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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Friday, February 28, 2014

You Cannot Recall a Local Elected Official

Someone suggested yesterday  that Northampton County Executive John Brown be impeached or recalled. When John Stoffa was executive, they wanted to do it to him, too. I thought I'd post a blog explaining that it's illegal, at least on the local level.

Lehigh County's Home Rule Charter contains no recall provisions. Of course, that small technicality has never been an obstacle to numerous citizens demanding the ouster of every County Executive I remember. They were loudest when Jane Ervin's 70% tax hike was adopted.

Northampton County, unlike Lehigh, does have recall provisions in its Home Rule Charter. Thirty per cent of the voters registered in the most recent election must sign a petition that would place the matter on the ballot. People would have to be pretty angry for that to happen.But if they were that mad, and got all the signatures needed, it would fail. It is unconstitutional.

This is explained in The Pennsylvania Legislator's Municipal Handbook. The exclusive methods for removing elected officials, including locally elected officials are Art. II, Sec. 7 (conviction of infamous crime); Art. VI, Sec. 7 (conviction of infamous crime, misbehavior in office or reasonable cause); and Art. VI, Sec. 6 (misbehavior in office). In the case of criminal convictions for infamous crimes, the courts make the call. In all other cases, it's up to the legislature to start impeachment proceedings, or the Governor, with the concurrence of 2/3 of the Senate.

Tom Muller's SOTC: Where Do I Cut?

I usually photograph the back of Muller's head. 
The moment he called me a member of the pseudo press, I liked Tom Muller. That was several years ago> He's got a good sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at himself. He is also very blunt.

Both of these characteristics were manifest in his inaugural State of the County address. Commissioners want him to eliminate the deficit and increase reserves without a tax hike, which would require $14 million in spending cuts when there is only $111 million in real estate tax dollars as a starting point. His response is to ask Commissioners what County services they want to cut.

Here's his speech:

I think I’ll start with what many of you would like to think of as the conclusion and disappoint you. As in my campaign, I am not going to make any promises or conjectures about the County’s tax rate moving forward. To do so would be both premature and disingenuous. The average Lehigh County residential tax bill for 2014 is $676, which is lower than it was ten years ago. The challenge is to get to a consensus with our citizens on the proper balance of taxes and services.

Certainly, my first few weeks in this position have had more than their fair share of discord with our Board of Commissioners, some of whom are only focused on tax rates and the political safety in promises, whether they can be kept or not. So far, we’ve disagreed on everything from a critical Cabinet appointment to a town meeting.

So, you might ask, what are the County’s prospects and how will we make progress?

Fortunately, our Lehigh County is recovering steadily from the recession, our County government is financially sound and all we need to come to grips with collectively is determining the balance our citizens want between taxes and services.

Let’s take a look at some of the basic economic indicators:

•      By all measures, the housing market is recovering, with both sales and prices up except for the past few weeks where the weather has played a heavy hand.
•      Employment is improved, although there is still substantial progress to be made.
•      Companies are back to giving pay increases.
•      Even during the recession, companies such as Ocean Spray chose to commit to the area and Fedex seems poised to deliver a major distribution hub.
*      Downtown Allentown’s transformation due to the NIZ has been a boon to the construction market and will soon be adding significantly to the tax rolls.

Meanwhile, at the same time the federal government was being downgraded by S&P, Lehigh County’s bond ratings were increased to Aa1. That enabled us to realize a debt service reduction of $5 million, which was returned to the taxpayers via a one-time tax credit. Bond rating improvements are not accomplished easily and you may be surprised to know that the Administration’s willingness to raise taxes that year contributed significantly to the deliberations of both Moody’s and S and P.

The best news in borrowing is that I don’t foresee the need to seek new financing in the next four years, although we will continue to look for re-financing opportunities. In fact, we just took a $500K opportunity for 2014 to the Board of Commissioners last night.

Our infrastructure is sound, probably more so than any other county in the State, and our only pending needs are to address the Old Courthouse and replace our legacy IT system, which will be unsupported by 2020.

We have been ahead of the curve on efforts to keep our 44 bridges fully functional and recent legislation enabling counties to add $5 to auto registration fees for such efforts could ensure that no real estate tax dollars will ever be needed again for County bridges or roads.

The financial issue that seems to keep some folks up at night is our continuing budget gap. The 2014 Adopted Budget was balanced by just over $8 million in reserves; when the Cunningham Administration, took office in 2006, we were handed both a tax cut and a budget gap of $6.6 million.

You see, politicians find it much easier to run for office committing to cut taxes. That was the case in 2005 and in 2009 and it was the case again in 2013 when a proposed one-time tax credit was converted to a permanent tax cut, instantly adding to the 2014 budget gap. The tax cut was political nonsense akin to asking your boss for a permanent cut in pay when you’re having difficulty making ends meet.

Fortunately, as part of the welcome to me in my new role, our Board of Commissioners has offered me “guidance” for the 2015 budget by setting out three simple desires: No tax increase, eliminate the deficit and build the reserves. Someone must be running for re-election in 2015!

The fact is that their “guidance” equates to coming up with roughly $14 million in spending cuts from tax spending of $111 million and they are unwilling to identify what they would cut because citizen support could be lacking and there could be repercussions at the polls next year.

Another way to look at the “guidance” I’ve gotten is to recognize that the $14 million spending cut would be 12.6 cents of every tax dollar spent. Consider the fact that almost 72 cents of every tax dollar goes to our public safety areas (Courts, Corrections, District Attorney, Crime Center, Sheriff, Public Defender, 911 Center and so on) and another 14 cents is debt service. That leaves only 14 cents for everything else the County does and they are suggesting a 12.6 cent reduction.

Also consider the fact that, while the County’s population has grown approximately 1% per year since 1990, the County’s workforce is now 8% below where it was in 1990 and County government is a people-intensive service business; we can’t easily automate or ship our jobs overseas.

Let’s just leave that budget “guidance” as direction that must be countered with a simple statement: “Tell me what you no longer want the County to do.”

Our nursing homes got a fair share of negative press late last year due to the increase in the required County support to over $6 million. The driver for that bad news was the combination of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements not keeping pace with healthcare costs and an increase in empty beds as more seniors choose to stay at home. That latter trend is expected to shift in the medium term but we have some experts in nursing home operations evaluating all that we do at the two Cedarbrook homes and look forward to some good ideas we can implement now to cut costs or increase revenues.

On a parallel path, we are in conversations with other healthcare providers to determine if collaboration on services can help the situation or if there is a demand from the private sector for some complementary use of available space. I have made it clear that my position is that the County should retain Cedarbrook, but I also believe we need to tweak the business model to some degree to recognize today’s issues.

Now, I’d like to talk a little bit about how I plan to move forward in this somewhat hostile environment and with financial challenges. Broadly, the answer is simple; I plan to connect with the citizens as no other County Executive has done to determine what is important to them and use that knowledge to develop plans and budgets. During my campaign I said I planned to get to every municipality’s council meeting at least once per year; although the weather got in the way in February, I’ve managed to attend 7 of the 25 and one school district meeting so far, had some great conversations and learned a lot.

Next month I will hold my first “town hall” meeting at the Government Center and we are working on a system to engage citizens online to weigh in on issues and priorities. I also held a “town meeting” on the controversial Hamilton Crossings TIF because I heard from many citizens that they were interested and there was a lot of confusion on the subject. I happen to support that project personally because it generates over $20 million in wages every year and only requires the taxing bodies to forego taxes they don’t even collect now. Even if I didn’t support it, the citizens have a right to get answers to their questions. That’s true transparency and that’s how I plan to operate.

I also want to try to identify both public-private partnerships as we did with the combined Coroner’s Center and Cetronia Ambulance headquarters, which saved each partner millions and should open in late July. And I want to pursue regional partnerships which would provide the coveted “win-win” end result. I’m optimistic that John Brown and I will find ways to collaborate for the good of our counties and look forward to the day we aren’t making process-related headlines and can put our heads together for the good of our counties.

I also plan to continue working to take costs out of our systems, sharpen the focus on outcomes or results and eliminate any function that isn’t needed. Along that line, we have just notified our employees that we are closing our juvenile detention center and have agreements with Northampton County and others to meet our housing needs. There has been a significant reduction in incarcerated juveniles in the wake of the Luzerne County scandal and with the adoption of more sophisticated methods of evaluating troubled juveniles. Some experts suggest the pendulum may swing back a few years from now so we will simply mothball our excellent center and reduce our overall costs by an estimated $750K annually. What has been terrific about this effort is that there has been collaboration among all involved parties to ensure that the savings are realized without an impact on services.

I remain a firm believer that, first and foremost, our citizens want to be safe and public safety efforts such as our regional crime center will remain as top priorities. In fact, I hope we’ll be able to count Northampton County as a full partner in the crime center in the near future. Criminals don’t recognize county borders so we have to effectively work across those borders.

I’ve also gotten strong reinforcement from our business leaders and citizens that what makes Lehigh County a great place to live and work is the broad range of quality of life options available to everyone. While County investments in such destinations could be among the first on the chopping block for ultra conservatives, I plan to continue those commitments and “double down” with the Planning Commission in determining how we can best bring the inventory of athletic playing fields in line with the boom we’ve seen in youth sports as the County’s population has soared. I am a firm believer that sports involvement helps bind families and keep kids on the right track.

Will all of these plans sync with the $676 average residential tax bill? Time will tell, but my commitment is to have citizen inputs weigh heavily on budget issues. I’ve observed that, as politicians move up the ladder and get further away from those who elected them, they rely more on the inputs from major campaign contributors and their own political agenda and less on those who put them in office. I am extremely humbled at having been chosen to run this outstanding county of ours and pledge not to lose focus on those who are most important—the citizens of Lehigh County. Thank you.

Tom Muller's Wife Addicted To Blogger!!!

As is often the case this time of year, I was unable to get up in time to hear Tom Muller's State of the County address yesterday. Free breakfast, Coca Cola Park and political intrigue were unable to rouse me. We bottom feeders do our best work at night. We come out with the rats, zombies and vampires. So when the alarm went off this morning, I slept right through it. I missed the speech.

But I wish I had been there. Muller started out by mentioning his wife MJ's addiction "to a certain blogger." Tom even mentioned one of my readers, Clem, and his "perverted interest in my mustache and my car."

I was thrilled. Somebody actually likes to read me! I called MJ right away.

"MJ, it's me. Can we get together and discuss your addiction?"

- Who the hell is this?

"It's me, Bernie. You know, the blogger. maybe I can read a few posts to you."

- That's Michael Molovinsky. I love his railroad stories. Do you have his number?

I gave her Ron Angle's number.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Benol Has "That New Car Smell"

Morning Call columnist Bill White is having a field day in Northampton County lately. One of his recent columns focuses on Council member Mat Benol's complete ignorance of the Sunshine Act, baseless attacks at newspapers and suggestion that people call him or other Council members if they want to know what's really going on. He made those remarks at the end of last week's Council meeting because he was miffed that yet another John Brown move had blown up in his face.

In the world according to Benol, legislators should be able to discuss matters privately, vote, and then explain everything to the uneducated public.

But with that in mind, I asked Benol to supply his home phone number, cell phone, work number and email address so that every person in Northampton County can call him every day to learn what is going on. In fact, I requested Council Clerk Frank Flisser to make that request of every member of Council.

As I explained to Mat, his willingness to inform the public is "certainly a relief to me, because I can soon stop blogging about NC government, and write more about youth sports." After all, we don't want any "journalistic malpractice."

Believe it or not, Mat only provided one number. He declined to give out his work number or email for the understandable reason that it belongs to his employer.

Flisser, unfortunately, took me seriously. He provided me with contact numbers for Council. I'm not posting them.

Benol still has what one Council member referred to as "that new car smell."

Bethlehem Cop Bouncer Was Under House Arrest

On Monday night, the star witness against decorated Bethlehem police officer Richard Hoffman was a bar bouncer who had every reason to be angry at police. You see, he's had issues with various police departments over the years. In fact, at the time of his supposed altercation, bouncer Scott Hunsicker was under house arrest for a second offense DUI. Judge Leonard Zito had imposed a seven-day jail sentence, 23-days in work release and another 60 days of house arrest with electronic monitoring.

In 2008, Hunsicker pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges filed in Monroe County. According to The Pocono Record, he was charged with "Underage Drinking and Disorderly Conduct after he was found to be in possession of alcohol and drug paraphernalia on Analomink Street, East Stroudsburg."

One year later, he graduated to drunk driving. He was placed on accelerated rehabilitative disposition, a special program for first offenders. For some reason, he apparently lost ARD status and pleaded to first offense drunk driving.

In Northampton County, Hunsicker was pulled over by state police in 2009 for going 16 mph above the speed limit. The following year, he beat his 2009 record by going 19 mph above the posted 65 mph speed limit.

This person seemed quite pleased with himself and was called "quite heroic." I have to wonder whether he would have received that accolade had his past been known and disclosed.  In fact, I wonder whether Solicitor Bill Leeson would have asked him to testify.

Donchez Give Ball Leftover $ to Horses ... and Kids

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez plans to donate $1,378.23 left over from his Inaugural Ball to the Bethlehem City Mounted Police and the Bethlehem Boys and Girls Club.

“It is my belief that these organizations do a great job in serving our community and I would like to show my appreciation with this donation so they both can further their mission,” Mayor Donchez said.

Donchez is supposed to hand out the dough in the Mayor’s Conference Room on Friday. I had no idea horses could fit in there. But I've seen parts of a horse in there during many meetings.

Bethlehem's Pothole Hotline - 610-865-7053

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez has established a pothole hotline - 610-865-7053 - so that they can be filled with temporary material until they can be fully repaired in late March. If you're wondering where the potholes are, just look for any collection of lawyers, standing nearby with their business cards.

Allentown's Pothole Hotline is 610-437-8775.

Easton has a "clean and safe" hotline at 610-250-673.

In Nazareth, there are no potholes. My servants took care of them. We are all lying out in our front yards, soaking up the rays.

Muller to Deliver State of the County Address Today

Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller will deliver his State of the County Address this morning, 8 am, at Coca Cola Park. Scott Ott will be throwing bean balls.

Meanwhile, over in Northampton County, Executive John Brown just signed another no-bid consultant contract to study whether he should give a State of the County Address, too.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who's the Real Hero, Bar Bouncer or Cop?

On August 11, 2011, Freemansburg police officer Robert Lasso was killed in the line of duty, while responding to a domestic disturbance. He suffered a shotgun blast to the face.  While a distraught Freemansburg Chief of Police subdued the shooter, a highly decorated Bethlehem police officer was the first to arrive on the scene. He tried to save Lasso's life, repeatedly administering CPR. But he was too late. Lasso succumbed.

Maybe he blames himself for not being fast enough. I don't know the guy. But what I do know is that almost two years later to the day, this Bethlehem police officer was despondent about the Lasso tragedy. He tried to cheer himself up with a concert and the company of other police officers. He medicated himself the best way he knew - with alcohol.

The result was an off-duty drunk driving accident with no injuries. In fact, the accident happened partially because this officer mistakenly thought he saw a pedestrian, and swerved.

That officer is Richard Hoffman, the very person being crucified before Bethlehem City Council. Council never heard the Lasso story. Nor do they know of Hoffman's commendations.

I sat in stunned amazement on Monday night when Karen Dolan told a bar bouncer at Molly's Grille that he was "quite heroic."

I understand that Molly's is an after-Council hangout, but bar bouncers are no heroes. Sorry.

The real heroes are the men and women out there who will aid a battered spouse, assist a stranded motorist, help a lost child or try to save someone's life. The cops. The firefighters. EMTs.  The police officer who consoles a five-year old crying boy whose mother has just been shot by his own father.

When Northampton County DA John Morganelli recently proposed establishing a mental health court, he pointed out the special needs of veterans, who put everything on the line for us. We recognize their sacrifices and the stress they suffer as a result of serving in a hostile environment.

But we seem to have no sympathy for the police officer, who puts his life on the line every time he wears that uniform. He sees all the pain and misery in what can be a very cruel world, and it's no secret that many police officers and other first responders end up suffering from the same post-traumatic stress that we now recognize as a problem in the military.

I spoke to a long-time Bethlehem police officer who is also a veteran yesterday. He told me that, overall, service as a police officer is more stressful than the military. What makes things even worse is that most departments are ill-equipped to deal with officers in distress.

What might help Bethlehem and other police departments is mandatory counseling after stressful events. If they are involved in a homicide, it's bound to effect them. But most cops would rather die than ask for help. They would consider that a sign of weakness. That's why it really should be mandatory.

"This is a human being," Wade Haubert reminded Council on Monday night. Police officers themselves need to be reminded of that from time to time.

Brown's Government By Consultant

At his inaugural news conference on February 18, Northampton County Executive John Brown denied a plan to engage in government by consultant. But that's precisely what's happening. Instead of filling his cabinet in compliance with the Home Rule Charter, he's hiring consultants. And after the $715,200  Zosky consultant deal blew up in his face, he's keeping the amounts under $100,000 so he can avoid getting Council approval.

According to The Morning Call, he has two new consulting agreements. In response to a Right-to-Know, I learned there are three no-bid deals.

1. Integrity Personnel

This is a three-month $24,000 deal with Integrity Personnel, is for a "strategic assessment" of the County's workforce. This should be cause for concern in the County workforce. Does Brown plan to lay them county staff and replace them with low paid temps? That sounds like a question for his next news conference.

2. Donna Taggart

Her name pops up everywhere. She's wormed her way into the Brown administration with a $20,000, one-year deal to review various projects being done at the County.

3. Kim Plyler

This is a one-year, $84,000 agreement with Kim Plyler and her company, Sahl Communications, for public relations.

This historically has been a facet of the job done by the Director of Administration or a Deputy. It is simply outrageous to spend that kind of money for someone whose sole job is to spin the news.

Ironically, this news manager never bothered to tell anyone she's been hired.

What troubles me even more is that, in his news conference, Brown would only say the matter was "in discussion." The truth? He had inked a deal ten days earlier, on February 8. I can't escape the conclusion that Brown was dishonest with the press

But now that he has a propaganda minister, I suspect it will become increasingly difficult to learn the truth.

Incidentally, none of this money is part of the approved budget.

The contacts are linked below for your review:

Integrity Personnel

Donna Taggart

Kim Plyler

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bethlehem Cop Skips Star Chamber Treatment

Bethlehem police officer Richard Hoffman decided to skip his termination hearing before City Council last night. I don't blame him. He'll fare far better in arbitration than in those Star Chamber proceedings. This matter was uncontested, but Solicitor Bill Leeson still paraded 11 witnesses to tell us that Hoffman has been very naughty. 

The official hanging will occur March 4. Council will wring their hands and piously vote to fire this ten-year veteran. Public works will set up the gallows in Payrow Plaza, right where the Advent candles are lit. But Hoffman will slip the noose. In arbitration, he's going to win.  All they are doing is wasting everyone's time and money.

Let me start out by telling you that Hoffman, age 35, is no RoboCop. He's a knucklehead. He's a problem drinker who, like many drunks I know, picks fights when he drinks. It's usually with other cops or bouncers. 

That's not really a firin' offense. There is absolutely no evidence of character traits that would make me question his integrity. Nobody established that he ever exceeded his authority as a police officer, or was on the take, or lied about an investigation. The evidence did show that he is brutally honest, even when it means he could be hurting his career.

The DUI Incident

The incident that got Hoffman into this jam was an off-duty drunk driving accident on August 8, 2013, smack dab in the middle of Musikfest. Hoffman had gone to a "Godsmack" concert earlier that day, where he acknowledged he had a few beers. From there he went to the FOP, located next to Ripper's Pub.

Hoffman drank at the FOP and at Rippers with friends, mostly other police officers. At times there were 15 off-duty officers there, blowing off steam. One of them, Officer Bill Audello, was celebrating his birthday.

He told City Council that Hoffman at one point snuck up behind him and gave him a wedgie, after which he said they engaged in "horseplay" and fought in a "brotherly way." But when Audello, who is both a Marine and martial arts expert, took Hoffman down, he said Hoffman became agitated because he was embarrassed. The place was loaded with cops and they just separated the two.

Audello could not be sure whether Hoffman was drunk. "To be honest, I was under the influence of alcohol myself," he admitted. Hopefully, he won't be fired for admitting he had a few on his birthday.

Another officer who was at the FOP that evening was Hoffman's closest friend on the force, Jon Desiderio. He corroborated Audello, adding that he walked Hoffman to his car. He saw no evidence of impairment. Hoffman did not slur words or sway. And when he got into his car, he did a permitted U-turn so that he'd be headed in the right direction to go home.

Karen Dolan attempted to attack Desiderio, suggesting he was drunk, too. "Is it possible you don't remember how much you drank because you drank so much?"

I think she must have forgotten who was on trial. Maybe she was drinking herself.

After Dolan's cross-examination, an internal affairs investigator testified that he spoke to seven police officers who were at the FOP that evening, and none of them believed that Hoffman was intoxicated.

Shortly after he left and was headed home on East Broad, Hoffman got a text message from a dispatcher who was with the FOP group. "Are you OK?' she asked. Hoffman looked at that text, and while doing so, thought he saw someone in the road in front of him. He swerved and rammed two parked cars.

Officer Michelle Dologite, who was on patrol, was waiting to enter Broad Street as Hoffman drove by. She said his speed was "a little bit higher than you'd expect to see," but could not say whether he was exceeding the 35 mph speed limit. She went to him to make sure he was OK from where he was trapped inside his vehicle. She noticed he did not slur his words, and told Council it would be improper to administer a breathalyzer because of a possible head injury.

At the hospital, Hoffman consented to a blood test, which eventually came back at 0.16 BAC, twice the legal limit. Sergeant Ronald Burzynski, who ultimately filed DUI charges against Hoffman, noted that his eyes were bloodshot and glazed. But he added that Hoffman remained well-spoken.

Hoffman, who accepted complete responsibility for the accident and said he was at a "low point" in his life, was ultimately placed on ARD, a special program for first offenders. Charges are dismissed and expunged after a successful probationary period.

Obviously, this is not enough to get anyone fired. So testimony was presented of aggravating factors that would warrant termination. I don't think it's enough.

Philly Fracas

Craig Finnerty, who was Chief at the time of this DUI, was "shocked" to open Hoffman's personnel file to see a record of a 2005 incident at a bar in Philadelphia, which Hoffman was visiting with a wedding party. He got involved in an argument and shoving match with a Philadelphia police officer, during which Hoffman threatened to come back with 20 guys to get this Philly cop.

Philadelphia police locked him up and called Bethlehem, where a Lieutenant had to come down and pick Hoffman up. Hoffman apologized, explaining that what he did was "very serious," that he has a problem when he drinks too much and had been drinking the hard stuff that day. He was formally reprimanded and told that a repetition of this conduct would result in termination. He said he would seek help for drinking, and agreed to apologize in writing to the Philly police officer.

This incident, boys and girls, occurred nine years ago.

Revel Casino

In July 2013, one month before the DUI, Hoffman was with a group of Bethlehem police officers who were kicked out of a Revel's Casino restaurant for being too boisterous. Audello, who was also with that group, said the restaurant even packed their food for them and there was no issue after they were asked to leave.

This matter was investigated. There was no incident report at the casino, and the officers on duty at the casino that day say the Bethlehem group was a little too loud for a little too long.

The Bouncer

This is a weird one. Chaz Patrick, the owner of Molly's Grille on the Southside, complained to the City after a March 16 incident last year in which Hoffman was bounced from the bar. He tried talking to Hoffman outside, after bouncer Scott Hunsicker bragged about putting a hold on Hoffman and carting him off. According to Patrick, Hoffman threatened to cause him problems, and that made him concerned about his livelihood.

The bouncer said that twelve hours after this incident, Bethlehem police were on the scene for yet another fight at the bar. They told the bouncer that some of the moves he uses are inappropriate.

Patrick and Hunsicker also mentioned a subsequent visit from the fire department for being over capacity. But Hunsicker admitted that the fire official was jovial and told him, "It's all good."

Patrick also conceded that many of his customers are Bethlehem police officers.

The bouncer was basically bragging to Council that he managed to take down a police officer. I did not attach much weight to his testimony, or the inferences that he and the owner wanted everyone to draw. But Dolan, who attacked the testimony of police officers and accused one of being drunk, was quite complimentary to the bouncer.

"You should have gotten [sic] some kind of raise or bonus," she told him. "That was quite heroic."

Naughty Words

Hoffman was also nailed for improper use of the MDT on April 11, 2013. This is a mobile data terminal, which allows officers to text messages back and forth to dispatch and each other. As explained by Lt. Jeremy Alshouse, officers are expected to confine comments to official business. Profanity is obviously prohibited.  But Alshouse acknowledged it is sometimes used improperly, "even by myself back in the day."

Hoffman and a dispatcher essentially were clowning around with each other. He used some cure words, and occasionally disparaged the traffic department. He even said he was out of shape because he's been drinking too much.

Both Hoffman and the dispatcher were reprimanded.

Bad Search

In December 2010, Hoffman and a probationary officer arrested someone who was turned over to deputies for incarceration. Several days later, while in jail, corrections officers noticed that this inmate had a gun which was missed during the search.

Hoffman thought the probationary officer had conducted the search and the probationary officer thought Hoffman had done it.

They both were suspended for ten days.

Alcohol Dissipation

Chief Mark DiLuzio is a cop, not a chemist. yet was allowed to testify that the rate of alcohol dissipation is 0.015 per hour. This means that Hoffman would have reported to work drink that day. This rate is based on a 140 lb man, and DiLuzio himself acknowledged that the rate differs, based on numerous factors, including an individual's metabolism. So basically, DiLuzio testified that he had no idea whether Hoffman would be drunk or sober, assuming that he would come to work that day.

Cops Have to Be Better

The basic argument for terminating Hoffman is that officers have to be better than the rest of us because they are a very visible symbol of our government. I agree completely when it comes to matters of integrity and honesty or official oppression. But the evidence I see convinces me that Hoffman, like all of us, is a knucklehead with a drinking problem. He needs some time off, and should not be permitted to work until he has control over his drinking.

FOP President Wade Haupert reminded Council, "This is a human being. No one in this room is without flaws.” In fact, if Hoffman can overcome his drinking demons, he probably would be one of the department's finest officers.

If you want perfection, watch RoboCop.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bethlehem City Council Forces Uninformed Votes

Bethlehem City Council, like Northampton County Council, has its own lawyer. They are, after all, separate branches of government. John Morganelli served as Bethlehem City Council's first Solicitor. After he as elected DA, he was succeeded by Jay Leeson. That lasted until Leeson himself became a City Council member. Ever since that time, for over 17 years, City Council has been served by Chris Spadoni. That ended on February 18, when Council member Karen Dolan introduced a resolution to replace one very able lawyer with another very able lawyer. Jack Spirk, Bethlehem's former Solicitor, will now be giving City Council legal advice.

While it is certainly within City Council's prerogative to choose their own legal adviser, it is disturbing to learn that at least one member was forced to vote against her will.

Cathy Reuscher, newly appointed to Council, said she felt uneasy voting to terminate anyone, especially someone she did not know.

But Council Prez J. Willie Reynolds told her that, like it or not, she had to vote.

It's a rule.

Karen Dolan damned Spadoni with faint praise, claiming simultaneously to love him while complaining about his accessibility. Then when Reuscher wavered, Dolan blasted away.

"New members are required to vote. It is the law. It takes integrity to make strong decisions. This is not political, it is practical. It is an employment decision."

A City Council rule, last revised in 2012, does require yea and nay votes from City Council members. But that's complete nonsense.

It is completely improper to force any Council member to vote without any facts upon which to base her opinion.

Dolan, who has no law degree, is completely wrong about the law as well. Council rules only apply to the Council that adopted them, not future Councils. There is no way Dolan can enforce 2012 rules on a 2014 Council.

Notwithstanding these rules, Council has absolutely no authority to dictate how one of its own may vote. That  hould be between her and her conscience.

It could be that Reuscher would eventually agree to replace Spadoni. But there was no integrity displayed by anyone when she was forced to vote before feeling ready.

That was just bullying.

LVR Does Header At Basketball Game

You've probably seen cheerleaders do death-defying back flips during breaks in the action at high school basketball games. Yesterday, I performed my own acrobatics, doing a header from the bleachers at Notre Dame High School. 

It's playoff time in 8th grade CYO basketball. Today, some teams were eliminated while others will continue next weekend. The two surviving teams will go on to the Diocesan championship. After my grandson's game, we stuck around to watch and exciting contest between OLPH (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) and HI (Holy Infancy). I decided to give up my seat for the parents, but tripped as I got up and went head first down the bleachers.

The only reason I avoided a broken neck or a concussion was the petite lady below me, an OLPH mother. I cascaded into her and two of her daughters. They broke my fall. 

They will be buried on Wednesday.

Why Not Draw and Quarter the Allentown School District?

According to The Morning Call, Allentown School District Superintendent Russ Mayo, is asking local business leaders to review their anemic finances and come up with answers. This sounds a lot like King Edwin's "blue ribbon" committee that was going to solve all of the Queen City's financial problems. That went nowhere. That's because, despite all the claims about government running like a business, they are different animals. But there's a solution for Allentown's School District. Draw and quarter it! Not like the good ol' days, with William Wallace crying "Freedom!" But it's time to split this failing school district into four quarters.

ASD has two issues that are almost impossible to resolve at the local level.

First, the pension contributions needed to sustain the unsustainable defined benefit public education pensions can only be changed at the state level. The benefits are defined in Harrisburg, not in Allentown. The salaries of teachers and administrators may or may not be beyond reasonable, but the pensions and benefits that accompany them are ridiculous.

Second, the Allentown model, like the Reading or Lancaster model of purely urban districts, is unsustainable. It is basically impossible to generate real estate taxes to cover expenses.

No suburban school district is willing to consolidate with Allentown, unless mandated by the state and that isn't going to happen. Instead of forcing Allentown to marry Parkland, Whitehall, Catasauqua, or Salisbury School District (the four adjacent districts to Allentown), why not marry Allentown to them all?

Break Allentown up into four pieces and mandate that the surrounding school districts each absorb a piece. It's better than trying to compel one of them to partner with Allentown to save it. Parkland could get West Allentown; Whitehall would sleep with North Allentown; Salisbury could cuddle with South Allentown, and Catasauqua could spoon with East Allentown.

The current state subsidies provided to Allentown could be split among the four school districts with those getting the smallest amount of tax ratable real estate getting more of the subsidy.

Just looking at the budget and seeing where to "make cuts" is a waste of time. That's already happened.

Feds Foil Hit Against South Side Homicide Witnesses

First Ass't DA Terry Houck
The FBI, acting in concert with the Bethlehem Police Department, has foiled an assassination planned against witnesses to a 2012 Southside shooting that killed one person and wounded five others. Sonia Panell, wife of accused murderer Rene Figueroa, wanted to eliminate three witnesses scheduled to testify against her husband, but unknowingly hired a federal informant for the job. She's been charged with using interstate commerce facilities to solicit and assist in murders for hire. In federal detention, she faces up to 25 years in prison.

Northampton County DA John Morganelli announced these charges at a Friday afternoon news conference. His office is prosecuting the most bloody episode of the South Side's history since the 1910 Bethlehem Steel strike. Yolanda Morales, age 23, died in a hail of gunfire during the early morning hours of December 2, 2012. Five others were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. One of them will be paralyzed for the rest of his life. An argument inside the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society, a club located at 205 E. Third Street, spilled over into the streets and became a thirty-bullet fusillade.

Rene Figueroa, age 32, faces homicide and related charges, including the use of a stolen .45 caliber pistol. Javier Rivera-Alverado, age 38, has also been charged with attempted homicide and aggravated assault. The trial in this matter was supposed to start March 3. It has now been postponed, and Morganelli made clear he wants this matter tried. "Our office is going to do everything we can to oppose any further delays in this case." he declared.

First Assistant DA Terry Houck, lead prosecutor in this matter, stated that "very early on, we received complaints from victims and witnesses who thought they were being followed." Bethlehem police were able to confirm that victims were, in fact, being stalked.

Panel's hitman was, according to Houck, a family friend contacted in Ohio. He was offered a car, gun, unspecified sum of money and even night vision goggles to "take care of" two of the victims and a witness. She created a false Facebook profile to gather information as well.

One of the three intended targets, Angle Figueroa (unrelated to Rene) is already paralyzed as a result of the shooting. Another, Shajuan Hungerford, is a woman who slapped Rene Figueroa.

"[S]he done touched Rene’s face. She’s gotta pay for it!" Panell is quoted in federal documents as having said.

Will this make witnesses less likely to testify? Not at all, according to Houck. "This sends a clear message that we're not going to stand by," noted Houck. "We're going to be all over this."

Morganelli added that, even in small cases, witnesses are often fearful. "The message here is that law enforcement does take this seriously," he stated.

Houck stated there is no evidence of any organized crime or gang related activity. But he believes this plan was very real. "She had enough moxie to go out of state and bring that person here," he concluded.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Table of Knowledge

Lump's Deli, located at the corner of Center and Goepp Streets, is the oldest deli operating in Bethlehem. The snow has hurt most other businesses, but not this one. The worse things get, the more people come. "They know it's a working man's store," owner David "Lump" Sanders told me. "They can came in with their dirty boots." But that's not what drew me. I had to visit this place to see and sit at the Table of Knowledge, which nearly every City Council member mentioned in awe when Sanders recently applied for a vacancy on City Council.

Ordering two chili dogs, I sat at the table, waiting for the knowledge to ooze in. There was nothing at first, then Dave told me that City Parks workers had just won $1 million at the lottery. This was hours before the story hit the papers.

I was waiting for more knowledge to sink in, but instead of that, I heard the door open and the deep, booming voice of one of my most fierce enemies, Democratic party strongman Joe Long.

"I can smell him," Long roared, as he made his way towards me. I told Long to leave me alone because i was trying to gain knowledge. "That's not going to work on you, Bern.. You have a blister on your shoulders instead of a head."  

Then suddenly, more knowledge came.

"Why don't we stop electing County Executives and just hire consultants to run the County?" asked Sanders, referring to the controversial Deana Zosky contract that ultimately failed.

Then Long, try as hard as he could to keep his mouth shut, told me that Jay Paterno was running for Lieutenant Governor, hours before it hit the papers.

This really is a Table of Knowledge. And the chili dogs are pretty good, too.

Unfortunately, when I left, all my tires were flat. Long stood at the door, laughing.

Sanders with his great-grandson, 2 1/2 yo Leo Garcia

Sanders and Jack Lightcap at table of Knowledge. "What have you learned?" I asked Jack. "That's a good question," he answered. 

Matos Welcomes Treatment Program Audit

Arnie Matos
Lamont McClure's plan for a performance audit of the success of treatment programs at the jail sailed through Northampton County Council last night. Unanimously, Council approved a resolution requesting Controller Steve Barron to audit the treatment programs offered by Community Education Centers, Inc. Those programs, designed to reduce the number of offenders who return to jail for new offenses, will cost $5.5 million over the next five years.

"Where is the evidence this program is working?" asked McClure, who cast the sole vote against this contract last year. He conceded there is anecdotal evidence the program works, but noted that the actual recidivism rate at the jail has remained steady.

"We welcome the audit," said Corrections Director Arnie Matos, who added that a parallel study is being done by a local college.

Controller Barron told Council he will render no opinion, and instead perform an audit addressing 12 points, including what is paid by other jails with similar programs and whether treatment graduates end up in jails somewhere else.

"I don't want this to be used as a warrant for anyone to go out on a witch hunt," cautioned Hayden Phillips. Barron assured Council that, contrary to concerns raised here that he was doing the bidding of a political ally, he would be fair. "I come from treatment myself," he said, referring to his previous employment in group homes.

Hayden Phillips Says No to Butterflies

When he ran for Northampton County Council, Hayden Phillips was one of very few politicians willing to speak out against open space. This is one of Northampton County's sacred cows. When he starts talking about Agenda 21, he loses me. But the points he made last night are consistent with his campaign and are views obviously held by the people who elected them.  He was the sole No vote against four open space projects totaling $698,000. Those projects went through the Open Space Committee on Monday with no dissent. They all require municipal matches.

Phillips was absent from Monday's discussion, but he participated heavily in the discussion of the $715,200 Deana Zosky contract the following day. He opposed it, even though it had been proposed by a fellow Republican.

Phillips recalled the words of other Council members and even the Executive, who spoke in terms of "bleeding money." "Everyone agreed that financially, we're the Titanic.," he observed. "Reject these proposals," he urged. "Put this money aside so we have it in August. You vote for this, you're voting for a future tax increase."

Other Council members had different views. Peg Ferraro noted that voters overwhelming supported sending $39 million in an open space referendum eight years ago. Werner called it a "core County function." Glenn Geissinger and Ken Kraft both argued that these initiatives actually attract business, which increases revenue. Scott Parsons said that, without County assistance, municipalities would have to pay for these projects themselves and would have to raise taxes even higher.

I thought Phillips head was going to roll off his shoulders when they began discussing the butterfly habitat in Upper Mount Bethel Township, but he kept his cool.

Lamont McClure, who supported these proposals, suggested it is time to stick to environmentally significant land and hybrid properties that might have aspects of farmland, sensitive land and parks.

Benol Bashes Media For Journalistic Malpractice

In a rambling diatribe at the end of last night's Northampton County Council meeting, Mat Benol lashed out at the media, warning the public not to rely on what they read in the newspapers. He added that if they have questions, they should give him a call.

Benol is a newly elected member of Council, one of five Republicans swept into office after November's election. He has never held government office before, though he ran and lost in the GOP primary against Congressman Charlie Dent in 2010. He is also a past Chair of the LV Tea Party.

What set him off was the public outcry that followed Executive John Brown's proposal to hire Deana Zosky as a $715,200 business management consultant. That contract required Council approval. Somebody leaked it to the daily newspapers as well as this blog on February 14, two days after it was provided to Council. The Morning Call broke this story, quickly followed by The Express Times and this blog. I linked to the contract itself. Benol was angry that when he returned home from work that day and received a call from a reporter, he knew nothing about it.

So naturally, that was the press' fault.

Brown declined comment at the time this story broke to any media outlet, though he later had a news conference to discuss the merits of his proposal.

Last night, Benol informally suggested that Council members impose a 48-hour news blackout on communications from the Executive, although the Zosky communication was already 48-hours at the time it was leaked.

"I can't sit here the next four years and let the media dictate what we discuss," he huffed.

Benol, who supported the Zosky contract, complained that there were inaccuracies in the media coverage, though he failed to specify what those were. He also objected to the depiction of the contract as a $715,200 contract, calling this "journalistic malpractice". He explained that the annual price is much cheaper.

All reporting concering this contract, both here and in the two dailies, specified the contract price year by year, as well as a 30-day escape clause. But it is a $715,200 contract, and that price could be much higher because the County also agreed to pay unspecified IT costs for the implementation of dashboard software.

While denying that he is "trying to end transparency", Benol complained that stories that just happen on Friday are now appearing in the paper on Saturday.

He went on to chastise a Council member, without naming him or her, for participating in a blog discussion of the proposed contract. He failed to explain why participating in a public discussion is improper.

In addition to stating, "I don't trust the media anymore," Benol expressed some suspicion of fellow Council members. "How do I freely express myself?" he worried. "I shouldn't have to be hesitant to reach out to fellow Council members.

Benol then argued that he and other Council members "should be able to have private conversations behind the scenes," which they would disclose after they vote on the matter.

Glenn Geissinger, another newly elected Council member and supporter of the Zosky deal, echoed Benol. But faintly.

Lamont McClure remembered that he and other Council members were forced to go to "Sunshine Act camp" some years ago in a settlement deal reached in a suit filed by this very blogger. He suggested  Benol read the packet of information that was supplied to him at that time.

"There are no secrets in politics," added council President Peg Ferraro.

More than anything else, this is a hissy fit by Benol. Because he didn't get his way on the Zosky contract, he blames the press. After the meeting, Benol claimed that marking this $715,200 proposal "confidential" should have been enough to keep the public from seeing a matter being voted on in the next six days. "I have lawyers working on it" he told me.

Good luck with that.

Maybe he should try holding his breath.

The second the Executive submitted this proposal to the people's representatives, it became something the public had a right to know. Instead of blaming the press for doing its job, a transparent Mat Benol would have participated in the discussion and let the cream rise to the top. Instead, he'd rather hide behind closed doors, where democracy dies and cockroaches thrive.

(Blogger's Note: When the video of this meeting becomes available, I intend to transcribe his comments, some of which he denied making after last night's meeting. Maybe the video will be wrong, too).

Updated   2:30 pm: You can see and hear the Benol rant on the County's web page now, at least until Benol decides that the public should be shut out of that process too. Here are excerpts of his little temper tantrum. he actually complained that the proposed contract, which had been in Council's hands for two days and would be voted in in the next week, was on this blog.

"I don't trust the media anymore. I think the media has an agenda, they put it our there very specifically. We have to fight that false opinion that's being created instead of having an open and honest dialogue. So what I've asked the Solicitors to do, is to start looking into, under the Right-to-Know laws, what part of our correspondence is considered private, if at all. And I'm not trying to end transparency. I just think that while something is in deliberation, we should have the ability to confer amongst ourselves, openly and honestly. Once those deliberations are over and the resolution is passed, then it's fair game, the public should see it. I'm certainly not trying to say that the public shouldn't see what we're discussing. I just think it hampers the efforts because again, in the Finance meeting, there were a lot of good ideas that came out that could have been resolved with simple conversations.

"We should have the debates here, I'm not saying that we shouldn't. But we should have the ability to confer because I'll be the first one to admit I am new to this game. I don't know everything that goes on and maybe I'mshooting myself in the foot by bringing this up now. But I shouldn't have to be hesitant of reaching out to my fellow Council members, especially ones who have spent eight years on Council, to solicit their opinion. ...

"So that's my concern and i just want to get it thrown out there in a public session and to the public, if this is going to get reported. Don't let the media drive your opinions. Please call us, any one of us, our numbers are out there. Remember, you elected us. Technically, we work for you. We will answer your questions. Don't rely on what you read in the papers.."

He complains about the media gaining access to information before him.

"Why should they have their hands on [a contract] before we have a chance to look at it? And I understand that that's the 500 pond gorilla in the room. ... ."

"I don't think they [the media] should generate the story. And I'll go back to the consultant. What I heard from people who called me is they were focused on the dollar amount. Everybody kept focusing on that seven hundred and some odd thousand dollars. But it wasn't broken down over four years. The comments that come out from us were different from what you saw there. They were educated comments. Not one of those educated comments was put in the print media because they were in such a rush to generate the story, where it comes out that you're almost committing journalistic malpractice."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Jay Paterno Running for Lt Guv

My source for this is the Table of Knowledge, which I visited for the first time today.

I'm Pretty Sure Zosky Contract Failed

It reminded me of the good ol' days, back when Northampton County Bulldog Ron Angle was calling just about everyone "a fake, a fraud and a phony." Or when Councilman Charles "Don't call me Charlie" Dertinger wanted to duke it out with the man we now know as the King of Sludge. Since the departure of those two, which came at the request of voters with absolutely no sense of humor, Northampton County's governing body has been no fun at all. They sit up there giving each other phony compliments and forty minute liaison reports while I guzzle coffee to keep awake. But yesterday, when Ken Kraft and Glenn Geissinger went after each other over the $715,200 Deana Zosky contract, I was happy. Unfortunately, no blood was spilled.

Before I get into that, I have to warn you this report is flawed. I am only fluent in English and French.I have to go to language school if I intend to continue covering County Council.  

You see, Executive John Brown speaks very little English, which probably explains why he has been reluctant to answer emails and phone calls. His language is Corporatese. I only understand about half of what he's saying. At yesterday's well-attended Finance Committee hearing, he made what appeared to be a passionate appeal for a no-bid $715,200 business managerial services contract with CPA Deana Zosky.

It was either that or a weather report.

On three occasions, he called Deana a "fresh set of eyes" to look over County finances. He said there was a "sense of urgency" in getting her aboard, that "we're burning cash rapidly" and that her services would be a "first pass attempt to where do we begin to close the gap," or something along those lines.

Council member Ken Kraft, who speaks English, was blunt. "Isn't that what we elected you to do?" he asked. He pointedly observed that we're spending $0.75 million for an opinion. Kraft also dismissed Solicitor Vic Scomillio's opinion that the contract was legal as flawed.

That when it got fun. A perturbed Glenn Geissinger asked Kraft,. "Your law degree comes from where?"

Unfortunately, there were no blows. Maybe next time.

Kraft later pointed out that he went to school for contractual law, damn it. I did send him a text last night, telling him he could borrow my law degree if he wants because I'm not using it.

Brown assured Council that he would accept responsibility for the success of the contract. "I am the one who's accountable," he said in English.

"If I spend a dollar and can save $2, all day long I'll do that," he reasoned, again in English.

Hayden Phillips and, more particularly, Peg Ferraro, were troubled by the fact that Brown looked nowhere beyond Zosky. Though Brown insisted he had to have someone who he trusted implicitly, he was not appointing a cabinet member. He was instead proposing a business consultant who would be working for the entire County, not just him.

"I like to shop," Peg said quite simply, referring to the lack of proposals.

Peg was also a bit put off that Zosky only lasted 23 months at the Allentown School District, yet is being proposed for a four-year contract. Zosky explained that she left because, contrary to what she had been told, she was never given control over a dime of the money needed to effect changes.

Zosky herself is a CPA who speaks fluent Accountantese. I got half of Brown had to say, but didn't understand a word she said, except that it sounded very convincing. She prepared detailed packets showing exactly what she would be doing, although it would take me four years to understand them. She clearly is exceptionally gifted.

Glenn Geissinger, a consultant himself, supported the deal. "We are foolish if we do not give the Executive $800,000 for an opportunity to save millions," he argued. Mat Benol agreed with Geissinger, claiming that we are "bleeding money"

But Scott Parsons responded that Brown would have a new set of eyes if he hired a Finance Director.

Hayden Phillips worried that Zosky might be using her RenewLV connections, where she sat on the board with Brown, to enrich herself.

"Has it parlayed any advantages?" he asked (He speaks Marine. Either that or French. They are very similar).

"Absolutely not," Zosky answered, noting her commitment to RenewLV is based solely in her beliefs in smart growth and urban revitalization.

When the matter was called for a vote of the Finance Committee, only Geissinger supported the contract. The other three members - Hayden Phillips, Bob Werner and Scott Parsons - voted No.

Ken Kraft and Peg Ferraro, nonvoting members, are opposed. Mat Benol supports the measure, and said so. Lamont McClure and Seth Vaughn, who do not sit on this committee, were not present.

Will this be voted on by Council tonight? It appears unlikely.

Based on the concerns raised by Council, I believe they would support a contract that was shorter in duration and that is arrived at by considering several proposals. Zosky need not be the low bid, as Brown seems to think.

On Tuesday, Brown stated during his news conference that he had the five votes he needed for this measure to pass. Based on my own discussion with council members and my ability to count to five, I knew he was wrong. His hubris needlessly embarrassed a qualified candidate, but his idea is a good one and might work if he acknowledges the concerns raised by Council.

Brown Right To Fire Mancini

Both The Express Times and Morning Call are reporting that former Assistant County Solicitor Jill Mancini is suing Northampton County over her dismissal in January. She gambled in politics and eventually lost. Above, she is whistling and cheering on the night that Scott Parsons beat Ron Angle in a County Council race. Her boss, John Stoffa, supported Angle.

She's a far better cheerleader than a lawyer. She had to be replaced as Right-to-Know officer because she was ignoring requests, turning molehills into mountains.

When Scott Parsons and other council members refused to make her some kind of Super Solicitor, despite the impassioned pleas of her boyfriend, Solicitor Karl Longenbach, she grew bitter.

Her luck finally ran out. She was an active Callahan supporter in November's Executive race, but an obscure Slate Belt Mayor, John Brown, came out of nowhere and won.

She likely believed that her career service status exempted her from political reprisal.

She found out she was wrong when she got her walking papers.

Though an indifferent lawyer at best, Mancini was still one of the Executive's legal advisers. Brown has every right to insist on lawyers whose advice he trusts, regardless how she is classified. Obviously, he would be an idiot to trust her.

So I believe he made the right call here. She has proven how much she really cares about the County by suing.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I Almost Missed Brown's First News Conference

I'm driving a $500 special this Winter, on which I've spent about $15,000 so far. It hasn't worked out the way I thought it would. The latest problem is a failed alternator, which occurred yesterday. It almost caused me to miss John Brown's first news conference. But I made it, thanks to some good people.

One fellow, whom I never met, helped me push the car onto Route 248. A Colonial Region police officer actually helped me push it into the STS auto repair shop. A third person, a good friend, dropped what he was doing, picked me up and drove me the courthouse, just in time to catch the news conference. My brother, who unlike me is mechanically inclined, will put a new alternator in the car. He also gave me a ride to a friend's house. Despite being sick with the flu, that fellow dug out one of his luxury cars, which only has 29,000 miles, and lent it to me until mine gets fixed.

Nazareth cops are convinced I stole it. 

They may be right. He's never getting that car back.

Brown Blasts NorCo's Failed Leadership

After six weeks of ignoring emails and calls from the media, Northampton County Executive John Brown conducted his first news conference yesterday. He needed to "settle in" first, he explained. He pledged regular access and greater transparency. He called reporters in response to the public outcry over his proposal to spend $715,200 on outside business consultant Deana Zosky over the next four years. He defended the idea, insisting it would more than pay for itself. He also predicted that the measure would get the five votes he needs from Council. But he said the biggest problem facing the County is a lack of leadership.

"For the past 16 years, the County has been a drifting ship without direction," charged Brown, in a slight aimed at former Executives John Stoffa and Glenn Reibman. "The challenges we face today are a direct result of the failure of leadership over the last eight years - and certainly the eight before that."

"I will not dignify a comment like that with a response," retorted John Stoffa, who supplied Brown with an office and County resources immediately after Brown was elected, to aid in his transition.

Brown claimed poor leadership has led to problems like serial structural deficits, including a $13 million deficit in 2013, coupled with an attitude that "budgets do not matter." He pledged "to restore fiscal sanity" to County government. "I have grabbed the steering wheel and have begun laying the groundwork to redirect the County away from the past and into a new future."

After proclaiming his transparency and willingness to work with Council, Brown disputed the claims of some Council members. According to one reporter, some say they were "blindsided" by Brown's proposal to hire a $715,200 business consultant. He said he made his intentions known two weeks ago, but apologized to any members who were unaware.

Asked how he would pay for this business consultant contract with Deana Zosky, which he agreed does include unspecified IT costs, Brown said he has already saved $100,000 in the Solicitor's office.

Though critical of the $13 million deficit, Brown said he was "unsure" whether he would have agreed to a tax hike. "I would have preferred that they control costs," he said, adding that he "bit my tongue" as Council approved several new positions. Not all have been filled. Brown is requiring department heads to meet with him and justify the added cost.

He cited the new hires as an example of a habit, presumably a bad habit.

New hires in the Stoffa administration were actually something of a rarity. First, he imposed a two-year hiring freeze on vacant positions, under which slots were filled only if both he and Council agreed they were critical. Second, he instituted a voluntary furlough program, an unpaid vacation exercised by about 20 County employees annually. Third, he refused to appoint a Director of Community and Economic Development, or replace Vic Mazziotti after he resigned as Director of Fiscal Affairs.

In an effort to control costs, Brown agrees with Lamont McClure's proposed performance audit of the $5.5 million Community Education Center program at the jail, which is designed to treat inmates and keep them from re-offending. "We get a sound bite," he said of claims that the program reduces recidivism. "We don't get the whole story."

Brown stated he is addressing the $5.5 million deficit at County nursing home Gracedale by conducting weekly meetings with Administrator Dee Freeman. "We're handcuffed in some ways," he noted, referring to "labor issues."

In addition to the proposed business consultant contract, Brown has already approved a public works consultant and is considering a communications consultant. But he denied plans to engage in government by consultant. He conceded that he is having trouble finding people willing to work at the salaries paid by local government.

Though Brown himself shut out the press until yesterday, he nevertheless criticized prior administrations for their lack of transparency. "We don't communicate well with our own employees," he observed, adding that "they do such a good job."

After stressing the importance of communication and transparency, media consultant Kim Plyler brought the conference to an end after about 20 minutes.

"There's time for one more question," she announced.

You can read Brown's remarks here. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

McClure Claims Zosky Contract May Be Illegal

In a letter to Executive John Brown, Council member Lamont McClure has asked Executive John Brown to withdraw his proposed contract with Deana Zosky for $715,200 woth of business consultant services over the next four years. He claims it may be illegal.

According to McClure, Brown needed Council's approval before entering into negotiations with Zosky; would have to establish that hers is the only professional consultancy that could provide these services; and must competitively bid all professional service contracts in excess of $100,000.

Here's the McClure Letter.

McClure Makes Rare Committee Appearance

Council member Lamont McClure, known for his abysmal attendance record at Northampton County Council Committee meetings, actually appeared for yesterday's open space discussion.

McClure has lost his seat as Chair of the Courts and Corrections Committee. That committee has failed to meet over the past four years despite numerous issues concerning the Home Rule Charter, Administrative Code and never-ending issues at the jail. 

Council President Peg Ferraro has replaced McClure with Mat Benol. 

All Council members are encouraged to attend committee hearings. Yesterday's Open Space Committee hearing included  Ferraro, McClure, Scott Parsons, Glenn Geissinger and Bob Werner.

Upper Mount Bethel: We Got More Than Shit

Just as Allentown is known as the "City Without Limits" or Bethlehem as the Christmas City, it's time for Upper Mount Bethel Township to come up with some way to describe its unique charm. That's probably the only thing keeping Trader Joe's away. Well, I think I have it. Historically, it has been the home of the shit slingers. Whether it's farmland or a Supervisors' meeting or even the bathroom at the Upper Mount Bethel Diner, you need to watch your step. You also have to watch what you eat. The infamous Ron Angle and Zoning Officer Bob Cartwright are both on their deathbeds after having eaten shit at someone's home. But I have a motto that's going to open the door to prosperity -"Upper Mount Bethel: We got more than shit!"

I'm not shitting you, either. I found that out last night during a meeting of Northampton County Council's Open Space Committee. Apparently, all that shit slinging has drawn all kinds of rare and exotic species to the Township. In fact, last night Council members Scott Parsons, Peg Ferraro, Glenn Geissinger and Lamont McClure voted to preserve 94.5 acres of land near Route 611. The County is going to kick in $276,867 for this land on top of the $289,388 already approved by Upper Mount Bethel. Then they'll give it to the Nature Conservancy.

Now Angle has told me this is nothing but what he calls shitland, but some outfit somewhere (Maybe the UN) has called it a "globally significant natural resource area." You see, there are 13 rare species on this woodland, six of which are endangered.

They're not coyotes, either.

Open Space coordinator Bryan Cope did not identify these unusual species, but I understand there are several very interesting varieties of musca domestica, which thrive in this environment. They are more commonly known as the housefly.

"I've never seen anything like them," noted one entomologist who asked to remain anonymous. "These little critters just stay outdoors and eat shit. The only time they come near a building is when some governmental body is ready to meet. It's almost as though someone is controlling their little brains."

Angle denied he has anything to do with the flies.

There was some question whether Supervisors might rescind a November decision to preserve the land. According to Scott Parsons, that would end the county's commitment. "If that funding gets pulled, that would cease the project," he noted.

Former Supervisor Judy Henckel, who said "Thank Goodness" when she identified herself as a former Supervisor, told Council's Open Space committee that this project is opposed by "just a very few people" who are using it as a "smokescreen for something else".

"I don't think it's anything to worry about,"she assured Council members.

But being from Upper Mount Bethel, you probably know she's full of shit.

Council's Open Space Committee also unanimously endorsed the following municipal requests, which are included in the 2014 Budget:

1) Palmer Township. - a walking trail to link the Miracle League baseball diamond to the Chrin Community Center, three tennis courts, two basketball courts and electrical installments that will permit outdoor lighting. Cope noted that all their fields are open to everyone, not just palmer Township residents. Cost to the county - $243,408.

2) Pen Argyl. - Weona Park improvements to miniature golf course, as well as basketball court improvements. Cost to the County, $60,372.

3) Upper Mount Bethel Community Park. - Thus will include a playground with recycled products. It will include a small walking trail, and some kind of butterfly haven. Cost to the County, $112,616.92

Updated 10 AM: According to a phone call I received from Ron Angle, Upper Mount Bethel Supervisors voted 3-2 to pull the funding for the globally significant natural resource area at their last Monday night meeting. He adds that Henckel was in the audience when it happened, carrying on.

Simmons Seeks Third Term As State Rep.

State Representative Justin Simmons (R-131) today announced that he will seek a third term to the 131st District of the State House of Representatives.

"During my first two terms, we have made real progress on addressing the priorities of the people of the 131st District but there is still much left to be resolved," said Simmons. "Issues such as pension reform, education funding reform and more must be addressed to protect the future of our state, our community and taxpayers."

Simmons' efoorts led to enactment of  "Caylee's Law,” a child protection bill by the House which would increase the penalties for the crime of concealing the death of a child. He also introduced legislation giving taxpayers the final say in whether to allow debt increases in home-rule charter counties. This bill was signed into law by Governor Corbett. Lehigh County voters overwhelmingly voted for this referendum in last November’s election.

Simmons also noted his on-going effort to reform the public pension system in Pennsylvania to help taxpayers at the state and school district levels. Pennsylvania currently faces a $47 billion shortfall in its pension systems that will only continue to grow if no action is taken. The result will be either rising taxes or significant cuts to services.

“The current public pension system is broken and it threatens the future of our school districts and the taxpayers,” said Simmons. “I support an approach that would protect the benefits of current enrollees, places new hires into a 401(k)-type system that provides them with greater control over their retirement funds, and is fair to taxpayers."

Simmons continues to lead by example on the pension issue, as well as other reform issues, by refusing the taxpayer-funded defined benefit pension, per diems and other perks.

Representative Simmons and his wife, Erica, reside in Upper Saucon Township.

Due to constitutionally mandated redistricting, the 131st District in which Simmons is running for re-election includes all of Lower Milford, Upper Milford and Upper Saucon Townships, and the Boroughs of Coopersburg, Emmaus and part of Salisbury Township, in Lehigh County; Upper Hanover Township and the Boroughs of East Greenville, Pennsburg and Red Hill in Montgomery County; and, parts of Lower Saucon Township in Northampton County.

He's invulnerable.

So Does Schlossberg

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to the +100 who showed up tonight at the campaign kick-off. You braved the cold, snow and ice to attend and I truly appreciate it. Special thanks to the always wonderful Jennifer Mann for her kind words and the beautiful introduction of the best woman in the world, Brenna Schlossberg. Moment of the day: when Auron grabbed the microphone and interupted Mommy's speech. It was awesome.

I wake up every day honored by the faith that the people of the 132nd have placed in me, and I wake up every day, excited to see what challenges the sunrise will bring. I'm looking forward to earning a 2nd term.

When I rread Schlossberg fawn over sell-out Jenn Mann, I hope someone takes him on.