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

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