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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, August 19, 2019

Forks Tp Lawyer to Replace GOP Nominee in Council Race

James Fuller
Up until very recently, 19 year-old gun rights advocate Andrew Oliveira was running as the Republican nominee for Northampton County Council, District Two. Though I disagree with him about pretty much everything, I looked forward to seeing someone the same age as my grandson take an interest in local government. I was sure he would energize the campaign. Unfortunately, Oliveira has dropped out to tend to a personal matter. NorCo GOP Chair Lee Snover told me last night that Oliveira will be replaced by Forks Tp resident and Monroe County Assistant Public Defender James Fuller. He has been a practicing attorney for the past five years.

I know little about Fuller, but that will change.

Kerry Myers
The Dem nominee in District Two, Sandra Werner, also dropped out. She's been replaced by Kerry Myers, who recently retired from Lafayette College. Kerry fell short in a 2013 bid for an at-large seat on Northampton County Council, but  his job made it difficult for him to campaign.

Myers, who is about 8' tall, also coaches the 'Lil Rovers in Easton. He has also served as a softball ump, and has spent a lot of his personal time mentoring Easton's youth 

District Two, often called the Easton District, consists of Easton, Palmer Tp, Forks Tp, and the Boroughs of Stockertown, Tatamy, Wilson, West Easton and Glendon.

Gracedale Has 44% of the Medicaid Beds in NorCo

As of Friday, Gracedale was still rated two stars, or below average, by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Nearly every month, there are reports of problems at the facility, which are repeated in news accounts. But there's a reason. The Northampton County nursing home has 44% of the Medicaid beds in the county.

"Gracedale is absolutely necessary," Executive Lamont McClure reported to Northampton County Council at their August 15 meeting. "If Gracedale wasn't there and county-owned, there would be a legitimate crisis of care for people who are on Medicaid."

McClure noted that many of the residents at Gracedale suffer from Alzheimer's, dementia or a combination of both in a schizophrenic setting. If the county chooses against psychotropic drugs for some, they can become violent. "We're taking care of the sickest folks, and we don't turn anyone away." He added that the recent state decision to close White Haven means the county will be getting those folks, too.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Why Is Gracedale's Rating So Low?

NorCo Executive Lamont McClure offered a pretty good reason at last night's County Council meeting. I'll share it with you on Monday.

Probation Officers and the Horseshoe Nail

We've all heard the "For Want of a Nail" proverb, in which a kingdom is ultimately lost because something as seemingly unimportant as a horseshoe nail was missing. A two percent raise for Northampton County probation officers is a small matter. Making it retroactive to the beginning of the year, which was done for all other career service workers, would cost the county just $69,982. Treating all career service workers the same is clearly the fair thing to do. But last night, Northampton County refused to be fair, disappointing about 64 court-appointed professionals This might just be that horseshoe nail. This trifle could result in dire consequences for Executive Lamont McClure and the Council members who voted against making the raise retroactive.

McClure relied on 7,000 votes from county workers and their families to ensure his election. I question whether those votes will be there when he seeks a second term. Morale is already terrible, nearly everywhere. Deputy sheriffs are walking on eggshells, afraid of the Sheriff McClure appointed. Corrections officers are very unhappy with an arbitration award that failed to address mandated overtime and constant turnover. 911 workers are underpaid and overworked. There are 11 vacancies in Children and Youth, nine of which are caseworkers. Gracedale is ready to revolt over understaffing. In the face of all these problems, the last thing the county should want to do is aggravate another block of employees. But that's precisely what happened last night.

As I told you yesterday, Northampton County's court-appointed professionals were represented by AFSCME. This never made any sense. They serve at the pleasure of the court, and no union can protect them if a judge decides to can one or all of them for any reason, even a bad one. That's the nature of at-will employment.

These court-appointed professionals petitioned last year to have their union decertified. This happened on January 21 of this year when the union agreed to an amicable divorce.

At the beginning of this year, all career service employees received a two per cent wage hike. But not probation officers. They continued receiving the same salaries they were getting at the end of the year.

Exec McClure recently decided to recommend that they get a two percent payhike like the other career service employees. That's only fair. But the raise only goes into effect on July 28 instead of being effective at the beginning of the year, like it was for all other career service employees. That's unfair.

So far as I can tell, the reason July 28 was picked is because it corresponded with a pay period. So you'd think that when court-appointed professionals asked to make it retroactive, McClure would readily agree. But he sat mute as two Council members who double as union agents bashed probation officers for daring to leave the union. I refer to Council members Kevin Lott, business agent for the Carpenters' Union; and Bill McGee, business agent for the Insulators' Union.

Lott's words at a committee meeting make clear he wanted to punish these workers:
"They made the choice to leave the union and that was their choice ... . They could have stayed there and got what was offered. Now the employees are coming back six months later and are saying, 'Forget your budget. We made a choice but we don't really like that choice' ... I think there was [sic] some bad choices made by employees here."
McGee and Lott both said this group of workers would have to live with the consequences of their decision to leave the union.

Before the vote last night, about ten probation officers were in the audience, making me wonder if I failed yet another urine test. Fortunately, they were not there for me, but to see how their government would treat them. Arky Colon, a pretrial services officer and 29-year veteran, asked Council to "do the right thing."

Council member John Cusick tried. He offered an amendment to make the raise retroactive to the beginning of the year.

"These folks here make up the backbone of the court system," said Cusick. He argued that the pay should be made retroactive to the beginning of the year.

Council member Peg Ferraro seconded. "I strongly feel that these employees are being punished for leaving the union. I also feel it's an affront to these loyal employees ... " She suggested those who opposed retroactivity should "take off their union hats and put on their 'Do what's right for our employees hat.'"

Agreeing with Cusick and Ferraro, Council member Bob Werner said that even if these probation officers made a bad decision, "that doesn't mean they should receive economic hardship."

Council President Ron Heckman also sided with court-appointed professionals, saying they were "wards of the county" once their union was decertified. He heard no strong reason why July 28 was the date the increase should become effective. Actually,noreason at all was offered.

Union agents Lott and McGee of course continued to be vindictive and punish probation officers for daring to leave the union. They were joined by Council members Tara Zrinski and Lori Vargo Heffner.

Zrinski, who is running for State Representative against Marcia Hahn, noted that she's never been a member of a union. But clearly, she wants their money for her campaign.

Heffner claimed to have done her own investigation, which consisted of a phone call to Human Resources Director Elizabeth Kelly. This "investigation" included no calls to probation officers. She made clear what motivated her when she told another member of Council, after the meeting, that she resented probation officers for making more money than she does as a social worker.

Perhaps Kevin Lott can tell her she made a choice and has to live with it.

Cusick's amendment failed by a 4-4 vote. Cusick, Ferraro, Werner and Heckman voted Yes. The others voted against the workers.

Council member Matt Dietz, who almost certainly would have sided with the workers, was unfortunately absent. He was busy stuffing backpacks for Backpack Pals in Bethlehem.

Sitting quietly throughout this exchange was Executive Lamont McClure. He could have spoken up for the workers, but did not. He could have told them that the July 28 date was used because it corresponded with a pay period, but did not. His silence was a message in and of itself.

He may think he's headed to an overwhelming re-election. That won't happen if he continues to alienate his workforce. He can ask former Executive John Brown how that worked out for him. McClure, who railed against vacancies in Children and Youth, now has just as many as Brown did.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Will NorCo Council Penalize Probation Officers For Leaving Union?

Most employers, even public employers, hate having to deal with unions. It's easy to screw a lone employee. That gets a lot harder when he has the legal protections afforded to a collective bargaining unit. There really is strength in unity, and I've seen it firsthand. But yesterday was the first time I saw a public employer try to stick it to a group of workers simply because they have no union. That's what two Northampton County Council members want to do to its 64 court-appointed professionals, who consist mostly of probation officers and court reporters. Will they succeed? We'll find out when County Council convenes tonight. Let me fill you in.

Northampton County's court-appointed professionals were represented by AFSCME, but that never made any sense. This is because they serve at the pleasure of the court, and no union can protect them if a judge decides to can one or all of them for any reason, even a bad one. That's the nature of at-will employment.

Last year, 30% of the court-appointed professionals petitioned the Pa. Labor Relations Board (PLRB) for decertification of AFSCME, their bargaining unit. An election was scheduled, but the union read the tea leaves and decided to throw in the towel. It was basically an amicable divorce. On January 21 of this year, the PLRB decertified the union.

It was around this time that Executive Lamont McClure successfully negotiated six union contracts. He claimed he wanted to follow the same pattern for one and all. This consisted of a step increase (4 1/2%) in the first year, followed by two percent raises in Years two and three. Corrections officers would later insist on binding arbitration, and made out a little worse than if they had just taken McClure's offer.

What about the court-appointed professionals? Exec McClure recently decided to recommend that they get a two percent payhike like other career service employees. But the raise only goes into effect on July 28 instead of being effective at the beginning of the year, like it was for all other career service employees.

McClure's recommendation was considered by Council's Personnel Committee last night. Peter Nebzydoski, a probation officer with the county for the past 10 years, asked Council to make the payhike retroactive to January 21, the date their union was decertified. He certainly works hard enough. He has a case load of 234 people. But two council members - Bill McGee and Kevin Lott - who are or were union agents, basically told Nebzydoski that he should have stayed in a union and must now pay the price for his stupidity.

Not all of Council feels this way. Saying he agreed with Nebzydoski, Council member John Cusick argued that the payraise be made retroactive until the beginning of the year. This would cost the county a grand total of $69,982.

That's too much for Northampton County Council member Kevin Lott, who is still listed as Business Agent for the Lehigh Valley Carpenters' Union.

"They made the choice to leave the union and that was their choice," he said. "They could have stayed there and got what was offered. Now the employees are coming back six months later and are saying, 'Forget your budget. We made a choice but we don't really like that choice' ... I think there was [sic] some bad choices made by employees here." He concluded by saying they made a mistake and would have to live with the consequences.

Pretty clearly, Lott wishes to penalize a class of workers for exercising their right to leave a union. "They didn't see the big picture here," he said, which I translate as meaning they should have stayed union.

Council member Bill McGee, who just happens to be the Business Agent for the Insulators' Union, echoed Lott "They did make a choice."

It is unlawful for union agents to threaten economic harm to employees who desire to decertify. In this case, union agents Lott and McGee are doing more than threatening these workers. They are imposing an actual economic hardship. They both seem to have forgotten that they are on Council to serve the public, not the unions.

"What we're asking for is just to be fair," said Nebzydoski, noting that all other career service employees received a two percent hike at the beginning of the year.

Will County Council relent and make this payhike retroactive? We'll find out tonight.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Binding Arbitration at Jail A Pyrrhic Victory for McClure and Union

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure told County Council on August 1 he is "very pleased" at the binding arbitration award between the County and the union representing corrections officers. The union sought binding arbitration after negotiations with the county reached an impasse.

McClure had offered a step increase (4 1/2%) in the first year, followed by two percent pay hikes in years two and three. In addition, he offered to bring corrections officers into the county's health care plan, a significant improvement over what they have now.  This offer was rejected, and because corrections officers are unable to strike, they are entitled to and sought binding arbitration.

The arbitrator awarded 0.77% more in wages than the county had offered. What McClure liked about this award is that the "lion's share"of the increase went to officers who have been employed for 13 years or less. Those with more than 13 years are getting less money than they would have received had negotiators taken the county's offer.

"The arbitrator did for us what we were not able to do at the table with any of our bargaining units," said McClure. This suggests that perhaps some union negotiators have been more interested in taking care of themselves than in protecting members who have little seniority. 

McClure said the award addresses a complaint he hears often. "We can't recruit or retain because Lehigh pays more ..."

The arbitration award will actually cost the county less than it would have paid had the union accepted the contract.

"Under our offer at the table, which was rejected for arbitration, it would have cost us $827,326. The arbitrator's binding award is going to cost us $791,164."

McClure may be pleased, but corrections officers are not. On the weekend following his announcement, 22 officers were mandated on one shift and 23 on another.  This pattern continued again the following weekend. While corrections officers are being mandated, they can work 16 hours with no relief and no food

In addition, they are leaving sooner than the county can hire them.

McClure or the union might both claim a victory but it is pyrrhic. The final loser will be the officer,inmate and especially the taxpayer, who will have to pay the overtime and awards that occur as a result of civil rights violations. As a jail expert observes, “The risk of an inappropriate response to a jail incident is higher when an employee is mentally or physically fatigued.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Trump Screws NorCo in Transportation Funding

Northampton County has supported Democrats for President since 1988. But in a break from that tradition, it elected Authoritarian Donald Trump as President in 2016. He owes Northampton County. Right after he was elected, he promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” Despite bipartisan support, he failed to deliver. Republicans balked at taxing corporations for parking their offshore money. So the Lehigh Valley, despite having the highest gas tax in the nation, has lost a badly needed $380 million in transportation funding in the latest 12-year money. Forget funding from Highway Trust Fund. That's broke, like Trump's casinos. Ironically, the County that voted for Trump is getting hosed. It's getting just 29% of the money available, and practically none during the middle years of this plan.

"People will be working nights and weekends to figure out what we can deliver," Lehigh Valley Transportation Study Exec Director Becky Bradley told The Morning Call when these cuts were first announced. But when push came to shove and there finally was a meeting showing that NorCo was getting the short end of the stick, she was a no-show. Instead of working nights and weekends, she was having trouble getting a flight from wherever she was spending her summer holiday.

NorCo Executive Lamont McClure has previously threatened to cut funding to the area planning agency. I ordinarily would disagree, favoring regionalism as the best approach. But without doubt, NorCo is getting hosed.

Next time you're stuck on 22 for an hour on a Friday afternoon, be sure to thank Trump.

Monday, August 12, 2019

DeSales Mens' BB Team Abroad

After a year of exercise, I got my ass kicked yesterday by a 12 year-old designer dog. I'm dog-sitting again, but it's for a good reason. My grandson Dat, along with the DeSales Men's Basketball team, is in Europe. His mom took a few days to go to the beach. I am watching Suki, a five-pound menace who views a few days with me as her own vacation. She's never been to Europe. Come to think of it, neither have I.

The team is visiting Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges, Paris and Amsterdam. They are scheduled for a boat tour of Amsterdam and then a bike tour of center city Amsterdam the following day.

They are playing three unofficial games, too, which is permitted by the NCAA.

The team earned most of the money for this trip via basketball camps.

These young men will also visit Breendonk Concentration Camp,a holding place for Jews and political prisoners on their way to Germany.

This is a wonderful opportunity for these young men to grow, not as athletes, but human beings.

Friday, August 09, 2019

DisGraced Again?

Ed DisGrace
Last time I wrote about Allentown Democratic operative Ed "DisGrace" DeGrace, he had just been convicted of summary harassment over a punch he threw at a fellow Democrat. He was fined $100 and ordered to pay costs for a total of $301.25 following a trial before Magisterial District Judge Ronald S Manescu. Guess what? It's happened again. Same charge. Same victim. Same judge. But this time, it is Allentown police who filed a new charge on Tuesday, based on a confrontation the previous day.

Victim Tom Osborne, who lives near DisGrace, was confronted on his way home. From what I've been able to gather, there was no physical violence this time. Just death threats. Osborne declined to speak about the matter because it is still pending.

By the by, he is still a CCD instructor at St. Thomas Aquinas. The pastor there refuses to do anything about him. Hey, if the Catholic Church is willing to cover up the sexual misconduct of priests, what's the problem with a foul-mouthed thug teaching catechism to children?

The mug shot you see above was taken on one of the occasions he tried (unsuccessfully) to intimidate me.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

NorCo GPA Approves $5 M Bond Issuance For Slate Belt Y

A ceremonial groundbreaking took place in late July for an expansion to the Slate Belt Y, which is located in Pen Argyl. Much of the money for this has come from a casino grant obtained by State Rep. Marcia Hahn. On August 6, Northampton County's General Purpose Authority (GPA) authorized a $5 million tax exempt bond issue to complete the project. Voting Yes were GPA members Charles Dertinger, KenKraft, Lori Vargo Heffner, Anne Baum, Paul Anthony, Jr. and Ron Donchez. GPA member Frank Pintabone was absent.

This bond will help finance a six-lane swimming pool and a child care and pre-school wing. Greater Valley Y CEO David Fagerstrom said this project is the culmination of 70 years of effort, including private gifts and a land donation. He expects the project to start in September, and be done in a year.

GPA member Ron Donchez was happy to vote Yes. "This is a really important program for that region," he said. He added the Y is "trying to reach out and make a difference."

During his campaign for Northampton County Executive, one of Lamont McClure's themes was to pay more attention to the oft-neglected Slate Belt.

This bond allows the bank to provide the tax free rate with more certainty. While this is certainly beneficial for the Y and the success of the project, the funding stream is the money it is getting from gaming grants.

Updated 8:30 am. In an earlier version of this story, I incorrectly identified this bond issue as a separate source of money. It is not, but is a vehicle under which the bank can provide a tax free rate.

Saving Glendon Hotel?

Thanks to the repeated efforts of Glendon Borough resident Kenneth Teske, Northampton County recently began taking an interest in the long vacant Glendon Hotel. In addition to being in a state of disrepair, the building is only 10' from Main Street. Teske has repeatedly argued blighted, which the above picture makes clear.  Glendon cited owner Albert Rutherford * in 2013 for code violations. Rutherford paid a $1,000 fine,but has failed to remediate the problem. Northampton County's General Purpose Authority (GPA) was beginning to consider the possibility of demolishing the building and replacing it with affordable housing, which for some reason is now called obtainable housing. But at a meeting earlier this week, Glendon Borough Council President Richard Young made a pitch for saving the old property.

According to Young, the Glendon Hotel dates back to 1740, and might be the oldest building in Northampton County. He claims it operated as a tavern and was a meeting place. He'd like to see it restored.

The Library of Congress appears to confirm some of what Young said. Its Historic American Buildings Survey states initial construction was in 1740. Young said it was a tavern, but the Survey states it was built "as place of refuge from and defense against the Native Americans, the doors were 6 inches thick and the walls perforated with loop holes from which occupants could fire."

Instead of being a refuge for anyone, it is now a safety hazard. But it's highly unlikely the County or GPA will do anything unless borough officials reach a consensus.

*) (Albert is incorrectly referred to as Arthur Rutherford in a recent Morning Call story)

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Trump's Divisive Rhetoric

I've said before that I'm certain Donald Trump was as shocked and saddened as any of us over this past weekend's mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Having said that, it's equally true that his divisive rhetoric has winked at the racists and xenophobes among us.

When I was growing up in the '50s, I remember jokes about some white guy shooting a black guy and being charged with littering. I thought they were funny at the time, when I was as racist as anyone from the Lehigh Valley. But I grew up. Trump apparently did not.

At a Florida rally in May, Trump displayed exactly this kind of callous humor when musing about illegals.

"Don't forget: We don't let them, and we can't let them, use weapons. We can't," Trump said. "Other countries do. We can't. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people? You can't."

"Shoot them!" Shouted someone in the audience.

Trump smiled and joked, "That's only in the Panhandle you can get away with this stuff. Only in the Panhandle."

This is why his comfort is no comfort to the families of undocumented immigrants and Mexican nationals whose loved ones were murdered in El Paso.

What he could do is say he was wrong, admit that he should never under any circumstances condone violence against another human being. But he will never do that. This is why he is unfit for the nation's highest office.

Next NorCo DA Will Have a Full-Time Professional Office

When John Morganelli became Northampton County's District Attorney in 1991, the office was a part-time position. At that time, nine of 11 assistant DAs were part-time prosecutors who also maintained a private practice. Morganelli argued that he and his assistants should devote 100% of their time to prosecuting criminal cases. The voters agreed and adopted a Home Rule Charter Amendment to make his position full-time. Since that time, he has worked year after year to transform his office from a "part-time political office to a full-time professional prosecutor's office." If his budget for next year is approved by County Council, that transition will finally be complete.

Currently, 19 of 21 assistant DAs are full-time prosecutors. The two part-timers left are veteran prosecutors Richard Huntington Pepper, Esq., and John L. Obrecht, Esq. Both were serving before Morganelli himself became DA, over 28 years ago. Both have busy law practices and would like to step down. So they will leave when Morganelli does. Pepper will look for his missing hair, while Obrecht plans to take up the tuba.

In his proposed budget, Morgaenlli plans to replace them with full-time prosecutors. He expects this will have a negligible impact on his $2.5 million budget because the newcomers will start at only slightly more than Pepper and Obrecht were being paid.

In addition, to this change, Morganelli is asking Council to approve a new Clerk to assist county detectives in forfeiture matters. This was recommended in a recent Controller's audit, and will also allow detectives to devote more time to countywide drug investigations.

Finally, Morganelli's budget calls for a $42,000 contribution to the Petzold Forensic Center at DeSales University and $50,000 for the Regional Crime Center established by Lehigh County DA Jim Martin. "Regionalization with respect to these services makes sense," he said.

Morganelli said he has not consulted with either of his two possible successors concerning his budget proposal. "I'm still the boss," he smiled. He is sure both would agree because Democratic nominee Terry Houck is and GOP candidate Tom Carroll was full-time prosecutors in his office.

During his final five months in office, Morganelli is wrapping up a few cases in which he is personally involved and is preparing a transition memo.

When he ascends to the judicial heavens in January, he will take no part in any criminal case that was pending when he was District Attorney.

NorCo DA Sez No Imminent Threat at Musikfest

Though Bethlehem police are rightly taking precautions, NorCo DA John Morganelli announced today that there is no "imminent threat" at Musikfest.

Bethlehem police are reacting to several social media posts concerning Bethlehem and mass shootings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton. According to Morganelli, the FBI are unconcerned about the social media posts, and implied they had tracked down the source.

Whether these mass shootings have affected attendance remains to be seen.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Is This a Threatening Comment?

Back in June, in a story about Bethlehem City Council, someone anonymously published this comment: "FUCK 'EM ALL I HAVE A REAL SURPRISE FOR THEM AT MUSUCKFEST...JUST WAIT AN SEE!!!!!" When a reader brought it to my attention, I decided to let it stand. It makes no threat.

In view of the weekend's mass shootings and a recent Morning Call story indicating police and FBI are investigating several social media posts concerning Bethlehem and these mass shootings, the reader contacted me again.

I have forwarded the comment to police.

This comment makes no specific threat, and a "surprise" can mean many things. I still feel there is no cause for concern, but will let police make that call.

Heron, Egret or Crane?

On my way from last night's meeting of Bethlehem Tp's Board of Commissioners, I drove by Green Pond Marsh. There were about 50 of the stately white birds you see above. Are they herons, cranes or egrets? 

This marsh is being preserved when Traditions of America starts its 55-plus active senior community.

Green Pond was originally called Dryland Pond, according to Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron. He claims it was actually considered scrap land, and William Penn gave it away.

"How the hell do you know this?" I asked.

"It's in a book," he answered.

So there you go.

Zrinski Offers No Apology For Misleading Resolution

Last time I told you about NorCo Council member Tara Zrinski, she was abusing her public office to further her political ambitions as a State Representative candidate taking aim at incumbent Marcia Hahn. What made her conduct abusive is that she misrepresented facts about the controversial PennEast Pipeline winding is way from Luzerne County to Jersey. She fear-mongered, claiming incorrectly that homes, a maternity ward and several schools were in the blast zone. She accused Bethlehem Township officials, as well as Hahn and State Senator Lisa Boscola of failing to negotiate, and just taking the first offer extended. She even insinuated they had ulterior motives. Three Township Commissioners, two of whom are committed environmentalists, effectively rebutted her misinformation. But when County Council met last week on August 1, Zrinski offered no apology to fellow Council members for attempting to lead them astray. She instead had two Bethlehem Township residents in the audience, who were there to complain about the PennEast pipeline again. She also played politics again, this time about plastic.

Before the meeting started, a procession of three young men came to Council, carrying a video camera. Zrinski came out to greet them, and they asked to interview her. She readily agreed, but they met in the back room, away from the prying eyes of bottom-feeding bloggers.

Once the meeting started, she got up and recognized the three men. She had a Proclamation honoring Lehigh alum Sam Bencheghib because he is running across the US to raise awareness about plastic in our oceans.

Sam is running in recycled sneakers.

At the time of the meeting, Sam had only completed 100 miles of his cross-country run, but that was good enough for a bullshit Proclamation and a lengthy speech.

Zrinski bragged that she ran three miles herself.

Monday, August 05, 2019

How Would You Stop Mass Shootings?

I had intended to write about Northampton County today. That will have to wait until Tuesday. Yesterday, the joyous mood at a wedding party in Bloomsburg was dampened by news of a deadly mass shooting in El Paso that left 20 people dead.  Just a few hours later, news broke of yet another mass murder in Dayton.

I'm sure that no one, from Donald Trump to the most absolute defenders of the Second Amendment, condone what happened. But as bodies of the dead and wounded were still being carried away, Beto O'Rourke was calling Trump a white nationalist.

Stay classy, Beto.

Instead of playing the blame game for political advantage, I'd like to understand what's going on.

The Violence Project has studied every mass shooting since 1966, and reaches the following conclusions:

1. Most mass shooters experienced early childhood trauma.

2. Most were angry or despondent about a specific grievance.

3. Most mass shooters studied the habits of others before them.

4. They all had the means to do what they wanted to do.

I think most of us would agree that access to firearms should be denied to thise who fit into the first three categories. But I confess that's no easy task in many cases.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Council to Hire Deputy Clerk

Northampton County Council Clerk Linda Zembo was paid $99,176.00 last year. This year, it will be more. She is paid $47.979 per hour. Yet Five members of County Council think she needs a Deputy and voted to create a position for one last night. They are obviouslu making room for someone.

I will fill you in on Monday.

I will also have the latest on eco-warrior's Tara Zrinski's abuse of her county office for her State Rep race.

Milides Demolition Imminent

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure told County Council at their August 1 meeting that demolition of the Milides building at the courthouse campus is imminent.

The Milides building was built by prominent Easton attorney Gus Milides. In addition to its convenient location, it includes a 40-space parking lot. In 2007, a divided NorCo Council voted to buy the building for $1.5 million, with Ann McHale ad Ron Angle voting No. McHale believed the price was too high while Angle said part of the property would have to be razed.

As it happens, Angle was correct. Both the former law office and its parking lot are slowly falling off a cliff. This is mostly because it was built on fill that had never been properly packed down. Stormwaters add to the erosion.

The plan is to demolish the building and place an underground tank beneath the parking lot to drain rainwater. After the property is shored up properly, a new parking lot for 104 vehicles is planned. This will include eight handicapped spaces, six of which will be van accessible.

McClure expects that to happen before winter sets in.

NorCo Council Approves $8.7M to Build Forensic Center

Northampton County Council has unanimously approved six contracts totaling $8.7 million for the construction of a forensic center at the Gracedale campus in Upper Nazareth To. They did so at their August 1 meeting, following a review by the Finance Committee.

"We will endeavor to be on time and on budget," said Executive Lamont McClure. He praised the "high quality craftsmanship" of the contractors selected. He added they were chosen under a new "responsible contractor ordinance" requiring apprenticeship programs.

This ordinance has come under fire as being slanted in favor of unions, but McClure noted that two of the bidders selected are nonunion. 

A federal challenge to this ordinance was rejected by United States District Judge Edward Smith, but McClure said the ruling has been appealed.

The contracts approved are as follows:

1. General Contractor - Sordoni Construction Services (Forty Fort, Pa) for $6,050,000. - Of six bids, two were rejected because they failed to provide prevailing wage.

2. Electrical Construction. - Wind Gap Electric (Wind Gap, Pa) for $737,700. - Two bids were received.

3. HVAC. - JBM Mechanical (Nazareth, Pa) for $1,011,000. - Three valid bids were received.

4. Plumbing and Fire Protection. - Myco Mechanical (Telford, Pa.) for $496,300. Five bids.

5. Solar Construction. - Wind Gap Electric (Wind Gap, Pa) for $293,770. Two bids.

6. Low Voltage Security Construction. - Wind Gap Electric (Wind Gap, Pa) for $112,976. Two valid bids were received, and a third rejected for lack of required documentation.

The term of these contracts is 18 months, indicating that the county expects to have the forensic center completed by the end of next year. 

All contractors were available for questioning.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Biden Winner of Both Dem Debates; Tulsi Shines Again

Joe Biden was assailed 27 times during Wednesday night's debate among 10 Presidential contenders. This time, instead of looking like a deer frozen in the headlights, he responded effectively to attempts to distort his moderate views on issues like health care and immigration. Although he delivered few zingers, and sometimes fumbled what he was saying, he held his own and occasionally threw detractors like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris on the defensive. I actually consider him the winner of both nights of debates.

On Tuesday, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke passionately in favor of things like Medicare for All, free college and the Green New Deal. But when people promise things that sound too good to be true, they usually are. Fairy tales are nice to read, but pragmatism is what works. Biden's centrist views are more appealing to me.

As good as Kamala Harris was in her first debate, that's how bad she looked last night. Her attempted attacks on Biden failed, and the former prosecutor found herself in an unfamiliar role as a defendant when combat veteran Tulsi Gabbard lit into her.

Gabbard, who looked very good in the first debate, was even better last night. While most of her barbs were aimed at Donald Trump, her takedown of Harris's role as California's AG was epic.

As Harris squirmed and shook her head, Gabbard eviscerated her as someone who jailed people for marijuana possession, but then laughed when asked if she ever used it.

"[S]he blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way."

"The bottom line is, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people's lives, you did not. And worse yet, in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so. There's no excuse for that."

This unemotional and fact-based style was apparent in her limited opportunities to speak.

Harris has been touted as Biden's VP candidate, but Gabbard would be better.

CACLV Claims Lack of H2O For Children in Park Programs

I'm unsure exactly how much CACLV is involved in local summer park programs. In Allentown, for example, this eight-week program has been run by the City for the past 106 years, long before Alan Jennings was a community organizer. Other Lehigh Valley communities do the same thing. Yet it is CACLV, and not any of these municipalities, that yesterday issued a press release implying that children in these programs have only limited access to water.

The release, entitled "Drinking Water Access across Valley Summer Meal and Recreation Programs Becomes Concerning," asserts "children at outdoor summer meal and community recreation programs within Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton do not have full access to drinking water." It goes on to claim that many parks have no drinking water, and then pats itself on the back because Costco and Nestle donated bottled water.

I find it very hard to believe that local municipalities would schedule summer playground programs without giving children access to drinking water. That would be criminal.

So what I find "concerning" is the CACLV "news" release.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

I'll Chime in on Democratic Debates Tomorrow

I missed the first hour of last night's debate among 10 Democratic Presidential contenders. I will catch that first hour today and tell you what I think of both debates tomorrow. From the hour I did see, I was very impressed. The moderators were much better, and so were most of the candidates. A passionate Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pitted their views against John Delaney, who contrasted "real solutions" with "impossible promises."

Delaney, who said the wealthy should pay more and is worth $65 million himself, pointed out that raising the capital gains tax makes mores sense than Warren's wealth tax.

NorCo DA Seizes $146,255 and Five Vehicles

Northampton County DA John Morganelli has seized $146,255 and five vehicles from drug dealers during the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2019. Morganelli uses this money for undercover purchases, police equipment and training.

He has this message for drug dealers: "When we catch you we will seize your money, your house, your vehicle and any other ill gotten gains from your drug dealings. Drug use and drug dealing in Northampton County will be very unprofitable."

NorCo DA Forfeiture Report by BernieOHare on Scribd

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

NorCo Controller Reviews P-Card Purchases

Back in 2017, when he was Controller, Steve Barron conducted a devastating audit detailing abuse of the county's credit cards, called P-Cards. He noted junkets to Vegas, New Orleans, Atlantic City's Harrah Resort and other posh destinations by some county employees. He also noted meal purchases in violation of Northampton County’s Policy on Travel, Meal and Mileage Reimbursement (Code 3.708). P-C were also being used to purchase gift cards, which were then handed out like candy by former Human Resources Director Amy Trapp. Barron has since moved on to become the county's Director of Fiscal Affairs. A recent audit of the county's P-Card purchases reveals improvement, but there are still problems.

This audit was conducted by NorCo Controller Richard "Bucky" Szulborski and his lead auditor, Kathleen A. Kuzma. They took samples from o 6,257 transactions over a 15-month period ending exactly one year ago.

1. Some P-card transactions failed to have appropriate documentation, were not properly and were beyond the purchasing cut-off date for 2017.
- Of 125 transactions selected for testing, 20 that were approved by a proxy authorized signer that was not on the Fiscal Affairs authorized signer list. Eleven approvals were later found on uploaded documents.
- Eight cardholders were improperly set up for "automatic" approval.
- There were 242 transactions after the cutoff date for 2017.

2. Some P-card transactions failed to comply with county purchasing policies.
- Two of 125 sampled transactions failed to use an approved vendor.
- Four of 125 sample transactions included a charge for sales tax even though the county is exempt from sales tax.
- There were eight gift card purchases. These are still in use for participants of Drug Court as well as some clients in Human Services. Only one lacked proper approval.
- All transactions were within the cardholder's limits.
- Of 438 weekend purchases, 10 were selected. All but one were valid purchases. The improper purchase was a $25 baggage fee for the spouse of an employee. That employee no longer works for the county.
- Of 19 charges for air travel, five were selected for testing. One of these was an inappropriate charge involving air travel of a
spouse of an employee while traveling together. This was picked up by Fiscal Affairs and the employee reimbursed the County for the air fare of the spouse.

3. Employee meal purchases.
- Of 15 transactions for meal purchases, one was for a gift card and another for a non-food item. Three purchases exceeded the county meal allowance. Seven meals were purchased even though there was no travel, which violates county policy.

Meet NorCo's New Voting System

In the weeks leading up to November's election, Northampton Councty has scheduled several demonstrations of the new voting system. It is called the Express Vote XL, and was certified by Pennsylvania's Department of State on November 30, 2018.

If you would like to see the system demonstrated for your organization, please contact Amy Cozze at Northampton County's Department of Administration. ((610) 829-6244.

August 13th Tuesday – August 17th Saturday 12:00pm – 8:00pm Blue Valley Farm Show@ the Block Building, 707 American Bangor Rd. Bangor, PA. 18013

August 29th Thursday 11:00am – 12:30pm Northampton Community College Partner Fair, 3835 Green Pond Rd. Bethlehem, PA. 18020 @ the Quad between College Center and Kopecek Hall

September 3rd Tuesday 3:30pm – 6:30pm Bath Borough Municipal Building, 121 S. Walnut St. Bath, PA. 18014

September 4th Wednesday 11:15pm – 2:45pm Easton Area Community Center, 901 Washington St. Easton, PA. 18042

September 7th Saturday 11:00am – 1:00pm Easton Public Market, 325 Northampton St. Easton, PA. 18042

September 9th Monday 10:00am – 1:00pm Bethlehem City Hall, 10 East Church St. Bethlehem, PA. 18018

September 13th Friday 9:00am-11:00am Cherryville Senior Center @ Hope Lutheran Church, 4131 Lehigh Dr. Cherryville, PA. 18035

September 18th Wednesday 9:00am – 11:00am Slate Belt Senior Center, 707 American Bangor Road Bangor, PA. 18013

September 19th Thursday 11:00am – 1:00pm Northampton Senior Center, 902 Lincoln Ave. Northampton, PA. 18067

September 25th Wednesday 12:00pm – 2:00pm Old York Rd Senior Center, 720 Old York Rd. Bethlehem, PA. 18018

September 28th Saturday 11:00am – 1:00pm Easton Public Market, 325 Northampton St. Easton, PA. 18042

September 30th Monday 10:00am – 1:00pm Bethlehem City Hall, 10 East Church St. Bethlehem, PA. 18018

October 3rd Thursday 12:30pm – 2:30pm Cherryville Senior Center @ Hope Lutheran Church, 4131 Lehigh Dr. Cherryville, PA. 18035

October 5th Saturday 12:00pm – 2:00 pm Hanover Township Community Center- Fall Festival, 3660 Jacksonville Rd. Bethlehem, PA. 18017

Monday, July 29, 2019

Trump Is a Boor, But is Right About Baltimore

Reality TV Show Star turned President Donald Trump has managed to make himself the center of attention again. This time it's for his weekend tweetstorm on Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings. He chairs a House Oversight Committee that has been giving quite a bit of scrutiny to our immigration policies on the Mexican border. Trump called Cummings a "brutal bully" who should take care of the "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" in Baltimore, adding "no human being would want to live there." I have since read numerous news accounts that just automatically conclude Trump is a racist. Democratic presidential candidates have been quick to join this chorus. Readers of this blog know I consider our President unfit for any office. He may very well be a racist. But what he said about Baltimore is all-too-true. In fact, it can be said of most of our urban centers, including Trump's New York City. It's an inevitable result of one-party rule and the corruption that follows. The solution to this problem is opening up our primaries.

I've been to Baltimore a few times. I've run a marathon throughout the city streets and also participated  in a  bike tour. I have even sailed there a few times. The Inner Harbor is magnificent. The rest? Not so much. During the marathon and bike ride - about ten years ago - I passed by more than a few dead rats rotting in the middle of the road. In addition, it's plagued by a huge homeless problem.

Then there's crime.Here's an observation from The New York Post:
Among the largest 30 American cities, Baltimore has the highest crime rate, and is a close second to Detroit for the highest rate of violent crime. But for murders, Baltimore is second to no other city, with more than 50 homicides per 100,000 people. That puts Charm City in the ranks of Jamaica, Venezuela, and El Salvador in terms of lethality.
But The New York Post is biased, you might say, and it is. How about what Trump calls the "failing" New York Times? It reached a similar conclusion in The Tragedy of Baltimore, and no one called that story racist.

Certainly, there are many reasons to like Baltimore, and it does have pockets of wealth and hard-working people. But like any urban center, it has become rotten from the inside, mostly as a result of corruption that has included several recent Mayors. It's what happens under one-party rule. We've seen the corruption in Philly, Allentown, Reading, Harrisburg and Scranton.

In Philly, two City Council seats are for members of a minority party. According to Governing, those seats may be going to Democratic Socialists this year, a pattern that has started in other cities as well.

The solution to one-party rule,as well as the corruption that inevitably follows, is an open primary in which Independents can vote. Amazingly, the state senate has passed a bill providing for open primaries, and the matter now sits in the State Government Committee.

If Governor Tom Wolf were really interested in stopping corruption, he'd get behind this bill.

Don't hold your breath.

Friday, July 26, 2019

NorCo May Opt Out of State Civil Service

For years, Northampton County has been plagued by caseworker vacancies in Children, Youth and Families (CYF). Without question, this is a stressful job with a high burnout rate. But according to county Human Services Director Sue Wandalowski, an underfunded and understaffed state civil service commission has made things worse. As a result, Executive Lamont McClure will soon ask Council to approve a resolution opting out of civil service.

To illustrate the problem, Wandalowski said at last week's Human Services Committee meeting that there are 13 caseworker vacancies in CYF. Yet it took the state civil service commission two months to provide a list of caseworker applicants. When it finally did, it contained only three names.

When NorCo asked for more names, civil service provided a list of 80 people who had filled out parts of the application, and suggested the county contact them directly. The county did, and learned that list was fraught with errors. Some of the people identified had not only taken the test, but were already working as caseworkers.

Pennsylvania's Civil Service Commission administers the hiring system for 37 state agencies employing nearly 57,000 civil service employees.

Caseworker vacancies in CYF can mean the difference between life and death for some abused or neglected children, so Wandalowski wants to opt out of civil service and do the hiring in-house. This has already happened in Berks and Bucks Counties, she said. According to The Sentinel, Cumberland County is currently in the process of withdrawing from the state civil service commission because of similar difficulties in filling vacancies. The state civil service commission, Wandalowski said, is actually encouraging counties to opt out so long as career service regulations are in place.

Wandalowski estimates the process will probably take a year.

"If it sounds too good to be true, sometimes it is," cautioned Council Prez Ron Heckman. He told Wandalowski he'd want to hear from counties that have opted out before making a decision.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mueller Hearings a Waste of Time

I  listened to former special prosecutor Robert Mueller testify before Congress yesterday during trips to and from Allentown. Traffic was bad, so I wasted  at least an hour of my life listening to a circus in which no one sounded very good.

Let's start with Mueller himself. He was a reluctant witness who previously made clear he had no desire to testify because his two-volume report speaks for itself. He was hardly compelling. He actually seemed to be trying to forget everything.

Democrats used him as a prop to point out different facets of the report showing that Trump is a disgusting person. His tweets already make that clear. So what?

Republicans attempted to vilify Mueller, suggesting political motives from a career prosecutor who is a registered Republican. Right.

Both parties looked like idiots. If this was supposed to be the preface to impeachment proceedings, Democrats are overreaching. Not happening. It's a monumental waste of time better spent on issues that matter, like a broken healthcare system or our increasing income inequality.

The best way to rid ourselves of the Tweeter-in-Chief is to elect someone else. The hearings yesterday make that a little less likely. Both parties looked bad, but Democrats insisted on this nonsense.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

CACLV Takes Steps To Improve Facade Program

Around this time last year, I chronicled the plight of two West Coast transplants to Allentown named Shelby Brown. They brought their Little Drill marketing business to Hamilton Street. They applied for a facade grant with Upside Allentown, a branch of CACLV. That's when the fun began. Their grant was initially rejected when they refused to paint their building battleship grey. I actually went to the home of CACLV Executive Director Alan Jennings to tell him in person about possible insider dealing, but mostly to complain about the color. Battleship grey? Is there an uglier color? Turns out the inside of Jennings home is painted battleship grey.

After the past year, I'd have to say that battleship grey or even camo would be an appropriate color. That's because Whitney and Edwards have been pretty much at war with Jennings, CACLV board members, Main Street Manager Peter Lewnes and various City Council members. Jennings told me he'd not only conduct his own investigation, but would ask the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to do so as well.

CACLV now reports nothing was wrong with the facade grant program. But at the same time, seven recommendations have been made to stop the insider dealing and conflicts of interest that clearly occurred.

Interestingly, there is no report from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. That state agency has confirmed it does no investigations.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Accused Palmer Tp Murderer Waives Extradition

From Palmer Tp PD: Edgar Himel, has waived extradition in Colorado and will be brought back by Palmer Police Investigators to Pennsylvania  from Colorado for arraignment on charges of Criminal Homicide and Theft ofMotor Vehicle.

A video arraignment has been scheduled for 9:30am Friday morning at the Northampton County Central Booking Center located at Northampton County prison in Easton.

Blogger’s Note: Himel is accused in the July 4 slaying of his wife. Her body was discovered at the couple’s Palmer Tp residence three days later. 

On July 4, the victim had called 911 to report an “emergency.” Two police officers responded, but there was no answer at the door. One officer went around the home and could see a man who appeared to match Himel’s description in the bedroom, where the victim’s remains were eventually discovered. Police cleared the area without making contact.

An internal investigation is underway, and right-to-know requests have been denied because of both the civil and criminal investigation.


How About Medical Marijuana at Gracedale?

One problem plaguing Gracedale and other nursing homes is the high use of psychotropic drugs, condemned by some as a chemical restraint. This is just one of many topics Gracedale Interim Administrator Jennifer D. Stewart-King discussed with NorCo Council last week. But they all began to laugh when Council member John Cusick asked if any consideration has been given to the use of medical marijuana. "No!" said Stewart-King.

Medical professionals there should reconsider. According to the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, "Studies examining older adults that are utilizing medical cannabis legally have demonstrated significant decreases in prescription medication use, most notably a reduction in opioid analgesic usage. As such, medical cannabis should be viewed as an additional option in the clinician's toolbox of therapeutic interventions for symptom relief."

Most nursing homes, however, prohibit medical marijuana because of their reliance on Medicare for funding. The feds prohibit marijuana.

One New York nursing home gets around this by refusing to purchase or store medical cannabis, but allowing residents to store their own stash in a locked container. cannabis medicine. Residents must purchase their cannabis medicine on their own and self-administer or have it administered by family.

If you want to increase Gracedale's census, this is one way to do it.

Census Dips at Gracedale

When Premier Healthcare Service was hired as Northampton County's Administrator at Gracedale, the census was down to 590. This means revenue was down, too. Turning that around was a top priority of this privatized manager, and by February 2015, the number of residents had increased to 681. Executive Lamont McClure has fired Premier, convinced the county can administer the home itself. But if census is any indication, it's time for another private administrator.

In February, Gracedale Interim Administrator Jennifer D. Stewart-King reported in February that census was down to 665. Last week, she told Council's Human Services Committee that it dropped even more, to 645 in June. This is now below what is budgeted, meaning a loss of revenue. At the current rate, Gracedale is about three months away from down to the level it was at when Premier was hired to turn things around.

Stewart-King said that she is working to increase census by reaching out to media, including radio and TV. She is also trying to recruit more staff, and has sent flyers to LPNs and RNs within a 30-mile radius. She even advertises in church bulletins.

"Just come and try us out; You'll fall in love with us,." she said.

That's actually a pretty good pitch.

DON told Council that mandated overtime is down from a high of 13 in May to just one this month.

This, however, comes with a price. Less staff.

According to Medicare, Gracedale is still rated below average, at two stars. That includes staffing.

This is not rocket science. The best way to increase staffing is by paying people more. When that happens, census will go up, too.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Zrinski Blasts Bethlehem Tp, Legislators Over PennEast Pipeline

It's no longer just nonbinding plastic straw bans. Northampton County Council member Tara Zrinski is now pursuing a new resolution, also nonbinding, taking aim at the PennEast Pipeline route through Bethlehem Tp. This one calls for an evacuation plan and asks PennEast to provide equipment for first responders. Her resolution was discussed by Council's Energy Committee on July 17. "I can't just sit by and not do something," she said. She was highly critical of Bethlehem Township's Board of Commissioners and state lawmakers, who have already negotiated an agreement under which the Township will receive $475,000.

PennEast Pipeline is a consortium of natural gas companies who want a 36" compressed natural gas pipeline extending 115 miles from Luzerne County to New Jersey. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted conditional approval on January 19, 2018. Northampton County Council has already adopted two resolutions, both penned by Zrinski, opposed to the pipeline.

In May, Bethlehem Township’s five Commissioners unanimously approved a deal with PennEast under which the consortium agreed to move the pipeline 109’ farther away from residences. It promised to bury the pipeline 4-feet deep instead of the usual 2-3’. It pledged periodic inspections, including x-rays of pipe welds. Finally, it assented to a $475,000 cash payout to the Township. This followed a year of negotiations that included Commissioners, Solicitor Jim Broughal, State Rep. Marcia Hahn and State Senator Lisa Boscola.

Zrinski slammed the deal because, she says, the Township has failed to provide for an evacuation route that passes near residents, schools and hospitals.
"They threw their hands up. They said they had Lisa Boscola on this, they had Marcia Hahn on this and they couldn't negotiate. Their lawyer said, 'Go ahead, take the 475.' They didn't ask for new firetrucks, emergency preparedness equipment. When you have PennEast in front of you, and they're doling out millions of dollars to the water authority and you say, 'Oh yes, I'll take your first offer of $475,000.' Mind blown."
Zrinski also challenged the motives of negotiators. "I think you have to look at the people who are negotiating these pipelines," she cautioned. "They have different interests in them than we have," she said, failing to explain what she meant.

At one point, she said she wanted to invite Bethlehem Tp Solicitor Jim Broughal in for questioning.

Zrinski wants to bring PennEast back to the table and get more equipment for first responders. She noted that homes, schools and even a maternity ward are within the 900' blast zone, but "[t]he $475,000 that Bethlehem Township received or will receive is hardly enough for even a firetruck."

She said one of the Township's Commissioners told her there is no evacuation route. She complained local municipalities are "unprepared to negotiate with pipeline companies or ask for the things that are necessary."

"This poses a significant risk for people in this area for evacuation," she complained. She said some residents would only have 40 seconds to evacuate. "It doesn't matter how much money you have when your house melts," she continued.

In addition to criticizing Commissioners, Zrinski also slammed state lawmakers. "If our legislators are not doing their jobs, we have to push them to do it."

Zrinski is currently running against to State Representative Marcia Hahn. She is also a solar energy sales representative.

She did most of the talking at this committee, which she chairs. It was difficult for Council members to offer suggestions or ask questions without being interrupted by her.

Council President Ron Heckman did have a chance to express some reservations.: "Will it make a difference at the end of the day?" he asked of a nonbinding resolution. "It has absolutely no meaning to them or anyone else whatsoever."

Zrinski sharply disagreed. She warned that, unless the county acts, "We're going to get railroaded and put people in danger."

But is she right?

Commissioners Strongly Dispute Zrinski's Assertions

Three Bethlehem Township Commissioners - John Merhottein, JohnGallagher and Malissa Davis - have teamed up with a joint response to Zrinski's proposed resolution.

"Our issue with Ms. Zrinski's comments regarding PennEast is she never appears to read below the headline. If she would have attended the meeting (or asked us) when we voted to accept the agreement with PennEast, she would have known we offered to accept no money if they would move the pipeline out of the blast zone of Hope Ridge (PennEast Declined). The water authority has nothing to do with Bethlehem Township.

"Neither St. Lukes (assuming she means the maternity ward) nor any school are in the blast zone. Ms. Zrinski again muddles the facts to suit her purpose.

"Our mandate, under circumstances where we had no legal position to change things, was to protect Hope Ridge and we accomplished some pretty significant safety improvements.

"Here are the facts: PennEast had FERC approval. They did not have to negotiate with us. We negotiated and got the following safety concerns: Moving the pipeline over 100 feet from the proposed route, inspections as a class 4 pipeline, 100% x-ray of welds on the pipe, the pipeline buried an additional foot and the Residents in that area asked for a tree line. We did not accept the first offer from PennEast. Our ultimate goal was to move the pipeline as far as possible from Hope Ridge.

"We never 'threw our hands up'. Consider the position we were in with negotiating with PennEast (PennEast could have condemned the land, we could have gotten no safety concessions and less money). We are proud of what we accomplished. There were numerous phone calls and emails; a PennEast meeting with residents; and two negotiation sessions. We would not consider that throwing our hands up.

"Our 'lawyer' never said 'take the 475'. As a matter of fact, our Solicitor did what any good Solicitor should do, guided us through the negotiations, presented the facts and allowed the Board to make the decision. We did not accept the first monetary offer from PennEast.

"As for the 'people who are negotiating these pipelines' and their 'interests in them', we can assure the residents of Bethlehem Township and Ms. Zrinski, our interest is and was the safety of our residents. Moving the pipeline farther away from Hope Ridge and the additional safety concessions we received are proof of that. We could have probably gotten more money and fewer safety concessions.

"We would like to note we do have an emergency response plan in conjunction with the County.

"As for what was or was not asked for, Tara Zrinski was not in the negotiation. She didn't ask anyone on our negotiating team what we asked for, nor did she offer any suggestions. She never asked to sit in on negotiations. It is easy to criticize from afar, especially after the fact. Senator Lisa Boscola and Representative Marcia Hahn reached out to us and asked what they could do. Where was Tara?

"On a personal note, for Ms. Zrinski to make these comments, nonetheless put it in a resolution, without getting all the facts is hurtful and self-serving, not only to this Board, but to the public we both serve."

Commissioner John Merhottein
Commissioner Malissa Davis
Commissioner John Gallagher

Blogger's Assessment: In 2008, Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano sanctioned Tara Zrinski for perjury in a custody dispute. She continues to play fast and loose with the facts. She attempted to rush her pipeline resolution. She placed it on the agenda for Thursday night though she failed to submit it until the Monday before the meeting. When Council members attempted to question her, she talked over them and incessantly interrupted, getting louder as the meeting continued. As we know now, and from Township officials, her proposed resolution was at least reckless with the facts, if not outright lies.

She smeared the entire board, four of whom are Democrats, just like her. Malissa Davis and John Gallagher are both practicing environmentalists, while John Merhottein is a fiscal hawk who would shake down PennEast for every penny he can get.

She also derided two state lawmakers who, unlike her, volunteered their time and services in this negotiation.

What Zrinski really wanted was political mileage in a run against Hahn. This will now backfire. First, she was reckless and tried fear-mongering and alarmism instead of truth. Second, she alienated natural allies like Davis and Gallagher. Third, she has given Hahn an issue to use against her. Fourth, she has lost credibility with her fellow Council members. No one should support anything she proposes unless it is thoroughly vetted.

For this irresponsible behavior, she should asked to step down as Chair of the Energy Committee.

Friday, July 19, 2019

200 Sign Petition Asserting "Staffing Crisis at Gracedale

Kelly Ehlman, a 20-year Gracedale worker, admitted she was nervous as she stood in front of Northampton County Council last night. "I'm here about the staffing crisis that we face in Gracedale," she said, adding she was doing so "on behalf of the residents." She presented a petition with 200 signatures asserting a an employee shortage despite initiatives made by upper management.

Her petition calls on Council to investigate by obtaining the results of a family survey conducted by management, inquiring about the rise of employee resignations, re-assessing initiatives implemented by the Director of Nursing and "find a solution to what management has failed to accomplish."

Council President Ron Heckman suggested that she meet with Human Services Chair Lori Vargo Heffner, who agreed to discuss the mater with Ehlman.

Council member John Cusick also suggested she address her concerns with her union. "I have tried that; that's been void," responded Ehlman. "Out of desperation on my account I am here even though I face possible retaliation in the future."

She said that she recently visited one floor with two aides serving 50 residents on the 3-11 shift.

"Doyou have any specific recommendations that have not been tried?" asked Council member Matt Dietz.

Ehlman responded that the county has already doneseveral things she called ridiculous. She cited a short-lived attempt to eliminate per diem as well as the elimination of a staffing position on every floor.In addition, she said employees are pulled off floors for training.

"Whatever they are doing, the staffing crisis has worsened," Ehlman said of Gracedale administrators.

Heckman promised Ehlman she'd face no retaliation.

NorCo Council Approves $36M Contract For Medical Services at Jail

Though Northampton County Council member John Cusick moved a proposed $36 million contract with Primecare for medical services to the jail over a period of up to 10 years when it was in committee, he was the sole No vote when Council voted on it last night. The contract was approved 7-1, with Council member Peg Ferraro being absent. Cusick is bothered by the length of the contract.

"If you can get stability in health care that the county can count on ..., with due respect John, I'm kind of seeing it from the other side," retorted Council member Kevin Lott.

Six Council members agreed with Lott.

NorCo Saves $453k on Bond Refinance

County Executive Lamont McClure told Northampton County Council last night that, as a result of refinancing a bond issue at a lower interest rate, the County will be saving $453,000. He commended Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron for coming up with the plan.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Trump is Doing What Demagogues Do

I've been doing my best to ignore Authoritarian Donald Trump. He's a realty TV show star whose show has become boring and needs to be canceled. Hopefully, that will happen next year. That's why it was a mistake for the House to condemn his Sunday series of crazy tweets slamming four extremist liberal members of Congress, known collectively as the "squad." All this has done is energize the racists and xenophobes in his base. It also has given him a bogeyman, or should I say bogeywomen, he will denounce throughout his campaign. All Democrats will be likened to their most extreme members.

His North Carolina rally last night proves it, as enthusiastic supporters shouted "Send her back!" in response to his appeal to their darker natures.

NorCo Council Ponders New Primecare Contract for Up to $36 Million

Northampton Councty Council is set to vote tonight on a new contact for healthcare at the jail. It's with Primecare, which has spent 19 years with the county. The contract amount is $24 million over seven years, with options to extend it to 10 years for $36 million.

"The seven years struck me as a very long time," said Council member John Cusick. But the jail's public safety director, Ken Kraft, countered that, with a seven-year contract, "[w]e can stabilize our healthcare costs. We can stabilize our budget for many years."

Cusick also complained that the county would be stuck for seven years, but Kraft retorted that the contract includes a 30-day termination clause.

According to Kraft, the new contract increases mental health and detox treatment

Primecare CEO Thomas Weber said that there are 26 FT employees who spend time at the jail. These include nurses, dentists, physicians, psychologists and psychiatric nurse practitioners.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Coming Soon: Express Vote XL Demos

When you vote in November, you'll notice a new machine that looks a lot like the one you've been using in NorCo. Believe me, it's a vast improvement over the typical touch screen voting machine. One reason for this is the voter-verifiable paper ballot going directly into a sealed ballot box attached to the right side of the machine. But what I like best about it is that it is so user-friendly, both for the poll worker and voter. You'll be able to see this for yourself because the county intends to demonstrate the system at numerous locations before election day. When the county has some dates and places, I will post them. 

This machine is called the ExpressVote XL. The XL just means it's big, with a 32" inch ... screen.  Size matters, you know. A group of election judges, including myself, and county workers were trained on them yesterday in the cavernous Gracedale warehouse. .

Like the current system, this will also have a privacy curtain so no one can see how you vote. Unlike the current system, this touchscreen  has several features that will assist you in making voting much easier.

The write-in option, which usually stymies most voters, is a snap, as easy as typing your name.

Although it's highly unlikely you'll have any trouble reading a 32" screen, there are built-in features for those who do. Not everyone is perfect like me. You can enlarge the text size, which will take you through each race individually. You can then switch back if you want. If you are suffering from macular degeneration, you might have trouble reading a colored screen. You can change the contrast to black-and-white. And for the first time, I've seen a machine that really goes out of its way to accommodate people who are completely blind or may even be paralyzed from the neck down. Each voting precinct will have a large rectangular box enabling a physically challenged voter to make his or her choices. I was concerned this could slow things down but was told it's amazingly fast.

In most touchscreens, a machine operator will activate the machine. The ExpressVote XL is already active. It becomes operational when you insert the ballot - a blank piece of thermal paper - handed to you by a poll worker.

Can the ballot get stuck or refuse to load? I tried everything yesterday. I crumbled it up and tossed it to a fellow student. He stomped on it. We handed it back to our teacher, sure it would fail. He smiled and ripped it. The ballot still loaded. A vote could still be cast.   

No ballot has been so messed up that it's been rejected, but that's for elections in Jersey and Delaware. We Pennsylvanians are a lot sloppier. 

Once the voter makes his choices, his printed ballot will pop up under a glass screen on the right side of the machine. If satisfied, the voter can cast the ballot, which then goes into the sealed ballot box. If not satisfied, he can quit and the ballot will be ejected and handed to a poll worker as a "spoiled ballot."

You get three tries. Then, like in baseball, you're out. But unlike baseball, you still have the right to cast a provisional ballot.

At the end of the night, when the polls close, the votes will be transferred to an encrypted flash drive. They will also still be on the machine. And the sealed ballot box will be opened and scanned during the canvass process. Any number of scanners have been used, and the paper ballots always match the totals on he flash drive and machine.       

I believe you'll like the new system.   

Bethlehem Service Center To Open Thursday

Mayor Bob Donchez will announce the opening of a new "Bethlehem Service Center" and accompanying App during a Thursday news conference at Town Hall, 3:30 pm.

Cedar Beach Pool Back in Business

From Allentown: Allentown’s Cedar Beach Pool reopened at 3:00 p.m. yesterday.

The pool had been closed since Tuesday, July 9 when a broken water pipe in the pool’s pump house damaged the 25hp main motor. City personnel have installed a replacement motor.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Was Palmer PD Short-Staffed on July 4?

Palmer Township Police have a complement of 34 FT and one PT officer who patrol a municipality of 10.7 sq miles with an estimated population of 21,469. This is in line with the size of police departments with similar populations. But how about July 4, when Penny VanTassel-Himel called to report an"emergency? What I am hearing is that the department was short-staffed. There may have been only two or three officers on duty and no supervisor. I am also hearing that one of the officers prepared an incident report claiming, "Everything was OK." I have filed a RTK to determine if this is in fact true.

In addition, I have also filed a RTK for the 911 call made by Penny. There are some who claim she was gasping at the time she reported the "emergency," which might be an indication she was already injured.

Updated 8:45 am: I originally said that Palmer's police complement is "well above" the size of similarly populated areas. It is actually about the same.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Charter School Refuses To Reveal $3.2M Realtor Comm'n to Jenn Mann

As many of you know, I'm no fan of former State Rep. Jenn Mann. My disenchantment with her began when she used her position as a legislator in struggling Allentown to secure a a $10,000 state DCED grant for The Parkland Trojan Ice Hockey Club. Those students need little state assistance. In the meantime, she did next to nothing for disadvantaged kids in downtown Allentown. But in 2014, she was listed as one of the founders of Allentown's Executive Education Academy Charter School. Was she finally giving back? Unfortunately, no. According to information obtained in response to a Right to Know request, Executive Education has paid her $450,000 since 2014 for unspecified "contracted professional services." I've also been told by several people that she was paid a $3.2 million broker's fee in connection with the purchase of the school building. But the school refuses to release that information, claiming it belongs to the Executive Education Charter School foundation, a separate legal entity.

I've appealed this refusal to the state Office of Open Records.

Of course, Executive Education delayed as long as it could in responding. My request was first filed on June 6, and an answer only came on July 12.

Executive Education recently did the same thing to a Morning Call  reporter who sought construction costs for a recently opened $4 million gym. Never mind that the real source of this funding is Allentown taxpayers. In that case, the Office of Open Records concluded the Foundationp and Charter School are one and the same.

The public has every right to know how its money is being spent.

The Charter School is resisting that right in Lehigh County courts. I expect I'll be there soon enough.