Friday, August 31, 2007

Lehigh County Exec Cunningham:Taxes Will Remain Unchanged Through 2011

Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham has officially presented his 2008 budget with no tax hike, major bridge overhauls, and new investments in public safety and human services. His office was nice enough to forward the news release, which I'll share with you.

(Allentown, PA): Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham released his administration’s 2008 budget today while announcing that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Lehigh County will not need a tax increase through 2011.

“The combination of running a tighter ship and steering it through the calmer seas of a growing residential and economic base has put us on a solid course,” Cunningham said.

The proposed 2008 budget includes no new tax increase, keeping the county rate at 10.25 mills. In addition, next year’s budget will see an increase in cash reserves, referred to as a stabilization fund, to $20 million, a growth of $1.5 million from last year.

Next year’s budget will be $400.5 million and includes a slight reduction in workforce to a total of 2,197 employees. The total county general fund will grow next year by a modest 3.6 percent for Lehigh County taxpayers, well be low the rate of inflation in the Lehigh Valley, which is about 5 percent.

“I have a simple philosophy regarding fiscal management: keep your costs down, don’t spend more than you earn, and pay attention to the little things to avoid big problems,” Cunningham said. “Good tax policy comes from good spending policy. Control spending and taxes will stay in check.”

Cunningham has focused his Administration’s efforts next year on rebuilding the County’s infrastructure. The budget includes an $85 million capital plan that will renovate and expand the County Courthouse, relocate and upgrade the 911 Communications Center, continue to invest county dollars in fixing closed and deteriorating bridges, renovate the men’s work release facility and start complete energy efficiency overhauls of county facilities.
“Now is the time to fix what’s broken and make sure our house is in order and that never again will this county let buildings leak for 40 years and allow bridges to be closed or deteriorate because we don’t want to spend money on core responsibilities,” Cunningham said.

Last year, Cunningham cut nearly $25 million from a proposed Courthouse expansion in order to invest in bridges and other facilities neglected by the county, he said. He has invested $10.5 million in county dollars to reopen five closed and one weight restricted bridge, greatly expediting replacements of those bridges and improvements to others.

In addition to the usual focus on cost-cutting and spending control, Lehigh County’s 2008 budget also includes new investments in public safety and the addition of about $30 million in state and federal support for new efforts in human services.

Along with opening a new regional county-run central booking facility for police departments across the county, 2008 will see 14 new positions in public safety, including a new homicide detective, three new deputy sheriffs, an additional emergency preparedness coordinator and others.

While keeping county spending level in human services, the 2008 budget will increase spending by about $30 million from state and federal sources that will go toward creating an autism resource center, provide child day care services to parents going from welfare to work and to address increased needs in children and youth, aging and mental health and retardation services.

Next year’s budget also includes the shift of $12 million accumulated in reserves to the county’s Green Future Funds program to continue the aggressive preservation of farmland and open space along with the creation and support of urban parks.

“Lehigh County is a state leader in open space and farmland preservation, ranking fourth in the Commonwealth,” Cunningham said. “To date, we have preserved 212 farms that total 17,346 acres. Last year we invested a record $8 million in farmland preservation.”

The proposed 2008 budget combines a fiscally responsible approach with an aggressive agenda to invest in infrastructure and buildings, fight crime and improve public safety, grow our economy and preserve our farmland and open space while taking care of our people in need, Cunningham said.

The Lehigh County Board of Commissioners will begin hearings on the proposed budget on Thursday, September 13.

Blogger's Note: This post has not been approved by Northampton County Democratic Chair Joe Long.

The Miserable Bastard Theme Song


If there was ever a theme song for miserable bastards, this is it. The lyrics must have come from Jim Hickey. It's funny, but don't play it around your kids.

LV's Top Elected Leaders: Poll Results For All Nominees

Yesterday, I gave you the breakdown on the top ten elected officials in the Lehigh Valley, but failed to list vote totals for some nominees who missed making the cut. In fairnesss to these folks, I think I should list all the vote totals. One nomination was made after I started my poll. Marc Grammes, Lehigh County Commissioner, suggested Lehigh County row officers, whom we all tend to take for granted. And frankly, I should have nominated Marc. He has commented here from time to time, and has been a very dedicated Lehigh County Commissioner.

Here's the breakdown for all 28 nominees:

The Top Ten

#10 - State rep. Rich Grucela(16 Votes)

#9 - LC Commissioner Kurt Derr (17 Votes)

#8 - State rep. Steve Samuelson (18 Votes)

#6 - A tie between U.S. Congressman Charlie Dent and Norco Exec John Stoffa, with 21 votes each.

#5 - State rep. Craig Dally (23 Votes)

#4 - Norco Councilperson Ron Angle (24 Votes)

#3 - State rep. Joe Brennan (27 Votes)

#2 - LC Exec Don Cunningham (29 Votes)

#1 - State rep. Bob Freeman (36 Votes)

Remaining Nominees

#11 - State rep. Jenn Mann (15 Votes)

#12 - A tie between Northampton County DA John Morganelli and Nazareth Borough Councilperson Jack Herbst, with 13 votes each.

#14 - Norco Council Prez Wayne Grube (11 Votes)

#15 - Norco Councilperson Charles Dertinger (10 Votes)

#16 - Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski (9 Votes)

#17 - Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (8 Votes)

#18 - Emmaus Councilperson Joyce Marin (6 Votes)

#19 - Norco Councilperson Mike Dowd (5 Votes)

#20 - Emmaus Councilperson Wes Barrett and South Whitehall Commissioner Brad Osborne tied with 4 votes each.

#22 - Southern Lehigh School Director Bill Miracle and Allentown City Councilman Julio Guridy tied with 2 Votes apiece.

#24 - Bethlehem School Director Judy Dexter, Norco Councilperson Diane Neiper, and Southern Lehigh School Director Bill Eddinger had one vote apiece.

#27 - Bethlehem City Council member Jean Belinski and Kutztown Mayor Sandy Green, though nominated, captured no votes.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

LC Exec Don Cunningham: No Tax Increase Next Year

Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham just demonstrated why LVRamblings rates him the second most accountable and responsive area leader. In addition to proposing a new budget with no tax increase, he discusses plans for a new 911 center, improvements to Lehigh County's work release facilities, improving public safety with regional solutions, human services increases and an affordable housing plan for working class families.

But enough from me. His office was kind enough to forward the text of his statement, and I'd like to share it with you.

At the outset I want to make clear that the Lehigh Valley is not a collection of governments with budgets and bureaucracies but it's a collection of people - people who work here, people who live here, who run our businesses, our schools, our community organizations. People who make our neighborhoods strong and our economies healthy. Our governments, if they are being run well, recognize that we exist only to do things collectively that we can't do as individuals. This is your government not mine. It belongs to each person who lives here, who pays for its operation – and it's incumbent upon those of us entrusted to run it to report to you on where we stand. The news media does that daily in small bites but - just as a company hosts an annual meeting with its stockholders - it's my belief that we need to do the same a few times a year with our stockholders - those we work for and with. Consider this a stockholders meeting.

And, this is a big operation. Next year's budget will be a little more than $400 million. We have a workforce of a little less than 2,200 employees, and another 600 plus part-timers

As you know, our county has been growing. And as with any business, growth makes the bottom line better but it also presents challenges, calls for adjustments and affords the opportunity to take care of those things that are often ignored in the tough times.

Those of you that I've worked with here in the county or in Bethlehem or when I was in state government know that I have a simple philosophy regarding fiscal management: keep your costs down, don't spend more than your making and pay attention to the little things to avoid big problems. Good tax policy comes from good spending policy. Control spending and taxes will take stay in check.

The combination of running a tighter ship and steering it through the calmer seas of a growing residential and economic base has put us on a solid course.

The budget we will officially propose to the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners tomorrow includes no tax increase. And barring any unforeseen circumstances, this county won't need a tax increase as far as our five year financial plan goes through 2011. Our tax rate will remain at 10.25 mills. In addition, next year's budget will see an increase in our cash reserves, or "Stabilization Fund," to $20 million, a growth of $1.5 million from last year.

That's the result of a well-managed operation. And, the big picture credit goes to our Director of Administration Tom Muller and our Budget Director Brian Kahler. I never thought I would meet two guys who were cheaper - er, more financially prudent, than me. And, their plans are executed and followed every day by our entire Cabinet.

Last year, I reported to you that we cut our total health care costs by 4 percent in 2007. Through a combination of thorough oversight, the cooperation of our employees and labor leaders, and the help of our partners Caruso Benefits and Capital BlueCross, next year our total health care costs will drop another 6 percent – for a savings of more than $2 million. With our four labor contracts finished and in place, all county employees - union and non-union - now contribute to their health care costs.

Just as with health care benefits, in the area of raises my goal has been parity between our union and non-union employees. Next year we will accomplish that. All employees, whether members of a bargaining unit or not, will receive a 3.9 percent wage increase.

With our reduction in health care costs, the total county general fund will grow next year by a modest 3.6 percent for Lehigh County taxpayers. The 3.6 percent increase is well below the spending limit pledge taken by me and many of our County Commissioners, which correctly says we should hold growth below the rate of inflation, which is about 5 percent in the Lehigh Valley.

Part of controlling costs and spending, requires controlling the growth of government employees. Next year, will see a slight decrease in the overall number of county employees to a total of 2,197 full-time employees. We will, however, continue to shift and strategically realign positions, reducing them in some places and adding them in our priority areas and areas of need. Next year will see 14 new positions in the area of public safety and corrections, while eliminating unnecessary administrative positions.

We continue to look for ways to save more. Under the guidance of our director of general services, Jan Creedon, all our facilities starting next year will be changed out for full energy efficiency. Working with energy savings companies, or ESCOS, our facilities from nursing homes to prisons to office buildings will be evaluated and upgraded. Things such as insulation, window replacements, HVAC upgrades and new light fixtures will be changed. The upgrade costs will be borne by the ESCOs and then paid out of the savings we realize on our utility bills. During the next ten to fifteen years, we expect to save hundreds of thousands of dollars on energy related costs. With energy costs on the rise, it's critical that this be done for Lehigh County's taxpayers now.

Now, is also the time to fix what's broken and make sure our house is in order and that never again will we let buildings leak for 40 years and bridges to be closed or deteriorate because we don't want to spend money on core responsibilities. This fall we will embark on an $85 million bond issue for that purpose, with the lion's share going for the $61 million Courthouse renovation and expansion.

At the start of my administration, I successfully fought to reduce the cost of the planned courthouse renovations by $20 million, in part, so we'd have money for other needed improvements, such as our bridges. I also didn't think we needed 20 foot courtroom ceilings and all the schmaltz. The recent bridge collapse has reinforced how important it's to maintain our roads and bridges. We have 47 of them. On my first day in office, five of them were closed and one - Linden Street in Allentown - was weight and lane restricted. We've embarked on a course that will pump $10.5 million of county taxpayer money into our bridges during these four years, including $5.5 million to replace Linden Street. Next year's budget will see the addition of nearly $2 million to the program. By the last day of this term in 2009, all five closed bridges are scheduled to be reopened and Linden Street to be replaced. This has all been done under the watchful eye of Glenn Solt, our Manager of Capital Projects, who has fit this in while building an AAA baseball stadium and starting a new Courthouse.

Next year, we also will build a new 911 emergency communication center. It will move from the Courthouse to the recently acquired Hamilton Financial Center building, next to the County Government Center in Allentown. For the first time, our 911 center will use GPS technology to locate callers through their cell phones, minimizing emergency response time. Keeping the center in downtown Allentown allows for the future possibility of merging Lehigh County and Allentown City operations. It also has given us more space for county operations and allows us to lease space to other tenants, covering the cost of operating a new building.

This year we also will fix the hodgepodge of leaky trailers that were intended to be temporary 20 years ago that we call the men's work release facility along the Lehigh River in Salisbury Township. Finally repairing these ailing structures and expanding the capacity of this facility, allows us to save precious and costly space in our main prison as we can house nonviolent offenders eligible for work release in a less-costly facility. Through the excellent oversight of Ed Sweeney, our director of corrections, we lease space in our prison to other counties, now at a rate of $90 per day, resulting in a new $1.5 million in revenue for Lehigh County.

With a focus on improving public safety with regional solutions, a new Lehigh County Central Booking Facility will open at the end of the year. By locating one centralized booking and intake center directly at the Lehigh County Prison, we will achieve two important goals. We will save time for countless municipal police officers who will have one drop off location for offenders and, perhaps more importantly, we will have better tools to identify those who may be wanted in multiple jurisdictions. Our District Attorney Jim Martin has led the way on this project.

County spending on our nursing homes will remain the same next year with only a small Lehigh County taxpayers subsidy of $1.4 million going toward the nearly self-sufficient excellent nursing homes we run for our senior citizens in need. We will also invest a much-needed $4.5 million into building upgrades and improvements, in addition to the energy efficiency and energy-savings upgrades.

The area of Human Services – about half of our total budget -- will get a big boost next year, which I will go into in detail tomorrow when we release the budget. But, while keeping the Lehigh County taxpayer contribution of $7.1 million the same next year as it is this year, we will see an increase of about $30 million in state and federal funding for everything from creating an autism resource center to providing more child day care services to get parents from welfare to work to addressing increased needs for our senior citizens and those with mental health and retardation challenges. This has all been done under the progressive leadership of Lynn Kovich, our director of Human Services.

In addition to new federal and state funding for human services, next year, Lehigh County will begin receiving $1.4 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds to invest in our community. Because we've been designated an "urban county," by the federal government, we will receive twice what we'd gotten previously and we will get it directly instead of as a pass-through from the state. I'd like to thank our Director of Community and Economic Development, Cindy Feinberg, who worked a lot of very long hours to make sure that this, came to fruition.

This money will support what we're doing in Allentown, Bethlehem and our urban boroughs. We can now couple it with the grant programs we started to help with things like streetscape improvements, our borough business façade grant program, our countywide housing rehabilitation program, and projects in our municipalities, such as curb cuts, sidewalk replacements and sewer and storm water renovations.

In addition, next year will see a new approach toward creating better affordable housing – not low-income housing but housing that working families can afford – so people raised here can afford to stay here and raise a family. We will coordinate our housing activities closely with Northampton County as we continue to move towards greater regional cooperation.

One of last year's great successes was the creation of our Congress of Governments, a confederation of all 25 of our local governments in Lehigh County – boroughs, cities and township, both rural and suburban. It's all about regionalism and results. It's a first in Pennsylvania and its goal is to give our local government officials a powerful forum for them to work together and have their voices heard on regional issues and solutions. So far, we are tackling new plans on emergency preparedness and response, better coordination and communication between our law enforcement agencies, regional transportation planning. It's been very encouraging. I've seen monumental progress in the Lehigh Valley since I started in this work 12 years ago in the viewpoint of local leaders toward regionalism and finding solutions to issues that reach across municipal boundaries to save all of our taxpayers' money.

We continue to move down the path of smart growth and regional cooperation. Lehigh County is a state leader in open space and farmland preservation, ranking fourth in the Commonwealth. To date, we have preserved 212 farms that total 17,346 acres. Last year, we invested a record $8 million in farmland preservation. Next year's budget will see us shift $12 million from money set-aside by the last administration for general operation of government to our Green Future Funds program to continue purchasing open space and helping to develop urban parkland.

We are combining a fiscally responsible approach with an aggressive agenda to invest in our infrastructure, our buildings, fight crime and improve public safety while we preserve our quality of life as we maintain our farmland and open space, hopefully, shifting our growth onto our brownfields and into our cities where we have the infrastructure and need the help.

Good things are happening in Lehigh County. Hopefully, we are helping by creating a stable tax rate that isn't increasing, investing in our infrastructure, fueling both economic growth and preservation and taking care of our people in need. We need the private sector to drive the economy and create jobs. You need a government that is sound financially, focuses on the basics and gives you a good value for your dollar.

But, the bottom line is that we need each other. And, this is why Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley have emerged as a state-wide leader in growth, regionalism and quality of life. When we communicate with each other, work together and drive toward common goals we can move mountains.

Thank you for your commitment and your time and attention today.
Blogger's Note: This post was not approved by the Northampton County Democratic Committee.

LV's Top Ten Elected Officials: "The People Have Spoken"

"The people have spoken. ... F--- them."

Those were my dad's words, live, to a radio broadcaster upon learning he had lost his bid for re-election as Northampton County DA. The year was 1969.

And you think I'm irreverent?

Well, the people of the blogosphere have spoken, too. They've selected the top ten elected officials in the Lehigh Valley with 337 ballots spread out among twenty-eight nominees. Voters were asked to select leaders who make government both transparent and accountable.

Here's the breakdown.

#10 - State rep. Rich Grucela(16 Votes)

#9 - LC Commissioner Kurt Derr (17 Votes)

#8 - State rep. Steve Samuelson (18 Votes)

#6 - A tie between U.S. Congressman Charlie Dent and Norco Exec John Stoffa, with 21 votes each.

#5 - State rep. Craig Dally (23 Votes)

#4 - Norco Councilperson Ron Angle (24 Votes)

#3 - State rep. Joe Brennan (27 Votes)

#2 - LC Exec Don Cunningham (29 Votes)

#1 - State rep. Bob Freeman (36 Votes)

The biggest surprise to me, is to see the left-leaning blogosphere include both Charlie Dent and Ron Angle in its top ten. Charlie Dent, one of the last people nominated, was buried at the bottom of my poll, yet still came out in the top ten. Ron probably paid a few servants to buy computers and vote for him.

But reform-oriented Bob Freeman is no surprise to anyone.

Norco Administrators:"We're From the Government and We're Here to Help!"

I'm a title searcher. It's a dying profession, especially for those of us who do "full" searches. Twenty years from now, most searches will simply be credit searches. And they'll be performed online by people from India.

Although we work at the courthouse, we're really just members of the public. But because our job takes us regularly into different row offices, we get to know everyone and can voice opinions that might get a county employee fired.

If you think I'm the only title searcher with opinions, think again. We're miserable bastards. You see, our job requires us to find out everything that's wrong with a piece of property, and that trait carries over into everything else. Most county administrators avoid us like the plague.

That changed on Monday, when two county administrators actually met with a group of title searches. Director of Court Services Bill Hillanbrand, who oversees most row offices, called this meeting. He was joined by Recorder of Deeds Ann Achatz (a 30 year vet) and her boss, Fiscal Affairs Director Vic Mazziotti. Nothing like this has ever happened in a previous administration.

"We're from the government and we're here to help!"

Fourteen searchers showed up for this tête à tête. If you want to know how obnoxious we are, get this. Seven searchers refused to come at all.

Bill and Vic quietly introduced themselves, and said they were available for any concerns or suggestions. They spoke about attempts to make certain records available online, possible WIFI access and electronic recording. They flatly admitted they "don't know it all," but their goal is to make information as accessible as possible for the general public. They asked us to let them know if we have any problems or ideas, and said they'd like to conduct these meetings on a regular basis.

What I liked about this meeting is that two cabinet members care enough about the county to want to open up lines of communication with everyone, even cantankerous title searchers. This speaks well, both of them and their boss, John Stoffa.

Blogger's Note: This post has not yet been approved by the Northampton County Democratic Committee.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Take a Stand" Town Hall Bashes Congressman Dent, But Takes No Stand

If you were among the 230 people who attended last night's Dent-bashing rally at Bethlehem's Van Bittner Hall, it's very likely that the first person you saw was our very own smiling Walter R. Garvin, Chairman of the Northampton County Elections Commission. He was wildly waving a "Support the Troops - End the War" sign, and directing people where to park.

Funny thing. When I approached Walt to snap a photograph, he suddenly stopped smiling and quickly put that sign behind his back. He actually seemed ashamed of what he was doing. Was he afraid I'd complain that it's just a tad inappropriate for the chairman of an elections commission to be actively participating in an event aimed at smearing Congressman Charlie Dent? Maybe Bossman Long might think Garvin was taking this peace thing just a bit too far. Who knows?

So much for Take a Stand. When Garvin had the opportunity to do so, he cut and ran. And that's my problem. People were quick to blast Dent's Iraq votes. But no meaningful solutions were offered.

Last night's town hall was not so much a grassroots peace movement as a campaign rally. I saw several Democratic committeemen and candidates, all with name tags emblazoned upon them. Working the room like a champ was none other that Sam Bennett. Everywhere I turned, I saw her. I snapped a few pics, but the room was too dark. I'm a worse photographer than a blogger.

Joining hands with the usual gaggle of septuagenarian peace groups were the Steelworkers' Union, Pa. Social Services Union and the Lehigh Valley Democratic Coalition. So much for nonpartisan.

Of course, there was the obligatory empty chair for Congressman Dent, as well as several pointed references to his absence. "We are gathered to deliver a message to Congressman Dent, whether he's here or not. He can stand with Bush's disastrous war or the overwhelming majority of his constituents."

Following a five minute video that no one could see, we were treated to three speakers. First was a young Iraqi who hasn't been in the country for years. He talked about the terrors of the Persian Gulf War, not the current conflagration. Then a religious studies expert droned on for too long about the "just war" theory. He threw out Latin phrases, like bellum justum, to prove he's pretty smart. Bright as he is, he couldn't take a stand. "I don't pretend to have an answer." Finally, an ex Air Force captain read excerpts from The Nation and New York Times. Incidentally, she's never even been to Iraq. Although she's already met Dent twice, she still wondered aloud why Dent wasn't running the gauntlet at Van Bittner Hall. She demanded to know whether Dent would follow the Iraq Study Group recommendations.

After all the mini-speeches were over and the shocking evidence was in, our humorless facilitator asked this important question: "Where do we go from here? How do we take a stand?"

Incredibly, his answer made him sound just like George Bush on one of his "hard work" tirades. "We have lots of work to do. It will be hard work. But think how hard it will be if we don't do this hard work." He then suggested we could "take a stand" by grabbing a few bumper stickers and yard signs. Huh? That's about as meaningful as those goofy yellow ribbon magnets. I suppose we could also vote for Sam Bennett, like that would accomplish anything.

I didn't stay for cake. Too many people there know me, so I cut and ran myself.

Speaking of taking a stand, Congressman Dent joined Democrat Mark Udall this June in co-sponsoring legislation that calls for implementation of the Iraq Study Group recommendations. An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate by Democrat Ken Salazar, and is co-sponsored by both Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Arlen Specter. Call me crazy, but I think that's a little more meaningful than throwing a bumper sticker on a SUV.

In truth, last night's shindig had little to do with taking a stand, as Walt Garvin proved almost immediately, or meaningful solutions in Iraq. It was simply an opportunity to dump on Dent, quickly seized by Sam Bennett.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Northampton County Council Pays Price For Disregarding Its Own Lawyer's Advice

From the Express Times: "Northampton County Executive John Stoffa today vetoed a bill that establishes tax rebates for military personnel deployed overseas this year and next year. Stoffa said he had concerns about legal issues with the American Heroes Grant and wanted it to include people who have served in other foreign wars, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan."

This is taking a stand. Stoffa is upholding the law no matter what the personal consequences may be to him.

Congressional Wannabe Sam Bennett Takes a Stand ... and Bends Nonprofit Rules Again

Take a Stand is a national campaign aimed at a "safe and responsible redeployment" of American troops from Iraq. Today, 670 candlelight vigils and town hall meetings are scheduled, timed right before Congress goes back to work. Bethlehem's Van Bittner Hall (Steelworkers Hall), located at 53 E. Lehigh Street, will host the Lehigh Valley's town hall.

Despite the lofty name, this movement is designed to cajole Congress into withdrawing from an unpopular war. Before we ever invaded Iraq, taking a stand against that war meant something. Now it's just the latest flavor of the month. It doesn't take a hell of a lot of moral courage to agree with popular sentiment.

When 300,000 Persians tell 300 Spartans to surrender their arms, and they respond, "Come and get them," that's taking a stand.

Van Bittner Hall, with its strong union presence, is the proud site of many Democratic rallies. But according to Cammie L. Croft, the national director of today's "Take a Stand," the event is completely nonpartisan. She tells me that turning this into a Dent-bashing affair would threaten the nonprofit status of her group, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.

"It absolutely is not a partisan campaign," Cammie assured me last night.

Well, guess who's winking at those silly nonprofit rules ... again?

You got it on the first try! It's Sam Bennett. After getting caught financing her congressional campaign with a ridiculously excessive salary at nonprofit Properties of Merit, she's using nonpartisan Americans Against Escalation in Iraq to stage a free campaign rally.

Whoopee!

She was busy today, sending emails on her campaign letterhead to her pals on the Democratic committee, trying to stack the union hall. She's telling them to bring their friends, too. "I look forward to seeing you there." She closes by referring everyone to her campaign web page, where they can give her lots and lots of money.

Several committeemen tell me she's implied that she's even one of the featured speakers. National organizer Croft denies this, and told me late last night we'll be spared a Sam Bennett late night monologue.

Pity. I was looking forward to a few "RoyBoys."

But regardless whether Bennett speaks, this is yet another instance in which she is using a nonpartisan group to advance her personal goal - her quixotic quest for Congress.

Looks like Sam got a little help from local organizer Aaron Swisher. While pretending this event is nonpartisan, he gave Bennett permission to notify her pals on the Democratic committee. In fact, it looks like he drafted most of her letter, or provided a template. He purposely snubbed Congressman Charlie Dent, even though Dent has already met Swisher and has agreed there are no good options in Iraq.

This town hall is supposedly intended "to pressure targeted members of Congress to vote to bring a safe end to the war." You don't persuade people by thumbing your nose at them. Thanks to Aaron Swisher and Sam Bennett, the original purpose of tonight's town hall has been perverted. It will instead be a thinly-veiled campaign rally at a union hall, packed with Democratic committeemen.

I'll be there as a member of the non mainstream media, along with my digital camera. Should I ask Joe Long for permission? I'm sure he won't mind.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Express Times Defends Blogger's Appearance at Norco News Conference

Last week, I attended a John Stoffa news conference. I posted a brief, and factually accurate, story, almost immediately after he announced that the next election will be conducted with lever machines. But I decided to post a second report, the very next day, to explain how I ended up in the county exec's office in the first place. It was pretty much an accident.

This second blog, charitably called "irreverent" by both Blue Coyote and LVPoliblog, is an attempt, good or bad, at gonzo journalism. It is a highly subjective first person account, although my claims about that TV reporter are right on the money, bippy. She's warm for my form.

Can you blame her?

I thought my story might annoy her husband. It didn't, but I still managed to piss someone off - Joe Long. He thinks he's very important. He signs letters like this:

Joe Long, Chair
Northeast Caucus, PA Democratic Party
Northampton County Democratic Party


Impressive, huh? On Saturday, Express Times Editor Joe Owens blogged that Bossman Long "has a target" on my back.

Uh oh.

Well, Long's mostly angry at Stoffa, not me, for "inviting" a "blogger who has no credibility in this county. (Check his record)." Stoffa must "cease and desist."

Is it me? I always thought Democratic party chairs exist to ensure that Democrats seek and retain public office. Does he outrank our Democratic county exec? Where does he get the authority to issue stop orders? Can he impose his union thug notion of government, which consists mostly of threats and decisions made in smoke-filled back rooms, upon democratically elected officials?

Bloggers and Express Times Editor Joe Owens have some answers.

Blue Coyote: "You have no right to demand the public to "cease and desist" asking questions regarding their government. My Northampton County Democratic Party is not the same as your Northampton County Democratic Party! You better stop demanding and start listening to the voters."

LVPoliblog: "The people's business needs to be done in public. We can't exclude people from press conferences, or government meetings for that matter, just because we think we aren't going to like their perspective on it. Whether you agree with those in government or not, you can't issue a proclamation that any dissenting opinions, or in the case of this particular blog post by O'Hare, an irreverent one, be stifled by the subtle but dangerous shadow of government censorship. Trying to control who can come to government gatherings breaks that threshold."

Express Times Editor Joe Owens: "No matter how self-important we news-gatherers may like to be, we're really just information providers. O'Hare is in a similar category, whether Long likes it or not. Unless it's an invitation-only event, O'Hare is free to show up and write whatever he likes, crazy ramblings or not."

Owens does doubt my claim that the TV reporter was eyeing me with bedroom eyes. "The author's mug shot on O'Hare's Web site should settle that argument." That's why he's an editor and I'm a blogger.

I'm very impressed that the MSM would defend a form of alternative media at a news conference, especially when that alternative is me.

Later this week, I'll have a few things to say about Bossman Long and his pals in the local Democratic party. For now, I just want to thank him for increasing public awareness about the blogosphere. Thanks, Bossman!

Who Is This Woman? Why, It's The Express Times' Sarah Cassi!

On Friday, I asked you to name the person pictured on the left side of this blog, giving you these hints: 1) She's sassy but kinda' classy; 2) I talk about her all the time, and once devoted an entire post to her; 3) She needs combat pay; and 4) Her restraining order against me recently expired.

J. Spike: "I vote for Bernie's Shrink!"

Lehigh Valley Housewife: "She looks young, so I am going to guess LOLV."

Chris Casey: "[S]he does look familiar. Is she on an oversight board?"

I was hoping to build the suspense all weekend, but was too sloppy. As one anonymous commenter pointed out, "I just right clicked on her picture and her name Sarah came up with jpg."

I was a little surprised by the person who first correctly identified Sarah Cassi, the Express Times reporter assigned to cover Northampton County government. It was Michael Molovinsky, who remembers Sarah from her days at The Allentown Times. A Penn State grad, Sarah also covered Phillipsburg N.J. for the Express Times before being assigned her most dangerous mission.

Voting rights activist Dr. Alan Brau was the first person to identify her on the blog, and he saluted her investigative reporting regarding Advanced Voting Solutions.

She's a very good reporter. Part of the reason for that is her competition, The Morning Call's Joe Nixon. I tried getting his picture, too, but he kept ducking.

Friday, August 24, 2007

NE Democratic Party Chair Attempts to Exclude Blogger From Press Conferences

My recent coverage of a John Stoffa press conference (John Stoffa Press Conference: "Superman Visited Me Once"), has drawn the ire of party bossman Joe Long.

Express Times reporter Sarah Cassi has just posted Long's diatribe to Northampton County Exec John Stoffa.
John,

What the hell is this county coming to? You legitimize Bernie O'Hare as press, at a meeting that is important to all citizens of this county. This meeting had to do with the serious issue of voting and you evidently think it is a humorous side show, by inviting a blogger who has no credibility in this county. (Check his record). I have attached a copy of his blog and comments, that had been emailed to me. I ask you to cease and desist from treating O'Hare as legitimate press. Thank you.

Joe Long, Chair
Northeast Caucus, PA Democratic Party
Northampton County Democratic Party
Long considers voting a "serious issue?" Could have fooled me. This is a man who himself was illegally elected as party boss, who had his own daughter on the payroll in the elections office, and who makes primary elections meaningless by throwing party support behind his machine candidates. If anyone has turned voting into a humorous side show, it's Bossman Long.

Who Is This Person?

Who is this person??

Hint #1: She's very sassy yet kinda' classy.

Hint #2: I talk about her all the time, and once devoted an entire post to her.

Hint #3: She's not paid nearly enough.

Hint #4: Her restraining order against me expired yesterday.

Think you know this mystery woman? Give it your best shot, and you'll get an answer on Monday.

Rendell: Cunningham Would Make a Fine Governor

Governor Ed Rendell was the sole guest Monday night on Tony Iannelli's Business Matters. Incidentally, that's really a terrific show for folks interested in politics. Although very careful not to endorse anyone, Rendell made clear that Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham would make a "fine" governor.

Cunningham has had a "great local experience" as Bethlehem mayor and Lehigh County exec, and also has state experience while serving in Rendell's cabinet. The only downside, in Rendell's view, is money. He needs a lot more of the green stuff, and soon, if he expects to be taken seriously.

LVPoliblog recently interviewed Cunningham, who claims he won't make a final decision in 2010.

As far as Rendell's own political ambitions are concerned, he won't ride on someone else's bandwagon as a VP candidate. But he'd love to be Energy or Transportation Secretary.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

John Stoffa Press Conference: "Superman Visited Me Once"

There I was, sitting in a crowded county executive's office, at 4 PM today. Everyone was elegantly dressed, excepting me. I wore an old tattered "Life is Good" T-shirt, dirty jeans and smelly sneakers. Portraits of five former county execs, which decorate the walls, glared down at me.

How did I, with my coffee-stained T-shirt, end up in such an austere setting? Let me explain.

A few minutes earlier, I had gone to catch a few minutes of Ron Angle's finance committee hearing. I had no intention of staying very long, and was only there to show off my new toy - a digital camera. A reader suggested I should get pictures of council members, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Who knows? Maybe I could nail one of 'em picking his nose!

As we waited for the meeting to start, I took about thirty pictures of door knobs and empty chairs. I'm pretty sure I impressed the hell out of everyone because they were all smiling and complimenting me.

"Bernie, you need help, you know that?"

That was County Exec. Stoffa's way of letting me know I'm probably a genius.

As we all sat and cracked jokes, it soon became apparent that Angle was a no show. The bastard blew us off! Either that, or he's still stuck in Jellystone Park.

After waiting fifteen minutes (the college professor rule), Stoffa said, "Let's get out of here." And we all marched out. That's when John Conklin, Stoffa's amiable Director of Administration, told me he had some emails he'd like me to see about the touchscreen and lever voting machines. I went upstairs with him. But to get those emails, I'd have to sit through a Stoffa press conference.

Cool!

So I walked into John Stoffa's office, and all these photographers were already waiting. Their cameras were a lot bigger than mine. They also dress like they're going on a frickin' safari. I have to remember that.

"Are you waiting for Channel 69," a reporter asked Stoffa.

"Nah. I'm waiting for Walt. (that's Walt Garvin, the chair of Northampton County's election commission.) I promised I'd wait for him." Stoffa's a classy guy.

Within a minute, nattily attired Walt was there, looking suitably serious. He was just a little surprised to see a blogger at an official press conference, but didn't spit on me or anything.

"Good day," he gravely nodded as he somberly walked by.

Who the hell says, "Good day?"

Following Walt was a very pretty Channel 69 reporter. She conveniently sat on the couch right next to me. It was very apparent that she wanted me, especially when she saw my camera. But I denied her. I'm a blogger.

Walt and Stoffa sat next to each other, nimbly handling questions from both The Express Times and Morning Call. That vapid Channel 69 reporter asked nothing. She just eyed me hungrily. I ignored her and decided to get a good picture of Stoffa and Garvin together, looking real serious. There was a little superman statue between them, and I thought I'd get that in the shot, too. I whipped out my little camera, lined up my shot, and ... my goddamn batteries died on me! Too many doorknob shots.

Print reporters had a myriad of intelligent questions about Advanced Voting Solutions (no, they don't seem very advanced), Elections Commissioner Harry VanSickle (not VanWinkle), and lever machines (they each weigh 880 pounds, according to Stoffa).

But if I do say so myself, and I do, I had the question of the day.

"What's the deal with that superman statue?"

"Whaaat?"

"I said, what's up with that superman statue sitting on top of that TV right behind you?"

"He visited me once," Stoffa replied.

Today's papers will tell you all about the return of the lever machines, Old Faithful. But in my mind, the big story from yesterday's press conference is Stoffa's admitted association with Superman.

Did you ever notice that Superman and council prez Wayne Grube are never in the same room together??

I'm pretty sure this is the last press conference I'll ever be permitted to attend.
Update: The Morning Call's Joe Nixon has a quite detailed account of yesterday's press conference, and what it really means. The Express Times' Sarah Cassi has also filed a report. Neither mention Superman.

Heavy Turnout at LV Top Ten Elected Officials Poll

Polling has been quite heavy at the "Top Ten LV Elected Officials" poll. State rep. Bob Freeman has a commanding lead, with 219 ballots cast so far. But most voters have cast only one ballot.

Although you can vote only once from an IP, you may cast as few or as many ballots as you wish. In my case, I voted for ten.

Twenty-eight separate candidates are listed. If you scroll down the poll, you'll see them all. If you have not voted, and think one or more of the nominees are worthy, please be sure to visit the poll.

I'll have final tallies early next week.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Norco Exec Stoffa: Lever Voting Machines are Back!

In a press conference held late this afternoon, Northampton County Exec. John Stoffa announced that this November's election will be conducted with the county's 267 lever machines.

Pennsylvania Elections Commissioner Harry VanSickle previously had advised the county that "while lever machines are not HAVA compliant, there would be no prohibition on using them in this 2007 municipal election."

Stoffa's decision comes fast on the tracks of a Department of State decision, made earlier today, to suspend the use of Advanced Voting Solutions equipment in Pennsylvania. Secretary of State Pedro Cortes made this statement. "Given the fact that there is no way for the Department to predict when the federal examination and approval process will be completed, I have no choice but to suspend the use of Advanced's electronic voting system in the Commonwealth for the upcoming November 6 election. Doing so now will provide the affected counties - Lackawanna, Northampton and Wayne - the necessary time to consider and implement and alternative voting system solution."

Old Faithful is back.

The Lehigh Valley's Most Powerful, and Most Secret, Special Interest

You won't find a website for this gang. It operates in the shadows. But it's undoubtedly the most powerful special interest group in the Lehigh Valley, a consortium of unelected aristocrats who think they call the shots.

They may even be right.

I refer, of course, to The Lehigh Valley Partnership (LVP). Formed as a nonprofit in 1985, this unelected group of millionaires has had a hand in nearly all of local government's major spending plans.

In a Form 990 on file with the IRS, the LVP claims its purpose is "to provide resources to the community, in partnership with the public sector, for initiatives which improve the quality of life and economic prospects of the Lehigh Valley area." Sounds pretty good, eh?

But most of the resources provided to the community come from their "partners" in the public sector. The more these resources are spent, the richer this group gets. That seems to be their real goal.

Money appears to be the chief qualification for membership in this elite band. Meetings are conducted secretly. Public officials like Northampton County Councilman Ron Angle have been denied permission to attend.

Don't Hate the pLayA, Hate the Game

Thanks to Guidestar, I can now identify LVP Officers and Directors, at least as of 2005. I've listed them all here. They are a Who's Who of the Lehigh Valley business world. PPL's William Hecht, whose six year average salary was $4.08 million before he recently retired, was the president of this oligarchy in 2005.

Many of its members are mistros of the art of "pay to play." Lee A. Butz, chief executive officer to Alvin H. Butz., Inc., is a perfect example. Campaign finance records, on state (from 2001) and federal (from 1998) levels, reveal that Butz family members have contributed nearly $105,000 to politicians (mostly incumbents) running for federal or state office.

And the Butz family gets some bang for its buck. Look around. Is there any large government project in the Lehigh Valley that Butz does not build? Builder of Bethlehem's $65 million Penn Forest Dam? Butz. Northampton County's overbudget judicial Taj Mahal? Butz again. And guess who's doing the additions and renovations at Lehigh County's courthouse? You got it, Butz has that deal, too.

Think I'm blowing smoke? OK. Take a gander at another member of the LVP board, Anthony Salvaggio. State campaign finance reports reveal that, in the last six and a half years, he's donated $98,500 to candidates seeking statewide office. Most of these are Republicans, although he will grease the palms of an incumbent Dem like Rendell. Over that same period, Salvaggio has also donated $97,850 to candidates seeking federal office, according to FEC reports.

These dudes are pLayAs. Richard Thulin, another LVP board member, amazingly conned Northampton County into selling its Governor Wolf Building parking lot a few years ago. That left the county with a huge downtown building that has next to no parking. Brilliant! Thulin's Arcadia Properties intends to develop luxury condos and businesses in that parking lot, which incidentally is located in the Delaware River flood plain. And of course, "The location also enjoys the tax exemption advantages of a KOZ designation (which can extend to resident’s personal income taxes)."

Isn't that nice? Maybe Thulin should throw in a few free swimming lessons, too!

And so it goes for most of this crew.

LVP Tries to Make The Rules

Individually, I'm told most of these aristocrats are really nice guys who really, really care about the Lehigh Valley. It's probably true, too, but we're supposed to elect the people deciding our future. The LVP, because of its powerful membership, is setting policy. That interferes with democracy.

Behind closed doors, the Lehigh Valley Partnership has been a driving force behind the following:

(1) The $29 million in economic development incentives, i.e. corporate welfare, in Northampton County's controversial $111 million megabond.

(2) The Hotel Tax, including the formula that provides for sending most of the money to The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.

(3) The Open Space Referenda in Northampton and Lehigh County, which create small islands of green amidst seas of sprawl, without any meaningful attempt at land use regulation.

(4) Troubles at Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp, where one faction (LVP) favors secrecy while elected officials and a few enlightened businessmen promote transparency.

(5) Widening Route 22. Wonder why the LVPC ignored all those concerns about peak oil and global warming? Simple, LVPC Chair Mike Kaiser is an ex officio member of the LVP, and they want that highway widened ... now.

(6) Attempts to Control MSM. Publishers at both local papers are members of the LVP board. They do disclose that connection, to their credit. But I'd be a lot happier if they severed all ties. The LVP defies the notions of open and accountable government. That's contrary to the editorial policy at both papers.

Nonprofit LVP Takes DCED Handouts

Despite the wealth of its membership, the LVP is quick to take handouts. Why not? If the state can throw money at The Parkland Trojan Ice Hockey Club and Properties of Merit, why not a little sugar for LVP? Since January 1, 2006, the state DCED has provided this needy group of millionaires with $65,000 to fund a "community revitalization study" as well as a "local municipal and development study." I'd love to know who sponsored those grants.

Since we paid for it, don't you think the LVP should share these studies with us?

What troubles me most about LVP is that it promotes the notions of secretive government and back room dealing. No matter how worthy some of its ideas may be, its ninja approach to government will always lead to suspicion. Besides, we already had a revolutionary war that establishes we're supposed to be a democracy.

I think.
Clarification: My contention that LVEDC gets the majority of the hotel tax revenue is innaccurate. As a matter of fact, the Convention and Visitors Bureau gets the largest chunk and LVEDC gets a lesser portion, as dictated in a contract between the agencies. Both counties take their portion of the tax off the top, before it is ever distributed to the CVB. That formula was recently changed to increase the counties' share.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

$10,000 DCED Grant Funds Ice Hockey For Parkland Elitists

Last week, I told you about Allentown's Wall2Wall urban youth organizers, a group that dedicates itself to the Queen City's greatest asset - its kids. Over two years, this grass roots group has mentored over five hundred children in the area with the Lehigh Valley's highest poverty level.

It has done so with very little help and without forming a fancy 501(c)(3) nonprofit corportation. It's only getting around to that now. Kids always come first.

Today's story is about another Lehigh Valley youth sports group. This one's in the burbs, and is located in one of the Lehigh Valley's more affluent areas - the Parkland School District. It has already formed a fancy nonprofit - The Parkland Trojan Ice Hockey Club.

I called Parkland today to learn a little about this club. Before learning I was a blogger, school officials told me there is a JV and varsity program, and the hockey program is available for all grades. The school district pays insurance, advertises games, gives the kids some recognition and even provides transportation. But it's still not cheap. I was told I'd need at least $850, just for the ice time. Skates and helmets cost another $400. A varsity skater can expect to spend around $2,000 every year.

Let's face it. You don't see many poor kids at an ice hockey rink. It's not for the peasants.

Well-to-do Parkland parents got that way because they know how to get money. Amazingly, Parkland applied for and got a $10,000 state DCED grant, with a little help from state rep. Jenn Mann, before the club even bothered to form its nonprofit. Why Jenn Mann took it upon herself to get this $10,000 grant for an ice hockey club completely outside her own very impoverished Allentown district is beyond me, but that's what happened. The school district passed this dough right to the club.

I saw the grant application, which claims the money would give the "club the ability to include more students from lower economic backgrounds, and help subsidize the program for the benefit of all the students." That's a great idea, but unfortunately, that's not what happened.

In fact, nothing happened at all, according to former club prez Richard A. Plinke. After he was no longer involved in the ice hockey program, he received a nasty letter from the DCED Office of Audits and Compliance, asking to explain what had happened to the money. Plinke advised that "[t]he grant was not used because the on-ice staff did not develop a plan for using the money to fulfill the grant's objectives."

In a nice way, Plinke makes clear that no effort had been made to include poorer students. Why should they? It might ruin their exclusive little club. But once the state started nosing around, how was that money used?

That's the $10,000 question. According to one anonymous source, the grant funded a party at the end of the 2006 season, in which coaches entertained players by drinking several pitchers of beer in front of them. It also funded ice time for an independent team made up of players from all over the area, including New Jersey. In effect, a Pennsylvania DCED grant funded Jersey hockey players. Finally, the state grant was used to form the nonprofit.

Include poorer kids? Forget it. The state told me it has now received all necessary reports and considers the matter closed. The last thing it wants to do is admit it's an open cash faucet for the right people.

School district officials were very nice to me, but tell me I have to make an appointment to come and see them in person and present my questions, preferably in writing. No one from the school would agree to being quoted, and they pretty much dismissed my concerns as the sour grapes of disgruntled parents.

I don't think so. An affluent group obviously used its influence with the state to get $10,000 for more toys based on the canard that it was looking out for the little guy. And a wealthy school district helps finance this group of elitists. An Allentown resident who did something like that would be prosecuted for welfare fraud, but Parkland last March celebrated a championship.

Whoopee! Those kids are learning real valuable lessons.
Clarification: Contrary to the impression left by the Parkland School District web page,my astute readers inform me that a small portion of Allentown is, in fact, located in the Parkland School District. I verified this through Lehigh County assessment records.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Old Faithful - Those Lever Machines

As state elections officials try to come up with a solution to the latest problems caused by Advanced Voting Solutions (AVS), it's worth remembering that we still have perfectly functioning lever machines, collecting dust at Gracedale.

Unlike the touchscreen voting machines supplied by AVS, there's no need to have a new software version tested by the feds and certified by the state before every election. They hold up under power failures. They can't be hacked. No parts are made in China. There's even a privacy curtain, ensuring that your vote is a secret ballot.
A friend of mine took pictures of these machines before they were last used. The picture on your left is especially enlightening as it shows the internal counters that must be transcribed to paper by the poll workers when voting precincts close. Few people have any idea what these things look like on the inside, so I thought I'd share his pictures.
Update: The Express Times tells us Northampton County exec John Stoffa will decide today whether the lever machines can be used in November's election. Unlike Lackawanna, Northampton County retained its lever machines for exactly this possibility. I don't know, but believe, the county won't make this decision withour consulting the Department of State.

The Lehigh Valley's Top Ten Elected Officials? It's Up to You

David Letterman gets all the credit for those top ten lists, but we know Who really started them.

Last Tuesday, I asked you for some help with another kind of top ten list - "Can the Lehigh Valley blogosphere identify the top ten government leaders of 2007, leaders who have tried to make government both transparent and accountable?" You've answered that question with 28 separate nominations.

Chris Casey had graciously agreed to run the poll over at LVPoliblog, but the blog gods have interfered. Blogger will only show 5 of the 28 names.

Gee, I wonder if Blogger is a subsidiary of Advanced Voting Solutions.

Fortunately, I was able to design my own poll, listing all 28 names, and you can vote here. I also have a link to this poll on my left side bar.

Here's the deal. You're allowed to vote once from any IP, and to cast as many ballots as you wish. Next week, I'll tally up the results and announce the top ten. If the polling service fails, I'll call Moses.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

LV Good Gov't Elected Official Nominees: Freeman Leads Pack

Nominations are now officially closed, and are being forwarded to LVPoliblog for next week's poll. Chris Casey is going to allow each of you to make three picks, and we'll be able to tally the top ten in a week.

Because this list is limited to elected officials, I could not include some names mentioned.

Not surprisingly, Bob Freeman leads a list of twenty-eight elected officials, with 9 separate nominations. Other nominees include state rep. Joe Brennan (3); state rep. Jenn Mann (2); state rep. Steve Samuelson (4); state rep. Rich Grucela (1); state rep. Craig Dally (2); Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham (3); Northampton County Exec John Stoffa (2); Nazareth Borough Councilman Jack Herbst (1); Emmaus Borough councilpersons Wes Barrett (2) and Joyce Marin (4); South Whitehall Commissioner Brad Osborne(1); Southern Lehigh School Directors Bill Miracle (1) and Bill Eddinger (1); Lehigh County Commissioner Kurt Derr (1); Northampton County Council members Mike Dowd (2), Ron Angle (2) Wayne Grube (1), Charles Dertinger (1) and Diane Neiper (1); Northampton County DA John Morganelli (1); Kutztown Mayor Sandy Green (1); Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski (1); Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (2); Bethlehem School Director Judy Dexter (1); Bethlehem City Council member Jean Belinski. Allentown City Councilman Julio Guridy (1); and U.S. Congressman Charlie Dent (1).

Be sure to vote early and often over at LVPoliblog.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The LV's Top Ten: Make Your Nominations Now!

Who are the top ten elected officials in the Lehigh Valley?

That's the question I posed on Tuesday, and I've been taking nominations since that time. You can make your nomination here.

Next week, you can cast your votes over at LVPoliblog. You'll be able to select three elected leaders from the nominations I'll be forwarding to Chris late Saturday night.

So far, twenty-one public officials have been nominated: state rep. Joe Brennan; state rep. Jenn Mann; state rep. Bob Freeman; state rep. Steve Samuelson; state rep. Rich Grucela; state rep. Craig Dally; Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham; Northampton County Exec John Stoffa; Nazareth Borough Councilman Jack Herbst; Emmaus Borough councilpersons Wes Barrett and Joyce Marin; South Whitehall Commissioner Brad Osborne, Southern Lehigh School Directors Bill Miracle and Bill Eddinger; Lehigh County Commissioner Kurt Derr; Northampton County Council members Mike Dowd and Ron Angle; Kutztown Mayor Sandy Green; Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski; Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan; and U.S. Congressman Charlie Dent.

If you know an elected public official who believes in open and accountable government, and she's not on that list, make your nomination now or forever hold your peace.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Defying Their Solicitor, Northampton County Council Approves American Heroes Grant

Although absent from last night's meeting of Northampton County Council, Ron Angle still managed to cause the biggest ruckus. That's because he insisted on attending by speakerphone from the wilds of Jellystone Park. Solicitor Lenny Zito, a former judge, advised council prez Grube to try and accommodate Angle.

That decision was resented by crybabies Charles Dertinger, Lamont McClure and Diane Neiper. They shook their bobbleheads in disgust at Councilman Speakerphone, before the meeting ever got started.

When it did, McClure demanded that Zito state the legal basis for permitting a council member to attend a meeting by phone.

"The Sunshine Law," Zito quietly answered. That shut McClure up because he knows next to nothing about that.

From the west coast, Angle kept saying things like, "Hey there, Booboo" and "I'm smarter than the average bear!" But he kept getting cut off. In his last call, it sounded like Angle was in a bit of trouble. In fact, I could swear he was being swallowed whole by a grizzly bear who thought Ron was a "pic-a-nic basket." Council made one last try, only to get dead silence on Angle's end. After a quick call to the National Park Service and a sad moment of silence, the meeting resumed.

"We tried," shrugged Ann McHale.

With Angle out of the way, Council unanimously adopted the American Heroes Grant. This provides a property tax rebate to veterans deployed this or next year. Solicitor Zito had suggested tweaking the language so that it could withstand a legal challenge. "We can do that after the fact," explained Dertinger. Lamont McClure smugly dismissed Zito's concerns. "Anytime a legislature acts, it invites judicial interpretation."

Don Cunningham's American Heroes Grant is a good idea. But if your own lawyer has suggestions to improve it, why not listen? Perhaps the grant could have been amended and adopted on the spot. Four members of council (Grube, McHale, Dowd & Cusick) wanted to table the matter for that reason.

Not Team Dertinger. Their unwillingness to listen sounds eerily similar to a presidential administration that refused to listen just a few short years ago.

3,702 American soldiers have paid the ultimate price for Team Bush's refusal to listen. This same stubbornness now could end up hurting returning soldiers in need.
Update: The Morning Call's detailed account of last night's meeting is here. The Express Times has three separate reports - Angle's encounter with ursos horriblus; the military rebate; and even a story about the courthouse cupola repair (on schedule and under budget).
Update #2: The Lehigh Valley Independent Press questions whether Northampton County Council is supporting our troops or just gaining political support without pain. Joe DeRaymond asserts that, if council truly wants to help veterans, "they should do it across the board, with an outright grant to every soldier who was a resident of Northampton County who qualified, not just those who owned real estate."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Voting Machine Shutdown in Northampton, Wayne & Lackawanna Counties

Yesterday, I told you that federal testing of needed changes in Advanced Voting Solutions (AVS) software has been suspended. That's the voting system used in three Pennsylvania counties - Northampton, Lackawanna and Wayne. Both The Express Times and Morning Call have detailed accounts of this crisis.

Among the problems - a possible bait and switch. At a February 13 meeting of the citizens' task force, voting rights activist Dr. Alan Brau told the panel about this allegation, originally made at BlackBox voting. After getting its hardware certified, AVS is accused of shipping a cheaper internal hardware system, manufactured in China. AVS has denied this to federal testers, but pretty much ignored the elections panel.

This morning, the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Pa. State Dep't told state lawmakers what's going on. I'll share their explanation with you.

The following information relates to voting systems currently being used in Lackawanna, Wayne and Northampton Counties:

Advanced Voting Solutions (AVS) is having issues getting approval from federal testing agencies of a new software release. Any changes to an electronic voting system must be submitted for review to federal testing agencies. Under Pennsylvania law, federal approval is a pre-condition of state certification of voting systems.

The issue at hand is that AVS developed new software for its voting systems which are used in the above mentioned counties. Before AVS can put that new software on the voting systems, it must be tested by a Federal Independent Testing Authority (ITA) under the jurisdiction of the Untied States Elections Assistance Commission. The ITA has recently notified the Federal Elections Assistance Commission that AVS has not paid their testing fee and that ALL testing will cease until the balance is paid in full. The ITA also indicated that AVS changed the motherboard component of the hardware previously tested and certified. This is a matter of disagreement between AVS and the ITA. If the monies owed are not remitted and the testing does not resume, it is highly likely that the state certification of all AVS voting systems in the Commonwealth will be suspended.

If Local Gov't Can Give Tax Breaks to Developers, Why Not Vets on Fixed Incomes?

Northampton County Council is considering sister ordinances that honor veterans of both Iraq and WWII by granting county tax rebates this and next year. In fact, they're considering the idea of honoring all veterans on fixed incomes, in phases, over the next several years.

Leonard Zito, county council's very capable solicitor, questions the legality of this proposed grant. If his concerns can be overcome, why not try to help our soldiers with a little more than a thank you? The Morning Call says no, and asks this question: "Why is providing a benefit to troops, called to service by the commander in chief of the United States, a responsibility of Northampton County's taxpayers?"

Here's my question. If that's not a local government responsibility, then why not just close up shop and let the state and feds run the whole show?

Local governments regularly provide tax breaks and outright grants to big businesses and developers, who blow sweet kisses about high paying jobs that never seem to appear. And local governments take the bait, tripping over each other to provide tax concessions.

And let's be honest. Most of these local officials have been bribed, albeit legally, in the form of campaign contributions.

Want an example? A few years ago, Northampton County gave Abe Atieyeh a KOZ classification for the Cinema Paridiso. That exempted him from nearly all taxes. His matter was not even on council's agenda, but that didn't matter because he paved his way with campaign bucks to different pols. He promised to produce all kinds of office jobs from businesses in Jersey.

Guess what? After getting his break, he sold it to a business that decided to show movies. And that outfit, despite all those tax breaks, still went belly up.

So why not provide for a few folks that could really use the help? Senior vets on fixed incomes should not be forced to absorb the spiralling cost of local government, especially when there are plenty of yuppies who use most of the local government services. Should local government shrug its shoulders and ignore them simply because the state government has done nothing about property tax reform? Can local government sit idly while the federal government flings soldiers into combat zones with inadequate training, never-ending deployments and disintegrating equipment?

Just yesterday, LVDem reminded us of Hubert Humphrey's famous words: "The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." Many of our Iraqi vets are in the shadows of life, while old soldiers on fixed incomes are in their twilight.

Thumbing our noses at aging vets, while rewarding developers who make campaign contributions, is a sign of government completely out of touch with reality. Nero and Caligula would be proud.

A Little More Background on Allentown's Wall2Wall Youth Sports

On Monday, I told you about Allentown's Wall2Wall urban youth organization and the wonderful job they do with the Queen City's greatest asset - its children. Someone associated with that grassroots group posted a comment, and I want to share it with you.

Wall 2 Wall U.Y.O. is a non-profit organization developed to give kids a positive opportunity to better themselves through sports. We believe sports give kids a positive outlook which they can use towards their life choices in the future. We stress the importance of academics, sportsmanship and teamwork.

Wall 2 Wall U.Y.O. targets children ages 5-18 in the Allentown community. Wall 2 Wall U.Y.O. has serviced approximately 500+ children in the Allentown community within the past 2 years. With the tremendous amounts of crime in our area, we use our sports and mentoring programs to improve the equity and quality of our young people, which will eventually be at the forefront of the Allentown community.

Statistics have shown that in Allentown, violent crime and property damage have risen tremendously in the past 5 years. Crimes such as murder, drug-dealing, criminal mischief, robbery, burglary, and theft have also grown enormous amounts in excess of 15-20% and usually involve children in the 12-18 years of age demographic. Studies have shown that a lot of this crime has occurred between the hours of 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. With that in mind, Wall 2 Wall intends to give the children of Allentown City the opportunity to put their efforts and attention towards positive outlets such as sports and community service during these hours through our summer program at Roosevelt Park. We strive to improve the mindset of Allentown youths, by teaching them that there are other outlets besides the streets such as college and the workforce. We intend to prepare these youths with the tools that will help them become productive members of society as adults instead of a life of delinquency.
If you'd like to make a donation or have some ideas for this real nonprofit, drop a line to Chuck Rockmore, VP/Coordinator at Chuckrock_wall2wall@yahoo.com.