As of today, it has been 43 days that Lower Saucon Township has been freeloading off of the Hellertown Area Public Library. The township has paid not one cent toward the use of those facilities and yet the Library has graciously allowed the residents of the Township to continue to use them. How does it feel as a resident to be required to accept charity from a far less richly endowed borough like Hellertown or a non-profit institution like the Library? Aren’t you just a little ashamed? Does it bother you that we’ve become a laughingstock in the Valley? “Oh, Lower Saucon. Isn’t that where they pulled out of the Library? What’s wrong with those people?”
And yeah, yeah, I know the nonsense about the State grant money. I’ll get to that in detail later.
The February 16 Township Council meeting featured so much manure being shoveled at us accompanied by such high grade gaslighting that I’m frankly astonished that Town Hall didn’t spontaneously combust. Let’s review what we had to sit through for almost 4 hours.
First, the Council couldn’t even be bothered to put the library on the agenda, despite Mrs. deLeon’s best efforts. Instead, they buried it in Council reports which meant there could be no public comment until the end of the meeting. Then they made sure the meeting ran just as long as possible, starting with a resolution honoring a township Scout which – in Banonis’ own words (draft minutes, page 2, line 53-54) – “Normally we don’t read these resolutions, but he thinks it’s an important milestone that we should read it as well as the next one.” The next one honored the Saucon Valley wrestling team and required not only the reading of the entire resolution along with each individual team member’s name and acknowledgement but also team and council pictures while the entire audience waited. That ate up a good half hour.
In addition to the usual developer items, bid authorizations, contract approvals and various other quotidian items, there had to be a number of approvals and authorizations to cover the vacancies created by the resignation of Leslie Huhn, Township Manager, the openings for a finance clerk and administrative assistant, the hiring of an interim township manager, and a temp part-time clerical employee. Does anyone else find that a disturbing amount of staff turnover? Things that make you go “hmmmmm.”
On the subject of Ms. Huhn’s resignation, I’d only like to point out that it was somewhat disheartening that after her 20 or so years of service to the Township, that the Council couldn’t be bothered to cobble together a resolution to thank her for her service. You could formally thank a Boy Scout for building a kiosk but not Ms. Huhn for two decades of service? Setting aside the various conjectures about the timing and cause of her resignation, she was a competent employee with a ton of institutional knowledge and replacing her will be challenging, both because of the current employment challenges in the country and the Township’s low public regard. Couldn’t the Township have managed at least a formal thank-you instead of the kind of haphazard “gee, we’re sorry to see you go” that we got instead? I guess not.
Before we get to the library though, there were a few other agenda items worth mentioning. Once again we were treated to the politically motivated announcement of the fact that Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky were giving up their Council compensation for not just this year but, wait for it, their entire terms. Yes, yes, I know it supposedly had to be included in the minutes, but if you read the solicitor’s explanation of why, it says in case the Township provides benefits like healthcare, etc. it has to be on the record. We don’t. And you could have reported it in Council or Township Manager’s reports and it would have made it into the minutes. Mrs. deLeon made a good point as well. Why wasn’t this done at the organizational meeting if this was their intention? Why wait? Bigger audience?
One important point on this issue. Later in the meeting, Banonis incorrectly claimed “there was a statement of accepting money from the landfill, he can say publicly that he never accepted anything from the landfill . . . just so that record is clear.” (draft minutes, page 12, lines 36-38). He’s referring to a statement I made, (draft minutes, page 1, lines 48-50) where I said that he, Carocci and Zavacky “were provided with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of political support” from the PAC funded by the company that owns the landfill. I did not say that anyone had accepted money from the landfill, only political support. He, as well as the other two, did indeed accept that political support in that they never repudiated that support and silence can be construed as acceptance.
This meeting also saw the consideration of quotes for livestreaming of Council meetings. Carocci almost immediately moved to table the consideration of quotes until a permanent township manager is hired because “[i]t’s a lot of money and a complicated system and he wants to have the permanent Township Manager look at these proposals and decide with that persons [sic] input what the best is for the Township. He will have to live with the system.” (draft minutes, page 14, lines 2-4). Don’t you love the assumption that the new township manager will be male? But I digress.
If we assume that there is some validity in that argument (some, not a lot), then let’s move to a more compelling question. In March 2020 as we have all been recently reminded by the media, the world shut down because of Covid. The March 18, 2020, council meeting was cancelled, but by April 1, council meetings were back in session and were being streamed via the Zoom app which provided not only video of the meeting but also two-way audio, permitting not only township officials and the councilmembers to comment but also allowed public comment, just like always. That system worked fine until Council went back to public meetings in June 2021 – in other words, for more than a year.
If it’s necessary to wait for permanent equipment and a full-fledged system until there’s a permanent township manager, then why in the name of common sense can’t we simply reinstate the previous system to provide livestreaming and two-way communication just like before? Has everyone gone braindead and can’t remember how to do that? Or is it that this council really doesn’t want all those pesky residents to see what’s going on or, even worse, comment on it? Funny how Hellertown can do it, but Lower Saucon can’t.
FYI, 1000 people have viewed the livestream from the January 19 meeting and 695 viewed the livestream from February 16. I would say that represents a significantly interested constituency. During the February 16 meeting, there were more than 85 people watching the meeting as it livestreamed. In January there were over 100. I will point out that it should not be necessary for a volunteer resident to have to provide a service which is so clearly desired by the township AND SHOULD BE PAID FOR BY IT and which they have already proven themselves capable of doing without a $17,000 system. Not only that, but a Facebook livestream can’t provide two-way communication like the previous Zoom set-up could. But then maybe that’s the point.
And Now to the Library
According to Zavacky, the library issue was relegated to her council report and not an agenda item because there was nothing to vote on. This is arrant baloney. Let’s look at the word salad she used to explain why it was in the report section and not an agenda item. (Draft minutes, page 16, lines 17-22). “As an update, that’s why it’s an update and not on the agenda, in terms of official action on what this Council would take, that would be things like recommendations that we need to be made by an agency pursuant to the statute ordinance, executive order, the establishment of policy, the decisions we need to make on agency business or vote on. We have nothing to vote on today so that comes from the Sunshine Act and it has to be done here [meaning in the reports section].”
Okay, that’s not what the Sunshine Act says. What it does say is this, §709.(c.1)(i) Notification of agency business to be considered. “. . .the agency shall post the agenda, which includes a listing of each matter of agency business that will be or may be the subject of deliberation or official action at the meeting . . .” It later says in §712.1(a) that “. . . an agency may not take official action on a matter of agency business at a meeting if the matter was not included in the notification required under section 709(c.1).” It then goes on to indicate what the exceptions are to being able to take action without previous notification.
So for those who are not used to reading legislative gobbledygook, let me explain what that means. First, you’ll notice there is NOTHING in the Act that refers to what items MUST be included in the reports part of an agenda. Second, the Act speaks to what MUST be included in an agenda if the Council wants to take action on it, but it does not prohibit other things from being included in the agenda. In fact, the agenda for February 16 included an item that took no action or deliberation, i.e. the aforementioned letters renouncing compensation by Banonis, Carocci and Zavacky. So they could have been included in the Council reports since that would have gotten them read into the minutes if that was all that was necessary.
Next, I’m sure you all remember these immortal words from Banonis at the January 19 meeting, (from the approved minutes, page 2) “For a period of seven months in 2021, from May through December, the library board apparently chose to exclude Lower Saucon Township from negotiations on a new agreement.” (Page 4) “The library in Hellertown rejected every effort, every single effort by our Township Manager and Solicitor over a period of eight months.” (Page 5) “They didn’t, they ignored us. They never contacted us. Our Township Manager contacted them repeatedly and they ignored our requests.” And yet here at the February 16 minutes is Zavacky with a sheaf of papers showing all the interactions between LST and Hellertown Borough and HAL. How could that be? Well, she did start back in July 2020 which of course is irrelevant to the discussions we’re having now. But she then went on to (draft minutes, page 18 line 11 through page 19 line 16 – 58 lines of minutes) outline communications back and forth among Hellertown Borough, HAL and LST from the Summer of 2021 through November 16, 2021.
What’s the truth here? Was it that “they never contacted us” or was it the reams of paper that Zavacky offered to put up on the Township website? Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find that posted anywhere? If you find it, let me know.
Two More Items Related to the Library
Southern Lehigh Public Library Statement
Shortly before the February 16 meeting, Bruce Eames, the president of the Southern Lehigh Public Library Board put out a statement that said, among other things, “we do not want to be involved in this fight and have made that very clear to both LST and HAL on several occasions. SLPL’s Board of Directors feel that it is in the best interest of all involved for LST and HAL to continue negotiating and come to an agreement. It is not SLPS’s intention to shop our services to additional municipalities and organizations. [emphasis added] We currently serve Upper Saucon Township, Lower Milford Township, Coopersburg Borough and the Southern Lehigh School District. That service area has worked very well for many years and our plans are to continue that relationship for the foreseeable future. There have been reports of a possible financial donation being offered by LST to SLPL, but no action has been taken and we believe this is on hold.[emphasis added]”
Carocci apparently has difficulty understanding what this plain English statement means. In response to a comment by Jo Ellen Thomson in the public comment period that Southern Lehigh Public Library “had made it public they are not interested in this at this time,” (draft minutes, page 34, lines 4 and 5), Carocci responded (page 34, lines 10 and 11) “I also want to say you are misinformed, SLPL is on hold and they want to continue to negotiate, to talk. So you’re wrong. You were misinformed.” No, Carocci, she wasn’t. You are. SLPL didn’t say they had put the issue on hold. They said that their understanding was that the issue was on hold – BY LST. Notice it says “believe.” If they had put it on hold, they would “know,” not “believe” it. Apparently you don’t understand the meaning of “no means no.”
OCL Appropriations for Libraries
Finally, and this is probably the most insulting part of this whole issue, is the implication that somehow HAL was trying to pull a fast one by including LST’s population numbers as part of their service area when they applied for the annual grant from the state. According to the Office of Commonwealth Libraries (OCL) website “laws are enacted each year that detail how state aid is distributed.” As anyone who knows anything at all about how the state operates knows, funding is determined based on a fiscal year that runs from July 1 – June 30. HAL’s application for a state grant was submitted in Summer 2021, probably after July 1 when the new fiscal year began. At that time, they would have had no inkling that LST would renege on its commitment to support the library or refuse to sign a new agreement. So there is nothing untoward about their including LST and its population in their service area.
HAL was approved for a grant of $35,662.87 for FY 2021-2022. That means from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022. The OCL website says that payments are made to local libraries in January/February “during each fiscal year (July-June).” So for Carocci to claim “They applied for the grant, they got the grant, and it’s for the calendar year.” (draft minutes, page 25, line 40) is just plain wrong. The state doesn’t work on a calendar year basis. It cannot appropriate funds for the second half of 2022 because it does not have an approved budget. Having managed any number of state grants in my working career, I know this to be true. And anyone who’s lived in Pennsylvania during one of those years when the legislature can’t get a budget passed knows that the State shuts down on July 1.
Here is the screenshot from the file on the OCL website titled “2021-22 State Aid Projections” with the dollar amount that matches the amount that HAL has indicated that it received from the State.
Nowhere does this indicate that the grant is for the calendar year 2022. If that’s what Carocci heard, he needs to get his hearing checked. HAL, like all the other libraries, will need to apply for a grant for the remainder of 2022 after July 1 when the new budget is passed. My guess is that this is why HAL, in their current proposal, requires that an agreement be signed for 2023 before July 1, 2022, so that they will know going forward whether to use the LST figures in their application to the State or not.
The fact that HAL agrees to not terminate services to LST before the end of 2022 even if LST refuses to sign an agreement for 2023 is a gift to LST. What they are offering is to provide services to LST from July 1 through December 31 even if LST does not enter into an agreement for 2023 and beyond, even though HAL will not be able to include LST in its request for funds for 2022-2023 which would cover the second half of 2022, a period when LST would be getting services in return for their contributions but HAL would not be receiving funds from the State. I know this is confusing but hey, that’s why we pay the council members the big bucks. Oh yeah, I forgot. They don’t take the money.
So enough with the crap about HAL “threatening” LST to cut off services. You don’t pay for them; you don’t get them. Instead, you become freeloaders. And frankly, as a resident, I don’t appreciate being forced into that category.
One more thing. In the October 22 issue of Saucon Shenanigans, I laid out a detailed process by which all three parties to the Library could reach an agreement on funding the Library. Perhaps you might want to revisit that. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble.
Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, March 16, 6:30 PM – Township Hall
As a service to the community, the meeting will be live-streamed on the Saucon Shenanigans Facebook page.