that why the ZHB has its own solicitor? There were no answers to any of these questions and when they finally voted 4-1 to take no position on the landfill company’s filings and to not send a solicitor, the reasoning for the decision was as clear as mud.

Ah, the Pavilion Rental Policy

After a few more mundane items, we landed at the discussion on the pavilion rental policy. A thoroughly reasonable motion was made by Mrs. Yerger to table the discussion until Ms. Huhn could obtain additional information on how other municipalities handle the kind of situation that arose from the Republican Party renting the pavilion under the guise of a “private” party. In addition, the Parks and Recreation Board had requested that it be included in future discussions on park rental policies and they had not had time to review the rules and regulations before that night’s meeting. Also, given the anger that had built up around the event, it was certainly a good idea to let that cool off a bit.

But a couple problems arose during the public comment.

First, comments wandered far afield from the question of whether to table the motion. Mrs. Yerger made no attempt to rein them in.

Second, the comments made by township residents about actions taken – or not taken – by the police at the event were heard but not responded to nor was there any indication of a forum where such troubling complaints could be dealt with.

Third, Mr. Banonis refused to respond to the question by Mrs. Stauffer of whether he was at the event, even though there were published photos showing him there, except to say that what he does on his personal time is really no one’s business “of this Council or you, Kristen.” Why can’t he admit he was there? And really, is that personal dig necessary?

Fourth, there was no specific date set for follow-up on this subject. Apparently with budget season upon us, it would be too heavy a lift for Council to consider this at the same time. But new season rentals begin to be accepted in January. Shouldn’t this be close to a resolution by then?

When Is a Report More than a Report?

Then we arrived at the portion of the meeting where the Council and Staff reports are heard. By now it was well past 10 PM. And Mr. Carocci presented three motions regarding budgeting for the fire companies that were not on the agenda and were not available for review. There were two that were put up on the screen. The third was not readable by the at-home audience.

The gist of the motions was to require Ms. Gorman to create a budget that included a step-down mechanism for funding of the fire companies that would be triggered if the merger of the companies was not completed by certain arbitrary dates. It also included a reduction in the Fire Tax. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the budgeting meeting blog. But the central point is – why are motions required to do this? The draft budget was not going to be presented until October 28 at which time every item on it could be discussed. Why could this not have been a simple request to Mrs. Gorman? Doesn’t she receive requests for other budget items from other Council and staff members? Isn’t the point of the budget meetings to discuss these kinds of choices? Why, this late in a meeting, under the Reports section, is something with such wide-ranging impact introduced as a motion? By my count, more than 20 of the original participants by Zoom had already left the meeting.

All three motions passed, two by a 3-2 vote (Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. deLeon dissenting), one by a 4-1 vote (Mrs. Stauffer dissenting).

Then Mr. Banonis, during his report, proceeded to introduce a motion “to remove Lauressa McNemar and Tri-C Corporation for their ongoing consulting role immediately and to the extent that there are ongoing permit issues that are pending with the landfill that we replace them with Maser Engineering, as a limited engagement, simply for the review and consultation on those permit applications.”

Again, this was a confusing issue at a VERY late hour dealing with the work that a 30-year consultant for the township had done on some particular forms. Ms. Lauressa McNemar had apparently identified some anomalies in a Form U and was unsure how to proceed with informing the appropriate parties. She contacted Ms. Huhn for instruction. Ms. Huhn reported that “she told Lauressa to put it in writing and provide it to her if she has these concerns.” Ms. McNemar complied. It turned out that the anomalies Ms. McNemar identified were not correct and on that basis Mr. Banonis wanted her, basically, fired.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Mr. Banonis has been pushing for a firm called Maser Engineering to take over the work of both Ms. McNemar’s firm and Hanover Engineering relative to the landfill since early this year. So far, he has not been successful. His motion would have given Maser a foot in the door without a competitive bid for a limited time. So he did a hatchet job on Ms. McNemar because she followed Ms. Huhn’s instructions.

By this point Mrs. Yerger’s Zoom connection had failed and she was absent from the meeting, so the vote on the motion was 2-2, causing it to fail. But the hurt was inflicted. Ms. McNemar “retired” from her position the next day.

There is so much to unpack here but I’ll leave it at this:

This is not transparency in government. Pushing substantive motions on issues of importance during the Reports period of a meeting that has already lasted over 3 hours is not how to engage public involvement. Nor does it even encourage robust discussion among fellow Council members. Council, particularly Mrs. Yerger as the Chair, needs to prohibit these kinds of stealth motions during the Reports sections unless they are specifically included in the agenda as intending to be discussed. And the motions need to be included in the packet attached to the agenda so that the public can see them. She needs to gavel them down as out of order and require that they be submitted as agenda items. There was no question that these motions were carefully planned ahead of time and not ad hoc responses to issues that were surfaced during the Council meeting.

On to the October 21 Council meeting. It went just swimmingly. All the votes were 5-0. There was nothing of controversy on the agenda and it wrapped up in less than an hour. So you see, it is possible to be civil and collegial when there’s no real money on the line.

At one point late in the October 7 meeting, Mrs. Stauffer, who had objected to being laughed at earlier in the meeting, said, “I didn’t ask for an apology.” Mr. Banonis replied, “Well, that’s good. Keep your expectations low.”

Oh, we do, Mr. Banonis. We do.

And for the 20 residents who got tired on October 7 and signed off early? Good decision.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, November 4 – 7 PM