Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Pay-to-Play Making Bethlehem Inroads
Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez recently imposed a gift ban on all city employees to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But roughly $1 out of every $3 contributed to his campaign, or 33%, comes from unions, developers, engineers and others who have a vested interest in the Bethlehem's CRIZ, TIF or other City-sponsored projects.
CRIZ participants Dennis Benner (Greenway Park), Lew Ronca and Norton Herrick (Martin Tower), J.G. Petrucci (Third St), Jeff Trainer (Sands Convention Center, Mike Perrucci (3rd St) and Majestic Realty's Ed Roski (LVIP) are all contributors. Is it coincidence that they, as one other developer puts it, "are controlling the cards and not letting anyone else at the table?"
Their influence only begins with Donchez. It also extends to his political rival and opponent in the 2013 Mayoral race, City Council President J.William Reynolds. His finance reports show that 28% of his election funding comes from the same vested interests.
When major contributions from Ronca and Herrick were called into question at a recent City Council meeting concerning zoning changes at the Martin Tower site, Reynolds called on Donchez, who accepts the same kind of contributions himself, to vouch for his integrity.
A similar pattern exists among incumbent Council members Mike Recchiuti (36%), Bryan Callahan (31%, as well as incoming Council member Shawn Martell (25%).
Recchiuti defends the practice. "I am proud of the support I have received," he has stated. He insists that contributions from Martin Tower interests only make up 13% of his total fundraising. "As a City Councilman, I have always put the interests of the entire City of Bethlehem first, and will continue to do so for the remainder of my term."
But there's another group of Council members who are much more sensitive to accepting money from developers and related business interests that depend on government favoritism to succeed. Eric Evans (12%) and Adam Waldron (3%).have much smaller contributions from these special interests.
In January, they will be joined by two Council members who believe that putting the City's interests first should rule out accepting money from developers and engineers who are looking for CRIZ or NIZ tax breaks. Olga Negron and Michael Colon, elected from the Lehigh Valley's growing Latino community, relied on grass roots support and family instead of crony capitalists. While Negron has stated that she supports the CRIZ, "we do not want to provide a license for [developers] to destroy our city’s historic treasures or diminish the character of our charming neighborhoods." She is apparently referring to the Martin Tower development, one of the CRIZ projects.
Neither Negron nor Colon take office until January. Council is scheduled to vote on changes to Martin Tower zoning before then to make it more "flexible" and allow more retail. Historic downtown and South side merchants have spoken forcefully against this proposal. The decision will be made by a 7-person Council, two of whom were appointed. Three of these Council members indicated before a word was spoken at public hearings that they support rezoning at Martin Tower. Reynolds went so far as to interfere with a Planning Commission review in July.
According to Common Cause, Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states that impose no limits on campaign contributions. In 1992, then Governor Bob Casey called on the state legislature to "liberate the electoral process from the tyranny of the campaign dollar." Instead, individual campaigns in local races are often in excess of what can be contributed to someone running for the United States Senate.
Since there's no urgency to Martin Tower and three new Council members will take office in January, it makes sense to table this rezoning when Bethlehem City Council convenes this evening. Wait for seven people who were actually elected. But Recchiuti is unwilling to wait for the next Council. "I plan on doing my job until my term expires," he insisted. "I do not believe I would be serving those who voted for me by deferring tough decisions to the next council. I also believe it would be inherently unfair for this council to leave those tough decisions for the future inexperienced council members to make so early in their term."
My analysis of the campaign expenses of Mayor Bob Donchez and City Council is located here.