Thursday, August 31, 2006

Katie Couric - Anchor Lite


As I mentioned earlier today, people are disenchanted with the print media, as evidenced by declining circulation and dwindling dailies. Exact reasons are just a guess, but mine is most people are simply unwilling to read. They view it as a task - something they had to do in school.

They'd much rather slouch on recliners, and have their news spoon fed to them by smiling and increasingly sexy anchors. That's why network executives think nothing of air-brushing Katie Couric's promotional photo to make her look twenty pounds lighter. And Couric jokes at this misrepresentation, damaging her credibility as a news anchor before she gets started.

Express Times Assigns Veteran Reporter to Cover Northampton County Gov't Center

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt's hard to believe. Forty armed conflicts are being waged worldwide. We've just experienced the costliest and one of the most deadly hurricanes ever encountered, with promises of more to come. We live in constant fear of terrorists, avian flu, peak oil and global warming. Famines and droughts are commonplace in different areas of the world. Malaria kills three million children in Africa every year. We're a mess. Yet in the face of all these tragedies and fears, newspapers are actually experiencing a declining circulation. Only half of America reads a newspaper during the week, and the actual number of newspapers has steadily dropped.

What is up with that? Some people are getting their news from TV, I suspect, but a lot of people just don't care. I see and talk to them every day. So do you. They're a hell of a lot more interested in Snakes on a Plane than Congo genocide. I think we're too comfortable and these problems seem worrisome and remote. Our idea of personal sacrifice is buying one of those yellow magnet ribbons for our SUVs. We're asleep at the switch, bippy.

We'll snap out of it. It might take another Great Depression or World War, but I think it's only a matter of time before we return to the papers. A democracy cannot long survive unless we know what's going on.

For this reason, I'm delighted that the Express Times, bucking the national trend, has assigned a second reporter to cover the courthouse. Her name? Sarah Cassi, a Penn State grad, and seasoned writer who previously covered Allentown for the Allentown Times and Phillipsburg N.J. for the Express Times. I spoke with her today, and after fifteen minutes, I would have sworn she had been covering the courthouse for years.

Her counterpart at the Morning Call, Paul Muschick, is another terrific reporter. He has a disarming but deadly accurate style. I've tried challenging him on his factual observations once or twice only to discover he had it completely right.

The Lehigh Valley is very fortunate to have two local papers. They'll have some friendly competition, and the net result is we become better informed and the quality of local government improves. But first we have to read what is going on.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Empire Strikes Back! Nazareth Borough Council Answers Sunshine Act Complaint


It's happened again. I don't think the ink was dry on my Sunshine Act complaint against Nazareth Borough and my damn cell phone started ringing. It was Courtney Lomax, Express Times reporter, asking me about it. And this afternoon, she called again to ask me about Nazareth's response. Apparently, Nazareth has answered my Sunshine Act complaint, which was news to me. Courtney was kind enough to fax me a portion of Nazareth's answer.

Not long ago, you may recall, I sued Nazareth Borough Council over its practice of using committees to make decisions behind closed doors. It's been doing that for years. Most recently, secret committees have been considering options for a municipal center relocation. Upset residents feel blindsided.

Nazareth denies it's done anything wrong, and raises every defense conceivable as well as a few that don't exist. According to Nazareth, my claim is barred by the doctrine of fraud, the statute of frauds, contributory negligence, laches, estoppel, statute of limitations, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. This marks the first time I've ever seen contributory negligence used as a Sunshine Act defense. That's a good one. Nazareth has launched every arrow in its quiver in the forlorn hope that one might hit a target. Maybe this is some sort of practical joke, but it's no response.

That's unfortunate because democracy dies behind closed doors. And Nazareth has failed to justify its secret meetings. I could object to the scatter gun answer, but would like to get this in front of a judge as soon as possible.

Did I tell you how much I love our judges? Especially Judge Moran.

I think I'll call Courtney Lomax to see how this all sorts out. The Express Times has hired a psychic.

The Twisted Logic of Nazareth Mayor Earl Keller

I think I saw him at the Nazareth pool one day late this summer. When he looked at me, he started laughing, so I'm pretty sure the dude in the Spandex was none other than Nazareth Mayor Earl Keller. I do look like Bigfoot in my bathing suit, so I didn't really mind his chuckles. I'm used to it. The Mayor was at the pool with some young kids, and he seemed to really enjoy his young charges. Hiz Honor seems like a nice guy. But as nice as this guy may be, his command of logic is questionable.

I first realized this when Mayor Keller blamed three tire "slashing" incidents on Nazareth residents who oppose the borough's plan to expand its municipal center to a park. The first of these incidents occurred long before the proposed expansion was publicly known. The second matter didn't even occur in Nazareth, and the victimized official blamed neighborhood kids who had been causing him some trouble. The final act of vandalism was directed at the Mayor's car, which had been safely parked inside a garage. Yet the Mayor, who actually was police chief in Nazareth, put two and two together and came up with five.

Now he's at it again. Yesterday, a downtown bank was robbed. That's big news in a place like Nazareth. But the Mayor actually used this potentially deadly situation to argue against keeping the police station downtown. "So much for downtown police presence being an anchor for the downtown." Huh? If you take Keller's argument to its logical extreme, Nazareth should not have a police department at all since crime is going to happen anyway. And don't you think it's just a bit tacky to use a bank robbery as an excuse to argue for a municipal expansion in a park?

He definitely looks better in a bathing suit than me. He might be a nice guy. But he definitely could use a few lessons in logic.

The Bethlehem Regurgitator


Joe Owens, look out! That goes for you, too, Bill White! There's a new weekly paper in town, and it's called The Bethlehem Regurgitator. It's publisher, editor and chief news writer? Fifteen year old Peter Christine. He writes about environmental, peace-related, and social justice issues. In addition to the online edition, print copies are distributed at LEPOCO, Bethlehem Area Public Library, and local businesses like South Bethlehem's Wildflower Cafe.

I like Peter's informal and personal writing style, which I've noticed in his print essays. But he's also informative. He walks around with some type of leather band wrapped around his wrist, in which he inserts pens, rubberbands and paperclips. That way he's always ready for a story. A recent article, for example, tells us about Green Fuels, a South Bethlehem alternative fuels company working to convert municipal waste to fuel with the added attraction of being cheaper than the usual trash haulers.

I don't know about you, but when I was fifteen, I sure wasn't reading or writing about alternative energy. I did read Playboy, and my parents were right. I'm nearly blind. And at that age, I'm pretty sure I was either in military school or the convent. I'm told Bill White was an underwear model, and Joe Owens was playing street football with Vince Papale in Philly.

Peter is welcome to post here anytime he wants. That way I can blame my few controversial posts on him. Like those posts about Judge Moran, Court Administrator Onembo, Northampton County Council, LEPOCO, Nazareth Borough Council, Upper Macungie Township, Lamont McClure, Mayfair, and Santa Claus. Santa Claus? God, Peter must be a miserable bastard. And he looks so innocent.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Stonewalling, Northampton County Style!

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLast week, the Express Times told us Judge Moran had played the race card in sentencing a white youth to probation. It included a verbatim transcript of exactly what Moran said. But I have since been informed that the transcript Moran filed is a watered down version of his actual published remarks.

On Friday, I contacted three different offices to get my hands on this official transcript, and each office told me to check with the other. On Monday, I went to the Criminal Division, which is where these records are ultimately kept. This time, instead of being directed to another office, I was flatly told this transcript is unavailable without a court order.

Hmmm. Now let me get this straight. This is a transcript of an open judicial proceeding. Am I to understand that, although anyone could have attended the hearing, the transcript itself is unavailable? That makes no sense. Since Moran's original remarks have already been published, what public interest is possibly served by hiding the official transcript?
None! It's stonewall time, bippy! And the wagons have circled around Judge Moran. I'll send Judge Moran a written request.

Why am I making such a big deal out of this?

Let me explain with a little story. A few weeks ago, people walking into the rotunda were confronted by a large bearded man screaming at another fellow. Concerned, they told some deputies, who raced down the hallways to discover that this person was none other than Judge Moran. The person at whom his venom was directed? County exec John Stoffa. The reason for the temper tantrum? Stoffa had suggested moving the county's Liberty Bell to the rotunda. Moran exploded. He does things like that.

In fact, he explodes regularly at administration officials concerned about rising costs in the county's $43+ million courthouse expansion. They're concerned about the public while Moran's chief concern seems to be himself.

Unfortunately, Moran's volatility extends in all directions. In March, during a social meeting with a bunch of lawyers, he flipped his lid when talking about courthouse security and his own perks. He had to send a written apology. He's also had to apologize for demeaning the staff of both District Attorney and Public Defender, although this conduct has persisted. He even had to send a letter to a jury after incorrectly telling them their deliberations, which resulted in multiple burglary convictions, were possible only because he had rejected a sweetheart deal between the prosecutor and defendant. No such agreement existed.

All of this erratic behavior is bad enough. But now Judge Moran made a terribly divisive statement from the bench that undermines our judicial system. When he learns that someone wants a transcript of what he said, he alters his original remarks to soften their tone without bothering to consult the lawyers involved. And now, court officers stonewall an attempt to see the official transcript of an open judicial proceeding. There is a climate of fear among court employees who wonder when the next explosion is coming.

Is a government official exempt from criticism because he wears a black dress? Any government official who acts erratically, who offers a racially tinged statement, who tries a cover up that statement by altering his original remarks, and who stonewalls attempts to view the record of a public proceeding, is fair game. But a judge must be held to the highest standards of all public officials. Here's what an Official Note in the Code of Judicial Conduct tells us:

"Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. Judges must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. They must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. They must therefore accept restrictions on their conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly."

Temper tantrums, confusing and unnecessary statements about race from the bench, demeaning courthouse employees, coverups, stonewalling - these all tend to diminish public confidence in our judiciary.

Maybe Bush will solve our problems and nominate Moran to the next Supreme Court vacancy.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Bloggers & Local Pols - You're on Notice!


Create your own.

My thanks to A Big Fat Slob, I think.

Did Northampton County Judge Try to Alter Remark That Juvenile Was Getting Break Because of His Race?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLast week, the Express Times published a verbatim transcript of Judge Moran's comments, during a court proceeding, in which he in effect told a young man he was getting a break because he is white. In the ensuing firestorm, Moran acknowledges he "might" have been "inarticulate." After that, both The Express Times and Morning Call published identical op-eds from the judge that are just as "inarticulate." In this epistle, Moran brags about giving speeches and claims to have been a mentor to Hispanic children.

Really? How about being a mentor to a black or Hispanic lawyer, judge?

Although he's been on the bench since 1987, Moran has yet to hire a single black or Hispanic tipstaff or clerk. In fact, the only black lawyers I know in Northampton County government have been hired by the DA's office.

And now the pity party is starting. Although The Express Times courageously condemned Moran's remarks for undermining public confidence in the judicial system, others are rushing to his defense. Lawyers who regularly practice before Moran (and depend on his good graces) are lining up, with letter after letter, to tell us he's a swell guy. And I have been accused of "smearing" a judge who unnecessarily indicted the entire judicial system in the context of a single judicial proceeding.

Before we all start sobbing about poor misunderstood Judge Moran, I have a question - what did he really say? There may be three different versions. The Express Times has the original transcript, but "inarticulate" Moran took it upon himself to change some of the wording in the original transcript to water down his original comments and change their tenor. Now a judge can change spelling and correct grammar, but changing the substance of a transcript is prohibited. As powerful as they may be, judges have no authority to rewrite the record. So in addition to making a terribly stupid and offensive statement, Moran may have tried to cover it up. I don't know about you, but I think that's worse than the original offense.

Late Friday, I tried to get my dirty little hands on the filed transcript, but no one seems to know where it is or if I can have it. Maybe judges have magic wands that can make these things disappear. I'll try and find it today and let you know tomorrow. It's at times like this that I wish I were a reporter instead of some cranky old title searcher trailing toilet paper from my shoes.

I'll check in tomorrow unless someone waves a magic wand and I disappear. I'll also let you in on some disturbing details in Moran's bizarre judicial conduct, something that needs to be addressed before someone gets hurt.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Northampton County's Municipal Fleet Needs a Few Less Gas Hogs

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While the Lehigh Valley works on the state's first regional hazard mitigation plan, other Northampton County officials recently sought bids for a wish list of gas guzzlers that include Ford Expeditions, Explorers, Rangers and Crown Victorias. What the hell are these folks smoking? Thankfully, Council didn't like the high cost. But something else keeps slipping everyone's minds.

We're running out of gas, bippy!

The U.S. Mayors Climate Protection, signed recently by the Mayors of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, calls for increasing the fuel efficiency of municipal fleet vehicles and decreasing their number. The state is adding hybrids to its vehicle fleet each year, and has even launched an alternative fuel pilot program. Yet some county officials want gas hogs. Why not just get it over with and buy everyone a Hummer?

In addition to wasting what little fossil fuels remain, these flashy SUVs spew hydrocarbons that are heating this planet enough to sink both New York city and Florida.

There goes the World Trade Center - again! I suppose we could blame somebody, maybe those damn illegal immigrants. Our true enemy? Look in the mirror.

Here's what Kurt Vonnegut recently told Rolling Stone.

"I'm Jeremiah, and I'm not talking about God being mad at us. I'm talking about us killing the planet as a life-support system with gasoline. What's going to happen is, very soon, we're going to run out of petroleum, and everything depends on petroleum. And there go the school buses. There go the fire engines. The food trucks will come to a halt. This is the end of the world. We've become far too dependent on hydrocarbons, and it's going to suddenly dry up. You talk about the gluttonous Roaring Twenties. That was nothing. We're crazy, going crazy, about petroleum. It's a drug like crack cocaine. Of course, the lunatic fringe of Christianity is welcoming the end of the world as the rapture. So I'm Jeremiah. It's going to have to stop. I'm sorry."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Northampton County Judge Pleads Guilty to Poor Grammar, not Racism

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWhen someone appears before a judge to plead guilty, he better be prepared to admit he did something wrong or he's getting nowhere. And that's the problem with Judge Moran's apology, as reported last night on Channel 69. He admits nothing.

A few weeks ago, when sentencing a white juvenile, here's what Judge Moran said: "I can look out at the family, they are middle class, white, just as I am, and I say would the same thing happen if it was a black kid or Hispanic kid? So I want you to know that you are being given a break, and I hope that everybody in this room would give the same break to everybody." He was effectively telling this boy he got a "break" because he's white.

In his supposed apology today, he just digs a deeper hole. Now he's saying this is what he really meant: "When I have a young white teenager in front of me who has all the benefits of society and he is treated leniently, it's important to point out to him that people of color, different ethnicity might conclude we have two systems of justice."

His earlier statement, he explains, was "inarticulate."

Huh?

This is the first time I've heard a racial slur explained as poor grammar. Ron Angle should have tried that one. Moran's explanation is baloney, and was designed to cover his tracks for what was clearly a racial remark. I understand this is how the system works, but never thought I'd ever hear a local judge admit he gives "breaks" to people based on their race. He had an opportunity to apologize, but opted instead to do some spinning. I hope his statement to the written media is better than the garbage he handed to Channel 69.

As I told you yesterday, Moran's behavior has been erratic. He started screaming two weeks ago in the courthouse rotunda (in the presence of the public) over the placement of Northampton County's Liberty Bell. He had to send a written apology to local lawyers who were subjected to one of his tirades in a social setting. And on the bench, he has been known to fly off the handle without warning, and thinks nothing of making lawyers and their clients wait for an hour or more after he schedules a court session.

Now this kind of behavior is normal for a blogger. We're nuts. But a judge?

I knew Bill Moran when he was just a lawyer and he was one of the nicest guys in the world. I hope, for his own sake, that he gets help. If he doesn't, he needs to resign because his judicial temperament is gone. Without that, he is going to start hurting others.

Moran's Explanation to the Press:

The Express Times this morning published Moran's attempted explanation of his bizarre behavior, in which he claims he was misunderstood and challenges anyone to point to any remarks he's ever made that shows otherwise. Well, gee, Judge, see above. His explanation lacks three simple but very important words - I am sorry. Even a judge needs to admit when he's wrong.

The Express Times put it best this morning, when it concluded Moran's remarks may not have gone far enough "to indict any one jurist or a system, but enough to erode some people's confidence in the courts' duty to be fair."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Northampton County Judge Should Apologize for Racial Slur or Exchange Black Robe For White One with Matching Hood


Right now TV stations are crawling all over Northampton County courthouse, looking for Judge Moran. Both The Express Times and Morning Call today report he's in a jam over remarks he calls "inarticulate." They might also be racist. He certainly suggested that a juvenile was being "given a break" simply because he is white. Sounds like a bigot to me.

Both Moran and President Judge Freedberg need to apologize immediately and sincerely for Moran's latest diatribe, which undermines our criminal justice system. Moran's behavior has become increasingly unbalanced. That's OK for a blogger but it's not a good sign in a judge. Two weeks ago, he had a temper tantrum in the courthouse rotunda when County Exec Stoffa quietly suggested the county's historic Liberty Bell be placed there. Members of the public were confronted, upon entering the courthouse, by a screaming judge. A few months before that, Moran was forced to apologize over another hissy fit at a social meeting with lawyers, where he started rambling about being a Vietnam War vet and knowing danger when he sees it.

Frankly, Northampton County judges are out of control. Last week, I told you that they've rung up at least $3 million in cost overruns for the courthouse expansion. The person behind these overruns? Their very own court administrator, who has pocketed $59,000 from a real estate deal right across the street. The final product? A total disaster that pampers judges like Moran at the expense of employees and the public.

If Moran refuses to apologize, then he should just exchange his black robe for a white one with a matching hood and get it over with.

Update: Moran Has a Defender But Still Apologizes!

Northampton County Councilman/shockjock/entrepreneur Ron Angle came to Judge Moran's defense today. On his WGPA 1100 AM radio program this morning, he insisted the good judge had done nothing wrong. He apparently also gave several hundred TV interviews exonerating Moran. Of course, Angle was himself tarred and feathered a few years ago for making racist and anti-Semitic remarks on a radio program.

Moran issued a statement today apologizing for his offensive remarks. Perhaps something like this would not happen if one, just one, of Northampton County's eight judges, two senior judges and fifteen district magistrates, were black. Just a thought.

Lehigh Valley Considers Regional Approach to Potential Disasters

The Lehigh Valley is a fragmented mess of 62 municipalities, 17 school districts and two counties. That pretty much explains why developers have their way with us, and don't even have to buy us dinner first. But another problem, and a very serious one, is that we have no unified response to any of a number of cataclysmic events that could impact this region, whether it's flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, or LEPOCO.

This is slowly changing. Lehigh and Northampton County officials have combined and are preparing a joint county hazard mitigation plan. PEMA told Northampton County Council last week this regional approach is a first of its kind in Pennsylvania, and that officials are actually six or seven months ahead of schedule.

Hooray for our team!

Although I don't know plan details, the focus appears to be flooding. Sounds like a plan, especially since this area has been inundated over the last two years by three fifty-year floods.

This regional approach, something advocated by County Execs Stoffa (Northampton) and Cunningham (Lehigh) is the only way to go, especially when the National Hurricane Center is warning us that the "worst is yet to come," and that includes a major hurricane racing up the east coast.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

LEPOCO's Publicity Stunt Backfires!

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThis afternoon, Congressman Dent's office provided a formal statement after the LEPOCO Lame were found guilty of trespass as a summary offense. I emailed his office earlier and asked them to put me in the loop. Here's the statement I received from Dent spokesmen Gregg Bortz, former Express Times reporter extraordinaire:

"Today’s verdict by Judge Platt was completely appropriate. Our office appreciates the work of the Bethlehem Police Department and the Lehigh County District Attorney’s office."

"Ten individuals came into this office unannounced on a day when the Congressman was not present and was unable to come into the office. They were in our office more than three hours that day. We listened to their concerns and gave them prompt responses to their questions. But, we apparently didn’t give them the answers the wanted. "



"They were never told to leave during working hours, only told they would have to leave at our posted closing time, 5 p.m. Only when they ignored a final warning from a police officer to leave or be arrested, a half-hour after our posted closing time, were they arrested for defiant trespass."

"These individuals were not arrested for their views, but for their actions.
And these individuals chose to be arrested. They could have left when the police arrived and continued their protest outside. They did not."

"Lepoco had in fact met with the Congressman on two previous occasions and the Congressman’s scheduler was in the process of scheduling a third meeting. The Congressman has always been willing to meet with his constituents, regardless of issue, as long as the meeting is in good faith."

"On January 17, these ten individuals broke with that good faith by staging a publicity stunt at the expense of the taxpayers. The Congressman is elected to represent more than 600,000 people. Ten individuals basically hijacking a constituent services office is not democratic. It is a crime."
Now get this. After being found guilty of trespass, two of them actually showed up again at Dent's office this afternoon! Dent just happened to be there, much to their surprise, and actually met with them.

"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!"

I disagree with Charlie Dent's position on many issues. And he's got a real dogfight on his hands with Democratic challenger Charles Dertinger, who does his homework and is a tireless worker. But I'm sure even Dertinger would agree that Charlie Dent just demonstrated again why he is widely regarded as a class act.

He was able to do this thanks to the Dent Nine. Way to go! What's your next trick? At your current rate, you'll help re-elect every Republican in the country.

Wednesday Morning Update:

It just keeps getting better and better! According to the Express Times, one of the Geriatric Nine, 73 year old Arthur Landis, had the following remarks, in open court, for Dent staffers: "Sorry you were late for dinner." And Joe DeRaymond piously claimed a right to trespass because their situation was "extraordinary."

Landis is old enough to know that the victims extend beyond Dent's staff. They include the rest of us schleps who were prevented from carrying on business with Dent's office. DeRaymond's "me first" remarks establish he's a proud believer of the Orwellian mantra, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Support Your Troops, Not the Dent 9

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAfter yesterday's post concerning the "Dent 9," I heard from a former LEPOCO contributor, RadCenter. He really sums up the growing frustration I've experienced with LEPOCO. And more importantly, he has a very positive suggestion for all of us, whether we support or oppose the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Here's what he has to say:

I received the same letter you did from Lepoco--the one containing the full-color postcard of the nine arrestees looking, if I must say, rather chipper, considering the supposed seriousness of their mission.

My first reaction was to snicker at the ridiculousness of the name "Dent 9." Can they seriously be comparing themselves to the
Catonsville 9? Please. This trivializes the concept of civil disobedience.

I used to pledge to Lepoco in the futile hope that, considering their origins and name, they might actually be instruments of progressive change in the Lehigh Valley or the Poconos. Instead they seem to be "concerned" about every region of the world except the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos, from East Timor to South Africa. What about East Texas and South Bethlehem? I explained this to the last Lepoco volunteer who called me during their annual pledge drive, and was met with total confusion.

Lepoco has been silent on the two issues arguably having the most impact on its immediate neighbors--rampant "upscale" development and the social parasite that is casino gambling. How does it expect to be heard on matters involving the larger community?

I take the adage "Think globally, act locally" to mean that if we want peace in the world, we must create peace in our communities. They take it to mean that if we want peace in the world, we must try to solve all of the world's problems using our own limited local tools. I think they are sincere; I also think they are wasting their time. They could, if they put their minds to it, really make a positive difference in their own community. And if many such small groups in each community around the world would do the same, we *would* have world peace.

It is no longer 1968; it is 2006. New tactics are needed for a new generation of foot soldiers. But we have to be ready to lace up our boots.

Speaking of soldiers: For what it cost to print and mail the postcard that Lepoco sent to me and you, Lepoco could have purchased one or more helmet upgrade kits, the purpose of which is to keep a Marine's brains from getting scrambled when he's hit with a blast. Go to
http://www.operation-helmet.org/ to contribute. Remember, they're dying while we're debating.

It's a much better idea than those silly yellow ribbon magnets. Thanks, RadCenter. I think our soldiers need a little more help than the "Dent 9" or LEPOCO right now.

Afternoon Update:

The Dent Nine are not fryin', but they were all found guilty of summary offenses in Lehigh County Court today. Each was sentenced to a few hundred bucks and costs. I don't have an opinion on the criminality of their behavior. I don't wear a black dress. But in my twisted book of justice they were guilty of rudeness in the first degree, bullying in the second degree, and obstruction of other constituents who also had business in Dent's office that day.

PSU is Number 2, But Tries Harder


According to Princeton Review's latest report, Penn State is now the second best party school in the country, losing the national title to the Texas Longhorns. I don't think PSU was even in the top ten until my son started attending grad school there.

There's also a list for the top ten "stone cold sobers." These include places like Brigham Young and College of the Ozarks. I think they spend their weekends watching Deliverance, buying rubber underwear and deciding how many wives they can afford.

Seriously, if you had to choose between the Ozarks and State College, would you even hesitate?

Frankly, these Princeton Review reports are absurd. These are the same chuckleheads whose fancy computers could not read the apostrophe in O'Hare. As a result, my LSAT scores were never forwarded to a law school and I ended up waiting a year before making my law school debut. I should have sued them, but didn't know any good lawyers.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The "Dent Nine:" Earnest Anti-war Advocates or Aging Publicity Hounds?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOn January 19, 2006, nine aging farts like me were arrested by Bethlehem police and charged with defiant trespass after refusing to leave Congressman Charlie Dent's office. It didn't matter they had no appointment or that it was closing time. It made no difference that Dent, who in all fairness never voted for the war they wanted to discuss, wasn't even at his office. They wanted to see him, and wanted to see him NOW.

They call themselves the "Dent Nine" and are claiming a legal victory simply because the assistant DA assigned to prosecute them reduced their charges from misdemeanor to summary to conserve judicial resources. Incidentally, the DA had previously offered to let them plead to a summary offense and they shot her down. They want a show! And they're going to get one tomorrow, when their case will be heard in Lehigh County along with littering and illegal left turn offenses.

Now I know some of these folks, and like most of them. Like them, I opposed the Iraq war, wrote letters to the editor and participated in peaceful and legal vigils. But I can't understand why nine geriatrics would intrude on any office without an appointment and then refuse to leave at quitting time. I'll bet they wouldn't try that with their podiatrist! It's childish and selfish behavior. And just who the hell do they think they're going to persuade with that kind of rude behavior? Their grandchildren? Did any of them stop to consider that their self-serving antics might actually alienate the public they are trying to sway?

What amazes even more is that some of them had already had met with Dent, and a second appointment had also been scheduled. Maybe they forgot. That happens to me as I age. That, and a lot of nosehair.

They might have also forgotten that this wasn't really their idea. They let themselves be used by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance Against the War in Iraq. This was no grassroots effort. Seven events were planned throughout the U.S. that day, but the Dent Nine were the only ones stupid enough to get themselves arrested.

I received a letter inviting me to watch the circus tomorrow. "Your presence in the courtroom to show public support against the war is important." Blah. Blah. Blah.

I can't help feeling this publicity stunt is not about the war at all. It's about the "Dent 9." And that's the real shame.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Northampton County Exec Plans to Veto Norco Official Payraise

I've told you about last night's ordinance granting a payraise to Northampton County elected officials. Two highly placed sources tonight inform me that county exec John Stoffa plans to veto that folly. I don't know John's rationale, but he's certainly doing the right thing.

Proponents of this measure correctly argue you get what you pay for. But the increase is so low it guarantees that public office in Northampton County will be sought only by the wealthy, the retired or political hacks.

Even more importantly, a payraise for elected officials is a slap across the face of hardworking and long suffering county employees who've seen diddly squat for three years. Their flagging morale, made worse by massive layoffs and unhealthy working conditions, sank a little lower today. In a few short hours, four county employees complained to me about "big shots" who give themselves money without thinking of the county's backbone - its rank and file workers. Stoffa's veto might restore some of the confidence destroyed by eight long years under Reibman and an indifferent court.

Where I come from, enlisted men eat first!

Hooray for our team!

Ron Shegda for U.S. Senate, uh State Representative, oh hell, any Public Office

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNow that the primaries are over and the deadline for filing as an independent or third party candidate has passed, it's safe to assume that we've seen all the candidates we can expect to see. Right?

Wrong.

A conservative Republican has announced a write-in campaign for the state house seat currently held by popular Bob Freeman. When asked why he didn't run in the primary or get on the ballot as an independent, he incredulously claims he only recently became aware of Freeman's positions.

His name is Ron Shegda, and he's maintained a website since 2004 named "Ron Shegda for Public Office." I sent him an email back in June, asking him what exactly what "public office" he had in mind, but never got a reply. So whatever public office he's seeking, don't count on constituent service to be one of his strong suits.

Now we know he has his eyes set on the Freeman's very safe 136th District, which stretches south from Easton to Hellertown.

But Politics: Lehigh Valley Style tells us Shegda also has his eyes set on the U.S. Senate in 2010. This is what Shegda himself has to say:

"We would like campaign offices in all 67 Pennsylvania Counties. We are especially interested in Senior Citizen Coordinators. We need your wisdom. We especially need Youth Coordinators. Without your idealism and energy there is no hope. Our campaign needs at least $10 million in today's money. Julio and Paula Perez have initiated our peace chest (Yes! --- no war chest!!) with their first mustard seed contribution. Yet we are wise as serpents and gentle as doves. We will use the power of a Senate seat to defend our nation. Observe the Great Seal of the United States on the back of every dollar bill. The eagle clutches both arrows and olive branch; but it gazes at the olive branch. Will you join this campaign? Please send your contribution to: Ron Shegda for U. S. Senate 2010 P. O. Box 736 Emmaus PA 18049-0736 USA"

I don't know about you, but people who use the Royal We tend to scare the hell out of me. Reibman used to do that. Judges do that.

So which is it, Ron? Are you running for the U.S. Senate in 2010 or for the 136th state house in 2007? Or will any office do?

I think he should run for pope.

Update:

On September 8, long after this post first appeared and Shegda began his litany of complaints, he today insists that he actually did respond to my initial email asking his intentions. He includes an email indicating an intent to run for the 136th state house seat in 2008, not now.

I have no record of receiving this email, and it disturbs me that Shegda would wait until now to claim he actually had responded. A few days ago, he called a radio show while I was on the air and began a rambling bashing of "imbeciles." So much for his Christian message of love and peace. Gee, if he had responded to my email, why didn't he say anything then?

Norco Officials Give Themselves Raise But Employees Get Squat

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNorthampton County Council last night narrowly approved payraises for themselves ($7,000 to $9,500), the Exec ($65,000 to $85,000), and the Controller ($39,000 to $50,000). They did so even though many county employees are now approaching four years with no salary increases or contracts. Ron Angle, usually the "voice of the people," had no answer to the argument that this raise was a "slap across the face" of county workers who've also endured layoffs, reductions in health benefits and unhealthy working conditions. He justified the $2,500 raise as necessary to cover gas expenses. I can see that.

Four of council's supposed "tax and spend" liberals voted against this raise. Wayne Grube was convinced the timing was all wrong. Charles Dertinger (yep, he's the guy running for Congress) stressed the idea of public service. But the most impassioned argument came from Lamont McClure, who has now impressed me twice in two council meetings. In addition to county workers, he argued many Lehigh Valley residents have seen no raises for years, especially our growing senior population. He also noted the county's chief source of revenue, real estate, is going through a dry spell as that market weakens. Tony Branco also voted against the measure without comment.

County officials are certainly underpaid, but don't you think they should first be thinking about the county's workforce?

County Exec Stoffa has authority to veto this ordinance, and six members of Council would have to vote to override that veto. Although Stoffa would surely hesitate before contravening a majority, I am certain a veto would be embraced by a majority of the county's workers and residents.

Friday Update: Both the Express Times and Morning Call have thorough reports on yesterday's payraise vote. According to The Morning Call account, Exec Stoffa is considering a veto.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Northampton County Needs a Miserable Bastard

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI remember seeing him one day, standing outside the courthouse, smoking his usual cigarette, but looking a bit more subdued than usual.

"What the hell's wrong with you?" I asked.

"I just told Judge M---- to go f#*& himself," was the reply.

That was Jim Hickey, Director of Administration under former County Exec Glenn Reibman. He rammed Reibman's $111 million spending plan down our throats, and when the county's first bond was rejected by the state, did it again. Councilman Ron Angle fought him tooth and nail, and the two of them rolled around courthouse gutters more than once.

As much as I opposed Reibman's folly, I learned to respect and eventually admire Jim Hickey. He was Reibman's hatchet man, and don't kid yourself, every county executive needs one. He was a hard-working, brilliant and aggressive lieutenant who fervently believed in the bond. He was also a straight shooter and very accessible. He thought nothing of storming into the recorder's office, beet-faced, poking a nicotine-stained finger into my chest, and telling me I'm completely full of shit.

I loved the guy!

He's the bastard who told Morning Call reporter Scott Kraus "flaming monkeys will fly out my ass" before the prison expansion went anywhere besides Easton. I kept hoping for that day, but it never happened.

He played hardball. Want an example? When Easton officials considered blocking a prison expansion next to the county campus, Hickey threatened to build it right by Centre Square. Easton quickly backed off.
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He left Northampton County in 2003, off to higher wages and a lot less stress working for the state. Reibman never filled Hickey's spot, a big mistake. It created a vacuum, and Jim Onembo quickly slithered in.

Had Hickey stayed, he would never have let the judges or Onembo go off the deep end. He would have told them to go f#%* themselves, and most likely would have kept the courthouse expansion on budget and on time.

County Exec Stoffa's selection for Director of Administration, Marta Gabriel, was rejected by his own Democrats on Council. They seem intent on preventing Stoffa from accomplishing anything. They've hurt Stoffa, but also have hurt county employees and taxpayers. He needs someone with a hatchet, a miserable bastard.

I wonder if Hickey is bored in Harrisburg?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Northampton County Pampers Judges at Expense of Employees and Taxpayers

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingMonday, I told you there were $3 million in cost overruns for the Northampton County $42 million courthouse expansion even though our President Judge promised that would not happen. Tuesday, I introduced you to one of the fellows who made that possible, court administrator/constable/zoning officer/realtor Jim Onembo. He has personally benefited from this expansion to the tune of $59,000. Today, I'll tell you about the actual expansion, which panders to our judges at the expense of everyone else.

Before it all started, Onembo slithered the halls, clipboard in hand, assessing each office. Now despite his numerous occupations, he's not an architect or an engineer. And he knows nothing about the inner workings of row offices directly affected by the expansion. Nevertheless, he took it upon himself to design each of the new row offices. He didn't bother consulting people who actually use them, always a mistake. He did all the planning for the expansion while County Exec Reibman and aide Bob Daday sat idly on the fourth floor, slapping each other on the back and staring at walls.

The net result for both employees and the public - a total disaster.

The Row Offices

The row offices directly affected by the renovations are Recorder of Deeds, Civil Division, Register of Wills and District Attorney. Of all these offices, things went smoothly only in the DA's office. Judges were careful not to ruffle DA John Morganelli's feathers, and gave him everything he wanted. Unfortunately, John's jurisdiction is limited to the DA's office. Employees in other row offices were not so lucky.

In the Recorder of Deeds, employees and the public spent over a year listening to the cacophony of drills and hammers as contractors pounded away. The final product, once the miasma cleared, was an unsafe and cramped work environment. Petite ladies and weaklings like me were forced to carry heavy record books from one end of a room to the other just to find space to open them and read. The recorder's office had to be completely redesigned and a group of searchers spent countless hours on their own time weeding through old mortgage books just to squeeze a little more room. Contractors were forced to return and redo much of their work. I'm sure that office went way over budget.

As bad as things were in the Recorder's office, at least no one got sick. In the Civil Division, everyone started breaking out with itchy eyes. The office is infested with, of all things, minute particles of Fiberglas. Employees must wipe down their work stations every day and take a shower as soon as they get home.

But the prize for worst transition goes to the Register of Wills office. The nicest ladies in the courthouse work there. And nice people, you may have heard, finish last. The Register of Wills was shoved into a vacated men's room, and a hall surrounding that was closed off for her staff. This hallway and its adjoining rooms were plagued by mold, leaks, and terrible smells. Now every employee in that office has allergies. One employee who could not stop breaking out in rashes has been forced to quit. Another has been diagnosed with asthmatic bronchitis, and her doctor is convinced that her workplace has caused it. In a nearby hallway, contractors with masks and plastic sheets merrily pulled out asbestos as these poor ladies made do in an unhealthy environment. Water continues to leak over precious records. Will books have actually been removed because there's simply no room. One member of the public broke out in a rash after five minutes in the office and had to leave. Did President Judge Freedberg stir from his marble sepulchers to see how these fine ladies were doing, even once? His notion of a "commitment to justice" must not include that sort of thing.

The Public

As bad as things are for courthouse employees, they're worse for the public. Much of the parking previously available was chewed up for the courthouse and prison expansions. If you're handicapped, good luck. There's a few spots in front of the rotunda, and if you don't get one of them, prepare to hoof it for several blocks, and uphill.

You see, judges were concerned that peasants like you and me would trample their marble halls, so the entrance is placed at the far end of the courthouse expansion. Jurists and court administrators have their own little entrance close to their reserved parking places. And once you get into the building and are searched, good luck finding whatever office you need to use. If you need to visit the Register of Wills, you might die of old age before you get there. The expansion is actually designed to discourage the public from visiting their own building.

Disregard for the public is also reflected in the way the county has treated its furniture. In various stairwells and hallways, chairs and tables are stacked together in no apparent order. Perfectly good furniture and equipment was tossed in dumpsters. I don't know how much actually walked out of the building because no one was really paying any attention to that until very recently. But I have a feeling some folks are having very profitable yard sales this summer.

Another public insult, at least to me, is the complete disregard for our county's history. Rather than planning to place the county's historic Liberty Bell in a prominent display at the rotunda or somewhere where it could be seen and appreciated, no provision was made at all. As a result, the Bell still sits alone in the corner of a lonely hallway, although it is no longer being used as a prop for courtroom furniture. County Exec Stoffa would like to place the Bell in the rotunda, but has to figure out why it leaks every time it rains.

The Judges

The judges have a private dining room on the rotunda's second floor, furnished with a $15,000 table that had to be cut in half just to get it in the building. They have their own private entrance, which might give them security but also isolates them from the public they are supposed to serve. They even have a floor to themselves, equipped with a private potty for seven of eight judges, and a private guard who decides who is allowed on the floor.

Before this expansion, the courthouse was surrounded by slate, a local material from our very own slate belt. It was both functional and a symbol of pride in our community. But that wasn't fancy enough for the judges, so jack hammers ruined it all, and the slate was replaced by ornate marble from God knows where. The county has been forced to hire a maintenance worker whose sole job is to maintain the marble floors because the judges don't like to see scuff marks.

And as I write this piece, contractors are hard at work installing wind sensitive fountains, although a few eye wash stations would probably be a little more appropriate.

Years ago, I read a biography about John Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice who established the principle of judicial review. In addition to his brilliant legal mind, Marshall was a rather easy going fellow who was often mistaken for a servant or errand boy. There was never any danger that this fellow would be isolated from the public he served. The person who lent me this book? President Judge Freedberg. He needs to read it again.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Lucrative World of Northampton County Court Administration

They call him the snake. He slithers throughout the courthouse, winding down hallways and into offices, squeezing the life out of every office. He originally worked at the prison, and at a time when it was rocked by scandal over the use of prisoners to perform menial tasks for judges, and other county officials.

Need an oil change? How about a little landscaping? Want a handyman? If you knew the right people, you could get it done for a pittance. That's what he did, and it helped him line his pockets. He used cheap prison labor while deputy warden to work on his Easton apartment buildings.

This is the world of Jim Onembo, Northampton County's court administrator. When reporters started digging into judicial involvement with prison labor, Onembo ran interference for the court.

That's something President Judge Freedberg remembered when his first selection for court administrator punched a woman in the face and dragged her across the street by her hair. He needed someone with a little more finesse, hired Onembo, and we've been stuck with him since 1994.

Full Time Job?

Although the LV League of Women Voters fails to list Onembo's salary with that of other local government officials, he earns close to $90,000 as a "state employee," well in excess of every member of Stoffa's cabinet. As Court Administrator for eight full-time and two senior judges, as well as fifteen district justices, one would think Onembo is giving his undivided attention to Northampton County Court administration. The Court's own web site tells us Onembo "is responsible for the long and short-term judicial planning, interaction with the other branches of county government, day-to-day operations of the Court as well as the oversight of the various court divisions and district justice offices."

Sounds like a full time job, huh?

That's what the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts tells me.

Somebody better tell Onembo. In addition to working for all these full time judges and doing all this "judicial planning," he's a paid zoning officer in Franklin Township, N.J.'s. He also picks up a few bucks here and there as a real estate agent. Oh, by the way, that's in Jersey. Our court administrator is a wheeler dealer who doesn't even live in the county.

Onembo must need the dough. According to courthouse employees, he slinks into his reserved parking place with a different car every day of the week. His New Jersey home is valued at $402,900 according to Warren County tax records. He also owns a shore property in fashionable Eastham, Massachusetts, assessed at $454,000. I wonder how much prison labor went into that place.

Insider trading, court administrator style.

As court administrator, Onembo has perfected the practice, learned as deputy warden, of using his official position to enhance his financial position. Let me tell you how he did that.

Although the courthouse expansion project was extremely controversial, Onembo became an ardent advocate. He met privately with individual members of both the legislative and executive branch, and made numerous public remarks endorsing the courthouse expansion. He told the Express Times it would be a "tremendous waste of taxpayer money" to delay the courthouse expansion: "It's clear that there are needed capital improvements that must move forward . . . I credit [the Northampton County Executive] and the administration with recognizing that and moving Northampton County well into the 21st century." (11/19/03). As the court's spokesperson, Onembo was not only advocating a political position, but was in effect endorsing a county executive who wanted a third term.

Other than its general location, details about this controversial expansion were not generally known. Plans and designs were kept in Onembo's office. And Onembo knew something not generally known - there was only one way in. Unless you had an office or parking located close to the rotunda, you could expect to walk several blocks just to reach the courthouse.

Armed with this knowledge, Onembo bought a property (680 Wolf Ave.) located close to this entrance from a widow for $26,000 in 2003 even though the property was not listed. At that time, the property was worth $42,000, according to records in the assessment office. He also took out a $69,000 mortgage to do some renovations.

When I complained to county council about this insider trading, President Judge Freedberg huffed that the mere suggestion of any impropriety was an "insult to the dignity of the court." Onembo did nothing that could not be done by any member of the public. He denied Onembo used privileged information.

Yeah, right. The simple truth is that practically no one, in or out of government, knew that access to the new building would be restricted to the rotunda. But Onembo knew. I saw Onembo a few days after making my complaint. His remarks to me, as he slinked along? "I hope you know your career is over." (Which one, Jim?)

A few days ago, Onembo sold the building to a local attorney for $155,000. Cha Ching! By my calculations, his profit is $59,000 in three years. Not bad! And interestingly, the property still was assessed the same as when Onembo bought it, before he did all those renovations. Hmmm. Don't you think your assessment would go up if you renovated your property? Now I suppose assessors may not have known what was going on right across the street from their offices. But given Onembo's propensity for insider trading, I question whether he found a way to delay reassessment, and pocket a few more bucks. After all, he had a recent vacation in Australia.

Hiring, court administrator style.

Although there are career service regulations and unions all over the place, patronage is alive and well in Northampton County. Judges have control over a significant and growing number of employees in probation and domestic relations, to say nothing of their personal butlers, called tipstaffs.

I had naively assumed for years that these employees were selected fairly and based upon their knowledge and experience. But a few months ago, I learned that the court administrator has extended his reach into the selection of court employees.

I found this out when a highly ranked elected official (not Angle) began complaining to me that Onembo had rejected one of his recommendations for a position in the probation office. She was rejected in favor of someone else the court wanted. "We have someone else in mind," Onembo hissed when told this person was the most qualified.

What amazed me is that both this elected official and Onembo were discussing a position that had not even been created or approved by Council. Although the position had not yet been advertised, it was already filled by the courts, and Onembo was running interference for the judges just as well as he did when he was deputy warden.

Commitment to Justice, court administrator style.

Insider training and patronage are not enough for Onembo. His loyalty to judges and their projects will even trump the administration of justice.

I first got wind of this during the bond proceedings. Every lawsuit against the county was for some strange reason steered by Onembo's office to the same senior judge, Isaac Garb, who hails from nearby Bucks County. Now this may have backfired because I like Garb. He's a fearless thinker who calls things as he sees them. But don't you think it's a little odd that every case was assigned to him? And he was getting as much work from the county as if he were a full-time judge. Garb was reversed when he raised and sustained his own defense to one of my Sunshine Act complaints - a defense that the county itself had failed to consider. Garb was also chastised for being an advocate instead of a judge.

Onembo's commitment to justice is demonstrated most clearly by my latest Sunshine Act complaint against Northampton County Council. Within minutes of filing the complaint, he was on the phone with the Clerk's office, an office over which he has no jurisdiction, demanding to know how I paid for the suit. He was trying to help out a few council members who incorrectly claimed that Councilman Ron Angle was behind it all.

I wish that were so. Now I can understand a Councilman making that suggestion, but not a court administrator. Judges and their court administrators are supposed to stay out of politics, but Onembo was squirming behind the scenes. His phone call is a clear indication of bias from a court administrator who's supposed to be committed to justice.

So if you want a job that pays well and gives you the opportunity for more on the side, the lucrative world of court administration might be just the thing for you. Just check your personal ethics at the rotunda doors and start slithering.

Next time I'll tell you what a great job the court administrator and judges did with our courthouse expansion.

Afternoon Update: Thanks to fellow blogger Lehigh County Redneck, I've just learned that Jim Onembo is also one of Franklin Township's two constables. Man, is that guy busy! I wonder if he gets a badge. Now excuse me while I catch up on some parking tickets.

Second Afternoon Update:In my original post, I told you Onembo earns at least $90,000. I have just been corrected by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which informs me that Onembo's annual salary is actually $102,705.00. I don't know if he gets a badge.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Warning to Lehigh County: Don't Listen to Your Judges

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Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham is in a tug of war over a proposed Lehigh County Government expansion. President Judge Platt, Lehigh County Commissioners, and DA Jim Martin want a brand new addition, which will cost at least $80.6 million, and give them opulent accomodations. In fact, in Platt's 2005 annual report, he told the assembled masses that the court had already begun the architectural phase of a plan to double the courthouse's size.

But here's one small problem - Bill Platt is not the county exec. True, Platt does get to wear a black dress and people genuflect as he walks by, but he's still not county exec. That distinction belongs to Cunningham, and he wants a scaled down version that could save taxpayers $23 million.

In most counties, judges run everything. Lehigh County is no different from most, and Platt has already threatened court orders mandating the expansion. Even that's not unusual. In Monroe County, former President Judge Marsh used to issue court orders setting the thermostat. So by resisting judges, Cunningham is doing the right thing. He's trying to save the taxpayers some money and establish that he, not the judges, is county exec. He need look no farther than Northampton County to discover what happens when judges are given free reign over the public purse.

In 2001, Northampton County finally adopted a bond ordinance that authorized construction of a $42 million courthouse expansion. Its first effort failed. I was part of a group that successfully challenged the initial bond because council never bothered to obtain "realistic cost estimates" required by law. The state DCED ruled that Council was nothing more than a "bystander." On its second bite at the apple, county council conducted several hearings, and even hired stenographers to take down every word. But these transcribed hearings revealed that, once again, there were no realisitic cost estimates for the courthouse expansion.

Judges were still conducting a "needs study," whatever that is, for the new courthouse. A registered architect flatly told council twice (3/8/01 & 5/21/01) that he wouldn't have the realistic cost estimates required by law until after this was done. Makes sense. You don't know what something costs until you know what you need.

Though they had no cost estimates, both Court Administrator James N. Onembo and President Judge Robert Freedberg insisted the project be funded and promised repeatedly there would be no cost overruns. I can still hear Freedberg's words, which were transcribed: "Give us $42 million and we'll come in at that or under." County Council gave Freedberg what he wanted. My second DCED challenge was rejected because the county actually filled out an affidavit with realistic cost estimates the architect himself said could not be provided.

When the debt service on this bond required the county to raise taxes 70% in two years and eliminate over 100 county positions, the judges did not stir from their teak coffins. But when it became apparent the prison was going to cost more than the $22.7 million allotted, and some council members merely suggested that perhaps the court could forego some of the more luxurious items, like the marble floors or wind sensitive fountains, the judges paraded before council en masse. President Judge Freedberg was furious that anyone would dare suggest a dime be trimmed. "I didn't expect to have to be here," he imperiously asserted. Council quickly backed down. Freedberg didn't even have to wear his black dress.

But as it happens, the architect was right. And guess what? The project is now at least $3 million over budget. The county could make up the deficit by using $2 million left over from a Bethlehem road project, but a majority of council is inclined to let Bethlehem use this money for yet another road for reasons that defy logic. As a result, Stoffa may actually have to tap into Gracedale (its senior citizen home) for the dough to complete what President Judge Freedberg called a "commitment to justice." Those of us who don't wear black dresses call it a monument to judicial arrogance.

This judicial arrogance is clear from the way judges have ignored the funding crisis they created. But if there's any doubt in your mind, it will be erased when I tell you about the role of our court administrator, the design of this monstrosity, and the finished product. I'll tell you about our court administrator next time.

Friday, August 11, 2006

How You Can Become Popular Like Me!

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI've told you this before, but let me say it again. I'm a miserable bastard. I'm so nasty I don't even get along with myself. About ninety per cent of my colleagues at the courthouse stopped talking to me years ago, and I think my daughter has disowned me. She doesn't even call me "Dad" anymore. It's, "How are you, father?"

Even animals hate me. I once offered an apple to a horse, and the damn thing attacked me. Another time, during a long run through the country, a frickin' herd of cows took off after me. Man, are they fast! Somebody told me that prey animals fear me because I'm pretty hairy and they think I'm a wolfman or something. I think there's something to that because dogs are the only animals who like me. But they're pretty stupid. They chase their tails, drink water out of a toilet bowl, eat crap, and lick me.

Now, thanks to Bloggernaut, I've found a way to fool people into thinking I'm quite the guy. It's the popularity dialer! You plug your cell phone into a website called the popularity dialer, set a date and time, and your phone will ring while you're in a crowd so you can pretend to have conversations with people who just adore you. Or, if you have to be somewhere you don't want to be, you can plug in a call from your "boss" telling you that you need to get back to the office at once.

Pretty cool, huh?

I got onto the popularity dialer. Instead of plugging in my cell, I typed the cellphone numbers of what few friends I have left, and started sending away. One of my pals was at home, and his wife got to hear some babe begging him to go out. Another of my friends got all five preset messages in the span of about ten minutes, and was going beserk. I did this to about seven hundred people.

For some reason, the popularity dialer has had the reverse effect for me. Now, pretty near one hundred percent of the people I know have stopped talking to me. Even the dogs are growling at me.

But I'm sure that's temporary, and we'll all be laughing about it on Monday.

I wonder what those red lights and sirens are doing outside my place. I better put some clothes on. See 'ya Monday or in thirty days.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Lehigh Valley's One Man Protestor - "Beats an Uzi!"

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I saw one of my buddies yesterday. Actually, I saw his car first. It's a beat up little compact decorated by several thousand bumper stickers. It's been that way for years. If you peel one off, the damn thing might fall apart. He's selling it, by the way.

His name is Bernie Berg. Remember him? He ran for Congress several years ago. His slogan? "Berg for Congress - the Lesser Evil." He got about 23 votes. Yesterday, the Lesser Evil was positioned strategically at the corner of 13th and Northampton during rush hour in Easton, a one-man demonstrator.

Clad in colorful Bermuda shorts and Pirates baseball cap, Bernie was having a hell of a time! His sign accused Exxon of war crimes or something. Whether horns signaled approval or derision, Bernie would respond with his clenched fist salute and a great smile.

Bernie Berg was one of my co-plaintiffs in several lawsuits against Northampton County, so I gave him a call. I've been feeling kind of blue and he always cheers me up. But as much as I enjoy talking with Bernie, I like his answering machine much more. It's always a treat. Yesterday, I got lucky. Bernie's answering machine message started off in Spanish and then informed me I had reached "Camp Bernardo," located in the "belly of the beast." Sometimes he also has different bird calls.

When Bernie called back, he told me he's been doing these one man protests for some time now. You may have seen him yourself because he's all over the place. One day, he'll pop up in Allentown. Next day could be Bethlehem. When I asked him why, he told me he's so frustrated by our government and Iraq that he has to do something. "Sure beats pulling out an Uzi." The Lesser Evil says things like that. Many years ago, he was actually a priest in New Orleans who had trouble preaching the party line.

"The tide is turning." That's another thing Bernie told me. If he tried his one-man demonstration in 2001, he believes someone would "yank my head off." These days, he's getting a lot of thumbs up instead.

That's a good sign for Bernie, and a good sign for this country.

So if you're out and about and see a one-man protestor in a Pirates baseball cap, say Hi to Bernie. But don't buy his car.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why an Idiot Should Sue When Pa.'s Sunshine Act is Violated

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I'm an idiot. There's just no getting around it. Once again, I've sued a local government over a perceived injustice. I've done it before. If I could take some kind of pills that would keep me from doing it, I'd be popping them now. Too late. I've sued Nazareth Borough Council over its practice of using committees to make decisions behind closed doors.

I've sued Northampton County several times. I've even won a few. But believe me when I tell you it's not much fun, and I'm not really happy about it.

First, I'm no zillionaire, and am usually only a half-step ahead of bill collectors. I'd rather spend what little money I have going to a foreign movie or Wegmans and pretending I'm one of the artsy-fartsy types. Litigation costs money, even when you do it yourself, and you don't get it back.

Second, no matter how convinced I am that I must be right, some guy in a black dress could be equally convinced I'm full of shit, especially if he reads the nice things I say about judges on this blog. Judges usually don't like people who take shots at them or local governments. They're funny that way.

Third, every time I sue a local government, I have to brace myself for the inevitable personal attacks that follow. Local pols are good at that. Now, I'm suing over a Sunshine Act violation, right? What I'll be hearing, and probably reading, is that I'm an alcoholic ex-lawyer who files frivolous suits. I'll be marginalized as a wingnut. That's standard these days. Will they say anything about my Chippendale auditions? Will they utter a word about my kazoo solos? I think not. Instead they'll be moaning about "wasting" government money to defend a lawsuit that cost them nothing with an attorney who's paid a salary.

The final indignity, at least under the Sunshine Act, is that a citizen who falls on his face can get tagged with the government's attorney fees and costs of litigation. If this happens, they'll just have to stand in line like everyone else. Even vampires can't suck blood out of a stone.

Take a number!.

Now that I've explained why only idiots sue their local governments, let me explain why this idiot did just that. Government by litigation is infinitely preferable to government behind closed doors. That's it in a nutshell.

"Democracies die behind closed doors. A government operating in the shadow of secrecy stands in complete opposition to the society envisioned by the framers of our Constitution." But then again, I'm an idiot.

A copy of the complaint is below.

COMPLAINT

Plaintiff petitions this Court for equitable and declaratory relief under the statutory provisions of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C. S. §701-716. Defendant, as the legislative body of NAZARETH BOROUGH, did violate the provisions of the Act by a series of back room committee hearings occurring from the year 2000 to the filing of this instant complaint. Plaintiff requests that this Court find that the Defendant violated the provisions of the Sunshine Act through Council committee meetings, in which a nonpublic decision was made to relocate the Nazareth government center from its current location to Nazareth Hall Park. This Court is asked to nullify that decision and to direct Nazareth Borough Council that all committee hearings must be conducted in accordance with the Sunshine Act.

JURISDICTION

1. Jurisdiction in this Court is invoked under 42 Pa.C.S. §931 (general jurisdiction) and under 65 Pa.C.S. §701 et seq. (specific jurisdiction under Sunshine Act provisions).

2. Venue in this Court is proper under the provisions of Pa.R.Civ.Proc. 1006, since all activities and transactions that are the foundation of this complaint occurred in Northampton County.

PARTIES

3. Plaintiff, BERNARD V. O'HARE III, is an adult individual who resides at XX XXXXX XXXX Street, Nazareth, PA 18064 and is therefore, a resident of Nazareth Borough.

4. Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL, is the governing body of NAZARETH BOROUGH, consisting of nine elected Council members, and is an "agency" as that term is defined in Section 3 of the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. Section 703. Its offices are located at 30 Belvidere Street, Nazareth, Pa 18064.

CAUSE OF ACTION

5. During a meeting of Nazareth Borough Council on July 10, 2006, a number of Council members stated that the Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S. Section 701 et seq.] only pertains when a quorum of Council is present.

6. During this meeting, Nazareth Borough Solicitor Alfred Pierce, Esq., acknowledged that a number of Council committees routinely met without the public notice or advertising required by the Sunshine Act.

7. During this meeting, Nazareth Borough Council members acknowledged that two committees had met behind closed doors to decide on a municipal building expansion, and ultimately merged into a single committee that in April 20006 authorized an architect to prepare plans for a new government center at Nazareth Hall Park.

8. Because these meetings were not open to the public, the exact times and dates of these meetings are unknown to Plaintiff. But a member of Nazareth Borough Council, on August 7, 2006, acknowledged that these committees and combination of committees had spent "hundreds of hours" before deciding upon relocating the Nazareth government center to Nazareth Hall Park.

9. Although three members of Defendant Council knew nothing of these plans until May 2006, it is averred that the remaining six members of Council, a quorum, demonstrated prior knowledge and assent to the proposed relocation of the municipal center.

10. Nazareth Borough Council is an "agency" as that term is defined by Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. Section 701 et seq.

11. The Council committees that considered the relocation and authorized architectural plans for a new government center at Nazareth Hall Park took official action and rendered advice on agency business. Accordingly, these committees are also agencies as that term is defined by the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. Section 701 et seq.

12. Defendant, Nazareth Borough Council, has engaged in a pattern of using council committees that meet without public advertising or notice to decide matters of public importance.

13. This pattern extends from the current date back to at least March 2000, when Nazareth Borough Council committees met secretly to decide on the relocation of a civil war canon at Nazareth's circle.

14. During the period between March 2000 and the present, Nazareth Borough Council members have demonstrated antipathy towards the Sunshine Act, as evidenced by the following actions and remarks:
a) Councilman Stoudt, in April 2000, cancelled a police committee hearing simply because two reporters desired to attend the meeting, and later said he would hold his meeting by telephone.
b) On July 14, 2006, Councilman Stoudt informed a reporter that nothing would get done "if officials had to alert the public every time a couple of them got together."
c) Councilman Davis, as recently as August 7, 2006, told the public they can't expect to have "big public meetings all the time."

15. Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL's practice of designating committees for nonpublic determinations of the people's business between March 2000 and this date, contravenes Section 2 of the Sunshine Act, which provides that "the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision-making of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society." 65 Pa.C.S. Section 702(a).

16. Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL's practice of designating committees for nonpublic determinations of the people's business between March 2000 and this date, contravenes the public policy of the Commonwealth "to insure the right of its citizens to have notice of and the right to attend all meetings of agencies at which any agency business is discussed or acted upon as provided in [the Sunshine Act]." 65 Pa.C.S. Section 702(b).

17. Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL's practice of designating committees for nonpublic determinations of the people's business between March 2000 and this date, did violate the Sunshine Act for the following reasons:

A) Section 4 of the Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S. Section 704] requires that official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public, but the official action and deliberations by NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL'S committees considering a municipal center relocation, were conducted in secret.

B) Section 5 of the Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S. Section 705] requires that, in "all meetings of agencies, the vote of each member who actually votes on any resolution, rule, order, regulation, ordinance or the setting of official policy must be publicly cast and, in the case of roll call votes, recorded." During the nonpublic meetings of the NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL committees contemplating a municipal center relocation, no vote was publicly cast or publicly recorded.

C) Section 6 of the Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S. Section 706] mandates there be written minutes of all open meetings of agencies, but no such minutes were maintained with respect to the meetings conducted by these NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL committees contemplating a municipal center relocation.

D) Section 9 of the Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S. Section 709] requires there be public notice of any meetings of a Nazareth Borough Council committee authorized to take official action or make recommendations about agency business, but none of these public notice requirements were followed with respect to the NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL committees contemplating a municipal center relocation.

E) Section 10.1 of the Sunshine Act [65 Pa.C.S. Section 710.1] requires that there be reasonable opportunity for public comment by residents or taxpayers on matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the council, but no public comment by residents or taxpayers was permitted with respect to the NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL committees contemplating a municipal center relocation.

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff respectfully requests the following relief:

A) That this Court render a Declaratory Judgment that Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL, has engaged in a pattern of using council committees to obviate the requirements of the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. Section 701 et seq.

B) That this Court order and direct Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL, that it must conduct all council committee hearings by providing advertising, notice to the public, and by complying in all other respects with the requirements of the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. Section 701 et seq.

C) That this Court order and direct Defendant, NAZARETH BOROUGH COUNCIL, that all Council committee hearings concerning the renovation or relocation of the Nazareth Government Center must be conducted as public meetings that comply with the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. Section 701 et seq.

D) That this Court order such other and further relief as it deems proper.

Wednesday Morning Update: Yesterday,I was looking at a bus schedule to get out of town when that damn cell phone rang. It was The Express Times! Holy canoli! I don't think the ink on the time-stamped complaint was dry, yet Courtney Lomax already knew what was going on. Her report, published today, reveals the basic problem - Council President Chiavaroli told her that the only time the Sunshine Act applies is when there is a quorum of Council. Wrong answer! It also applies in most cases to Council committees. Now, Council should not disregard their Solicitor's advice simply because I disagree. But they will have to listen to a judge. 12/10/08 Update: When this post originally published, I inadverdently included my home address. I have redacted that information for reasons of personal security.