Monday, April 30, 2007

Campaign Endorsements: An Offer You Can't Refuse

Do you love Lamont McClure? How about Mike Fleck? Now's your chance to spread a little of that love.

The Morning Call has announced its letters policy for the upcoming primary. "Letters about candidates and issues in the May 15 primary election must be received at the Allentown office of The Morning Call by 5 p.m. Thursday, May 10, to be considered for publication." The Express Times has a more liberal policy, but can only publish so many letters.

If you have something to say about local candidates and issues, and can't get your letters published in the mainstream media, I'll be happy to do so here. I will edit only for spelling. I will also post anonymous letters unless they contain defamatory comments. These letters will be separate blog entries, and will go up within one day of receiving them.

This blog reaches around 400-450 readers on a weekday. That's a much smaller number than you can expect from the mainstream. But an interest in local issues and candidates is why most of my readers are here. Your voice will be heard, and won't be limited to 250 words.

You can post your letters here, as a comment, and I'll transfer them to a separate post. Or just send them to me at

How to Stop Lehigh Valley Gangs

On Friday, I told you that 120 of Northampton County's 819 prisoners are known or suspected gang members. That's why a public official like Norco DA John Morganelli takes such a proactive approach to this growing gang problem.
BETHLEHEM More than a dozen pre-kindergarten children got a rare treat Wednesday morning as District Attorney John Morganelli stopped by their classroom to read them a story.

The book "Officer Buckle and Gloria" by Peggy Rathman is a story of teamwork involving a police officer and his dog.
Morganelli is a member of Fight Crime:Invest in Kids PA, which consists of 225 police chiefs, sheriffs and DAs statewide.

Easton and Norco Council Candidates' Night on Tuesday

On Tuesday, May 1st, 6:30 PM, the South Side Civic Association will sponsor a candidates' night at St. Paul's Lutheran Church (610 W. Berwick St. Easton).

Invitations have been extended to Easton mayoral hopefuls, city council wannabes, NorCo council prospects, and mini-judge candidates in Easton's south side magisterial district, which also includes Williams Township and Glendon Borough.

Mike Fleck, one of Easton's mayoral candidates, should love to hear some of the questions you've been asking here over the past few days. Does attorney Brian Monahan, a district judge candidate, share Yvonne Falcone's attitude about nonlawyers as magistrates?

If you're interested in learning about a local race, these candidates' nights are invaluable. I've attended a few sponsored by the south side civic association in previous years, and theirs are among the best.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Northampton County Prison Population Sets New Record

Northampton County's latest prison expansion, just completed in June 2006, has a total capacity of 819. Less than a year later, it's over capacity. Director of Corrections Todd Buskirk tells me that yesterday, the prison population reached a new record of 827 prisoners. Of this number, 120 are authenticated or suspected gang members.

How's that for great county planning?

Update: The Morning Call has a detailed and well-written report on the prison "expansion," which was nothing more than a band aid.

Nazareth Magistrate Candidates Meet the Voters

I'm a miserable bastard. I'm so nasty I sometimes start arguments with myself. I'm so mean some poor waitress once burst into tears when I demanded to know why my eggs weren't poached for three minutes instead of two. I've even been shot a few times, but keep getting up like Michael Myers. Yes, I'm the bogeyman (with the bogey nose).

On Tuesday, true to form, I laid out some pretty nasty questions for the five candidates who think they can be Nazareth's next district judge. I figured these written interrogatories would scare off at least three of them. Apparently, I wasn't nasty enough. Last night, I met all five judicial hopefuls during a candidates' forum at the Nazareth News Agency. Not only did they answer every question, but they were nice to me, too!

What I learned last night is that, in this cruel and cold world, some good people still care deeply about their community. Five would like to be Nazareth's next district judge. At least thirty more stopped by just to introduce themselves. Ross Nunamaker from News Over Coffee set up tables and very nice name cards for each jurist-in-waiting, while Heidi Wisner at Nazareth News Agency began making the cappuccino and espresso. And we each had nice one-on-one sessions in a relaxed setting. Let me tell you what I learned.

1) Yvonne Falcone. - Not only did I meet Yvonne, but I also had the privilege of meeting her husband, Dan, who has prepared all of her campaign fliers. She's very proud of him, and I liked the way she praised him. My reservations about Falcone are based on the following: most lawyers who are elected as district judge continue practicing law; her belief that only attorneys should be magistrates; her ties to Dem committeeman Rodney Applegate, a very big cog in the local Democratic machine; and her use of Attorney Dave Ceraul to solicit support from local lawyers. She answered every concern.

Falcone explained that, if elected magistrate, she would stop practicing law completely. She would be uncomfortable trying to maintain a law practice while serving as a judge. She told me the four week course of instruction for nonlawyers is inadequate because the law has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, and explained that 60-70% of the voters actually believe that magistrates are attorneys. She acknowledged that many nonlawyers like Elmo Frey have that elusive "common sense" quality, but believes people will see that in her, too.

She explained that Rodney Applegate has given her some support, but her campaign is largely self-funded. She played no part in Applegate's decision to challenge a nomination petition, although she said the "rules are the rules." She has not been funded by the Democratic machine, and has accepted no contribution from any attorney likely to appear before her.

Her chief desire is to create a forum "where people can feel open and comfortable. I think I can make a difference." I think she can, too.

Falcone has twelve years experience as an attorney, and clerked in Lehigh County for Judge Wallitsch.

2) Todd Buskirk. - Before I went to last night's shindig, there was a letter waiting for me from my friend, Larry Kisslinger. I opened it up and, lo and behold, Larry was asking me to consider Todd. "Currently, Todd is the Director of Corrections at Northampton County Prison, overseeing a 25 million dollar budget and nearly 240 employees. Todd has over 25 years of experience in the adult and juvenile justice systems and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Penn State University specializing in the Administration of Justice. His education and professional experience in the criminal justice field give him a very solid background to be a successful District Judge." Now he tells me!

When I sat down with Todd tonight, he was so relaxed and affable you'd never guess he oversees a pretty big prison operation with lots of daily problems. Here's my reservations about Todd: he'd be collecting a hefty public pension while being paid as a magistrate; he has close ties to Ray Orwig, Nazareth's biggest residential and commercial landlord; and he was plying on emotions by talking about a "tough stance on gang activity." Like Falcone, Buskirk had answers for every one of my concerns.

Buskirk explained that, if elected, he'd freeze his pension and won't be collecting anything until he turns 60. So there won't be any double-dipping, as I originally had suspected. He explained his tie to Orwig by telling me they've been friends for twenty-five years, having coached little league baseball together. He told me that none of Orwig's landlord-tenant cases are handled in Nazareth, so he wouldn't be able to do Orwig any favors. He'd have no problem relocating the magistrate's office, and has made no secret deal to continue renting from Orwig. He would like to see the office centrally located. Finally, he told me he'd like to educate schoolchildren and the public about gang activity, and this proactive approach is what he meant by his gang remarks.

Like Falcone, Buskirk has no intention of accepting any other employment if elected district judge.

3) Alan Siegfried. - Siegfried has been a police officer in Upper Nazareth for over thirty years. For eleven of those years, he's been the chief. After speaking to him for a few minutes, I realized this guy is a class act. He's an "old school" cop, one who is more interested in doing the right thing than in notching arrests on his belt.

Not only did I meet Chief Siegfried, but I also had a nice conversation with his wife, Sandra, and his daughter, Danielle. They are really nice and decent people, the kind you'd like to have as neighbors. My concern about Siegfried? He'd have a difficult time being impartial when deciding cases involving other police officers, especially those in his own department.

I laid it out, and Siegfried quietly but firmly told me he has a strong ethical belief in impartiality, and he developed this because he is a police officer. He told me he has to handle disputes all the time, and can't take sides. He evaluates everything in front of him before making a decision. "Just because someone tells you there's a crime doesn't mean a crime actually occurred." As I listened to him speak, I realized Siegfried already thinks like a fair-minded judge. And as chief, he doesn't have the daily interaction with officers that he may have had eleven years ago. He's a fair man, and I believe he could decide a case involving police officers impartially.

Siegfried will devote all his time and energy to the job if elected. He will seek no part-time position.

I asked him to rate Elmo Frey on a scale from 1 to 10. "12 1/2," he answered. "I know you like him." I asked if there was anything I could do after being so hard on him. "You have to vote for me." Everybody's a comedian.

4) Gary Hammer. - I've seen Gary in town and at the courthouse many times over the years, both as a Nazareth cop and in his current capacity as a detective in the Colonial Region police department. I've seen him in action. Like Chief Siegfried, he's a modest man. He's been a police officer since 1989 and has a degree in criminal justice, but has never been the pushy sort. I've seen him in Giant and at the local hardware store, quietly waiting in line like everyone else.

Gary had told JD Malone at The Express Times that he viewed the District Judge position as the "next step in my law enforcement career." Last night, he explained he should have stated that he views the magistrate's position as the next step and culmination of his career. He realizes a magistrate does not enforce, but upholds, the law.

Although Gary is the youngest person seeking this position, he's another "old school" cop. You won't see him wearing racing gloves or a goofy skinhead haircut. But I had raised the question - how can we expect him to be impartial in cases involving officers in his own department? "I believe I'm fair now and I'll be fair as a judge. I don't rush to judgment as a police officer and I won't rush to judgment as a judge."

Just like Chief Siegfried, Gary spoke quietly but confidently. His eyes tell me he's tired and puts in long hours. But he reamined affable and calm - like any good judge.

He told me how highly he thought of the other candidates. Even his campaign literature is brief and to the point. He's got a great deal of humility, a rare but valuable quality in any judge.

He has no intention of seeking any part-time position if elected.

5) John Capobianco. - I see Cap more than the other candidates because he works at the courthouse as a deputy sheriff. Cap is currently a Lieutenant in Northampton County's sheriff's department, and supervises the deputies in the criminal division. He's a Kutztown University grad, and has a degree in criminal justice. He's married to Andrea Capobianco, and has three children. If I could describe him in two words, they would be - quiet dignity.

Some of you question his relationship with popular state representative Craig Dally. Craig is his brother-in-law. He told me he's close to his brother-in-law, but "I'm running on my own merit."

On his own merit, Capobianco has risen through very competitive ranks in the sheriff's office. He's been a team leader in the Tactical Emergency Response Team, but that's not what he considers important. "Our community is important to me and my family. It is our home. I am committed to preserving the traditions of honesty and integrity that we all cherish. I will treat those who come before the court with great respect. I will serve our community fairly and impartially. You deserve a steward who will work hard, efficiently and responsibly to serve you."

John tells me he would like to work with Nazareth Borough officials to relocate the magisterial office to 30 Belvidere or the new municipal center. That will result in a public, instead of private, landlord that relieves the tax burden on all of us. He's also concerned about the proliferation of drugs and gangs in the community, and would like to visit classrooms on a regular basis to explain the problems caused by both. He'd also like to be a visible presence in the community.

Like everyone else, Cap tells me he will seek no other job if elected as magistrate. He won't try to supplement his income.

Who should you vote for? I'll be honest. John Capobianco is my first choice. He remains my first choice. But after listening to each candidate tonight, I'd applaud any choice. We're very lucky to have such a fine group interested in this very tough and important job. Each would be outstanding. Rarely have I been so impressed. Even more gratifying are the thirty people who cared enough to come out and meet the candidates. And Ross Nunamaker at News Over Coffee deserves special recognition for his commitment to the community.

Desert: Chad Cornell, a Nazareth Area School Board candidate, also dropped by tonight. That makes him the only school board candidate courteous enough to meet the community. Ross reports what Chad has to say.

It was also very nice to see Peg Ferraro, who's running for Tony Branco's at-large seat on Northampton County Council. Peg's escort was her husband, Dominic, who faced death regularly when he made the mistake of becoming one of my father's sailing companions.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mini-Judge Open House Tonight!

Tonight's the night. Five judicial hopefuls for the Nazareth magisterial district will face you, the voter, at the Nazareth News Agency, between 7 and 9 PM. Democracy is not a spectator sport. In these parts, it tends to be full contact. I'm bringing my pads and hip boots.

Mike Fleck's Sinking Ship: Easton's Mayoral Race

Ever have a dripping faucet that leaks day and night? Drives me nuts. No matter where I may be, that slow and constant drip can keep me awake all night. Now I'm experiencing the same thing here in Blogistan. Let me explain.

Last week, I innocently posted a rumor about Jim Hickey, the miserable bastard who repeatedly threw me off the courthouse roof when he was Northampton County's Director of Administration. Hickey, I'm told, is now working Mike Fleck's Easton mayoral campaign. Being personally familiar with Hickey's prowess as a campaign consultant, I concluded Sal Panto can no longer view this race as a cake walk. My post was not really about Fleck, but Hickey.

But the comments that followed this post were about Fleck. His own work as a campaign consultant has given him a bad rep, at least in some local Dem circles. One reader tells me Fleck fleeced Archie Follweiler, an unsuccessful state house candidate in the Kutztown area. "Fleck took the money and ran. Literally." Hmmm. When Fleck ran for mayor four short years ago, he falsely claimed to be both a Moravian College grad and a business administrator at some used car dealer.


Follweiler's campaign finance reports confirm that about $21,000 was paid to Fleck in just eleven weeks. That's a very large sum of money in a very short time for a state house race. It led to my second post, "Will Mike Fleck Fleece Easton?" I have no beef with Fleck, but think it's a fair question. My second post has led to a trickle of constant accusations, mostly anonymous, about Fleck's character.

Fleck is accused of trying to fleece several campaigns simultaneously. I've seen nothing to back up that claim.


Fleck's Easton amusement tax, something he advocated when he was on city council, is ridiculed.

Drip. Drip.

Fleck is called an idiot ". . . and I mean no disrespect to all the idiots out there, but this guy really IS your King." "Anyone who paid Fleck ANY amount of money to help them win a campaign is even MORE brain damaged than Fleck is . . . and, believe me, Fleck has no brain."

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Someone claims Fleck is being hypocritical. He publicly condemns Easton's controversial Riverwalk and pledges to refuse money from any special interests involved in that project. Yet he has accepted a large campaign donation from the engineering firm involved in that disaster. Is this true? Beats me.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Fleck's consulting work on Ed Pawlowski's 2005 Allentown mayoral race is disparaged. "I worked on Pawlowski's campaign and (to a lesser degree) with Follweiler's campaign, and Fleck was no upgrade for Ed's field team. He inherited a race that was already won, and did a decent job finishing someone else's hard work. Fleck was a useless cash pit for Archie, a good man who The Valley deserved."

Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.

PaProgressive, aka John Morgan, and a person whom I deeply respect, says this. "I noticed this in Archie's [Follweiler] campaign reports last summer. I took him aside and asked him why he was paying this guy so much money. As a political consultant myself I was concerned that this guy was robbing him blind. There's just no way you charge $20,000 for a state house race, for crying out loud."

Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Late this afternoon, a blogging plumber called Nun Yuzz stopped by. He's tried to repair my leaky blog with a mixture of profanity and even more inside info about the Follweiler and Pawlowski campaigns. I'm beginning to think the entire frickin' Democratic party worked both races at one time or another. Nun Yuzz tells us Fleck actually won Ed Pawlowski's mayoral race. This should be a surprise to Pawlowski. He claims Follweiler lost because he listened to his wife, and Archie also pissed off the "fat guy." Huh? Was this a campaign or The Maltese Falcon? He closes by calling us "bullshit and innuendo repeaters." And "Go fuck yourselves." Very clever.

Nun Yuzz has left the building, but guess what happened to my blog forty minutes later?


The comments continue. If the mere mention of Fleck's mayoral race causes a steady leak of comments on my blog, I think those same comments are being repeated elsewhere. Mike Fleck is a sinking ship.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Norco Workforce: No Salary Study or Place to Eat, But Dressed to Kill

Last December, Northampton County's top dog, John Stoffa, told WGPA's radio audience his top priority this year is the county workforce. In addition to negotiating contracts with all unions, he pledged that the county's antiquated salary structure would get a much-needed overhaul. I think he meant it, too.

Since that time, Stoffa has negotiated agreements with a myriad of county unions. But the residual unit's contract is still outstanding. Worse still, no salary study has started. In fact, no one has even been selected to conduct it. In the meantime, employees still eat at their desks or in halls. Once the workers' cafeteria is completed, there's no contract for anyone to run it.

Do you see how workers just might get the impression they're taken for granted?

Whether he realizes it or not, Stoffa has just given two thousand county workers a new reason to be disenchanted. Are you ready for this? It's a condescending three page dress code that treats grown adults like grade school kids.

No shorts, mini-skirts, exposed midriffs/tops, tight or revealing clothing, etc. Most of this is obviously directed at woman.

This goofy new policy was signed by Stoffa on March 19, over three months after it was supposed to be operational. And it has teeth. "Continued violation of the standards will result in disciplinary action up to and possibly including termination of employment."

"What they do is really insulting. You simply can't tell people what to wear. They don't understand that use of force only brings hatred toward them, not love." Those are not the words of a disgruntled county worker. They come from a woman in Iran. You see, they have a dress code, too. Once we invade Iran to set their women free, perhaps Stoffa can get a few pointers from one of the mullahs we don't kill. If nothing else, John can learn how to give council real scary looks.

No Nose studs, damn it!

"Dangling jewelry and visible facial jewelry (forward of the ears) is not permitted ... ." In other words, no nose studs. Now it just so happens that married Hindu women wear nose studs the way most Christians wear a wedding band. But a Hindu woman, unlike her Christian counterpart, must get special permission, on a "case-by-case" basis, to wear a nose stud. Forcing her to seek permission to practice her religious or cultural beliefs, while not imposing a similar requirement on others, is discriminatory.

Have you ever seen someone challenge a woman's professionalism because she wears a nose stud? Are they unsafe? That must be it. Women must die by the millions from nose studs. Overweight and unbalanced noses must crash through computer monitors all the time.

But wait a 'tic. I'm an expert when it comes to noses. Look at my profile picture. See the schnozz? It would take a pretty big nose stud to be more dangerous than that. My nose has never crashed through a computer monitor, although I do use it to hold the door open for courthouse customers.

And to crack walnuts.

No tongue piercings, damn it!

This troublesome dress code also bans tongue piercings. Now I happen to know two people with tongue piercings whom I consider quite professional. One of them is an Express Times reporter. The other is my daughter. Well, at least one of them is professional. My daughter sthill talkth like thisth when sthee wearsth that damn shtud.

No sthneakerth either, damn it!

The silliness continues, even on "dress down days." That's when workers pay for the privilege of wearing jeans to work. Now they can't wear sneakers, something they've always done. Seriously, have you ever heard a member of the public register outrage over someone who dares to don running shoes? Most pass out before they can do that. It's absurd.

I understand employee attire has a "direct impact on public perception," but I see no need for a formal policy. It's just common sense. And if it's so god-damned necessary, why not first show employees you respect them by putting that overdue salary study on a fast track?

In addition to public perception, there's such a thing as employee perception. Here's what I really am hearing from harried courthouse workers. "What's the sense of having dress down day if we can't wear sneakers?" Or this. "We all hated Glenn [Reibman], but he left us alone. Stoffa should have bigger fish to fry. He needs to leave us alone." They've found this new policy an unwanted invasion of their personal lives and a needless attempt to impose conformity. What a meddlesome county has really done is give employees yet another reason to sue.

Now excusthe me while I get Joe Long'sth picture branded on my assth.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lehigh Valley Judicial Candidates Thumb Noses at DemocracyRising

Progress Pittsburgh complains today that no judicial candidate in Allegheny County has bothered to answer a statewide judicial questionnaire prepared by Democracy Rising Pa. The same thing's happening here in the lehigh Valley.

Last month, I told you that Steven Baratta, a Northampton County judge, has ignored these questions. In fact, someone huffed this morning that judicial candidates just waste their time by responding to "irrelevant fringe organizations like Democracy Rising." I could readily understand someone viewing me as some goofy nitwit, but Democracy Rising is "one of the cornerstones of the statewide reform movement in Pennsylvania."

It might interest you to know that Lehigh County's sole judge seeking retention, Bob Steinberg, has also snubbed this questionnaire. So have all eight candidates seeking judicial vacancies.

Here's the tough questions they're ducking.

Is it right for judges to hire their relatives and friends for important positions in the court system?

Is it right for judges to have secret meetings with lawmakers and governors about matters such as the pay raise?

Is it right for courts to issue orders without opinions that explain their legal authority and reasoning?

Is it right for courts to conceal administrative documents that deal with how judges spend tax dollars?

Is the court properly interpreting the Constitution to protect citizens from abuses by the other branches of government?

Does our court system operate in a way that builds citizen confidence or destroys it
Maybe it's time to start snubbing these judges. After all, even our mini-judge candidates will answer tougher questions than that.

Bethlehem City Council Candidates to Debate Tonight

Seven Dems are fighting for the nomination to just three Bethlehem city council seats. Incumbents Gordon Mowrer, Bob Donchez and Magdalena Szabo face some serious opposition. Fiery Dana Grubb is a long-time former city employee. Affable Ron Heckman is Northampton County's former Director of Human Services. South side resident Ismael Arcelay previously served on city council. J. William Reynolds is the only newcomer.

The Bethlehem City Democratic Committee and Moravian College Democrats are sponsoring a Bethlehem City Council Debate tonight at 7:30 at Moravian College's Prosser Auditorium. This will be the second of three "debates" for city council hopefuls. In their first joint appearance, candidates agreed about everything. Tonight's setting, Moravian College, is an appropriate venue. Maybe they can all buy a Moravian lovefest candle.

Correction: I've just been informed that Ismael ("Izzy") Arcelay is not a south side resident, but lives in East Hills. I apologize for any confusion.

Nazareth Mini-Judge Candidates Will Face Voters Thursday Night

The Express Times has an excellent feature about the cast of characters who want to be Nazareth's next district judge. This Thursday, NewsOverCoffee and Nazareth News Agency take it to the next level. They're hosting a district judge candidates' forum at the news agency (60 S. Main St) from 7 to 9 PM. All candidates will be there, and they'll be answering questions.


Unlike full blown judges, magistrates are just mini-judges. True, they do get to wear black dresses, but can't even sentence you to death. What fun is that? Worse, they must face the voters every six years. No ten year retentions for them! And on a rotating basis, they must be available 24/7.

The big judges' website includes a detailed description of a mini-judge's daily duties: "District Justices have jurisdiction over minor criminal offenses, traffic offenses, landlord/tenant matters and other civil actions where the amount claimed does not exceed $8000.00. In misdemeanor and felony cases, District Justices have jurisdiction to issue arrest and search warrants, hold preliminary arraignments and preliminary hearings and set bail. They also have authority to perform marriages, handle protection from abuse matters and issue subpoenas. They also may impose summary punishments for criminal contempt." I probably hold the record for most overtime parking tickets in Nazareth, so I know the office very well. Although the annual salary for this position is $74,566, most magistrates consider themselves part-time workers.


Five mini-judge wannabes are fighting over Nazareth's magisterial district, which includes Nazareth, Bath and Stockertown boroughs, as well as Upper Nazareth and East Allen Townships. This rogues' gallery includes Bangor lawyer Yvonne Falcone, Colonial Region police detective Gary Hammer, Norco prison boss Todd Buskirk, Upper Nazareth top cop Alan Siegfried and deputy sheriff John Capobianco.

I've told you before I intend to vote for Capobianco. I tried to get on his campaign team, but he's been warned about me and has had the good sense to ignore my calls. John is the best of a good bunch, but I've got plenty of hard questions for the other candidates. I'll lay them out here, and hope they can answer them on Thursday. Maybe one or more will surprise me. I'll also post any of their written responses as separate blogs.

1) Yvonne Falcone. - Falcone claims our next mini-judge must be an attorney because of the "complexity of the law". Really? Are laymen incompetent? Does that include layman Elmo Frey, our senior district judge? Last time I checked, the state legislature imposes no law degree requirement for magistrates. Does Falcone have the right to substitute her judgment for theirs? My own experience is that the best district judges are layman. They have something most lawyers lack - common sense.

But since Falcone believes only lawyers should be magistrates, then that should mean that experienced lawyers make the best mini-judges. So why have I never seen her in a courtroom? Has she ever tried a single jury trial in Northampton County?

Is Falcone, a practicing attorney, just looking for a part-time job to supplement her income? Will she stop practicing law and devote herself full-time as magistrate? Or will she continue to practice, at least in some capacity, like nearly every other lawyer-magistrate? JD tells me that Falcone views the "magistrate position as a full-time job." That's not good enough. I don't want her to claim later that she is only practicing law part time.

Is Falcone tied to the local Democratic party machine? She used one of its biggest cogs, committeeman Rodney Applegate, to bounce candidate Linda Silfies off the ballot simply because Silfies had only 96 instead of 100 valid signatures. Give me a break! Is she that afraid of a little democracy?

Finally, it's no secret that Falcone's boss, Attorney Dave Ceraul, has faxed local lawyers asking them to help Falcone. Does this make Falcone "free of bias," as she claims? Or does it instead paint her as someone promoting job security for the local bar? After all, unrepresented litigants are incapable of grasping the "complexity of the law."

2) Todd Buskirk. - As Northampton County's Director of Corrections, Buskirk rakes in an annual salary of $79,963. If elected magistrate, he'll retire from the prison. With his twenty-five years of service, he will be able to demand, and get, a pension nearly equal to his annual salary. So taxpayers will be paying both Buskirk's pension and his magistrate's salary. Does it make fiscal sense to elect someone for $150,000 per year when all the other candidates will only cost us half that amount? Aren't you sick of all this double-dipping?

Here's another problem I have with Buskirk. Nearly every one of his signs is next to a building owned by Ray Orwig, Nazareth's biggest commercial and residential landlord. What the hell is up with that? When campaign finance reports are filed, we'll see that Orwig is a big time donor. Orwig, incidentally, owns the building where the district justice office is currently located. The county rents from him. Did Buskirk make a secret deal with Orwig to continue leasing that office? Will he remain there after Nazareth moves its offices to Main Street?

Finally, I'd like to know why Buskirk is playing up a "tough stance on gang activity" approach. Does he know a single candidate who disagrees with that? Come on, Todd, that's just a cynical play on emotions. I expect that from a DA or a cop, but not a mini-judge.

3) The cop candidates. It never fails. No matter where a magisterial election is held, there are almost always a few cops who want the job. This race is no exception. Colonial Region Detective Gary Hammer and Upper Nazareth Police Chief Alan Siegfried incredibly think their police experience qualifies them. I think it does quite the reverse. Their brothers in blue actively appear in Nazareth's district court. How the hell can they expect to be impartial? Won't they be just a little too familiar and friendly with the Colonial Region, Nazareth and Upper Nazareth cops who routinely appear before them? A district judge is supposed to be neutral and impartial - not another arm of the police department.

Take a look at how Hammer views the job - "I look at this as the next step in my law-enforcement career." Huh? I hate to break it to you, Gary, but a district judge does not enforce the law. He upholds it. There's a difference.

4) John Capobianco. - As a deputy sheriff, Capobianco does have a law enforcement background. But unlike the cop candidates, he has no ties with local police departments that will appear before him. He'll move his offices to the new Nazareth municipal center. That will end up saving us money. He won't be collecting a pension, and that will save us even more money. He will have no other job, but will instead devote all his time and energy to the position. Rather than talking about "getting tough," Capobianco will start a program to educate our youth, and will visit schools on a regular basis to provide some educational awareness. He won't owe anything to Nazareth landlords, local lawyers or his pals on the force. His loyalty will be to the public.

I know these are tough questions and observations. I'm a miserable bastard who should probably be shot. But to the credit of each mini-judge candidate, I'll be getting answers Thursday night.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Rendell Aide Will Raise LV Climate Awareness This Week

Sixty Canadian scientists and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, dispute "alarmist forecasts" about global warming. But these are just a few stray voices.

Overwhelmingly, scientific consensus is that, not only are we experiencing global warming, but we are the chief culprits. That's the opinion of 2,500 scientists at The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. International science academies, The American Meteorological Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Geophysical Union all express similar sentiments.

What the hell do they know?

Rush Limbaugh snorts, "This hysteric global warming is unsupportable by facts." He and others like him needlessly politicize a question of scientific fact having nothing to do with liberal or conservative ideologies.

Fortunately, the Lehigh Valley is taking a very proactive approach. The U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement was endorsed last July by Mayors Ed Pawlowski of Allentown, John Callahan of Bethlehem and Phil Mitman of Easton. Mitman's words at the time, "It's a no-brainer, right?" By October, Don Cunningham and John Stoffa, the execs in Lehigh and Northampton County, had a similar, county-level, agreement. And for the first time in years, heavy hitters from all sides of the political spectrum are looking seriously at some form of rail transportation.

The latest forward step is a series of two area presentations this week by Lance Simmens, Special Assistant to the Governor. Lance is one of 1,000 people selected and trained to promote awareness and education by The Climate Project. What I like is that there are things we can do, individually, that really help.

“The easiest thing I found that makes a huge difference is properly inflated tires. You can cut out 250 pounds of carbon dioxide emission per year and save $840 in gas if your tires are inflated properly. If everyone did it, nationwide, pollution would come down by two percent in one year.” What's so hard about that? Nothing very political there.

On Tuesday, Cedar Crest College will host Simmens at 7:30 PM in the Alumnae Hall Auditorium. On Wednesday, 7 PM, in Moravian College's Foy Hall, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan will introduce Simmens.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Donley Awards Honor 29 LV High School Seniors on Monday

The Donley Awards for Excellence, named for former Air Products and Chemicals chairman Ed Donley, honor the area’s top graduating seniors through a scholarship and awards luncheon.

This Monday, twenty-nine local seniors will be honored at an 11:45 AM luncheon held at the Four Points Sheraton in Allentown. It's a privilege to list these scholars and their high schools. If you see anyone you recognize, be sure and congratulate them.

Kate Roylance Kiefer, Allen High School 4.967/4.0
Margaret Anne Lafferty, Allentown Central Catholic High School 4.0/4.0
Theodore Grandison Strong, Bangor Area High School 105.448/100
Melissa Keenhold, Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School 3.574/4.0
Mark A. Saylor, Bethlehem Catholic High School 3.96/4.0
Kyle Schaarschmidt, Career Institute of Technology 3.3/4.0
John Clark Holenda, Catasauqua High School 99.77/100
Emily Lauren Brown, Dieruff High School 4.933/4.0
Courtney Aileen Regan, Easton Area High School 101.314/100
XI (Henry) LU, Emmaus High School 4.184/4.0
Jessica Lynn Cortez, Freedom High School 4.43/4.6
Chlorissa L. Manescu, Lehigh Career & Technical Institute 4.48/4.0
Sean David McKeever, Lehigh Valley Christian High School 3.98/4.0
Caleb Huesz Schwarzbach, Liberty High School 4.33/4.00
Jillian Fedor, LV Charter High School for the Performing Arts 3.934/4.0
Eamon Patrick Murphy, Moravian Academy 4.3/4.3
Jennifer Michelle Cramer, Nazareth Area High School 4.02/4.0
Joshua Peter Mindler, Northampton Area High School 4.181/4.25
Jessie Marushak, Northern Lehigh High School 4.88/4.0
Lia Karin Snyder, Northwestern Lehigh High School 97.7/100
Rocco Anthony Panella, Notre Dame High School 4.05/4.0
Max Staplin, Parkland High School 4.722/4.0
Kyle Thomas Brown, Pen Argyl Area High School 4.0/4.0
Daniel Tranotti, Pius X High School 3.71/4.0
Heather Anne Comerci, Salisbury High School 102.448/100
Sarah L. Dodson, Saucon Valley Senior High School 4.453/4.0
Pierre C. Trepagnier, Southern Lehigh High School 4.297/4.0
Matthew L. Eisenhard, Whitehall High School 4.635/4.0
Aly Bourreza, Wilson Area High School 4.603/4.0

Later this month, Ron Angle will honor the 29 biggest high school bad asses with Cuban cigars at the Tic Toc Diner.
Correction:Not being a Donley Award winner. I posted a previous year's winners. But that's OK. They should be honored, too. Here's this year's winners.

Bangor Area High School, Melissa J. Kakareka
Bethlehem Area Vo-Tech, Craig Lee Moser
Bethlehem Catholic High School, David A. Watsula
Career Institute of Technology, Brooke Sampson
Catasauqua High School, Kaitlin Ann Tomecek
Allentown Central Catholic High School, Marlene A. Yandrisevits
Dieruff High School, Brad Matthew Paraszczak
Easton Area High School, Robert Lewis Briggs
Emmaus High School, Emily Stewart Whalen
Freedom High School, Jennifer Lund
KidsPeace-Washington School, Shannon Renee Kerns
Lehigh Career & Technical Institute, Amy Lynn Ziegler
Lehigh Valley Charter High School, Samantha Jill Shaffer
Lehigh Valley Christian High School, Taylor Jonathan Hughes
Liberty High School, Ethan William Schwarzbach
Moravian Academy, Gareth Maurice Chase
Nazareth Area High School, Xinjie Liao
Northampton Area High School, James Brian Rajsky
Northern Lehigh High School, Elizabeth Wagner
Northwestern Lehigh High School, Laura Dietrich
Notre Dame High School, William P. Hogan III
Parkland High School, Alex R. Rosen
Pen Argyl Area High School, Michael Civitella Baker
Pius X High School, Shelby Lynn Pavan
Salisbury High School, Nicholas Andrew Marze
Saucon Valley High School, Danielle Marie DaSilva
Southern Lehigh High School, Nathalie Marrian Trepagnier
Whitehall High School, Fatema Murtaza Kermalli
William Allen High School, Lindsay Seccombe Cox
Wilson Area High School, Caitlin Sarah Roe

Friday, April 20, 2007

Will Mike Fleck Fleece Easton?

Yesterday, I briefly told you about Sal Panto and Mike Fleck, two mayoral candidates duking it out for Easton's democratic nomination. Last time Fleck ran for mayor, just four years ago, he claimed to be both a Moravian College grad and a business administrator at some used car dealer. Both claims proved to be false.

Now there's a new reason to be wary. Here's why. This time last year, Fleck was the political consultant to Archie Follweiler's state house campaign. But according to an anonymous comment, Fleck just soaked Follweiler. "Fleck took the money and ran. Literally." Last night, a Lehigh County Democrat confirmed this anonymous accusation. "We had several talks about Fleck in Dem circles, about how no one should hire him. We called him Mike FLEECE!"

I've checked Follweiler's campaign finance reports, and they confirm that about $21,000 was paid to Fleck in just eleven weeks. Follweiler started using someone else in June. I've listed the payments, and you can decide for yourself whether Fleck fleeced Follweiler. (March 6 - $1,000.00; March 11 - $5,199.46; March 17 - $1,000.00; March 20 - $1,000.00; March 22 - $500.00; March 28 - $1,000.00; April 4 - $1,000.00; April 5 - $22.50; April 11 - $1,000.00; April 18 - $500.00; April 23 - $1,000.00; May 2 - $1,000.00; May 10 - $1,000.00; May 16 - $4,500.00; May 25 - $291.93; June 1 - $1,000.00; June 1 - $2,412.80; Nov 1 - $1,939.36. Total payments - $22,843.55.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Northampton County Campaign Whispers

A local political operative tells me he's been flirting with "the assorted 'usual suspects' of party hacks, moles, bag men, spies, turncoats, fundraisers, consultants, candidates, mugs, pugs, thugs, reporters, elected officials, and nuns at the convent ... ." He gave me two messages before swallowing cyanide and jumping off Bethlehem's Fahy Bridge. In his memory, I'll pass them on.

1) WATCH YOUR MAILBOX for the first nuclear strike by a county council candidate to arrive very, very soon. Lamont McClure, nice guy that he is, is going dark on Will Power. By the time the campaign is over, I expect even Power's kindergarten record will be an issue.

2) Sal Panto and Mike Fleck are duking it out for the democratic nomination in Easton's mayoral contest. This should be a cakewalk for Panto, a popular former mayor. But Jim Hickey, the miserable bastard who tried to murder me several times during his stint as Northampton County's Director of Administration, is rumored to be working for Fleck. If this rumor is true, Panto's in trouble, and so am I.

LEPOCO Tries, And Fails, To Be Relevant

LEPOCO, our local peace advocates, use 60s tactics for 21st century problems. Instead of taking advantage of the blogosphere, they engage in Quixotic publicity stunts that just marginalize them and make us more divided. These include peace demonstrations next to an armory and a refusal to leave a Congressman's office after hours, when he wasn't even there. Their latest plunge into irrelevance? The Lehigh Valley Independent Press.

You've got to admit, the name sounds good. And the subheading is even better - "News and opinion from the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania." There's definitely room for something like that, staffed by citizen journalists. Maybe I could find an article about the Lehigh Valley's homeless problem or how recent LANTA rate increases will hurt the disabled. Most LEPOCO members are brilliant and well-spoken, so we could look forward to articles promoting light rail or condemning the way undocumented workers are scapegoated in this area.

But guess what? There's practically nothing about the Lehigh Valley in The Lehigh Valley Independent!

This goofy production is mainly a chronicle of neverending trips to El Salvador. Last time I checked, that was outside the Lehigh Valley. And the reporters who make up this strange online publication look for their Lehigh Valley news in places like FOR Colombia Program and Nicaragua Network. Articles are undated, and there's no way to publish a comment, something local newspapers and blogs allow.

Its "news gallery" is an essay about Catholic priests murdered in El Salvador in 1977 and 1980.

Earth to LEPOCO! That's not news! It's history, and it's not Lehigh Valley history. It's not even American history.

Although it asserts independence, it sure has a strange way of showing it. A section, "Letters That Should be Read," is an unsorted catalogue of letters already published in the mainstream media. I guess that gives these letters more credibility, but it doesn't do much for LEPOCO'S online journal.

Sadly, The Lehigh Valley Independent News is neither independent nor focused on the Lehigh Valley. It's just another vanity project without any real commitment or attempt at citizen journalism.

About the only thing local about this "news" source is an entire section dedicated to slamming local Congressman Charlie Dent. Anti-Dent articles, penned by Joe DeRaymond, contain this pious disclosure. "It should be noted that Charles Dent did have me arrested (with 8 others) for reading the names of the Iraqi and US dead in his office, after closing hours."

That's not exactly true. DeRaymond was arrested, but not by Dent. Nor did Dent have him arrested. Nor was DeRaymond arrested for reading the names of Iraqi war dead. He was arrested because he was a trespasser. And he was convicted, too, something he conveniently fails to mention. Maybe he forgot. Joe's group, which had already met twice with Dent, barged into the office one day when Dent was absent, and demanded to see him. Joe's arrest was the decision of the Bethlehem police department.

Other than its name, this latest attempt at relevance by LEPOCO is an abysmal failure. LEPOCO has so many brilliant members that it could easily maintain a daily blog that focuses on local, state, national, international and interplanetary matters. It's got the interplanetary aspect down. Now when the hell is LEPOCO going to start thinking and acting locally?. Until it does, it should call its online chronicle "Tilting at Windmills."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bloggin' on WGPA 1100 AM on Thursday With Ron Angle

I'll be bloggin' on WGPA Sunny 1000 AM between 8 and 9:30 AM on Thursday with the Emperor, Ron Angle. This is your chance to insult two of the Lehigh Valley's biggest assholes at the same time! You can call in at 610-866-8074, livestream the show, or post comments here, and I'll try to read them on the air.

I'll be asking Ron what he thinks about Cunnigham's tax break for servicemen, and will want to know how Ron can support a huge payraise for lawclerks while many other courthouse workers are forced to survive on a pittance. Ron thinks I just have a "hot nut for the judges," and doesn't think council should interfere in judicial decisions about their own personnel.

But what we end up talking about is always decided by the people who call in.

Lehigh County Exec Proposes Property Tax Relief For Active Duty Military Personnel

In the real world, I'm just a lazy title searcher. My eyes are going, and those damn books get heavier each year. But as I slowly go blind, even I still see firsthand what happens when soldiers who own real estate are shipped overseas. Banks who don't know or care will start foreclosure proceedings the moment a soldier misses a payment. Our Soldiers' and Sailors' Relief Act is supposed to protect servicemen from this type of predatory behavior. But soldiers serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan often don't know what is going on and tend to have a few other things on their mind.

Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham, younger and far more energetic, must see what is going on, too. Today, he'll present a visionary property tax relief initiative for members of the armed forces on active duty.

It's refreshing to see one local leader willing to stick his neck out for the grunt serving overseas. That's where Team Bush, Congress and the Army itself have failed. Men and woman are being hurled like mannequins into combat zones with inadequate training, never-ending deployments and disintegrating equipment. Cunningham speaks of his proposal as a "shared sacrifice" for troops in harm's way.

We should also sacrifice Bush.

ALLENTOWN: Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham is proposing a plan to give property tax relief to all county military personnel serving to support United States efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cunningham will outline the full proposal in a speech Wednesday (4/18) to the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council at noon at Saucon Valley Manor, 1050 Main St. , Hellertown.

Under the proposal, any member of the United States armed forces called to serve military operations for six months or more will receive a full rebate of the county property taxes on their home.

"Many of those serving to support our military efforts are reservists who have had to put their lives here on hold," Cunningham said.
"The families left behind struggle to keep everything in order while their loved ones are making a very dangerous sacrifice to serve their county."

"I believe that the people of Lehigh County can make a shared sacrifice for these service members and their families and cover the cost of the property taxes on their homes while they serve our country in a larger capacity."

The proposal calls for a full rebate of property taxes paid on a service member's home if they are in active duty for six months or more. The proposal is for a two-year period covering both 2007 and 2008. If a service member meets the required six months of service, and if the service time spans into both years, they would be eligible for a full rebate of both year's taxes.

Lehigh County's tax rate is 10.25 mills. The average Lehigh County property tax bill is $479.

The tax rebate would cover all full time regular military personnel who own homes in the county as well as reservists deployed for active duty while serving in a guard or reserve unit.

It's unknown exactly how many families in Lehigh County this would affect. There are estimated to be about 300 reservists from Lehigh County. Service families would have to submit a rebate request which will be available soon on the county website at or by calling the Lehigh County Government Center at 610-782-3000.

"The issue here is not the total number, but our willingness as county residents -- regardless of our personal viewpoint on the war -- to sacrifice together to help those who are sacrificing for us," Cunningham said.
"Many of our service personnel have given the ultimate sacrifice to these efforts. This is just a small effort on our part to say thanks."

Former United States Senator and Vietnam Veteran Max Cleland said,
"Don Cunningham's tax relief idea is an example of forward-looking leadership. More than ever we need strong local, state and federal leaders stepping up to help military families. I hope this measure will be embraced and implemented."

Since the start of 2007, four Lehigh County residents have been killed while serving in Iraq: Ashley L. Moyer of Emmaus, Mark T. Resh of Lowhill Township, Brandon J. Van Parys of Lynn Township and Luis O. Rodriguez-Contreras of Allentown.

WHO: Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham

WHAT: News conference to announce tax relief plan for active duty military

WHERE: Saucon Valley Manor, 1050 Main Street, Hellertown, PA 18055

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wonkette's Self-Serving Hypocrisy About Imus

Now that Imus has been sent to his ranch, frequent guest and enabler Wonkette tells us she was going to stop doing Imus' show anyway. An Imus Guest Says No More, says blogger Ana Marie Cox.


Imus got what he deserved. It was overdue. But Wonkette's self-serving essay reveals her as a phony who herself has made many of the comments she now so piously condemns. Lisa DePasquale, though unfortunately a conservative, blasts Wonkette's hypocrisy in a column you should read in its entirety. Here's an excerpt.

There’s another double standard that’s not being discussed. Cox (and the current Wonkette bloggers) never hesitate to make crude, politically and factually incorrect comments about women. If she (or any woman) would have said “nappy-headed hos” it would be called catty not racist. Or gossipy instead of sexist.

Conservative women like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Katherine Harris and Michele Bachman have been insulted in the same vein by Wonkette. A picture of Ann Coulter speaking is captioned on, “Nothin’ but Diet Coke, nicotine, and blow in her system.” A Wonkette “operative” asks if Michelle Malkin will be doing a sexual trick on her videoblog. Katherine Harris’s physical attributes (her “eyes” as Imus calls them) are discussed and she is called a “street whore

Pay to Play at BHA: Campaign Finance Reform Needed

Yesterday, I told you Bethlehem's Housing Authority (BHA) will soon award a lucrative energy savings contract to an outfit whose owner has given obscene amounts of money to Democrats seeking higher office. It will ignore its own staff and a paid consultant, who advised them to give the deal to someone else.

Such is the power of money in Pennsylvania politics. It's legal bribery, and it's rampant.

"So basically you'd be happy if those who donate to Dems don't get any public business?" That's what one commenter asked. No, I happen to be a Democrat. But we've reached a melting point. Wealthy developers, lawyers, engineers and prospective contractors know campaign contributions help their bottom line. They spread money and get noticed. Others, who don't have thousands of dollars, are ignored. Orwell's warning rings true - some animals are more equal than others.

Money has become so important to pols that even locally elected officials never stop fundraising. Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan is a prime example. He was just sworn into office for his first four-year term on January 3, 2006. Yet last year, in an off year, his campaign raised over $13,000.00. He didn't get that money from bake sales and car washes. Most of it came from lawyers, developers and prospective contractors. Tom Beach, executive VP of Conshohoken engineering firm Remington & Vernick, kicked in $1,000. Do you honestly think he gives one Philly cheesesteak about Bethlehem?

Pennsylvania has no limit on how much anyone can contribute to or spend in a political campaign. And although both pols and vendors deny a connection, any cursory examination of local campaign finance reports will reveal the same players, and guess who is always rewarded with contracts, jobs and tax concessions. Coincidence? Office seekers are so busy raising money, they have no time to interact with voters. Our campaign finance laws need reform. Here are a few ideas.

First, we should consider contribution limits. Home Rule governments like Northampton and Lehigh County have a right to impose these restrictions. Are any candidates for county office willing to study this kind of legislation?

Second, we must eliminate "pay to play" abuse. It's already led to two years in Club Fed when Michael Solomon, as a Norco official, was shaking down county contractors. Individuals who contribute to county candidates, for example, should be barred for one or two years from seeking no-bid contracts with the county. Philadelphia has recently adopted legislation directed at eliminating this shady practice.

Third, we need to experiment with "clean elections." How do they work? A candidate collects a number of small dollar qualifying contributions ($5 or $10), agrees to strict spending limits, and refuses further private money. Her campaign will then be publicly funded. Participation is voluntary, so no one can claim an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. This enables elected officials to concentrate on issues instead of endless fundraising.

Fourth, campaign finance reports should be more accessible and better explained. In the last primary, for example, there was a bitter four-way battle for the seat ultimately won by state rep Joe Brennan. Although campaign finance was a hot issue in that race, reports were unavailable online until after the election was over, when it no longer mattered. That is unacceptable. Reports for those seeking local seats should also be available online. Let's face it. Without online access, it's nearly impossible for a working person to follow the money. And those local elections are often more meaningful than anything on the state level. How much money do you think KOZ King Abe Atiyeh has given to local candidates in the Lehigh Valley? I see his name everywehere, but it's impossible to tell without taking each report and manually adding the sums. That system must change.

Finally, those reports should have detailed explanations when a candidate spends money on himself. In December, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan gave himself $3,600 for "political travel" and "miscellaneous expenses" during an off-election year. Is it that expensive to drive in Bethlehem? And what kind of expenses are Callahan spending on himself when his next election is three years away? I think we're entitled to better itemization instead of an expense that raises more questions than it answers.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bethlehem: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy!

Last week, the Express Times told us that Bethlehem's Housing Authority (BHA) wants energy-efficiency upgrades that will reduce both utility bills and global warming. That's good news. Who can complain about that?


Let me explain what's going on. The Guaranteed Energy Savings Act allows a municipal body like BHA to borrow money to hire an approved energy consultant to reduce energy costs. The debt is funded from the money saved on utility bills. If no savings are realized, nothing has to be paid.

In principle, this sounds very good. But in practice, Bethlehem is perverting a good idea for political purposes.

Eighteen firms are state-certified for energy savings contracts, including Allentown's DMJMHarris. But the only firms seriously considered for a $7 million BHA energy savings plan were North Carolina's Ameresco and Pittsburgh's CLT Efficient Technologies. Given the amount of money involved, I'd expect to see more than two companies interested. This lack of competition might be troubling, but BHA had already paid Enlightened Energy Consultants, to recommend the best outfit for this energy savings deal. Their recommendation? Ameresco. It currently has fourteen public housing clients. It's experienced.

But last Monday, BHA chair Dave "Lumpy" Sanders had no interest in this recommendation. He had already made up his mind. When the resolution to approve the contract came up on the agenda, Sanders immediately asked that the contract be awarded directly to CLT, the second highest scorer. Commissioner Joe Long, who chairs the local Democratic party and is notorious for back-room deals, seconded this motion. They had no interest in their own staff's recommendation!

An Ameresco rep, sitting in the peanut gallery, asked and was permitted to address the authority. He raised enough questions about the contract that the other BHA commissioners, Paul Reitmeier and George Samuelson, voted against awarding the contract to CLT.

The decision to award the contract to CLT was defeated by a 2 to 2 vote. Commissioner Iris Linares, a member of the Democratic state committee and the deciding third vote, was absent. Had she been present, the contract would have been awarded to CLT. And when she shows up for a second vote in May, that's what will happen.

Here's why. CLT's owner, Charles Zappala, is heavily connected to the state Democratic party and isn't afraid to throw his money around. Since 1997, he's contributed over $90,000 to Democrats seeking federal office. He's donated a whopping $208,000 since 2000 to mostly Democratic candidates seeking state office. Beneficiaries of his largess include indicted state senator Vince Fumo ($44,000) and the Guv, Ed Rendell ($25,000). Now gee, why would a dude from Pittsburgh be giving money to two boys from Philly?

Wait. It gets better.

On September 29, 2005, Zappala picked up the $652 catering bill for some event in honor of Lehigh County exec Don Cunningham. That same day, Zappala and his wife each kicked in another $2,500. Do you honestly think this Pittsburgh gazillionaire is just interested in good local government, far from his own home? Has Zappala also contributed to Bethlehem Mayor Callahan's campaigns? I don't know. I'll be checking.

Zappala does spread his money locally, and it seems to pay off. In Pittsburgh, his firm was one of just two companies considered for an energy savings deal. Guess who just got the deal? CLT. Zappala had contributed $10,000 in the Pittsburgh mayoral race, and another $500 to a city council campaign.

Funny thing. Zappala is neither a populist nor an environmentalist. His investment firm has interests in large waste treatment facilities in largely black and poor Chester, Pa. In 1997, a federal court concluded that the concentration of so many waste facilities in one area constitutes environmental racism.

I've been informed that board members have already received calls telling them to vote for CLT in May. "It's what the Mayor wants." Aside from an obvious Sunshine Act violation, it begs the question whether Mayor John Callahan is really looking out for Bethlehem or Democratic campaign coffers.

Isn't this just the latest example of "pay to play" under our archaic campaign finance laws? It occurs under the radar, largely unnoticed, especially on the local level. But it's destroying our democracy. A nonlocal moneybag like Zappala becomes far more influential than Bethlehem's own residents.

Friday, April 13, 2007

County Reaches Agreement With Gracedale Staff

The County and AFSCME has issued this joint press release, which speaks for itself.

EASTON – Northampton County and AFSCME Gracedale Division, Department of Human Services workers have reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement in just three months since the December 31, 2006 expiration of the previous contract.

"The relatively quick turn-around is the result of joint cooperation between County Administration and AFSCME Local 1435 negotiating teams in conducting good faith collective bargaining," said Northampton County Executive John Stoffa.

"We look forward to working with the members of Local 1435 in continuing to provide excellent care for our most fragile, elderly residents," stated Mr. Stoffa.

The contract agreement, effective from January 1, 2007 through December 31, 2011, covers a variety of Department of Human Services positions supporting the County’s operation of the Gracedale Nursing Home. These 700+ employees are represented by Council #13 and District Council #88 of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees."The contract is a fair contract and was forged in the spirit of cooperation between AFSCME Local 1435 and the County of Northampton," according to AFSCME District Council #88 representative Justus James.

Mr. James adds: "The AFSCME employees at Gracedale stand out in the health care field. They provide the highest quality of care for those in their charge."

The highlights of the agreement include a 4.5% salary increase across the board for each of the five years; increased employee contributions for health care for each of the five years; the introduction of in-network medical deductions; the introduction of co-pays for office visits, emergency room visits and hospital confinement; improved incentives to encourage better attendance; increased longevity payments; and clarification of several technical provisions.
* * *
AFSCME District Council 88 represents more than 13,000 public employees in Southeastern Pennsylvania, including employees of the Commonwealth and its counties, cities, townships, boroughs, school districts, and health and human service facilities.

Northampton County employs over 2,000 workers and has 11 bargaining units, totaling more than 75% of its workforce.

Commonwealth Court: You Have a Right to Know Your Vote Counts

Late yesterday, a sharply divided Commonwealth Court refused to dismiss a complaint by Dr. Alan Brau, and others attacking the state's lax certification procedures for touchscreen voting machines here and throughout most of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Brau, a local physician, insists these touchscreen machines are unreliable and advocates a voter-verified paper trail. Nearly a year ago, he was spurned by the Department of State when he asked for re-examination of the WINVote system. He is part of a nonpartisan group that has challenged the state's certification in Commonwealth Court. When asked about his motivation, Dr. Brau simply responded. "I'm a citizen. I'm a voter." In addition to general concerns about the lack of a paper trail, Dr. Brau is troubled by the specific WINVote system used in Northampton County. He has reiterated BlackBox Voting's allegation about AVS, the county's voting machine vendor. It's been accused of pulling a bait and switch. After getting its hardware certified, AVS is accused of shipping a cheaper internal hardware system, manufactured in China.

In recent weeks, we've learned we voted last November with machines the state never bothered to certify. And it's about to happen again. Changes are being made to voting software to accommodate large municipal ballots, and those changes won't be certified until after the election.

In essence, the court's ruling means voters have a state constitutional right to reliable and secure voting systems and can challenge the use of electronic voting machines “that provide no way for Electors to know whether their votes will be recognized” through voter verification or independent audit.
Correction: I'm an idiot. I just told you we'll be voting this spring with uncertified machines, but I'm wrong. AVS does want to change its software for larger municipal ballots, but it won't happen until after the primary. County officials won't allow uncertified machines to be used. I apologize for adding to the confusion.

Norco Council Stands Up for the Little Guy and Against Judicial Arrogance

December 16, 1689. The English Bill of Rights.

July 4, 1776. America's Declaration of Independence.

April 12, 2007. Northampton County's Judicial Independence Day?

Well, not quite. It was a just a minor matter in a brief meeting of county council, attended by a small crowd. But for the first time I can remember, a county council actually stood up to our black-robed deities. Let me tell you the tale.

County workers don't make big money. Some of them get food stamps. Others get help with their home heating bills. Many have seen no raises for over three years. Because their cafeteria was shut down to make a judicial tunnel, they've spent the past few months eating lunches at their desks or in hallways. Black robes have their own private dining room, atop the rotunda, with a commanding view to aid judicial digestion. In fact, an entire floor of the new Taj Mahal is blocked off for their exclusive use. They say it's for security. I say they don't want anyone to know how little they work.

What the judges want, the judges get. That's the rule. Ridiculous extravagances like a wind-sensitive fountain or expensive marble floors are nothing to them. But they've ignored the peasants, and morale in the courthouse is at an all-time low.

County exec John Stoffa knows this better than most. Last December, he was nearly lynched by a group of angry workers who justifiably feel they're entitled to a living wage. Stoffa agrees the entire salary structure is too low, and has begun the work on a study aimed at fair compensation.

This is where court administrator Jim Onembo steps into the picture. You see, judges feel their law clerks deserve more money. A lot more money. But unlike everyone else, they won't wait for that job study so that everyone is taken care of simultaneously. They want their bottle and they want it now! It doesn't matter to them that a thirty percent raise to law clerks might annoy an employee who has seen nothing for over three years. Council was presented with a resolution authorizing higher salaries for law clerks, between $44,200 and $60,177!

What are law clerks? Students who just got out of law school. They haven't passed the bar. They help judges write opinions and run judicial errands. The judges did no salary study. They just plucked a number out of the sky.

Councilman Lamont McClure asked Onembo about how he arrived at his figures, and also pointed out that higher paid Lehigh County law clerks have actually passed the bar. He noted the inherent unfairness in singling out this group of employees for special treatment while other groups are forced to wait. Councilman Charles Dertinger referred specifically to the most ignored group of workers, the county's residual unit. He suggested the judges wait until we know everyone has contracts. Councilmen Dowd, Cusick and Branco echoed these concerns. The matter was tabled.

Hooray for our team!

McClure and Dertinger, to their credit, stood up against judicial arrogance and in support of courthouse workers. They refused to cave. The deities in black robes are learning there is more than one branch of government.

Amazingly, Councilman Ron Angle called this vote a "grave mistake." The champion of fiscal conservatism was all for raising salaries a whopping thirty-three percent without a single study or report to justify the increase. Actually, Ron should have recused himself. His litigation against a stump farm owner is regularly in front of judges who were demanding more money. His vote looked like a judicial shakedown.

And get this! Even the council solicitor tried to tell council what to do. Solicitor Lenny Zito, himself a former judge, said law clerks are the "most valuable asset a judge can have." That's not legal advice, Lenny. If the solicitor wants to get involved in decision-making, he should run for office.

Judges - 45,000,000; Council - 1.

It's a start.
Update: The Morning Call has a well-written and informative account of last night's meeting.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut's Lehigh Valley Connection - My Mom and Dad

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. You may remember him as the new Mark Twain. I remember him as a close friend to my mom and dad.

Vonnegut met my dad when they were both "intelligence" scouts during WWII. They were both so intelligent, they ended up getting captured at the onset of the Battle of the Bulge. Their mutual inability to speak German probably saved their lives. My dad and Vonnegut, surrounded by Germans, thought they were saying, "Don't shoot." In fact, they were saying, "Don't shit."

For Vonnegut, that incident was probably an early lesson in the power of humor. My Dad learned to speak German fluently.

Here's what Vonnegut once said about my mom (Mary) and dad.

Mary admired the two little girls I’d brought, mixed them in with her own children, sent them all upstairs to play games and watch television. It was only after the children were gone that I sensed that Mary didn’t like me or didn’t like something about the night. She was polite but chilly.

“It’s a nice cozy house you have here,” I said, and it really was.

“I’ve fixed up a place where you can talk and not be bothered,” she said.

“Good,” I said, and I imagined two leather chairs near a fire in a paneled room, where two old soldiers could drink and talk. But she took us into the kitchen. She had put two straight-backed chairs at a kitchen table with a white porcelain top. That table top was screaming with reflected light from a two-hundred-watt bulb overhead. Mary had prepared an operating room. She put only one glass on it, which was for me. She explained that O’Hare couldn’t drink the hard stuff since the war.

So we sat down. O’Hare was embarrassed, but he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I couldn’t imagine what it was about me that could burn up Mary so. I was a family man. I’d been married only once. I wasn’t a drunk. I hadn’t done her husband any dirt in the war.

She fixed herself a Coca-Cola, made a lot of noise banging the ice-cube tray in the stainless steel sink. Then she went into another part of the house. But she wouldn’t sit still. She was moving all over the house, opening and shutting doors, even moving furniture around to work off anger.

I asked O’Hare what I’d said or done to make her act that way.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.” That was kind of him. He was lying. It had everything to do with me.

So we tried to ignore Mary and remember the war. I took a couple of belts of the booze I’d brought. We would chuckle or grin sometimes, as though war stories were coming back, but neither one of us could remember anything good. O’Hare remembered one guy who got into a lot of wine in Dresden, before it was bombed, and we had to take him home in a wheelbarrow. It wasn’t much to write a book about. I remembered two Russian soldiers who had looted a clock factory. They had a horse-drawn wagon full of clocks. They were happy and drunk. They were smoking huge cigarettes they had rolled in newspaper.

That was about it for memories, and Mary was still making noise. She finally came out in the kitchen again for another Coke. She took another tray of ice cubes from the refrigerator, banged it in the sink, even though there was already plenty of ice out.

Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. “You were just babies then!” she said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.

“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.

“I — I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.

So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: “Mary,” I said, “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.

“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’ ”

She was my friend after that.