At a technology-challenged "virtual" meeting that lasted over three hours, Northampton County Council voted 7-1 to extend Executive Lamont McClure's emergency powers until June 8. Council President Ron Heckman and members Lori Vargo-Heffner, John Cusick and Kevin Lott were physically present. Remaining members participated by Skype, with Peg Ferraro leaving early at a meeting interrupted by numerous screeches, feedback, garbled voices and the occasional inability of some Council members to hear what was going on.
Courtesy of the floor was a lengthy disaster, as Heckman would call out individual phone numbers and ask people who phoned in if they wanted to speak.
Human Services Workers Want to Telecommute
Tiffany, a County employee at the Human Services building, complained about being called back to work at the Emrick Boulevard location. McClure had been allowing Human Services workers to telecommute. She noted that Northampton County is projected to be under lockdown until May 25. "I don't feel it's safe for us to return," she said, adding that the McClure administration "has very little concern" for the problems this would cause to workers with school-age children. "We're taking an unnecessary risk with no concern given to our families. We are 100% capable from working from home."
McClure responded that the County has an obligation "to keep the people's business moving forward." He noted that some operations are 24/7, and employees who work at the jail, Gracedale or 911 must be physically present. But he decided to allow employees at Human Services to telecommute.
That experiment has failed. McClure stated after the meeting that productivity in this cricual area was going down.
"Remember, we are public servants," he reminded Council. "We are paid - all of us - by the taxpayers. And the taxpayers have not been getting all of the public service that they need to get because I made a choice to help the overall environment by keeping as many people at home as possible."
McClure said he has empathy for parents with school-age children. He noted anyone who comes into a County facility must be temperature-checked and don a mask. He added he is also concerned about the children that are being abused or neglected and "who need us full time."
"It's very important to remember who comes first. The public comes first," he concluded.
Human Resources Director Elizabeth Kelly told Council any employee who contracts Covid-19, is exposed to it or cares for someone with it, is entitled to emergency pay for 14 days. If an employee has difficulty finding child care, he or she is entitled to 12 weeks at 2/3 pay. This does not apply, however, to first responders, which would include children and youth workers. .
"This county has done right by its employees," said Kelly. She noted they can accrue unlimited sick leave, up to two years of vacation and get six days of personal leave every year. "Most of our employees would have enough leave to carry them through an emergency leave," she said.
Elections Office Getting Hammered with Mail-In Ballot Requests
Voting Registrar Amy Cozze reported that her office has been flooded with mail-in ballot applications, and has processed 29,000 so far. Under recent changes to the elections law, voters have until May 26 to request a mail-in ballot.
She said logic and accuracy testing has been performed on every voting machine, which took about an hour per machine. She's still looking for a few dozen poll workers for the June 2 primary. All workers will be wearing masks and gloves. Representatives of both the voting machine and epollbook vendor will be on hand election day to troubleshoot.
McClure thinks the County needs more testing sites, and has contacted Governor Tom Wolf's office to pitch a Department Of Health testing site at the Park and Ride exit located at William Penn Highway along Route 33 in Bethlehem Tp. . Though he's been "getting a stiff arm. I think that site would be a game changer. He is hopeful that more testing will give the decision makers in Harrisburg a basis for allowing the County to re-open.
Though there is no state resting site, McClure has used $150,000 from the CARES Act to do testing at the Easton Hospital parking lot. In two days of testing, the County performed more testing each day than the state regional site in Wilkes-Barre.
Emergency Powers Extension
After three hours, County Council finally considered the request to extend McClure's emergency powers until June 8. "This resolution takes us through the primary," noted Heckman, stating this resolution will enable McClure to move staff around for the June 2 primary. He called it a "reasonable" request and noted it gives McClure no authority to suspend constitutional rights.
Council member John Cusick offered no explanation for his No vote. Peg Ferraro had already left the meeting. All other Council members voted Yes.