Thursday, March 23, 2023

DA Candidates' Night: Meet Sgt-At-Arms Mason

 A candidates' night for NorCo DA candidates Terry Houck (incumbent) and Steve Baratta (challenger) will take place Tuesday, March 28, 7 pm at the Oliver Border House (15 Wood St) in Nazareth. I've been hearing things might get a little heated, not from the audience, but the candidates themselves. There's no reason for alarm. 

Mason, a 117-pound black lab has been training since August. In the coldest days of this winter, he was walking and running five miles a day. He also plays tug of war and can pull twice his body weight. He's become an incredibly fit badass. It's true that black labs in general, and Mason in particular, are very mild-mannered. But it's also true they love to eat, and he will be fasting next Tuesday.  

Mason will keep order. 

I've told him lawyers taste like chicken.    

Zrinski Slams Dem Controller Opponent, Nadeem Qayyum

Last week, NorCo Controller candidate Tara Zrinski was telling people to "disrupt" meetings of Nazareth Borough Council and its Municipal Authority, which incidentally would be a crime. Now Zrisnki has accused her Democratic opponent, Nadeem Qayyum, of "lying" about endorsements.  "My opponent has exaggerated his experience and has puffed his resume including lying about endorsements he has received in posts that have now been deleted," she grumbles on her official Facebook page. 

I'll concede Zrinski is an expert when it comes to lying. She was actually sanctioned by a judge for perjury in a custody dispute, Not everyone can boast that achievement. 

Zrinski also accuses Qayyum of claiming endorsements that have never been made. That is just terrible. Why, it's exactly what she did when she falsely claimed to have U.S. Rep. Sue Wild's endorsement in her State Senate race against Nick Miller. ... Which she lost. 

Qayyum does have endorsements from civil rights icon Esther Lee and NorCo Council President Kerry Myers. 

In a parting shot at Qayyum, Zrinski claims she earned her "masters degrees in the classroom." The implication here is that Qayyum's education in Pakistan and through an online course here is substandard.

Here's the truth about Qayyum. He earned two degrees at University of the Punjab before he came to this country. One is a B.A. in the arts. The other is a law degree. He practiced law in Pakistan and was admitted to the Bar. 

After coming to the US, he continued his education by enrolling in an online program at Phoenix University, where he was awarded a M.S. in Criminal Justice. 

Not all of us are able to afford the exorbitant tuitions charged by colleges. Qayyum was already highly educated before he arrived in the US, and took the unusual step of furthering his education here. Zrinski's slur is a classist remark aimed at people of lesser means, many of whom are minorities or refugees. 

This might explain why Qayyum is getting minority endorsements and Zrinski is not. 

Qayyum does have experience with budgets as a restaurant CEO and Dunkin' Donuts GM

I'll agree that, based on his campaign, Nadeem has no understanding of just what a Controller does. But then again, neither does Zrinski. Between those two, he's actually more knowledgeable and educated.  He also would be his own man, while Zrinski would provide no independent oversight. As a Council member, she's been nothing more than a rubber stamp and has failed to act as a check and balance. That's a fatal flaw in a Controller candidate. 

Republican NorCo Council Candidate Challenged in Commonwealth Court

Senior Judge Ed Reibman has ruled that Northampton County Council District One voters will have a choice this Fall.  That district consists of Bethlehem, Hellertown, Lower Saucon and Williams Tp. But Republican Steven R Topp, represented by Bucks County election lawyer Larry Otter, is persisting in his claim that Hellertown Republican William Rowe should be removed from the ballot because of a technical defect in his nominating petition.  He has asked the Commonwealth Court to reverse Judge Reibman

Northampton County elections officials are unable to prepare, print and mail out ballots until this question is resolved.

Ken Kraft is the Democratic candidate. 

William Rowe Appeal by BernieOHare on Scribd

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Pektor Tells Council He Doesn't Really Need a Tax Break in UMBT.

Yesterday, I told you that the Slate Belt is suffering. Nobody builds slate roofs anymore. The garment industry has moved to China, Bangladesh and Viet Nam.  Two County Council members made that very  clear last week. Tom Giovanni said his father-in-law struggles to pay his taxes. John Goffredo describes it as "no stores, no restaurants, no anything." But that weakness might also be that area's strength. There are people who will buy $700,000 homes at Saddle Ridge precisely because there are "no stores, no restaurants, no anything." They like rambling over one lane bridges or watching coyotes dart through their yards and are willing to commute an hour or more one-way for that lifestyle. These are the people who oppose extending a LERTA that will bring industry and jobs to UMBT. They're already angry about increased truck traffic on 611 caused by a highway project in Jersey. They need no jobs, If truth be told, these might very well be the township's majority. Given how controversial this has been, I was a bit surprised last week when developer Lou Pektor got up and told County Council he doesn't really need it. 

Between yesterday and today, I received a copy of the county LERTA ordinance. By its own terms, it ends after five years. So Executive Lamont McClure made no unilateral decision to end it, as I mistakenly suggested yesterday. It ended by its own terms. 

Does it matter?

Pektor told Council, "While we would like to have the LERTA extended, whether it's extended or not, our project will go ahead. It's gonna' make it less competitive, it'll make it harder for us to get manufacturing users versus general warehouse logistics that everyone is so fearful of. "

The reason Pektor believes his project will draw manufacturing because it is right on the PGM grid with a 230 Megawatt agreement. He said that is a major draw for the three companies that are interested. he added that these companies use the rails, not trucks. 

Since Pektor has stated that his project will go forward without a LERTA, why give him one? He hinted that might tempt him to build warehouses, but he's provided no guarantee that he he will mostly go with manufacturing. 

I believe Council could grant a LERTA on the condition that it only applies to manufacturing facilities. And just in case someone wants to get cute and challenge this condition, Council could add  a clause stating that the LERTA  expires automatically if it is challenged. 


Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Suffering Slate Belt

I like to poke fun at Upper Mount Bethel Tp (UMBT) Manager Ed "Santa Claus" Nelson. His main claim to fame is his role as a shopping mall St. Nick during the Yuletide season. He's been a Supervisor, but has no experience or education as a public administrator. I was more than a bit surprised when he was selected as a township manager. I was not surprised at all when he got suspended a week for awarding a no-bid paving contract for something that may or may not have been an emergency. But after listening to him speak to Northampton County Council last week, I understand now why he got the job. He's sincere and truly cares about his township and the slate belt. Many township residents are bitterly opposed to an industrial development in the area. They now want the County to reneg on a 10-year LERTA unanimously approved in 2018, and have raised the specter of yet more warehouses and truck traffic. While I am philosophically opposed to any tax breaks that might permit warehouses, the slate belt is suffering and needs help. Community leaders are convinced that continuing a previously enacted LERTA will help. In fact, they believe it will spawn manufacturing businesses, not warehouses.

Council members like John Goffredo and Tom Giovanni, who actually live in the slate belt, draw a bleak picture. In my opinion the slate belt and Upper Mount Bethel in particular, are the most beautiful areas of Northampton County. Yes, there are old quarries, but there are also beautiful woodlands, farms, rolling hills and mountains. But there's no jobs. According to Goffredo, "The slate belt is an area where there are no stores, no restaurants, no nothing."  Upper Mount Bethel Supervisor Robert Teel described it as a depressed area that never recovered when the garment industry died. Giovanni said that his aging father-in-law lives in Evergreen Village and struggles to pay taxes. He recently learned that Executive Lamont McClure was holding up the LERTA because of his opposition to warehouses. "This has to go through." said the normally laconic Council member. "That northern tier of our county is suffering and we need to help them."

Manager Ed Nelson, who clearly was uncomfortable, gave what at first was a plodding presentation. He noted that, of the township's 28,166 acres, only 4,788 acres pay the full tax rate. The rest of the land is either tax exempt or tax reduced by state lands, county lands, a federal park, churches, cemeteries, railroads, utilities and farmland. The LERTA, which only applies to 3% of UMBT lands in an industrial park a stone's throw from the highway and a bridge into NJ, 

Nelson said that developer RPL is foicused an manufacturing, not warehuse. His assertion was backed by Teel, who has been UMBT's chief negotiator with RPL. Lisa Pekto, speaking for RPL, stated, "We have always worked at making this a manufacturing-focused site." 

Council member John Cusick was dubious. Noting the opposition, he apologized for being "jaded and cynical," but noted that developers always promise manufacturing and then bring in warehouses like Chrin did in Tatamy. Agreeing with Cusick, Council member Tara Zrinski pointed to a LVPC letter warning that RPL will bring high cube warehouses.

Nelson, who frankly admitted to having made mistakes in the past, stressed the importance of an industrial park that will actually create jobs. Instead of plodding, he started to become passionate. He said there's no place for kids who get out of school to get a job and stay in the community. They just leave. He saw that as a security officer at Bangor Area School District for 10 years. He added that he coached 40 years. Now he can't get a volunteer. They all want to be paid because people who do live in community have to commute long distances to their jobs. "It's all I, I, I, I. And it's not from the kids, it's from the older folks." 

Former State Rep. and NorCo Council President Rich Grucela also spoke in support of the LERTA. "We never received any marketing support over the years from the LVEDC (Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation). He said the slate belt lost 3-4 prospects while he was a state rep. because there was no marketing and no sites. He added that the rail inside the industrial development should alleviate should alleviate truck traffic. 

Goffedo said Council members should listen to members who actually live in the slate belt. I agree with him.  A possible $1.6 million annual benefit should help a township whose land is 83% tax exempt or tax reduced. 

The vote on this LERTA, which already passed, will take place in April. 

Appeal Likely in Reibman Ruling Allowing Republican NorCo Council Candidate

Yesterday, I told you that Senior Judge Ed Reibman dismissed a challenge to Hellertown resident Bill Rowe's Republican nomination petition in the Northampton County Council District 1 (Hellertown, Bethlehem, Lower Saucon and Williams) race.  The case was dismissed because there really was no challenger. Steven R Topp, the named petitioner, failed to appear in court or attest in writing that he is a Republican who lives in that district. 

I have been reliably informed that election attorney Larry Otter plans to appeal this dismissal to Commonwealth Court. He argued before Judge Reibman that his own verification should suffice and that Rules of  Civil Procedure are inapplicable in election contests. 

Republican contender Bill Rowe vows that "[t]the one thing I know for certain is that I will not be overworked." He added that if a write-in campaign becomes necessary, "I welcome it. My purpose in life is to serve, even outside of the capacity of county council, and I know that no matter what, I will put in the work that it takes."

Bethlehem resident Ken Kraft's nomination petition as a Democrat was unchallenged. He is the presumptive Democratic nominee.  

REMINDER: DA Candidates' Night on 3/28

Steve Baratta (L) and Terry Houck (R)

This is a reminder that there will be a candidates' night for Northampton County District Attorney candidates Steve Baratta and Terry Houck one week from today. It's on Tuesday, March 28, 7 pm at the Oliver Border House located at 15 Wood Street, Nazareth, Pa. 18064 ( right by Holy Family Church). The public is welcome. 

Both candidates will be given an opportunity to make opening statements and then respond to each other. After they have finished, it will be your turn to ask questions.

At least one of the dailies will be there, so I better shave. 

It should be a doozy. Baratta has sent two campaign mailers so far. His first missive is a very positive piece. His second is a brutal attack saying, "Northampton County's citizens deserve better than an incompetent Terry Houck." 

Houck has yet to respond, but I expect he'll be sending his mailers soon.  

Both candidates are Democrats. Unless there's a write-in campaign on the Republican side, this race will be decided in the primary.

I tried to schedule this night so that candidates could make their pitches before mail-in ballots go out so you can make an informed decision. 

The last to register or change your party registration is May 1. 

Will there be other candidates' nights? 

In the Fall, I plan to schedule candidates' nights for the County Controller and County Council D3 races on separate evenings. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Hellertown's Bill Rowe to Remain on GOP Ballot For NorCo Council District Seat

It looks like voters in Northampton County Council District One will have a choice this Fall. In a one-page ruling, Senior Judge Ed Reibman has dismissed a challenge to Republican Bill Rowe's nomination petition. This paves the way for a contested general election in November between Rowe and Democrat Ken Kraft. 

Northampton County Council District One consists of Bethlehem, Hellertown, Lower Saucon and Williams Tp. 

Rowe's petition was challenged by Republican Steven R Topp, represented by Bucks County election lawyer Larry Otter. When Rowe filed his nomination petition, it included the required Statement of Financial Interests (SFI). But Rowe failed to file a copy of the SFI with the Clerk of County Council. While this might sound like an easily corrected minor technicality, courts have ruled that the statutory requirement is mandatory and have consistently rejected nomination petitions with this error. 

But someone has to complain. That was the problem Judge Reibman had with this challenge. 

Although Attorney Otter verified the complaint, there was no affidavit from Topp himself, asserting that he is a Republican and that he lives in District One. Topp also failed to appear at the hearing scheduled to consider his challenge. 

"Without more, the integrity of such challenges will be compromised and havoc will ensue whereby any person could peel anyone off of the voter registration poll, even without that person's knowledge or consent, and challenge a candidate's nominating petition."   - Judge Reibman

Our Juvenile Justice Crisis

It's very woke these days to talk about racist cops, cash bail and legalizing weed. Our social justice warriors, however, have completely missed a very real crisis happening right under their noses.  It's a serious staffing shortage at juvenile justice centers throughout the state. It has ripped families apart better than King Solomon could ever do. Children are being sent hours away from their families, making treatment more difficult and eroding familial bonds. This is a public safety problem, too. Some children who should be detained are instead allowed to remain at home, and they commit new crimes.  Our juvenile justice system is on the brink, endangering both community safety and county finances.  

In February, Northampton County Council members Kevin Lott and Tara Zrinski double-teamed Court Administrator Jermaine Greene when he requested upgrades for six supervisor positions at the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC).  He wanted them paid at the same level as lieutenants at the jail. An angry Lott called for an operational and even a sustainability study of the facility. Zrinski noted these supervisory positions are nonunion. She also questioned whether there was money for these upgrades, even though Greene had previously said there was. 

Greene, who has endured this passive aggressive behavior from Zrinski and Lott for well over a year, finally called them out and suggested their persistent digs are both personal and "politically motivated."  

Last week, at a Council Committee meeting that both actually attended, they got a detailed explanation of a major crisis at the Juvenile Justice Center caused by a serious staffing shortage of 39-43 youth care workers out of 57 positions.  If this continues, it means that some juvenile offenders who need to be in detention are going to be out on the street, committing more crimes and endangering our community. It also means that juvenile offenders who are detained will be sent hours away from their families. While many of you might say that's just too damn bad, you'll sing a different tune when you learn it costs $700 a day to detain a juvenile at an outside facility. That money comes out of your pocket. 

Greene was joined by Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Matthew Garvey, JCC Director JaMarr Billman and Court Fiscal Administrator Badaoui Boulos.  The bleak picture they painted for Council was one that cries out for immediate attention. . 

Matthew Garvey: The big picture

Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Matthew Garvey said that, in 2005, there were 29 detention centers across the state. Now there are just 17, with 533 beds available. Only 366 are operational because of insufficient staff. The situation is so critical that, last year, the Juvenile Court Judges' Comm'n asked then Governor Tom Wolf to start paying more money to youth care workers. They noted 10 instances of juveniles under "house arrest" who went on to commit new crimes or disappear before their hearing. 

Governor Wolf did nothing. Neither has Governor Josh Shapiro, at least not yet. His proposed budget contains no increases for youth care workers at state facilities. 

This staffing shortage costs counties money. Garvey spoke of a situation in Dauphin County in which juveniles charged with adult crimes are being housed at a private facility at a cost of $700 a day. Greene added that, in some counties, juveniles are being housed at hotels guarded by deputy sheriffs. This is a big drain on limited county resources. There are probation officers now who spend nearly half their working day trying to locate a bed. This takes them away from other, more productive, duties. 

In addition to the financial drain on counties, Garvey indicated that shipping juveniles far from home often makes treatment impossible. A CBS21 (Harrisburg) news report tells the story of Santos Robles, a Lebanon County juvenile offender who was shipped off to Philly and then Pittsburgh. He lost all ties to his family. Juveniles in 76% of Pennsylvania's counties are 1-2 hours away from the nearest available bed. That makes family visits very difficult, especially for those with limited incomes. That trip is 3-4 hours for juveniles in 22% of Pa. counties. "You need to have families engaged in treatment and that is why is is a poor idea to send them across the state for treatment," said Garvey

JaMarr Billman: NorCo's JJC

The JJC is an 84-bed facility budgeted for 57 youth care workers. Right now, only 14 youth care workers are employed, with no new hires in the pipeline despite efforts from Human Resources to get the word out. Since Nov 2022, 8 JJC employees have left and 8 have been hired. Of those who left, they went to other jobs dealing with children and youth, security and police. Three part-time employees have been hired and two are in the hiring process. "It helps us fill that need at night, " said Billman. 

State regulations require one youth care worker for every 6 residents in detention. There are three detention units that can house 12 residents each.  

One staffer is required for every 8 residents in a treatment or specialized program.  There are 12 beds per unit in those programs. 

The facility passed its last inspection in February, with zero complaints about staff from juveniles.  He indicated they "really like the food," too. He said his staff has excelled at de-escalation, making juveniles feel safe and secure/ If they feel that way, he said they are more likely to open up. 

A critical staffing shortage has created a statewide crisis, but Zrinski wanted to know what the JCC does about trans juveniles. 


Detention facilities are co-ed. There are treatment programs for males and females and Billman indicated PREA guidelines are followed for trans juveniles. 

Badaoui Boulos: The financial picture at JCC

Boulos told Council that the County has set aside $9.2 million for the JJC this year. Of that sum, $5.5 million is intended for staff salaries and benefits.  Unfortunately, a whopping $1.35 million is for home services and placement in outside facilities. 

He indicated 13 juveniles are in detention, including two from out of county. In Specialized Treatment, there are 8 residents, including 1 from out of county. The male and female treatment programs have no residents because there is insufficient staff. In fact, supervisors are doing the work of youth care workers.

Revenue from the JCC is projected this year at $5.7 million. There are contracts for bed space with 16 different counties inside the state. The budget optimistically predicts $1.6 million from other counties sending juveniles. 

Bolous was a bit more realistic. "If things stay the way they are, we're probably only going to bring in $600,000 in revenue," he cautioned. 

He indicated that the JJC's best year was 2019, when there was more staff. "We've never been fully staffed, but it's never been anything like this," he said of the vacancies.   

The county currently receives $290 a day to house a juvenile from another county. That will increase to $315 a day on July 1. 

Greene: The Fix is In 

Court Administrator Jermaine Greene minced no words with County Council. "If we don't have this center, it's going to be catastrophic to this county on many different levels," he said. "I've been talking about this for 14 months and we're still here paying people $16.40 an hour to go in our 24/7 facility when they can go to WaWa and make $15 an hour. What are we doing? We have an obligation here, all of us. ... We're gonna' break up these families. ... If you don't help us, you should be ashamed of yourselves.  The courts are being treated differently here, and I don't like it because I think the fix is in on this union thing because we're still waiting for an arbitrator there. ... That's unacceptable to me"  

Greene is understandably exasperated, but the crisis at JJC makes everyone look bad, from the County Exec to Council to the courts to the union. There is no upside for anyone in permitting this crisis to linger. 

The reality here is that the union was offered exactly what the courts requested, and that was to pay youth care workers the same money that is paid to corrections officers. There has been no vote on this issue. Union negotiators have instead declared an impasse because more senior members will see no benefit until the final year of a three-year contract.

According to Executive Lamont McClure, the first arbitrator chosen retired. The bargaining unit requested another list, and the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has so far failed to supply a list. 

Greene also wants a legal opinion from the County Council Solicitor on the feasibility of using American Rescue Plan Act money to pay bonuses to youth care workers since that was done at Gracedale. 

I have several problems with this request. First, Spadoni is the Solicitor to County Council, not the courts. Second, there is very little American Rescue Plan Act money left. Third, no legal opinion is being sought. 


Council member John Goffredo came up with a possible solution. He suggested that Council simply approve new wage classifications for youth care workers at higher salaries and be done with it.  While this is a worthy idea that deserves consideration, my chief concern is that the union or county might consider it an unfair labor practice. It probably would be a good idea to run this by the bargaining unit and county administration.  

Another solution follows the admonition my father often had for his clients. "Sue the bastards!" In this case, the bastard is not McClure, Council or even the union. It is the PLRB, whose delay in getting an arbitration list is borderline criminal. The mere threat of a mandamus action, coming from the courts, should awaken this sleepy state agency. 

Blogger's Note: When people come to Council to make presentations, they should be allowed to finish instead of being interrupted repeatedly with questions. That is simply rude. This is especially annoying because Council members like Zrinski simply refuses to use mikes. 

Zrinski Advises Sludge Foe to Break Law and Disrupt Naz Boro Municipal Authority

Regardless whether he's ever charged with anything, most rational people take a dim view of Donald Trump's January 6 incitement of a mob that resulted in the violent invasion of Congress. More locally, most of us would condemn failed County Exec candidate Steve Lynch for his threat to bring "20 strong men" to forcibly remove Northampton School Directors over a mask mandate. These are right-wing extremists. But we have left-wing extremists, too. One of them, Tara Zrinski, is a member of Northampton County Council. Last week, she actually advised a citizen to disrupt meetings of Nazareth Borough Municipal Authority.  

Here's exactly what she said to Megan Uliana, who was complaining about an unresponsive Nazareth Borough Municipal Authority. "Pack the room. Force them to talk to you. and if they won't, disrupt. Honestly! Let them kick you out again and again, and I honestly wish I could go there."  

Under Pennsylvania law, "A person commits a misdemeanor of the third degree if, with intent to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession or gathering, he disturbs or interrupts it."

As valid as Uliana's complaints might be, that is no excuse for disrupting a public meeting. It was extremely irresponsible for Zrinski to make this suggestion, especially since she herself would suffer no consequences. 

What's bothering Uliana?  At numerous times over the past year, Plainfield Tp resident Millie Beahn has been before Northampton County Council to complain about Nazareth shit. Contrary to what many of us who live here may think, our shit does stink. What bothers Beahn and other Plainfield Tp residents like Uliana is that we're spreading it there.  

In November 2021, Nazareth Borough Municipal Authority bought an 80-plus acre preserved farm in Plainfield Tp for $850,000. It's using it to spread sludge from its waste treatment plant.  "Let's be real," said Uliana.. "These guys don't care about farming. They could care less [sic] whether a farmer has a good yield or not so long as they have someone to spread the sludge and farm the land. ... What are we going to do when our preserved farms are literally covered in crap?" 

According to Uliana and Beahn, this sludge is a health hazard. I'd like to see something called  proof. Scientific proof. Not some peroration by Zrinski or Beahn.  On top of that, why do they always come to Northampton County Council, which has no power to do anything?. It's pretty clear to me that Zrinski encourages them behind the scenes even though she knows this has nothing to do with county government. 

Nazareth Borough Municipal Authority is an independent state agency. Neither Northampton County nor Nazareth Borough can force this Authority to do anything. 

The best advice Uliana received came from Council member John Cusick. Instead of packing the room at the municipal authority, go to Nazareth borough council because borough council appoints the members of the municipal authority. "What you have to do is you have to get involved in the election in the Borough of Nazareth and shame them. Support candidates who will appoint members to this board who can change that and stop this practice. "

Uliana could ask Nazareth residents like myself to hold borough council accountable, which I've done a few times now that I think about it. I've even sued them over the Sunshine Act and actually won. 

I have reached out to a member of borough council and will have more to say after speaking to him. It might be refreshing to hear the other side of the story.

That is preferable to breaking the law, as Zrinski suggested.  

How Should $3.2 Billion in Federal Transportation Funding Be Spent Over the Next 25 Years?

Becky Bradley, who heads both the Lehigh Valley Planning Comm'n (LVPC) and Lehigh Valley Transportation Study (LVTS) was at Northampton County Council last week to discuss the latest long-range transportation plan investments for the Lehigh Valley. Every four years, the federal government requires LVTS to update its 25-year transportation plan. Funding has increased from $2.4 billion over 25 years to $3.6 billion over 25 years. investments in the Lehigh Valley. 

LVTS is meeting with all 62 local governments. Some local governments lack the resources to put forward projects that they may really need while municipalities with a lot of resources can put in 12 requests and pay third parties to put them together. So Bradley is reaching out to everyone. 

Congress funds 80-100% of transportation. It's usually a 80/20 match, with the state picking up 20%. 

Bradley indicated that LVTS is he only study in state that asks the community what their priorities are. 

She indicated there is also an online survey in which you can make state your own priorities. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

LVPC Moving to Allentown Waterfront

At last night's meeting of Northampton County Council, Executive Lamont McClure reported that the Lehigh Valley Planning Comm'n (LVPC) plans to move from its current location at 961 Marcon Blvd in Allentown to The Waterfront along the Lehigh River. That's a Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) project being developed by Jaindl Properties. 

The NIZ is a special taxing district in Allentown under which a developer may use state and local taxes to subsidize development. 

McClure stated the vote was 7-5 over his "strenuous objection." He indicated that several members of the Northampton County contingent of LVPC "do not wish to travel to downtown Allentown for their Comm'n meetings. It's going to be a major inconvenience."

He argued that regional entities should try to be located as near the geographic center of the Lehigh Valley and that the Marcon Blvd location fits that bill.  

McClure noted "the new lease will be a triple net lease. This is a [quasi] government. Government should not be paying triple net leases. ... The total cost of the lease will be $120,000 more annually than what they currently pay."

According to the Exec, LVPC could sign a five-year lease extension at Marcon Blvd for $600,000 total. 

He reported that LVPC claims it needs $2 million in renovations at Marcon Blvd. "I don't necessarily agree with that number. There may be some renovations that are needed. It could be done over time."

He argued that spending public money just to move to a "cool location" is "the quintessence of bad government." 

Northampton County would have to pay 40-50% of this $600,000 "above and beyond what we pay now for no good reason other than to be in a cool location.

McClure said he will propose a reduction in the annual allocation to LVPC.

The relocation is strongly supporty by Lehigh County. 

Council member Kevin Lott saisd he sat on LVPC and recalls that "less than 10 year ago, we remodeled that building [the current location]. I don't know how you spend that kind of money remodeling it again."  

In response to a question from Council member Lori Vargo Heffner, McClure stated that he's investigating the idea of forming a Northampton County Planning Comm'n. 

(I'll have more about NorCo Council on Monday. I was drafted to call Bingo last night. Yes, I'm old) 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Can Nomination Challenge Win When Objector Fails to Appear or Sign Verification?

Things looked pretty bleak for Hellertown's Bill Rowe yesterday morning. He oreviously submitted a nomination petition, as a Republican, in Bethlehem area County Council District 1. He was careful to get more than the 250 signatures he needed. He made sure to attach a copy of his Statement of Financial Interests (SFI) to his petition. But he made one rookie mistake. He failed to file a copy of that SFI with the Clerk of County Council as well. This might seem like harmless error, but courts have routinely sustained challenges on that basis because the statute leaves no wiggle room. It is mandatory, not merely precatory. So when Republican Steven R Topp objected to Rowe's nomination petition, it seemed like a slam dunk. Topp was represented by Bucks County election lawyer Larry Otter, who had every right to feel confident going into yesterday's hearing before Senior Judge Ed Reibman. 

The problem with raising a technical defect as a fatal error is that it invites increased scrutiny by the courts. They'd really prefer to see elections decided by voters, not them. So if you give a judge a plausible reason to find a technical defect in the objecting petition that complains about a technical defect, he can and often will dismiss a challenge. Bethlehem lawyer Vic Scomillio, who represented Rowe, gave Judge Reibman  the ammo he needed to reject the challenge in a hearing yesterday. Scomillio'ss something of an election law expert himself, and has won challenges in several cases over the past few years.  

When you file a petition or complaint with the court, it must include something known as a "verification." This is an averment by the petitioner that the facts recited are, to the best of his knowledge, accurate. 

The petition challenging Rowe did contain a verification, but it was signed by Otter, not the complaining party. Moreover, Topp never showed up for the hearing, and Scomillio jumped on this. He argued that the court should refuse to entertain a nomination challenge when the challenger himself fails to show up or even attest to the challenge. 

Otter insisted it has been common practice for him to sign verifications himself over the past 25 years, even in the Commonwealth Court. But Judge Reibman cautioned that it's an "invitation for mischief" in these "hyper partisan times." 

Judge Reibman agreed that Rowe's failure to file a copy of his SFI with County Council is a "major  defect." "You don't throw these challenges out lightly, but having said that, we don't have a petitioner." 

Otter cited some cases for Judge Reibman to consider, and he will do so before he enters an Order. 

If I were a betting man, I'd bet that Rowe will remain on the ballot as the Republican nominee. 

Rowe's family at one time owned and operated Bechtold Orchards in Hellertown. Members of his family also owned and operated Rowe Cycle Service in Bethlehem. 

The Democratic nominee is Ken Kraft. He used to represent Bethlehem on County Council, but resigned in the middle of his term to work for Executive Lamont McClure at the jail. Now he wants to return to the same elected office from which he resigned.  I think it's highly unlikely that he'd be a check on a County Executive who hired him as a political appointee. But it's also highly unlikely he'd lose a race in a heavily Democratic district. 

NorCo Council Prez Kerry Myers Will Be Off Ballot in Re-Election Bid

Kelly Keegan, Myers' opponent,
braved the dark and cold to get
her signatures. 
It could have been worse. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March. Northampton County Council President Kerry Myers got off a lot easier. Senior Judge Ed Reibman thanked Myers for his "demeanor and honesty. " He then indicated that he'll be sustaining objections to Myers' nomination petition for re-election to County Council. 

Myers, Northampton County's first ever African American Council President, submitted a nomination petition for County Council on March 7. Under state law, 250 registered Democrats from his council district are required to endorse that petition. Myers submitted a nomination petition with 310 signatures. Many appeared questionable on their face.  They included voters from Bethlehem, Nazareth and Allentown. These are all outside Myers' Easton area district.

Objections to Myers' nomination petition were filed by Forks Tp Democrats Ed Keegan, husband of Myers' primary opponent Kelly Keegan, as well as Laurie Jackson. They were represented by Bucks County election lawyer Larry Otter at a hearing conducted yesterday morning by Judge Reibman. They both sat quietly in the back of the courtroom, or at least tried. Laurie Jackson's cellphone kept going off, which always happens to people at the most inopportune times. When it does, the phone is always buried somewhere impossible to find. Eventually, a Deputy Sheriff asked her to leave and stay out until her phone was turned off. When she returned a few minutes later, my phone went off. I pointed at poor Laurie.

She'll be home in 5 to 10. 

Otter characterized the matter as a "garden variety election petition challenge," although it's pretty rare to see a local nomination petition signed by so many people who are completely unqualified. It's rarer still when the proposed nominee is the President of County Council. Otter methodically began going through the petition, signature by signature, with Northampton County Elections Registrar Christopher Commini. 

Myers, dressed in his Suburban Ambulance regalia, represented himself, and had no trouble interjecting himself whenever he felt like it. 

Commini went through signature after signature of voters who were either not registered at all or who were registered as Republicans or independents. He also flagged numerous signatures from voters who simply are outside Myers' district. 

Myers was simply forced to concede they were invalid. He explained at one point that he was circulating in [Shiloh Baptist] church on a Sunday morning and "had five petitions going at one time."  By his own admission, Myers was using a church for political purposes. 

God probably took a dim view of this. 

Once the number of clearly invalid signature hit 71, Myers admitted defeat. "I went out and did the best I could," he lamented. "If this is the game they want to play, I'm all in."

Actually, he appears to be all out.  

He later said, "I'm 69 years old and have been serving the people since I'm 18."

According to a Morning Call account, Myers placed the blame on the county administration and vowed to "raise a little hell" in his remaining months on Council. 

In his four years on County Council, Myers has already done that. He has debased both himself and his office by his regular use of foul language during meetings. He undermined the authority of the Sheriff when he publicly stated that, if he were a Deputy, he'd refuse to follow orders because it might endanger his life. He threatened Council members when they declined to vote for a proposed Elections Commissioner who happened to be black, but also happened to be working for a candidate seeking re-election. 

After the hearing was over, Myers marched down to the elections office to demand to know who looked at his nomination petition. 

The elections office does not maintain those kinds of records, but I was one of them. 

I'll just stay away from Suburban EMS. 

Judge Reibman said he will enter an order sustaining the challenge, but as of the time this story posted, no order had made its way to the docket. 

Myers can still wage a write-in campaign, but a guy who was unable to get 250 signatures on a nomination  petition has no prayer winning a write-in vote.   

NorCo's Juvenile Justice Center Staff Shortage Hits 14th Month

Yesterday, Northampton County Council discussed a serious staff shortage at its Juvenile Justice Center. The pay for a youth care worker is just $16.46, which has led to an exodus. This in turn makes the facility unable to fill its 84 beds or accept juveniles from 17 other counties. It also means that some juveniles are being housed at local hotels, guarded by deputy sheriffs. So there's a serious problem. 

Unfortunately, I'm unable to report in detail on this meeting. I've been unable to view it in its entirety because of other commitments today. I will have a detailed report on Friday, or Monday But I want to address some statements made yesterday by Court Administrator Jermaine Greene. 

He's frustrated, and understandably so, because he has been waiting 14 months for the union and county administration to come to terms on a new contract. The county has offered precisely what the courts have requested, which would give youth care workers the same salary as a corrections officer. But that offer has been rejected and Greene believes the fix is in. He is especially irritated that no arbitrator has been selected to resolve the matter. 

Here's what I learned from Jim Irwin, an AFSCME union agent. 

The rank-and-file workers never voted on a contract. 

The proposed contract has been rejected by union negotiators and they have declared an impasse.  

The reason for the rejection is that about six workers who have seniority will see no benefit until the last year of the contract. They want it now. 

The amount in question is a pittance. 

The county could simply front end whatever benefit is intended for senior workers and there would be a contract. 

The county refuses.

It appears to me that both sides are being stubborn.  

What I find especially annoying is that Council members ask questions before they are presented with the facts. They should allow a presenter to do so and then ask questions. And when they do ask questions, Tara Zrinski should use her microphone. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

NorCo Home Rule Charter Bans Gifts, But Admin Code Allows Them

Believe it or not, there are times when good government and good politics coincide. This would be so if Northampton County Council adopted a gift ban. One is needed badly. 

Some of us, like the late NorCo Executive John Stoffa had a deep sense of personal integrity. He once refused a bag of pretzels from someone who wanted money from the County. He refused to accept a parking spot set aside for the Executive, choosing instead to trudge up the hill to the courthouse until his hip gave out. In Bethlehem, former City Council Clerk Cindy Biedenkopf refused a gift of tickets to some event she wanted to see, choosing instead to write out a check. Vic Mazziotti would tell NorCo vendors who wanted to buy him lunch that they could, but they would never do business in the County. NorCo Administrator Charles Dertinger refuses offers of Phantoms' tickets, choosing instead to buy them on Stubhub.  Some people in government do the right thing without others having to tell them. But there are also those who have their hands out, grabbing tickets to shows and games. It's been going on as long as there's been government.

Back in 2011, I tagged then Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and State Rep. Jenn Mann for a trip to The Super Bowl. The day after that game, over 30 members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly were absent. Pennsylvania politicians were by no means the only persons who were getting face value tickets so they could avoid having to report a gift. It happens everywhere, in all levels of government. 

Does this means these politicians have sold out? No. But it certainly looks that way. It's bad optics. Common Cause's Jay Keck then noted, "The real problem in my mind is one of perception. ... Public officials get preferential treatment by being offered these tickets ahead of the rest of the public. ... It creates real cynicism on the part of a lot of citizens about public officials and, frankly, I think public officials, to their detriment, accept things like this and don't think twice about the effect it's going to have on public morale."

That perception exists locally. In a post about yet another handout to ArtsQuest, I wondered whether elected officials get preferential treatment. A reader responded, "Of course elected officials receive tickets to premium ArtsQuest events. They are not always received directly from ArtsQuest, however. Blue Cross, LVHN and other organizations often purchase them in bulk and distribute them to elected officials and other dignitaries. At Musikfest this year, I encourage everyone to take a closer look at the VIP section of every headliner event. You are likely to recognize some of the faces." 

In another story advocating a gift ban in Northampton County, a retired government worker had this insight: "Having worked in local government I can say that the amount of people accepting gifts is staggering. Tickets to sporting events (a big one), lunches, dinners, other gratuities were all something that I politely declined. We shouldn't need a gift ban to know the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately there is no shortage of people willing to take something for free when offered. This includes both elected officials and appointed staff members."

One example of this is Northampton County Council member Tara Zrinski, who is now running for Controller. On her public official Facebook page (in which has blocked me), she has twice thanked ArtsQuest for "hosting" her. On August 10, she published a Facebook post that includes pictures of her with ArtsQuest CEO Kassie Hilgert and at a concert. "Musikfest was awesome tonight," she effuses.  "What a great view. Thank you ArtsQuest and Kassie Hilgert for hosting us."

Hilgert responds, "Thank YOU for all of the support!"

Since Zrinski is a reliable Yes vote to ArtsQuest requests for county funding, this is very poor optics. As I understand, VIP tickets at Musikfest can be expensive. I have no problem with Hilgert doing what she needs to do to secure funding, but have a big problem with Zrinski for certainly creating the impression that she's for sale. 

Not a good look for someone who'd like to be the Controller. 

To be fair, I emailed Zrinski (at two different email addresses) on Friday to ask her for an explanation. I also asked her whether she accepts free meals and tickets to different events. 

As of last night, no response. 

Her silence is amazing, especially from someone who pledged "accountability" as Controller. 

Like Bethlehem, Northampton County really needs a gift ban ordinance. 

There is a gift bam  in the County Constitution, our Home Rule Charter. "No elected official, officer or employee shall receive benefit from the profits or emoluments of any contract, job, work or service for the County or accept anything of value, upon terms for favorable than those granted to the public generally, from any person dealing with the County.  No elected official, officer or employee shall solicit or receive anything of value from anyone dealing with the County. This subsection shall not be construed to prevent elected officials, officers or employees from accepting group discounts, group insurance or other economic advantages offered to all elected officials, officers and  employees."

It bans elected officials from receiving anything of value from anyone dealing with the County. 

But get this. The Administrative Code, in violation of the Home Rule Charter, actually allows officials to be wined, dined and accept SuperBowl tickets.  This deviation from our county constitution is illegal and needs to be addressed. 

This is both good government and good politics.