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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Coming Soon: Express Vote XL Demos

When you vote in November, you'll notice a new machine that looks a lot like the one you've been using in NorCo. Believe me, it's a vast improvement over the typical touch screen voting machine. One reason for this is the voter-verifiable paper ballot going directly into a sealed ballot box attached to the right side of the machine. But what I like best about it is that it is so user-friendly, both for the poll worker and voter. You'll be able to see this for yourself because the county intends to demonstrate the system at numerous locations before election day. When the county has some dates and places, I will post them. 

This machine is called the ExpressVote XL. The XL just means it's big, with a 32" inch ... screen.  Size matters, you know. A group of election judges, including myself, and county workers were trained on them yesterday in the cavernous Gracedale warehouse. .

Like the current system, this will also have a privacy curtain so no one can see how you vote. Unlike the current system, this touchscreen  has several features that will assist you in making voting much easier.

The write-in option, which usually stymies most voters, is a snap, as easy as typing your name.

Although it's highly unlikely you'll have any trouble reading a 32" screen, there are built-in features for those who do. Not everyone is perfect like me. You can enlarge the text size, which will take you through each race individually. You can then switch back if you want. If you are suffering from macular degeneration, you might have trouble reading a colored screen. You can change the contrast to black-and-white. And for the first time, I've seen a machine that really goes out of its way to accommodate people who are completely blind or may even be paralyzed from the neck down. Each voting precinct will have a large rectangular box enabling a physically challenged voter to make his or her choices. I was concerned this could slow things down but was told it's amazingly fast.

In most touchscreens, a machine operator will activate the machine. The ExpressVote XL is already active. It becomes operational when you insert the ballot - a blank piece of thermal paper - handed to you by a poll worker.

Can the ballot get stuck or refuse to load? I tried everything yesterday. I crumbled it up and tossed it to a fellow student. He stomped on it. We handed it back to our teacher, sure it would fail. He smiled and ripped it. The ballot still loaded. A vote could still be cast.   

No ballot has been so messed up that it's been rejected, but that's for elections in Jersey and Delaware. We Pennsylvanians are a lot sloppier. 

Once the voter makes his choices, his printed ballot will pop up under a glass screen on the right side of the machine. If satisfied, the voter can cast the ballot, which then goes into the sealed ballot box. If not satisfied, he can quit and the ballot will be ejected and handed to a poll worker as a "spoiled ballot."

You get three tries. Then, like in baseball, you're out. But unlike baseball, you still have the right to cast a provisional ballot.

At the end of the night, when the polls close, the votes will be transferred to an encrypted flash drive. They will also still be on the machine. And the sealed ballot box will be opened and scanned during the canvass process. Any number of scanners have been used, and the paper ballots always match the totals on he flash drive and machine.       

I believe you'll like the new system.   

Bethlehem Service Center To Open Thursday

Mayor Bob Donchez will announce the opening of a new "Bethlehem Service Center" and accompanying App during a Thursday news conference at Town Hall, 3:30 pm.

Cedar Beach Pool Back in Business

From Allentown: Allentown’s Cedar Beach Pool reopened at 3:00 p.m. yesterday.

The pool had been closed since Tuesday, July 9 when a broken water pipe in the pool’s pump house damaged the 25hp main motor. City personnel have installed a replacement motor.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Was Palmer PD Short-Staffed on July 4?

Palmer Township Police have a complement of 34 FT and one PT officer who patrol a municipality of 10.7 sq miles with an estimated population of 21,469. This is in line with the size of police departments with similar populations. But how about July 4, when Penny VanTassel-Himel called to report an"emergency? What I am hearing is that the department was short-staffed. There may have been only two or three officers on duty and no supervisor. I am also hearing that one of the officers prepared an incident report claiming, "Everything was OK." I have filed a RTK to determine if this is in fact true.

In addition, I have also filed a RTK for the 911 call made by Penny. There are some who claim she was gasping at the time she reported the "emergency," which might be an indication she was already injured.

Updated 8:45 am: I originally said that Palmer's police complement is "well above" the size of similarly populated areas. It is actually about the same.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Charter School Refuses To Reveal $3.2M Realtor Comm'n to Jenn Mann

As many of you know, I'm no fan of former State Rep. Jenn Mann. My disenchantment with her began when she used her position as a legislator in struggling Allentown to secure a a $10,000 state DCED grant for The Parkland Trojan Ice Hockey Club. Those students need little state assistance. In the meantime, she did next to nothing for disadvantaged kids in downtown Allentown. But in 2014, she was listed as one of the founders of Allentown's Executive Education Academy Charter School. Was she finally giving back? Unfortunately, no. According to information obtained in response to a Right to Know request, Executive Education has paid her $450,000 since 2014 for unspecified "contracted professional services." I've also been told by several people that she was paid a $3.2 million broker's fee in connection with the purchase of the school building. But the school refuses to release that information, claiming it belongs to the Executive Education Charter School foundation, a separate legal entity.

I've appealed this refusal to the state Office of Open Records.

Of course, Executive Education delayed as long as it could in responding. My request was first filed on June 6, and an answer only came on July 12.

Executive Education recently did the same thing to a Morning Call  reporter who sought construction costs for a recently opened $4 million gym. Never mind that the real source of this funding is Allentown taxpayers. In that case, the Office of Open Records concluded the Foundationp and Charter School are one and the same.

The public has every right to know how its money is being spent.

The Charter School is resisting that right in Lehigh County courts. I expect I'll be there soon enough.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Palmer Tp Murder Suspect Arrested

Palmer Tp Police Dep’t:  On 13 July 2019 (Saturday) around 1:00am Edgar Telesphar Himel (age 80) was taken into custody by the Sterling Police Department in Colorado.  Palmer Police Investigators on 7-12-2019 received investigative information Edgar Himel had stayed at hotels off the Rte. 80 corridor in Nebraska and was travelling westbound.  Law enforcement agencies were notified in Nebraska and Wyoming which included the State Police, Highway Patrol, Sheriff Departments, and local police departments along Rte. 80 for Edgar Himel being wanted for Homicide.   Information was later received by Palmer Police Investigators Edgar Himel was staying at a hotel in Sterling, Colorado off or Rte. 76 on 7-12-2019.  Sterling Police Department, Colorado was contacted and confirmed the vehicle Edgar Himel fled from Palmer Township on 7-4-2019 was parked at the hotel.  Vehicle was the 2019 Nissan Rogue owned by victim Penny S. Vantassel-Himel.  Edgar Himel was taken into custody without incident at the hotel.  

Edgar Himel will be held in Sterling Colorado as a Fugitive from Justice, pending extradition to Pennsylvania, on the charge of Criminal Homicide.

During the investigation Palmer Police Investigators were assisted by the Northampton County Coroner’s Office and First Assistant Terry Houck, Northampton County District Attorney’s Office

Friday, July 12, 2019

NorCo Looking For Old Farts

If you're 100 years old and think you can make it until October 3, Northampton County will buy you and your 26 year-old girlfriend lunch at some undisclosed location in Bethlehem Township. You have to register with Melissa Titus (610-829-4509 or mtitus@northamptoncounty.org) so she can determine you're not some 90 year-old trying to rip off the county. The password is "I smell old people."

Palmer PD's 911 Lapse Very Atypical, Say Cops

Many of you were quite upset by yesterday's story, "Did Palmer PD Fail 911 Call?" Let me preface my remarks by saying they did. Leaving the scene of this call was outrageous and undermines public confidence in our first responders. This lapse needs to be publicly addressed. I spoke to numerous police officers yesterday. To a man, they all agree what happened was atypical. But it's important to remember that it was atypical.

The Palmer Police Department is certainly one of the best in the Lehigh Valley. It is one of just 116 police departments accredited by the Pa. Chiefs of Police Ass'n. Most of the officers are highly regarded. Detective Timothy Ruoff, who is working this homicide, may very well be the best investigator in the Lehigh Valley.

In my business, I search titles for a living. If I make a mistake, and I do, nobody dies. With cops, it's different. They know every time they go on patrol, they are putting their lives on the line. But they are human and make mistakes, too.

After a 911 call from a woman who said there was an emergency and then hung up, two officers responded. At that time, no one knew what that emergency was. It could have been a heart attack, an intruder, a fire, domestic violence or any of an infinite number of possibilities. Failing to make contact with the caller was a serious lapse in judgment, especially since a bald and elderly man could be seen inside the bedroom where the caller's deceased body was found three days later.

To their credit, and knowing that this lapse in judgment would infuriate the public, Palmer Police still made what happened part of the affidavit of probable cause. They made no attempt to cover up what happened. They acted honestly, even though it hurt.

Like most of you, I am disgusted at the failure to bring these officers back to explain more thoroughly what happened. I find the excuses - one on vacation and another injured - unsatisfactory. This is another error. It's too soon to say whether disciplinary action is warranted, but any internal review should include the night supervisor and Chief. That might require some involvement by the Board of Supervisors.

Having said what I did, I need to respond to a comment from one of my readers.

"Remember, the police and 911 will not protect you, it is helpful, but most likely this victim was dead before the police arrived, it seems they screwed up, but the police very seldom are able to stop crime before it happens, mostly just clean up and investigate after the fact. We seem to believe the police can protect us from harm, an illusion."

I completely disagree. I can recite numerous examples of police officers who have saved lives and even delivered babies while responding to emergency calls. No one should hesitate in calling 911 ever.

What happened on July 4 is an aberration. It needs to be addressed, and I am sure that is already happening.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Did Palmer PD Fail 911 Call?

A nationwide manhunt is currently underway for Edgar Himel, 81, who has been charged with homicide for the July 4 slaying of his wife, Penny VanTassel-Himel, at their Palmer Township home. He's also been charged with theft because he took off in her car. Investigators and prosecutors called a news conference yesterday to release a recent photograph of Himel, as well as the 2019 Nissan Rogue he is driving.

He is 5'11," brown eyes, bald and was sporting a handlebar mustache. The Nissan is dark green, registration GHV-0051. He is considered armed and dangerous. Anyone who sees him is requested to call 911.

This story has received extensive coverage, as it should, in The Express Times, Morning Call, WFMZ-TV69 and NBC-10. The top priority for police right now, as DA John Morganelli observed, is bringing Edgar Himel to justice. There is little doubt in my mind that will happen. Detective Timothy Ruoff is regarded one of the Lehigh Valley's top investigators. But Palmer police made his job more difficult by giving Himel a three-day head start. Below you can see some of the questions astonished reporters had when Morganelli revealed that two officers left the scene even though they had seen an elderly and bald man standing motionless in a bedroom, refusing to answer the door.

The 911 call came in at 2:18 am from the victim's cellphone, reporting an emergency at her home and confirming her address in Old Orchard. Two officers responded, which is what police protocol requires. They knocked. They could see an older bald man standing motionless inside the bedroom, refusing to answer. They left without trying to enter the home.

Her deceased body was found, in that bedroom, three days later.

"Those are good questions," Morganelli responded to the numerous inquiries. He said those questions will be answered, but he needs to focus right now on locating Himel.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Controller: NorCo Made Duplicate Payments to Four Vendors

Northampton County made eight duplicate payments to four different vendors during the period between Nov. 1, 2017 and October 31, 2018. This is one of the findings of a recent audit of the county's checks and vendors performed by Lead Auditor Antony Sabino and Controller Richard "Bucky" Szulborski. The total overpayments amount to $4,623.91. They include five overpayments by the Court Administration,
two by the Coroner’s Office, and one by Gracedale. The duplicate payments were returned.

Although the county has software in place to prevent this problem, the Accounting Manager pointed out that many vendors use the same invoice number each month. This produces many false duplicate payment alerts, making it difficult for the Disbursements clerks to identify actual duplicate payments and increasing the risk that duplicates will be paid. Changes are being made to the software to make this less likely.

The Controller also checked for vendors using a blank address or multiple vendors using the same address. No fictional vendors were identified. What was found, however, is three instances in which one or more payments were made to vendors with addresses that matched employee addresses. "We investigated all three and found that valid reasons existed for all of them," said Sabino.

DeGrace DisGraced

Ed DisGrace
Following a summary trial before Magisterial District Judge Ronald S Manescu, Allentown Democratic operative Ed "DisGrace" DeGrace was convicted of summary harassment yesterday over a punch he threw a few weeks ago at a fellow Democrat. He was fined $100 and ordered to pay costs for a total of $301.25. He was represented by Attorney Gavin Holihan.

I was unable to attend the trial but spoke to several people  who were there. From what I understand, Magisterial District Judge Manescu was only interested in the incident itself, even though victim Tom Osborne was prepared to call several witnesses who would say that DeGrace admitted he had struck Osborne.

Osborne testified he was punched by DeGrace, who denied it had happened. Judge Manescu chose t believe Osborne.

Prior to the trial, Osborne stated DeGrace was waiting for him outside the Judge's office and said, "Trust me Osborne, if I hit you, you wouldn't be able to open your mouth."

During the trail, DeGrace had accused Osborne of having made racial comments about him.

Ed "Disgrace" DeGrace is pretty much a wannabe thug who uses threats, intimidation and profanity to silence anyone who dares disagree with him about anything. His antics are well known, and yesterday's hearing was attended by several people he has victimized in the past.

Despite his sordid reputation, Ce-Ce Gerlach was only too happy to use him in her Allentown City Council race, and even complimented him on Facebook. I have also learned  he is a CCD instructor at St. Thomas Aquinas. Doesn't the Catholic Church have enough problems without letting this foul-mouthed thug teach catechism to children?

Wolf Attempts End Run Over Voting Machines

Last year, Governor Tom Wolf decreed that all 67 counties must have voting systems with voter-verifiable paper trails in time for next year's Presidential election. But on July 5, he vetoed a bill that would help them pay for it because it also eliminated straight-party voting. Now he's attempting an end run. With no legislative authority, he's attempting to borrow $90 million through the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority (PEDFA). Good luck with that!

Whether the PEDFA has authority to float bonds for voting machines is highly questionable. Wolf himself suggested that a legislative solution is preferable. "It's a proposal that we can move forward with, I think, and if there's something that the Legislature wants to do that they think is better, again I'm all ears," he told Pittsburgh Action News in an unrelated news conference.

He added that "it's important to show good faith and that's what I'm doing here."

If he were really interested in showing good faith, he would have signed the bill instead of attempting what may be an illegal end run around the state legislature.

In addition to eliminating the straight-party vote, the legislation Wolf vetoed also extended the time for absentee ballots to be received and still counted by local elections offices. Every year, thousands of absentee ballots are rejected because they are not received by the Friday prior to an election.

“Our counties appreciate the governor finding a way forward that recognizes both the county need for funding assistance as well as the broad funding support we had in the General Assembly,” said Kathi Cozzone, president of the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania. “

She should wait until the counties actually see some money before saying thank you.