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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, May 25, 2018

What Is It About Bethlehem?

I recently had a conversation with a journalist who is writing a book about counties that voted for Obama and Trump. Obviously, he's quite interested in Northampton County. That's a topic for some other day. What is the topic is something he told me that I wanted to share. In the course of his travels throughout this region, he's noticed that cities like Wilkes-Barre look terrible. From the buildings to the people walking the streets, there's a real sense of malaise. He's noticed that, outside the circle and moving west, Easton looks pretty bad. The same is true in Allentown, outside of its Neighborhood Improvement Zone. But Bethlehem looks pretty good. Even in its rougher sections, he noticed that homes are well maintained and that there are businesses every few blocks. Why? What does Bethlehem have that Easton and Allentown lack. I'll tell you what I and a few other people think. In the comments, you can tell me what you think or if you even agree with this journalist's observation.

I believe Bethlehem is fortunate and is somewhat better than the other two cities in the Lehigh Valley because it had better leadership. When the steel mill went tets up and the City's tax base evaporated, Mayor Don Cunningham gave City residents hope and almost immediately began to bring in other businesses. Mayor John Callahan continued this rebirth with the Sands Casino. I also credit city leaders for listening to three pioneers: Jeff Parks, who had this ridiculous notion that encouraging the arts would lead to economic development; Tony Hanna, who spearheaded the redevelopment of Bethlehem's south side; and Alan Jennings, whose programs were very successful in the City.

Mayor Donchez said that business leaders also played a role, and said that the City pays attention to the little things  It has a strong Zoning Hearing Board that denied variances for conversions when Allentown was handing out variances like candy back in the '80s. Earlier this week, it denied a variance for an electronic billboard on the Hill-to-Hill bridge. He also believes city officials really try to listen to the public and to each other.

Tony Hanna told me that, in the early '60s, Bethlehem established its first central historic district. The result is that some of the City's most valuable homes border the Main Street shopping district. It is one of the most picturesque Main Streets in the county. In Easton, you have to go to College Hill. In Allentown, you have to go to the west end.

Tony also credited the late Gordie Mowrer, known as The Main Street Mayor. Mowrer rebelled against “urban renewal” going on everywhere else. It was premised on tearing down buildings and replacing them with something more “modern.” Historic downtown Bethlehem, with its specialty shops along Main Street, would have been bulldozed for big department stores. Mowrer reversed that trend. “There’s only one thing Bethlehem has to sell, and that is its history,” he said.

One other point. Bethlehem tends to be realistic about itself. In Easton and Allentown, mayors have traditionally been treated like gods,with a little help from the local newspapers. Bethlehem has never had this kind of reverence for its top officials. It instead has Complainers of Bethlehem

Boys' Hoops: Summer League at Cedar Beach Finally Here

This is my favorite time of year. School years are ending. The sun stays out longer every day. And Allentown Boys Summer League is finally in full swing at Cedar Beach Park. Just about every local high school participates. It's a great opportunity for younger players to showcase their skills. Coaches are more relaxed and willing to experiment. Games are played on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a running clock. If it rains, they play indoors. Otherwise, it's outside. Street ball, with four games every hour, starting at 6 pm. Games will continue until the end of July. Along the way, the Atown Throwdown will be played. I missed the earlier games this week, but finally got a chance to watch teams play tonight.

My grandson Dat is a graduating senior (I hope) and was studying for two finals, as were the rest of the departing seniors. So they were unable to watch Allentown Central Catholic (ACCHS) take on cross-town rival Allen. They missed a helluva' game. Allen is known for its tall and athletic players, while the Vikings combine fierce defense and an amazing ability to hit from downtown. But this year, Chad "X-Factor) Kratzer has added a new wrinkle, an ability to drive inside.

Allen jumped to an early lead, but thanks to aggressive defense, ACCHS soon turned things around and seemed to have the game in hand. Nick Filchner and Kratzer were both scoring at will, and Sammy Vaughan picked up right where his brother left off as the team's field general. But the Canaries made adjustments,and with just two minutes left in the second half, had a on-point lead and were tearing down the court with the ball.

But not for long. a Viking managed to knock the ball loose and both he and a Canary (I'm sorry but I never got his name) both dove right onto the macadam in a battle for possession. The Central appeared to have it when the Allen player swung his arm and appeared to punch the Central dude, though he was really going for the ball. By this time another Allen player dove onto the pile as well, and the Viking took a swing, too.

The refs were on top of this nearly immediately, although it may heave taken a second or two to separate the players.

Imagine that's your son on the ground and it looks as though he's getting pounded by two Allen players. What would you do?

As hard as it might be, the best thing to do is let the officials sort it out. That's why they're there. But the player's Dad, a former basketball standout who is himself about 18' tall, started yelling and ran onto the court. A Central player actually pushed him off. But it was too late. At this point, Allen and Central fans were upset and began yelling at each other. Fortunately, they were mostly old farts.

In case you are wondering, I declined to join in the festivities.

I was too busy laughing.

Both Allen and Central fans said some ugly things to each other, which I'm sure embarrassed both coaches. The Dad was really just concerned about his son's well being, and I'll give him credit for refusing to participate in some of the ugliness, which did not come from any of the parents on either team.

In any event, Central was hit with a foul and a double technical.

ACCHS Coach Dennis Csensits did the sensible thing and threw in the towel rather than witness what could have turned into a donnybrook. Both coaches made sure their players shook hands.

After the game, I watched as fighting Viking picked pieces of macadam out of his elbow. Then I saw his dad.

"You're 0-1," I said.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Top Pa. Legislators Suddenly Receptive to Open Primaries, Redistricting Reform

Inside the capital
In a sign that entrenched Pa. incumbents are worried they may have gone just a tad too far in preserving their own job security, top legislative leaders are suddenly talking about reform. Believe it or not, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R. Jefferson) has said he will soon introduce to open primaries. And yesterday, a Senate Committee unanimously endorsed a bill that will overhaul the way that congressional and legislative districts are drawn.

Open Primaries. - Pa.'s primaries are currently closed. You have to be a Democrat to vote in a Democratic primary, and a Republican to vote in a Republican primary. Everyone else is shut out. Nine states, including Pa., have completely closed primaries.

The Inky has comments from the following legislative leaders:

Scarnati - “The extremes of the parties have taken over the primary process. ... I don’t know that I fit the new brand of conservatives, and I’m not so sure that some of the Democrats in the Senate Democrats fit the new brand of liberals.”

House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R. Indiana) - "I think giving independent voters that opportunity could help really reform the electoral process, get more people involved and hopefully get a more diverse set of opinions in the primary process, as opposed to only a select few choosing who gets to go on.”

Sen. Minority Leader Jay Costa (D. Allegheny) (through spokesperson Brittany Crampsie) - "Senator Costa is a strong supporter of active, participatory democracy – and is in favor of all legislation that allows more citizens to vote, and increases turnout amongst already-registered voters.”

Slaying the Gerrymander - Yesterday, the Senate State Government Committee amended a bill to replace the current political system of gerrymandering state legislative and US Congressional districts with a more independent 11-member Commission. FairDistrictsPa supports this compromise to the bipartisan bill offered by State Senators Lisa Boscola (D. Northampton) and Mario Scavello (R. Monroe).

According to FairDistrictPa's Carol Kuniholm, "it has strong safeguards for transparency, prohibitions against use of electoral data, constraints on splitting counties and municipalities, and mechanisms requiring broad buy-in among the commissioners and for the final map. Further safeguards in the selection process and mapping criteria will be added in implementing legislation, to be drafted in conversation with advocates and legislators from both parties.

"When evaluated against processes in place across the country, we believe this bill, with appropriate implementing legislation, would create one of the most fair redistricting processes in the country."

You can read more details here.

If successful, this will almost certainly be the most significant contribution to good government in the state since the turn of the century. And most amazing of al, it is the handiwork of legislators from the Lehigh Valley and Monroe. In addition to Boscola and Scavello, State Rep. Steve Samuelson has played a major role in redistricting reform.

NorCo, DCNR Adding 90 Acres to Bushkill Park System

NorCo Exec Lamont McClure and Secretary of the Department of Conservation and National Resources (DCNR) Cindy Adams Dunn will celebrate the opening of a 90-acre parcel near Bushkill Tp's Jacobsburg Park today, 2:30 pm, at the Jacobsburg Environmental Center. Known as the Ballas tract, this parcel includes a fishing pond, one-mile loop trail, wetlands and a connection to the Bushkill Township PPL trail.

Since 2008, Northampton County has helped preserve nearly 3,000 acres of open space and natural areas. Open Space is estimated to provide a value of $201.7 million per year to the Lehigh Valley in the form of natural system services. An estimated $351 million is spent on outdoor recreation annually in Northampton County.

Bushkill Township is also an active participant in open space preservation. It has created a Township Recreation Center (87.38 acres) and the Bushkill Rail Trail, a 2-mile trail along a PPL right-of-way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

GPA Solicitor & Former Exec Talk P3 for Hotel Bethlehem Expansion

Last month, I told you that former NorCo Exec John Brown has started a new biz he calls John Brown Leadership Solutions LLC. His corporate address is 515 West Hamilton Street, Suite 502, Allentown, PA 18101. This also happens to be the address of Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus. That law firm has billed the County over $810,000 for its services on the General Purpose Authority (GPA) in 2016 and 2017. Brown had a special arrangement with Solicitor John Lushis for "special legal services" that basically made Lushis a stealth county lawyer. It was a conflict of interest for Lushis, and a violation of the procurement Code for Brown. I had joked at the time that Brown and Lushis might team up to market P3 projects throughout the state. It turns out that this is no joke. That's exactly what they've been doing.

Bruce Haines, a principal at Historic Hotel Bethlehem, recently received a coveted CRIZ designation for an expansion that includes a convention center. Earlier this year, he was approached by Brown. The former Exec suggested he might be able to help in some unspecified way. Haines heard nothing beyond that one conversation, but others have.

Brown, along with Lushis, recently met with a financier to try to arrange financing for the expansion. Get this. They suggest it be done as a P3 project, using the GPA.

As I've said before, the GPA needs to dump its Solicitor. I am also offended that Brown is attempting to benefit personally from things he set in motion as Executive.

Name Your Poison

Whether you are Christian, Jew or Muslim, you've heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Their sin was not homosexuality, as many have since claimed. Rather they "were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me." The Divine retribution was fire and brimstone. Noah's flood was God's answer to a world that had become corrupt and full of violence. Based on the latest school shooting and overall decline in civility, I'd say we're in for one helluva' shit storm.

As much as I think common sense dictates a ban on assault-style rifles and other reforms, this is not about guns. It's about us. We've become an ugly people. I see it on my blog. When I first started in 2006, people were able to disagree cordially. But that's out the window. Some blame me because I allow anonymous comments, but have you looked at Facebook? People say all kinds of hateful things there, and their names are out there for anyone to read.

So what's it gonna' be? Nuclear holocaust? Climate change? Natural calamity?

I'm ruling out nukes or natural calamity, including climate change. We've already survived fire and brimstone, as well as a flood. We're like cockroaches. I'm going with pandemic. There's a new virus going round called the Nipah virus, which originated with bats. It's incurable and there's no vaccine. According to Science Alert, the fatality rate is 40-75%. An outbreak in South India has already killed 10 people.

Not to worry. India says it has everything under control.

Perhaps people need to be reminded that, as Gilgamesh says, "Only the gods live forever." The rest if us are just "breaths of air."

McClure Signs Responsible Contracting Ordinance

It's official. Northampton County Council Executive Lamont McClure has signed into law an ordinance that will require contractors performing county work valued at $250,000 or more to have the right stuff and the right people. Contractors who wish to do business with the county will be required to furnish a Responsibility Certificate to show that their employees have all the necessary licenses and registrations to complete the work and that the business is properly bonded. They must also use craft employees who have participated in a Class A Apprenticeship Program for a minimum of three years. The apprenticeship program must be registered with and approved by the U.S. Department of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency. Training received in military service is also acceptable.

“This isn’t just a matter of using taxpayer dollars responsibly,” said McClure. “Regulations for construction are important for the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.” Congressman Matt Cartwright prefers to call them "protections."

The ordinance goes into effect on June 20, 2018.

This ordinance was criticized by some conservatives as a gimmick to force contractors to use union labor. They should be reminded that Donald Trump himself signed an executive order last year to expand apprenticeships as is the case in Germany and Switzerland where classrooms are integrated with on-the-job training.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Case of the Missing Pepper Shakers

Easton is known for its many fine restaurants that cater to many tastes. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The best place for lunch in Easton is at the Courthouse Cafe, located smack dab inside the courthouse. The food is inexpensive but good, and the dining area is the brightest and most cheerful room in the building. Some people love the soups, but my personal favorite is the french fries, to which I've become addicted. You can catch me there most days. Several times. But sadly, the proprietors of this fine establishment have been subjected to something that should be nonexistent in the seat of our criminal justice system. Crime. This is the story of the missing pepper shakers.

What you see above is one of only two pepper shakers left. Originally, there had been numerous disposable salt and pepper shakers at every table. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pepper shakers began disappearing. The salt shakers were ignored. More pepper shakers were purchased, but they began to vanish, too. Glass pepper shakers like the one you see were purchased, but those also started walking away.

Now when I get french fries, the first thing I do is load it up with hot pepper spices. Then I douse it with black pepper, too. I put pepper on everything. Sandwiches, soup, french fries, cereal, etc. So I began to notice the missing pepper shakers earlier than most.

I spoke to Donna and Joe, who run the Cafe. They confirmed what's been going on. Donna broke down as I interviewed her, and I recommended she visit the crime victim's advocate office.

There was only one thing to do. I have appointed myself Chief Pepper Shaker Investigator. CPSI to you. I also have named several Assistant Pepper Shaker Investigators. APSI to you. They're under cover. I am currently looking for tracking devices to install in several shakers. I have also interrogated several suspects, starting with me.

"Why do you like pepper so much?" I asked me.

"I've got rights, you know," I answered myself.

Left with little choice, I had to get rough with myself. I smacked me around a few times, but I wouldn't crack.

There are other suspects, too.

I waterboarded Steve Barron, but he liked it.

"Can you do that some more? I'm really getting in touch with myself," he pleaded.

You can often see me in a hallway, pretending to make small talk. I'm really looking for clues.

I was doing that last week with a Deputy Sheriff who really is one of my top suspects. A female courthouse employee approached me and asked, "Bernie, May I speak you you privately for a moment?"

"Of course!" I agreed, and moved down the hallway with her, so she could break this case wide open.

"Your zipper's open."

Bethlehem Tp Considers Library Expansion at Coolidge Building

Although there were no formal votes, it appears that Bethlehem Township Commissioners and the Bethlehem Area Public Library are close to an agreement that will make at least some library services available to township residents who are unable to travel to the main library. At their May 21 meeting, John Merhottein floated the idea of a new library location at the Coolidge building, the Township's former municipal center. Merhottein is the Commissioner-appointed trustee of the library, and reported that the library is willing to explore this option.

For years, Commissioners have complained about the annual contribution and have threatened to leave. This year, it is paying $17.55 a person ($416,462). Hanover Township, Fountain Hill and Bethlehem are also library members and pay the same per capita rate.

Merhottein stressed several times that decisions about what library services will be offered are still "fluid." He'd like to see a media center with laptops and a kids' area open for a few days every week. But nothing is set in stone. he also acknowledged that both the library and the township have limited resources.

John Gallagher called it a "wonderful idea," adding it is "fully worthy of our support." Malissa Davis agreed, and suggested possible uses could be as a tutoring site, a place for reading programs or simply a place to pick up books.

The only negativity came from Tom Nolan, who was a library board member for seven years. "It is not to be considered a satellite library," he said at one point, adding that he would oppose any help from the Community Center staff.

Randi Blauth, who has a degree in library science from Kutztown University, is the citizen appointee to the library board. She was also at the meeting and corroborated Merhottein.

In other business, Commissioners voted 4-0 (Mike Hudak was absent) to advertise bids for the next phase in the Housenick Park trail project. Assistant Public Works Director told Commissioners that the latest phase will add 0.4 miles of walking trails. There will also be a 16' high gazebo in the old orchard and a children's sensory garden. The Township has about $500,000 in state and county grant funds for this project.

Monday, May 21, 2018

NorCo Council May Investigate General Purpose Authority

As the governing body of Northampton County, Council has the express authority to conduct investigative hearings. It is very rare, and has only happened once since the Home Rule Charter went into effect in 1978. Council is poised to do so again with respect to the General Purpose Authority (GPA), which Executive Lamont McClure has called a "rogue" authority. Ron Heckman, who chairs the Finance Committee, said his he will start the process at his June meeting with invitations.

War is certainly brewing between Northampton County and its own creation, the General Purpose Authority (GPA). At their April 10 meeting, the GPA voted to hire Philadelphia law firm Conrad and O'Brien as "special counsel" for anticipated litigation against the County.

First established on May 6, 1999, pursuant to the Municipality Authorities Act, the GPA is a seven-person board appointed by the Executive and confirmed by County Council for staggered five-year terms. Though a creation of Northampton County government, it is considered an independent state agency.

Over the years, the GPA has operated under the radar. It traditionally acted as a conduit for both taxable and tax exempt bonds to help finance public and private projects, mostly with hospitals and universities. It also administers the NorCo Loan and Development Fund and the Community Investment Partnership Program Revolving Loan Fund.

The problems began in 2016, when the GPA became the lead agency in a public private partnership plan (P3) to refurbish or replace 33 county-owned bridges at a cost of $38 million, with the work being done by Kriger Construction. Kriger has completed repairs to one bridge thus far, with two more projected for completion by the end of June.

Prior to P3, the County's ability to repair or replace its 119 bridges was hampered by the Transportation Improvement Program, a statewide plan to improve infrastructure, broken down into 12-year and 4-year plans. The County would be lucky to see two bridges repaired over four years This is unsatisfactory because 99 of these bridges needed to be repaired or replaced. Twenty-two are rated "functionally obsolete." Twenty-seven are considered "structurally deficient." Three bridges were closed, and another 37 are weight-restricted.

Aware of the problem, former Executive John Stoffa floated bonds in 2009 and 2013 that would repair or replace 13 bridges. Former Executive John Brown embarked on a more ambitious P3 project that theoretically would make things easier for the County. Thirty-three bridges would be conveyed to the GPA, and the work would be done by Kriger Construction. All the County would have to do is write a check once milestones are reached.

Instead, it has been a headache.

The P3 was sold on the theory that it would create between 1,000-1,800 jobs. But where? According to the Administrative Code, 80% of them should be within a 10-mile radius of the Lehigh Valley. But John Lushis, a former Bethlehem Steel lawyer who now is the contentious solicitor at GPA, has said that the 80%-rule is unconstitutional 

Somewhere along the way, former Executive John Brown decided to use Lushis to research the applicability of P3 to the County jail. Lushis' bills for these services were passed through and approved by the GPA as "special legal services" and were ultimately paid by the County. As a result, his firm has billed and has been paid $813,000 for legal work over the past two years  These "special legal services" appear to run afoul of the Administrative Code

 The County was even billed to copyright agreements drawn up Lushis, with the designated owner as Lushis' law firm instead of the GPA or the county. GPA Chair Shawn Langen, has billed $11,950 for his own services last year  Lushis has submitted a bill this year for $34,000 for his response to three RTK requests (two from me, one from the Morning Call)

Most recently, the GPA canceled its May meeting, at which time the outside auditors financial statements were going to be reviewed. As a result, the County has been unable to release its own financial statements on May 1, as required by the Home Rule Charter.

Former Executive Brown failed to budget for the cost of easements that are needed for the bridgework. This made it necessary for current Executive Lamont McClure to look under the mattress and find the money. McClure noted that only eight of the 33 bridges selected for repair or replacement are actually "structurally deficient."

One of those eight bridges, the Meadows in Lower Saucon Township, was just closed. A recent inspection revealed it is too dangerous to drive. But the way the P3 is structured, the County is unable to do anything. The bridge is owned by the GPA, and was only slated for repairs.

Though the Home Rule Charter does  provide for investigatory hearings, it is probably something that should be done by a Committee of the Whole, as opposed to the Finance Committee. The Charter does provide for the issuance of subpoenas, but how far do they extend? According to the courts, only so far as they relate tp a proper legislative function. It is unclear to me whether subpoena powers extend beyond county employees. Also,since the GPA is an independent state agency, it is unclear whether its officials may be subpoenaed. For this reason, an ordinance is necessary to spell out the proper legislative function concerned.


On Friday, a high school student angry that a 16 year old girl had turned him down decided to vent his rage on everyone. He killed 10 people with a shotgun and revolver. Whether we have guns or not, we've become an ugly and insensitive people.

Former NorCo Council member Mat Benol proved this on Friday night. While they were still gathering up the dead bodies in Texas,  he and his daughter posed for prom pictures. She's holding an assault style rifle while he has the shotgun.

Although this is likely intended as humor, it's incredibly insensitive.

There's a reason why Benol is a former member of Council, but I wish he would run again so I could vote against him.

NorCo Selects Eckert Seamans as Labor Law Firm

On Thursday night, Northampton County Council approved seven contracts. All were vetted the day before at Council's Finance Committee. All were approved 8-0 with the exception of a contract for outside legal counsel in labor and employment matters. That three-year contract with the option for a one-year extension was awarded to Eckert Seamans (370 lawyers). The total to be spent over that time is estimated at $600,000. John Cusick was the sole No vote. He explained that he would prefer a more local firm.

This firm will replace the Flamm Walton Heimbach (nine lawyers), which has offices at three locations, including Allentown. Human Resources Director Elizabeth Kelly said she loves this firm, but that Eckert Seamans has more lawyers in the labor and employment field.

This contract was proposed by Executive Lamont McClure and was the result of competitive negotiation. Twenty-one firms accessed a Request-for-Proposals from the County, after which five firms submitted proposals.

One of my readers was upset that I failed to mention this contract award in my report on Friday. "In other unreported business, a campaign contributor to the County Executive was awarded a huge contract last night," he or she snarked. He or she later added, "OK we know you are a McClure supporter, but last year your blog mentioned that his campaign received a contribution from Ekert Seamans ($2,000?)."

It's true that the Eckert Seamans Government PAC did contribute $2,000 to Lamont McClure's Executive campaign last year. I suppose it's possible that McClure sold out for $2,000, but given what happened in Allentown, highly unlikely. If anything, McClure and then Controller Steve Barron were quite unhappy with Eckert Seamans because that was the law firm hired to facilitate the sale of Gracedale But he went with the firm anyway because it had the best proposal.

All of this makes me wonder who exactly it is that had this complaint. It could be someone genuinely interested in good government, but could also be one of the unsuccessful law firms. Whoever it is, he or she really seems to really dislike me.

Unfortunately, that list is rather long and getting longer.

Your Government in Action!

Blogger's Note: Below is a report from Dr. Stephen Thode, director of the Murray H. Goodman Center for Real Estate Studies at Lehigh University. Though he's in academia, he's a rare conservative. The story below certainly helps explain why.

Last year, the Veterans Administration announced that it would be issuing ID cards to honorably discharged veterans. The ID cards are known as VIC.

For years, many of us have been lobbying for such an ID card as many businesses offer discounts and other considerations to veterans (and not just on Veterans Day!). The need for the card arose from the "proof" many merchants required to determine whether one was a veteran. Commonly, they would ask for a copy of the Form DD-214 (Report of Separation from Active Duty). That document contains all sorts of personal information many veterans (including me) were not willing to share. So, many of us veterans would forgo the discounts and/or other considerations.

The Veterans ID Card contains no such personal information. A photo of mine is attached.

So, the ID program was launched last November and I immediately attempted to apply. I was informed that "due to overwhelming response" the VA was not able to process my application. But, I was advised to request a spot on the "waiting list" (which I did).

Two months later, I received an email saying the VA would now accept my application which I promptly filed. A mere 5 weeks later, the VA "approved" my application. Another 10 weeks passed before I received an email saying my ID card would be sent. 13 days later (last Monday), it arrived in the mail. That's a mere 6 months after I initially attempted to apply.

There are those of us who are skeptical of government. And most of us have good reason. As Americans, we generally detest monopolies. We love competition. Government has no competition so it can give the middle finger to any poor schmuck any time it wants, and that poor schmuck is told, "You'll take it. And, you'll like it."

Name the last low-level government bureaucrat you know who was fired for cause.

Friday, May 18, 2018

NorCo Wants Contractors to Have Apprentice Programs

Northampton County Council voted 7-1 at their May 17 meeting in favor of an ordinance that will require all contractors and subcontractors who perform any county works project valued at $250,000 or more to meet certain basic qualifications, including the establishment of a Class A apprenticeship program.

Matt Dietz was the sole No vote, and Peg Ferraro was absent.

Common in Europe, apprenticeships are becoming popular in the United States. They allow young people in the workforce to learn a trade and make a living wage without being shackled by student debt. Apprenticeships were even touted by Congressional candidate Marty Nothstein during he Republican debate. But Council member Matt Dietz argued that imposing a requirement of a Class A apprenticeship program was unfair and would give union contractors an unfair advantage. He pointed out that Ken Kraft and Bill McGee, who drafted the ordinance, are both union agents.

McGee told Dietz that some nonunion contractors have apprenticeship programs, too, but Dietz was still suspicious. Tara Zrinsky proposed amending the ordinance to require that contractors have either an apprentice program or "its equivalent," but that brought questions of what would be "equivalent." Her proposal failed 4-4, with Kraft, McGee, Lori Vargo Heffner and Ron Heckman voting No.

It was a tough night for Matt Dietz. He was the sole No vote on the Apprenticeship requirement and the sole Yes vote on a proposal to give voters have the final say if and when Northampton County decides to borrow money for a private venture like a baseball stadium, convention center or whatever project the DaVinci Science Center decides on next. For over a year, he has lobbied to give voters this veto power. Lehigh County's electorate approved this change in 2013. But there will be no referendum in Northampton County. Dietz was unable to persuade even one Council member to join him as a co-sponsor. Since the Home Rule Charter requires two sponsors to even introduce an ordinance, his plan failed. ng.

"I have a big problem with this," said Council President Ken Kraft at a Committee hearing the previous day. "We're a representative democracy," he argued, noting that the voters elect Council to make these decisions. Executive Lamont McClure said he understood what Dietz was trying to do and could never see himself voting to incur debt for a private entity. But he added that that option should exist in Council if a heavy hitter like the Yankees or the stock exchange wanted to relocate to the Lehigh Valley.

"I would hate to see that opportunity lost in a low turnout No referendum," he reasoned.

He added he would oppose any debt to bring the Mets here.

In other business, Council learned that Area Agency on Aging Director John Mehler is retiring after 43 years of service to Northampton County. His retirement will become effective on June 7. Zrinski observed that Mehler has been employed by the county longer than she has been alive.

In good news, Council learned from Human Services Director Sue Wandalowski that the state has signed off on 11 new positions for Children, Youth and families, effective July 1. Beefing up that staff has been a top priority for Executive McClure.

Finally, Council heard from drone hobbyist Gus DeArmas. He has enjoyed flying his drone at Louise Moore Park, where there are no power lines.But a park attendant recently informed him that drones are forbidden in the park. He noted that people can fly kites or throw balls in a park, and flying drones responsibly should be permitted.

Matt Dietz, a commercial pilot, began discussing the matter and also said that perhaps it should be permitted for people who receive certificates from the FAA. DeArmas suggested that certain areas could be set aside for drone take offs and landings. No one seemed to know what the park rules require, so Kraft appointed Dietz to head up a newly created drone committee to look into the question and come up with a proposal.

Michael V. Koury Unanimous Choice as NorCo PJ

Hon.Michael V. Koury, Jr. 
Northampton County's Court of Common Pleas has voted unanimously to elect Michael J. Koury, Jr. as President Judge. He will succeed Stephen Barratta, the current President Judge, on June 8.

Baratta will be a tough act to follow. During his tenure, Baratta streamlined court operations to increase efficiency, especially in criminal cases. He has been behind the creation of several problem solving courts that address the ultimate cause of criminal behavior. He supported an expansion of pretrial services designed to keep low-risk offenders out of jail. He also revamped custody cases, appointing prominent Harvard Law grad Lisa Tresslar as a full-time Master who sits down with the parties and serves more as a mediator to resolve disputes. This spares parents and their children the trauma of a courtroom. He has also been an advocate of higher pay for judicial employees.

If Barrata is so good, why is he being replaced? President Judges may only serve for five years in counties like Northampton, and are barred from serving two consecutive terms.

Baratta's successor, Michael Koury, is graduate of Notre Dame High School, Moravian College and Villanova University School of Law, where he served on Law Review because he was in the top 3% of his class.

He was on his way to a lucrative career in a prominent Wall Street firm, when tragedy stuck. His popular father, who served as a Magisterial District Judge in Wilson Borough for 20 years, unexpectedly passed away. He was an amazing man who also operated the cash register at Josie's Deli over the lunch hour. He was also a teacher and basketball coach at Allentown Central Catholic High School.

Koury decided to follow his father's footsteps on the bench and waged a successful write-in campaign to replace him.

Koury was first elected to the Court of Common Pleas in 2009. He lives in Easton with his wife Elaine and their three children.

His mother Josie is the owner and proprietor of Josie's Deli in the Easton circle

He is known for very scholarly legal opinions, and seems to really enjoy the give and take of argument court.

His father would be very proud.

Dennis Pearson Honored For Decades of Service to Allentown

Dennis after recent lecture at Trinity College
Dennis Pearson and I were both exposed to merciless ridicule a few years ago when Morning Call columnist Bill White included us in his modern-day ducking stool known as the Hall of Fame. I was so upset I tried jumping off a bridge. True, it was only three feet high, but it's the thought that counts. Dennis Pearson was equally depressed and has since implored White on several occasions to release him from his agony. Prick that he is, White refuses. It's a life sentence with no parole. Well, the so-called journalist might have to reconsider now. Pearson was honored earlier this week by Mayor Ray O'Connell and City Council with a Proclamation extolling Dennis for decades of service to the community. This is almost as good as a Presidential Pardon. White needs to come to his senses and withdraw his mean-spirited inclusion of Dennis in a club that is meant for real assholes like His Eminence, Ron Angle (bow heads, please) and yours truly. 

As some of you know, Dennis recently wed a very nice lady, and the lovebirds have left Allentown for the Lehighton area. But he was back for the award.

"I only received recognition for my service to the area after I moved from the City," complained Pearson.

"You noticed that!" responded Council Prez Roger MacLean.

Over the years, Pearson has applied numerous times for vacancies in Allentown and Lehigh County. He's also run unsuccessfully for several offices. He's always come up a little short. At times, he's complained about it, too.

He's a man ahead of his times. Shallow people have had a tough time grasping Pearson's sheer intellect.

Allentown and Lehigh County will miss him.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pa.Mid-term Primary is Good News for GOP

Brad Todd is the founding partner of OnMessage, Inc., a Republican advertising and opinion firm. He and Washington Examiner reporter Salena Zito teamed up recently to write "The Great Revolt," an examination of the forces that led to Trump's election. They both were guests on WAMU's 1A yesterday. Todd had an interesting observation about yesterday's Pennsylvania primary. Those of you who consider it a progressive victory in the year of the woman better think again.

Yesterday, 51% of the voters were Democrats. That is actually the lowest Democratic participation of a Pa. mid-term primary in this century. Just four years ago, Democratic participation was 68%. In 2010, it was 55%. In 2006, it was 56%. In 2002, it was 70%. Yesterday, Republican participation was as close to equal as it has ever been.

"I think that sends a signal that Pennsylvania continues to move after the 2016 election," said Zito.

I agree. I also think the shrinking number of Democrats who voted are the more extreme within the party. And she only attracted a plurality (33%) of them. In western Pa., the election of Conor Lamb a few weeks ago was a display of progressive pragmatism over progressive purity. The defeat of John Morganelli in eastern Pa. signals a return to the litmus test.

This virtually ensures that Marty Nothstein, an Olympic gold medal winner, will win in November. Though groups like "Lehigh Valley For All" or "LV Fierce" are very energized, they are elitists, not populists. They have no empathy for and little understanding of blue collar families.