By a 6 to 3 vote, Northampton County Council last night derailed alternative transportation advocate Steve Schmitt's appointment to LANTA's board. They did so despite pleas from LANTA board member Paul Marin, community activist Dennis Lieb and Schmitt himself.
Board member Fred Williams, in a very rare appearance, had several objections. He noted that Schmitt's Coalition for Alternative Transportation actually competes against LANTA for limited grant funds. "We are in direct competition with the Coalition for Alternative Transportation.(CAT)" He also claimed that Schmitt tried to enlist new members for CAT during transit meetings. Schmitt denies both accusations.
Schmitt was nominated to replace Tim Brady, a former Bethlehem Township Commissioner who "was in charge of the facilities and construction at Northampton County Community College for many years." Williams believes Brady would be more useful to LANTA during an upcoming maintenance expansion.
Ironically, passenger rail foe Ron Angle was passenger rail advocate Schmitt's biggest supporter. "The board should have a wide range of people who don't always think the same. Nobody has said he is anti-LANTA."
Reluctantly given a second opportunity to speak, Schmitt said "[t]he idea that I'm doing anything but trying to promote LANTA and trying to make LANTA better for the people that ride the bus, that's all I'm trying to do."
Lamont McClure noted Williams' extensive background as a 25 year LANTA board member and retired chief financial officer for the Diocese of Allentown, where he managed finances for the Diocese, 153 parishes, 58 elementary schools and 9 high schools.
McClure: "I didn't hear you say his service on the board compromised LANTA."
Williams: "I believe he did and I believe he compromised LANTA. I served as Director of the Personnel Committee and during sensitive negotiations, and he was privy to that executive session, and I was informed by a driver of what Mr. Schmitt had told him, and told the driver exactly what had happened during our executive session in a very sensitive negotiation and I went to Ann McHale immediately ... ."
McClure: "What was the negotiation about?"
Williams: "Our labor contracts."
Peg Ferraro: "Have you ever spoken out in your 25 years, have you ever spoken out against an appointment?"
Williams: "Never. I have never spoken out and I weighed this very heavily. I take it to heart. Believe me, I worked for the Church, the Catholic Church, and I take this very seriously."
Ferraro: "We have two people, the one who is serving and the one who is the nominee. I think there's two entirely different skill sets being brought here to the table. I think it's important that we look closely at the skill sets in light of what's coming down the road for LANTA."
Angle: "Under that scenario, there's no room for someone who thinks a little differently. there's no room for someone who doesn't have a certain level of skills. I don't think that's what America is about. Nobody has yet showed me where this man has done anything to undermine or destroy LANTA. He is a cheerleader for LANTA, the best I can see here. The Mayor of Bethlehem sent a letter over. That's a pretty high ranking official."
J. Michael Dowd: "I have never seen so many phone calls and so many comments about anyone appointed to an authority, a commission or anything else. I've received phone calls on a virtual daily basis and it's kind of interesting because there's people on both sides for whom I have an enormous amount of respect. I would ask the County Executive what he saw in Mr. Schmitt that led him to not reappoint someone who has expertise in construction and so on and to appoint Mr. Schmitt. "
Stoffa: "This was a tough call for me. But I spent some time with Mr. Schmitt because last time I did not reappoint him under certain circumstances. But the more time I spend with him, he's a different thinker. To me, LANTA is not just a bus company, it's a transit company, and it needs to think differently about what it does. I think he brings that to the forefront. When I saw buses go by with bike racks on, I understand he was the one responsible for that. I think any organization needs new, different thinking, and that's why I nominated him."
McClure: "You did not reappoint him because of certain circumstances. What were those circumstances?"
Stoffa: "Well, they were what I had heard about some bus routes in Allentown. When I sat down with Steve a number of times for a couple of hours, the man is a wealth of knowledge about different things. And that to me pales under what he offers. Nobody's perfect in what they do and I don't even know if what they said about him was accurate."
It was accurate. In the Fall of 2007, Schmitt did sneer at mostly minority merchants, like the House of Chen, along Allentown's Hamilton Street when bus routing changes caused a big decrease in foot traffic. "They wanted something to complain about, basically. ... I find it hard to believe. ... I'd like to see the books." He also ignored several emails from me about what was happening. Several of these businesses are now gone. His smug dismissal of the plight of hard-working people is cause for concern in any public official. Even those who like to wear tights.
In response to a question from Council member Joe Capozzolo, Schmitt denied ever interfering with bus drivers. "I don't think that's fair. That's sorta' like beating up your janitor."
When they voted, only Angle, Capozzolo and Dowd supported Schmitt's appointment.
Did Council make the right call? I honestly don't know. I do not think their rejection was intended as a snub to Stoffa, and I don't think some council members made up their mind until they heard from everyone. Schmitt is nearly as obnoxious as me, but is also the region's most dedicated and passionate alternative transportation advocate. I suspect their concern goes way beyond Schmitt's people skills. I'm unable to avoid the impression that there's more to this story, but no one is willing to say so publicly.