Saturday, February 01, 2014
Eleven City Council Candidates Run Gauntlet in 6-Hour Meeting
Middle Row (L to R): Dave Sanders, Tom Miller, Jeremy Sestito, Cathy Reuscher
Bottom Row (L to R): Melody Frey, Ron Heckman, Michael Colon
If you've noticed that Bethlehem's deep-freeze appears to have moderated, you might want to thank City Council. They generated enough hot air during a special meeting on January 30 to heat the City for the rest of the Winter. They grilled eleven impressive candidates to succeed Bob Donchez. He left Council earlier this month to become Mayor. Under the City's Home Rule Charter, Council fill vacant elected offices. If they stalemate, as happened recently when Meg Holland resigned as Controller, the courts make the appointment.
After a grueling six hours, only Council member Karen Dolan was ready to go on. "I had a cup of coffee," she explained. "I can go all night."
Council President J. Willie Reynolds, however, was uncertain about starting the nomination process at 1 AM. Besides, there were only five Council members on hand because Eric Evans was ill. A consensus agreed to defer the voting until Monday night.
Observer Alana Jennings called this cast of 11 an "embarrassment of riches".
Sonia Vazquez, Principal at Donegan Elementary School. - "Everything I do is 150%," the West side resident assured Council members. She also pointed out that much of her career as an educator has been as an administrator, making her familiar with large budgets.
Vazquez also detailed her involvement in various volunteer activities, from Lehigh Little League to the Blueberry festival. .
David "Lump" Sanders, a long-time Bethlehem Housing Authority Commissioner and owner of "Lump's Deli". - "Bethlehem is #1," he told Council. "Don't let anybody fool you." He told Council that on Christmas Eve, a loved one had a medical emergency. Thanks to Bethlehem police and EMTs, she was in a hospital and being treated within thirty minutes.
Steve Melnick, an economic development consultant who directed the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone. - Melnick promises to bring "aggressive economic" development and criticized the warehouses on Southside Bethlehem, raising the hackles of Council members J. Willie Reynolds and Michael Recchiuti. He said he'd try to attract more small manufacturing by reaching out to them. "I think it's a little disingenuous to say we need to go outside because we've been doing that," retorted Reynolds.
Ron Heckman, a former Northampton County Council member and Director of Human Services. - After complimenting him for his willingness to "always stand for things," Council member Karen Dolan basically told Heckman he's either too white or too masculine. "Can you understand why I feel it would be important to have diversity on this Board?" she asked.
"I don't know if it would be the top priority for me if I were picking someone," he answered.
Recchiuti was a bit kinder to Heckman, telling him, "If there were a Hall of Fame for public service in the Lehigh Valley, you would certainly be in it."
Upon hearing that Lehigh University directs visitors to its campus via South Maintain instead of the Southside. Heckman provided a flash of his humor.
"Maybe we could pull a Chris Christie and do a lane closure," he joked.
Michael Colon, volunteer coordinator at the Gracedale nursing home and regular attendee of City Council meetings. - This Penn State grad claims he would bring youth, diversity and common sense.
"We don't lack a young male on Council," noted Adam Waldron, himself a young male. But he and other Council members complimented Colon for his regular meeting attendance. Colon, who is bi-lingual, told Council he would reach out much more to Lehigh and Moravian, claiming they have much to offer the City.
In a lengthy exchange, Dolan queried Colon about developer Abe Atiyeh, whom she referred to as "He who shall not be named" and as "this development character [who] seems to enjoy torturing citizens." She attempted to lure Colon into saying he would ignore the law to go after Atiyeh.
Colon said he'd follow the law.
Melody Frey, a Wall Street investment analyst. - She told Council that, contrary to common belief, legacy costs can be reduced by more careful management of the pension funds. She favors District Council seates. "We're not a small City anymore," she explained.
Though she claimed that she herself was an Army brat who moved frequently in her youth, Dolan questioned Frey relentlessly about her Bethlehem roots.
Tom Miller, who went from messenger boy to Senior VP at Bakers Trust Co. before retiring. - What this octogenarian likes about Bethlehem is that seven colleges are only 20 minutes away, and two are in walking distance.
He told Council that the City's cash on hand is much better than in years past, but believes it needs to improve its bond rating. With his 40 years of banking experience, Miller believes he can add a financial perspective.
Miller is a graduate of Bethlehem's Citizens' Academy and convinced former Executive John Stoffa to start one in Northampton County.
Cathy Reuscher, a Southside resident and food co-op advocate. - She brings a knowledge of the City's south side, and defends the genteel poor. "Poor and content is rich and rich enough," she said, quoting from Othello.
Reuscher currently works for the Appalachian Mountain Club as their Mid-Atlantic Policy Associate.
Lynn Rothman, a former environmental scientist and current President of Allentown's Temple Beth El. - This is the only candidate who received a kiss before being grilled. Her husband was with her.
Dolan noted that Rothman's synagogue is in Allentown, not Bethlehem. But Rothman explained that the congregation includes Bethlehem residents. She added that her temple supplied 6 tons of food to Second harvest last year.
She said she would support small tax hikes for improvements in public safety, saying that multiple small hikes are preferable to a major, unexpected increase.
She told Council she loves Bethlehem. "It has everything a big city should have, but with a small town feel," she explained.
This former EPA official impressed Council members with an explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of water leases.
Bruce Smackey, professor emeritus of marketing and manufacturing systems engineering at Lehigh University. - Noting that the City debt service is $7.6 million, Smackey pointed out that is 10% of the budget. He believes long range planning is the answer. "All we are doing is fighting fires," he noted.
Smackey also had a fascinating view of economic development, noting it should not be defined by the City's boundaries. He called the competition that goes on between cities destructive, pointing to numerous municipal bankruptcies. "Maybe we should give some help to the businesses that are already here," he noted.
He suggested the City should leverage its buying power with other municipalities.
Jeremy Sestito, a CPA employed at PPL.- This accountant wants to bring a long-term balanced budget to Bethlehem.
Dolan posed a question, and after listening to his answer, commented that former Council member Jean Belinski would attack her during debates with "That's the stupidest answer I ever heard."
"You're lucky," she advised Sestito, thus creating the impression that he had just given the stupidest answer she ever heard.
Clearly nervous, Sestito said his "passion to achieve an outcome" is what sets him apart.
Though this meeting lasted six hours, all candidates remained for the entire meeting.