These grant requests were originally scheduled to be considered the previous day at Council's Finance Committee.But a bomb scare phoned into the courthouse earlier that day resulted in an evacuation, and the building was off limits until about 4 pm, right around the time that the committee had been scheduled to meet. Road blocks set up around the perimeter of the courthouse prevented access until after the meeting had been scheduled to start. As it happened, several of those turned around were grant applicants who wished to address Council.
I raised this possibility to Council before they started yesterday, having no idea at the time that I was actually right. Go figure.
"How many people are there who are on their way in here, who wanted to speak to this issue, who were turned around?" I asked. "We don't know."
Meeting at a place where the public had been turned away all afternoon is a pretty obvious violation of the Sunshine Act. Our open meetings law specifically provides that "the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decisionmaking of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process." But that right fell by the wayside for a Council that was unwilling to do the right thing and reschedule the meeting.
Glenn "I wanna' be a Congressman" Geissinger, who chairs the Finance Committee, decided that the show must go on. And without the public's presence, that's precisely what it was. "While I understand your concern, I don't believe we are violating the Sunshine Act," he ruled. "So we will proceed."
This was great news for a few hardy souls, like Hotel Bethlehem's Bruce Haines and the Bach Choir's Bridget George. They had managed to slip in under the velvet rope, and had their hands out. Thanks to their well-reasoned arguments, Council voted to increase their funding. But others like Lynn Cunningham of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Gerry Yasso of the VIA Marathon, had been turned away. The Committee voted to reduce Yasso's funding, even though the VIA Marathon is without a doubt the most worthy application in terms of promoting tourism and hotel stays. Geissinger's Committee also recommended the elimination of a $4,000 arts study, even though applicant Randall Forte was among the missing, and as it happens, was one of those who were turned away.
Prior to the Council meeting, County staffers called applicants and told them they were welcome to pitch their projects. But many who had already been turned away once were unable to adjust their schedules at the drop of a dime. Some did come.
The "Docents on Main" and "Blacksmith Shop Demonstration," which had been pitched by Bruce Haines the previous day, saw their funding by $10,000 over the $55,000 recommendation. The Bach Choir will get $18,000 instead of the $13,000 allocated by County staff. The South Side Film Festival will get $1,000 instead of nothing, thanks to some juggling by Ken Kraft.
Gerry Yasso managed to get his funding restored, thanks to an amendment proposed by Geissinger.
Randall Forte of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council did get a chance to pitch his project, but was still shot down.
Lynn Cunningham was unable to squeeze a nickel for website redevelopment for the Bethlehem Visitor site. She had sought $15,000. She was asked whether she sought the money from the CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, who just happens to be her husband. "I have not but I'm sure I'll read about it on Bernie's blog tomorrow," she joked.
He was a last resort.