Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Civil Division Deputy Row Officers To Retire

In Northampton County's Civil Division, the Prothonotary is assisted by four Deputies, who oversee the workload. Three of them are retiring, which will leave that busy office with eight vacancies. Director of Administration Luis Campos never bothered telling Council last night about these retirements, likely because he never bothered to check. He instead claimed they will be creating all kinds of efficiencies next year with new software. Since they apparently are not discussing this with the people who actually use it, this has all the earmarks of a disaster in progress. 

The people who know how that office runs, and who have decades of institutional knowledge, are leaving. This means that the services this office delivers to the public are going to suffer even more. In the meantime, those who are left are actually running to the counters to keep up with filings and passports. This is unfair to them and is making their low-paying jobs more stressful. 

Matos Stepping Down As Corrections Director

Arnie Matos
Arnie Matos, who started his career with Northampton County as a corrections officer, was named Director of Corrections in 2012. But he confirmed at last night's Budget Hearing that he'll be stepping down at the end of the year. Warden Todd Buskirk confirmed anonymous reports on this blog that he intends to retire as well, though he's waiting until some time next year.

Matos and Buskirk, like former Executive John Stoffa, are both firm believer in rehabilitation. A prison population that was supposed to be over 1,200 in 2012, was just 725 yesterday.

Matos was repeatedly questioned by Glenn Geissinger yesterday, in an effort to get Matos to say there's no shortage of corrections officers. Corrections Officers' union President Tom Davis has complained, at two previous Council meetings, that Executive John Brown refuses to fill vacancies. This results in overtime, state Davis, who adds it forces tired officers to continue working. "Somebody is going to get hurt," he has warned.

"We're 17 officers short,' responded Matos, who added there should be 206 corrections officers. This corroborates what Davis has said.

Council members suggested closing off portions of the jail and doing what he can to eliminate the need for extra officers.

"I have closed off sections," answered Matos, who insists there should be 206 officers. "We're in conversations with [brown] about addressing staffing needs at the jail" Matos remarked.

"I'm not going to get the answer I want," complained Geissinger at one point.

I would hope that Geissinger would want to hear the truth.

Brown Blasts Council Over Hospital Bond

Brown calls Council craven and irresponsible
Yesterday afternoon, I received an apologetic call from Kim Sahl, Northampton County Executive John Brown's public relations consultant, to inform me he was conducting a news conference that very afternoon, at 4 pm, concerning his health cuts. Figuring that Brown had finally come to his senses and was beginning to listen to the workforce, I told Kim I'd be there. I was hoping I'd have some good news for you. But I don't. I attended a news conference behind a closed door guarded by three armed deputy sheriffs.  It had nothing to do with health cuts. He instead accused members of County Council, Lamont McClure in particular, of extortion over their rejection last week of a loan arrangement for St. Luke's Hospital. After he finished reading his prepared statement, he stormed out in dramatic fashion, apparently forgetting that he walked out of his own office. He refused to answer questions, and also refused to appear at the Budget Hearing that was being conducted right after his news conference.

Brown Posts Guards

When I reported to Brown's office for the news conference, I did notice three three deputies standing near his outer door. I thought they were looking for Eric Frein, but they were apparently there to prevent anyone from attending Brown's news conference that he didn't want there.

"Do you have a press pass?" asked one.

"Only forgeries," I answered.

That was good enough. I was in.

I thought maybe they were there to protect Brown from Morning Call columnist Bill White, who was rumored to be on his way. "Good idea!" I  thought. He does look a lot like Eric Frein.

But I learned that, in addition to the armed guards in front of his outer office, Brown posted Deputy Sheriffs (either one or two) outside the door that separates his office from Council chambers. That area is open only to members of Council. So he was actually posting guards to protect him from elected representatives of the people.

Brown Blasts Last Week's St. Luke's Vote

Last week, by a 6-2 vote (Seth Vaughn was absent), Northampton County Council rejected a pass thru bond issue for St. Luke's Hospital after Lamont McClure had argued that Council should stop doing all but absolutely essential business until Brown agrees to negotiate on his health care cuts. The two Yes votes were Peg Ferraro and Hayden Phillips. Peg was incredulous because Council was cutting off its nose to spite its face. In addition to depriving St. Luke's of needed revenue, the County would lose out on hefty administration fees.

Brown waited until today to call an "urgent" news conference, and it was about St. Luke's. He explained the obvious value of the project:
"St. Luke's is creating a uniform system for sharing accurate health information across a broad network of providers. This project will ensure that a person's vital health records are up-to-date and instantly available to every doctor nurse or first responder that has to provide care to the patient.

"Not only is this critical to managing its 194,000 emergency room visits every year, it will help first responders and primary care physicians better protect the public when facing a public health crisis. For example, the Enterovirus that's sickening our youth; or the potential of an Ebola outbreak. It means that anybody who needs accurate information can get it immediately."
Brown is right. In fact, later that day, Council reversed course at a budget Meeting and authorized the funding with Lamont McClure being the sole No vote. (Vaughn recused himself and Ken Kraft was stuck in an elevator).

Brown then went on to blast Council and McClure.
"[T]hey took this action to extort the Executive's office. After the meeting, Council members and their mouthpieces sent messages to me with an offer: If I were to acquiesce to their demands on an entirely unrelated matter [employee health care]; they would hold an emergency session in order to approve the bond. in other words, they are holding the County government, the county's healthcare providers, and our citizens hostage in order to win a political fight. That's not only craven and irresponsible ... it is wrong."
He went on to accuse McClure and other Council members of "political gamesmanship and pandering to further their own personal interests and open the door to a real health crisis."
"If my words seem angry, it's because I'm more than a little outraged with people who are willing to shirk their duty. I urge citizens to contact every member of council and tell them that this is wrong! Tell them to stop!"
He goes on to claim that he won't allow council members "to use our community's security as a bargaining chip in their effort to grab cheap political wins."

Who Wrote Brown's Speech?

Brown then got up and walked out of his own office, refusing to answer questions. Judging from the horrified look on Kim Pyler's face, I know it wasn't her. Because it was written in English as opposed to business babble, it wasn't Brown, either. Instead of saying, "Tell them to stop", he would have said, "Communicate parameters on future dialogue with the leadership core."

My guess is that Brown used his political consultant, Matt Deibert, to write that screed. He was reportedly seen slinking about the courthouse.

By the way, who the Hell uses the word "craven"?  The only time I hear it is when someone is being sentenced.

Ferraro Blasts Brown

Peg Ferraro, President of Northampton County Council, supported the St. Luke's vote from the onset. She was one of the two Yes votes last week. Last night, she managed to resurrect the matter during a Budget Meeting, thanks to a determination by Solicitor Phil Lauer that any County business could be conducted. She had representatives from St. Luke's present to explain the loan. She agreed with many of the observations in Brown's statement. But the Doyenne of Northampton County was visibly perturbed by Brown's heavy handed approach to a news conference.
"I have been around here for a long, long time. And everybody knows I've been around for a long, long time (laughing). This is the first time I have come to know the difference between a 'media event' and a 'press conference'. It's a little bit like Willie Shakespeare. 'What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'

"Today I got a copy of the media event, and I have to say it is well written and I agree with much of it. But today, I experienced something that I have never experienced in my years here in Northampton County government. Two Sheriff Deputies were pulled from their duties to guard the doors. I can understand ... maybe ... the public entrance. But to have the Sheriff's Deputies stand - armed Sheriff's Deputies - standing guard at the door between a Council Chamber and the County Executive Chamber, to me, is absolutely appalling and sends completely the wrong message to the elected officials that sit up here on this dais with me. I just had to get this off my chest. I've never seen anything like it."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Brown Holding "Urgent" News Conference Concerning Health Care Benefits

It is at 4 pm, and in his office.

Instead of Ebola, Worry About the Flu

On Monday, I was dispatched to East Stroudsburg's Pocono Medical Center because U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa) was scheduled to be there for a tour of the facility and a discussion of the Ebola threat. My news account was picked up by The Times News. I believe we need to be a tad more worried about the flu threat.

Senator Casey stressed that this is "no time for politics." Though he believes we need to invest more into the NIH and the Hospital Preparedness Program, he went to great lengths to make clear that both parties have cut finding over the years.

Why do I say we need to be more worried about the flu? Only one person has died from Ebola inside the United States. Outside of West Africa, only 17 people have been infected worldwide. But this year alone, Pocono Medical Center's Dr. Susheer Gandotra predicts that as many as 50,000 people will die from the flu. This will happen even though we all can get a shot.

NorCo Council To Continue Budget Review Today

The entire criminal justice system, from prosecutors to jailers, is on the chopping block today, starting at 4:30 pm in Council Chambers. So is the County's vast Human Services program, which addresses the needs of 18,000 people in need. If you think we spend too much helping abused and neglected children, today is your chance to shine. If you think we should instruct DA John Morganelli to stop prosecuting murderers, your voice can be heard. If you think we are spending too much money on jails, coddling criminals, now is the time to tell Council to open the gates and set them free.

I'm unsure whether any consultants will be on hand with brief cases and cell phones, but I'll let you know.

The Sunshine Act and Executive Sessions

Yesterday, I groused about Bethlehem Township's penchant for meeting behind closed doors before meetings. These secret meetings are permitted under Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act and are called "executive sessions" The public can be excluded from discussions about (1) personnel (not the appointment of a vacancy on the Board); (2) collective bargaining; (3) the lease or purchase of real estate; (4) litigation concerning identifiable complaints; and (5) confidential information such as a criminal investigation or privileged medical data.

Any votes must be taken publicly.

I compared the eight executive sessions in Bethlehem Township this year to other municipalities. I learned that Palmer Township has had 14 executive sessions so far this year, almost twice as many as Bethlehem Township. But because these sessions are always conducted at the end of the meetings, it's not as rude to the public as when they are forced to wait.  

The same is true in Hanover Township. Their five executive sessions this year were conducted at the end of meetings, with a statement alerting the public that the will re-convene in public if official action needs to be taken.  

I did not bother with Nazareth. In my limited appearances there this year, they had executive sessions before, during and after the meeting. I think they fumigated the room when I left, too.

Lower Nazareth, which has been extremely busy this year with numerous contested developments, along with its threat to leave the Colonial Regional Police Department.  There have been over twenty meetings, far more than anywhere else. But I could only find one brief executive session about a topic that arose during a meeting. It's a good record of transparency.

It appears that all the municipalities make an effort to be open,and specify why they are going in the back room. But it's best to have those meetings after all other business has concluded.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A New Rivalry is Brewing In High School Football

Stroudsburg High School's Marching Band took to the field before Saturday night's Battle of the Unbeatens between Bethlehem Catholic and the Mounties, played in Bethlehem. In what has to be the best band performance I've seen this year, they played a few tunes from Despicable Me! When the Mounties finally left Bethlehem on Saturday night, most Beca fans would agree. A touchdown late in the 4th quarter put them ahead, 23-19. Becahi moved the ball valiantly, but faltered, with Fabulous Freddie Simmons tripped by a Mounties as he went for a ball that fell harmlessly ten yards ahead of him. It was not to be.

I could give you all kinds of reasons for the loss. I could say that Beca was too cocky and overconfident, and they were. I could blame the officiating. I could point to at least three turnovers. I could point to three personal fouls against Beca and a block below the waist that seemed designed to take Michael "M1" McDaniel put of the game. But the simple reality is that, on Saturday night, the Mounties were the better team.

One thing is clear. These teams really dislike each other. Last night, the Golden Hawks and Mounties Freshmen and JV squads met in Stroudsburg, and it was a war, from beginning to end. Beca eked out the freshmen victory by a razor thin score of 8-6. It was another game punctuated by face masks, personal fouls and late hits.

I sense a new football rivalry is brewing between two closely matched teams that really detest, yet respect, each other.

Their stadium is beautiful, but as I made my way to the visitor stands, I was walking on the track reserved to coaches, players and officials. I honestly didn't know.

"Are you a coach?" a security guard suspiciously asked me.

"Nah, I'm a player," I answered. "I was redshirted a few decades."

Fortunately, he laughed.

Mezzacappa On Spoiled and Coddled County Employees

Hello! My name is Mr. Ed!
Tricia Mezzacappa, the Wicked Witch of West Easton, was pretty much disowned by Republicans when she ran for Northampton County Council last year. But don't kid yourself. She intends to run again,  oblivious to the number she's done to herself in recent years. Yesterday, she insisted that the Council Clerk deliver this missive to Executive John Brown, County Council, and for some reason, her.

Dear Members of Northampton County Council,

I have been following the media (Express Times and Morning Call and WFMZ) reports of the recent uproar regarding medical benefits for county employees. If not for the uproar, I would never have known that the County employees were enjoying the long extinct 100-0 medical plans. Now knowing that, I applaud Mr. Brown for bringing Northampton County into the 21st century, and suggesting a civilized way to run a multi-million dollar government operation. If Mr. Brown refuses to make the medical plan negotiable , good for him. Why?

I moved here in 1999. The last time I had an employer-sponsored medical plan was 2000. The last time I had a steady paycheck was 2004. The fact is, that employer sponsored medical plans are actually extinct too, in the private sector, and sometimes, even in the public sector. This is because the traditional "full time job" has been wiped out, in favor of part-time and per-diem work. Don't get me started on the "jobs" situation as it is today. I see temporary staffing agencies taking over with $9.00/hr jobs, no benefits. I recently applied for a nursing job, and was told that they received over 3,000 applications.

I have never seen a job with a pension plan in the private sector, in which the employer contributes to the employee.

Having mentioned those facts, the only "galling" thing I see, is the behavior of the spoiled and coddled county employees. There were a number of them in courtroom one. Blowing up plastic dolls, booing and hissing is no way to make your point. I have a better idea...since the employees insist they live in the "real world", lets give them a front row seat. Usher them off to healthcare.gov where they will find $6,000 deductibles and premiums based on income.

Taxpayers are not ATM machines. If the employees refuse to understand that, then they are welcome to leave.

Let me tell you a little story about Tricia Mezzacappa, R.N., of the private sector. (May God have mercy on whomever gets stuck with her).

In 2011. Mezzacappa worked in the public sector. At Gracedale. She lasted 1 1/2 days and walked off the job when someone dared tell her she was late.

She's pretty much a full blown liar about pretty much everything.

Her epistle is being exposed so that workers know what  she's like when she runs again.

Back Room Meetings Too Frequent in Bethlehem Tp

While the dais is empty, about 25 citizens are waiting.
People who visit Bethlehem Township Commissioners for a meeting can usually set their clocks back 15 minutes or longer. That's because, with increasing frequency, Commissioners are huddled in a back room. When they come out, there will eventually be announcement that they were in Executive Session for "litigation" (the litigation is never described) or personnel matters. They almost never take any formal action on whatever was discussed behind closed doors. This breeds suspicion. As stated expressly in the Sunshine Act, "[S]ecrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society."

In addition to being secretive, this behavior is rude. Other municipal bodies have more respect for the citizenry than to schedule a meeting and then force the public to wait because a chosen few are cowered in some dark corner. These executive sessions should occur, if at all, after the people's business has been concluded.

Top Ten Things To Blame on NorCo Exec John Brown

Late yesterday, one of my readers posted this list of things that we can lay at John Brown's feet. I have to share it. If you can improve on it, please be my guest. I'll take the best answers and incorporate them into a new post on Wednesday. This might be a regular feature down the road. Top Ten Things to Blame on County Council might be next.

Things John Brown is responsible for:

1) the death of every county employee
2) Ebola
3) Bernie's drinking
4) The Cubs
5) The Centralia mine fire
6) Kids' discomfort with nines
7) Global Warming
8) Straight to DVD movies
9) Barron's lisp
10) Mezzacappa's bad hair

Bethlehem Tp Comm'rs Approve Duplex Over Neighbors' Objections

Despite forceful objections by three neighbors on Spear Street, Bethlehem Township Commissioners last night approved plans by Allentown's Robert James to tear down a single home at the southeast corner of Fifth and Spear Street and replace it with a duplex. Commissioner Tom Nolan told protesters the development is "by right permissible," meaning that it is an expressly permitted use under the zoning ordinance.

The vote was 3 to 1, with Nolan, Marty Zawarski and Phil Barnard supporting the development. Pat Breslin voted No, without explanation. Michael Hudak was absent.

Richard Brescia, who lives on Spear Street, questioned whether this is really a "by right" development. He noted that, though the zoning ordinance does allow for duplexes in that zoned area, it also mandates a balancing act, under its express terms, to "carefully control the types of housing to ensure compatibility with existing homes." He denied that a duplex is compatible with the existing homes in that neighborhood,

Brescia was joined by two Spear Street neighbors, Charles Milositz and Joe Stofanak. who stated the nearest duplex is a mile away. "It just doesn't fit," added Milositz.

These neighbors they were absent when this matter was presented to the Planning Commission, and have no plans to sue.

After the meeting, Phil Barnard took no pleasure in voting against these neighbors. "We were kind of handcuffed," he observed. Nolan had previously stated, "We have to uphold our ordinances."

In other business, Commissioners got an earful from a frustrated Anthony Billone. He told Commissioners that his father's home, located on Farmersville Road directly across the street by Deja Vu Kennel, is being treated as both a parking lot and bathroom stop for the pets. Customers even park in and block his father's driveway. When he's called the police, he's been told it's a zoning issue, When he's called zoning, he's told to call the police.

Deja Vu Kennel is exempt from the zoning requirements of off-street parking because it existed before the ordinance went into effect. But that's no consolation to Billone. "We can't get in and out of our own driveway," he complained.He indicated one truck with all kinds of lawn maintenance equipment is deliberately parked on his father's property. No Trespassing signs are torn down.

Nathan Jones, Bethlehem Township's new Planning Director, stated that some type of enforcement action is being pondered, and would call Billone with an answer today.

In addition to dealing with unhappy neighbors, Commissioners voted 4-0 in support of an amendment to the Township's Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance that will require owners to bear the costs of streelighting in future non-residential development.

They also authorized their Solicitor, John Harrison, to "intervene" in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's pre-application hearing with respect to the PennEast Pipeline. That pipeline is currently scheduled to slice through the eastern portion of the Township.

Harrison explained that it is currently too early to intervene. The motion gives him the authority to do so when the time is right. He added that intervention does not mean that the Township is taking sides, either in support of or against the pipeline. For now, it is acting as an observer.

Naughty Emails?

Back in 2007, when Seamus McCaffery was running for the State Supreme Court, I met him at a fundraiser in Bethlehem. All the Micks were there. Cunningham. Callahan. Brennan. I loved the guy, an ex-cop who used to be the Judge of the Eagles Court. I even gave him money, though my check for $1,000,000,000,000,000 bounced. I thought he'd bring a different perspective to a court full of blue bloods who only shit once every four or five years.

Since ascending to the judicial heavens, he began acting like one of them. I became particularly concerned over referral fees being paid by law firms to his wife, who was also then employed as a court aide for him. So did the FBI.

But now Hizzoner has redeemed himself in my eyes. He's been suspended for something no blue blood would do - engage in naughty emails.

Ron Castille's horn-rimmed glasses must have steamed up and cracked when he found out that, over the years, Justice McCaffery has sent a few ... OK ... 234 emails from his personal account to his pals, most of them former cops.

Naughty emails.

If he investigates, Castille will probably learn that McCaffery pisses and farts every day and farts, too. He's a human being, not an automaton. As long as Seamus is not one of the models, I frankly think they are all over-reacting. They should have paid this much attention to kids for cash scandals, but the judges involved there were fellow blue bloods. For the ex-cop, a different standard is in place. The aristocratic preppies are simply shocked that a judge would act like a human being.

Give me a break.

Monday, October 20, 2014

If Your Neighbor Wants To Build a Fence, Shouldn't He Ask You?

Most of you know recognize names like Northampton County Executive John Brown, Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez or Easton Mayor Sal Panto. Few of you would recognize the name Mike Romig. But it is thanks to this 28-year veteran of Northampton County's bridge department that you can get from one side of a river to another without falling in. He has never asked you to thank him, either, and has no need to hire PR consultants to tell you what a swell guy he is.

I saw Mike on Saturday night, when Bethlehem Catholic's and Stroudsburg's undefeated football teams faced each other. During half time, he talked to me.

He told me that if he wanted to put a fence around his property, regardless whether he has the right to do it, he'd talk to his next door neighbor first. "That's just common courtesy and respect," he explained.

He expects the same courtesy and respect from Executive John Brown. before he imposes changes that could dangerously impact what he himself has called the County's most valuable asset, he owes it to those workers to talk to them.

Beyèr - A Democrat of Convenience

Allons enfants de la Patrie
Two years ago, Democrats tried and nearly succeeded in getting rid of State Representative Justin Simmons. They ran Kevin Deely, a one-time teachers' union president for the Easton Area School District. Deely lost, and later moved out of the 131st District, proving that he had been a carpetbagger after all. Now Democrats are trying to beat Simmons with Mike Beyèr. Until very recently, Beyèr was a Republican himself. He's the son of former Republican State Rep. Karen Beyèr, who was upset by Simmons four years ago. She's pulled out all the stops in getting her son elected. This includes breaking the law, doing the same thing that led to the Bonusgate prosecutions.

Harrisburg Republicans have been getting emails like this from Karen Beyèr, sent to their pahousegop.com e-mail addresses:
From: Karen Beyer [mailto:kdbeyer@yahoo.com]
Sent: Monday, October 13, 2014 6:25 PM
Subject: Please join me for a cocktail reception for Michael Beyer

Please join me and my family in our home for a cocktail reception for Michael.
He will be a great representative for the 131st, please come out and meet him.
Attached to these emails is a flyer from 7pointsconsulting.com (That is political consultant Mike Fleck's firm) inviting them to the cocktail party to elect Beyèr at $100 a pop.

This, of course, is exactly what started the Bonusgate prosecutions. So Beyer instead of a mad rush to buy tickets, she instead received an email from Rod Corey, Chief Counsel of the House Republican Legal Staff, telling her to stop using state email addresses to further her son's campaign.

There goes that damn Ethics Act again.

I guess porn would have been OK.

This little episode demonstrates that Beyèr, among other things, is a phony who pretends he is a Democrat while reaching out for Republican support, and breaking the law to do it. He is, as one other person has called him, a Democrat of convenience. He was registered Republican until just before deciding to circulate a nomination petition for his mom's old seat. Realizing he could never beat Simmons in a primary, he simply switched parties.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is on to him. He was thrown off the ballot as a Democrat after making a "knowing and material misrepresentation" that he was, in fact, an attorney. The truth is that he failed or never took the Bar exam. Those who signed his nomination petition, the Court concluded, were "materially misled."

He has continued to materially mislead the public. In campaign literature, this former intern claims falsely that he was a legislative aide. He also falsely claims to have worked at a securities arbitration clinic when the truth is that it was just a part of a required class when he attended law school.

The Beyèr camp, issued this statement: "I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries. Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Molovinsky Shines in State House Debate (Updated)


This past Saturday morning, while most of you were doing your weekend chores and a lucky few got to sleep in, three candidates for the 183rd state house seat - a statewide office - were at a largely empty middle school in South Whitehall Township, debating before a small group of camp followers. It's a gerrymandered distict that includes municipalities like parts of South Whitehall and North Catty, which have little in common, in two different counties. This is the only chance voters had to see long-time incumbent Julie Harhart, a Republican who has been in office since 1995, defend her record against Democrat Terri Powell, a title agent hoping to ride gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf's coattails into office. It was the only opportunity for Independent Michael Molovinsky, a long-time community activist, to tell Powell and Harhart that both of their messages are wrong. Did they waste their time? In a democracy, the answer has to be No. And in this case, the candidates are lucky because, though the debate itself was sparsely attended, there was quite a bit of media coverage. The Morning Call, the weekly Press papers and hyper-local South Whitehall Observer were all present, along with yours truly. It was a fast hour.

Before telling you about the debate itself, I have to acknowledge the dedication of the Lehigh Valley League of Women Voters, I love to make fun of them, but without people like Beverly Hernandez or Joan Dean, there'd be no attempt to inform the voters at all. Newspapers are so concerned about being "objective" that they run from elections, only to return after it's all over to tell everyone how shitty their choices were. This lack of scrutiny is how we end up with people like Karen Dolan. It's also why people who have no ties to special interests, and who are unwilling or unable to spend the fortune required to tell their story, will never get elected.

It's why Michael Molovinsky has no shot. He has refused to curry favor with either of the major parties. He won't spend the money for the seven mailers he'd need to expect to have any hope at all. But to anyone who attended the debate, Michael Molovinsky was head and shoulders the best of the bunch.

He's by no means the nicest. That honor would have to go to the incumbent, Julie Harhart, whose basic decency stood out.during the debate. It's no mystery why she's been in office for ten terms.

Nor was he the best prepared. That distinction goes to Terri Powell, a powerful and confident candidate who came with reams of talking points and papers and recited bill numbers with the certainty of a Bingo caller. By contrast, Molovinsky even forgot his reading glasses.

But Molovinsky, combining his laconic style with a biting wit, was the best orator. His brief "Harriisburg is broken" opening, in which he states that no amount of money is "ever enough for Harrisburg", was still resonating after the other two gave longer openings that largely said nothing.

Charter Schools

Powell is neither for or against them, but stated they should be held to the same standard as public schools. Harhart stated that reform legislation has recently been enacted that will improve them. Molovinsky said they result in de facto segregation, especially in larger cities, and scoffed at schools financed by real estate developers who hire public relations experts to ram them through.

Special Interests, Transparency

Harhart points to Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law, stating there are "no secrets". Powell pledged to decline large contributions from corporations. Molovinsky stated term limits would discourage a legislator from developing a rapport with special interests. He noted Harhart had pledged to seek only two or three terms, and now is on her tenth. He added she gets a lot of money from the medical industry. "That's because I chair the professional licensure committee," Harhart later explained. "I don't find that answer very reassuring," responded Molovisnky.

Crumbling Infrastructure

Powell noted Pennsylvania's infrastructure is ranked 49th in the nation, and she'd fix that problem by imposing a tax on Marcellus Shale and closing the Delaware loophole. Harhart stated that the recently enacted Transportation Bill, which she conceded she voted against, would bring in seven billion dollars for infrastructure improvements over the next five years. Molovinsky claimed this is a "political football" brought about by mismanagement by both parties. "One need only look at the Turnpike Commission" he observed, wondering what exactly they do.

Taxes on Seniors

Powell stated property taxes continue to rise because Republicans cut education funding, a point sharply disputed by Harhart. "We never cut education funding," she insisted, noting that schools did receive two years of stimulus funding from the federal government and were warned not to spend it on programs. Molovinsky continued to insist there are already enough taxes and revenue. He noted there are 73,000 state employees, and if they have the time to be sending porn emails to each other, perhaps there are too many of them.

Fracking Tax

Harhart supports an impact fee that goes to the municipalities that are impacted by fracking. Powel supports an 11% tax, the same as imposed in every other state that allows fracking. She noted that would raise $1 billion in revenue every year. "We are leaving billions of dollars on the table," she complained. Molovinsky, who supports a tax, noted impact fees only bring in $225 million per year, calling that a "drop in the bucket." He complained that a pipeline coming through the Lehigh Valley is going to degrade this area and we need a revenue tax to protect us from companies that "have more or less gone wild." He also is wary of the DEP and its ability to actually protect the community.

Clean Air, Water

Noting Allentown's recently abandoned plans to convert refuse into energy, Molovinsky noted the project had the blessing of the DEP. "What a Frankenstein mix!" he lamented, "So much for the DEP watching over fracking or anything else. We need to improve the process." He believes more oversight is needed. Powell agreed we have a right to clean air and water, as well as tourism and farming.

Harhart noted that the DEP has received funding to hire more people to provide oversight. She also pointed to recent studies showing that fracking has caused no water pollution.

Municipal bans on guns

Powell went off on a question about municipal bans on guns by stating there should be better checks on mentally unstable people. Noting the state legislation that prevents municipalities from banning guns in parks, she complained that even the KKK will be able to sue.

Harhart brought the argument back to earth, noting that the state law preempts municipalities from most gun issues/. This is because differing municipalities could contradict each other. They could , make the same conduct that is innocent in one municipality,criminal in the next.

Molovinsky stated these are "wedge" issues designed to appeal to panderers and emotion, and faulted both the NRA and gun control advocates for sensationalizing the issue.

Affordable Higher Education

Powell complained she is still paying her student loans and that the "system is a mess" and "we need to do something." Harhart noted there are numerous loans and grants available, "I don't have much interest in the question," noted Molovisnky, who pointed out that people who take these loans agree to pay them. He later noted that paying off a loan itself is educational.

Illegal Immigration

"We need reform," announced Powell, but Harhart noted this is really a federal issue. Molovinsky added that the last time he checked, Pa. is not a border state and wonders what people really mean. "Are we talking about immigration or expressing prejudice?" he asked.

Minimum Wage

All candidates support a hike in the minimum wage, but Harhart would do it incrementally. "You have to be very careful or it could be detrimental to the people you're trying to help," she warned.

When it was all over, LWV member Joan Dean gave this warning: "Your vote is your ticket that brings you to the table; because if you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu."  

Blogger's Note: Michael Molovinsky and I are friends ... I think.  He is also a fellow blogger. I am obviously rooting for him, and wish I could vote for him. Having said that, I do think the other two candidates should be proud of their performances and each had their strong points.

Updated 9:05 pm: The Morning Call's account of the debate notes Molovinsky's strong performance as well.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Did You Know?

Robert Todd Lincoln has the dubious distinction of being the only person present for three of our nation's presidential assassinations? He was there for his father, as well as James Garfield and William McKinley in 1901. It was not until McKinley was shot that Secret Service agents were assigned to protect the President. It was thought to be too un-American. 

92 Retirements Possible This Year in NorCo

At last week's news conference with Executive John Brown, i asked how many people have given notice they are retiring. He promised to get back to me, and did right before last night's meeting.

 Last year, there were 138 inquiries, but only 76 employees actually followed through and resigned.

Thus year, there are 189 inquiries as of October 16. Of that number, 61 are definitely retiring, and another 31 are in the process. Those who are in the process could still change their mind. But if looks as though there are 92 retirements thus far.

Looking at the numbers between 1995 and 2013, the average number of retirements per year is 55. If there are 92 retirements this year, that will be nearly twice the average.

Looking at the numbers during the eight years than John Stoffa was in office, the average number of retirements per year is 66, If there are 92 retirements this year, that will be about 40% above the average under Stoffa.

Brown told me that all decisions will be finalized around Thanksgiving, and will update me at that time.

It appears that people are leaving the County in much larger numbers than is normal.

NorCo Council Goes On Strike! (Updated)

Brown displayed no emotion as people spoke.
Two weeks ago, Northampton County Council President Peg Ferraro asked Executive John Brown to compromise on his health plan cuts for the County workforce. He declined. A majority of Council adopted a Resolution calling on Brown to give a little. He said No.  Union agent Justus James asked Brown to sit down and just talk to him. Brown demurred, according to James. In three crowded Council meetings, workers have alternatively alternatively criticized and begged Brown for help. Last night, he declined to answer their concerns or even provide an Executive Report. So Lamont McClure urged fellow Council members to do something that workers have not - strike. He has proposed refusing to conduct any business beyond what is absolutely necessary until Brown finally agrees to sit down and talk.

Thanks to an absent Republican Seth Vaughn, McCkure got away with it last night.

Earlier that night, before workers even spoke, Council approved some pathology services for Coroner Zach Lysek and some changes to the emergency generator project at Gracedale. Those were both noncontroversial and passed with with little discussion, though Glenn Geissinger strangely recused himself from the pathology services contract.

After listening to the concerns of workers from a crowd that numbered over 100, Council returned to its agenda.

The first real item of business was a Geissinger-inspired ordinance that would give all Council members a $1,000 paycut so they could all feel the pain already being inflicted on the workforce. Almost as soon as the ordinance was introduced, McClure moved to table it. Council President Peg Ferraro, no fan of pay cuts, quickly joined all Democrats to provide the fifth vote..

Then McClure explained what he was doing. Noting that Brown has refused to compromise or even discuss rolling back his health plan cuts, he suggested Council should just stop conducting business. "We ought to table anything that isn't essential to the government of Northampton County," he said.

And that's pretty much exactly what happened. What wasn't tabled, failed. The other three Democrats quickly followed McClure's lead. Republicans, and Council President Peg Ferraro in particular, seemed completely shocked by what had just happened.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm stunned," she said at one point.

What had her up on a lift, blowin' oil, was a noncontroversial $30 million loan arrangement with St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem Township, through the County's General Purpose Authority. These kinds of loans, involving hospitals and colleges, are common. It's a form of tax exempt financing in which the County is never on the hook, but is able to use the administration fees to fund other projects of its own in the County

"Motion to table," stated McClure. That failed in a 4-4 vote. As Council Clerk Fran Flisser called out the names, an exasperated Ferraro asked McClure, "Do you realize what you're doing to St. Luke's Hospital?"

Though the motion to table failed, so did the resolution. By a 6 to 2 vote, with only Ferraro and fellow Republican Hayden Phillips voting Yes, Northampton County Council dealt a setback to St. Luke's and any other hospital or college interested in arranging financing through the County.

"You have just rejected hundreds of thousands of dollars to Northampton County," Ferraro said to the No votes.

This is a first. At no time has Northampton Council ever voted to reject his kind of financing arrangement, which involves no risk to the County and results in administration fees.

But McClure had only just begun.

The next item on the agenda was a resolution to approve the reclassification of a position in Human Services. A Budget Analyst would now be called an Accountant, with no extra pay to show for it.

"Motion to table," said McClure again. This time, Glenn Geissinger mysteriously joined the Democrats, and in a 5-3 vote, the reclassification was halted.

After the meeting, Brown accused Democrats of "pandering to the employee base," while McClure told Express Times reporter Tom Shortell that he only wants Brown to sit down and negotiate these health plan cuts.

Mike Romig 

What Did People Say?  


Though the 100-plus crowd was not as large as the previous two, there were more speeches, and they were impassioned.

Justus James - The AFSCME union agent, who speaks for most of the bargaining units in the County, noted that Brown is making financial mistakes. he's closed down an academy to train corrections officers, who will have to be trained at about a $20,000 County expense per worker in Elizabethtown. He pointed out corrections officers are retiring, and inmates could sue. All the unions that can do so are going to arbitration. "How much will all this cost the taxpayer?" he asked. "Maybe we need another consultant to figure it out," he said, in a biting reference to Brown's pencahnt for hiring consultants.

Paul Breaux - In addition to the 16-plus vacancies in Corrections, the Juvenile Detention Center is down ten people. They are being forced to work multiple 16-hour shifts, which could lead to "huge liability" for negligence. "With changes to the healthcare plan," we will lose employees," states the 911 dispatcher.

CYF Caseworker (I missed her name and tried to get it
after the meeting, but she sprayed me with mace) 
Sean Carson. - "We're all on the same team," he told Brown. "We're here to serve the residents of Northampton County."

Mike Romig. - Wearing a "Bite Me!" T-shirt, which is not as cool as a Stickergate T-shirt, Bridge Department worker Mike Romig noted that 1/4 of the County workforce makes under $31,000. "We have incompetent administrators who hire incompetent assistants who hire incompetent contractors." Noting the County's ability to botch repair jobs, he joked that they have a saying - "Maybe they'll get it right the third time."

Donna Joyko - This 37-year department head at Gracedale asked Brown to address the rumors concerning reductions in vacation, sick time, longevity, etc. "Are these facts, fiction?" she asked. She got no answer. (Blogger's Note - Today is her anniversary with the County. Congrats, Donna!!)

Steve Barron - The Controller is waiting for documents from the Executive concerning C3, the consultant who recommended the health plan cuts. (Blogger's Note: Like Barron, I have filed a Right-to-Know concerning these documents and emails, and expect a reply on or before November 16). Barron has also discovered yet another consultant contract, this one for $22,800, with an outfit called Concord Financial Services. An outfit with that name is the one that recommended the County enter into the swaption that cost it over $27 million.  It is also the outfit that recommended the firm involved in Bethlehem Township's streetlight scam.  But after the meeting, Barron told me he thinks this is a different Concord. I hope so.

"Any fiscal conservative who would look at your spending concerning consultants would find it galling," Barron told Brown.

Mary Eckhardt
Mary Eckhardt. - A former union organizer herself, she stated she and her husband now live on a fixed income. "We have helped you keep your jobs. Now help us pay for your jobs,." she stated.

Tom Davis. - The union president for corrections officers, Davis disputes Brown's statement at a recent news conference that Davis had told him he'd address staffing shortages during contract negotiations. "That never happened," stated Davis. He also resented brown's statement that he was not going to just "throw bodies" at the staffing shortage at the jail. "He called us his most valuable asset and then calls us 'bodies,'" complained Davis.

Wendy (last name missed - Gracedale). - "You won't take my pride and won't take these people's pride away from them. ... We're under-appreciated, understaffed, overworked and disgusted, and it's beginning to show at Gracedale."

Michael Stocker - a Lafayette College Junior, he noted the cost of education. "You need to realize there is a real world out there."

Updated 1:25 pm: Though I like to pretend I am just making things up, I am fairly serious about getting my facts right and quoting people accurately. Last night, I know Peg was exasperated by the St. Luke's vote, even to the point of criticizing Lamont McClure in the middle of the roll call. I also recall her saying, "Ladies and gentlemen ..." several times. In the course of writing my account, I saw Tom Shortell's excellent play-by-play for The Express Times. He writes, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am stunned."

I saw his words. Reading them, I believed that is what Peg said. I was sitting there. I believed he was quoting her. Tom was actually writing for himself in the first person.

His words may have confused me.

In a nice way, Shortell called me a plagiarist today. He told me he knows that doesn't mean so much to someone like me, who isn't bound by journalistic ethics.

Actually, it means quite a bit. For that reason, let me qualify the Peg Ferraro quote on my main story by stating I know she made a few "Ladies and gentlemen" remarks and I quoted her accurately to the best of my ability. I believed my quote was accurate when I reported it, but Shortell's play-by-play may have confused me.

I try just as hard as any mainstream reporter to get it right. Just as I don't post anonymously, I'm not going to steal someone's work. I don't think I need a course in ethics on that topic.

Seth Vaughn Absences Beginning to Add Up

When Seth Vaughn was running for a seat on Northampton County Council last year, he promised he'd show up. "It’s an embarrassment when a public official skips committee meetings and does not show up for work ...," he pontificated. Then I learned, last September that Vaughn actually had a 0% attendance record at Lehigh Valley Planning Commission meetings. He blamed that on a "perfect storm" of unusual circumstances.

Well, that wind must still be blowin'. He's missed all but two of the monthly meetings for LVPC this year.

About a month ago, Vaughn referred to the large number of employees attending meetings as a "gang". He did apologize, and then skipped out on a Budget Hearing yesterday and a County Council meeting last night, attended by over 100 workers. .

His absence last night enabled Lamont McClure to paralyze Northampton County government.

It's time Vaughn considers resigning.

How Will The State Races Play Out This Year in the Lehigh Valley

I recently had a discussion with one of those evil political consultants who get paid zillions of dollars to give politicians advice. He talked to me for free, or at least I hope it's free. Here's what he tells me about this year's state races, as they play out in the Lehigh Valley. The Wolf-Corbett race is the biggest one, so naturally, I forgot to ask him about it. But he talked about the others.

Scavello v. Aurand. - Mario will crush, possibly by as many as 20 points. The reason? Monroe County Democrats. They like Scavello.

Browne v. Felton. - Walter Felton, who is also the Lehigh County Dem Chair, alienated nearly half the Lehigh County Democrats in that race. I question why he's really even running, unless it's to prevent anyone of substance from challenging the State Senator who served as J.B. Reilly's NIZ architect.

McNeill v. Molony. - Though Danny McNeil should easily win this race, lots of people don't know him in the new district. He will still win comfortably.

Harhart v. Powell v. Molovisnky. - This will be another in a long string of cakewalks for Julie Harhart, an incumbent who does not offend. Powell will be crushed and Independent Michael Molovinsky is not even a factor. I spoke to Molovinsky about this prediction, and promises to defy the odds.

Hahn v. Altieri. - I neglected to ask about this one, but think Marcia is a safe bet.

Scwheyer v. Ramos. - The first race in a new, predominately Latino district, will go to the Gringo.

Simmons v. Beyer. - This is a race Beyer can win. His supporters are all motivated, but they need to bring Democrats who do not usually vote in these off-year elections.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Is $20 Million Line Of Credit Legal? Ask Phil Lauer

"Who, me?" Phil Lauer looks into the camera
Is it legal to balance a budget with borrowed money?  More specifically, is it legal to balance Northampton County's 2015 Budget with a $20 million line of credit, as Executive John Brown has proposed? He conceded last night that the line of credit is needed to balance the budget, though it may never be necessary to use it if the County holds the line on spending.

Here's what the Home Rule Charter, Northampton County's Constitution, says:
  • Section 703(b): Balanced Budget. The total of proposed expenditures shall not exceed the total of anticipated funds available.
  • Section 707: "No revenues from the sale of bonds or other forms of indebtedness shall be appropriated to finance annual operating programs or services, except emergency notes and bank borrowings in accordance with § 1.7-705(b)." [Emphasis added].
  • Section 705(b): "Emergency Appropriations. To meet a public emergency affecting life, health, property, or the public peace, the County Council shall have the power by emergency ordinance to make emergency appropriations in accordance with the provisions of § 1.6-603. To the extent that there are no unappropriated revenues available to meet such appropriations, the County Council shall have the power by emergency ordinance to authorize the issuance of emergency notes or bank borrowings, which may be renewed from time to time, but the emergency notes or bank borrowings of any fiscal year shall be paid no later than the last day of the next fiscal year."
Northampton County's Home Rule Charter commands a balanced budget. It bars borrowing money for operational expenses, barring an emergency affecting life, health, property or public peace. There currently is no such emergency. Approving a budget now that authorizes the borrowing of money later, and for the express purpose of paying operational expenses to balance the budget, is completely illegal.

A confident Brown stated he is waiting for a legal opinion, which tells me he's getting one that tells him what he wants to hear as opposed to what the law says.

Though Glenn Geissinger has been reduced to a cheerleader who endorses whatever Brown wants, conservative Hayden Phillips is another story. "I don't think I can sign on to that. This is Basic Accounting 101."

Council has asked for an opinion from their Solicitor, Phil Lauer. I suspect what he says tonight will determine whether Brown's Budget is dead on arrival.

With a Pipeline Coming, Do We Abandon Open Space?

John and Barbara Stoffa. Stoffa proposed 1/2 mill
for open space. "They elected me anyway," he says.
Executive John Brown has gutted open space in his $334 million budget proposed for next year. No new money has been set aside for farmland preservation or environmentally sensitive land purchases. There is $1 million for municipal park projects, but that's only because Council resolved to fund those projects for the next five years. Brown insists he's merely taking "a step back" and that the "approach he's taken is supported by the open space initiative," but his proposed cuts came under heavy attack.

In 2002, Northampton County voters approved a non-binding referendum that authorized the County to borrow up to $37 million for open space projects. Council never borrowed the money. That changed in 2006, when Council approved a John Stoffa-proposed 1/2 mill tax hike (around $3.7 million) for farmland preservation, environmentally sensitive land and municipal parks.

Don Moore, a member of Plainfield township's Environmental Advisory Council, was highly critical of the Brown cuts. He pointed out there is money for 17 of 19 farmland preservation applications, but that's only because that money was approved in last year's budget. The remaining two farms are large ones located in Lehigh Tp, and Moore argued money should be placed in the budget for them. "What are you going to tell these Lehigh Township people?" he asked.

How Farmland Preservation Works

Here's how farmland preservation works. Farmers send in applications for preservation, under which they agree to sell their development rights to the County, in perpetuity, in exchange for a cash payment. An agricultural conservation easement is then placed in record, which limits nearly all but agricultural uses.

The program is seeded with money collected from that half mill tax, usually at about $1 million. But that's only the start.

In addition to that pot, the Farmland Preservation Administrator can use another source of money - taxes imposed on larger landowners who break a promise not to develop land in exchange for a preferential assessment. That can come in at another $30,000.

She can also mix in the EIT taxes collected by a local municipality that has approved a tax for that purpose.

She then notifies the state of the local monies being contributed and asks for a state match, which is paid from both the Environmental Stewardship Fund ans well as cigarette taxes. There's a pot of about $23 million.

The larger the county contribution, the larger the state match.

In 2012, Northampton County was able to get $6.6 million from the state for farmland preservation, which enabled it to preserve 30 farms. It beat Lancaster County in funds received from the state.

Director of Administration Luis Campos disingenuously told Council yesterday that the County has already met its commitment to farmland preservation. There was no value fixed in either the 2002 referendum or the 2006 half mill tax hike. Thus, his statement is necessarily false.

Northampton County has about 900 farms, and Bentzoni would like to preserve 25% of them. Though times are tough, now is the time to buy because property values are low. Incidentally, one of every seven jobs in Northampton County is either in agriculture or agricultural-related.

Council's Criticism

Lamont McClure, Bob Werner and Scott Parsons all criticized these cuts. Werner stated he'd move some money from the near $3 million table games slush fund to support farmland preservation. McClure, referring to the PennEast Pipeline projected to come through Northampton County, had the mist caustic remark.

"With a pipeline about to put a big scar through Northampton county, I'm not sure this is a good time to be abandoning open space."

Vote For Beyèr


Michael Beyèr, the Democratic write-in state house candidate who was chucked off the ballot by the state supremes, has decided to incorporate his love of France in his campaign against incumbent State Representative Justin Simmons.

His campaign signs, all based on the French ensign, are his way of paying homage to the country that brought us the 35-hour work week. Simmons apparently asked him what he's doing, and Beyèr immediately surrendered.