The Winter Lull

There hasn’t been much news to comment on from the last two Lower Saucon Township council meetings on January 20 and February 3. There have been a lot of housekeeping items – requests by individual residents for various variances, authorization of purchases and payments, RFPs, authorization to collect 2021 real estate taxes (I know that makes us all happy), and a lot of 5-0 votes coupled with little obnoxious behavior. All in all, a pretty slow period.

Photo by Harvey Reed on Pexels.com

With that being the case, I’d like to take a little time to discuss three items I find of interest.

Meadows Road Bridge

The February 3rd meeting included a lengthy discussion with the PennDOT representative who came to discuss their Structural Analysis Report of the Meadows Road bridge. This is a subject that has come up multiple times in the past year and it always seems to be accompanied by a lot of emotion, especially among residents who call in. I hope that they were either listening to the meeting or will take the time to read the minutes of this enlightening discussion. The PennDOT guy (I’m sorry – I didn’t catch his name) gave a thorough and cogent explanation of the four concerns that PennDOT is required to address – structure, safety, flooding and multi-modality – as they pertain to the bridge. He then explained the three possible solutions – repair, replace or remove – with the plusses and minuses involved in each solution. Council members asked probing and intelligent questions and elicited knowledgeable answers from the PennDOT person about what the possibilities are. Although the council members seem to be disappointed with PennDOT’s conclusion that the bridge needs to be replaced, nevertheless they showed a clear-eyed pragmatism and recognition of the advantages of that solution while at the same time proposing reasonable ways to commemorate or memorialize the current antique structure. All in all, this is the kind of constructive interaction one hopes to find in public officials all working toward the common goal of the public good.

Developer Relations

Each of the two meetings contained presentations by developers looking for various approvals to move forward with their projects. On Jan. 20, representatives of the development at the Steel Club presented further details of their plan. I was struck by the extent to which these developers are addressing issues of water management relative to the creek that meanders through the property. As a sustainability consultant myself, I found their commitment to taking pro-active measures to mitigate future flooding, even where not directly connected with the development that they’re planning on doing, to be a laudable commitment. I realize that this is also of economic value to them as it improves the value of their property, but there are plenty of developers whose response would be “we don’t have to do it, so we won’t.” They seem to be more concerned that it’s done correctly for long-term value and they should be commended for that.

The other developer presentation on February 3 regarding the Stonewood Longridge subdivision was notable as an example of a developer who has clearly communicated often and openly with the township in developing their project. Council members seemed to be well-informed of what had been done over the course of this apparently long development cycle and seemed eager to approve the plans. The discussion also included a fascinating explanation of how the fire company responds to fires in areas that are not part of the public water system and have no access to natural water sources (ponds, streams, etc.). Clearly the developers have been working with both the Council and the fire company to develop the best plans for their residents. Another example of how transparency and collaboration deliver good government service.

Park/Pavilion Use Rules

Back in the Fall, you may remember, there was considerable uproar about the conflicting and deficient rules and regulations that govern the use of various Township park facilities, especially the rental of pavilions. At that time, several Council members deflected discussion of the problems by claiming that the budget discussions in progress were far more important. There was a promise to address the problems in the future. Well, reservations for park facilities for 2021 have now been open since January and one assumes that those 2021 reservations have been made under the same inadequate and contradictory rules that applied back in Fall 2020. With two relatively light meeting agendas on Jan. 20 and Feb. 3, one might have thought that either of those meetings would have been a good time to address this on-going issue. One would have been wrong.

At one point we were told that the issue now resides with the Parks and Recreation Committee and yet they have not brought any workable solutions to Council. Wouldn’t now be a good time to resolve this issue while there is relatively little work for Parks and Rec to do? Perhaps we can expect to see this as an agenda item for the March 3rd meeting or, at the latest, the April 7th meeting before we start hearing that Parks and Rec can’t tackle it because it’s the busy time of year when the parks are in use?

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, March 3, 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

It All Depends on the Definition of “Public”

Last night was another regularly scheduled meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council. We can dispense with most of the meeting in just a few phrases. Mostly housekeeping. All 5-0 votes or agreed-to tablings or “no action” actions. Township Manager Leslie Huhn was feted as Manager of the Year, an award she won at the LV Chamber of Commerce Mayors’ & Municipal Officials’ Reception Event. Congratulations, Ms. Huhn! All fine and dandy.

Now let’s jump to the elephant in the room – a particularly apt phrase. And this will get long because it’s complicated. The most time was spent on an item that didn’t make it on to the agenda but which has been the topic of significant discussion on social media as well as reporting by local media. That would be the approval of an application for use of the Town Hall Park pavilion by the Northampton County Republican Committee for an event to be held this evening at 5:30, featuring the couple from Missouri who are currently facing Class E felony charges for unlawful use of a weapon back in June.

This issue might never have surfaced at the meeting had it not been for several township residents (your blogger included) who raised important questions during the public comment period about the process that was used to determine that this application should be approved. I have absolutely no interest in debating the politics of this couple nor the event that took place in Missouri nor the reasons why anyone would want to hear from them. Likewise I have no interest in debating the First Amendment issues regarding their appearance. As a card-carrying member of the ACLU for decades, I am well aware of how challenging the Right of Free Speech can be to support at times.

Rather I’d like to look at the administrative processes that led us to this place. By Ms. Huhn’s description the application was received dated Sept. 10 to rent the Town Hall Park pavilion. Such a request for rental is generally handled administratively by the Township Manager. This time, perhaps because she was alert to the sensitive nature of the event, she conferred with Township Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell who advised her to handle it just like any other application for a pavilion rental. They apparently reviewed previous pavilion requests and concluded that those requests were seldom ever denied. So Ms. Huhn approved the request and the only item that needed to come before Council was a request to use amplification at the event. Strangely, this was not an agenda item, but Ms. Huhn explained she would have brought it up during her Township Manager’s report and the amplification was approved on a 5-0 vote.

Questions Raised

But an application for rental of a township pavilion does not address many of the questions raised by residents and Councilmembers deLeon and Stauffer. They included:

Who controls the size of the crowd? The application lists 150 attendees but the Facebook posting for the event around 4 PM yesterday already indicated 58 coming plus 174 interested for a total of 232. The pavilion is only listed as holding 200. And with all the attendant publicity and press coverage, what happens if many more than that show up?

-What about the safety of the attendees and the community if there should be any untoward incidents?

Will there be police coverage and, if so, who pays for it? The event sponsor? The Township? Why should the Township have to pay for that?

Who will enforce CDC mask-wearing requirements? And yes, despite Monday’s court ruling, those requirements still apply.

Who will enforce the Township’s own rules about not posting political signs or banners?

Why did the Township allow itself to undertake this kind of risk? Palmer Township had no problem turning down the event on exactly the grounds that were outlined by Lower Saucon residents.

The Answers Were Mostly Unsatisfying

No one controls the size of the crowd.

No one counts how many people are there or prohibits more from attending.

The police have a plan in place in case of “incidents.” Chief Barndt assured us that there would be extra officers on duty that evening and that their first concern was the community’s safety. Understandably, he did not share specific details of their plan.

The Township will pay for all that overtime and other safety costs.

The group itself will be expected to follow the rules and regulations they were given so, no, no one will be enforcing any of that.

And the Township was required to approve this application because of the First Amendment rights of the applicant, according to Attorney Treadwell.

Now Here’s Where It Gets Interesting

The Township also controls the use of its parks through event and special event permitting. The Township’s website is a confusing mess when it comes to figuring out what the characteristics are that determine a rental, an event or a special event. Under the Parks & Recreation/Forms & Documents section of the website you find two identical entries for Parks & Athletic Facilities Use Policy, both identified as 6/19/13 Ord. 2013-02, an Events Policy dated 12/7/16, and a Special Events Policy dated 3/4/15. You will also find an Event Application (although no Special Event Application) and a Request for Pavilion Rental.

What is clear in all this is that event and special event permitting are both far more stringent processes than just renting a pavilion. They have to be submitted 60 days in advance of the event. All costs incurred by LST shall be reimbursed by the event sponsor. Permit approval is required by Council vote. The sponsor has to submit a plan for crowd control and security and the additional cost of Township police will be borne by the sponsor. There need to be plans for parking, especially for spillover, and there are to be no sales without prior permission. All of which seems to go a long way towards answering many of the residents’ concerns. Of course, the 60 day application schedule would have made approval moot. The pavilion rental reservation will not be accepted less than 7 days prior to the usage date and, wow, isn’t this lucky, the Republican Committee got theirs in exactly 7 days before the usage date even though Palmer Township hadn’t yet turned down their application publicly.

So Why Is This Event Actually a Pavilion Rental Instead?

Well, according to Mr. Banonis, it’s because this “event” is private and not public. It’s being sponsored by the Northampton County Republican Committee and you have to register for it, according to Mr. Banonis. Ergo, it’s private. Except there’s one small problem. Let’s look at that Facebook posting again. See the red box?

I’d almost bet you that says “Public – Hosted by Northampton County GOP”. Nowhere does it say that registration is required. Nowhere does it say that attendance is limited. There’s no link to a registration site and, by the dictionary’s definition, “public” means that the public is invited. Anyone who has ever created a Facebook event knows that you have the choice to make the event public or private or to require registration or any other number of possibilities. This just says “Public.”

Things started to get a bit testy when Mrs. deLeon questioned why this was not defined as an “event” and why it hadn’t required an Event Permit and, therefore, Council approval. Mr. Banonis repeatedly insisted it was “private”. He questioned Mrs. deLeon’s ability to read the Facebook post properly. Later in the evening, one of the residents who had commented earlier called back to report that she had just clicked on “going” on the Facebook post, even though she is neither a Republican nor a member of the sponsoring Committee nor did she have to register.

You may find it interesting that Mr. Banonis was so adamant that this was a “private” event. The fact that he is the vice-chairman of the Northampton County Republican Committee might go a long way to explaining that. Except that curiously later in the discussion when he was asked if there would be other speakers at the event, he replied that he was only there at the Council meeting as a Council member, not as a representative of the event sponsor and that “I don’t know the answer to that question.” But again, when the issue of whether this is a public event or not came up, he quite readily insisted it was a private event and the public couldn’t just show up. It was kind of amazing how that Councilperson hat just slipped on and off his head as the evening progressed. I believe that Mr. Carocci is also a member of that committee but he didn’t mention that.

So Where Does This All Stand?

The event will happen based on the fiction that it’s a private event and the public isn’t invited. The Facebook post about the event has been removed and sadly, the Northampton County Republican Committee website (www.northamptoncountygop.com) is down as of this writing so there’s no information available there.

The Northampton County Republican Committee was incredibly prescient to have gotten their rental request in just under the wire. And it was really lucky that they were directed to apply for a pavilion rental rather than an event permit even though it doesn’t seem this is so much a private rental as it is a public event using Lower Saucon facilities. Good thing Ms. Huhn and Attorney Treadwell didn’t catch that distinction! Saved the event sponsor a lot of money. Of course, it will cost us taxpayers a lot but hey, it happens.

I think the Township needs to do some work on cleaning up its website so that the definition of an Event and a Special Event and the qualifications for a pavilion rental are a lot more clear. That should probably require Council to take a closer look at what those definitions and processes are too.

As for me, I’ll be staying home this evening. I’ll probably put my yard signs away for the evening and leave my outside lights on, just for safety’s sake. I trust the Lower Saucon Police Department but, it can’t hurt.

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