Friday, December 05, 2008

Morning Call Sends Stringer To Allentown's Budget Hearing

Prior to Wednesday night's adoption of Allentown's $80 million budget, city council member Michael Donovan published a series of thoughtful and very informative blogs at Inclusion. He then proposed a number of budget amendments, designed to increase the number of police officers in a crime-ridden city. They were shot down. Michael also posted a recap that details some serious concerns over transparency with a regal mayor who clearly regards council as little more than his personal rubber stamp. What's even more disturbing is that The Morning Call seems to agree.


For Wednesday's important budget hearing, The Morning Call sent a stringer. Hello? You'd think that when the Lehigh Valley's largest city adopts or rejects its budget, a newspaper would pay a real reporter to cover the event. This is an inexcusable insult to those who rely on the paper for news and, in my view, is why less people are reading. It also insults the professionalism of its full-time staff. I learned more from a single paragraph on Channel 69's webpage than in the freelancer's account. Rather than report any of Donovan's motions or the concerns of other council members doing the spade work, she fawned over King Edwin. Maybe she thinks city council is a rubber stamp, too.

Kim, a regular at Scott Armstrong's Allentown Commentator, attended Wednesday night's meeting. She's no reporter. Not even a freelancer. But her account, though unpolished, tells a story.

I don't know how many were aware that there was discussion about increasing the water and sewer rates this year. It was advised by our controller, Mike Hoffman, that a 13.6% increase would be recommended to be prepared for a depleting water/ sewer fund. While I realize that we, as taxpayers, could not depend upon our water/sewer fund balance to last indefinitely, I was always happy to have a nice cushion. I couldn't help but ask myself how the water/sewer fund got so low so quickly. I know we lost accounts, but still it seemed odd to me. I asked these questions last night of the council - surprisingly no one on council knew. My first question was - This year we initiated a new fund called the National Security Fund which allowed us to transfer funds - (forgive me I don't remember the amount - maybe a million) out of the Water/Sewer fund and put it into this new National Security Fund for primary use to the Police and Fire Department. I asked what the use of that money was. Was there increased or concentrated patrol or security of our plant? Basically what were we getting for that money being taken from the water/sewer? No one knew or no one really cared. I don't know which.

My second question was - Back under Afflerbach we transferred money from the water/sewer fund to pay for health insurance benefits and some payroll. We did it not once but two or three times over a period of some months. This money was to be a loan to the general fund. It was to be paid off in a predetermined amount of time. Michael D'Amore, President of Council, referred my question to the Administration where Mr Pawlowski replied, "I have no idea what she is talking about!" Which I presumed was to make me appear as if I had three heads and was talking in tongues. Mr Hilliard, our finance director, then interjected yes they have been paid down quite some time ago. Okay, story over.

Then Mr. Hershman, past councilman and city controller, got up to speak and said that that 1.3 million has never been paid back. Now, I have little problem with needing to make concessions when departments are in need but I do have a problem with even the discussion of increasing fees when the council nor the administration seems equipped to manage the monies that are there. I don't blame the water/sewer department. I think they do an excellent job. I blame the administration for funneling the money from fund to fund and I blame Council for not keeping a more watchful eye on our money.

The water/sewer fund budget passed. The water/sewer rate passed without an increase... for now. But, I would hope that our council, which is generally "New" would pursue looking at the account fund balances on a regular basis - perhaps monthly. I honestly don't know that they do. If I were them I would request those sheets.


What puzzles me is how willing people are to pay more money. To keep throwing good money after bad over and over again while always thinking government knows best how to spend our hard earned dollars. It would do us all a great service if we starting demanding accountability from our governments.

Update: Michael Donovan, on his blog Inclusion, has already provided an answer to Kim's concern. "Nothing that I have seen so far suggests that there is an outstanding payment. However, I will pursue some additional avenues of information to see what else I can learn."
Update #2: I have been reliably informed that my take on the MC coverage is irresponsible because I did not take the time to check things out. The reporter normally assigned to cover the meeting had an unexpected emergency and his back-up was assigned elsewhere, I'm told. But this explanation just proves my point. As a result of deep staffing cuts, this Allentown newspaper was unable to send a full-time reporter to cover an extremely important budget meeting of the Lehigh Valley's largest city. My criticism is not directed at the reporters, but at the managers of a paper who has stripped it of its most valuable asset - journalists.

47 comments:

Blah Society said...

Bernie,

There's nothing wrong with sending a stringer to cover anything. Their reports are usually very good because they need to impress in order to receive more reporting opportunities.

In the end, the editors have final say on what gets published. Sometimes, many details are not included. Other times, they are. Being a stringer doesn't mean you always get to write about what you want as many people assume. Just like full-time reporters, they're told.

To assume that a stringer is not a "real reporter" is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Good morning,

I'm going to answer the question about water/sewer fund transfers on my own blog with a brief entry, and then provide a more extensive analysis after researching some additional information.

Best regards,

Michael Donovan

Anonymous said...

in the interest of disclosure, you should know that Kim is not a disinterested person. She ran for city council in 2005 on the R ticket and lost. She's not a bad person, but she does political stake in her commentary.

Anonymous said...

Bernie,

Why would one compromise their own credibility to support the unprofessional standards of the “Morning Call”? Allentown is the state’s third largest municipality; it has for the past eight years a record of complex and questionable fiscal mismanagement. Keeping all this in mind would not one question any paper’s decision to send an uninformed stringer to any troubled municipality’s final budget vote? Of course they would.
The “Morning Call” has done a disservice to Allentown’s residents and its own subscribers by routinely changing its Allentown city reporters. This beat swapping has kept reporting on city issues at a superficial level. What is the “Call’s” justification for this? Many argue that responsible parties at the paper don’t want to truth to be reported. If residents/subscribers knew the real story they(publisher, editors) themselves would be tarnished by their past and continued support for flawed administrations and policies.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

Wow! It’s already time to smear Kim. Since she cares enough about the city to attend every council meeting for over eight or ten years, buys her own budget books, runs a community organization in a bad part of the downtown, and once tried for a seat on city council at the urging of concerned neighbors and acquaintances one must suspect her motives. Isn’t this exactly what Mr. Anonymous writes?
This is so Allentown and one of the main reasons so few people bother to publicly point out what is wrong with city hall. Can this smearing possibly be a recipe for good government? Of course not and one can note that Allentown’s recent rapid decline parallels the use of this tactic to silence/impugn dissenting voices.

Scott Armstrong

Bernie O'Hare said...

AJ,

Although freelance reporters are reporters, too, they often are inexperienced. A city council's most important decision is the budget. Allentown is the LV's largest city. The MC has a very good beat reporter assigned to city hall. It has other very good reporters who covered city hall over the last few years. If their regular is on vacation or unable to make it, it could easily send one of the full-time reporters on its staff. I really think it is insulting to readers and to its full time staff to send a stringer to such an inportant meeting. It's telling both they really don't matter.

I have nothing against sending a freelancer to cover committee meetings, but not this. I really did learn more in one paragraph from Channel 69, at which the print media usually sneers

Bernie O'Hare said...

Kim is obviousalt interested in ehat she wrote about. I think that affects her objectivity, but it also makes her more interesting, which is more than I can say for the stringer's account.

Her account makes city council sound as though it was really little more than the mayor's rubber stamp. From Donovan's blog accounts alone, I know that is untrue.

Anonymous said...

Scott, you need to chill out a bit. Kim is a very good person and needs to be recognized as a civic leader that we could use more of. But it is worth noting that when she offers her commentary, it comes with a degree of bias.

Bias or not, we need more civic leaders like her. Just don't take it so personally when somebody points out that one of your political allies has a political interest in something.

Practice deep breathing man.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm not 100% on the facts. I'm postulating that the City & Water funds that some have accused of being transferred to general funds (a possible illegality) where not actually "transferred". If indeed this what has happened and I'm not saying it did, since the source of accusation was made by others elsewhere.

Again I'm postulating here, but I suspect these monies (if actually exists) were legally termed as 'Loans' to the General Funds with the intentions of the 'borrowed' money to be paid back... wink, nod, razzle, dazzle.

Which would make it as Kosher as our Social Security fund is.

Anonymous said...

Hello Bernie,

I thank you for publishing my post from the Commentator. Alot often happens at City Hall and I think it warrants more review by everyone; especially residents / taxpayers of Allentown.

To make everyone aware, yes, I have run for City Council in 2005. I did that after attending and participating in this city council forum for well over 9 years before I decided to put my hat in the race. Isn't the old adage, put up or shut up? I decided I would put my money where my mouth is. I thought perhaps by attending all those meetings and by meeting with lots of other neighborhood people, I would do well in serving them. I sure hope that being a "candidate" isn't a misnomer for being a concerned citizen. I think and wish more people would take leadership roles throughout our city. So many are afraid to do so. I will make it known here, right now, I don't know if I will be running for another run on Council. I have no interest in running for anything else but that. I care about Allentown. I care about the people that live here. I have a mother I care for that has Alzheimers. I must balance all these things before I make any decisions. But I assure you all I will continue to be watchful and vigilante - everyone should be. Government belongs to its people. We shouldn't belong to our government.

Thanks for the indulgence,
Kim Beitler

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thank you very much, Kim, not just for your comment, but your interest.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Mr. O'Hare:

May I make one clarification. The amendments that I proposed on Wednesday included several non-police items. Each of those were not approved. However, my amendment for new police so closely paralleled Ms. Eichenwald's that I deferred to hers, and as we know, that amendment passed.

Oh... the neighborhood grant program amendment was withdrawn, but council felt that developing policy that helps neighborhood groups should be considered soon.

Thank you.

Michael Donovan

Bernie O'Hare said...

Michael,

I want to thank you for all the blogs you published concerning A-town's budget, your recap, and for your answer to Kim's concerns. I really appreciate elected officials who take the time to explain things, even if what they say is not what I want to hear. It demonstrates transparency and accountability. I have to tell you i am really impressed by you when it comes to your attempt to open the doors of city government.

Second, as far as the clarifications go, I appreciate them, too, but wish I had read about them in a news account that actually covered what had happened, including the obvious tension between some members of council and the mayor over council's perceived role.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

There is no time to “chill out” over what passes for normal in Allentown. You can relax behind your anonymity from perhaps some safe location outside of Allentown’s downtown but I can’t, nor can my wife and kids who are living with the results of eight years of consecutive mismanagement.
If I write from a passionate perspective it is because the city I thought had a real future and unlimited potential is now controlled and compromised by neophytes, political opportunists, incompetents, and patronage players.
Shall any of us who have witnessed this ongoing calamity be anything less than alarmed by what continues to transpire?

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

"There is no time to “chill out” over what passes for normal in Allentown. You can relax behind your anonymity from perhaps some safe location outside of Allentown’s downtown but I can’t, nor can my wife and kids who are living with the results of eight years of consecutive mismanagement"

Hey scott, you are wound way to tight. I live in the downtown. Had police activity on my block each night this week. Save your preaching for somebody else.

Drama isn't what we need, but it's something you seem to gravitate towards. We need civic organizing action that holds gov't accountable. My comment about "chillin out" was to your overzealous reaction to the disclosure that Kim has political interests. Kim came around to acknowledge such. It's appreciated.

Take all comments with a grain of salt is a good mantra to have. Everybody has a reason to make the truth benefit them. Some are less noble than others. It would be nice if more people would explain how it benefits them rather than acting otherwise.

Anonymous said...

"neophytes, political opportunists, incompetents, and patronage players."

Would you like to give some specifics?

Anonymous said...

Kim Beitler is a very well informed, bright and experienced grassroots leader in Allentown. Too bad she happened to have the letter "R" in front of her name and as a result does not serve the residents of Allentown in a formal capacity on City Council. It's a shame, we sure could use someone with her ability on City Council.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1130am x3 - The tool is back.

Anonymous said...

When I first swa the title of this rticle on the Moring Call Bloggers link, I thought it said Morning Call set "Strippers" to the meeting.
I bet that would help interest!
I'd be there with my stack of GWs! Wonder where they would put the Pole?!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

On the internet one can write as they please with complete anonymity but keep in mind that the statements, judgments, and/or claims of those who withhold their names lack credibility.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

Scott, I've said nothing of judgement or made any claim other than a statement of fact: Kim ran for city council.

You got all huffy. I will give a parting thought though: I've learned a lot about you and now I wonder why it is so far fetched for people who share your concern for the city don't take you seriously.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

Again you post without a name, again you and your written statements lack credibility.


Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

I think anon 1:27 comes off as extremely credible, and correct.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Troll Warning

TrollVilla has been posting here anonymously, mostly to take shots at me. He is the person who one anonymous commenter refers to as "tool."

Just ignore his comments. I will delete them, as I have done all day.

Anonymous said...

This sort of dialogue is pointless and discouraging. It does however illustrate my point that personal insult and impugning are the motis operandi of those who control the city.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

"I think and wish more people would take leadership roles throughout our city. So many are afraid to do so."

I would, personally, like to shake Ms. Kim Beitler's hand. It's great to see that she sees the need for more leadership roles in A-town and is not just speaking or blogging about it, but actually taking an ACTIVE role. Kudos to Kim and thank-you for keepin' it moving, no matter what many may say..

Alfonso Todd

Anonymous said...

At least Allentown got a stringer. The Morning Call doesn't send anyone to budget meetings in Bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

Bernie
I was at the meeting on Wednesday night and I agreed with all of Kim's reporting on the meeting which I think she did well. I do believe that Mr Donovan missed an excellent opportunity to draw the controller, Mr Hoffman, into the conversation on the water and sewer revenue transfers. He rather than Mr Donovan should provide the more extensive analysis. After all, Mr Hoffman should be the one to offer an independent appraisal.
I suggest that Mr Donovan, as a council person, request his opinion on the subject.
Bob Romancheck

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Romancheck:

At that time, I felt that getting into a debate between the administration and others, given that the rate increase was going to fail, would not do anyone good.

Instead, the topic does need better research, I agree. I hate hearing statements on both sides without having sufficient information to draw a "rational" conclusion.

I will be enlisting Mr. Hoffman. He and I have talked at length about this and many other topics concerning how money flows within the city.

Suffice it to say that there are people attempting to build a better understanding.

That does seem hard to believe, perhaps. But I don't like leaving a problem unsolved.

Best regards,

Michael Donovan

Anonymous said...

Michael,

I have been told by several people that the controller has at various times expressed frustration over the administrations unwillingness to be fourth coming with city financial data.
If this is indeed the case then the public has a right to know. I join others in applauding your efforts to make what should be public information public again.

Scott Armstrong

Bernie O'Hare said...

I am very encouraged to see "conservatives" like Scott and Dr. Romancheck and "liberals" like Michael Donovan on the same page about anything. Usually, issues of transparency and accountability can unite political opposites so long as they share an interest in good government. All three of you should be commended for overlooking ideological differences and trying to find answers.

Anonymous said...

Greetings,

Thank you Mr. Armstrong, Dr. Romancheck, and Mr. O'Hare.

Indeed, Mr. Hoffman and I bumped into each other and agreed that now we have gone through one cycle, we both can see improvements to the budget process and the need to continue tracking down some loose details from the past.

I do have to say that it is very satisfying to get an answer to something one does not understand. I feel uneasy when I do not understand material or something appears unclear.

Have a good Saturday. I'm actually feeling a little better from my cold.

Best regards,

Michael Donovan

Anonymous said...

Bernie,

The water fund was depleted because of Bill 34 in the summer of 2007.

We warned about this. We were ignored.

The administration claimed that "extra revenues" would pay for the over budget expenditures. Extra revenue was already in the budget.

We asked for clarifications about the amount of "extra" revenue. We ran the numbers and informed the Morning Call (reporters, editorial board, columnists and the Publisher). We were ignored.

It is also illegal to use service fund fees for non-service expenditures. Bill 34 did that. Such "loans" as Kim explains are also illegal. This is the game. Call it a "loan" and never pay it back.

I will send the detailed email with the attached information.

BTW, Michael Donovan was a recipient.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hilliard:

"...was a recipient." When? I'm sure that you have sent me something, but I am very sorry, I don't remember what you sent me. We have communicated over the year a couple of times. Whatever it was you did send, please send again.

Please remember that I was not elected in the summer of 2007.

I have read bill 34 (and prior related legislation because Mr. Herschman (I'm sorry if I misspelled his name) has brought the topic up to me also.

Look, as I publicly noted, I do not like to leave claims unanswered. At the same time, when I hear disputing claims, I like to get independently verifiable facts for myself.

Have you ever thought of running for Council?

Or have you thought of at least recognizing when people are trying to understand things rationally and professionally? No matter what their political affiliation?

Loyalties to the ethics of professionalism can be much stronger than loyalty to a party, by the way...

Michael Donovan

Bernie O'Hare said...

Joe can speak for himself, but I believe he is referring to some concerns expressed before Michael was ever elected.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, Joe Long got it right when he called you an a**hole. Sarah Fulton is just as qualified as your girlfriend Sarah Cassi at the Express Slimes. Your problem here is that she (Sarah Fulton) wrote an ambiguous piece that didn't slam Pawlowski the way you do.
That's what real reporters do, write even handed pieces, reporting the news. If she had wrote a one sided, bias pieced that slammed Pawlowski, you would be singing high praises that a so called "stringer" had surpassed the usual reporter.
She also probably wouldn't get too many other job assignments, having shown unrestrained bias.
Sarah Fulton has written dozens of pieces for the Morning Call covering local government. She's as well qualified to write on it as you are. She's doing it to put food on the table, while you do it to settle personal agendas.
Big Difference, a**hole.
In short, she has journalistic ethics to adhere to, while you have none at all. So shut up about how you aren't criticizing the reporter, because that is exactly what you did.
Were you really a disbarred attorney? Then that would explain why you don't comprehend ethics and standards. If I didn't know for a fact you would go after me with my employer, I'd sign my name. I'm home on my time, so up yours.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

People relatively new to the scene in Allentown may be surprised by the apparent frustration that is evident in the posts of Allentown's opposition voices.

Don't take it personally.

Scott Armstrong

Bernie O'Hare said...

"If she had wrote ..."

Hmmm. If you're a "real journalist," I'm a brain surgeon. Next time you impersonate a report, try at least to get the grammar right.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

Emailed you on August 10th, 2007. Yes, you were a candidate. Also emailed the Morning Call (editorial board and columnists) in June of 2007. At the council meeting, I presented the facts and a handout. President Howells tossed the worksheet into the wastebasket after glancing at it.

The point is simple. We ran the numbers. We warned that there would be a depletion/deficit if Bill 34 was enacted.

Instead, we were ignored and impugned. The ruberstamps were inked up and used.

More than a year later everybody is 'surprised' and will "look into it".

And even you, "Mr. Inclusion" impugn me still. By vaguely and snidely claiming that I am partisan.

Numbers are numbers. Facts are facts. Party or any other type of "loyalty" has nothing to do with.

Sadly, it seems that many in City Hall are 'partisan' and wish to ignore professional analysis and either refuse to do their homework or they seek the easy way out.

There will be more on this in the very near future. But this explains why City Hall has been messing up Allentown for at least two administrations. Bill 34 is a CLEAR ILLUSTRATION of the problems in Allentown.

How about if you stop being suspicious of my motives, and look at the numbers? How about if WE work together to implement PERMANENT solutions to prevent this in the future? I will work with anyone for good government solutions and rational fiscal policies. Who is not being "inclusive"?

But the truth will win out. A lot will become clear to the public next year.

Bernie O'Hare said...

To the Sarah Fulton Defender,

This post was not intended as a slam at Fulton personally, but was a criticism of Morning Call staffing cutbacks that has reduced its full-time staff. A real journalist should recognize the negative impact that has on the quality of the paper.

Budget hearings are almost always very long and very involved. I believe it is unfair to expect someone to cover it cold.

But as I look at the story, it really falls short on the 5 Ws. The WHO in this story is county council. This is their night. Yet the motions of various counciul members were ignored. Thed WHAT is also ignored. We barely know what happened. How long was the meeting? Was it packed or not? Was there tension in the air? I think it was a poorly written story. It contained less detail than the single paragraph Channel 69 used to accompany itsd video account.

As far as adhering to journalistic ethics is concerned, that's no excuse for a lousy story. Journalists do not write "ambiguous" pieces. They tell us what happened. Fulton failed. I don't care how ethical she is and my ethics or lack thereof has nothing to do with her failure.

Anonymous said...

Realjournalist,

Why not pick on me instead of Bernie? I have been a vociferous critic of the "Call" and some of its "journalists" for years now. Today for instance I see one of several former Allentown city reporters is now the Paper's official "watchdog" reporter. In this new position he is getting to the bottom of a scandal that seems to involve a closed furniture store. That flap is apparently more important to the publisher and editors of the paper than the very real shenanigans that are and have been occurring in Allentown's city hall for years now.

An investigation into this administration could get the paper and a reporter a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. Instead they earn only yawns and ire from subscribers for their steadfast refusal to print real news.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

The MC should send Matt Assad to Allentown. He is not very useful to the County. All he does is write Stoffa press releases. No real reporting their.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Based on your grammatical skills, I'd say you're (not your) in no position to judge anyone. It's there, not their.

Anonymous said...

This may explain something about the status of The Morning Call. An era is ending.

http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/tribune-hires-bankruptcy-advisers/

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks so much for the tip. I also was notified about this back channel. I'll blog this for tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Check this out. Possible bankruptcy for Morning Call parent company:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081208/ap_on_bi_ge/tribune

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thank you. I have a post ready to go at the witching hour.