How a Shenanigan Works

The Ida-delayed Lower Saucon Township council meeting took place on Thursday, September 9 before a decidedly unimpressively-sized audience.  In fact, the room of about 15-20 people dwindled considerably after the introduction of the junior council persons for the 2021-22 school year.  Once they were introduced and appointed, the six students left.

The remaining ten or so audience members soldiered on.  Natasha Manbeck from McMahon Associates presented the final Active Transportation Plan funded by the WalkWorks Grant that McMahon Associates had put together for the township.  It included three categories of projects:  currently ongoing ones such as the Meadows Road bridge replacement, early action items that are of lower cost and less complexity, and other projects that will require more time and more cost.  There was not much time spent in detailing these projects so I suggest you take some time to look at the finished plan on the township’s website.

Two financial items were covered: presentation and review of the capital improvement plan 2022-2026 and a review of investment options.  The second item was particularly obscure, dealing with various financial instruments that could be used in the township’s bank account based on the fact that apparently the bank will begin charging additional fees if things stay as they are.  With no accompanying visual aids, it was not clear at all what the differences were.  Mrs. Stauffer tried to get some clarification, but that was fruitless. Since neither subject apparently required a vote, the Council moved on with just concerned-looking head-nodding.

After approving some Saucon Rail Trail events, the Council moved to cleaning up some more business left over from the fire service ordinance last month.  According to township requirements, Special Fire Police need to be appointed by resolution of the Council.  At the current time, the approved Special Fire Police include members of the Steel City Fire Company as well as Lower Saucon Fire Rescue.  Since the township is no longer utilizing the services of Steel City, it was necessary to rescind the previous appointments of all the Special Fire Police and then reappoint the LSFR Special Fire Police.  This was done by a vote of 5-0. 

After the vote, Mr. Kevin Kalman, Steel City Fire Police Captain, rose to object to the fact that he was having difficulty joining LSFR because their regulations require that he resign his membership in Steel City to be considered for LSFR.  Several Council members, particularly Mr. Carocci, pointed out that it was his decision to make and that LSFR did not need to have members who also belong to other fire companies since LSFR has mutual assistance agreements with other companies.

Moving On . . .

Following approval of a resolution to submit an application for a grant to Northampton County for a public works storage building, the Council approved a resolution proposed by Mr. Banonis that the Township give priority in the purchasing of items to those manufactured in the United States, subject to some possible exceptions for the inability to find equivalent items in either the U.S. or other democratic countries.  The word “democratic” was not defined. It will be interesting to see how this new requirement is applied when the Council takes up the purchase and installation of additional audio-visual equipment to provide interactive video for future meetings. Most electronics equipment is not made in the U.S. these days. 

Mrs. DeLeon had requested that a discussion of a mask mandate in the Township building and particularly for the Council meetings be added to the agenda.  Of course, as happens with discussions of this matter at other public meetings these days, at this point the conversation took a turn into an alternative universe as we were treated to all kinds of ridiculous rationales as to why this was unworkable or undemocratic or unhealthy (really?).  Absolutely no acknowledgement that acting out of a concern for one’s neighbor or one’s own children was a value that the Council might want to promote.  No acknowledgement from Mr. Carocci, Mr. Banonis or Mrs. Yerger that they gave a rap about the health of those attending Council meetings or doing business at the township building.  We even were treated to two township residents with disgustingly selfish justifications for why the poor little dears couldn’t stand to wear a mask and the old reliable argument about “freedumb.”  

I’m sure Mrs. DeLeon knew that her motion to require masks was DOA when she looked around the room and noticed that of the about 20 or so people there, only 3 (Mrs. Stauffer, Mrs. DeLeon and your trusty blogger) were wearing masks. And of course, it was voted down, 2-3, only Mrs. DeLeon and Mrs. Stauffer voting yes. But I give them both props for at least trying to show concern for the health and safety of their fellow citizens.  And on behalf of my two grandchildren, ages 1 and 5, I thank them as well.

A Classic Saucon Shenanigan

Now here’s where a classic Saucon Shenanigan comes in.  Following the vote on masks, Mrs. Stauffer suggested that an alternative solution might be to require that residents offer proof of vaccination before attending the meetings and, if they didn’t, that they would have to wear a mask.  That was met with another pile of bogus objections but the most bogus was Mr. Banonis’ claim that Mrs. Stauffer couldn’t offer a motion because the subject wasn’t on the agenda and the Sunshine Law, blah-blah-blah.  Mrs. Stauffer did not make the motion.

Watch this clever trick.  Within just a few minutes, Mr. Banonis made a motion to task Ms. Huhn with looking for funds for the projects in the Active Transportation Plan, to talk with the Public Works Department about what they could do on their own and to initiate talks with PennDOT about their possible partnership in implementation.  Wait. What? That wasn’t on the agenda.  You can’t do that.  Mrs. Stauffer and Mrs. DeLeon quickly pointed out the hypocrisy involved.  But not to fear.  Here comes Solicitor Treadwell to the rescue.  Apparently you can make motions that are not on the agenda as long as “the matter is de minimis in nature and does not involve the expenditure of funds or entering into a contract or agreement”.

So—-Mrs. Stauffer’s motion really would have been in order?  But it was only when Mr. Banonis made his motion that the Solicitor felt compelled to jump in and offer legal counsel so that he could go ahead with what he wanted?  See – shenanigans.

Incidentally, these new revisions to the Sunshine Law are going to really put a crimp in Mr. Banonis’ and Mr. Carocci’s style.  If you recall, it was as a non-agenda item during Council member reports that Mr. Carocci moved last year that the footnote about the requirements for the two fire companies to merge before they received funding be added to the 2021 budget. That’s clearly out of line now.  Score one for good government.

Looking Ahead

As mentioned before, the agenda for the September 15 meeting includes a report on the quote received for additional A/V equipment to livestream future Council meetings along with the ability for remote viewers to participate.  It will be interesting to see how committed to transparent government this Council really is.  Zoom meetings over the past year have averaged around 30-40 attendees, occasionally quite a few more.  With the fire company issue resolved, that number has dropped dramatically with in-person meetings.  Hellertown Borough does this.  Will LST?

One More Item

Just a reminder that we have not heard any more about the data breach investigation that was mentioned at the July meeting.  It’s not on the upcoming agenda.  What’s up with that?

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, October 6, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Divorce, Lower Saucon Style

Lower Saucon Township Council held its August 18, 2021, meeting in person again and to the surprise of virtually no one in the packed meeting room, voted to designate Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole provider of fire services within the township, ending its relationship with Steel City Volunteer Fire Company.  The Council had requested Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell to prepare an ordinance to that effect following the July 21 meeting.

Because it was an ordinance, it was necessary to conduct an official hearing before the vote on the ordinance.  Scott Nocek, president of Steel City, rose to request that the Council delay the vote on the ordinance to the September 1 meeting. This was rather startling since the Council has been attempting to get Steel City to merge with LSFR since at least last summer, even adding footnotes to the township’s 2021 budget outlining criteria for each fire company to receive township funding in order to incentivize the merger.  After two meetings in a row where Steel City’s reluctance to? obstruction of? the merger had been outlined in detail, it wasn’t surprising that the question on the Council members’ minds, as well as I’m sure the bulk of the audience, seemed to be, “Why?  Why delay further?” 

It became clear that there had been a meeting of the two fire companies on August 3 to further discuss the merger.  Out of that came a request for Steel City to do some required paperwork to complete the merger.  But by the time of the August 18 meeting, the paperwork had still not been completed and submitted.   There then followed a long and often contentious discussion about who did or didn’t do what, by when, and why between Council members and Mr. Nocek.  There was reference back to an April 15 letter that Attorney Treadwell had sent to Steel City requesting information on some items that had appeared on Steel City’s 990 form that had still not received a response.  Mr. Nocek said he had the response with him that night and turned it over to Mr. Treadwell but that begged the question of why it took 4 months to produce the response.

Needless to say, nothing in the hearing changed anyone’s mind.  After closing the hearing, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance and LSFR became the township’s sole provider of fire services.

What followed was a discussion of how the 9-1-1 Center would be informed of the change in status even though the ordinance did not take effect for 10 days.  The Council authorized that a letter be sent informing them of the status change and that LSFR Chief Johnson make a call to the 9-1-1 Center immediately after the meeting, adding Fire Company 16 (LSFR) to the structured dispatch so there would be no lapse in coverage.

Once that was settled, there were a series of motions to deal with the new facts on the ground.  The Council approved funding a recruitment and retention event on September 18 (rain date: September 19) in Steel City to recruit firefighters for LSFR; to reimburse attorney’s fees associated with the merger and the review of the Steel City fire station building maintenance; to authorize the funding of capital improvements at LSFR fire stations and to authorize the release of payment number 2 for LSFR’s new ladder truck.  

At that point, with the business regarding the fire department concluded, the meeting room cleared out pretty quickly, from about 65-70 attendees to 19.

The Council proceeded to appoint two new members to the Lower Saucon Authority Board – Bob Davis and Bob Keich by a vote of 5-0.  Unlike in previous appointments, the resumes of the two candidates were included in the publicly posted council information.  It was nice to know something about their qualifications before their appointments.

The rest of the meeting was mostly housekeeping except for an interesting discussion of whether council meetings could be conducted in some type of hybrid format that would allow township residents to at least view and/or view and participate in regular council meetings remotely.  Ms. Huhn had prepared a packet of information on the types of systems used by other townships and boroughs.  Tom Rieger, Hellertown Borough Council president, was invited to share how Hellertown has implemented a hybrid system that allows both the livestreaming of their council meetings and the participation of remote attendees.  He reported it had cost them about $15,000 which could be covered by federal Covid relief funds.  Ms. Huhn was tasked with getting prices for a system similar to Hellertown’s.

Of course the best part of that discussion happened when Mr. Banonis, who waxed lyrical on the excitement and energy of so many residents at the meeting in person after the Covid shutdown, and who seemed to have quite a few other reasons why hybrid was somehow not as good as in person, mused as to whether the reason for so many attendees might have been the agenda for the evening (i.e. the fire company issues).  Yeah, do you think?  Since more than 70% of the attendees left after that was done with?  Mrs. Stauffer spoke up on the value of a hybrid model in reaching those who can’t make it to the council meetings in person, pointing out that it’s “not about us in the Council room” but rather about the township residents who might not be able to attend. There’s a thought that’s worth remembering at every council meeting.

Two More Items

The update to the Saucon Valley Partnership Comprehensive Plan will be voted on September 8 at 6 PM via a Zoom meeting. You can register for the meeting on the Township website through the Council web page. The updated plan can be found here: https://epd-pgh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=dfb95aee27934650b7a998bdaf170a44

Township resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro raised a question during public comment about the status of the data breach investigation that had been mentioned at the July meeting.  Attorney Treadwell said that there was no more additional information to share at this time except that the township’s insurance company had verified that the costs of the law firm hired to deal with the breach would be covered. 

Watch this space.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, September 1, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Few Answers Generate More Questions

The June 16 meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council provided some answers to the questions raised on this blog about the funding for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and the Steel City Fire Company. It also raised some other, more disturbing questions about the proposed merger.

To briefly recap, by a 3-2 vote last year (Ms.Yerger, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci in favor), a footnote was added to the 2021 township budget that required the completed merger of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Fire Company by April 1, 2021, in order for the fire companies to receive their regular contributions from the Township, $150,000 for LSFR and $50,000 for Steel City. Failure to meet that date would trigger a series of additional deadlines with stepped-down funding culminating in cancellation of all funding if the merger was not completed by June 1. Despite requests from Mrs. Stauffer in the Spring, no information on progress on the situation was shared with the exception of a “no progress” comment from Solicitor Treadwell at the April 7 meeting. At the June 16 meeting, Mr. Carocci made a motion to fully fund LSFR for the budgeted $150,000. In discussion on the motion, he shared the timeline of the attempts to complete the merger on the part of each of the fire companies. To make a long story short, LSFR has repeatedly attempted to move the merger forward while Steel City has repeatedly rebuffed actions to make progress. As of the end of March, Steel City had only been willing to agree to a merger of operations but wanted to postpone the legal merger for at least another 1-2 years. Based on that information, the Council voted 5-0 to approve funding only for LSFR for 2021.

Mr. Carocci then provided additional information regarding the future of the merger. In reviewing Steel City’s IRS Form 990, Solicitor Treadwell noticed an unusually large donation to Steel City of $50,000 from The Boston Foundation, a donor-advised fund, followed by a transfer of $40,000 from the fire company to an injured officer who lives in New Jersey. Because of the unusual nature of the transactions, Solicitor Treadwell contacted counsel for the Steel City Fire Company with a host of questions regarding the transaction. The response from the fire company’s counsel had been received only late on the afternoon of the Council meeting and had provided insufficient information to answer the questions raised.

So we now have an answer as to whether Lower Saucon Council is going to fund LSFR (yes – 100%) or Steel City (not as of this moment) and we have some better understanding of why they made that decision. All good. But along the way, there are new questions.

Obviously the largest one is what to do about the proposed merger? Since further discussion on LSFR’s role in the Township is on the agenda for the July 21 meeting, we can expect to hear more about that shortly.

Mrs. deLeon raised the question of why Solicitor Treadwell had not shared the letter he wrote to Steel City’s counsel with the LST Council. She indicated that he should have copied the council members. Mr. Treadwell pointed out that he had been tasked with participating in the merger negotiations and this was part of the due diligence that he was conducting. He also pointed out that if he copied council members on every piece of correspondence that he produced, that they would be inundated. While he apologized for not sharing the letter, I think that instead the Council owed him a big thank you for his thoroughness in scrutinizing Steel City’s 990. He caught something that could be a major liability for a merged fire department and that raises legitimate questions about how Steel City handled the entire transaction.

The bigger question that should be raised beyond Mrs. deLeon’s concern is why there was no reporting on the status of the merger at all from January till June. The detailed timeline Mr. Carocci provided showed that there had been actions that had been taken over that time period, but none of that was reported. When Mrs. Stauffer appropriately raised the question in April, there was no sharing of the status of the negotiations which at that time apparently were already fraught. And although Mr. Carocci apologized profusely for not providing any of the information that he referenced at the June 16 meeting in time for it to be included in the council packets or on the website, the fact is that it shouldn’t have taken until June 16 for that information to be compiled. Where was a report at the March Council meeting or the April one or the May one? Mr. Carocci is the liaison to the fire companies. Why couldn’t he have provided something sooner? Is this his definition of transparency?

Moving on . . .

Natasha Manbeck of McMahon Associates provided a status report on the draft of the Active Transportation Plan being developed as part of the WalkWorks Grant. She acknowledged the contributions of many LST residents and indicated that the Draft will be presented in August for public comment. Anyone with comments in the meantime can send them to Diane Palek, the Township’s administrative assistant (adminasst@lowersaucontownship.org).

Frank Thompson of the Parks & Rec Board presented Logan Kade’s proposed Eagle Scout project to construct an information kiosk at Heller Homestead Park to the Council. The Council approved the project, 5-0.

Bill Ross of the Lower Saucon Authority gave a detailed explanation of Senate Bill No. 597, requesting that Council submit a letter opposing the bill. He explained that it places additional onerous requirements on public water authorities in the state (including Lower Saucon’s) that are unnecessary to guarantee the quality of water and will make the public authorities vulnerable to takeover by private entities. The Council agreed to provide such a letter, 5-0. Mr. Ross encouraged anyone who was listening to contact their state senators and voice their opposition to the bill as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be a LST Council meeting if there weren’t gratuitous swipes at fellow Council members and attempts to impugn their integrity. In the discussion about the bids received from Keystone Collections and Berkheimer to provide tax collection services to the Township, Mrs. deLeon raised a question about the fact that Keystone (which had the lower bid) had also requested space in Seidersville Hall for an in-township office whereas Berkheimer did not. Her concern was whether the two bids therefore represent an apples-to-apples comparison and whether, if Keystone were awarded the contract, would they be paying for their use of the space? A reasonable question.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Mr. Banonis, however, had to jump in to point out that perhaps Mrs. deLeon had other reasons for raising the questions because doesn’t Mrs. deLeon’s sister work for Berkheimer? The implication was that this was suspicious. Mrs. deLeon then tossed the question to Solicitor Treadwell, asking if there was a conflict here. Attorney Treadwell’s response was “not technically under the Ethics Code.” But Mr. Banonis just couldn’t let it rest. According to the minutes, he hastened to assure us before he made the motion to approve the bid from Keystone that “he doesn’t have any immediate family members that work for Keystone, he has no parents, no children, he doesn’t think he has any siblings as he’s an only child, he doesn’t have any aunts, cousins or uncles who work for either Berkheimer or Keystone” so he could make the motion in good conscience and with a clear mind. Mrs. Yerger, not to be outdone in gratuitous snark, then seconded “based on the fact that she has no relatives working for either Keystone or Berkheimer.” Come on, what is this? Fifth grade? Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah. Or maybe it’s an attempt at humor. If so, don’t give up your day job.

Finally, and most importantly for those of us who love spending our time attending these meetings so you, Gentle Reader, don’t have to (although you should), the Council decided to return to live, in-person meetings starting with the next one scheduled for Wednesday, July 21. If you’re planning to attend, be prepared to show up at Town Hall at 6:30 PM.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, July 21, 2021 – 6:30 PM AT TOWN HALL

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

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

Is This Any Way to Lead a Township?

Welcome to Saucon Shenanigans, a blog created to share my observations on the workings of the Lower Saucon Township Council with a wider audience in the township than the 50 or so citizens who Zoom in to Council meetings. In the days of robust local newspaper coverage, this would have been unnecessary because the Morning Call would have carried reports on Council meetings, decisions, disagreements and items of interest. But those days are long gone. The Call’s coverage is sporadic to non-existent. I’ve seen reporting by Bryan Hay from WFMZ occasionally and Josh Popichak does heroic work in trying to keep up with all the events in Saucon Valley for Saucon Source. But hey, the more information that’s out there, the better.

I’ll be clear. I am not a journalist or a reporter. I’m a blogger which means I get to share my perspective and I have no requirement to be “fair and balanced” as our friends at Fox News so laughably used to claim to be. What I will be is honest. I’ve chosen to do this because if, as my fellow Lehigh alum Marty Baron so boldly proclaims in the masthead of his paper, “democracy dies in darkness,” then my sense is that things are getting pretty dim and murky over there at Town Hall.

The closest government to a citizen is the local township council, board of supervisors, city council, what-have-you. They pass laws and make zoning decisions and appropriate your money in ways that have a direct impact on your day-to-day quality of life. But how much do you really know about them? Or what they do? And how do you find out? Until it directly affects you, most people have no idea.

Like most people, I didn’t pay close attention as long as it didn’t intrude on my life too much. I moved here shortly after Lower Saucon approved a .25% increase in the EIT to acquire open space, which I thought was a great idea. The township office people have always answered my questions politely and professionally when I had to call and my one or two interactions with the police were satisfactory. The newsletter was interesting. But then last winter things seemed to get weird.

Welcome to the Circus!

I knew from reporting in the Call and Saucon Source that my neighbor, Kristen Stauffer, had been appointed to a vacancy on the Township Council by the Court because the Council had been unable to come to a decision on its own. I thought that was fine. Kristen is a bright young woman, well-educated, a good neighbor and I was glad to see a younger person putting herself out there to serve the public. Fresh thinking is always a good thing to inject into the body politic. In fact, I had voted for her in the November election.

Then I learned that there was some action afoot to deprive her of the seat into which she had just been duly sworn. There was going to be an attempt to force the Court to have a do-over. That seemed strange and unwarranted. So, despite the fact that I was recovering from surgery and wasn’t supposed to be out and about, I hauled myself over to the township building for my first in-person council meeting, a specially called meeting on Friday, February 28.

What I witnessed shocked and disgusted me.

For a public forum of elected – or in the case of two of the Council members, appointed – officials, the behavior of several of them was rude, boorish, and arrogant. For whatever reason, Councilpersons Jason Banonis and Tom Carocci exhibited an intensely antagonistic attitude towards Mrs. Stauffer who said virtually nothing during the meeting, having basically been instructed not to by the solicitor. As best I could tell, the source of this antagonism was their anger that the judge had chosen her for the vacant position rather than one of the other applicants. The entire purpose of this specially-called meeting was to encourage the Court to investigate some recently-discovered rule that one of the unsuccessful applicants for the vacancy had dug up which the failed applicant claimed could potentially require a do-over of the entire process. The animosity at Mrs. Stauffer’s appointment was so thick you could cut it with a knife and the disrespect shown to her was insulting and revolting.

The end result of all this posturing and preening and waste of taxpayer money was that the judge reaffirmed that Mrs. Stauffer had been appropriately chosen. Gee, I was stunned (sarcasm intended).

Perhaps It Gets Better

After such an unfortunate introduction to the behavior at the Council meeting, I decided that perhaps it was a one-off. Everyone was having a bad night. Once the question of Mrs. Stauffer’s seat was settled, they would return to more professional, collegial behavior. And perhaps it would be a good idea to watch more closely what was unfolding in my township.

Enter Covid-19.

After a cancelled meeting on March 18 followed by a conference call to approve a disaster declaration for the Township, council meetings moved to a Zoom format beginning April 1 and since then I have attended all the meetings. The good news is that the Zoom format has apparently increased the amount of public attendance at the meetings, although most people do not participate. The bad news is that the behavior has not improved. In fact, at times, it has been even more egregious. The good news is – more people are seeing it first hand.

In the seven meetings since then I have observed flat-out bullying, consummate rudeness, shouting down opposing ideas, the use of Roberts’ Rules of Order as a cudgel, political pontificating that had nothing to do with an agenda item, insulting mansplaining and enough hypocrisy to choke a hippopotamus. After Mr. Carocci bragged that the June 17 meeting resulted in all 5-0 votes, implying an environment of equanimity, this past Wednesday’s meeting put the lie to all that putative harmony.

Why Does It Matter?

You may think, why does it matter? There are always people who behave rudely to others. As long as the work gets done, that’s all that counts.

My reply is – it matters for a number reasons.

  1. It intimidates people from participating. Not everyone enjoys the experience of being belittled or demeaned or mansplained for voicing a position different from the township leadership or simply for asking a question. Nor is everyone equipped with the verbal skills to present their ideas cogently in the face of a barrage of rudeness. It takes a lot of experience to maintain your calm when someone is distorting your words or attempting to shut you up. Hence, many people choose instead to remain silent.
  2. It inhibits the consideration of alternative solutions. When the answers provided by a select few council members are presented as the only option and any alternative possibilities are dismissed, ignored or treated as an annoyance, gradually fewer and fewer residents are going to be inclined to offer other ideas. The best governmental systems function with maximum input from people with different types of expertise and different perspectives who can perhaps see alternative solutions or effective modifications to proposed processes that are not as obvious to elected leaders who may be too far in the weeds to see other solutions. Or perhaps the leaders are stuck in “we’ve always done it this way” or “we’ve never done it that way” mode. I’ve heard those reasons way too often already in Council discussions.
  3. It blocks the sharing of important information with the public. In my opinion this is the most important consequence of these behaviors. Wednesday’s meeting provided a prime example of how easily this is accomplished.

A Case Study

There were two openings on the Zoning Hearing Board. There were five applicants who had submitted resumes which were passively posted along with the meeting agenda on the township’s website. Apparently it is unusual for there to be an overage of applicants for positions on township boards so in the past, for example, the sole applicant for one open position would just be rubber-stamped through after Leslie Huhn, Township Manager, verified the person met the minimum qualifications.

With this many applicants, Councilperson Priscilla deLeon said she had a few questions for the applicants. Council President Sandra Yerger immediately said there would be no questioning of the applicants. Mrs. deLeon objected. She was informed that she could have read their resumes found in her Council packet which Mrs. deLeon said she had done. There was an unwarranted snipe from Mr. Carocci about ”not doing your homework,” a baseless and insulting comment.

What followed is what I have come to describe as the Abbott and Costello two-step. Mr. Banonis quickly made a motion to not permit questioning of the applicants and Mr. Carocci immediately seconded. This is how Roberts’ Rules of Order can be misused and it’s a pattern that is repeated over and over again in this Council. This leads to a motion being on the floor designed to quash the sharing of information with the public. Public comments that followed supported having the questioning.

Mrs. Yerger raised concerns about the amount of time questioning would take and the fact that applicants had not been alerted to the possibility of questioning. A member of the public (full disclosure: me) offered an alternative work-around that would have addressed her concerns. The suggestion was ignored – not discussed, ignored. Mrs. Yerger then put forward the time-worn “we’ve never done it that way” explanation. And then, in what is always the final move of the Abbott and Costello two-step, Mr. Carocci loudly demanded that the question be called, cutting off discussion. Although kudos go to Ms. Huhn and, sometimes, Mrs. Yerger for usually trying to interrupt this freight train by at least checking if there are other residents waiting to speak. The motion to prohibit questions passed.

Mr. Banonis immediately, in the execution of the second two-step of the evening, moved to appoint Ted Eichenlaub and David Jauregi to the vacancies on the Zoning Hearing Board. Mr. Carocci seconded. The appointments were not made separately to have allowed discussion of either of the candidate’s qualifications. They were lumped together – all or nothing. There was no opportunity to nominate someone else for approval. And there was no, NO discussion of the comparative merits of the five candidates who applied.

As a quick overview, Mr. Eichenlaub seems to have been an investment banker most of his life working in New York City and Washington, DC. He listed no previous involvement with the township. Mr. Jauregui is in the semiconductor/IT business as an engineer. His resume also listed no prior involvement with the township although he was one of the failed applicants for the Council seat that Mrs. Stauffer holds and he was the person that raised the objections with the Court in the attempt to derail her appointment. George Gress is a lifelong resident of Lower Saucon, a former member of the Township Council and former president of the Se-Wy-Co Fire Company. He’s been a volunteer firefighter and is currently a Board member of the Lower Saucon Authority. Mr. Nicholas Lynn is a professional working in the construction industry. He specializes in HVAC and holds a number of trade certifications as well as serving on the Sheet Metal Licensing Board in Allentown where he consults with zoning officers on sheet metal codes. Ms. Donna Louder is also a lifelong resident of Lower Saucon, a former member of Township Council and listed involvement with a number of Township committees.

I’d love to tell you more or explain how the Council made its decision on the two it chose, but unfortunately, these descriptions were only available from the information on their resumes which Mr. Carocci indicated was all the information we needed to know. And I can’t tell you why he and Mr. Banonis were so set on having Mr. Eichenlaub and Mr. Jauregui appointed either, because there was no discussion of why they were preferable.

What I can tell you is that over the next several years there will be lots of zoning and development issues coming before first, the Zoning Hearing Board and then, the Council, especially with the future closing of the landfill and the need to find new sources of revenue to replace what currently comes from the landfill. So it might not be a bad idea to keep a careful watch over what gets proposed for zoning and development.

What Comes Next?

After giving the matter careful consideration, I’ve concluded that there appears to be a lot of opportunity for steamrolling in the future as this Council conducts Township business. That being the case, I thought it would be worthwhile to commit 22 Wednesday evenings a year to watching the events unfold more closely rather than just waiting for minutes to be published or for a newsletter to appear. So that’s what I’ll be doing – attending, whether by Zoom or in person if this pandemic ever ends, as many Council meetings as possible and reporting in my blog shortly thereafter.

I’ll be using 3 guiding principles:

  • Watch what they do, not what they say.
  • Trust, but verify.
  • Follow the money.

My hope is that Council behavior will become more civil, collegial and professional as the year progresses, leading to better governance and better decisions. Increased transparency would be an improvement also. And I hope that more residents will feel empowered to speak up when they see things that trouble them or even if they just have questions.

If it doesn’t work, Election Day for three of the members is November 2, 2021.

Watch this space.

Next scheduled Council meeting – Wednesday, August 19 – 7 PM