Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Norco Dem Party Funding Maher's Sleaze Campaign

As recently as Monday night, John Maher was insisting he had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the smear campaign being directed at his opponent for Northampton County Council, Ron Angle. "I am running a very positive campaign. Someone else in the district has taken up the banner. It's not part of my campaign." So far, nine separate sleaze mailers have been directed at Angle, accusing him of everything, from stealing kids' Halloween candy to devil worship. I've lost count of the number of anonymous robo calls.

Well, guess what? Maher has just amended his campaign finance report to report a $4,888.35 in-kind contribution from the Northampton County Democratic Committee, made on October 20. This in-kind contribution consists of design mailing and introductory phone calls.

Since the reporting cycle ended October 22, the mailers and phone calls that have followed are not included in that report. But reporting laws require contributions of $500 or more must be reported within twenty-four hours after they are made. Angle tells me that, since October 22, three mailers have gone out, blasting him. In addition to that, there have been six evenings of anonymous robo calls. The cost for each of these items is over $500. Yet, no twenty-four hour report has been filed.

Wait, it gets better. Angle tells me Maher has suddenly just remembered that he gave Bossman Long a check for $8,000 so that the local party could run its mailers and anonymous robocalls. What's more, Maher seems to remember that some other Dems kicked in for this, too! Yet for some odd reason, nothing I'm telling you appears on the latest finance report filed by the local Democratic party. That report reveals no expenditures on behalf of anyone. It fails to list Maher's contribution, or those from some other Dems. Maybe Joe Long forgot, too.

We now know what's going on. The local party is running the smear campaign so that machine pols like Maher and his pal, Tony Branco, can claim innocence, pretending they are running "positive" campaigns.


Bethlehem Dem: Voters Lose if They Select DiGiacinto as Their Controller

From a well-written article about the Bethlehem Contrtoller race, posted by BethlehemDem:
The Democratic nominee is David DiGiacinto, and he is going to win.

The Republican nominee is
Meg Holland, and she is going to lose.

The real losers will be the people of the City of Bethlehem. The voters will be making a huge mistake by electing David DiGiacinto.

If DiGiacinto is elected, the City will be subjected to turmoil and controversy. If you have read my blog you already know that DiGiacinto is part of the Schweder-Rooney faction of the Democratic party. There is a fear that DiGiacinto will hold personal grudges against Mayor Callahan and will go out of his way to cause trouble for him. This is something that the City cannot afford to go through with the impending development of the Steel land and BethWorks.

Lehigh County Bar Supports Steinberg's Retention

(ALLENTOWN, PA) On October 29th 2007, the Judicial Selection Committee of the Bar Association of Lehigh County tabulated the results of a plebiscite conducted among the members of the Bar Association with respect to the upcoming retention election of Judge Robert L. Steinberg for Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County.

Of the 611 members of the Bar Association polled, 310 members cast ballots in the secret vote. The question presented to members for a "Yes" or "No" vote was: Do you favor the retention of the following as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County? The vote for retention of the noted Judge was as follows: YES - 304. NO - 6.

Who's Trying to Buy Northampton County Council?

It's legal bribery.

Pennsylvania imposes no limits on how much a person can donate to political candidates. As a result, powerful special interests will always try to buy elections, even in a Northampton County council race.

Yesterday, I listed links to campaign finance reports for each candidate. In this limited period between May and October, you can still see a pattern in which certain interests are obviously trying to buy council. Let me list the top three.

#1. Developers. - $9,500. These include the Pa. Future Fund and local developers Ramzi Haddad and Lou Pektor. They don't think twice about giving money to candidates in both parties, and tend to back incumbents. Angle did return a Pektor contribution, but accepted money from Haddad.

#2. Realtors. - $4,000. LV realtors have spread this money to five different candidates from both parties. Every council candidate condemns rampant overdevelopment and talks about the need for countywide zoning. But each is quick to accept a few bucks from a group interested in continued jousing growth in the Lehigh valley.

#3. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. - $3,500. Council member Charles Dertinger belongs to that union, and is trying to build a power base.

Steve Barron for Norco Controller: It's Time for a Fresh Face

If you drive by the Bethlehem home of Meg Holland, CPA/ABV, CVA, CIA, you'll see something a little surprising - a Steve Barron for County Controller yard sign. Given Meg's superb qualifications, and the fact that she's a Republican, that sign says plenty about Steve.

Steve is challenging Northampton County's long-time controller, John T. Schimmel, who's seeking a fourth term to this part-time, $39,000 per year, position. Schimmel is also the accountant for Easton Area Joint Sewer Authority and maintains a private practice as a public accountant.

In addition to his pleasant personality, Schimmel has been an effective controller. His office undergoes a "quality control review" every three years by The National Association of Local Government Auditors, and has always been found in compliance with government auditing standards.

But twelve years is long enough for one person to be in that office. According to the county website, the controller's office is "independent of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government." After having been in office so long, can Schimmel still really claim he's independent?

In contrast, Steve Barron can give taxpayers a fresh set of eyes looking at the books. Even more importantly, he brings plenty of new ideas.

1. He's qualified. - Barron's strong academic background includes a law degree from Widener, experience working on audits when employed by the State of Delaware, and his current experience managing finances at three assisted-living facilities.

2. He's independent. - Although currently a member of the Democratic committee, he told me he'd resign that position if he's elected. In fact, he told me it's "unfortunate that such an independent office has to be part of the partisan process." Unlike party machine candidates (Branco, Maher and McClure), Barron has stayed away from their political consultant, who's known for running sleaze campaigns.

3. He'll be full time. - Barron believes a controller who examines a budget that is quickly approaching $400 million annually, needs to be there all day, every day. And he's right. The county has thirty-three different payment locations, and needs a full-time controller. In contrast, Schimmel recently refused to insist on an extra auditor because they'd have nowhere to put him. ''Frankly, this is one of the most important functions in the county. These are the people who independently represent the taxpayers and make sure things are audited and dollars are spent right. I don't want to hear there's no room for a desk,'' was how Ron Angle responded, showing just a tad more concern over the controller's office than the controller himself.

4. He'll audit. - Many county offices have gone unaudited for many years, but Barron wants to change that. He's pledged to audit every county office, at least once, during his four year tenure. Currently, outside auditors dictate much of what the controller's office does. Perhaps that needs to change.

5. He's accessible. - The proof of that is that Barron spoke with me, and everybody knows I'm a miserable bastard. "I believe that even private citizens can ask for audits when they feel that money is not being spent appropriately. When they write that check to pay their tax bill, they have the right to feel they have ownership. My office will be a watchdog for the people's security."
As much as I admire Schimmel, I think it's time for a change at the helm in the controller's office, and will be voting for Steve Barron on November 6. I also want to compliment both candidates for running a clean, issues-oriented, campaign.

Allentown City Council Candidates on Lanta's Hamilton Street Bus Service

The Morning Call's Paul Muschick has a wonderfully detailed account about Allentown city council candidates. And at Queen City Daily blog, he lists responses to four very specific questions. Here's one question that really matters to me.

Should the city take steps to restore the LANTA bus stops on Hamilton Street? Why or why not?

David Bausch: "There's still stops on Hamilton Street. It's just the transfers … It's not that far. It will be far if it's snowing. It's about a block and-a-half, a block-and-a-quarter … I think they should give it a chance, then change it if it doesn't work."

William Michael Donovan: "In my early career, I gained knowledge of public transportation because of studies and exposure to professionals in the field. I am not an expert, but I have some experience with these issues. While I do not have all the information that went into the Hamilton Street decision, I am extremely disappointed that LANTA removed bus routes off the city's major urban street without adequate consideration of the effect on various groups of merchants or citizens. I applaud the creation of an indoor/covered switching center, but do not believe that also warranted wholesale changes in routes and/or stops.

Two things come to mind if the major challenge actually was to solve congestion. First, change the sequence and timing of the lights. The design is not consistent with sound traffic flow. Vehicles moving west to east receive only a few seconds to pass through lights. I do not propose allowing high speeds along Hamilton -- just the ability to let traffic flow smoothly, say at 20-25 miles per hour. Second, spreading the stops a bit wider along Hamilton would help, too. Walking one block on the same street is far different from walking many blocks to new streets. In brief, my sense of the situation is that LANTA did not involve enough people to make a holistic, sensible decision that provided for a new central location while maintaining excellent service along critical routes.

I believe that if you bring the appropriate people to the table where ideas and concerns are expressed honestly and without censorship, we will create sound, productive decisions for the community. This has been true in other public challenges of this type where I have been involved. When the appropriate parties are not involved, we have disappointment, lack of trust, and a loss of community."

Jeanette Eichenwald: "Yes, the LANTA stops should be restored. The elimination of these stops causes great hardships to the handicapped who are entirely dependent on the transportation provided by buses to come into the city. Businesses located on the impacted corridor have been adversely affected by this change. The city administration needs to be receptive to the will of the people and voice strong concerns to LANTA."

Peter G. Schweyer: "As a board member of LANTA, I have spent quite a bit of time on this very question. I have spoken with economic development experts in the city and downtown businesses groups; I have discussed this with elected officials and folks from Lehigh Carbon Community College. Lastly, I discussed this with my colleagues on the LANTA board and staff members. After looking at this quite seriously, my answer is a simple no. People rely on LANTA to get them to and from work, doctor appointments, etc. on time. Traffic is the number one reason for bus delays - and Hamilton Street was one of the worst culprits. As such, by removing Hamilton Street from our routes, we have increased our reliability for downtown riders. This again is vital for our patrons, many of whom are Center City residents who travel to industrial parks for work.

There are other reasons as well. Buses on Hamilton Street inconvenienced passenger vehicle traffic, caused a possibly unsafe condition for pedestrians (because of the narrow streets) and increased idling times (and as such increased the amount of emissions our buses would release). Therefore, LANTA made the right decision to reroute bus traffic to Walnut and Linden Streets (one block north and south, respectively). With that said, I understand the merchants' concerns and would consider other measures to assist them. As I said in a recent LANTA committee meeting, I am open to adding more stops on the north-south streets and other measures to help offset the loss of foot traffic due to the removal of the stops."

Robert E. Smith Jr.: (his statement to Hamilton Street merchants) "I am shocked of the poor planning by the LANTA board and the total disregard for merchants, senior citizens and students that use LANTA transportation. Despite what the mayor says that this is not a city issue, any time a transportation change and elimination of bus stops that affect Allentown businesses, Allentown residents, this is a city issue. I, Robert E. Smith Jr., a candidate for Allentown City Council, and current elected school board member demand these bus stops be restored. City Council should have a member on the LANTA board, because current members are out of touch with the people of Allentown or just do not care about the merchants on Hamilton Street or people that are poor and are middle-class. We as a nation must conserve our oil supplies. We tell people not to drive, take buses when you can, and this city lets LANTA eliminate bus stops. We need leadership that represents all the people, not just politicians and wealthy elitists who want to keep those people off Hamilton Street. I thank the merchants for sticking it out downtown. I will help any way I can, God bless you all."

LANTA Scrambles to Address Employee Concerns

I'm still waiting for LANTA executive director Armando Greco, as well as board members, to respond to an email I sent them on October 9 about its recent bus routing changes in Allentown. Hamilton Street merchants have heard nothing either, and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has ignored them, too. These small businesses, mostly minority-owned, are suffering badly as a result of recent bus routing changes. But LANTA board members and Mayor Ed must still be "dancing in the streets."

With LANTA employees, it's another story. Bus drivers actually sympathize with Hamilton Street merchants. And a group of rank and file employees made me aware of trouble at the top of this mass transit provider. "LANTA riders and employees, as well as taxpayers of Lehigh, Northampton and Carbon counties deserve new leadership at LANTA."

They've just sent me this email, and I want to share it with you.

Much has happened among the LANTA directors since the first LANTA blog posting on Lehigh Valley Ramblings on Friday October 12th. When LANTA’s board of directors met on Tuesday October 16th at LANTA’s Palmer Township facility, they voted to hold a directors meeting, scheduled to take place November 8th to investigate the topics outlined in Lehigh Valley Ramblings.

Since that time, LANTA directors have scrambled to generate paperwork to explain the outlined topics. Efforts have been made to inventory assets, as well as the release of a Request for Proposals for Information Technology services. Thanks to Lehigh Valley Ramblings, progress has been made on these fronts while directors are finally being held accountable for their actions.

One of the funding programs used to subsidize Metro Plus passengers titled the Medical Assistance Transportation Program has issued LANTA another ultimatum of Wednesday October 31 for LANTA to bill agencies for this reimbursement. As you may remember, the state informed LANTA on July 31st that they would be required to submit invoices and LANTA only estimated the costs they incurred.

With the deadline just two days away, LANTA’s directors do not appear to be the slightest bit concerned about the looming deadline, which is estimated to be generate around $100,000 for the authority. In fact, LANTA has failed to submit MATP data for Carbon County for over one calendar year, and has only submitted partial data for Lehigh and Northampton counties beginning in late 2006.

Only time will tell if the authority will submit accurate invoices, or simply estimate what they believe they are owed. While $100,000 may not be that big of a deal for LANTA, I’m sure the Hamilton Street Merchants would appreciate the extra cash if it were available to them. Perhaps the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare should offer the Hamilton Street merchants the money LANTA deems not important enough to pursue.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ron Angle has a Most Excellent Day!

"I had a bad day."

I always liked that phrase. That's how my son used to explain his problems when he was little.

Yesterday, Ron Angle had a bad day. He went to an Upper Mount Bethel zoning hearing over the controversial Marshfield Village, fully expecting it would be postponed. Not only did the hearings continue, but Ron was actually booed on his way back to his seat. That's Ron. Damn the torpedos!

To make matters worse, those hearings made Angle so late he ended up missing last night's LWV debate. Opponent John Maher seized on the opportunity to trash him. I did, too. When I spoke to Ron late last night, I yelled at him for missing the debate.

"I had a bad day. It was a judgment call. I guess I screwed up."

That was yesterday.

Today, Ron is having a most excellent day, thanks to the Morning Call editorial board.
Re-elect Republican Ron Angle. Mr. Angle has almost 30 years in local and county elective offices and over that time his style has changed. He is less personally combative than he once was; more likely to go to court than to stage publicity stunts to make his points. Meanwhile, he is one of the smartest elected officials in the Lehigh Valley, especially when it comes to financial matters. That is key in recommending him over Democrat John F. Maher, himself retired from a banking career. Mr. Maher is not as conversant with county issues as is Mr. Angle and he has disappointingly allowed his campaign to be dragged into the gutter by Democratic Party-sponsored mailings and "robocalls."

Bethelehem Controller Race: Holland Getting Democratic Support

As The Morning Call notes, Democrat Dave DiGiacinto has collected three times as much money as his Republican opponent, Meg Holland. But what I find most interesting about the money battle in that race is the Democratic support that Holland has garnered.

Bethlehem Attorney Ed Redding, a behind the scenes playa, has risked excommunication by Bossman Joe Long and kicked in $500. Attorney Phil Hof has also contributed to Holland's campaign.

Northampton County Council Finance Reports Online Here

Thanks to Northampton County's voter registration office, I have complete copies of campaign finance reports filed Friday by nine of ten candidates fighting over four county council seats on November 6. The tenth, candidate Mark Schwartz, is spending under $250 and is excused from filing any reports.

I scanned these finance reports and uploaded them to an online library so we can all look at them for ourselves and follow the money. It is my hope that the county eventually begins to make these local finance records available online.

At Large Race: (countywide)

Tony Branco (D) v. Peg Ferraro (R)

District 1: (Bethlehem area)

Ann McHale (D) v. Tom Dietrich (R)

District 2: (Easton area)

William Wallace (D) v. Mike Dowd (R)

District 3: (Nazareth area)

Lamont McClure (D) v. Mark Schwartz (R) (no report)

District 4: (Slate belt area)

John Maher (D) v. Ron Angle (R)

Lehigh Valley's Cure for Insomnia: League of Women Voters

Have trouble sleeping late at night?

Then you need to attend a debate sponsored by the Lehigh Valley League of Women Voters. Although past experience tells me these candidates' nights are total disasters, I made the mistake of going anyway. As is usual here on the east end of Route 33, political mischief is afoot in two county council races. Republicans enraged over campaign chicanery have even scheduled a courthouse news conference at 1 PM tomorrow. Things are hot. I expected to see some Branco bustin' and Maher mashing.

I bumped into Bill White on my way to last night's forum. We both walked into the wrong church. You see, Nazareth actually has two St. John's churches, and both are located at different corners of Broad and Prospect Streets. It's very confusing. Bill, slightly ahead of me, disappeared behind some side door. I heard a lot of shrieking, and Bill stumbled out about three seconds later with a beet-red face. I can't be sure, but think he interrupted a lamaze class.

Once we got to the right place, I noticed quite a few politicos. Bossman Long shadowed me, making a point of sitting right behind me in both debates, even when we had to move to different rooms. Allentown Democratic committeeman George Speros Maniatty, Jr, also insisted on sitting right next to me.

Must be true love. I asked George for a date, but he's a little bashful.

Bossman and George had no reason to worry about what questions I might pose. I couldn't pose any. True to form, last night's LWV debate was absolutely horrible, thanks to a lousy format and officious moderators who are obviously Tempo cast rejects.

Donna Reemsnyder, moderator of the first debate between Tony Branco and Peg Ferraro, was so important she was wearing not one, but two, name tags. She even had a black whistle around her neck. When she spoke, I thought she was giving us acting lessons. But very few of her questions had anything to do with county government. What the hell can a county council about widening Route 22 or regulating traffic on state and township roads? After she had droned on for about forty minutes, she blew her whistle and woke us up. We were then given an opportunity to submit questions, in writing, on little index cards. My question, which asked Branco about his lousy attendance record, was bounced. Too negative. But Reemslider continued to ask a few mindless questions of her own. Several people committed suicide.

Finally, in her very last question, Reemsnyder asked about negative campaigning coming from the Branco camp. Tony, of course, opposes negative campaigning. "I have not authorized or paid for any kind of negative campaign." But he hasn't tried to stop it, either.

After the first debate was over, we were separated into groups for different council races. I woke up Bossman Long and George, and most of us went into the next room to listen to Lamont McClure, Mark Schwartz and John Maher. Ron Angle was stuck at a meeting in Upper Mount Bethel Township, and that gave Maher an opportunity to take a few free shots.

The second moderator was slightly better than the first, but candidates can't question each other and the audience can pose no questions directly. And she just repeated the same, basically irrelevant, questions used in the first debate.

Maher insists, in response to the question about negative mailers and robo calls, "I am running a very positive campaign. Someone else in the district has taken up the banner. It's not part of my campaign." But Maher also unloaded on an absent Angle with this: "He's like a child if he doesn't get his way. He stands up and stamps his feet." I'm pretty sure that's not running a positive campaign.

Unfortunately, most of the audience was asleep when he made that remark.

There is one thing worse than anonymous robo calls or a negative smear campaign. It's a League of Women Voters Debate.
The Morning Call's Joe Nixon was somehow able to stay awake during last night's debate and has a well-written and objective account.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Judge Baratta's Retention Campaign: Follow that Money

Campaign finance reports were due from all candidates, including judges seeking retention, on Friday. Judicial candidates must file with the Department of State.

Steve Baratta is seeking retention as a Northampton County judge. Although his office informs me he's filed with the Department of State, his paperwork does not yet appear among the 28 reports filed by candidates seeking a spot on the court of common pleas. In fact, there is no record from Baratta for any of the previous reporting periods this year.

Baratta's campaign records have, however, been filed with the local elections office. They show that, during the reporting period between May and October, he raised $26,750.00. Nearly all of this money comes from lawyers who regularly practice before him. This includes $1,000 from DA John Morganelli.

Baratta's expense report also reveals that Tom Severson, King of the Anonymous Robo Calls, is running this judicial campaign. So far, Baratta has coughed up nearly $24,000 so that Severson can do his thing.

Last Spring, Severson launched a vicious, and anonymous, smear campaign against Brian Monahan, a district judge hopeful. I find it distasteful that a sitting judge would engage the services 0f a campaign consultant who specializes in this type of dirty politics. Even Dan Corpora, who's running against Monahan, had enough common sense to turn Severson down when he offered his services at a discounted rate. It's sad to see a magisterial hopeful show more common sense than our next president judge.

Branco: No Response to LWV Questionnaire

LehighValleyHousewife does her homework. Before deciding on which candidate to support, she always checks the only voter's guide in this area, the one prepared by the Lehigh Valley Valley LWV. Amazingly, Tony Branco is the only candidate seeking county office who failed to respond to this single question, “What do you view as the major issue in this campaign and how will you address it?”

If he can't take the time to answer one question, can we really expect him to answer citizen concerns once he's in office?

Peg Ferraro Will Do Some Branco-Bustin' Tonight!

Tonight, at 7 PM, the Lehigh Valley League of Women Voters will sponsor a candidates' night for all Northampton County Council wannabes. This forum will be hosted by St. John’s United Church of Christ, Broad and Prospect Streets, Nazareth, PA. The LWV has a lousy debate format, unlike Pen Argyl's Debate at the Slate or the Express Times' Debate at the State. But as is usual here in the People's Republic of Northampton County, two of the races have become downright squirrelly. Anonymous robo calls have targeted both Ron Angle and Peg Ferraro with vicious smears, and their opponents refuse to intervene and stop it. So I suspect Angle will be lighting a few firecrackers against his hapless opponent, Machine Man Maher. And Peg Ferraro will do some Branco-busting.

I've always wanted to be in the League of Women Voters. If I were, I'd blow Tony Branco a few kisses and ask these questions before the voters send him packing on November 6.

1) Who does Tony represent anyway, citizens or pay to play developers?

That's a question that The Express Times' Sarah Cassi seems to ask. You see, Tony wants the county to buy a Lou "Pay to Play" Pektor property in West Easton and then team up with Allentown's Rajah of Rezoning, Abe Atiyeh, to build some goofy combination assisted-living and prison center for nonviolent types. Sarah notes that Branco accepted $1,000 from Atiyeh before the primary.

Here's how Tony explains everything. "Just because I got a donation doesn't mean they own my vote. If it's a good property, I'll vote for it. If it's a bad property I won't vote for it." Incidentally, Branco thinks it's a good property.

When I asked Branco myself about this on Friday night, he told me, "If you think $1,000 buys my vote, I have a bridge ... ."

OK. How about $2,000? You see, Lou "Pay to Play" Pektor gave Tony a $1,000 check too, and that was on October 13.

No? How about $4,400? Last time Branco ran for county council, and lost, he raked in $2,400 from Atiyeh, Pektor and another developer named Tuskes.

No? How about $5,400? You see, this dude named Ramzi Haddad also kicked in $1,000 for Branco's campaign on October 1. Who's he? Why, he just happens to be Atiyeh's business partner at Brookside Construction and Easton Ventures. They've worked together on everything from Easton's Cinema Paradiso to Nazareth's racetrack to Hellertown's movie theater.

2) Who does Tony represent anyway, citizens or prospective county contractors?

That's a question that Morning Call columnist Bill White seems to ask. You see, Tony is part of a Northampton County Council majority that incredibly tried to force county exec Stoffa to accept a bloated IT contract that was $1.8 million higher than the amount that was finally bid. Tony told Bill he was concerned about "the process." Here's Bill's retort: "I prefer to talk about the election process, which we'll be conducting this November.

If you live in a district being served by McClure, McHale or Branco -- all of whom are facing opposition for re-election -- write '$1.8 million' on a slip of paper and stick it someplace where you'll see it every day."

3) Does Tony let his day job interfere with his gig on county council?

According to mapquest, Branco has a 1 1/2 hour daily commute to his new, $62,000 per year, day job as Topton Borough manager. Last week, he missed an important county council annual budget hearing because his day job had him at a seminar. Branco's previous gig, Douglas Township manager, also involved a long commute and resulted in him missing meetings. Where do his loyalties lie, with the county or whatever municipality he happens to be working for this week?

4) Why did Tony break his promise to meet with municipalities?

When he auditioned for county council, Tony claimed his top priority was to "sit down with local municipalities to discuss a lot of the problems they are facing. A lot of local zoning plans did not foresee the large influx of growth actually taking place." Sounds pretty good, huh? After all, three times over the past three years, communities along the Delaware River have been ravaged by floods. Council not only appointed Branco; they named him their intergovernmental committee chair.

Branco repaid council by failing to conduct a single meeting in 2006.

He's conducted two or three meetings this election year, but has come up with no proposals for zoning or flooding. Although a top county priority is regionalization, that can't happen when the intergovernmental committee fails to conduct meetings.

5) If Branco really wants to sit on county council, why such a lousy attendance record?

Northampton County Council has eight standing committees, which conducted twenty-two meetings last year. Every member of council is encouraged to participate in every committee. So it's a pretty accurate gauge of the time and effort each councilperson devotes to government service. In addition to his failure to schedule a single meeting of the intergovernmental committee, Branco attended just seven committee meetings in 2006. The only council members with worse records are Lamont McClure and Charles Dertinger.

So how about this year? So far, he has missed four full meetings of county council. (3/25, 5/17, 7/19 and 10/19).

6) Why does Tony have such a lousy attitude towards public participation in local government?

In one of his last actions on Hellertown Borough Council, Branco was among those who imposed a five minute limit on public comment during borough council meetings. That rule exists in Bethlehem and Northampton County, and is there to insure that everyone is heard. But in Hellertown, Branco complained that meetings were just taking too long, and claimed he wanted to be home by 10 PM. A councilperson should be more interested in letting everyone speak than in being home early.

7) Why did Tony refuse to stop the negative robo calls?

On Friday night, after being made aware of negative and anonymous robo calls being directed at Peg Ferraro, Branco called her to apologize. He claimed he was "upset" and "mad" over what had happened. Yet he refused to fire his campaign consultant, known for these dirty tricks. As a result, the calls continued again on Saturday night. Doesn't he realize this type of campaign just discourages good people from voting?

Let's face it. This Branco needs bustin'.

Brave Voices Against Domestic Violence in Bethlehem Parade

The Beginning Over Foundation is a locally-formed grass roots group trying to cast a public spotlight on the tragedies caused by domestic violence.

Founder Heidi Markow (second from left, blond, in beret) and friends unfurled their banners and walked in Bethlehem's Halloween Parade this weekend.

Heidi's sister, Robin, was shot and killed by her estranged husband two years ago in Quakertown. Robin never knew her husband had once before tried to kill his ex-wife.

Robin's Law, introduced by State Rep. Karen Beyer, will track repeat domestic violence offenders.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Browning Criticizes "Cavalier" Attitude of Lehigh County Commissioners

In the wake of Lehigh County commissioners' decision to rubber stamp Cunningham's 2008 budget, Dean Browning's proposed 0.75-mill tax cut was given no consideration. A unanimous board rejected an average savings of $43.65.

After all, it's only a "tank of gas."

It could also be two weeks of groceries for a senior on a fixed income.

Whether the savings is $40 or $400, it should be awarded to the taxpayer. As Dean Browning makes clear, "Even if it is only a tank of gas it is still the taxpayer’s money – not the County’s. The taxpayers are the ones who should decide how much of their money is important to them – not the County. To be so cavalier about reducing the tax burden on homeowners is unacceptable."

Word Verification Required to Post Comments

I've been lucky. Up 'till now, I've never had to impose that annoying word verification requirement on those who wish to comment. But I enabled that feature yesterday, which prompts this response. "Why the word verification Bernie? Now you control the blog and you control the truth as you see it. So much for free speech, and we thought you supported the Constitution."

I've had to enable it because, starting Friday, my blog was peppered with numerous robo spam comments about Viagra, breast size and all kinds of sexual enhancements that I really should try. It took me about two hours to delete these comments, and I was just spammed again the following day. Early next week, once the web crawlers stop nailing me, I'll remove the word verification requirement.

In the meantime, you're just as free as ever to post comments, anonymous or not. You just have to take an extra step to prove you are a human being. I value your comments, but don't want you to have to scroll through garbage to read what others are saying.

Slime From Branco's Camp Continues

When I spoke with Northampton County Council candidate Tony Branco on Friday night, he refused to end his association with the sleazy political consultant he's hired to bash his opponent with robo calls. And last night, the negative phone calls continued. Voters were told, "Peggy Ferraro has repeatedly ran and ran and ran for public office... ."

Negative campaigning is bad enough. But now we've got negative campaigning with poor grammar, too.

Norco Dem Committee Misses Campaign Finance Report Deadline

As of quitting time on Friday, the elections office had no campaign finance report from the Northampton County Democratic Committee. If a report was mailed on Thursday, it will be considered timely filed. But it's still highly unusual not to see that report on filing day. Branco's campaign finance report shows $2,236.90 from the local party. Similarly, Maher's report shows $2,298.00.
Clarification: The amounts in question are payments to, and not from, the local Dems. According to Branco's report, a payment to Bronstein & Weaver is in reality an expenditure for the local Dem committee.
Update: County Report Timely Filed with Department of State - I've been contacted by Northampton County Dem Committee Treasurer Steve Barron. He informs me the county report was filed online with the state on Thursday, and you can see it here. I believe the elections code requires that report to be filed both with the state and where supported candidates reside.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Norco Finance Reports Filed Today: Follow That Money

I spent much of this afternoon in the voter registration office, looking campaign finance reports filed by local candidates today. Although the office was obviously extremely busy, they still took the time to copy a few for me.

You can see Lamont McClure's campaign finance report here. You can see John Maher's filing here. I will try to post as many candidates' reports as I can between now and election day.

I intend to talk about the battle of the bucks next week, but I know that many heads are better than one. If you see a contribution that disturbs you or notice anything odd, please note it in the comments.

Tony Branco Doth Protest Too Much

This morning, I told you about dirty campaigning in the at-large race for Northampton County council. Anonymous robo calls, made mostly at dinnertime, sent Peg Ferraro right into kitchen garbage disposal units. A sample of one of these recordings is here.

Early this evening, I spoke with an upset Tony Branco. He admits he's using Tom Severson, the Darth Vader of Sleaze, to run his campaign. He even admits that he has prepared robo calls.

Just not that one.

"I don't believe in dirty politics. That's not what I'm about. I'm upset. In fact, I'm mad."

I'd like to believe Tony. But I'm having trouble, and here's why. First, when I told Branco he could listen to the robo call on my blog or at NewsOverCoffee, he told me he's not into blogs. That's pretty odd, because Tony has set one up for himself. In it, he asks voters to "re-elect" him, even though he was never elected to council. He was selected, not elected. Second, after telling me he does not read blogs, he called tonight to ask why I pointed out he was MIA during yesterday's budget hearing. He actually thinks his day job has priority over his obligation to the people he supposedly serves. Third, he refuses to rid himself of Severson, the sleazy consultant who engineered those robo calls.

I used to think Tony was a good guy who was just listening to the wrong people. I now think he may have been one of those wrong people all along.

Norco Dems Resort to Sleazeball Politics in County Council Races

Sleazeball politics has reared its ugly head, as usual, in the race for Northampton County Council.

BethlehemDem reports that, even though he and his wife have lived in Lehigh County for the past two years, they still got an anonymous robo call over the dinner hour telling them NOT to vote for Peg Ferraro. In fact, Peg got a call herself, and was surprised to learn she voted to increase taxes a gazillion per cent. One of Peg's close friends, who has never even voted, has already called Peg to yell at her.

In Ron Angle country, things are even worse. So far, he's been nailed with at least eight robo calls, all coming from the same number, 484-548-6400, being used against Peg. He's been accused of everything, from being a serial shoplifter to human sacrifices. In addition to the robocalls, he's being slammed with slime mailers. Some are being paid for by his opponent, while others come from Joe Long's Democratic machine. Angle tells me the negative campaign against him is the "worst piece of garbage and filth I've seen yet." He estimates at least $60,000 has been spent to unseat him.

Ferraro and Angle's opponents are both using the same political consultant - Tom Severson, the Darth Vader of Politics. Severson is noted for this type of stupid anonymous smear. He just used that tactic last May to smear magisterial candidate Brian Monahan. That one blew up in Vader's face. The Force is strong with this one.

Dirty politics usually backfires. I saw that first-hand last week, during the Debate at the State. Bertsch was holding his own until he started to smear Panto. You could hear the audience groan in disgust the moment Bertsch went to the dark side.

Smear tactics also hurt people. Peg, a class act, recently suffered the sudden loss of her husband. She doesn't need to be kicked right now. And although Ron won't admit it, he hates to see how this bothers his wife and sons. But we're the real losers. This type of campaigning is precisely why many good people won't run. And it's why many other good people don't even bother to vote. It's bad for democracy.

Next week, I'm doing have to fill you in on those county council races. Does anyone know where Tony Branco is? He was MIA during yesterday's budget hearing, a hell of a way to serve the county. How's that Democratic machine working out for John ("I come from the corporate culture") Maher? Stay tuned.
Update: Nazareth blog NewsOverCoffee has posted a recording of one of the anonymous smears against Ferraro. You can listen here.

Kevin Easterling: a Heart for Lehigh County Commissioners

Lehigh County voters will select four at-large county commissioners on November 6. As explained on the county web page, "The Board of Commissioners is the legislative branch of County government and has all the legislative powers that may be exercised by the County under the Constitution, the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Lehigh County Home Rule Charter. Some of the Board's powers are: to enact, amend or repeal ordinances, resolutions, and motions; to make appropriations; to incur indebtedness; to adopt the budget; to levy taxes, assessments and service charges; and to adopt the Administrative Code and the Personnel Code."

I've already told you I like Dean Browning, whose financial prowess will be a real asset to Lehigh County Exec Cunningham. He brings the brains. But who brings the heart? That's where I think Allentown-born Kevin Easterling can make a difference. In addition to his work with the Boys & Girls Club of Allentown, he is the founder of the Black Heritage Association of the Lehigh Valley, which has promoted youth basketball in Allentown since 1994. Today, I received one of his emails, and thought I'd share it with you.

As you may have heard, or maybe even seen a sign or two, I have chosen to seek a seat as your Lehigh County Commissioner. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself and what I believe to be important issues to Lehigh County.

My involvement in various aspects of business, non-profit Human Services and Philanthropy over the last 19 years has been very rewarding. The idea of me embarking on a campaign to be elected Lehigh County Commissioner at Large however has not been a life-long dream of mine. To be real honest, I'm still not quite sure what inspired me to seek this election, other than the fact that I feel I have much to offer in regards to governing our county. I can say the experience and knowledge I have gained in seeking this public seat over the last 9 months has been remarkable. Compounded by the many wonderful people I have met and or gotten reacquainted with has been a refreshing period for me in my life. I've been introduced to a whole new community of people who give of their time, money and skills. To all of you I say thank you!!!

My quest to be your Lehigh County Commissioner has broadened my awareness of why we need to treasure our inalienable voting right as US citizens. We must participate in our political process and give of ourselves, our time and attention to elect those who have the people's best interest in mind. Lehigh County taxpayers and residents need a commissioner with the knowledge and understanding of governing with a broad mind and a clear understanding of the issues. Over the next two weeks, I'd like you to give me the opportunity to tell you why I am that person.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Stars of Bethlehem Shine on Seamus McCaffrey

Joe Brennan + John Callahan + Don Cunningham + Seamus McCaffrey + Bernie O'Hare + Booze = an Irish wake or Molly Maguires' uprising. But we had neither last night. Not one of us damn Irishmen would touch the booze.

I instead drank coffee at this fundraiser for Judge Seamus McCaffrey, trying hard not to smudge the sheen off a grand piano at Bethlehem's elegant Ambre Studio. Judge McCaffrey, who looks like one of my former drill sergeants, sipped ice water. And so on. Our mothers would have been proud.

I was trying hard not to fart, something I seem to always do when I'm at some fancy gathering. I was also a little worried someone might take my $5o entrance fee to the bank, and learn my check was made of rubber.

As awkward as I felt in this refined setting among all these hotshots, Seamus McCaffrey is the person who instantly put me at ease. He walked right up, introduced himself, and away we went. I could have talked to this personable judge all night.

Accessibility. A rare quality in a judge.

Another accessible and personable fellow, Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham, introduced McCaffrey to the crowd. "You will never get a chance again, in a lifetime, to vote for someone with his background, experience and common sense."

Cunningham is right. McCaffrey, speaking off the cuff, impresses the hell out of me. He emigrated here from Ireland at age five. As a matter of full disclosure, we learned last night that my family and he both come from the same Irish county - Armagh.

The brahmins of the Bar worry when they see someone like McCaffrey. Instead of getting the "highly recommended" rating reserved for bluebloods, they slap him with a "recommended." If those sycophants are suspicious of him, he must be doing something right.

Unlike most judges, who consider campaigning beneath them, McCaffrey finds it "invigorating." "I love it." He told us, "I was a blue collar kid. I was a cop. I spent 11 1/2 years going to night school to become a lawyer." Instead of some James Carville wannabe, he brought one of his old homicide detectives with him.

In a room full of Democrats, McCaffrey warned, "I have strong Republican and independent views." That's no surprise. When he graduated from Philly's Cardinal Dougherty High School in '68, he enlisted in the marines, and is a Vietnam Veteran. As one of Philly's finest, McCaffrey served for twenty years as patrolman, plainclothes narcotics investigator, homicide detective and supervisor. He spent long evenings getting his B.A and a law degree from Temple.

Elected a Philly municipal judge, McCaffrey ran the "Eagles Court" at the vet, where I sent him one of his first customers, but that's a story for another day. Less widely known, but equally impressive, is McCaffrey's creation of a "Nuisance Night Court" in 1996. He and other Philly judges volunteered their time during evenings to handle neighborhood nuisance crimes. He now sits on the state superior court.

Although McCaffrey views himself a "law and order" type, he still considers the judiciary "the ultimate check and balance. We're there to make sure your rights are protected."

And he stressed the significance of these under-reported judicial races. "A state rep serves for two years and a county commissioner sits for four. But when you elect one of us, you're voting for us for ten years."

McCaffrey believes the dynamics of our appellate courts is limited by the perspectives of judges from the western part of the state. All of the supreme court's justices, excepting Castille, are from the the center or western part of the state, "where people really view themselves as mid-westerners." In the fifteen-judge superior court, where he currently sits, McCaffrey notes that only he and Judges Jack Panella (Lehigh Valley) and Corry Stevens (coal regions) are from the eastern part of the state. "We need more balance."

McCaffrey is exactly what the supreme court needs - an accessible person with common sense. And he believes that Lehigh County Exec Cunningham "represents what we miss in Harrisburg - a fresh face. I'd love to see him as governor."

Seamus, Beir bua agus beannacht!

EU: Ten Questions Over Ten Days to Easton Candidates

I've got good news and bad news.

First, the good news. Easton Undressed will be posting ten question over ten days to Easton's mayoral and city council candidates. This is a terrific public service and great blogging. The mainstream media will be the first to agree it simply lacks the space to cover local races in such detail, but people are still very hungry for precisely that kind of information .

Now, the bad news. Only half the candidates bothered to answer EU's questionnaire. Gary "West End" Bertsch is still talking at the State, and Jeff Warren is more interested in just buying this election than responding to pesky questions.

Whatever their answers may be, I'd like to commend Mayor Sal Panto (whose signs proudly sport the same colors as the Easton Rovers) and council wannabes Roger Ruggles (the LV's Engineer of the Year), Bill Timmann and Elinor Warner. They showed up. As for the others, I'd really like to know for certain why they ignored the questionnaire.

Update: EU's Terrance Hand prepared this candidate questionnaire. "We emailed them all. And I spoke to each of them about it."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bethlehem Controller Race: DiGiacinto Ducking Debate

The League of Women Voters has scheduled a candidates' forum on Halloween for Bethlehem City Council candidates, even though that race is pretty much over. But amazingly, it has skipped the controller's race between Meg Holland and Dave DiGiacinto, which is very much up for grabs.

So Bethlehem's Southside Task Force has picked up the slack and has tried to schedule its own candidates' forum, but DiGiacinto has declined. "At this point, my business and campaign schedule precludes [sic] me from being able to accommadate [sic] the special event and timing you are suggesting. I am booked solid with various events, and business related activities, from October 23rd through November 2nd."

Meg Holland, of course, is "very disappointed that my opponent has declined to participate in an open candidates' forum for the City of Bethlehem Controller position. . . . I would still like to hold an open forum to allow the City of Bethlehem residents to ask me questions."

When I have the details about Holland's open forum, I'll post them.

In the meantime, BethlehemDem has an update on DiGiacinto.

Imperious Ann McHale Faces "Nice Guy" Tom Dietrich in Norco Council Contest

"Nice guys finish last."

That's how the imperious Ann McHale thinks. That's a remark she tossed in the direction of Northampton County Exec John Stoffa, when he tried to include Northampton County Council in deciding whether to rebid a service contract. Thanks to McHale, Northampton County nearly paid $1.8 million more for that contract than what Stoffa eventually realized for the county. McHale was worried about being fair to bidders. Stoffa was more concerned about the taxpayers. "They [council] can do what they want to do. I answer to the taxpayers, ultimately."

McHale is Northampton County Council's district representative in heavily Democratic Bethlehem, Hellertown and Hanover Township. She's cruising easily to her third term, which could set up a run for county exec.

But this time, she's facing something new and unusual - an opponent.

He's Tom Dietrich, an affable Hellertonian who looks a lot younger than his thirty-eight years. I met him last Friday at Hellertown's Braveheart Pub, a suitable place to meet a man bucking the establishment. Dietrich, who wore no kilt, is basically a stay-at-home dad who does a wide assortment of things to keep busy, from home inspections to tinkering with computers. He and his wife, who first met in the service, fell in love with the Lehigh Valley and decided to plant roots here. Tom was recently appointed to Hellertown's zoning hearing board, but has no experience in public office.

"So why did you decide to run?"

Tom: "Why did you decide to blog?"

Another frickin' wiseass.

On my way to Hellertown, I noticed McHale signs everywhere. One of the bastards in the pub (must have been English) was actually sporting one on the back of his kilt. So how can Tom expect to beat a two-term incumbent in a heavily Democratic district with no money and no name recognition?

He doesn't. That's right, bippy. While going door to door, he encountered voters who tell him, "I'm voting for the Senator's wife. She's filling in for him while he's in Iraq." Little clues like that make clear there's not much point in ordering champagne for election night.

"So why did you decide to run?"

Tom: "People should have a choice. Even in China, you'll have two people seeking one office. "

Well, Tom, this is the People's Republic of Northampton County. If you want democracy, move to China.

Actually, McHale could use a dose or two of humility. Although a fierce advocate for Bethlehem and one of council's hardest-working members, she voted to reject county exec Stoffa's choice for director of administration after promising her support. She obviously yielded to party pressure. At the time, nominee Marto Boulos Gabriel publicly called McHale a "snake."

McHale also imperiously supported a payhike for herself and fellow council members (from $7,000 to $9,500). This was a slap across the face of county workers who went without raises for over three years, suffered layoffs, reductions in health benefits and unhealthy working conditions.

McHale has obviously lost sight of why she sits on council. She's not there to vote herself raises, go back on her word, or attempt to stick taxpayers with a $1.8 million bill so that she can make the exec look weak. She deserves to lose.

Unfortunately, she'll win.

Don Cunningham to endorse Supreme Court Candidate Seamus McCaffrey

Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham has screwed up. His office just sent me a news release. Bossman Long will probably make Cunnigham run laps around the courthouse or something.

Today, at 3:00 PM, Cunningham will hold a news conference on the courthouse steps to endorse PA Supreme Court Candidate Judge Seamus McCaffrey. The Judge will be present and available for questions. I'd love to be there, but that depends on my day job.

Seamus, Céad Míle Fáilte!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

BonusGate: Will AG's Refusal to Appoint Special Prosecutor Result in Case Being Tossed?

It's no secret that Northampton County DA John Morganelli would like to be our next state attorney general. He's only mentioned this about a gazillion times. But Capitol Ideas' John Micek seems to think it's really, really important that Morganelli disclose this widely-known detail in every communication he sends about everything. In his entertaining and very informative poliblog, Micek has now seized on this omission, twice, as a reason to sneer at Morganelli's recommendation that a special prosecutor be appointed in Bonusgate.

I'm just not seeing an ethical lapse there. But for reasons that only his hairdresser knows for sure, blogger John seems to have a hot nut for DA John. He's even gone so low as to attack Morganelli's height in one of his rants, calling him a "pint-sized prosecutor."

That's not political satire. That's just mean.

Perhaps the very notion that a LV-based prosecutor would dare aspire to the top cop job in the land of midnight payraises has folks in that oxygen-deprived atmosphere reaching for their bugspray. And Morganelli has done little to help his cause, especially with that anonymous email gaffe.

So DA John would like to be our next AG. Does that mean his criticism of the AG's refusal to appoint a special prosecutor is to be dismissed? Does blogger John really think that DA John is trying to pull a fast one? Blogger John refuses to publish John's press release. "[W]e know many of you are just waking up, and we don't want to put you back to sleep." I'll take that chance, and will post the relevant portion of Morganelli's concerns. He has a point.

Last week I requested Attorney General Tom Corbett to appoint an independent counsel/special prosecutor to investigate whether taxpayers’ dollars were used improperly for political work. I cited the fact that some Republican House and Senate members, who may have improperly authorized bonus payments, were significant financial supporters of the attorney general in 2004 and likely would be again in 2008. I also pointed out that some Democrat House and Senate members, who may have also authorized improper bonus payments, supported Mr. Corbett’s opponent in 2004. They would likely support the democrat nominee for attorney general in 2008 in opposition to Mr. Corbett’s re-election and would be considered political opponents of the attorney general. As such, the attorney general has a clear “conflict of interest” as established under the above law in that the entire investigation involves political supporters and opponents. The Morning Call newspaper in an editorial dated October 22, 2007 stated that the call for an independent special prosecutor by me was not a “bad idea.” Unfortunately, the need for an independent counsel/special prosecutor is not just a “good idea,” but now vital to the future of the investigation and/or prosecution of any wrongdoing.

The United States Supreme Court has held that an impartial prosecutor is a constitutional necessity. When a prosecutor’s personal interests or biases threaten society’s interest in impartial proceedings, courts squarely hold that disqualification of the prosecutor is required. Moreover, a criminal conviction can be overturned if obtained by a prosecutor who had a conflict of interest.

This investigation is too important to be later challenged on the basis that the attorney general was conflicted. The conflicts of interest are so clear, that one has to wonder why the attorney general fails to acknowledge it or remedy it by the appointment of an independent counsel. As I have stated before, this is not in any way impugning the personal integrity of Mr. Corbett. He has always carried out his duties with integrity. But the integrity of the investigation must be protected, and the work of the grand jury and any indictments they might issue must be protected from any later challenges that can now be remedied and avoided. We need an independent counsel/special prosecutor now. We need the legislature to reauthorize the independent counsel statute that expired in 2003. An independent counsel is in the public interest and in the interest of the attorney general. It will quiet any further comment on the investigation until the grand jury ends its work, and assure that any prosecution will proceed without calls to disqualify the attorney general at a later date, or worse, overturn any successful prosecutions.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner: Most Appealing of the Appellates

I've saved the best for last. Of the seven appellate jurists seeking retention, Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner, is the most appealing. I'll vote to retain her November 6.

Who is Doris A. Smith-Ribner?

A Democrat from Pittsburgh, Smith-Ribner was first appointed to the bench, as an Allegheny County judge, in 1984. Three years later, she was elected to the Commonwealth Court. If her retention bid succeeds, she'll have to step down in 2015 when she reaches mandatory retirement age.

In contrast to an accessible judge like Cory Stevens, Smith-Ribner likes her privacy. In fact, she actually refused to answer portions of a PBA-designed questionnaire asking her about her marriage. Beyond admitting her nuptials, "any other personal information is not relevant to my qualifications and service."

Perhaps she has good reason. Smith-Ribner's husband, Paul Ribner, is the former Philly judge who handled the controversial pretrial proceedings against Mumia Abu-Jamal. He also represented Judge Doris in a whiplash claim, where a jury awarded her just $10,000 after she spurned a $35,000 defense offer. Maybe she should sue him for malpractice.

Of course, the PBA endorses her, as they do with every retention candidate.

A Judicial Voice for Reform

More than any other judge, Smith-Ribner is a voice for reform. She is precisely the kind of judge we need on an appellate court.

Government accountability. - When the PHEEA withheld information on its spending for retreats, Smith-Ribner ordered them to disclose their spending. "The Right-to-Know Law favors public access regarding any expenditure of public funds." The ripples from that important decision, which demanded government accountability, are still being felt.

Racial equality. In an extensive review of Philadelphia's troubled public schools, Smith-Ribner found 134 segregated schools, with 90 percent or more African American or Latino students, serving the majority of Philadelphia's students. She demanded improvements in the substandard quality of education at what she labeled "racially isolated minority schools."

Campaign finance limits. Smith-Ribner Court is also the judge who upheld Philly's campaign-finance limits. In her opinion, she applauds this local law as an attempt "to change the political culture."

Condemns Abuse of Eminent Domain. Many municipalities, with a little help from the U.S. Supreme Court, have participated in "revitalization" and other goofy projects that actually end up condemning private property for private use. I can imagine someone insensitively justifying the damage inflicted as a "growing pain." In fact, Pennsylvania only gets a B- from Castle Coalition for its track record. Not Judge Smith-Ribner. In one of her opinions, she rejects such a public taking. "In short, nothing in the Constitution authorizes a taking of private property for a private use."

Supports Voting Rights Activists. Judge Smith-Ribner is the jurist who penned the opinion allowing voter rights activists, including our very own Dr. Alan Brau, to challenge the use of electronic vote-counting machines that leave no paper trail. Her opinion 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.” You have a right to know your vote counts.


Despite her individual desire for privacy, Smith-Ribner has been a judicial voice for state reform. She promotes open records, detests de facto racial segregation, refuses to go along with municipalities that abuse condemnation powers, upholds campaign finance limits and believes you have a right to know that your vote counts. It's ironic that those who promote much-needed state government reform, would advocate her ouster.

Dean Browning: A Lehigh County Commissioner Who Will Watch Spending

He's a bean counter, like most Republicans. He's also a breath of fresh air, full of innovative ideas that should serve both Lehigh County and exec Don Cunningham well.

I refer to Dean Browning. Although he's doing rather nicely as the chief financial officer for a private air carrier, he has developed a keen interest in Lehigh County government. He's attended most of their meetings over the past two years, and is currently a candidate for Lehigh County commissioner.

As he explained it to me, he asked himself two questions: "What can I do and where is the need?" His obvious strength is finance, and believes those talents would prove most useful to Lehigh County's part-time commissioners.

Throughout his campaign, he's had a number of good ideas. He proposed a three-point plan that would (1) return $20 million in surplus funds to taxpayers; (2) reduce county spending; and (3) refocus Lehigh County on its core services. Lehigh has increased its spending by $118 million over the past six years, and he'd like to get that under control. He also believes too much public meeting time deals with extraneous issues like Leaser Lake and the zoo business.

In addition to this three-point plan, Browning proposes an affordable housing solution that focuses on individual, private sector, investment instead of the usual reliance on government and bloated non-profits. He also suggests that the county award Iron Pigs box seats to deserving seventh and eighth graders.

He joins both county executives in endorsing a regional approach to the area's many problems, noting that our local governments are far too fragmented. He's right. Pennsylvania has the third largest total of general governments - 2,566 municipalities - in the country.

As far as campaign finance is concerned, nearly all of the $40,000 Dean reported comes from family and friends. There are a few PAC contributions, but this is no candidate who funds his campaign by appealing to special interests.

My only criticism of Browning is that he lives in the wrong county. Northampton County could use a guy like him. Lehigh County will benefit from his service.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Junior Pee Wee Lorenzo Scores TD For Dad in Iraq!

When we talk about Iraq, we often focus the number of lives it has claimed, or its economic cost. But we don't think too much about how difficult it must be for kids who are separated from their moms and dads. Lorenzo, number 64, is a junior pee wee with Allentown's east side Lil' Huskies. His helmet makes it hard for you to see his cheerful face. His dad wears a different kind of helmet, and has missed Lorenzo's games this year. Like 700,000 other kids, Lorenzo's dad is deployed in Iraq. Yesterday, coaches and refs allowed me onto the field to film a short clip of Lorenzo tearing down the sidelines to score a touchdown for his dad. Thanks to the Internet, his dad should see it soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

PBS 39's Tempo to Air "Kids and Gangs" Special Tonight

PBS 39' Tempo, which usually does puff pieces, is trying to get a little gritty. According to a press release, it will air a "kids and gangs" special tonight at 7 PM.

Like many fourteen-year-old football players, Qu'eed Batts of Easton had hopes and dreams of a promising future. Those dreams came crashing to a halt when Batts pulled the trigger and murdered 16- year-old Clarence "C.J." Edwards in a gang- related shooting. Now 16, Batts is facing life imprisonment for an incident designed to promote him to a higher rank in his gang.

Join Team Tempo on Monday, October 22 at 7:30 p.m. as host Amy Burkett talks to Shaniqua Batts, Qu'eed's mother, in her first television interview. "His childhood is gone. This I know. I'm just praying that it's not the rest of his life," Batts said.

A survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows 34 percent of students in city schools reported the presence of gangs. Kids and Gangs-it's a growing problem right here in our region, and local police say most of the shootings and murders that happen here are gang related. In this special report, PBS 39's production team helps educate parents and caregivers to look for the warning signs in our children.

"These kids are just like your own kid. They just have to be shown a different way," said Terrence Miller, a member of the Easton Anti-Gang Task Force.

Also, Team Tempo explores how a $2.5 million dollar federal grant is being used to combat this problem along the 222 Corridor which stretches from the Lehigh Valley to Reading. The partners in the 222 Corridor Initiative have developed a plan, which is expected to produce a substantial reduction in gang crime, gang violence, and gang membership and to provide positive alternatives for former gang members returning to society.

Friday, October 19, 2007

State Senator Browne, County & City Leaders Support Suffering Hamilton Street Merchants

"I came here interested, but leave here passionate."

That's how Jeanette Eichenwald, Allentown City Council candidate, reacted after hearing how merchants and bus passengers have suffered from LANTA's recent elimination of bus service along portions of Hamilton Street. She had good reason.

Last night, local leaders listened as twenty-two bus riders and small business owners, the "have nots," told their story at Allentown's Faith Baptist Church. James Blawn, a bus rider in his seventies: "I walk 5 1/2 blocks, one way, to catch a bus." Jenny Lim Chen, whose family owns and operates the House of Chen, sadly and quietly reports they've dropped their health insurance. Bibi Hazra, from the Loco Dollar Store, burst into tears as she told about being assaulted yesterday by one of her suppliers. She owes him $200, but only had $20 in her cash drawer. He started to choke her until people began calling for police. Jim, a wheelchair bound bus passenger, saw it happen. And he was at the church last night, too. "I won't knock progress until it stops someone else's progress." Barbadel Campbell, the eloquent septuagenarian whose letter to the editor was recently published in The Morning Call, asked, "How could this happen?" She noted there was no prior discussion with passengers or merchants, and that even most bus drivers knew nothing before the changes imposed by LANTA's top heavy management. This twenty-five year center city resident can no longer shop along Hamilton Street "because carrying the shopping bags on foot is a pain." She wonders whether this is a plot to rid the city of its low-income, and mostly minority, businesses, in favor of upscale ventures for the beautiful people, like $40 Halloween dinner bargains.

Barbadel has reason to wonder. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, through his information minister, refuses to help. "It's a transportation issue. Nothing was done to affect the businesses. We're trying to improve transportation." Pawlowski even thumbed his nose at Lázaro Fuentes, who chairs the Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

LANTA is just as bad. BiBi and Jenny called several times in early October. Nothing. I tried contacting executive director Armando Greco on October 9, as well as all members its board. Nothing. Channel 69 reporters tried to contact LANTA yesterday. Nothing.

So what's LANTA doing? Rather than respond to this suffering, its bureaucrats are incredibly combing through an eighteen hundred signature petition submitted a month ago, looking for duplicate signatures.

But as of last night, Hamilton Street merchants and bus passengers have reason for hope. Lehigh Valley leaders have responded! And so has the media.

Allentown City Candidates Respond

Four out of five Allentown city council candidates are firmly on Jenny and Bibi's side. Jeanette Eichenwald, along with her husband, were obviously moved when BiBi broke into tears. Former Lehigh County exec Dave Bausch will push to have one stop restored. Mike Donovan, in a written statement to Mike Molovinsky, believes LANTA failed to involve enough people before eliminating these stops. "When the appropriate parties are not involved, we have disappointment, lack of trust, and a loss of community." Finally, a statement from Robert E Smith demands that stops be restored. "We need leadership that represents all the people, not just politicians and wealthy elitists who want to keep those people off Hamilton street."

Controller candidate Michael Schware noted that what has happened sends a "dangerous signal" to business. "We may want you here today, but not tomorrow."

The only city council candidate who failed to appear or present a statement? Peter Schweyer, who just happens to sit on the LANTA board. Some of Hamilton Street's minority-owned merchants feel they are being discriminated against, but he told me in an October 3 email that these concerns are "laughable and frankly quite bizarre." I hope these merchants remember Schweyer when they vote.

Current Allentown city councilman Tony Phillips also stopped by, and told the crowd, "These things don't happen without the administration being involved. The only ones who were not involved in this decision were you."

Other Local Leaders Lend Their Support

In addition to city leaders, Lehigh County Commissioner candidates Dean Browning and Roger Reis added their support. Browning, bean counter extraordinaire, told merchants that LANTA relies heavily on public funds, and that merchants should make their concerns known at those funding sources. Reis echoed Browning, adding that commissioners could write letters.

Last night's biggest surprise was Ellen Millard-Kern, who just happens to be State Senator Pat Browne's chief of staff. His Allentown office, incidentally, is located smack dab in the middle of this Hamilton Street mess. He is inundated with complaints from passengers and merchants. So Pat Browne has already sent his own letter to LANTA. That's going to be a little harder to ignore. Here's part of it.

I am writing on behalf of three separate and distinct constituencies who do not like the recent change in the bus schedules. Specifically, I have received petitions with hundreds of signatures from LANTA riders requesting a restoration of bus service to Hamilton Street. In addition, I have been contacted by Hamilton Street merchants who are experiencing "precipitous" declines in business. Finally, the disabled community has expressed concerns that their ability to access stores, other Hamilton Street amenities and educational opportunities has been greatly reduced if not altogether curtailed.

. . . I sincerely request that you consider developing an alternate route plan to address these concerns and make considered reasonable accommodations as warranted.

Media Support

A show of support from Lehigh Valley leaders is great, but the media has also cast a public spotlight on the plight of Hamilton Street's minority merchants and senior bus riders. It was Channel 69's top story on last night's 10 o'clock news. El Torero, a Spanish-language Allentown weekly, this morning published a full-page story, complete with a photograph of an empty Hamilton Street, as buses whiz by without stopping.

Next Step

LANTA'S next board meeting is November 13. If Allentown's mayor and LANTA's management continue to snub the "have nots," they will soon have an opportunity to meet them face to face.

As wheelchair-bound Jim told me late last night, "There are more of us, and we aren't going away."