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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is Cunningham Right For LVEDC?

Norco Exec John Stoffa voted against Don Cunningham. So did Norco Council member Peg Ferraro. So far as I know, these were the only two who voted against Cunningham as Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation(LVEDC)'s new head honcho. According to Stoffa, LVEDC needs a certified economic development professional. It's not a retirement home for politicians.

When retired politician Phil Mitman decided to step down as CEO, LVEDC Executive Committee Chair Don Bernhard pledged that Mitman's successor would be someone with "serious economic development credentials." He'd want to see a Certified Economic Developer certificate, experience in economic development and loyalty to the Lehigh Valley. "That is exactly what we are doing," Bernard told The Morning Call.

But Bernhard is a blowhard.

When push came to shove, insider politics won. Cunningham, whom I like, might turn out to be the best CEO that LVEDC has ever had. Lord knows, they could use some real leadership. But his selection is contrary to what was pledged.

I probably would have caved and voted for Don myself. He is that charismatic. But I see these three problems.

First, it is well known that Cunningham though Allentown's controversial NIZ was a bad idea. I had heard that from his closest stafers. But Cunningham was mysteriously absent on the day that LVEDC decided to give this funding scheme their endorsement. Then Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, a Cunningham foe, gives him a ringing letter of endorsement. Then, after being selected as LVEDC's new top dog, Cunningham makes a statement supporting the NIZ. So it certainly appears that Cunningham sacrificed his principles to advance his own interests.

Second, he has no real private sector experience. How effective will he be in drawing private sector jobs to the Valley without massive doses of state incentives? State subsidies will harder and harder to come by in future Corbett budgets. So an inexperienced Cunningham will have to sell the Lehigh Valley largely on merit, not the bucks he can throw at a prospective employer. That's a tall task.

Finally, he is dealing with an unwieldy, stagnant and political board. It needs "at-large" members who are not political appointees, term limits for all and a thorough and competitive vetting process.

Updated 2 AM: Cunningham will be Alan Jennings' guest today on Lehigh Valley Discourse, 6 PM, WDIY (88.1 FM). (You can livestream it). Jennings is a NIZ Board member, and I wonder whether they'll break out the pom poms.

Updated 10:15 AM: Don Cunningham's Response: "There is much I could react to in this post. But, I’ve lived long enough to understand that deeds not words answers questions and respect is earned and not given.

"I only want to reassure the readers of these Ramblings that I am not heading off to the retirement home. To the contrary, I will bring a high-level of energy and engagement to make LVEDC a better and faster engine to market the Lehigh Valley and to work with everyone, public and private, to create jobs and opportunity and to grow our economic base. Our mission will be clear and focused. And we will be open and engaged. In the end, it’s about results. It’s not about how many meetings you do, how many conferences you attend or how many certificates are on your wall. I will use all of my ability to work with everyone, whether they supported my selection or not, whether they are in the urban core of Allentown or the slate belt of Northampton County to find a way to get it done. The premise upon which LVEDC was created is a good one. The Lehigh Valley is stronger in marketing itself and creating jobs and opportunity as a region than we are as component parts."

Osborne: Cunningham Successor Process Will Be Open

We all know that Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham is stepping down to take over the reins at the beleaguered Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC). His successor, who must be a Democrat, will be appointed by Commissioners. If they're unable to get five votes for someone, the pick goes to the judges.

Board Chair Brad Osborne will address this process at a news conference on Friday afternoon. He pledges a "transparent and cooperative effort in achieving a seamless transition of government."

Right now, I'd have to say the odds on favorite is Dan McCarthy.

NIZ Litigation Link on Left Sidebar

At the suggestion of a reader, you'll find a link to the docket entries in the NIZ litigation on my left sidebar. It's  under public service links.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LC Exec Don Cunningham's Resignation

You may have read about it by now and for that I apologize. I will be resigning my position as Lehigh County Executive on July 8 to become the next president and chief executive officer of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., a regional, public-private partnership charged with marketing and helping to create jobs and grow the economy in the Lehigh Valley.

For the last 17 years, I’ve served in public office as a city councilman, a mayor, a state cabinet secretary and now the elected executive of Lehigh County. I’m a lucky guy. The voters and Gov. Ed Rendell gave me a chance to serve the people of my hometown of Bethlehem, Lehigh County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I never felt like I was going to work because I was doing what I loved.

Nothing has given me more satisfaction in those positions than my work in economic development, whether it was helping with the economic renaissance of Bethlehem following the loss of Bethlehem Steel, helping to locate Ocean Spray and Boston Beer in our county during an economic recession, or helping to bring 300 PennDOT workers to Hamilton St. to help revitalize Downtown Allentown when I was a cabinet secretary.

As we get older, we tend to figure out what motivates us and satisfies us and what we are good at doing. I love the Lehigh Valley. I love living here and helping to make our region better. I want us to always be the best region, with the most job opportunity and the best quality of life not only in Pennsylvania but the East Coast.

One of the challenges with the public sector work I always seem to pick is that the clock is ticking from the day you start. And, while I’m not at the final buzzer in my current position, I have entered the fourth quarter. My term as Lehigh County Executive ends next year. With two kids in college and another one heading there in two years, I don’t have the luxury to wait until the final day. Therefore, I will resign my position effective this July 8. I will start at LVEDC the next day.

I have loved my position with the county. The executive team we assembled is second to none. We are colleagues and friends. And, the work force and quality of operations in Lehigh County are as good as any I’ve seen. I will always remember my days here and I will miss working directly with the employees of the county.

My work, however, will remain here in the Lehigh Valley, where I was born and want to remain. I look forward to working with both of our counties, all 62 of our municipalities, our other regional organizations and our businesses to market our region and to grow the Lehigh Valley. My mission will be simple. Through partnerships at every level and in every sector, public and private, market our region, create jobs and opportunity and expand the economic base of the Lehigh Valley. I have dozens of ideas on how to do that even better. It’s with a mix of nostalgia and excitement that I close one chapter and open the next. The good news is that the story remains the same and together we have many more chapters to write.

Lehigh County: 2d Highest Pa. Verdict in 2011

Philadelphia County is where lawyers who want large verdicts try cases, if they can. But did you know that in 2011, Lehigh County was home to the second largest verdict awarded in the Keystone state? A $23 million medical malpractice award in Smoyer v. Garcia was awarded there last year, according to The Legal Intelligencer.  Ironically, a Philadelphia lawyer represented the Plaintiffs.

Northampton County is home to the 14th largest verdict. In Reifer v. Russo, a $4.2 million legal malpractice verdict was entered against Allentown Attorney Don Russo, although he told The Express Times he'll never have to pay a dime because he had already been released.

Russo is also a former op-ed columnist with The Morning Call.

How To Follow the NIZ Litigation

If you'd like to keep up with the latest in the NIZ litigation, you can view the Commonwealth Court's docket sheets here.

Allentown NIZ and Economic Development Rumors

Yesterday, I told you that NIZ developer J.B. Reilly is negotiating office leases with at least two tenants currently located off Schoenersville Road, north of Route 22 in Bethlehem, at the Lehigh Valley Corporate Center. This is despite his assurances that there would be no poaching.

I have since heard that Reilly has postponed the closing date on at least one of his planned Hamilton Street purchases, as first explained by blogger Michael Molovinsky in his Allentown Becomes Reillytown post. This information comes from a business owner on Hamilton Street, who also has an agreement of sale with Reilly. Reason? Lack of funding. In addition, excavation has all but stopped at 7th and Hamilton, site of the proposed arena. That's according to businesses in the area.

I have since heard two NIZ-related  rumors in an anonymous email. I am unable to vouch for them, but want to get the word out so that you can tell me what you might know.

First, there's a joint deal between a film production company out of Florida and a very well known Lehigh Valley developer, looking to purchase a property inside the NIZ. Direct talks have begun with an local economic development agency and "Allentown's highest elected official."

Second, there's a "joint deal between neighbors on Hamilton Street, who enjoy beer way too much," to purchase the old Allentown Metal Works, Inc., with help from a local economic development agency and a little grant money.

Allentown Metal Works was visited by President Obama in 2009 and showcased as an example of the success of his stimulus package. It has since gone out of business. This resulted in a visit from Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who cited the plant closure as an example of how Obama's economic policies have failed.

Its 19-acre campus is not located inside the NIZ, but the purchasers on Hamilton Street are based there.

St. Luke's To Double Size of Its Bethlehem Township ER

Planner Kevin Edinger
At their May 29 meeting, Bethlehem Township planners unanimously endorsed plans by St. Luke's Hospital to double the size of its ER facility at its Anderson campus, located off Freemansburg Avenue. At a cost of $4.5 million, it will expand from 15 to 32 treatments, adding 11,000 sq. ft to its facility.

According to Anderson Campus President Edward Nawrocki, emergency services have been double what was initially projected. This expansion will enable the hospital to treat 60,000 patients per year. He added that the hospital's busy ER is leading the growth of the rest of its campus. "As the ER gets busy, so does everything else," he explained.

Brian Cheatle of Cerminara Architect presented drawings of the expansion, which will match the current brick and stone design.

If Commissioners accept the recommendation of township planners, St. Luke's hopes to complete its expansion by next Spring.

In other business, Township Manager Howard Kutzler told Commissioners they will likely see plans for Madison Farms again at their June meeting. At a 100-acre site on the north side of Freemansburg Avenue, New Jersey developer KRE Group is planning to build a 837-unit housing development, including 570 apartments in a five-story building. In addition to the housing, 140,000 square feet of commercial space and a retail village are proposed, along with an artificial pond and a grocery store and walking trails in a mixed use development.

Township Commissioners were slotted to act on a new zoning overlay district at their May 21 meeting, but the ordinance was removed from the agenda. That ignited a firestorm of protest from about a dozen residents at the meeting. "You don't pull an agenda item ten minutes before we all show up," complained resident Raymond D'Aprile. "If you don't want a reputation, don't do this."

Solicitor Jim Broughal apologized, stating the decision was "my call." He explained there were some issues with the proposed text changes to the zoning ordinance.

Manager Howard Kutzler told planners that the developer needs clarification about building heights and whether basements should be included. He added that KRE is planning a meeting with residents to allay concerns over the proposed development, which has been under consideration since 2004. Originally called Field of Dreams, Kutzler called the current plans "Field of Dreams 2.1".

Madison Farms received preliminary approval in January. But a land use appeal filed by neighbors Raymond and Megan Russin contends that the Township lacks authority to approve these plans without first changing the zoning ordinance or granting a variance.

Attorney Mark Malkames, who represents the Russins, acknowledges that developer Abe Atiyeh is paying his legal tab. A township resident, Atiyeh is concerned about traffic congestion and over-development.

But Kutzler counters that as things stand right now, the entire tract is located in a light industrial and business zone. Instead of a mixed use village, nearby homeowners could be confronted by a Ruby Tuesday or Outback Steakhouse. "The developer is choosing an overlay district to do something nice," Kutzler explained.

"I just don't understand how people don't know about this," wondered planner Kevin Edinger. "We have hundreds of hours into this project." Chairman Lee Snover added she is "extremely frustrated it is not moving along."

"Are they really complaining about a grocery store?" she asked. "That's good for the Township."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

NIZ Lawsuits: The Empire Strikes Back!

The Commonwealth, Governor and Secretary of Revenue have responded to a Township legal challenge to the constitutionality of a law enabling Allentown to use township EIT to fund a hockey arena and other improvements. Instead of an Answer on the merits, the state and its officers have filed Preliminary Objections, asking that the Complaint be dismissed.

Reason? According to the Commonwealth, it is immune from lawsuits. You cannot sue the King! In addition, the Commonwealth and other state officials argue that the Township's beef is with Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority (ANIZDA), not them.

Similar objections have been filed To developer Abe Atiyeh's parallel challenge.

Township Challenge:
You can read their objections below.

Atiyeh Challenge:

The Anti-Suburban, Pro-City Agenda and the NIZ

Jon Hammer
When South Whitehall Township Commissioners unanimously decided last April to join the suit over Allentown's controversial municipal tax grab, Manager Jon Hammer cautioned everyone against viewing the decision "as a declaration of war against the City, or a proliferation of this City versus Suburb nonsense. It is not." He added, "It is not our intention to stop the arena project." That's been pretty much a universal view among the surrounding municipalities that have discussed this matter. Yet they are being portrayed by Morning Call columnist Bill White, as both smug (column) and as hypocrites (blog).

Is this fair? More importantly, is it even accurate?

Newspapers Fail to Attend Township and Borough NIZ Meetings

I've seen Bill at none of the public meetings in which the NIZ has been discussed. But I've been there. I was at Hanover Township when they voted to sue. I was also at the NIZ meetings in Bethlehem, Lower Saucon, South Whitehall and Williams Townships. I was even at the "smug" Bangor Borough Council on the evening they decided to join the litigation.

At that Bangor meeting, nearly 60 people packed into the meeting room. Aside from the NIZ discussion, there was a hot zoning issue as well as a dispute with the leadership of the tiny borough's three volunteer fire companies. Since Bangor's population is only around 5,273, that's 1% of its population. It would be like  1,180 people going to an Allentown City Council meeting, or nearly 3,000 people at Northampton County Council.

But there was no daily newspaper to cover Bangor's meeting that night. Just me.

That's a very bad sign to those of us who still believe in democracy.

Not only has White failed to attend a single NIZ meeting, but he relies on "reports" from journalists who were also absent.

Township Officials Have Reason For Poaching Concern

I can tell you I've heard no smug remarks at any of these meetings, directed at Allentown. In fact, township and borough officials alike have wished Allentown success in its arena project. They just don't like their tax money being stolen to finance it. They also don't like to see businesses lured from their own tax base into the NIZ.

That's not job creation. It's poaching.

And it continues. Despite assurances from NIZ developer J.B. Reilly that there'd be no more poaching, he has entered into negotiations with at least two tenants currently located off Schoenersville Road, north of Route 22 in Bethlehem.

Is it smug or hypocritical to be concerned?

Media Relations 101 v. Truth

The moment someone resorts to name-calling, that's a good sign he's already lost the argument. But I understand what is going on. So does South Whitehall's Hammer. "Its media relations 101," claims Hammer. "Portray yourself as the victim to garner public sympathy. Nobody roots for Goliath."

Ironically, at the same time that Bill White is calling township and borough officials smug, even their attire is being ridiculed on this blog by NIZ cheerleaders.

I live in the smug and hypocritical Borough of Nazareth, founded in 1740. It's the oldest place in the Lehigh Valley. Yet Bill White offered no words of protest or condemnation when Allentown Mayor Edwin Pawlowski referred to this historical landmark as "the boonies of Northampton County." Nothing smug there.

When a NIZ cheerleader, at a debate that White did attend, referred to the minority merchants along Hamilton Street as a "cancer," White's tepid condemnation of this veiled racism was the literary equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

If you cover township and borough government, as I do, you'll soon see that White's claim is nonsense. In Nazareth, I've seen smug Borough Council members like Jack Herbst mow the grass at the baseball fields, despite his heart condition. I've seen other hypocritical borough council members water potted plants along the street every night.

In Hanover, after its recent Armed Forces Day ceremony was over, it was smug Township Manager Jay Finnigan who helped Public Works staffers put the chairs away. You also might find him behind the wheel of a plow during a Winter storm. In Bethlehem Township, hypocrites like Paul Weiss are regulars at planning commission and zoning meetings. He my actually attend even more meetings than I.

In West Easton, Borough Council President Kelly Gross is paid a pittance, but volunteers her time several days every week to help out in the office, saving that 1,257-person borough the expense of hiring a manager.

The Anti-suburban, Pro-city Agenda

Back in 2007, Hammer and White traded jobs for a day. Even back then, Hammer's column was eerily prescient about the conflict between cities and suburbs.
"For decades, Lehigh Valley regionalists have been promoting their agenda as the solution to our ills. Generally good intentioned people, regionalists look to create valleywide government efficiencies. However, some of them have morphed this idea into an anti-suburban, pro-city agenda.

"While we all want to see the Valley cities prosper, pitting urban vs. suburban residents in the regionalism debate is not the way to go. Recently, it was reported that an Allentown official wished the city's crime out to suburbia. This isn't helpful or acceptable as a way of promoting Valley regionalism."
But that's precisely the script that White has chosen to follow, even to the unfortunate point of name-calling.

White, a resident of the suburbs, calls Hammer, a resident of Allentown, smug. Here's how Jon responds.
"I, perhaps more that anyone, want Allentown to succeed. You see, I was born and raised in the NIZ. I still live in Allentown, and have been a resident for over four decades. My family has lived in the city for over four generations. I have chosen to raise my children in the city of Allentown. I graduated from Allen, and attended the Allentown public school system K-12. I worked as Mayor Bill Heydt's assistant, and served as his Director of Finance. I've served on countless city boards for the betterment of Allentown. I'm about as Allentonian as one can get, and probably more so than most on the 'city' side of the debate."
Why People Leave Cities

Why do people leave the cities? Is it really white flight? Racism? Maybe they don’t want to lug their groceries a block in the middle of Winter because they couldn’t find a parking spot near their home. Not all families want to live in a loft apartment, or in pre WWII housing. Some want clean and safe green space for their children to play on. Lessen the density, update the housing stock, and create family friendly amenities.

Is this smug?

Is Defending Constitution Smug?

One last observation. "We, the people" does not just include some special interest group. It includes all of the people, both suburban and urban. Many suburban communities, and the State Association of Township Supervisors, chose to challenge the Commonwealth over a law they feel is unconstitutional. According to Hammer, "I can understand how many on the suburban side of things feel the Constitution is something worth defending."

Is this smug?

Will Dan McCarthy Take Cunningham's Job?

Dan McCarthy
Now that Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham has been tapped to head up the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), who will take over the reins in Lehigh County? Under that County's Home Rule Charter, Cunningham's successor must be, like him, a Democrat. Commissioners get first shot at making the appointment. But if they fail, it goes to the courts.

It's certainly possible that a Republican Commissioner like Scott Ott, who ran for the job and was narrowly defeated, could switch parties. But it's also highly unlikely.

I've been told that Commissioner Dan McCarthy, a Democrat, is interested in serving on an interim basis. I have been unable to speak to Dan so I don't know if this is true.

Who should Commissioners pick?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Analysis: Last Week's NIZ News

Back in 2009, when Pennsylvania lawmakers finally adopted a budget after a record-setting 101-day stalemate, State Senator Pat Browne slipped a little piece of language into the Fiscal Code update. Buried amid the definitions of "little cigars" and "cigarettes" was legislation that created something brand new - the "Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ)." It's a special financing tool for any third class city with a population between 106,000 and 107,000 in the 2000 census. Nobody seemed to notice that the NIZ could benefit one, and only one community.


Allentown has created a 130-acre NIZ in its downtown, and along the riverfront. State taxes and even the local taxes of workers inside that zone can be diverted to pay for the debt service on improvements like Allentown's planned hockey arena, as well as four office buildings planned by NIZ developer J.B. Reilly. Thanks to this subsidy, he can offer cheaper rents than those charged in other communities.

Bethlehem's Martin Tower, the largest office building in the Lehigh Valley, is vacant. Located just a stone's throw from Allentown's border and unable to compete with subsidized rents inside the NIZ, this venerable building is likely to remain empty.

Instead of a hockey arena, Allentown is instead dealing with legal challenges from municipalities who resent the diversion of their EIT, and who are concerned that an uneven playing field will draw business from them into the NIZ.

Here's what happened last week in this fast moving story.

Monday, May 21. - Despite pleas from trade union members, Bethlehem Township Commissioners unanimously reject a settlement offer from Allentown. The Queen City has proposed returning current EIT to municipalities immediately, along with the right to participate in a specially created "development fund". But Commissioner Michael Hudak replies that it's simply the same settlement offer they rejected once before. "They've reworded their proposal, they've moved paragraphs around, but the fundamental crux of their argument has not changed from Day One."

Tuesday, May 22. - Fast on the heels of Bethlehem Township, Hanover Township Supervisors release a statement calling for amendments to the NIZ enabling law that will (1) make it constitutional; (2) eliminate all diversions of EIT; and (3) restrict its size to the area around the proposed arena.

Wednesday, May 23. - Walnutport Mayor Harry Kline confirms that his borough of 2,070 people have voted to intervene in th NIZ challenge.

Nineteen municipalities and school districts have now voted to join the NIZ litigation spearheaded by Bethlehem and Hanover Townships or have filed their own suit: Bethlehem, Bushkill, East Allen, Hanover, Lehigh, Lower Nazareth, Lower Saucon, Palmer, Plainfield, South Whitehall, Upper Nazareth, Upper Saucon and Whitehall Townships; Bangor, Catasauqua, Hellertown, Stockertown and Walnutport Boroughs; and the Whitehall-Coplay School District.

Upcoming. - It appears increasingly likely that the next salvos in this escalating battle between Allentown and surrounding municipalities will be heard in Court, and in the halls of the state legislature.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Did Mayor Pawlowski Launder an $8,000 Campaign Donation in 2005?

Let's say you're running for office and are about to pull in some big bucks, but don't want voters to know who's backing you financially. You could just wink at our incredibly weak and toothless campaign finance laws, and ignore them completely. Or you could skate around them. That's what Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski did when he first ran for office in 2005. Let me tell you the story.

As most of you know, a person running for office in Pennsylvania is required to file periodic expense reports, listing donors and how the money was spent. The sky's the limit on how much you can raise or spend, but any person or PAC that gives you $50 or more must be identified. This is usually done through a campaign committee.

There's another kind of committee, too, called a Political Action Committee (PAC). This is usually formed by persons who might have a common interest in some issue or who belong to some organization. Periodic expense reports are required from PACs, too.

Despite claims that he's been "totally transparent," Pawlowski has actually run afoul of campaign finance reporting laws at least three times since he was elected mayor in 2005. In 2007, Hizzoner attempted to get away with using campaign funds to pay a $270 fine for a late report. He was ordered him to pay the money out of his own pocket. In 2008, he filed a bogus report, falsely claiming his coffers were empty, when he actually raised $101,599. He was ordered to amend that report, too. In 2009, he listed a $8,000 payment on election day for "miscellaneous canvassers," without bothering to list who they were or where they live. Ordered to do so, we learned that he trolled an Easton homeless shelter for his 26 campaign workers.

Last year, a nonelection year, he raked in over $250,000, and according to The Morning Call, more than $70,000 of that come from donors who have an interest in the Queen City's controversial Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ). I decided it was time to take a closer look at Pawlowski's expense reports, starting in 2005, when he first ran for office.

Unfortunately, I'm still stuck on 2005. It looks like I've found a fourth campaign expense reporting violation. This time, it involves an effort to keep you from learning who gave him $8,000 in the month before the election.

Pawlowski's 2005 pre-election expense report reveals that in October 2005, he received checks for $5,000 and $3,000 from a PAC called Latinos for a New Lehigh Valley. So far, so good. That sure is a lot of Latino support. But just who in the Lehigh Valley's Latino community donated $8,000? Where did the PAC get its money? I asked to see its report.

There is none. Despite being registered in Lehigh County as a PAC for many years, Latinos for a New Lehigh Valley filed no campaign finance report at all in 2005. Or 2006. Or ever.

Was it filed in Harrisburg, with the State Bureau of Elections? According to staffers there, no PAC is registered and no report was filed.

So just who is behind this $8,000 donation? Pawlowski's report lists an address for the PAC. I traced it to Julio Guridy, who currently is Allentown's City Council President. But Guridy does not live there. The person who did, at least in 2005, was none other than Edward DeGrace.

In a 2009 Morning Call op-ed, DeGrace is identified as the "former chair of Latinos for a New Lehigh Valley." He failed to file a campaign finance report that would let us follow the money.

DeGrace worked for Pawlowski's 2005 Mayoral campaign. I tried contacting him, but his telephone number has been disconnected.

Do I think he came up with $8,000 for Pawlowski in 2005? People who donate that kind of money usually can keep their phones in service.

So where did the $8,000 come from? The absence of a report tells me that the real source of that money is NOT Lehigh Valley Latinos. I suspect Hizzoner used the Latino group to create the false impression that he is wildly popular among Latinos, and to prevent you from learning the identity of his real donor.

I will continue trying to track down DeGrace, and will ask Mayor Pawlwoski whether he was laundering money in 2005, and whether he still does so.

Noon Update: What does DeGrace Have to Say?

I was able to get his cell phone number, and called him. "I've got nothing to say to you," DeGrace said, and then hung up.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Tough Night For Small Business in Bethlehem

John Brew discusses his proposal for Bethlehem Inn
Even though there were no Abe Atiyeh matters on the agenda, Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board convened for nearly 5 hours in their May 23 meeting. It was a tough night for anyone wanting to establish a business in a residential neighborhood.

No Room at The Bethlehem Inn

After 2 1/2 hours of testimony, John Brew was denied a variance that would have enabled him to relocate his community bank consulting business from an industrial park to The Bethlehem Inn, a bed and breakfast located in Bethlehem's exclusive historic district.

Neighbors like Beall Fowler warned zoners that it would "set a dangerous precedent," and before long, the entire area would be commercial.

Owner Robert Virgilio has operated and lived in The Bethlehem Inn since 1988. First built in 1840, it's been operated as a dentist's office, optometrist's office and as an apartment building.  Because of its sheer size, Virgilo has been unable to sell the property, either as a residence or bed and breakfast. He's been trying since 2006. The property consists of 8 bedrooms and 5 1/2 baths.

Brew, a founder and director of Embassy Bank, lives just three blocks away. He called the property a "perfect location" for his small bank consulting business, which consists of 10 employees and only rarely has a visitor. He told zoners he could walk three blocks to work, while his employees would benefit, both from the window space and being located in the historic district.

But Christine Stevens, Secretary of the Historic District Association, objected to a business in a "residential" neighborhood. Her husband Tim produced real estate records establishing that Brew could relocate his office to numerous other locations. Bob Romeril told zoners he wanted no chinks in the armor of what he called "God's acre." He added, "Any time you back off, we lose a little bit."

Not all neighbors were opposed. Joe Schaeffer, for example, argued that Brew's proposed use would be "ideal."

Representing Brew, Allentown Attorney Charles Shoemaker argued that Brew's use would be "virtually impact free." There would be no visitor. There would be no sign. As a corner property, its use as a business would be permitted under Bethlehem's proposed ordinance revision.

But zoners were considering the existing, not a future, zoning ordinance. In a 2-2 vote, Brew's request was defeated. Linda Shay Gardner and Jim Schantz voted in support of Brew's appeal, but veteran zoners Gus Loupos and Bill Fitzpatrick were unconvinced. The Board's fifth member, Michael Santanasto, recused himself. He declined to say why.

Once Bethlehem's new zoning ordinance is adopted, Attorney Shoemaker vowed to return.

Day Care Denied in Residential Neighborhood 

In a unanimous vote, zoners rejected a family daycare that Pilar Sanchez hoped to establish in a home at 1730 Easthill Drive. Once again, neighbors argued that allowing a business in a residential neighborhood would set a "dangerous precedent." They also raised safety concerns.

Joseph Koch questioned Sanchez but a pool and trampoline in her back yard, set aside as a play area for up to 6 children. He also noted traffic in that area is heavy. Joel Hoeffner raised concerns about interactions between children and Sanchez' dog.

Carolina Martinez, a member of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley who was assisting Sanchez, argued that a daycare center would be a neighborhood asset.

"A day care is not really a business," she reasoned.

"With all due respect, if you're accepting money, it's a business," retorted Sandra Raines, a neighbor.

After denying the day care center, some members of the audience started to clap, but Solicitor Mickey Thompson stopped them. "We take no pleasure in doing this. These are some people's dreams.," he noted.

Zoner Michael Santanasto told Sanchez her proposal as commendable, but she failed to meet her burden of proof.

Steep Slope Rules Examined

Not every applicant failed with zoners. Douglas and Craig Miller received unanimous approval to subdivide a quarter-acre lot for two homes at 816 Meade Street, even though the property is located in a steep slope area.

Tom McGouldrick who has property located downhill, warned zoners that storm water runoff would adversely impact him. But Doug Miller told zoners he would use silt fences to minimize any erosion.

Miller was represented by Attorney Joe Piperato, who produced case law concerning steep slope variances.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Walnutport Joins NIZ Litigation

Mayor Henry Kline confirms that Walnutport Borough has joined the "rising tide" of municipalities to challenge Allentown's controversial Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ). According to one NIZ apologist, anyone who opposes this funding scheme, which is designed to make millionaire J.B. Reilly a billionaire, is  necessarily a racist. I believe anyone who advances that kind of baloney is necessarily a moron.

Who are the racists?

The following municipalities and school districts have now voted to join the NIZ litigation spearheaded by Bethlehem and Hanover Townships or have filed their own suit: Bethlehem, Bushkill, East Allen, Hanover, Lehigh, Lower Nazareth, Lower Saucon, Palmer, Plainfield, South Whitehall, Upper Nazareth, Upper Saucon and Whitehall Townships; Bangor, Catasauqua, Hellertown, Stockertown and Walnutport Boroughs; and the Whitehall-Coplay School District.

That's 19 municipalities that must be packed with racists.

This name-calling is getting ridiculous.

Hanover Township NIZ Position Statement

Below is the "position statement" read by Supervisor Glenn Walbert at last night's meeting of Hanover Township Supervisors:

Hanover Township ("Township") has and continues to support the Arena Project and the revitalization of the City of Allentown. The following sets forth the position of the Township with respect to the current status of any negotiations to settle the NIZ Litigation as well as the future position of the Township with respect to the NIZ Litigation and any attempts at a future settlement.

Hanover Township will only continue to negotiate with parties to the NIZ Litigation filed on March 29, 2012.

The correspondence forwarded to the Township thus far does not contain any settlement offer that could be acted upon by the Township, and in addition, such settlement proposals would be an attempt to circumvent existing legislation by agreement or otherwise, and therefore, would be void as contrary to public policy, and in addition, such settlement agreement may preclude the Township from later challenging the constitutionality of that legislation.

The Township does not have the authority to bind other political subdivisions that have intervened in the NIZ litigation, and the Township would not agree to any settlement until all parties to the NIZ Litigation were in agreement; i.e. universal settlement.

The Township believes that any settlement that does not include the amending of the current legislation to make it constitutional would leave such legislation, which is unconstitutional, in place, and could later be used to rescind any settlement agreements.

The Township is supportive of the Arena Project and the revitalization of the City of Allentown, it is not supportive of the Township's Earned Income Tax ("EIT") revenue being used for public and/or private initiatives in the City of Allentown.

Any settlement of the NIZ Litigation can only occur if the existing legislation is amended to:
(A)  Make it constitutional; and
(B)  Remove all references to EIT contained therein and ensure that it is not replaced with other sources of revenue generated by or from political subdivision sources outside the City of Allentown; and
(C)  Reduce the size of the NIZ so that it does not unfairly compete with non-NIZ venues.

Hanover Township Wants NIZ Law Changed

Steve Salvesen, 28 years of service to Hanover Tp
Allentown's controversial funding scheme for downtown revitalization in its Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ), which includes a diversion of local EIT, has been a hot topic in surrounding communities. It has spawned litigation that includes 17 different municipalities and 1 school district.  Hanover and Bethlehem Townships have been at the forefront of this legal challenge. Following their most recent meetings, it appears increasingly likely that this matter will be resolved only if the law is amended. If that fails, it will be up to the Commonwealth Court to make the call.

After the robust dialogue before Bethlehem Township Commissioners' unanimous Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) vote on May 21, the May 22 meeting of Hanover Township Supervisors was almost anticlimactic. Sure, the meeting room was still packed, but half of the crowd was there for other matters. Two police officers were on hand to quell any possible disturbances, but everyone was polite.

Four trade union members sat patiently as Supervisors went through a few zoning matters. Sitting directly behind them were Paul Weiss and Tom Nolan, Bethlehem Township Commissioners. Often divided on Township issues, Weiss and Nolan have been united in their opposition to the NIZ.

Paul Weiss (L) and Tom Nolan (red) visit Hanover
When the NIZ finally came up, not one member of the public had anything to say. So Supervisor Glenn Walbert  read a "position statement" that mirrors a resolution unanimously adopted the previous night in Bethlehem Township.

Hanover Township will continue to negotiate with actual parties to the NIZ litigation. That leaves Allentown out, as it is not technically a party.

Hanover, like Bethlehem Township, believes the NIZ enabling law must be amended to:
(a) Make it constitutional; and
(b) Remove all references to EIT and ensure they are not replaced with other sources of revenue generated by or from political subdivision sources outside of Allentown; and
(c) Reduce the size of the NIZ so it does not unfairly compete with non-NIZ venues.
Previously, Allentown has offered to make sure that money is returned through a "development fund" that would assess annual impact fees on NIZ developers. But Townships have balked at that proposal. A NIZ developer could challenge this impact fee as an end run around existing NIZ law. Surrounding municipalities would then be stuck with an unenforceable agreement.

The four Supervisors present expressed their agreement with this position statement. "It certainly is the consensus of this Board that the legislation is unconstitutional, and that the only way to fix it is to amend it," stated Supervisor Steve Salvesen, a 29-year member of the Board. Those sentiments were echoed by Supervisors Mark Tanczos, Jack Nagle and Walbert.

Chairman John Diacogiannis, unable to attend the May 22 meeting, nevertheless sent a statement. "I believe that no options exist to settle this issue except for amending the existing legislation to eliminate its impact on EIT or other local revenue sources outside of Allentown."

Filling in for Diacogiannis, Walbert stated they "gave it a fair shot to see if there was some common ground to resolve this outside of litigation., and the conclusion is, there is not. Hopefully, this matter is handled in an expeditious manner in the courts and everyone can get on with what they need to do."

Will Allentown respond with a countersuit, seeking damages for the delay this lawsuit causes? The City has already filed a $150 million claim against developer Abe Atiyeh, in response to his own legal challenge to the NIZ.  But according to most legal experts, Allentown has to win first.

After Hanover Supervisors revealed their stance, they were commended by resident George Werkheiser.

"I think it's a crime what they tried to pull under the table," Werkheiser said.

No Allentown representatives attended Hanover's meeting.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

LVEDC's New Top Dawg - Don Cunningham

Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), the area's publicly-funded and beleagured  economic development agency, has been operating without a CEO. Former Easton Mayor Phil Mitman stepped down earlier this year, and a "selection committee" embarked on a nationwide search for someone with economic development credentials, as opposed to a politician. Informed sources tell me that the CEO-creators have decided they like politicians after all. By an 8-1 vote, they have recommended Lehigh County Exec Don Cunningham as LVEDC's new CEO.

Since the selection committee includes all the LV heavyweights, Cunningham's appointment as LVEDC's new CEO is all but a sure thing.

Although it's no secret that Cunningham and Allentown Mayor Edwin Pawlowski have feuded in the past, it's interesting to note that Pawlowski provided the choosers with a glowing letter of recommendation for Cunningham.

Is this Cunningham's reward for remaining silent on the NIZ? Call me smug or misguided, but it sure looks that way.

If Cunningham accepts the job, and all indications are that he will, he won't be running for Bethlehem Mayor. That's a relief to Bob Donchez who had to consider Cunningham his most formidable rival.

Taking the job also means Cunningham will be stepping down as Lehigh County Executive, perhaps as early as next month. Under Lehigh County's Home Rule Charter, the Republican-controlled Board of Commissioners get to choose the new Exec, although he or she must be a Democrat.

Who's it gonna' be?

I hear Dennis Pearson is available.

Who voted against Cunningham?

How does Don feel about "Summer Hours"?

Stay tuned.

Updated 9 AM: Contrary to what some of my readers might think, I like Don and think he'll be an excellent CEO at LVEDC. I hope I haven't just jinxed him.

Bethlehem Tp Nixes Allentown's Proposed NIZ Deal

President Paul Weiss
In a unanimous vote at a crowded May 21 meeting, Bethlehem Township Commissioners have openly rejected an offer to settle their legal differences with Allentown over its downtown hockey arena, hotel and office buildings. In their first open discussion since filing suit on March 29, they were quick to applaud the Queen City's attempted "transformation". But President Paul Weiss added, "We do have some problems with how it's been funded."

The NIZ Challenge

Allentown's proposed downtown hockey arena, along with a hotel, wellness center and office building are all located inside an expansive, 130-acre Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ), the only one of its kind in the state. Under a 2009 law, state and local earned income taxes generated inside that district can be used to fund the costs of improvements over the next thirty years. This includes the current and future earned income taxes of people who work inside the NIZ, but live in places like Bethlehem Township.

Bethlehem and Hanover Townships, represented by the Broughal & DeVito law firm, have led a legal challenge to the NIZ in Commonwealth Court. They argue it's a special law that only applies to Allentown, in violation of the state constitution. So far, 18 municipalities and 1 school district have either joined that suit, or have filed an independent action. The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, lobbying arm to 1,455 townships throughout the state, has also intervened. Developer Abe Atiyeh has also filed a lawsuit that mirrors the municipal litigation.

In an attempt to resolve their differences, Allentown has proposed returning current EIT to municipalities immediately, along with the right to participate in a specially created "development fund". But townships would rather see the size of the NIZ reduced.

Solicitor Jim Broughal told Commissioners that Allentown's proposal actually circumvents state law, and could be set aside by a court as being void as against public policy. He would prefer to continue negotiation, but that would have to include an amendment to current legislation "to make it constitutional, to take out the earned income tax language and, to some degree, to reduce the size of the NIZ" and create a level playing field.

Faye North approaches podium as reporters take notes
Unions: NIZ Challenge a "Job Killer"

Constitutional concerns were the last thing on the minds of five trade union members who spoke to Commissioners after Broughal. Union organizer and carpenter Francis Loughney, who lives in New Tripoli, called their NIZ challenge a "job killer." Bethlehem Township carpenter Bruce Allen stated he's been out of work for three years. "I'm paying taxes, I'm paying your salaries, I need you to do something to help me out," he argued.

Another Township resident, school teacher Faye North, worried about the legal fees and the "crazy infighting" among the communities. "Working together! That's what's going to make the Lehigh Valley strong," she stated. "We have to work together."

But Barry Roth was a bit more selfish. Diverting EIT to Allentown, Roth argued, would make it more difficult to hire public works employees and police officers. "Those are the guys who plow my streets. Those are the guys who protect my butt in this Township. ... I want it here, for these guys."

Mike Hudak - Shrink the NIZ
Commissioners Want Leaner NIZ

After listening to the public, Commissioners weighed in with their own views.

Marty Zawarski made clear he is "very much" in favor of the arena, but is opposed to the diversion of tax revenue from the state, municipalities and school districts. He complained that the legislation was created for a "few, select group of players." He stressed that any NIZ amendment should be done transparently, ethically and to benefit all.

Mike Hudak, who is a union contractor and a Commissioner, observed that Allentown has refused to budge from its original settlement offer. "They've reworded their proposal, they've moved paragraphs around, but the fundamental crux of their argument has not changed from Day One." He claimed he would support a downtown NIZ, but not one that includes 90 acres along the riverfront as well. "Shrink the NIZ," he suggested. "When you start using taxpayers' money to subsidize private development and private businesses down along the riverfront, that's what's going to hurt."

Hudak also complained about the duration of the NIZ. "This goes on for thirty years. This isn't a one-time grab It gives Allentown the capability of taking tax money for thirty years Yeah, that adds up to a lot of money. But when you ask Allentown how much money is involved, they say 'We don't know. We'll tell you later. We just ask you to rubber stamp this and we'll tell you later.' That's not how we represent our citizens"

Lead NIZ Attorney Jim Preston
Sympathizing with trade union members, Phil Barnard reminded them that his role is to help the entire Township.

Last but not least, Tom Nolan introduced a resolution that rejects Allentown's current settlement proposal, or any future deal that circumvents the NIZ legislation. It calls on Allentown to do three things. First, amend the law to make it constitutional. Second, remove any EIT tax diversion. Third, reduce the size of the 130-acre NIZ.

Nolan's motion passed unanimously.

Most everyone had a voice last night. But one person was crouched quietly in the peanut gallery, saying nothing, not even to reporters. Jim Preston, the lead attorney in the constitutional challenge, left soon after the vote.

Tonight at 7 PM, Hanover Township Supervisors will also take up the NIZ in an open meeting.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Morning Call Displays Its Pro-NIZ Bias

Jack Nagle
I enjoy attending Hanover Township meetings for two reasons. First, they're mercifully short. Second, it's a collegial Board, in which Supervisors regularly laugh at themselves. It's something I noticed well over a year ago.

This humor was on display at their May 9 meeting. Supervisor Mark Tanczos, who usually covers developments as an agenda item, announced, "We have no development in Hanover Township."

That resulted in some laughter.

It also resulted in this wisecrack from Supervisor Jack Nagle.

"Look at the bright side," he said, "We don't have a hole in the ground."

Nagle was referring to Pawlowski's hole. His comment brought more laughter, mostly at him, as Manager Jay Finnigan buried his head in his hands.

As a person who was actually there, and who attends their meetings regularly, the Supervisors were laughing mostly at themselves and Nagle, as they always do. Nagle is often on the receiving end.

Andrew McGill is a Morning Call reporter. Hanover Township is not his beat. I did not see him at that meeting, and have learned he was not there. But nearly two weeks later, when it was no longer topical, McGill posted a blog about it at Valley 610, including a 19-second audio clip from the meeting. He fails to credit this blog, which is the only place where anyone could have learned about what actually happened.

Almost immediately after publishing that little audio excerpt, numerous comments began to appear on this Morning Call blog, which is not exactly known for interactivity. In a matter of 24 hours, there were 26 comments, trashing the Hanover Township Board of Supervisors. They even included a link to my picture of Finnigan.

Very obviously, this was a set up. Instead of actually reporting the news or something that he witnessed, McGill (or the editor who assigned him this task) appears to be playing to the unions. They jump right in with comments about the gazillions jobs.

McGill, knowingly or unknowingly,distorts some humor to make Hanover Township Supervisors look like callous bastards who are laughing at Allentown. A Pro-NIZ blogger, who also failed to appear at this meeting, brays "Hanover Township Assholes Have a Good Laugh About Screwing Allentown." Another absentee and anonymous blogger snarls, "Hanover Township and Bernie Laugh About Causing Trouble for Allentown."

I get attacked, too, naturally. One commenter states I'm lucky that "all of these union construction guys aren't the thugs he calls them or he'd most likely get his pathetically smug smile smacked right off his face."

That was probably posted by a thug.

I can understand Bill White or Paul Carpenter taking pro-NIZ positions. They're columnists, and even I would rather read their pro-NIZ views than yet another story about riding a motorcycle sans helmet.

Also, I am a bottom-feeding blogger and freely admit my bias. But what happens when the supposedly objective gatekeepers distort what happened at a meeting to promote a political agenda?

Fortunately, they no longer are the gatekeepers, although they still like to look down their noses at us.

That's why they usually get zero comments.

Updated 11:30 AM: A Morning Call reporter whom I know and trust acknowledges that Andrew McGill failed to attend the meeting. Freelancer Tony Nauroth, however, was there, and I saw him myself. Nauroth wrote no story, but told McGill about the incident, and he was merely following up on that information. I still have lots of questions, but will drop it.

Last Week's NIZ News at a Glance

Bangor Council Studies NIZ Resolution
Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) is a special 130-acre zone in its downtown and along its riverfront, created just for the Queen City by a 2009 state law. A "transformational" hockey arena, office buildings, hotel, wellness center and other improvements are planned in the downtown alone. But these are funded by diverting state and local taxes, including the EIT of employees who work in the NIZ, but live in surrounding communities.

A growing number of municipalities, along with developer Abe Atiyeh, have sued in Commonwealth Court. Here's the latest.

Monday, May 14. - Lehigh Valley Ramblings receives a video showing that, in addition to four office buildings, NIZ developer J.B. Reilly plans a retail and residential component in three buildings located along North 7th and Linden Streets, near the arena.

Bangor Borough votes unanimously to join the NIZ litigation, making it the 17th municipal government to challenge the NIZ. Whitehall-Coplay School District and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors have also voted to intervene.

Tuesday, May 15. - Neither Hanover nor Bethlehem Townships, spearheads of the NIZ litigation, schedule an "executive session" to discuss Allentown's settlement offer, which is a repetition of its previous settlement offer. Both Townships intend to discuss the matters, in the open, during their regular meetings this week.

Wednesday, May 16. - NIZ Board member Alan Jennings is listed as a panelist for a June 7 DeSales University NIZ Ethics Breakfast, replacing NIZ Board Chair Sy Traub and NIZ developer J.B. Reilly, both of whom have bowed out. Lehigh University's Steve Thode, who opposes the NIZ, is still listed as a panelist.

Thursday, May 17. - Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski takes his NIZ battle to the public, in a seventeen minute interview on WFMZ-TV69.

Alan Jennings drops out of the NIZ ethics breakfast.

Upper Saucon and Catasauqua, represented by Attorney Jeff Dimmich, file a separate lawsuit attacking the legality of the NIZ.

Friday, May 18. - DeSales University cancels its June 7, 2012 breakfast discussion of ethical questions surrounding Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ). Professor Thode will have to eat alone.

Upcoming. - Will the peace talks continue? Bethlehem and Hanover Townships will decide this week.

Armed Forces Day: All Gave Some, Some Gave All

Future Admiral Alex Kish, age 1
Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, honors Americans serving in its five military branches. But fewer and fewer municipalities celebrate this day. That's a trend that Township Manager Jay Finnigan hopes to reverse, at least in Hanover Township. In a brief May 19 ceremony at its newly dedicated Armed Services Park, members of all military branches were remembered and honored.

WWII veteran Wendall Phillips summed it up best. "All gave some, some gave all."

In addition to Hanover's Board of Supervisors,the ceremony was attended by U.S. Congressman Charlie Dent, Northampton County Judge Edward Smith, State Rep. Marcia Hahn and Ellen Kern, State Senator Pat Browne's Chief of Staff.  The 4th Marine Logistics Group, located in Allentown, supplied a Color Guard. The Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 28th Infantry Division, located in Easton, supplied an Honor Guard and fired a 21-gun salute.

Finnigan, speaking about all the military personnel who helped organize the event, remarked,  "Never have I been called 'Sir' so many times in two hours. I actually felt important."

"He'll get over it," wisecracked a Township employee.

State Rep. Marcia Hahn and Judge Edward Smith
In addition to his role as a County judge, Judge Smith is also a Captain in the United States Naval Reserve, with 27 years of service to his country in posts as far away as Iraq. He described how each branch contributes to the nation's defense in what he proudly called "the greatest military in the world." Not surprisingly, he claimed, "The Navy is the best!"

He left Hanover's ceremony for a physical before his next tour - Japan.

Andrew Kish, age 1, agrees with Judge Smith. Andrew's dad, Hanover Township Treasurer Ryan Kish,  clams Andrew told him he intends to be an Admiral.

Charlie Dent and Taryn Gilbert
Congressman Dent reminded the forty people at Saturday's celebration that the Lehigh Valley sent 12 high school seniors to the service academies last year. But he cautioned that the nation;s growing debt is our greatest security threat.

Sing for America, which has raised $30,000 for local military families, entertained the crowd with an Armed Forces Medley for each branch of service. But the ceremony ended on a mournful note, as WWII vet played "Taps" in honor of fallen and departed service members.

Enjoy the slideshow below.

Friday, May 18, 2012

State Supremes Ban Indicted Justice From Her Office

In the wake of the indictment of one of their own for public corruption, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court not only relieved Justice Joan Orie Melvin of all duties ...

but they cleaned out her desk, too!

Where Otters Lead, Barron Von Footinmouths Follow

If I ever had any respect for Bucks County "lawyer" Larry Otter, that went out the door a month ago. He walked right by me without bothering to inform me that he'd just been in Court about me, and would be back for a hearing the very next morning. He never bothered to tell me of his baseless attempt to obtain a temporary restraining order against me. Instead, he and his client, Tricia Mezzacappa, walked up to my car and started snapping pictures for some reason.

When Otter returned to Court the very next morning, I still had no idea a hearing had been scheduled. But Judge Beltrami, leery of acting ex parte against anyone, dismissed the case. He would likely be offended to know Otter had passed up an opportunity to inform me about the hearing.

I know I was.

This was obviously a malicious prosecution, as both the Otter and Mezzacappa will soon learn in another venue.

He claims he's an election law expert, but his real specialty is frivolous litigation. He's the crusader who filed four separate motions for attorney fees in the Gracedale saga.

Ron Angle and I, as some of you no doubt remember, had challenged the validity of the signatures for a referendum on Gracedale's sale. We lost the case.

Then Otter came after us for attorney fees in four separate motions, claiming we had acted in bad faith by discussing our challenge with County attorneys. He had all the email exchanges, thanks to Right-to-Know requests filed by Lamont McClure and the Gracedale people. He demanded a criminal investigation, and told Channel 69 we could be going to jail.

The reality? I really resented the claim that anyone "coached" me. I spent weeks in the elections office, reviewing nomination petitions. I spent at least another week researching and preparing a complaint. It was my work product. But yes, I sent numerous drafts of my Complaint, as it evolved. Right before filing, I received some suggestions from an attorney at the firm engaged to conduct Gracedale's sale. I accepted most of them.

This firm was acting under express authority of a County Council resolution that stated its "clear intent" was to authorize this law firm "to facilitate and expedite all issues" that would result in Gracedale's sale. Presumably, that would include discussions with allied private litigants who are attempting to achieve the very same goal. The resolution is broad enough that the firm actually could have represented us, although we preferred to make our own mistakes.

Now you could argue that Council never dreamed that the firm it hired would discuss a matter with allied private litigants. I get that. But the language in the resolution is what controls. Facilitate and expedite all issues leading to Gracedale's sale, charged Council.

Ironically, Otter is himself a private litigant who was engaged in numerous strategy sessions with none other than Controller Barron von Footinmouth. Yes, the same lawyer who brayed about the shock and horror of county attorneys discussing a case with private litigants, had absolutely no problem discussing the very same case with the Controller and his attorney.

Despite all his yelling and wild claims, which included vague allegations of perjury, the Otter was finally bounced out of Judge Baratta's courtroom.  Naturally, he appealed.  The Commonwealth Court quashed his appeal. Now his claim is in its death throes in the Court of Final Error, before the state supremes.

He'll be tossed from there, too.

Although there's never been any evidence of impropriety, Controller Barron von Footinmouth has decided to bring up the same subject again. Get this. He admits himself that he has no authority to seek a surcharge against anyone. He knows that a recent independent audit by a real accountant makes no finding of impropriety. But he wants copies of all emails. Never mind that he's had them for a year. And if he doesn't get them, he'll be asking Council for subpoenas.

Amazingly, he admitted to Council last night that the Gracedale people are in his loop. Gee, they just happen to be private litigants, too. He complains about Stoffa using County resources to assist us, but sees nothing improper or wrong with using his own County resources to help them? Just because they like to call themselves "We, the People," that doesn't make it so.

Maybe he should surcharge himself.

Barron is a political Controller. He's established that with T-Mobile. He proved it again with the asbestos scare. And now he is impugning the integrity of John Stoffa to get a few brownie points with the Gracedale unions.

When John Stoffa leaves office, he will do so knowing he has always been guided by one principal - doing the right thing. When Barron leaves, he'll just leave.

Updated 9:50 PM:  Among his blunders in his presentation on Thursday evening, Barron von Footinmouth referred to the wrong County Council Resolution. He cited the 8/19/10 Resolution authorizing the Exec to seek proposals for Gracedale's sale, which has nothing to do with the decision to hire a law firm. that Resolution, adopted 10/21/10, hires a private law firm for legal services on issues that arise in connection with Gracedale's sale. "It shall be understood that the clear intent of the contract with [Eckert Seamans] is to facilitate and expedite all issues that will result in the alternate ownership (sale/lease) of Gracedale."

It amazes me that, after all this time, Barron still would be unaware of this resolution or its broad mandate.

Stop Peeing at the Courthouse Parking Garage

Sheriff Randy Miller has noticed the smell. He's also seen contraband and drunks, roaming through the parking garage located next to the Northampton County Courthouse. Worse than that, he's concerned about judges who put in a hard 15 minutes of work every day, getting harassed on their way to their cars. So he's proposed, and Council last night unanimously approved, a parking deck surveillance system.  Price tag? $24,000.

The cameras will feed into the Sheriff's dispatch center, as well as 911. Sheriff Miller argued this syystem is needed "to protect our employees and our property."

I thought it was already there, so I stopped peeing in the garage long ago.

Bob Meyers: A True Public Servant, Who Will Be Missed

The first time I met Northampton County Director of Corrections Bob Meyers, he tried to kick me out of a meeting. We've been friends ever since. ... I think.

I dropped in on a prison advisory board meeting. Those are at the jail. I was right behind one of the advisory board members, and the guard must have thought I was one of them. But I wasn't. Instead of an upstanding member of society, the guard had just allowed a bottom-feeding blogger to enter the building.

I understand he was later flogged.

I now know that I also had just violated about a gazillion laws.

When the meeting started, I whipped out one of my trusty flipcams (yes, I have two) to record every pearl of wisdom. I also had a camera, cellphone and Dick Tracy wristwatch. But the second I started recording, all hell broke loose. Apparently, recording devices of any kind are a no-no inside the walls of a jail.

The penalty is twenty years in the electric chair.

Bob Meyers asked me to turn the flip cam off. I refused. He then asked me to leave. I refused. He left for legal guidance. I sat there for about ten minutes while people tried to avoid eye contact with me. I kept waiting for some trap door to open, plunging me in the murky depths with some laser-headed sharks. But noting. When Bob came back, he had a forlorn look on his face. It was apparent that the answer he received was unhelpful to him.

I relented, and shut my camera off.

Now he even lets me take his picture.

Last night was probably Bob's last appearance before County Council. He's retiring July 6, after 32 years of service. "I stand before you now a few years older, a lot wiser, but also very thankful for the career that Northampton County has afforded me," he stated. "It's allowed me to learn man valuable life lessons. It's allowed me to raise a stable family, which I'm very thankful for. it's also allowed me 33 wonderful years with my wife."

Meyers assured Council there are strong people behind him at the jail, who will pick up the slack with his departure.

In his stint as Director of Corrections, Meyers has been a strong advocate of programs designed to reduce recidivism, such as the West Easton Treatment Center.

After thanking Council and the public for an opportunity to serve, he walked up to Executive John Stoffa. Although the Executive has been hobbled by searing pain in his back for several, he stood and embraced Meyers, who was beating back tears. "I will cherish the memories of the many good people I've met along the way," Meyers concluded.

Dent To Host a Week of Small Business Workshops

I'd like to borrow $20 million, with no collateral, to buy up properties around Allentown's hockey arena.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How the Hell Can Dent Stand Congress?

LV Congressman Charlie Dent is pretty good about sending out news releases, explaining his votes on various issues. Last night, his office forwarded a news release in which he explains his vote in support of a House bill to reauthorize a law protecting women from domestic violence.
“Reauthorization of the Violence Against Woman Act will undoubtedly improve our nation’s ability to combat domestic violence and protect its victims. While the version of this legislation passed earlier this year by the U.S. Senate is worthy of support, I voted for H.R. 4970 because its passage in the House brings Congress a step closer to completing work on this important matter. Now, the two chambers must work together to reconcile differences in their approaches to VAWA reauthorization.”
Sounds like pretty basic stuff, right? Not in Congress, where up is down and left is right.

This bill, which has breezed through Congress in previous years, largely went along party lines this time. Democrats claim Republicans hate women, even though some of them are even married. Republicans accuse Dems of playing politics.

The Christian Science Monitor sifts through the political rhetoric and explains the difference between the House and Senate versions.
* The Senate adds language that explicitly mentions gay and transgender Americans for protection, while the House version is gender neutral. Republicans contend that their measure allows all Americans to receive protection because it does not specify who qualifies for various programs. Democrats, however, say that local law enforcement could use the lack of specificity to discriminate against gay or transgender people.

* The House bill does not include a Senate provision that would allow Native American women to take American citizens who abuse them to court within the tribal legal system. Republicans say that the Senate measure is unconstitutional and replace it with a proposal that allows Native American women to apply for protection orders from local US courts. Democrats contend that without the Senate’s proposals, Native American women abused on an Indian reservation are often left without legal recourse.

* The House bill does not allow for a path to citizenship for illegal women who have been abused and agree to cooperate with the police investigation of the crime. Moreover, it holds the cap on temporary visas offered to women cooperating in legal investigations to 10,000, below the Senate’s increased 15,000 level. Republicans say the citizenship provision is akin to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Democrats, on the other hand, say that women fearing deportation may never come forward to take abusers off the street under the House bill.
Dent has no strong objection to the Senate version, according to his statement. Conciliatory by nature, this type of political rancor has to drive him nuts.