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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, December 02, 2016

Dent Commends "Mad Dog" Nomination

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped retired Marine Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis to be his secretary of defense. Congressman Charlie Dent has been no fan of Trump, but applauds the selection of the "Warrior Monk."

"I commend President-Elect Donald Trump for naming retired United States Marine Corp General James Mattis as his choice for Secretary of Defense. I believe that General Mattis will serve our country and the men and women of our Armed Forces with the same distinction and integrity as he did for four decades wearing the uniform of the United States Marines. As Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that is tasked with meeting our nation’s military construction needs, I look forward to working with General Mattis and his team.”

NorCo Council Condemns Possibe Cunningham Conflict on Chinese Board

Don Cunningham
As reported here yesterday, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) CEO Don Cunningham has decided to accept no compensation as a board member at plastic company Fuling Global. "While it’s perfectly legal for me to serve, I have learned that perception often becomes people’s reality, and I don’t want to cause any harm to LVEDC or Fuling."  But that did nothing to dissuade Northampton County Council from adopting a resolution condemning what had happened.

Hayden Phillips, who sponsored the resolution, was aware of Cunningham's decision to accept no compensation. But he went on with it anyway. "The bell's rung, you can't unring a bell," he said. "I think we should still go through with this."

Bob Werner, who has clashed with Cunningham in the past, called Cunningham's letter a "walkback." "It's an 'I'm sorry' after I hit you." Saying he had no problem with LVEDC, Werner added, "I know Don," and questioned whether Cunningham really was waiving the $30,000 salary. "If any one of us up here did anything like this at all, we would be fried to death."

Executive John Brown defended Cunningham, stating it is a "common practice" among economic development professionals in the private sector, and affords a "learning experience." He indicated that Cunningham's willingness to forego a salary on the Fuling Board should cure any misperception. He asked Council to withdraw the resolution.

Glenn Geissinger agreed that sitting on a board was not a problem, but accepting money was. He believes Cunningham corrected that error. "I no longer have a problem with it since he's not being compensated," he said.

"At the very least, we should say what he did was wrong," said Council President John Cusick

Supporting the resolution were Phillips, Werner, Cusick, Peg Ferraro, Mat Benol and Matt Dietz. Voting against it were Geissinger, Ken Kraft and Seth Vaughn.

Cathy Allen Confirmed as Director of Administration

A divided Northampton County Council voted last night to confirm Cathy Allen as Director of Administration, with a starting salary of $91,790. The vote was 6-3. Hayden Philips, Matt Diet and Bob Werner voted No. The remaining Council members supported her.

Werner noted that Allen has been the recipient of an illegal raise and has improperly charged the County over $1,000 for meals and travel to which she was not entitled. Matt Dietz added that, in a meeting with Allen, he was appalled when she accused several Council members of opposing her because they are sexist. Phillips is concerned about Allen's previously reported tax liens and foreclosure.

Executive John Brown stuck by Allen. "I believe we all have shortcomings, we all have challenges, we all misstep at times, and that's just our human nature," he said in her defense. "Ms. Allen has been and continues to be on a daily basis instrumental in making sure that the objectives of this administration get implemented in a way that moves this county forward." He noted hat Allen attacked the scalding water problem at Gracedale when she was first brought on board and, most recently, administered a well-run presidential election. He claimed that, to many employees, she is a go-to resource.

Mat Benol, who had previously opposed Allen, changed course. "What sticks in my mind is when she came to a prior council with [union agent] Justus James," he said. "That spoke volumes to what her abilities are."

Peg Ferraro said she is "absolutely torn" but decided to give Allen the nod. "Our Executive is doing an excellent job and he has complete faith and trust in this person ... . If he feels the confidence, I guess I will feel the confidence also."

After she was confirmed, one person in the back attempted to applaud, but no one joined him.

Less controversial was the appointment of Tim Herrlinger as Director of Community and Economic Development, at a salary of $83,718. He was confirmed unanimously. "Tim, I think you've done a great job so far," said John Cusick.

Vaughn: "Who Cares?" If He Misses Important Budget Hearing

Though the legislative branch of government is generally regarded as the weakest, there is one time during the year when that changes. That's at budget time. The legislative branch controls the purse strings and can make wholesale changes to an Executive or Mayoral spending plan. Allentown City Council recently proved just how powerful it can be when it essentially gutted Mayor Edwin "Fed Ed" Pawlowski's use of public funds to reward his friends and let you pick up the tab. But to do this, you have to show up.

On the same night that Allentown City Council was flexing its muscle, Northampton County Council was considering a series of amendments to Executive John Brown's spending for next year. It is the second most important meeting of the year. But Seth Vaughn, who works out of his home, never bothered to show up. I reported his absence because it is part of the story. I have no training as a reporter, but know I should tell try to tell readers Who, What, Why, When, Where and How.

Doing this made Seth Vaughn angry.

When I confronted him about his absence last night in the parking lot outside the courthouse, it made him very angry.

"You were absent from one of the most important meetings of the year," I charged.

"So what?"

"Who cares?"

"I'm still going to win the election next year, pal."

"Nobody reads your blog, pal."

Apparently, he must have read it.

He then called me a coward and a disbarred lawyer. Yelling, he ran off to his car and drove off. Along the way, he called Ken Kraft a coward, too.

Ordinarily, I'd say that a person who gets tetchy might be working too hard. But that conclusion is inapplicable to Vaughn.

Maybe he needs more sleep.

NorCo Council Tables $5 Vehicle Registration Fee

In 2013, the state legislature enacted a massive gas tax, giving the Keystone State the highest gas taxes in the nation, even higher than California and New York. In addition, it authorized counties to impose a $5 "local use fee" on vehicle registrations, so long as the money is used for transportation. Eleven counties have already enacted this additional tax.

Will Northampton County be the twelfth?

That appears to be increasingly unlikely.

In July, Council killed a proposed ordinance that would require you to spend $41 to register your vehicles instead of $36. But the idea was resurrected when the County embarked on an aggressive bridge repair plan,and was scheduled for a vote at last night's meeting.

The matter was tabled without discussion.

Pen Argyl's Jeff Fox urged Council to vote it down. "These hurt the poorest the hardest," he argued. ”Many of the biggest users have vehicles not registered in the county. You can call it a fee or whatever you will. It is indeed another tax. If you call yourself a fiscal conservative or care about the less advantaged within our county, vote it down."

Northampton's John Szazdi called it a "money grab."

There is some concern that the decision to table is a ploy, and that the matter will be voted on again down the road.

NorCo Council Unanimously Adopts 2017 No Tax Hike Budget

LVIA's Charles Everett (L) and Mike Dowd (R)
justify $250k Braden Airpark grant
After months of budget hearings, followed by numerous amendments, Northampton County Council voted unanimously last night to approve Executive John Brown's $379 million spending plan next year. These amendments were exhaustively considered during a Wednesday budget hearing, but Council reversed course on one of them last night.

On Wednesday, Council balked at a $250,000 grant to kickstart improvements at Braden Airpark. They changed course when Executive John Brown assured them that no real estate tax dollars would be used. He said he would fund the grant with table games revenue from Sands Casino. With that assurance, the grant was adopted 8-1, with Ken Kraft being the sole dissenter. He said he'd like to see what Forks Township and Lafayette College will do before committing county resources. But Brown said that the Countyneeds "to step up and show good faith." He stated that without the revenue stream from commercial facilities to be built at the site, it will fail.

Real estate taxes make up only $99 million of the $313 million in anticipated money next year. The rest is mostly "pass through" money from the state and federal government to fund human services extending from child abuse investigations to senior centers.

This budget will fund $27 million in capital improvements. Brown has continued the practice,started last year, of setting aside one mill of taxes ($7.9 million) for capital projects like maintenance of the County's 119 bridges, the purchase of the Human Services building  and the construction of a new jail.

Though Brown has told Council that re-assessment is about 18 months away, the budget does provide for two temporary assessors to work on a prelude to what is coming.

A $2 million increase in salary costs is offset by a $2 million decrease in fringe benefit costs. Union increases are governed by their contracts. There is also a two percent payhike to the County's nonunion workforce. This was supported by all Council members except Mat Benol. He gave no explanation for his dissent.

The budget includes a structural deficit. The County is spending more than it is taking in, and has dipped into reserves to the tune of $8.2 million.

Council also proposed an ordinance setting the millage rate for next year at 11.8 mills, which means there will be no tax hike. A home assessed at $75,000 will have a $885 tax bill. The millage rate ordinance is scheduled for adoption on December 15, the last meeting of the year.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Cunningham to Waive Compensation on Chinese Board

 Dear LVEDC Board and Staff, 
            I want to thank all of you for your support and excitement regarding my selection to serve as a public director on the Fuling Global board. As you know, Fuling is a unique Lehigh Valley success story. It is the only Chinese-based manufacturer making its product in Pennsylvania with American workers. I look forward to learning firsthand how international manufacturers work and helping to make Fuling successful in the U.S.
            While there is no conflict of interest for me at LVEDC to do this work, the compensation associated with a public director position has been questioned by some outside of LVEDC. It’s an honor to have been asked by Fuling to serve on its board. I did not accept it for the compensation but to learn and to help. Therefore, I’ve asked Fuling to not compensate me and to consider donating my compensation to a worthy cause or causes in the Lehigh Valley. The company has agreed.
            There is nothing more important for me professionally than making LVEDC the best it can be and having our organization held in the highest regard. While it’s perfectly legal for me to serve, I have learned that perception often becomes people’s reality, and I don’t want to cause any harm to LVEDC or Fuling.  Like all of you and most leaders in the Lehigh Valley, I sit on numerous boards. Board service is a way we learn, develop professionally and help organizations and causes. 
            Again, I thank all of you for your encouragement, excitement and support. I look forward to working with you as we head into 2017 and finalize our new 3-year strategic plan.
            My best,

NorCo 2017 Budget: Winners and Losers

Bob Werner and Hayden Phillips
At a lengthy budget hearing last night, Northampton County Council began the process of leaving their own mark on the $359 million spending plan proposed by Executive John Brown for next year. His 2017 budget is balanced by spending $8.2 million of reserves, but no one seemed terribly concerned about the deficit spending. As quickly as Council cut money from one or another program, they found another place to spend it.

One Council member, Seth Vaughn, failed to appear at one of the most important meetings of the year. Another, Matt Dietz, participated by phone until he was cut off. He never tried to call back. One other Council member, Ken Kraft, quietly slipped away after two hours.

Here are the winners and losers.

Winner: Northampton County Jail

The biggest winner last night was Northampton County's aging jail. Council scrambled to find $500,000 to set aside for a renovation or relocation. Since Executive John Brown also proposed setting aside another $500,000, there could be $1 million in seed money for a new jail, either on or off campus. Brown might use some of this money for feasibility studies.

Before spending a dime, the courts need to be consulted.

Peg Ferraro
Winner: Livable landscapes

Livable Landscapes is the most recent iteration of Northampton County's Open Space Plan It continues farmland preservation, but also supports farming that produces food that can be consumed locally. It promotes trail systems and recreational open space. It continues to support the preservation of environmentally sensitive land, but that now includes historic and cultural resources.

Winner: DaVinci Science Center

A proposed expansion of the DaVinci Science Center in Easton will get $50,000 in hotel taxes. Council President John Cusick said that Easton "is dating the DaVinci Center and they may get married by the end of the year," but he questioned whether they are really serious. "I think we should give them a bridal shower," said Hayden Phillips.

Ken Kraft
Winner: Bethlehem

Bethlehem is creeping back into most-favored-city status. The Bach Choir got $18,000 even though it submitted no application. Historic Bethlehem Partnership will receive $68,000 for Bruce Haines' docents.The VIA marathon will get $20,000 instead of the $15,000 proposed by county staffers. Two other nonprofits outside of Bethlehem did well,too.The Miracle League got $10,000 instead of the $7,000 recommended. The county Historical Society got $50,000 instead of the $30,000 recommended by county staff.

Loser: Northampton County's Open Space Plan

Farmland Preservation Administrator Maria Bentzoni is apoplectic that John Brown refuses to fund farmland preservation beyond whatever applications exist. He has previously made clear that if applications require more funds, he will find the money. Council also gutted the funding for environmentally sensitive land, especially after Brown told them there are no projects in the pipeline.

Glenn Geissinger
Loser: Braden Airport

Glenn Geissinger wanted to give the Airport Authority a $250,000 grant for improvements at Braden Airpark. Ken Kraft scoffed, "You want to take $5 from people for their cars, but want to give $250,000 so rich people can fly their airplanes." Council members like Peg Ferraro and John Cusick told Geissinger he was premature, but he insisted on a vote, and lost. He'll try again tonight.

Loser: LVEDC

Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC) CEO Don Cunningham recently decidedtotake a $30,000 paid board position with a Chinese plastic company he brought to the Lehigh valley. John Susick is so incensed that he wants to eliminate a $75,000 contribution to LVEDC. Though his motion failed, Council intends to introduce a resolution at tonight's meeting taking Cunningham to task.

Council must adopt or amend the budget by December 16, or it goes into effect by operation of law. December 15 meeting. under the current 11.8 millage, a home assessed at $100,000 will get a $1,180 tax bill. Though Hayden Phillips has previously hinted at a small tax cut, no mention of it was made last night.

Updated 11:20 am: In an earlier version of this story, I incorrectly stated that Peg Ferraro had slipped off. But  she remained until the bitter end. She left the dais briefly to respond to an urgent matter, but I failed to note that she returned.

Updated 2:50 pm: In addition to my error concerning Peg, I also inaccurately reported that the Miracle League had submitted no application. This worthy nonprofit, which provides a baseball experience to developmentally challenged children, did submit a grant request. Council awarded more money.

NorCo Personnel Changes Next Year

Last night, Northampton County Council approved a number of personnel changes for next year's budget. Many of these were previously discussed, but let me summarize them:.
  • One corrections re-entry coordinator at a salary of $53,889. With benefits, it's $83,659.
  • One corrections professional responsibility investigator at a salary of $51,463. With benefits, it's $80,795.
  • One corrections case manager at a salary of $46,938.With benefits, that's $75,454. 
  • Elimination of three vacant clerical technician positions in the Recorder of Deeds office.The annual salary of these jobs is $28,877. With benefits, it's $54,125.
  • One Accountant II in Fiscal Affairs at a salary of $51,463. With benefits, it's $80,786.
  • One Deputy Aging Administrator in Area Agency on Aging, with a $65,923 salary. With benefits,it's $97,855.
  • Elimination of one Human Resources Analyst, with an annual savings of $88,415   
  • One Human Resources Labor Relations Officer, at a salary of $64,784. With benefits,it's $96,510. 
  • One Children Youth and Families Casework Supervisor at a salary of $43,471. With benefits, it's $71,352.
  • Three Children Youth and Families Caseworkers, with each at a salary of $39,466. With benefits, it's $66,625. 
  • Elimination of three part-time Deputy Sheriffs, resulting in an annual savings of $76,820. 
  • Three full-time Deputy Sheriffs, with each at a salary of $45,392.With benefits, it's $73,620.
  • The Deputy Elections Registrar is getting a well-deserved raise because of her experience and vast knowledge. Her salary will go from $42,724 to $46,656. Congrats, Amy!
  • A Finance Specialist and Economic Development Specialist in Community and Economic Development will see their salaries increase from $46,938 to $51,257. 
  • Four Clerical Tech IIIs in Court Services will see wage hikes ($26,784 to $29,370 and $29,248 to $32,073).
  • One part-time Clerical Tech II at Gracedale will become a full-time position at a salary of  $29.615. With benefits, it's $57,577.      
  • An Auditor in the Controller's office will see a salary increase from $44,827 to $51,463. Another Auditor will become Lead Auditor, and salary will increase from $51,463 to $59,084. 
  • One GIS Tech I (mapper) will become a GIS Tech II, with a wage hike from $33,155 to $41,738.        

Allentown City Council Takes Command of 2017 Budget

Allentown City Council
The days of calling Allentown City Council a rubber stamp for Mayor Edwin "Fed Ed" Pawlowski are over. At last night's meeting, Council pulled the purse strings tight on next year's $104 million spending plan. On Fed Ed's birthday, they managed to find a $610,000 gift. But it's not for him. It will instead go for the economic development of Allentown's residents. Here's a summary of the amendments.
  • Council is doing a $60,000 compensation benefit analysis to establish a merit based personnel code in which wage hikes go to those who deserve them. 
  • Non-union employees will get a 1.5% payhike. Higher increases that Fed Ed wanted to give to his cronies have been rolled back. This will save $115,000.   
  • The police chief, assistant chief and captains will get a 3.5% payhike, while the fire chief will get a 2% raise. This corresponds to what the unions in those departments are getting.   
  • The Managing Director, Director of Community and Economic Development and Operations Manager positions will be funded at $1. Wisely, Council declined to eliminate the positions. This will reduce spending by $330,000.
  • The overtime budget has been cut 10%,which will reduce spending by $350,000
  • Payments to consultants and other professional services have been reduced 10%,saving $586,000.. 
  • Council has set aside a $50,000 contingency fund for any disputes with the Mayor that might require legal action. 
  • The EIT increase will be reduced 10%. 
  • $2,500 will fund a program that helps teach English to recent immigrants. 
  • $5,000 will be spent on cultural heritage events.
  • $5,000 will be spent for arts and cultural events.  
"I think what you're doing is great," said Betsy Levin, a retiree and city resident. "I don't need to say any more. You guys are on the right track. Yay!"

There was no discussion from Council itself. The amendments were adopted by a 6 to 1 vote. Candida Affa, a loyal Fed Ed ally, was the sole dissenter and even she hesitated before casting her No vote.

This was a remarkable display of independence and leadership from a Council that I once referred to as bobbleheads. Much of this is due to Council President Ray O'Connell, who has managed to put together several veto-proof majorities and has worked amazingly well with his fellow Council members. But much of the credit also goes to the numerous watchdogs like Dennis Pearson, Julian Kern, Lou Hershman, Robert Trotner and Glenn Hunsicker, who are regulars at City Council meetings.

The FBI gets a nod, too.

By way of full disclosure, this report is based on watching a video of the meeting. I was unable to make it to Allentown in time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Judge Sletvold's Intimidation of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Judge Jennifer Sletvold
I was appalled this past weekend by Riley Yates' story that Judge Jennifer Sletvold had recused herself in a stalking and terroristic threats case against Clinton Oxford. I thought that Yates might have misinterpreted what she said, so I got the opinion myself (You can read it below). Yates was right on the money. Sletvold engaged in blatant judicial intimidation aimed right at the criminal defense bar. Her ruling is designed to have a chilling impact on the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in criminal cases.

A lawyer who represents someone in a criminal case has a duty to represent his client zealously within the bounds of the law  Regardless of personal beliefs, his job is to insure that the person he represents gets the best possible defense he can provide. But this runs counter to a factory system of criminal justice in which defense lawyers are all too often regarded by judges as the third wheel on a bicycle rolling an accused off a cliff.

Judges are interested in putting up numbers. That's why they want a conflicts counsel present on arraignment day, when over a hundred people are herded in and out like cattle. That conflicts counsel, who should only represent indigent defendants because of a conflict in the Public Defender's office, will approach Defendants who could easily afford a lawyer and "represent " them for free. The goal is to rush an unwitting defendant, who just might be innocent, into a plea. If that ruins his life, well that's just too bad. The court can retreat to its sanctum sanctorum, isolated from the public, and grow increasingly concerned about low class people who always are getting in trouble.

Recently, there was a conflicts counsel who actually thought his job was to represent his clients zealously. So he filed all kinds of motions  But some were febrile. He even tried to subpoena an assistant DA whom he thought had committed perjury. Some of his work was the product of being both callow and a bit too enthusiastic.

Instead of seasoning and encouraging him, the court stopped using him.

All of this brings us to Clinton Oxford, who was stalking and threatening his probation officer. She is a very nice person and consummate professional. I sat in on part of the trial. Oxford was guilty as hell, and obviously needs help for mental health issues as well as substance abuse. Not only did Sletvold deny a mental health evaluation, but she waxed him up with a 10-19 1/2 year sentence, which is ridiculously harsh. .

Was Judge Sletvold biased?

Before she was a judge, Sletvold once represented this probation officer and disclosed this fact. Nobody complained until Oxford was convicted, so he's in no position to complain now.

But Sletevold is most certainly biased. So is the entire court. That's because the victimized probation officer is a judicial employee. She works for the judges. There is no way they were going to allow Clinton Oxford to walk after terrorizing one of their own. But trial lawyer Tony Ryback was repeatedly chastised when he tried to make this argument, even to the point of admonishing him in front of the jury and dragging in the Chief Public Defender in an attempt to intimidate him further.

The NorCo probation office had the pre-sentence report prepared by another county precisely because they had the good sense to recognize they were biased. So is the court.

The two lawyers at whom Judge Sletvold has directed her venom - Tony Ryback and Tyree Blair - made many arguments I consider spurious. Ryback's courtroom antics and brief on appeal are feckless. Tyree Blair's reference to nonexsistent Facebook conversation between judge and victim or Morning Call conversations between judge and reporter are risibly absurd. But as Judge Sletvold seems to have forgotten, they both had an obligation to provide a zealous representation. Blair made clear that he had no evidence to back up these strange allegations, so he acted within the bounds of the law.

In short, they both acted ethically. Sletvold did not. She observed that Oxford, the man she sent away for ten years, demonstrated a "marked lack of boundaries." She adds that Ryback and Blair "have demonstrated that they share this quality."

Maybe she should send them away for 10-19 1/2 years.

Sletvold's opinion castigates two lawyers who decided to do their job instead of making it easy for the court to rack up numbers. Hopefully, the defense bar has noticed.

PJ Coyne and the Intimidation Game

My father
I recently had a frank, off-the-record conversation with a judge who at one point suggested that I need to be a bit more like my father. If I was a bit more like my father, I would have suggested that he go fuck himself.

I'm much nicer.

Let me tell you two quick stories about my father, an active trial lawyer who took no shit from anyone, least of all a judge.

The first is one he told us all at the dinner table, when I was a young snot. He had really irritated a Bucks County judge that day, and was warned, "Mr. O'Hare, you are close to being in contempt of this Court."

"Close is not enough," was my Dad's reply.

The second story is one I witnessed. It happened in Lehigh County It was back in the days of President Judge Coyne, a 100% prick. At that time, he and only he was running criminal lists, civil lists, custody lists and estates. He didn't trust the other judges because some of them still remembered what it was like to be a lawyer.

My father was in the middle of a construction arbitration involving lots of money, and was kicking ass. But his partner had a custody case and would be running late. He asked my Dad to announce that the case was "ready" when it was called by Coyne. The partner would be there in an hour or so and Coyne would never miss him.

So there my Dad sat with a gaggle of other lawyers like Ham Neely, waiting for His Majesty to get off the judicial shitter.

At one point, Ham turned to my Dad and said, "You know, Barnie, any one of these bastards can sentence you to death, but only Coyne can give you a continuance."

Eventually, Coyne appeared, my Dad announced the custody case was ready, and left for his arbitration on the top floor.

Unfortunately, Coyne raced through the custody list and soon got to the one my father said was ready. He somehow learned that my father was in this arbitration, and sent his Master, Ted Gillespie, to get him.

"I'm busy, damn it," my father told Gillespie. "Tell him I'm busy."

"Bernie O'Hare told me to tell you he's busy," Gillespie reported to Coyne.

The PJ exploded, and demanded that my father report to him immediately.

"Tell him I'm not here," my dad answered. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

"Bernie O'Hare told me to tell you he's not here," Gillespie reported to Coyne.

I was watching my dad in action - he really was on a roll - when the double doors to the room suddenly flew open. It was Coyne in all his judicial glory. He was still wearing his black robe, and his face was so red it could have heated the Lehigh Valley for an entire winter.

"You! You son of a bitch! Who the hell do you think you are?"

My Dad was sitting there, holding a cigarette whose ash was about three inches long. He was completely unphased.

"Didn't Ted tell you I was busy?"

While he ripped my dad up and down, my father calmly told him that his partner would be there momentarily, and that the judge was interfering with a previously scheduled arbitration. The judge stormed out of there with Ted Gillespie in tow. By the time he got back to his chambers, my Dad's partner was waiting ... ready.

Coyne unloaded on him, too, and even followed up with a few letters claiming he was going to the Disciplinary Board.

It blew over, although Coyne harped on it with me a few times after I was admitted to the bar.

Coyne was playing the intimidation game. The Court has to be respected. But once you let a judge intimidate you, it's all over.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fed Ed Investigation: Cedar Beach Pool and Possible Bid Rigging

If you think the federal investigation into political corruption is over, better think again. The Grand Jury is still gathering information, as some employees in the city's Public Works department can tell you. "It was the worst day of my life," says one of them.

According to three different sources I'm unwilling to name, I hear the following:  
  • A new round of indictments is coming. I hear it is "soon." That could mean tomorrow, or next month.
  • Feds are looking into the $1.8 million renovation project at Cedar Beach pool. That project was supposed to be completed by June of this year. Then it was July. The project was still unfinished on August 29. "Unforeseen conditions" claimed City spokesperson "Mike Moore," who lacks the honesty to use his real name.  (Maybe they found Jimmy Hoffa).
  •  Believe it or not, there are allegations that federal investigators have honed in on bid-rigging, something that happened for the City's tax collection contract with Northeast Revenue. According to these sources, the ties to Allentown Mayor Edwin "Fed Ed" Pawlowski are much more clear. "They have him dead to rights," says one of them. 

Retirement Community at Green Pond Closer to Reality

Green Pond marsh
Controversial plans to build a retirement community adjacent to environmentally sensitive wetlands, smack dab in the middle of an Audubon-designated "Important Bird Area," have come closer to reality. Bethlehem Township's Planning Commission decided  to recommend approval of a "tentative" plan at a meeting last night that was far less crowded than during some earlier presentations. Recommending approval were Kenn R. Edinger, Mark Grandinetti, Harry Powell, Leslie Walker and James Daley. "It's time to move this down the road," said Edinger. Don Wright was the sole No vote. Lee Snover abstained, but chaired the meeting.

Developer Traditions of America (TOA) has reduced the density of the development while increasing the amount of open space as well as buffering the wetlands area. The number of homes will decrease from the original 261 to 229. Open space has been increased from 22 to 29 acres, with 18 of those acres as true open space, independent of any storm water management. Buffering of at least 50' will surround the wetlands. The closest any home will be to the wetlands in 309.'

Attorney Gregg Adelman, who represents TOA, explained that all storm water will be managed on site or at the adjacent golf course. There will be no discharge onto other properties. Their studies indicate there will be no sinkholes, and ponds will have liners to prevent mishaps.

He told Les Walker that the homeowners' association will be required to hire a third-party expert to manage the wetlands. Prominent Easton attorney Tom Elliott, a resident and former Township Solicitor, scoffed that environmentally sensitive wetlands will be the last thing on the minds of homeowners concerned about snow plowing and streets.

"We've demonstrated the feasibility we need for recommendation of a tentative plan," he said.

Adelman told Don Wright that if the development is approved, deed restrictions will be imposed on the adjacent golf course, preventing its use as anything but a golf course or open space.

Solicitor Wendy Nicolosi explained that approval of a "tentative plan" for a planned residential development like Green Pond Marsh is less stringent than what is required for a preliminary plan, although there are pages of requirements that must be approved by the Commissioners. No building permits may be issued, nor can development proceed without final plan approval.

Part of the tentative plan calls for scraping 150 sq ft of the wetlands to widen Farmersville Road and then adding to the wetlands elsewhere.

"How do you replicate a wetland that has been there 200-300 years?" asked a dubious Kathy Glagola. "You think you're just going to dredge and make it the same?"

"I'm going to follow the DEP regulations," answered Adelman.

Commissioners will now have to review the tentative plan. Two of them, Tom Nolan and Malissa Davis, were at last night's meeting.

Nazareth Refuses To Pay Benefits To Retired Road Crew Worker

Roger Herman
Roger Herman loves his job on Lower Nazareth's road crew. What he really likes about it is that the people he works for, from Manager Timm Tenges to Supervisors to residents, let him know he is appreciated.  And why not? Outside of public safety, road maintenance is the most important function in most townships, boroughs and cities. As most elected officials will themselves tell you, the road crews and first responders who keep our streets clean and safe are the real face of local government. They turn the wheels of government from their police cruisers and plows. When a little boy or girl wanders off, chances are that one of them will notice before anything unfortunate happens.

Things are different in the Nazareth Circus, also known as  Borough Council. A small and insular group of autocrats think that they, and not the people on the front lines, make things happen. They refused to do anything about Mayor Carl Srtye, who actually admitted to skimming money from a volunteer fire company. They rallied around him until the District Attorney insisted that he resign if he wanted ARD, a special program for first offenders.

These Council members have also interfered in police operations. One of them, Larry Stoudt, was actually charged for interfering with a state investigation into illegal gambling at the local social clubs. He illegally pressured the Chief to run the license plate of someone he suspected was an undercover agent

They look down their noses at the road crew, too, disparaging them as "the Mexicans."

Herman is one of those Mexicans. He used to work on Nazareth's road crew. He was hired there in October 1994. He was unhappy at how he and his fellow workers were treated. He belonged to a union, but the steward was Larry Stoudt's nephew, Robert. .

After 21 years, Herman decided it was time to go somewhere else. He gave notice that he was retiring in June 2015. In addition to rolling over his pension, he asked the Borough to reimburse him for his clothing allowance, accumulated sick pay and longevity. This request was pursuant to a written employment contract with the borough, under which he was contractually entitled to these benefits.

Herman received a response from Solicitor Al Pierce on July 10, denying his request.
"Nazareth Borough Council has accepted your resignation, effective 6/26/15. Nazareth Borough Council has determined that your termination did not constitute retirement and that you are therefore not eligible for a half a year's clothing allowance, longevity pay for 2015 and sick day pay. Council has authorized the payment of wages as provided by the final payroll for your period of employment."
I was unaware that Nazareth Borough Council had the authority to ignore its own employment contract. I decided to look at the minutes of their July 6, 2015 meeting to see whether Herman's resignation was accepted, as Pierce claims. I also looked to see if the Borough Council rejected his claim for benefits, as Pierce claimed.

As I suspected, the minutes make no such mention. That means one of two things. Either Borough Council made these decisions behind closed doors in violation of the state Sunshine Act, or Pierce is talking out of his ass.

Now Borough Council is allowed to discuss personnel matters in the back room, but all decisions must be made publicly. In Nazareth, the state Sunshine Act is regarded more as a recommendation than as law. That's what you'd expect from an outfit that thinks it can unilaterally disregard an employment contract, especially when it involves one of the "Mexicans."

Herman ended up suing.

"You can only take so much," he told me, and hired Connie Nelson, a prominent Easton lawyer and former assistant District Attorney.  His is the seventh lawsuit filed by an employee against Nazareth since 2013. Unlike the other lawsuits, which involve the deprivation of civil rights, Herman just wanted his benefits. He went to small claims court, and got a judgment against Nazareth for $10,976.88 on 2/4/16, following a hearing before Magisterial District Judge Robert Hawke.

At that hearing, Al Pierce the Solicitor suddenly became a witness. His associate, Scott Steier, tried the case. That way they could charge Nazareth double for their time.

Instead of just paying Herman, Nazareth appealed, and Herman had to file a complaint in county court.

Though Connie Nelson attached a copy of the contract and his own demand to her complaint, Pierce and Steier tried to get it bounced

As you probably guessed, they got bounced instead. A perplexed Judge Emil Giordano overruled their preliminary objections, noting that Herman has stated "a prima facia breach of contract claim."    

But Pierce and Steier have been able to pad their bill a little more, even though they must know they have a loser.    

"I want the taxpayers to know that they're just wasting money," Herman told me. 'The only ones making out here are the lawyers."

Chief Thomas Trachta and Officer Stephen Scheig have three active suits against Nazareth. A complaint filed by probationary officer Adam Shimer was dismissed, but he managed to get a job as a full-time police officer in Palmerton. Fred Lahovski and Connie McGinnis settled their lawsuits. Lahovski was paid $440,000, which is the largest sum I've seen awarded to police officer for a civil rights claim in the Lehigh Valley.

Herman just wants Nazareth to keep its word and pay him the $10,000 he is due.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Judge Braxton to Hear DA's Claim of Bias, Conflict

Not long ago, I told you that NorCo DA John Morganelli wants Judge John Braxton to recuse his clerk or himself or both from a homicide case against a drug dealer accused of dealing a fatal overdose. The law clerk being used by Judge Braxton happens to be a criminal defense lawyer and in the same county where this case is being heard. This would be contrary to a state supreme court.

Judge Braxton has refused to recuse himself or his clerk, stating he uses her in other counties. Morganelli discovered this claim is untrue.

A hearing has been scheduled on Morganelli's motion for Friday, 10 am, Courtroom 7.

The PC Police in Nazareth

A Nazareth Borough Police Department Facebook post, since deleted, has caused quite a stir in Northampton County officialdom. Commissioner Randy Miller, who must be dumping Nazareth for the PC police, told The Express Times that the page is not really the "official" Facebook page, though it is, as evidenced by his ability to have the message removed.  He made clear that he in no way endorses its dangerous message, and told The Morning Call it was the handiwork of a "rogue"cop. DA John Morganelli worries that the advisory encourages vigilantes to take the law into their own hands, though it in fact does the opposite.

Before I go further, let me share the portion of the now-deleted message found to be so offensive.
"We ask and encourage those of you who are responsible and educated enough to exercise your 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Providing you can and are legally able to possess a firearm and that you follow the Pennsylvania laws and local ordinances when doing so ... If when ever possible CALL 911 FIRST, if you believe you see someone or something suspicious. Do not engage and use Extreme Caution!"
This post is a reaction to a homicide and carjacking in nearby Palmer Township. A week ago, Palmer Township resident Michael Davis was ambushed and shot in the face by two unknown assailants upon his return home from work at Verizon. The following night, Michael DeRose, who works at the very same Verizon as Davis, was ambushed as well and forced into the back of his car. He was able to escape.

These incidents appear to be related.

My only concern with this Facebook post is whether it was cleared with Palmer Tp investigators. They are tasked with the heavy responsibility of solving this murder and carjacking. I can see no reason why they'd object to a story that informs and educates the public  That was the whole point of last week's news conference. They are seeking the public's help. Still, I'd ask them first since things can change fast and this is their case.

Other than that, there is nothing improper about the post. It at no time calls on anyone to be a cowboy. It specifically urges readers to "CALL 911 FIRST" and "[d]o not engage." It also states that its message only applies to persons who will follow the law.

If you are going to complain about people arming themselves, why does the concealed carry law exist at all? Why do we even have a Second Amendment?

Let me be clear. Most of my readers know that I support tighter gun laws. I believe that people who have exhibited violent tendencies, or who have fantasized about shooting people, should be denied gun permits. I also think a person who has a gun permit should be required to take periodic gun safety courses so he does not accidentally shoot himself. I also think they should be strongly encouraged to practice ...on a range. Because I'm a klutz, I'd never carry. But the right exists and should exist.  This is far from vigilantism. It is the Constitution.

The Constitution trumps officials who worry about being politically correct. This may have served Randy Miller well over the years, at least until he came to Nazareth. Now, in addition to throwing a Nazareth police officer under the bus, he has misled the press about the Facebook page, claiming it is not a sanctioned page.

This statement is completely untrue.

The page was first established in 2009, by Michael Sinclair, when he was police chief. After he left, entries were made by Officer Peter Dewey. He left for Bushkill Township, and full-time officers with Nazareth police continued to update the page from time to time. In fact, it includes several stories featuring Miller himself.

If Miller is unfamiliar with Facebook, as he claims, he really needs to learn. It's actually a great investigative tool and is relied on by most police departments.

If Miller really wants to be politically correct, perhaps he should confront the racism that exists on Nazareth Borough Council. But they might not renew his contract.

Nazareth's Road Crew - the Mexicans

Nazareth has a seven-man road crew who have worked without a wage hike for five years. Council member Larry Soudt's nephew, Robert Stoudt, is the union steward, and he wants to keep his uncle happy. Council members like Frank Maurek refer to the road crew as "the Mexicans."  I'll have more about this tomorrow, when I'm done reviewing yet another lawsuit by an ex-employee against Nazareth. .

Bethlehem Tp Using Social Media to Increase Transparency

In an effort to reach out to the community, Bethlehem Township is increasing its use of social media. This is from Manager Melissa Shafer's latest monthly report:
• Township Website and Social Media

The Dashboard is up on the front page of the Township website. Now you can go to one spot to get up-to-date information about Township departments and finances.

We launched the Bethlehem Township YouTube page with our first video on the Township’s Leaf Collection Program. The goal is to complete a video for each of the Township departments by the end of next year, showcasing a different service that we provide.

We have also expanded our social media outreach from just Facebook to other platforms including Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. Our goal is to improve communication and citizen engagement and we are working on ideas for some interactive programs with the BTCC staff and Police Department.

Thanks to the hard work of our Finance Department, you can know pay your sewer bill online through a program called Invoice Cloud. A flyer is being sent with the next round of sewer bills with more information for the residents.

• Nixel

We have recently upgraded the Nixel platform for emergency alerts to allow us to take advantage of unlimited text and email alerts, social media posting, Google public alerts, anonymous tipping, severe weather alerts, and emergency voice calls. The Board may wish to consider adopting policies and procedures for the emergency voice calling component.
There is also a fairly active Bethlehem Township Police Department Facebook page, which from time to time includes pictures of people that police are trying to contact, as well as invaluable traffic information.

Above you can see the township's first video (featured above), focused on leaf collection from 9,000 properties.

As a matter of constructive criticism, I'd suggest links to the Facebook page, Youtube channel and other social media on the Township web page. It only links to the police department Facebook page.

Friday, November 25, 2016

CRPD Hosting 11th Annual "Shop With a Cop" on December 3

Officer John Harmon's kids selflessly
shopped for others in 2013 
Colonial Regional Police Department will host its 11th annual "Shop with a Cop" program on December 3. It's an opportunity to help needy families and is funded by local citizens, the officers themselves and businesses like Giant at Food Store, WalMart, Chic-Fil-A and Red Robin. The kids start off with breakfast at Chic-Fil-A, then pile into police cruisers for a ride to WalMart. They finish with lunch at Red Robin.

If you have $5 or $500 to spare, please consider a donation. The police station is located at 248 Brodhead Rd, Bethlehem, PA 18017. Its phone number is 610-861-4820. You can also email Administrative Assistant Leanna McGuigan. Her email is lmcguigan@colonialregionalpd.org .

NorCo DA Dismisses Littering Charge Against Trump Supporter

Last week, I told you that Pennylvania State Police cited West Easton's Tricia "Constable cRaZy" for littering over her Election Eve placement of pro-Trump campaign signs. They were everywhere. Telephone poles. Street signs. She got carried away.

West Easton police coverage is provided by state police. Unable to enforce local ordinances that might have applied here, they charged Mezzacappa with littering. This is covered by the state Vehicle Code.

Those charges have been dismissed at the direction of NorCo DA John Morganelli, who looked into this matter. His conclusion is that Mezzacappa was engaged in core political speech and was not scattering rubbish.

Morganelli, a Democrat, has himself been subjected to numerous venomous attacks over the years from Mezzacappa. But he is a free speech purist, an unusual trait in a district attorney. In 2004, he dismissed trespassing charges filed against peace activists who were distributing anti-war flyers on a public sidewalk outside the Palmer post office. Three years later, he dismissed criminal charges filed against a Washington Township man who was flying the American flag in an upside down position. In 2012, he refused to prosecute a troll over online comments about a judge. That year, he also dismissed attempted robbery charges against "Nature Dave," a bank protester who held a sign inside a bank, warning customers they were being robbed. he did allow a terroristic threat charge to stand.

The best way to assure that people that people you agree with are heard is to ensure that those you disagree with are heard, too.