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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bethlehem's False Equality

On my way to cover Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board meeting on Wednesday night, I stumbled upon the rally celebrating the Supreme Court's favorable LGBT rulings earlier that day. In addition to a strident Adrian Shanker,the president of Equality Pa, there were a number of local politicians present, including Mayor John Callahan, City Council members Willie Reynolds, Karen Dolan and Mike Recchiuti and Council candidates Bryan Callahan and Adam Waldron. Allentown City Council Prez Julio Guridy was there, too.

Presumptive Mayor Bob Donchez was not there. Nor were Council members Jean Belinski, Dave DiGiacinto and Eric Evans. Are they homophobes? All four of them had voted for Bethlehem's Human Relations Ordinance, but I don't think their presence was requested and they were not listed on the Facebook announcementt of this rally.

Thanks to that new Human Relations Ordinance, we know that everyone is equal in Bethlehem.  The rally held Wednesday also convinces me that some people are more equal than others. It is OK to express religious intolerance as Karen Dolan did to Catholics and Planning Commissioner Jim Fiorentino did to Mormons, so long as you support gay rights.  

This false equality is precisely because I would have voted against that feel good ordinance.

Zoners Nix Basement Apartment Despite City's Clerical Error

Bethlehem zoners have ruled against a South Side property owner who relied on the City's own assurances that he owned a 4-unit apartment building. Following a contentious June 26 hearing, they upheld an Enforcement Notice requiring Richard Smith to discontinue leasing a basement apartment at 311 E. 4th Street. "The layout of the apartment  is hazardous," argued Zoning Officer Suzanne Borzak. "If there's a fire in the apartment, people will die."

Smith was represented by Bethlehem Attorney Steve Shields. He established that when Smith first bought the property in 2004, it was listed as a 4-unit apartment building. He received a certificate of occupancy for a4-unit building. After that, the property was inspected on several occasions, and was identified as a 4-unit building. Smith also pays water bills and recycling fees for a 4-unit building  Then in May, he received an enforcement notice from the zoning office, telling him he had to evict his basement tenants. He called this a hardship to them and to him, and Shields argued that Smith had every right to rely upon Bethlehem's previous assurances.

Zoning Officer Suzanne Borzak acknowledged that the City had mistakenly listed the property as a 4-unit building. " The reason there's erasers on pencils is because we all make mistakes," she explained. .

A 1997 Zoning Hearing Board decision denied the basement apartment over parking concerns. But the decision was misplaced in the back of a file drawer and was only recently discovered.

Over Shields' objections, Housing Inspector Rich Oscavich was allowed to testify that there are "continuing issues" over the building. Shields argued that code questions are totally irrelevant to zoning, but Oscavich was allowed to go on and state that the property had been condemned three times.

"If it wasn't an approved apartment, why were you inspecting it?" Shields asked. He also lashed out at Borzak, who had sent the enforcement notice. "If you had been doing your job, we wouldn't need this," he told her.

Borzak, herself a former inspector, explained she has only been the City's zoning officer for a year.

Neighbors Santiago Rivera and Jill Lutz spoke against the fourth apartment, citing the demands it would place on parking. But Shields pointed out that his client only wants to continue doing what the City has already allowed him to do since 2004. In addition, his client testified that conditions have changed since the 1997 zoning decision, and there is a huge parking lot only 80 yards from his building.

Following testimony, zoners voted to uphold the enforcement notice in a 4-1 vote. Michael Santanasto dissented. Then zoners unanimously to deny the variances that would make a 4th apartment possible.

Smith and Shields are mulling an appeal.

In other business, the Zoning Hearing Board unanimously granted dimensional variances to Lehigh Valley Industrial Park for a billboard near Route 78. A variance was needed because the sign will be only 260' from a residential district. Attorney Jim Preston argued that residential district was along the center line of a four-lane highway.

Preston had an unusual ally - Planning Director Darlene Heller. "Had we taken closer look, it would not go down the middle of the highway," she conceded. "We feel the request is appropriate."

Zoners also allowed a 37' high sign instead of the 25' high signs authorized by the zoning ordinance because a dip in the highway obstructs the line of sight.

Finally, the Board voted, 3-0, to authorize Bill Shafer to replace a porch at his 111 E Washington Ave. home, which he told zoners was first built in 1895, before there was a zoning ordinance. The porch was done in by Hurricane Sandy. Att'y Santanasto recused himself because Shafer is a client. ZHB member Jim Schantz also declined to participate in the matter.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mezzacappa Convicted of Harassment ... Again

Following a morning of testimony before District Judge Richard Yetter, Tricia Mezzacappa has been convicted of harassment a second time and fined $200, with 30 days to appeal. "This is the second time," Judge Yetter told Mezzacappa. "I don't want to see you back here."

Last November, Mezzacappa was convicted by Judge Yetter of disorderly conduct and fined $200. That charge followed a Boro Hall tirade in which two witnesses testified she had threatened to drown Kelly Gross.

Mezzacappa actually had two hearings today for harassment. Two private prosecutions were approved by DA John Morganelli, and scheduled back to back.

The first case involved Matthew Dees, a West Easton resident who was repeatedly impersonated by Mezzacappa. The second involved Jill Garcia, a West Easton Borough Clerk who has been habitually taunted and cursed at by Mezzacappa.  While complimenting Dees for an excellent presentation, Yetter found Mezzacappa not guilty on the basis that her online impersonation actually was done to harass others, not him. But Jill Garcia's charges stuck. Garcia was represented by Attorney Christy Schlottman.

Instead of an attorney, Mezzacappa came to court accompanied by Jim Gregory. He was dressed in a storm jacket despite the fact that it was 9000 degrees outside.

The first thing Mezzacappa did was confront me.

"You claim I am armed and dangerous and mentally ill, and here you are," she accused. She made the same accusation to Garcia, who had to be there. The presence of two or three Wilson police officers is a pretty solid indication that others also consider her armed, dangerous and mentally ill.

Mezzacappa tried denying that she is the publisher or author of West Easton Foot Print, forcing Dees to prove it. "I'm just going to sit here and let him go on 'till 7 pm," she said, opening the door to page after page of damaging admissions. Dees introduced blogs in which she discusses her squabbles with West Easton, her pet pig, her candidacy for Borough Council, pig stories, and even blog that included her emails.

"I think he needs a psychologist more than he needs a court, but let him vent," she said at one point.

In addition to her online impersonations, Dees introduced evidence that Mezzacappa had actually called his employer to complain about him, making scurrilous suggestions and calling him "potentially dangerous."

Mezzacappa took feigned offense to Dees' reference to pig stories, referring to her pet as an "ailing, sick, dying pig."

Yetter noted that Pennsylvania recently adopted a law proscribing online impersonation. But Mezzacappa was charged with harassment, which Yetter considered a flaw.

In the second matter, Mezzacappa was less lucky.  West Easton Borough Clerk Jill Garcia testified to Mezzacappa's online taunts, as well as remarks made to her at Borough Hall. She recounted threatening and abusive behavior, which included constant kicking and banging at the doors to Borough Hall after being told to wait for a police escort.

"We're afraid of her," she said, telling Judge Yetter about Mezzacappa's fantasies of putting a hollow point bullet through my skull. She also described a bizarre gun video made by Mezzacappa, containing words like "You better outrun my gun" and ending with a coffin and a picture of the West Easton web page.

"That's not what a normal person does," said Garcia. "I really believe she would do these things. She doesn't seem reasonable to me. "

Garcia complained that prospective employers and even her children can see the hateful and hurtful things Mezzacappa has posted about her.  

"I just would like it to stop," she told Judge Yetter. "It's relentless. I don't want to come to work now." 

I doubt that will happen. All of her hateful comments about Garcia are still on her blog. That's something Judge Yetter may want to consider when Mezzacappa asks for a payment agreement on her fine.

Parking Woes Kill Benner's "Urban Loft" Project

Garrett Benner
In reaction to favorable Supreme Court rulings, marriage equality advocates rallied outside Bethlehem's town hall on a hot evening on June 25. But inside, it was business as usual for the Zoning Hearing Board. Thirty-five people were rallying for and against dimensional variances and special exceptions in four different matters.

Most of them were in an increasingly hot rotunda to speak against Garrett Benner's proposed conversion of a vacant, three-story warehouse at 18 W. Goepp Street into nine urban lofts with 15' high ceilings. Under the City's new zoning ordinance, residential use is permitted. But Benner, represented by father Dennis, still needed variances. His apartments would be only 867 sq ft, below the 1,200 sq ft minimum. But what really bothered a small army of Goepp Street residents was parking. He proposed 10 spots instead of the 16 required.

Benner explained that he spent $375,000 to buy the old sewing factory building. Because it's in poor condition, with broken windows and a crumbling retaining wall, he's planning on $761,000 in renovations for three apartments on each of three floors. He's already started the exterior work, and told zoners he would be ready for business by October.

But uniformly, neighbors complained about parking. "Dear God in heaven, somebody has to come look at our streets; we have no parking now," exclaimed Lorraine Foulke, who suggested Benner move to the vacant Martin Tower. She accused Benner of "trying to get richer" with 9 apartments. Mark Traupman made the slippery slope argument, asking what would prevent his neighbor from converting his home into a 3-apartment dwelling. Deb Lyons stated the building "needs to be torn down," noting that vandals frequent the abandoned building. "Kids are still gonna' come and break those windows in that alley," she predicted. "I feel sorry for you." Another witness, Helen Lakatos, has photographed people defecating in the alley. "More people equals more noise," she added.

Presenting a petition signed by 105 neighbors opposed to the apartments, Lisa Arechiga noted that her bedroom window faces the parking lot. "Would you want to live with round the clock noise and people literally right outside your bedroom?" she asked.

But Attorney Benner pointedly asked her, "Have you thought about the value of your home if this building is allowed to continue to deteriorate?"

"I don't think it would increase it," she conceded.

Benner noted that his son is "willing to spend a lot of money to fix what is a really bad problem. It might be impetus for further redevelopment of the area."

He added that the number of tenants living there was less than the 25-30 people who worked there ten years ago.

After hearing both sides, zoners voted unanimously against the proposal. Benner had told zoners it was economically unfeasible to go with 6 apartments at the site, but is rethinking his options.

NorCo Officials Scramble To Protect Staff From Gun Violence

When Tricia Mezzacappa, the Sally Starr of the Lehigh Valley, pranced into the elections office with her six-shooter earlier this week, she did succeed in scaring the staff. But she may also have unwittingly done them a favor. Since that incident, County officials have taken seteps to ensure that an incident like that is never repeated.

Under state law, firearms are banned inside inside a "court facility," which does included the "offices of court clerks." Does that include an elections office? Since that office is one of the historic row offices and has traditionally been located at the courthouse, I'd say it does. But reasonable people can argue just as convincingly that it does not. Because of this uncertainty, some Council members began to consider adoption of an ordinance that would ban weapons at all County-owned property.

Preliminary research reveals that Northampton County enacted exactly this kind of ordinance in 1988, and amended it in 2007. Under this law, no one can enter upon County-owned property with a firearm.

But what about the Centralized Human Services building? The County will lease, not own that property, for at least the next five years. So it appears that the ordinance needs an amendment to include leased property.

This is where state law gets in the way. It expressly prohibits any gun regulation by municipal government. But this is not gun regulation. The County is regulating the use of its own property.

Gay Rights Rulings Celebrated at Payrow Plaza

LGBT Activist Adrian Shanker , with Mike Rechiutti in background
Led by LGBT activist Adrian Shanker, a boisterous crowd of over 100 people was cheering at Bethlehem's Payrow Plaza on June 26. They weren't there for the Zoning Hearing Board. Nor were they delirious from the heat. Instead, they were celebrating a pair of recent Supreme Court decisions decided earlier that day, advancing the cause of same sex marriages. Giving this cause even more credibility was the added weight of local leaders. Allentown City Council Prez Julio Guridy was joined by Bethlehem Council members Karen Dolan, Willie Reynolds and Mike Rechiutti.

Mayor John Callahan was there, too, and was getting a little rowdy until someone told him a wrestling ref was on his way.

The Express Time' Lynn Olanoff has more details. I was there for what turned out to be a four-hour ZHB meeting. So I missed some of the luminaries she reported.

Whenever I write about gay rights, I tend to get in trouble. For example, I think the human relations commission that Adrian worked so hard for is utter nonsense that could actually result in discrimination. But I am glad for these rulings, which make much more sense to me.
I thought the applause was for me. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Callahan Has 13:1 $ Advantage Over Brown

From Team Callahan:  Democratic nominee for Northampton County Executive John Callahan once again displayed his impressive fundraising prowess, reporting having raised $41,230 from May 7 to June 10. In the 30 Day Post-Primary Campaign Finance report, Callahan significantly out-raised the Republican nominee, John Brown, who reported raising no money. More importantly, this leaves Callahan with $90,001 cash on hand compared to Brown’s $7,003.

Since the beginning of the election cycle, Callahan has raised an unprecedented $438,415 from more than 500 individual contributors.

“This puts us in the driver’s seat heading into the summer months,” said Callahan’s campaign manager, Eric Nagy. “With the primary behind us, we are committed to running a serious campaign and we will have the resources to communicate with voters from every corner of Northampton County.”

Nagy concluded, “While sheer dollars are important, we are running a strong grassroots campaign, with over 500 individual donors to thank. Clearly, John Callahan’s record of job creation and fiscal responsibility is continuing to resonate with voters.”

Callahan, endorsed by The Express-Times and over 40 Democratic officials in the primary, won the nomination in a three-way contest by securing over 50% of the vote.

Second Search Warrant Executed Against Bethlehem Mayoral Wannabe

A second search warrant has been executed against Bethlehem Mayoral hopeful Jim Gregory, according to his Facebook page, in what The Express Times claims is an investigation into Gregory's film-making career. He allegedly was filming sexual encounters with a girlfriend, without her consent.

Here's what Gregory himself, as Gregory, has to say on his public page. If any of you speak Gregory, please translate.

People, you are going to just love this. I received a copy of a warrant that said that my house was searched today for an old computer. It says they seized it from my house. Problem here is that Lina took the computer in may. How did they search my house for a computer that has been missing for a month. And then allegedly confiscate it.. Can't wait detective Miller!!!!!!

Tracy or Jim schlener, please call me immediately at 610-997-XXXX or 484-225-XXXX. Was miller Callahans boy??????call anytime day or freaking night

It was convenient for the detective that I wasn't home today since he was searching for something that hasn't been here for six weeks. If he said he took it, he lied, if he said Lina gave him a computer that belonged to me, then he received stolen property. Would love to know where he found it. If it was here, why didnt it get taken during first search. How stupid are these people????

What Questions Would You Ask NorCo Council Candidates?

Below are some of the questions I have for Northampton County Council candidates. Before sending these out, what questions would you like asked?  I'll put this together and give candidates some time to mull over their answers.

1. Lehigh County Commissioners and Bethlehem City council have both toyed with the idea of rejecting pass through grants based on objections to the federal deficit, money owed to China and antipathy to charter schools. Would you reject pass through grants?

2. Most of Council's work is done at its busy Personnel and Finance Committees, at which every member of Council is encouraged to attend. How do you feel about participation at Council Committee meetings? Will you attend?

3. One candidate has rejected the concept of regionalism as one big mess that is harder to manage than a group of smaller messes. Do you support or oppose regionalism, and what regional projects would you endorse on Council?

4. During the Executive primary, one candidate made a no-tax hike pledge. Do you think it is responsible to make no tax-hike pledges? If so, are you willing to make one?

5. In a 2011 plebiscite, voters told Council not to sell Gracedale for 5 years.The annual County contribution is currently in the $5-7 million range, so voters effectively voted for that contribution. But what if it grows? Is there a red line at which you would agree it is necessary to sell Gracedale?

6. In 2007, County Council voted to set aside 1/2 mill of real estate tax (about $3.5 million) for a pay-as-you go open space plan for preserving farmland, environmentally sensitive land and municipal parks. On Council, will you vote to continue funding open space? Do you consider this a core county function?

7.  There are 11 unions county-wide. What efforts would you make, as a member of council, to encourage unions to consolidate and reduce the amount of time administrators must spend in contract negotiations?

8. What is your position on laying off County workers? Would you support layoffs to balance the budget, or vote to increase taxes to provide the same level of services?

9. Northampton County, like Lehigh, has privatized the management of Gracedale. But there are those who would like to return administration to the County. Where do you stand on this issue?

10. Some Council members would like to amend the Home Rule Charter to return to elected row officers. How do you feel about this proposal?

11. Would you support a ban on guns by people using any County facilities, regardless whether it is on the courthouse campus?

South Side Bethlehem Goes For an Arts Walk

Chris Morales questions cost of Community Benefit District
Would you like a safer South Side? One that grabs the attention of the 20,000 visitors who pass through it each day? One with a fresh appearance and vibrant neighborhoods? That's the whole point of a Community Benefit District proposed by a coalition that includes Lehigh University, Northampton Community College, St. Luke's Hospital, ArtsQuest and several Third and Fourth Street businesses. During a June 25 meeting at Comfort Suites, Landscape Architect and Planner Carter Van Dyke provided about 25 residents with a sneak preview of some of the plans under consideration. Everything will be connected by an "Arts Walk" with colorful paving, festival lights, parklets and art.

Van Dyke, stating that "There's more to South Side than Third Street," wants to draw visitors into the nooks and crannies between Third and Fourth Streets. He proposes transforming portions of Vine, Morton, Webster and Filmore Streets into festival destinations with outdoor dining, interactive kiosks, green links and parklets. South New Street, near Third, would have a festive streetscape with festive lighting that could be seen from City Hall.

This idea, Van Dyke claimed, is based on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a world-class urban bike and pedestrian path that connects neighborhoods and entertainment amenities. He explained that, done right, an arts walk would capture the character of the community. He added that parklets, created by having businesses surrender a parking spot here and there, would increase their sales 20%. He also proposes reducing the widths of some streets like 40' wide Morton Street. At Five Points, he'd plant trees to offset "so much pavement" in that area.

Van Dyke wants to give people two reasons to come to Bethlehem instead of one. He argued that South Side should be its own destination, not a "step child" to North Bethlehem.

The concern raised by most residents is cost. Half of tyhe $500,000 annual budget will come from the pockets of property owners, tenants and businesses.

Carter Van Dyke: South Side not North Bethlehem's "step child"
Chris Morales, a Republican candidate for City Council, called the streetscape enhancements a "fantastic idea," but was the first to question cost. He also worries whether it's such a good idea to make streets narrower in an area known for traffic congestion.

Lehigh University's Dale Kochard responded that cost options will be explored more closely at their next meeting, currently scheduled for July 10.

One unidentified resident, who stormed out after speaking, wants nothing done at all.

"I know this are better than you do," he said, adding he owns four properties. "We have a major gang problem here. You can put out as many planters as you want. When they drink in the bars, they’ll come out and knock the planters over.”

Van Dyke responded that this will change as people care more for their property.

Peter Crowell criticized the "contrived" appearance of the artwork on the plans, and Van Dyke agreed that whatever is produced will be more organic and will require the efforts of "many, many people."

Van Dyke stated there will probably be a demonstration project, followed by others over time.

Pistol Packin' Momma Invades Voter Registration Office

She's done it again. On Friday, failed Northampton County Council candidate Tricia Mezzacappa created a stir at a GOP fundraiser by prancing around with a pistol in a holster. Since the Commonwealth's second highest ranking official, Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, was the featured speaker, state troopers on hand were a tad put out, and persuaded her to check her piece. But there were no state troopers on hand when an armed Mezzacappa decided to invade Northampton County's Register of Elections office on Monday. Once again, she was wearing her pea-shooter in a holster.

I spotted her as she sauntered in.

Although Pennsylvania is an "open carry" state, you need a license to carry firearms if you want to transport a gun, loaded or unloaded, in a vehicle. So eventually, Mezzacappa will be arrested.

But her recent actions, both on Friday and Monday, will likely lead to much needed gun control.

Under state law, it is illegal to bring a weapon inside a courthouse or a "court-related facility." But is the Elections Office a court-related facility? Those workers might be considered "court clerks," in which case they would be covered. They might not. I can see arguments both ways. But that office, which is where the votes are counted, should be completely free of intimidation. How can that be when a candidate is in their face, packin' heat?

Let's use some common sense. Like our school children, government officials are increasingly becoming targets for mentally ill people. That risk is both substantial and real. For that reason, there needs to be a ban on all weapons at any County-owned or leased facility.

What about state preemption, you say? The County has no right to regulate firearms, you'll argue. That is a matter for the state. But I'd respond that the County, and any other local government, has every right to regulate its own property, as Philly recently did by banning all weapons inside its parks.

Some Council members are currently mulling exactly this kind of solution.

Local municipalities should probably review their ordinances and make changes as needed.

It wouldn't hurt if state legislators adopted some changes adopting an outright ban inside any municipal building or facility.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Does the LV Care About Immigration Reform?

Att'y Jose Campos is hopeful that the Senate will finally act
If the audience at Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center is any indication, the Lehigh Valley does care about immigration reform. Pennsylvania may be no border state, but 16.1% of this area's 650,000 population is now Hispanic. So on a hot Summer night, over forty people attended a June 24 screening of Davis Guggenheim's emotional The Dream is Now documentary, which advocates for what is called the Dream Act. Following this 30-minute movie, prominent immigration attorneys Jose Campos, Ray Lahoud and Kevin Santos shared some local war stories of what they see daily.

Their consensus? The system is broken.

This event was sponsored by Organizing For Action (OFA). That's a nonpartisan nonprofit, but is closely connected to President Obama's political agenda. Audience members were asked to contact Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey about the importance of fixing "America's broken immigration system."

Att'y Ray Lahoud is himself the son of Lebanese immigrants
Filmmaker Guggenheim has played a role before in making documentaries that help shape public opinion. The Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and Waiting for Superman, about failures in public education, are two of his more controversial films.

The Dream is Now follows the lives of several young people who excelled in high school, only to learn that their own dreams were becoming nightmares because they are the children of undocumented aliens. Under our current immigration system, the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. Without citizenship or a social security number, "they are stuck in limbo."

As a result, a young man named Jose, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering, spends his days as a stucco mason. His diploma collects dust despite a shortage in his profession..

Another high school overachiever committed suicide.

The remedy to this tragedy is the DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001. It provides a citizenship path for the children of undocumented aliens. Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, who sponsored the original bill, fell a few votes short in 2005. Renewed efforts in 2010 were still five votes shy in the U.S. Senate, despite a CBO report showing that it would reduce the deficit by $2.2 billion over the next ten years.

After the Senate vote, talking head Glenn Beck taunted, "No way, Jose."

As Guggenheim poetically explains,
When we get close, voices on the fringe get louder and the same images come. It's nothing new for us. Pick a moment in history, and you can always find an invading race. The Chinese, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians. There is always a new Other we are told to fear. And consistent throughout the struggle, is the battle between our very worst instincts, and our very best. That this Other has become Us. And they've always made Us better.
President Obama reacted to Congress' failure, in June 2012, with "DACA" (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). This provides work permits for undocumented young people who came to this country as children, pose no threat to national security, and have pursued education or military service.

Att'y Kevin Santos worries about 40,000 Border Patrol Agents  
In addition to President Obama's Executive Order, the nation's growing Hispanic population responded forcefully in the presidential election. They made up ten per cent of the turnout, and 71% of them voted for Obama.

As a result, political winds are shifting. "Believe it or not, I see some glimmer of bipartisanship out there," notes Senator McCain.

A new Dream Act is scheduled for vote in the Senate, possibly as soon as this week. As a prelude, a new border security law just cleared the Senate. It provides for 20,000 new border patrol agents, the completion of a 700 mile fence next to Mexico, as well as the expanded use of radar and drones.  

While that political weathervane changes direction, deportations are actually increasing. They are 50% higher under President Obama than they were under President Bush. Part of the documentary chronicles the plight of two children whose mothers were torn away from them. Public sentiment against Immigration became so overwhelming that federal authorities were embarrassed into changing course, in one case stopping a bus that was deporting a mother to Mexico.

"The whole country mobilized and stopped the bus," claimed Erika Andiola, daughter of one of these mothers.

Erika's dream is medical school. Will it come true? That depends on her ... and Congress.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hayden Phillips Will Stop Agenda 21 in Northampton County

Lower Nazareth resident Hayden Phillips, a political newcomer, did quite well among Republicans seeking one of five seats on Northampton County Council. He attracted 4,743 votes in the May 21 Primary, second only to Peg Ferraro. Personally, he seems very likable. For example, he calls his 30-year marriage "the easiest thing I've ever done." But I can think of few people worse than him in a regional government devoted almost entirely to human services. I learned that by viewing a YouTube speech he gave prior to the primary.

For one thing, he resents the idea of helping the less fortunate. "Every tax dollar spent on a person who doesn't earn it comes out of the pocket of a person who does earn it," he explains. That's certainly true, and that's why we have human services. While he concedes there should be a social net, but claimed he recently heard that in Pennsylvania, welfare benefits are $68,000. He claims that's why people don't work.

That's simply ridiculous. If he wants to justify hurting the most vulnerable members of our society, he should try to provide more factually accurate information. The truth? Nearly 1/4 of Easton and Bethlehem are at or below the poverty level. One out of every five American children (that's American) does not have enough food to eat. There are five "food deserts" in the Lehigh Valley, all in urban areas. That does not happen when welfare recipients are getting $68,000 a year.

Had Phillips done just a minimal amount of research, he'd realize that figure is the result of a 2011 study that claims that "a family with two full-time wage earners and two children needs nearly $68,000 a year to afford fundamentals like housing, utilities, food, health care, transportation, saving for retirement and child care."

In addition to opposing help for the the $68,000 per year poor, Phillips is opposed to regionalism. He started that discussion in the context of a Bi-County Health department.  I and many others were unwilling to support that effort at regionalism because large, well-funded, hospitals, which would benefit, were unwilling to make any cash contributions. But Phillips is actually opposed to the concept of regionalism.

"I never liked the idea of putting two units together, two smaller messes into one big mess, and then try to manage the big mess. I've always had much more luck managing the smaller messes."

If this is so, Phillips should be stick to the smaller mess. He should be running for Township Supervisor, not County Council. Under his thinking there would be no regional police departments, no matter what strain it puts on small municipalities. There should be no regional emergency management, though Scott Parsons just explained at the last Council meeting that borough governments simply are unable to provide the personnel. There should be no regional water or sewer authorities. Government should be as fragmented as possible.

The he started talking about Agenda 21, gun rights and a host of other issues that have nothing to do with County government. Finally, he warned about the "swell of liberalism" and a "press behind them, propping them up."

Nice guy or not, he's an extremist.

Workers' Comp Claims Drop at Northampton County

Although Northampton County is self-insured for workers' compensation claims, it hired PMA Management Corp. as its third-party administrator in 2010. At that time, 30% of the workforce had filed a claim. Costs to the County had skyrocketed from $1.8 million to $2.9 million over just two years. But in the past three years, there's been a dramatic turnaround, especially at Gracedale, the County's nursing home.

In a report to Council's Finance Committee last week, PMA reps reported that claims have dropped from a high of 595 in 2006 to just 296 last year. At Gracedale, it dropped from 368 in 2011 to just 159 last year, a 58% drop.

Over the last three years, Gracedale has led all departments with 720 workers' comp claims, followed by the jail with just 188.

In the courthouse, there were 120 workers' comp claims, mostly among Deputy Sheriffs, maintenance and custodial staff.

"No judges, eh?" asked Council member Bob Werner.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pistol Packin' Momma Invades GOP Fundraiser

Lt. Governor Jim Cawley was the featured speaker at a luncheon fundraiser on Friday for State Rep. Marcia Hahn at Easton's Hampton Inn. Several state representatives, newly elected Judge Jennifer Sletvold and retention-seeking Judge Emil Giordano attended. So did pistol packin' Tricia Mezzacappa. With a gun in a holster. Yessiree, Bob, she thinks it's completely normal to brandish her piece in front of the second highest ranking official in the Commonwealth.

She was asked to surrender her weapon or leave. She chose the former, but still had a Pa. State Trooper shadow her until the event was over.

I believe Mezzacappa is open carrying because the Sheriff has revoked her license to carry concealed.

While she certainly has the right to prance around with her gun in a holster, she does not have the right to transport her gun in a car. That requires a license.

Under Pennsylvania's Uniform Firearms Act, a "firearm" is defined as follows:
"Any pistol or revolver with a barrel length less than 15 inches, any shotgun with a barrel length less than 18 inches or any rifle with a barrel length less than 16 inches, or any pistol, revolver, rifle or shotgun with an overall length of less than 26 inches. The barrel length of a firearm shall be determined by measuring from the muzzle of the barrel to the face of the closed action, bolt or cylinder, whichever is applicable."
A license is required for "carrying a firearm concealed on or about one's person or in a vehicle throughout this Commonwealth." There are exceptions for hunting and going to the range, but not for political fundraisers.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Stoffa: We Don't Need No Steenkin' Gracedale

That's what Gracedale fanatics claim.

As he reported at last night's Council meeting, Executive John Stoffa has spent nearly $28 million for capital projects at Gracedale since he assumed office. This does not include $4.3 million proposed for generators at Gracedale, which are part of the bridge bond scheduled for adoption on July 2.

Matos: We Don't Need No Steenkin' Jail

Director of Corrections Arnie Matos did not exactly say that Northampton County needs no jail. But he did point out that, contrary to the trend elsewhere in Pa., the County's jail population is decreasing. It's dropped from 920 to 736, despite all the predictions from experts in three-piece suits. Matos also pointed out that recidivism (criminal behavior by an offender who has already been jailed once) has dropped from 69% to 36.5%.

Since 66 cents of every County tax dollar pays for the back end of crime, this has a dramatic impact on your tax bill.

In my opinion, the corrections officers who helped make this possible should be rewarded for this outstanding turnaround in their newest contract.

In response to questioning from member Lamont McClure, Matos acknowledged that the recidivism rate is only based on re-offenses within the County, although a computer project is under way to make the data from other counties available.

Matos believes the drop in recidivism is a direct result of the treatment approach provided by Community Education Centers. Its contract was extended at last night's meeting, as a program for female offenders is under way.

Member Ken Kraft, who attends Prison Advisory Board meetings, also pointed to a recent program in which high school diplomas are awarded to inmates. Some Easton and at least one Liberty High School diploma were handed out this year. Kraft stated that the recidivism there is even lower, and a lot cheaper.

"Something we're doing in Northampton County is working," noted Matos.

I think it's the bagpipe.

Mezzacappa: We Don't Need No Steenkin' Bridge Repairs

In five minutes before Northampton County Council last night, Tricia Mezzacappa demonstrated convincingly why she finished in last place during last month's primary race. For the past few months, the County has pondered repairs to 18 bridges, as well as generators at Gracedale. But Mezzacappa last night insisted nothing's really wrong with any of them.

"What's so detrimental with these bridges in Northampton County that we have to do a bond? she demanded.

"It's unsafe and it's about time we do something," answered Council member Bruce Gilbert.

"Doing one bridge at a time using liquid fuel tax just doesn't cut it anymore," added Council President John Cusick. "It's not sexy, but it's a core function of County government.

Member Scott Parsons noted that 21 bridges have been identified as in serious disrepair, but only 18 of them will be repaired because bond proceeds must be spent in thrre years and it will take that long to do 18 bridges.

County Council will vote on this bridge bond on July 2.

Mezzacappa: We Don't Need No Steenkin' DA

Tricia Mezzacappa, with six inches of make-up, spray-painted red pants and 18" high heels, flew on her broom from West Easton to Northampton County Council last night. She demanded they do something about DA John Morganelli. He recently wrapped up his investigation into her leaked gun permit application, and charged only the person who leaked it.  Mezzacappa claims that West Easton Borough Council president Kelly Gross, whom she called "obviously corrupt and mentally disturbed," is the real felon. She demanded Northampton County Council to censure Gross, too.

I'm sure Council will be all over that like orange on a carrot.

McClure: Parks Don't Need No Steenkin' Cameras

Lamont McClure claimed during the Executive race that he's the County's champion of open space. But he joined Ken Kraft last night to reduce an open space grant to Bath Borough for four municipal parks.While they had no objection to dugouts and picnic tables, they objected to $1,270 for a wireless camera monitoring system at Cowling Park. According to Kraft, open space money should not be used for crime-fighting.

The rest of Council disagreed.

Bath might be able to get cameras cheaper than $1,270. I understand Jim Gregory has a few available.

LV Labor Council: We Don't Need No Steenkin' Gregory

Jim Gregory has another outfit to sue. The Lehigh Valley Labor Council has dumped him as one of their Vice Presidents. He received word at a meeting earlier this week. President Gregg Potter declined comment.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

One Great Judge Endorses Another

Superior Court Judge Jack Panella has every right to be bitter

But he's not.

He was defeated in a nasty election for the state Supreme Court by Judge Joan Orie Melvin, who cheated and used taxpayer resources. She's been tried, convicted and has resigned in disgrace. But instead of picking Panella to succeed her, Governor Tom Corbett has chosen the Superior Court's president Judge, Cory Stevens.

Instead of complaining, Judge Panella has sent a letter to The Express Times, unreservedly endorsing Stevens.  

Stevens, unlike Panella, is a Republican. Hard core, too. But like Panella, he's a great judge. In his time on the Superior Court, he has made strides to make the bench more transparent, conducting sessions at different colleges throughout the state. Earlier this year, Judge Panella headed one such panel at Northampton Community College.

Like Panella, he is also accessible. Although unable to discuss pending cases, he's as comfortable in a diner, drinking coffee with patrons, as he is in the rarefied atmosphere of a courtroom.

So despite their ideological differences, these two jurists have become good friends, genuinely admiring and respecting each other.

At a time when our judiciary has come under intense criticism, judges like Stevens and Panella exemplify everything that is right about our judicial system. I am delighted to see one of these class acts on the Supreme Court.

Bethlehem Officials Should Serve Residents, Not Teachers' Union

Bethlehem Visitor Center
Last week, Bethlehem dedicated a new Visitor Center at its SteelStacks campus, the heart of what is quickly becoming the Lehigh Valley's arts and entertainment district. With quick access to PBS, the ArtsQuest Center, Banana Factory and Levitt Pavilion, the South Side is be an artists' haven. Soon, there will even be homes for the creative, with low-rent housing planned at the vacant St. Stanislaus Church. So it makes sense that The Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts would want to relocate to East Third Street, with a three-story school for 600 students. But incredibly, two City Council members and the Planning Commission are stifling creativity, instead of encouraging it. Rather than do what is right for the City, they're carrying water for the teachers' union.

City Council members J. Willie Reynolds and Eric Evans, both of them teachers, voted against a state pass through grant for the Arts High School at a June 18 meeting. They would rather turn down state money than dirty their hands by giving it to a charter schools.

This is as ridiculous as when Lehigh County Commissioners objected last year to accepting federal block grants for badly needed municipal projects. Thet turned their noses up because we have a national debt and owe China money.

But local officials are elected to serve local interests. County Commissioners and City Council members are not in office to solve the national debt, negotiate treaties with China or decide educational issues. Their job is to bring back as much of the our money as they can that we send to Washington and Harrisburg.

Fortunately, five other members of City Council, including former teachers Bob Donchez and Karen Dolan, decided to represent the City instead of the teachers' union.

So the Charter School for the Arts has a $3 million state grant for its expansion into the arts and entertainment district on the south side. But the City's Planning Commission has thrown up another roadblock. Members Jim Fiorentino, Andy Twiggar and Olga Negron refuse to approve the new high school until they see a traffic study that the school agreed to perform. Never mind that City's own Traffic Coordinator, Tiffany Geklinsky, told this trio that the main purpose of this study would be to set timing for traffic lights. Never mind that Planning Director Darlene Heller hinted that the School agreed to follow all recommendations. Never mind that the School's Executive Director, Diane Labelle, told the Commission that even a 30-day delay could adversely affect the financing for what amounts to a $27 million project.

Earlier in the meeting, Planning Commissioners had no problem recommending a zoning amendment for the expansion of Kirkland Village, based on plans that still don't exist. Planning Commissioner Andrew Twiggar, who teaches Sunday School at the church seeking this zoning amendment, made no effort to recuse himself. No Matter. As a partner in a massive riverfront project located inside the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone, he already has a clear conflict of interest in every matter that comes before the Planning Commission.

Suddenly, the very same Twiggar who voted to approve a zoning amendment for an expansion of Kirkland Village with no plans at all, wanted to delay an arts high school in an arts district for a traffic study that this fledgling school has already agreed to follow completely.

Were these Planning Commissioners carrying water for the teachers' union, too? That's unclear. But their delay, which followed a month of delay because they failed to advertise a meeting, is poor planning. Chairman Jim Fiorentino even warned that it might be difficult to get a quorum together for meetings in July and August.

Is this good planning?

Jeff Parks, the visionary who started Musikfest, has claimed that the arts and entertainment will attract the creative workforce we need to be successful in the future. Mayor John Callahan can rightly take credit for re-energizing the south side with this emphasis. But that won't happen when myopic City Council members and Planning Commissioners represent the teachers' union instead of the best interests of the City.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mayoral Candidate Jim Gregory Faces Second PFA Contempt Citation

When you lie with the pigs, you get dirty.
Yesterday, Bethlehem Mayoral candidate Jim Gregory failed to appear at a news conference that he himself scheduled at the office of an attorney who does not represent him. While that was not happening, Northampton County Senior Judge Lawrence E. Brenner cited the politico for contempt of a Protection From Abuse Act Order originally filed against him on May 20. This is the second time he has been charged with contempt. A hearing is scheduled for July 3.

Gregory, a Northampton County mental health caseworker, was ordered on May 20 to stay away from his girlfriend, surrender his firearms, and make no attempt to contact her in any way, even through third parties. But the ink was barely dry on the PFA before Gregory was charged with contempt for continuing attempts at contact via phone texts, emails, and through third parties. Yesterday's contempt filing indicates that Gregory has persisted in this behavior.

The contempt petition alleges he emailed his victim's ex-boyfriend, offering to sell him nude pictures of her. In this missive, he brags that he possesses "sex tapes" of her with a police officer, which he claims to watch nightly with his friends.

He has made attempts to contact her through a cousin, instructing her to have the victim meet him for Monday bus trips to a casino. In addition, he makes this threat at a Facebook message to a mutual acquaintance:
You need to tell [Redacted] that it's time to make peace..I realize she isn't the driving force behind this effort to malign me, but the folks who are behind this will be prosecuted. Unless she plans to join them in custody my advise to her would be to get her lawyer to call me ASAP. Everyday that goes by brings more revelations of what she has done. Not good for her.
On June 17, he directly texted the victim with three pictures of his back yard, taken from his bedroom window.

Most damning are his Facebook messages to her:.
Hows it feel to be on channel 69 boo! How's [Redacted] taking this. After convincing you that I was having an affair with my wife, which is hilarious, he has pushed you into all these other mistakes. Except you, [redacted], is the embarrassed one now, not him..More to come, talk to Leighton..Soon

No harm, no foul.. Easy, did you get that [redacted].Time to end all this craziness. I have been drug through the mud already. i dont want you to be anymore. Talk to Leighton. He's a great guy. We speak often. I love him..He 's as funny as hell. Now end this , so we can get on with our lives. I will allow you to do that. leighton and you should both know you absolutely have nothing to fear from me. As far as those who convinced you to do all this, they are toast.

Now, the pictures, the emails, the sworn I witness testimony comes out and you are all toast. I warned you enough

Sorry about the mention of still having that naked picture you sent me that the boyfriend took of you. Bet you didn't tell him about it.Sucks for you. Now are you going to stop lying? Everyone believed all your lies. That brought us here. Now, it is my turn
Judge Benner has scheduled a hearing on this contempt citation for July 3, just in time for the fireworks.

Gregory is currently the subject of a criminal investigation based on allegations that he was secretly filming sexual trysts with his girlfriend. Gregory admitted installing a camera in a wall clock inside his bedroom because he thought his girlfriend was either stealing from him or having an affair.

Gregory's behavior has become increasingly erratic in recent months. In February, he took out a $100,000 line of credit on his Bethlehem home. He appears to be gambling excessively. Then in April, he delivered a rambling speech to Northampton County Council, asking for the heads of his boss, his boss's boss, and Executive John Stoffa.

Can You Eat on $4.50 a Day?

LV Congressman Matt Cartwright will find out if he can do that today. It's called the SNAP Challenge, based on the average daily benefit for a food stamps recipient. It comes at a time when Congress is considering reducing this benefit by $20 billion over the next decade.

"As a practicing Catholic, my faith informs this issue," claims Cartwright. "I am guided by a moral vision of how we must treat the most vulnerable members of our society."

Centre County Will Convert Nursing Home to Nonprofit

By a 2-1 vote, Centre County Commissioners have voted to get out of the nursing home business. Control will go from the County to a non-profit firm. This will allow for a higher Medicaid reimbursement rate than is available to a County-owned home.

"I’ve come to the conclusion that counties really shouldn’t be in the nursing home business," said one Commissioner.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Jim Gregory, A Creepy Predator

I was told last week that a search warrant was executed at Jim Gregory's Bethlehem home. I decided against writing about it because I thought it could interfere with a police investigation. But WFMZ-TV69 has now broken the story about last week's police raid at his home. It was prompted by a complaint that he had installed a camera in his bedroom so he could surreptitiously record his girlfriend while they were having sex.

This guy is a creepy predator.

Not only did he admit that he was secretly recording his girlfriend, whom he supposedly thought was stealing from him, but he himself is the person who foolishly informed Channel 69 of the police raid. Secretly recording her is wiretapping. By his own admission, he committed a felony of the third degree.

On Facebook, where he really should stop posting, he admits that the camera was purchased by someone using his name and his computer.

Maybe that's because it was him.

He also states that police missed his safe deposit key, which he calls the "real evidence."

He tells a friend "to warn Callahan" to "have the police get my stuff back soon. And Narlesky is screwed for signing a warrant with hearsay."

So far, he is suing Mayor John Callahan, Judge Jim Narlesky, DA John Morganelli, Bethlehem police,

Gregory is obviously a taker who preys on people. Unfortunately, as a caseworker, he comes into regular contact with older people having mental health concerns. How many of these people have fallen victim to someone who increasingly looks like a Dickensian villain?

I can think of two occasions in which he brought "clients" to Council meetings, using them like props.

But there's more.

Gregory is a constant gambler who apparently thinks his office is the Sands Casino. He uses his "clients" to feed his gambling habit. He has taken and used money cards that are provided for them by the casino. He does have their permission, but is this really voluntary?

Finally, just how did he get the house he owns in Bethlehem? I know. I also know how much he spent for the funeral of the woman who lived there.

He is a taker, a user who takes advantage of people.

And a Lehigh Valley Labor Council VP. Hopefully, not for long.

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Construction Imminent For 832-Unit Madison "Farms"

KRE Attorney Ed Murphy
Though in the works for the past ten years, the 832-unit Madison Farms development suddenly became a controversial topic in this May's election. Incumbent Commissioner Paul Weiss failed to capture either the Democratic or Republican nomination. But the dust has settled. At Bethlehem Township's June 17 meeting, there was no public hue or outcry when Commissioners considered and unanimously granted both a waiver of traffic impact fees and approved the first phase of this major project, proposed by KRE.

Located along the north side of Freemansburg Avenue, near the Route 33 Interchange, Madison Farms is a sprawling 103.9 acre "green field development of compact, walkable, interconnected neighborhoods." Tree-lined streets with sidewalks will link residents to a 17-acre "retail village, as well as 35 acres of open space, in a "traditional neighborhood design." The residential component will include multi-family flats, townhomes, carriage homes and single family detached dwellings.

The retail village is the first phase of project approved for development. Asked when it will be finished, KRE Attorney Ed Murphy responded he is a bit more worried about getting started. KRE is still waiting for a green light from PennDOT, which must approve improvements on Freemansburg Avenue. That is expected this Summer, after which it will take about twelve months to complete the retail village.

In addition to approving the retail component of Madison Farms, Commissioners waived $729,000 in traffic impact fees because KRE has already agreed to pay about three times that amount.

In other business, Commissioners unanimously adopted a text change to the zoning ordinance, allowing dormitories in institution zoned areas as a conditional use. This will enable Northampton Community College to double student housing to about 600, which was pitched to Commissioners by the college last December.

Resident Barry Roth, a regular at every meeting, questioned whether Northampton Community College would gobble up residential neighborhoods. But that appears unlikely, noted Solicitor Jim Broughal, who pointed out that the 200' setback would alone prevent that from happening.

This dorm proposal had been previously recommended by the Planning Commission.

From the dorms, Commissioners went to the sewers, unanimously endorsing an agreement with the City of Bethlehem over what is called the "annual sewer capital charge." In 2010, Bethlehem Township received a $81,700 bill from the City, which was about four times what it customarily paid. Special Solicitor Stanley Margle credited City and Township officials with establishing a series of protocols that will remove unpleasant surprises.

The City's bill was accurate.

Finally, Attorney Dave Backenstoe asked Commissioners for a "letter of recommendation" to the Zoning Hearing Board for sign variances he is seeking from the Zoning Hearing Board for a new Scheetz gas station on William Penn Highway. "This Board is not known for giving recommendations to the Zoning Hearing Board," noted Commissioner Tom Nolan. Backentstoe was also told he'd have better success with zoners if he asked Commissioners to pan his variance.

Commissioners will next meet on Monday, July 1, 7 PM, at the Municipal Building, located at 4225 Easton Avenue.