|Ron Angle unswayed by Judy Henckel|
And bog turtles.
But is it really about the fens and bog turtles? Or is the green pursued by open space activists the kind they can take to the bank?
Based on a tip from Ron Angle, Upper Mount Bethel Supervisors have spent the past month looking at records of payments made to Urban Research and Development, a well-respected Bethlehem-based firm that employs prominent landscape architect Leonard Policelli. Supervisor Anthony DeFranco revealed at last night's meeting that Urban Research has been paid $360,000 in that time period for different projects, including the development of a community park spearheaded by Policelli.
According to the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, a conflict or conflict of interest exists when a public official uses the authority of her office or any confidential information received through that office for the private pecuniary benefit of herself, a member of her immediate family or a business with which she or a member of her immediate family is associated.
"If in fact her son was getting a pecuniary benefit, there could be a conflict," said Solicitor Ron Karasek. "In all due respect, I was not aware that Mr. Policelli was Judy's son."
This relationship was also a surprise to Angle until last month. "Nobody in this audience has attended more meetings than me over the past ten years," he said. "Never once was this ever brought up by her or by him [her son] that 'By the way, there could be a potential conflict and we just wanted to let you know.' They just kept doing the same-o same-o."
Angle told Supervisors that Henckel should be barred from participating in any boards that decide on grants for her projects. He added that, when she was a Supervisor, she steered the Board away from farmland preservation, in which conservation easements are purchased. "Now I figured out why she never wanted farmland preservation," said Angle. "There's no money to be paid to the guy who does the farmland preservation. You just write a check."
Chairman John Bermingham, himself an open space advocate who was elected with Henckel's help, attempted to minimize the problem. "We live in a small town," he said. "It's gonna' happen here and there." He did agree that there "could" be a conflict, but that he and DeFranco have only been on the Board since January.
"She lobbied for these things," countered Angle, "knowing that a close relative would benefit."
For her part, Henckel denied that she opposed farmland preservation, and noted that three Upper Mount Bethel farms are in the process of being preserved now. She also denied that the community park, in which her son and his firm were involved, is open space. She called it a "municipal facility" given to the Township by Reliant Energy, and before she was a Supervisor.
At that time, though, Henckel was nevertheless a public official because she served on the Township's Environmental Advisory Council. She stated that she disclosed the relationship. "A lot of people knew," she explained, though she conceded she "did not advertise it." She indicated her son had just been successful that day in getting a $20,000 grant for trees at the park.
Henckel also questioned the $360,000 figure, indicating that Urban Research had done other work for the Township aside from the community park.
In a conversation during the meeting, Henckel told me may have voted a few times for projects that would benefit her son'e company, but just never thought about it. She also indicated that she spends untold hours working for the benefit of the Township, not expecting anything.
Where things go from here is unclear. Angle believes the District Attorney or Ethics Commission should investigate, but Supervisors took no action at this point.
The open space movement appears to have created its own industry in which "land preservation boards' or "environmental advisory councils" are formed in which members vote to preserve each other's properties at taxpayer expense.
Much more oversight is needed than currently exists. That's why watchdogs like Ron Angle in Upper Mount Bethel and Vince Foglia in Williams Township are essential.