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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, January 31, 2022

Distinguished Allentown Zoning Lawyer Suddenly Passes Away

Mark Malkames, a distinguished Allentown zoning lawyer, passed away unexpectedly on Saturday.  He practiced law in Allentown with his father, William G Malkames, and brother, Bill K Malkames. 

Mark was a 1976 graduate of Salisbury High School, after which he received his bachelor's degree from Ursinus College (1980) and law degree from Delaware Law School (1983). He was unmarried. As he would tell me, the law was his mistress. 

In addition to his father and brother, Mark is survived by a sister. 

I am deeply saddened to learn about Mark's death. I first got to know him while covering zoning cases in Bethlehem. In addition to his deep understanding of the intricacies of zoning law, what set him apart from so many others is that he was a real gentleman. 

I've never seen him lose his cool or act in any but a professional manner, even in the most trying of circumstances. I last saw him on Christmas Day, and he was in fine spirits. 

Mark was a workaholic. Even on Christmas Day, he visited his office. 

He also had one of the strangest hobbies I've ever seen. Some of you might go to the casino. Others of you might like basketball or golf. Mark's hobby was reading textbooks. The more arcane, the better. 

Mark was serving as the Solicitor to the Zoning Hearing Boards of Hanover Tp (Lehigh County), Lower Macungie and Upper Milford.He taught and actually wrote several PBI courses dealing with real estate law. 

He was one of the good guys. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

Thode: Omicron Appears Less Deadly in Lehigh Valley

Steve Thode has been tracking the COVID-19 data here in the Lehigh Valley since the pandemic's inceptions. He noticed and reported on spikes and drops before just about everyone. He's also refrained from trying to turn this into  a political football, although he has pointed out some startling weaknesses in the way the state collects and disseminates data. He now is trying to determine how deadly the Omicron surge has been. Here's his analysis.

Here's my first comparison of cases and deaths for both the 20-21 COVID "Surge" and the 20-22 COVID "Surge" in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

Before I display the chart, several points of explanation:

1) I chose the starting point for each surge as December 5 (about a week or so after Thanksgiving);

2) I start counting deaths seven days later. Although I don't know the exact average time between someone getting  a positive COVID test and their subsequent death, an average of seven days seems to fit fairly well;

3) Death reports by county are typically fully-updated on Thursdays, but there is also a delay in reporting deaths through the NEDSS system of up to 5 days. So, the most reliable report on total deaths is those recorded through January 22.

4) Hence, the chart shows reported COVID cases for the time period December 5 - January 15 for both years; and, reported deaths for the time period December 12 - January 22.

Here's the chart:

The total number of cases is reported on the left axis. As of January 15, 2021, last winter's surge had 22,537 new cases for Lehigh and NorCo combined; while as of January 15, 2022, this winter's surge had 38,271 new cases for Lehigh and NorCo combined. That's an increase of 70% this winter compared to last winter.

The total number of deaths is reported on the right axis. From December 12, 2020 to January 22, 2021, last winter's surge had a total of 427 recorded deaths for Lehigh and NorCo combined. From December 12, 2021 to January 22, 2022, the current surge has had a total of 266 recorded deaths for Lehigh and NorCo combined. That's a decrease of almost 38%.

Based strictly on this data, and, on this methodology, as of January 15, last winter's surge has proven fatal in about 1.9% of all reported COVID cases. For this winter's surge, about 0.9% of all reported COVID cases have proven fatal.

Some cautions are in order: 1) there is no reliable source for determining how many of this winter's cases were Delta and how many were Omicron. Nor is there any reliable source for determining how many deaths were those infected with Delta and how many deaths were those infected with Omicron (the CDC has, so far, released no data on the differences). Thus, we have no way of knowing exactly how deadly Delta has been relative to Omicron this winter; and, 2) I use only reported cases. To the extent that, especially this winter, many people self-tested at home, and did not report positive cases, this winter's cases are probably higher than the actual number reported. Likewise, there may have been many more asymptomatic cases this winter - especially of Omicron - which, obviously, were never tested, nor reported.

How Do You Feel About a Black Woman on the Supreme Court?

President Joe Biden has reiterated a pledge he made on the campaign trail. The next Supreme Court nominee will be black and female. In my view, choosing someone simply because of her color is racist. Choosing someone simply because she's a woman is sexist. But choosing a black female who is also extraordinarily qualified and above reproach can help make the court more diverse.  According to USA Today, only 5% of the federal bench is made up of black women. That needs to change, but only with persons who are as well qualified as any other candidate. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Gracedale Gets a Two Star Rating

Medicare and Medicaid have a five-star rating system for nursing homes throughout the country. One star means you're "much below average" while five makes you the shizizzle.  Gracedale was rated at just one star shortly before the election. Although everyone agrees the home has a staffing problem, Administrator Jennifer Stewart-King told me that had nothing to do with the rating. She explained this poor grade was due to a failure by the county's third-party IT provider. It dropped the ball in providing data to federal officials, who automatically assume the worst. Without the software that is supposed to make everone's lives easier, Gracedale's staff had to transmit the data manually. In December, Stewart-King told me that she was hopeful that the rating would go up when the next ratings come out in January.  

They did. In the most recent rating by Medicare and Medicaid, Gracedale is rated at two stars. That's still "below average," but is an improvement over its last rating. 

The total number of nurse hours per resident per day is 2 hours, 17 minutes. The national average is 3 hours, 46 minutes. The Pennsylvania average is 3 hours 40 minutes. Thus, the nursing care at Gracedale is about 60% what you'll find nationally. 

Gracedale does better with health inspections, both nationally and statewide. It is rated three stars (average) in that category.

It also has done a better job with COVID-19 vaccinations. 90.9% of residents are vaccinated, compared to 87.4% nationally and 89.5% statewide. In addition, 83.5% of the staff is vaccinated, about two percentage points higher than the sate and nation. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Can Pa Officials Stop a Rock Wall Project on Rte 80 ... in Jersey?

A large group of New Jersey officials, from Mayor to County Commissioner, were in front of Northampton County Council on Thursday. Were they there to complain about Pennsylvania drivers? No. They were actually there to criticize their own Department of Transportation, and to request the help of county officials to address a road "improvement" project that is certainly going to have an impact on Pennsylvania. 

New Jersey's Department of Transportation (NJDOT) is planning a major rock wall along the S curve along Route 80 as it makes its way to Upper Mount Bethel Tp and Pa. It was originally projected to cost $5 million, but that cost has ballooned to $37 million. 

As anyone who has ever driven along that S curve can tell you, it's unsafe. The road there is too narrow. It's very difficult for truck traffic to stay in its lane. In fact, according to "Stop the Wall" advocate Tara Mezzanotte, there have been 633 road accidents along that S curve over the past five years.  Instead of addressing this problem, NJDOT is planning to mitigate rockfalls in that area with a gigantic wall that will require that the S curve be made even more narrow with no shoulder (we Pennsylvanians call it a berm).  While construction takes place over five years, a lot of traffic will use Route 611.

In addition to numerous NJ officials, municipal officials from Northampton County complained as well. 

Ironically, there have only been 14 incidents along the S curve caused by fallen rock.

Everyone agreed the proposed road is unsafe. Everyone agreed the road needs to straightened.

Warren County has asked Northampton County to join a bipartisan coalition of elected officials in requesting a more detailed study from NJDOT. That request will come up for a vote in February. 

Council members John Goffredo was skeptical. "This is a New Jersey issue and we'd like to support you, but need a little more information."   

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

How Should We Respond if Russia Invades Ukraine?

While I'm no foreign policy expert, it seems increasingly likely that Putin is going to invade Ukraine. I believe he plans to replace its democratically elected government with one more to his own liking.  I also think his decision was motivated, at least in part, by our withdrawal from Afghanistan. How should the US respond? We have no mutual defense treaty and Ukraine is not part of NATO. But if we do nothing, we're no better than Neville Chamberlain. Short  of outright conflict, I believe there are a number of actions we can take, from jamming communications to air sorties as well as military exercises of our own. 

Gracedale Experiences First COVID Death Since April 30

What goes on at most nursing homes stay behind those closed doors. They are privately owned. Gracedale, however, is a publicly-owned facility. While you might be critical, I do believe that administrators there have been very transparent about the problems it faces. The chief of these is a staffing shortage, which has been addressed here on numerous occasions. The COVID-19 pandemic had taken a back seat to other problems, but that has changed with the advent of the Omicron variant. 

Executive Lamont McClure advised County Council on Thursday night that Gracedale has experienced its first COVID-19 related death since April 30. Over 90% of Gracedale's residents are vaccinated, but this person was in hospice and declined the jab. It could very well be that this resident, who was already ill, was a poor candidate for a job. 

In addition to the death, McClure reported that 45 of the 454 residents have tested positive for COVID, along with approximately 22 staffers. 

Omicron, however, seems to be going away as quickly as it came, at least here in the Lehigh Valley.  Steve Thode has told you about the precipitous drop in new cases. Lamont McClure added, in his report to Council, that there's also been a steep decline in those seeking tests. At the couny testing center on Emrick Blvd, 344 people sought testing, and 28% of them were positive,. But by January 20, that number had dropped to 40. Some of this, however, might be due to the increased availability of in-home tests. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

Thode: Omicron Appears to be on the Wane Here in the LV

Steve Thode has been tracking the COVID-19 data for this blog since the pandemic's inception. In my view, he has done a better job of laying out actual facts (minus editorial asides) than any of the local news outlets.  His latest report tells us that Omicron appears to be declining here in the Lehigh Valley: 

It was a steep climb up the mountain of new COVID cases in Lehigh and Northampton counties. On December 28, 2021, the 7-Day New Case rate for Lehigh/NorCo combined was 5,491. In a mere 15 days, that 7-Day New Case rate peaked at 17,266 on January 12, 2022 - more than tripling.

Now, just 11 days after reaching that peak, the 7-Day New Case rate has dropped to 5,251 - a decline of almost 70%. In other words, we've come down the mountain faster than we went up. It's been an interesting month.

Friday, January 21, 2022

DA gets Raises For Prosecutors, Secretary That Were Mysteriously Removed From His Budget

Salaries in Northampton County are pitifully low. This includes the DA's office. Terry Houck, the county's top prosecutor, has lost four assistants in recent months. All but one have left over wages. In meetings with his staff, Terry promised seven of his top assistants and his executive secretary that he would get them a raise for this year. He sat down with county budget officials and explained what he wanted, in August, as an independently elected official. He was told it would be included in the 2022 budget and that "everything was fine." It wasn't.  Without telling Houck, county financial officials took the money for these raises out of the budget. This is something Houck only discovered after the budget had been adopted. So Houck appeared before County Council last night to seek these promised raises and told Council he would take money from other portions of his budget to pay these increased salaries. 

"An independently elected row officer got what he asked for," insisted Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron. He noted Houck asked for and got a step, but Houck actually wanted a step in addition to the increases that the Exec had proposed.

Houck disagreed sharply with Barron's explanation. "That's not accurate at all," said the DA. He indicated that Barron owed him an explanation. He said his salary structure has "nothing whatsoever" to do with the step increases that have already been outpaced by inflation. Moreover, when he told Human Resources to process the paperwork for these raises, that office refused. He also called Barron about the issue and Barron was supposed to call him back but never did. "This is why I'm before you," he explained.

Houck indicated he was in front of Council so they would know exactly what was going on. 

Solicitor Chris Spadoni advised Council that, as an independently elected official, Houck had the right to decide what to pay his staff. He indicated his increase was taken out of the budget without his permission and behind his back.   

Kerry Myers was livid when learning that Houck was told by HR that the office was unable to process the raises. 

Houck made pretty clear that he was in front of Council solely as a matter of transparency, and knew what he had to do if this raise was disapproved. 

This episode demonstrates friction between the DA and Exec. That';s no excuse for penalizing prosecutors. 

Dems Attempt to Install Congressional Staffer on NorCo Elections Comm'n

Northampton County Council members have been quick to stroke their own egos with a meaningless home rule charter change in which they now insist on being called Commissioners. But despite the obvious need, they've thus far resisted a call for thorough review of the county's 44 year-old constitution. Its shortcomings were on full display at last night's County Council meeting. Let me give you the details. 

Whether they're for President or constable, elections are run by each individual county here in Pa. Now some of you might argue that something this important should be a federal or state operation, but this is the way it is. An economic development office is nice, but elections are a core county function. 

Who within the county administers these elections? Every Executive I've encountered has insisted he does. But this really presents an optics problem when the Executive himself or members of his party are seeking re-election  That was very apparent in the last election cycle, when the Executive unilaterally decided there not only be four drop boxes for mail-in ballots, but even went so far as to declare the hours of operation.  

Now under the county's home rule charter, the elections commission "shall administer the system of elections and the registration of voters under applicable law."  Some of you interpret this to mean that this unelected board does it all, from purchasing voting systems to hiring employees. This argument ignores other provisions in the home rule charter that give County Council, and not even the Executive, the final say when it comes to buying things. It also ignores the career service provisions of the charter that were specifically designed to prevent the petty little fiefdoms that existed prior to home rule. 

I'd argue that purchases are governed by the charter provisions giving County Council the power of the purse. Personnel decisions are guided by the career service clauses, which vests power over staffers with the county administration. But questions concerning the election itself are intended to be resolved by the Elections Commission. 

Unfortunately, the way the Elections Commission is composed is going to create problems. State law requires that at least one person on these county boards come from the minority party. But the county home rule charter actually leaves it to the party chairs to provide the names to be nominated by the Exec. 

Here's what it says: "The Election Commission shall be comprised of five (5) members. No more than three (3) members shall be registered voters of the same political party. The County Executive shall notify the two (2) political parties receiving the greatest number of votes at the most recent general election in the County of all vacancies on the Election Commission and shall request them to submit a list of five (5) nominees for appointment to the Election Commission. None of these nominees shall be a candidate for public office, hold public office or be an officer in a political party. Members shall be appointed from these lists. If a list of nominees is not submitted within thirty (30) days after the date of request, appointments to the Election Commission may be made from the entire list of registered voters of the political party which did not submit the nominations. Any three (3) members shall constitute a quorum and shall have the power to perform the functions assigned to the Election Commission. At no time shall any member of the Election Commission be a candidate for public office."

As I'm sure you can see, this provision is designed to ensure that the Commission is comprised of the most partisan members of each party. Interestingly, party chairs have no obligation to ensure that these registered voters actually reside in the county. There are prohibitions against members actually running themselves, but each party has its share of political operatives to carry the water for those who are running. 

That's precisely what happened with the nominations submitted by NorCo party boss Matt Munsey. He proposed Selina Winchester. as one of his three picks. She's no candidate. So far as I know, she holds no officer's rank within the Democratic party. She even lives here. Perfect, right?

Not exactly. Winchester is employed by LV Congress member Susan Wild. It's no secret, based on the dunning emails that Wild sends every day, that she intends to seek re-election. Now this is perfectly legal. But just as certainly, it creates the impression that the fix is in. Is it really smart to have, as an elections commissioner, someone who works for a candidate?

Council member John Cusick thinks it's a bad idea. He posed a "nightmare scenario" with disputed ballots in a close race. "I don't think it would be proper for someone who is an employee of someone who is on the ballot to potentially be adjudicating an outcome that could affect their boss. We've got 90,000 registered Democrats. I think we could find one who is not an employee of someone who is on the ballot ... ."  

Tara Zrinsi, who may be on the ballot herself next year, said that DeRenzis is "super-qualified" who would keep a distance from Wild the candidate. 

Council member Kerry Myers played the race card, as he is wont to do. He pointed out that Winchester is a person of color, as though that somehow makes her above scrutiny. "If you want to go down that road, be my guest. But be prepared to take the heat for it," he threatened. Then he began ranting about MLK. 

The objection to Winchester had nothing to do with her race and everything to do with her job.

And that was the point made y newcomer John Goffredo. he pointed out that he did not know the race of any of these appointments and that "is not pertinent." He said there are "plenty of people ourt there who do not share that conflict of interest."

Goffredo's comments were echoed bu John Brown, who said that this appointment presents an optics problem,and that Council's job should be to prevent these problems before they arise. 

Even Tom Giovanni, who never speaks at Council meetings, suggested this appointment was unethical. 

Lori Vargo Heffner, believe it or not, agreed with Republicans. "You need to do better," she said to party chairs. She indicated this put Winchester in a disparaging light. 

Cusick moved to table the nomination. It was tabled by a 6-3 vote. Kerry Myers, Kevin Lott and Ron Heckman voted against tabling the nomination.  

Thursday, January 20, 2022

NorCo's John Brown Floated as GOP Lt Governor Candidate

Not long ago, I told you that as many as three current members of Northampton County Council were considering a bid for the state house. Two of them were just re-elected in November. It now appears that a fourth Council member who was just elected in November is considering a bid for Lieutenant Governor.

Former Executive John Brown, who finished fifth in the NorCo Council race, finished last in a straw poll conducted by the Central Pa GOP. He garnered one vote.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Bethlehem City Council Hires a Lawyer

Brian Panella, who is associated with the Goudsouzian law firm, has been hired by Bethlehem City Council as their lawyer. Bethlehem already has Jack Spirk as a City Solicitor. The reason for a city council solicitor is because ideally, if not in practice, city council is a separate branch of government. Its views and agenda might differ at times from those of the Mayor.  

Panella, a graduate of DeSales University and Widener University School of Law, has been practicing law since 2016. His father, Jack Panella, is a Superior Court Judge, 

This appointment follows an executive session, which is specifically permitted for personnel matters. It nevertheless drew a vociferous objection from long-time City watchdog Steve Antalics. "This is not good government," he complained of the back door meeting. He warned Council members that they were starting their political careers "with a black mark against you." 

Panella stated that "hard work ain't easy, but it's fair and honest." He indicated that most of his work is municipal. His law office serves several boroughs and townships as Solicitor. 

He denied he was affiliated in any way with anyone on Council or in the City.     

The appointment was adopted by a vote of 6-0.

City Council has one lawyer, but Mayor Willie Reynolds has four.  Solicitor Jack Spirk and the Mayor have appointed three part-time city solicitors to handle day-to-day legal issues that invariably arise. They will each have duty days.

These three assistants are Matt Deschler (he has served Bethlehem for several years), Loren Speziale ( Gross McGinley Law) and Maraleen Shields (Fitzpatrick, Lentz & Bubba) . 

These are all excellent attorneys. 

In a less sanguine move, the City has hired Lehigh Valley With Love (LVWL) as a contracted communications office. I personally think Reynolds should handle his own propaganda. Willie told Council that outreach to Spanish-speaking City residents is parthetic, but I see no indication that LVWL's George Wacker has any deep knowledge of Spanish or even English, for that matter. 

City Council is also accepting applications for a 7th member until January 25. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Has Omicron Peaked?

Steve Thode, who is keeping track of the COVID-19 data for this blog, is reporting that the Omicron variant might finally be on the way out. Here's his latest. 

Today, Lehigh reported the lowest number of one-day new COVID cases (368) as did NorCo (351) since December 27. It would appear that we may be past the peak. However, I'm not ready to call the peak just yet.

Daily new COVID cases have varied widely the past few days, suggesting to me that some large testing organizations may not be reporting their data daily.

The most recent 7-Day New Case peak for Lehigh/NorCo occurred on January 12 at 17,266 new cases; the 7-Day New Case rate as of today stands at 13,127.

By the end of the week, I may be ready to make a call.

Then, it will be time check on death rates.

After Ghetto Remark, Pinsley Embraces MLK

On Friday, I told you that Lehigh County Controller and State Senate wannabe basically put his foot in his mouth when he objected to plans to combine much of Allentown and Bethlehem into one state senatorial district. "[W]e don't need a ghetto," he told a redistricting committee. The backlash was fast and furious. Of course, his political opponents took him to task, and this was reported y most of the news outlets. I told you that The Morning Call, which has allowed Pinsely to promote himself on their pages, was strangely silent. But that was wrong. The Morning Call did, in fact, report on Pinsley's ghetto remark. It also noted the instant rebuke he received at the hearing. So Pinsley has been tagged by both dailies, WFMZ-TV69 as well as two local blogs.

I personally have no reason to believe Pinsley is any more bigoted than I. His remark is just another example of the subtle racism or classism ingrained in many of us. But rather than apologize, Pinsley said he was making a comparison to the Warsaw ghettos in which Jews were segregated. I find this explanation more offensive than his original remark. It;s clearly dishonest. 

Notwithstanding his ghetto remark, Pinsley embraced MLK in an email message today. 

"It is because of citizens like Dr. King that I am running for Pennsylvania State Senate," he tells his followers."

Monday, January 17, 2022

A Visit to the Harvard of Northern Central Pa.

On Saturday, I drove up the northeast extension and then along Rte 80 and 15 for college basketball games between the Lycoming College Warriors and the DeSales Bulldogs. After traveling along roads once used by the Muncy Indians and underground railroaders, I arrived just in time for a double header with both men and women teams playing. It cost me $3. Attorney Chris Spadoni, an alum, had threatened me that he'd be there. I thought he was messin' with me. But when I ambled into the gym, he was there. 

Lycoming is located in Williamsport, a pretty river town nestled in a valley of the Appalachian mountains. It;s the home of Little League and Reptileland. I expected to see fracking trucks tearing up the roads, but there were none. 

"Welcome to the Harvard of North Central Pennsylvania," said Spadoni. 

I have to admit it's a beautiful campus. Though it was freezing, Chris took me on a brief tour. 

Lycoming, like DeSales, is a D3 (Division 3) school. If you play a sport at a D3 school, you are a student athlete, not just an athlete.  Those schools, including the coaches, pay attention to the academics. 

I asked Chris was he thought of the school. "It changed my life," he told me." He went there as a wrestler, but soon found himself involved in numerous other activities. Even a play!  

Now I know how he came by his courtroom theatrics. He'd make a good Falstaff. Hamlet, not so much.  

Chris told me went to Lycoming as the son of struggling immigrants and was accepted. He was proud to say that the school today specializes in getting financial aid for students. So if you have a child or grandchild looking for a college, you might consider the Harvard of Northern Central Pa/ 

Chris threatened to take me to Mass at St. Joseph the Worker, but I told him I'm pretty much banned at all churches.  

Lycoming lost both the men and women basketball games to DeSales. The men's game was quite close. The Bulldogs were down by 10 points at one point, but managed to win the game with 1.2 seconds left. Mason Barnes managed to toss in a running, one-handed floater with 1/2 seconds left in the game. 

The Bulldogs, now at 14-1, will see the Warriors again on February 19. But this game will be at DeSales. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Mark Pinsley In the Ghetto

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray A'town mornin'
Poor little baby Mark is born
In the ghetto
(In the ghetto)
And his mama cries
'Cause if there's one thing that she don't need
It is another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto
(In the ghetto)

While I have nothing against Mark Pinsley personally, I am leery of opportunistic politicians who springboard from one office into another. And that's Mark Pinsley. Almost immediately after his election as a South Whitehall Tp Commissioner,he announced he was running for Pat Browne's State Senate seat. He had not even been sworn into one office, but was running for another. After losing to Browne, he immediately ran for Controller and won. He's politicized that office with audits having nothing to do with county finances because he intended to run against Phil Armstrong. But then he dropped that idea to consider a run for Lt. Governor. Then he abandoned those plans to run again Browne again. But redisticting has thrown a monkey wrench into his constant electioneering.  Pinsley might have been drawn out if the district and he's hot about it. So he made the trip to the land of midnight payraises. There he had to make up a reason for being opposed to a plan that makes it impossible for him to run. So he opposed the idea of combining Bethlehem and Allentown because "we don't need a ghetto." 

This story was broken by WFMZ-TV.  It was also covered by Lehigh Valley Live and blogger Michael Molovinsky.  MM sagely adds, "[Pinsley's] promoters, aka Morning Call editorial staff, made sure that the story didn't appear on their pages. Expect the paper to shortly host a damage control editorial by Pinsley."

This is what people mean when they say The Morning Call plays favorites. The paper has been one of Pinsley's biggest fans.  It has been remarkably silent when he does something stupid, like his vapid suggestion for  both a Lehigh County sales tax and an earned income tax on ghetto residents in the middle of a pandemic. It even promoted his actually promoted his inane initiative to bring in blimps to ease LV traffic congestion. 

Wait a second, you might say. You play favorites, too, O'Hare. I do. But I have never pretended to be objective. I've only promised to be honest. The Morning Call is neither.

By the way, Pinsley said that his use of the word ghetto was a reference to what Jews endured during WWII in Warsaw. 

He must think we're really stupid.  

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Nicole Romanishan's Bizarre Lawsuit Against Fellow Rs

Nicole Romanishan was one of five County Council candidates in Northampton County's November 2 election. She finished sixth, behind John Brown, by 31 votes. She is also one of five Republicans who refused to respond to my questionnaire. That may have made no difference, or it may have cost her 31 votes, too. We'll never know. But Romanishan thinks an unholy trio of her fellow Republicans have cost her a victory. Instead of claiming that Democrats stole the race, she's blaming a tainted threesome from the GOP. 

The Express Times reported on the filing of this suit back in December. The Defendants are Gloria "General Lee" Snover, her brother Gerry Pritchard and Cindy Miller, a Lehigh Township supervisor. Romanishan is represented by Scranton barrister Lawrence Moran. I waited until now to see if there's been a response. As of now, there is none. 

According to Romanishan, the state Republican party prepared palm cards to be handed out at the polls, seeking support for all Republican candidates. This includes Romanishan. But between the time that the state party prepared these cards and the time they were handed out to Lehigh Tp voters, Romanishan's name was crossed out.  The lawsuit contends that this was the unlawful conversion of a gift from state Republicans. 

On its face, this lawsuit seems dubious. I have no reason to believe that Snover, who chairs the NorCo GOP, would try to sabotage a Republican in a contested race. I am equally unclear on what might have motivated her brother or Cindy Miller. But let's assume this happened. How can Romanishan prove that this is what caused her to lose? That seems like a real stretch, especially since most voters discard palm cards almost immediately. 

She claims the palm cards were a gist from the state GOP. Shouldn't the state party be suing as well? 

Omicron Nearly 4X Last Winter's Peak in LV

Steve Thode, who has been faithfully keeping track of the COVID-19 data, notes that the Omicron peak here in the Lehigh Valley is 3.75 times higher than what we witnessed last winter. His report: 

Today is the one-year anniversary of the peak 7-Day Case Rate for COVID during last winter's "surge."

On January 11, 2021, Lehigh and Northampton counties reported a combined total of 4,349 new COVID cases for the previous seven days. For the next two months, seven-day new cases slowly declined, reaching a low of 1,080 on March 10. After rising from March 11 to April 10, new cases dropped dramatically to a seven-day rate of a mere 28 cases on July 1.

Today, on the one-year anniversary of the 2021 winter peak, Lehigh and Northampton counties smashed numerous new case records. Lehigh County has recorded 9,329 new cases the past seven days while Northampton County has recorded 7,009 new cases the past seven days. The combined total of 16,338 new cases the past seven days is 3.75 times as large as the seven-day peak last winter.

Here's a chart:

LehighNorCo 1 11 22.jpg

How big has the surge been this winter? Since December 1, 2021, (41 days ago) Lehigh and Northampton counties have reported a combined total of 43,604 new cases. Last winter, it took from December 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021 (120 days) for Lehigh and NorCo to record that many new cases.

LehighNorCo Dec 1 11 22.jpg

Comparing last winter's surge to today's surge is a bit like comparing an afternoon hike up South Mountain to an expedition to scale Mt. Everest. And, it's not clear we have reached the peak yet.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Why I Failed to Post Today

 I do most of my writing at night, and did so as usual last night. But there are times when I mistakenly save my story as a draft instead of publishing it. That was my mistake last night, and I failed to check my blog this morning because I was rushed. Sorry for the error.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

NorCo Suspends Work Release Program

PrimeCare Medical furnishes healthcare services at the Northampton County jail. As a result of an explosion of new COVID-19 cases, it has recommended that the work release program be suspended. The county is listening to its medical advisers. It has suspended this modified type of confinement, in which inmates can go out into the community and work to pay off fines and costs. This suspension should last two months. 

In addition, the court is scouring the 635-inmate population to consider possible furloughs for nonviolent offenders. 

Mayor Donchez Tapped For NorCo's Human Resources

Remember Bob Donchez, Bethlehem's soft-spoken Mayor for the last eight years? I thought he'd be in Florida by now. Instead, he's still working. His commute will be a tad bit longer. Instead of a daily drive to City Hall, Bob will be at the Northampton County Courthouse. He's been tapped by Exec Lamont McClure as Deputy Director of Human Resources. His first day on the job is January 18. 

It's safe to day he's qualified.  He served 18 years on Bethlehem City Council and another eight years as the Christmas City's Mayor. He oversaw 579 city employees, conducted regular negotiations with three unions and spent approximately ten hours a week on matters related to personnel. 

As a city council member, Bob served on the Public Safety, Community Policing, Finance, Public Works, Parks & Public Property and Community Development committees. He's also been a member of numerous boards, from Hispanic Center to Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. 

Donchez is a south side boy who grew up with derelicts like Frank Flisser (NorCo's first County Council Clerk) and John Morganelli (now looking down on us from the judicial heavens)

He's the son of a cop who was willing to go against the grain and speak out about some mischief in Bethlehem's police department with a DA named Bernie O'Hare. Bob's dad paid the price. He was demoted for speaking out. He would eventually be proved right and was restored to his rank just before his death. 

Finances were tough for Bob, but he managed to put himself through school and resolved he would try to help others in his public life. 

I've disagreed with Bob at times, but I know he always had the best interests of the City at heart and have high regard for him. I believe he will excel in helping county workers during a time in which inflation has outpaced their salaries. 

McClure, of course, is delighted. “We are fortunate that the Mayor has agreed to bring his extensive toolbox filled with experience to help us manage one of the largest workforces in the Lehigh Valley," he said. 

Now, if I were a good reporter, I would have nailed down the salary. But as you all know, I am flawed.  

I'm pretty sure I don't owe him any money, so I will be happy to see Bob. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Bethlehem Council Member Complains About Cops at a Picket Line

There's currently a strike at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Bethlehem. Teamsters Local 773 have called the strike over proposed changes to retirement and health care benefits. Given the current shortage of qualified truck drivers, this is clearly a short-sighted move by ABARTA, the Pittsburgh-based company calling the shots at this bottling plant. In addition to trying to impose a reduction when there;'s a shortage of qualified labor, the company men have also called on cops to ease tensions that are going to escalate when we bring in scabs. 

In the past, police have often served as thugs for the ruling class. Striking workers have been killed, even in Bethlehem. But just as obviously, a visible police presence can also serve as a deterrent.

Bethlehem City Council VP Grace Crampsie Smith, who had no problem voting for a budget that reduced the city's public safety workers, is questioning the wisdom of a police presence,  Her concerns appear to be just as myopic and as ill-timed as ABARTA's attempt to screw its workforce. 

Crampise Smith is pandering to the Teanmsters, but is forgetting there's another union in this picture, FOPStar Lodge #20 represents Bethlehem police officers, and has distributed an email to counter the red herrings and outright misinformation from Crampise Smith.  

In response to a recent news story about the presence of Bethlehem Police Officers at the Coca-Cola facility.  The story quotes City Council members who claimed constituents had concerns with police presence at the Coca-Cola facility in the City of Bethlehem.  Chief Kott explained why an officer is assigned there and what the officer’s role is while assigned to the Coca-Cola facility. 

The City Administration and Police Department have a long-standing policy that allows private businesses to contract and pay for police services.  The assigned officer’s wages are paid by the business directly to the city.  That assigned officer is not pulled from a shift to cover extra-duty assignments and would otherwise be off-duty. 

In 2012, FOP Star Lodge #20 agreed to a contract in which extra-duty assignments would no longer be calculated towards the pensions of officers hired after 2012.  We have reached a point where post-2012 officers make up a majority of our officers.  In that same 2012 contract, Star Lodge #20 agreed to a Healthcare package in which Bethlehem officers pay the highest health-care contributions of the police departments in the Lehigh Valley. 

When Police Officers are constantly villainized by the most privileged members of our society, the officers of Star Lodge #20 still take the greatest pride in serving our community and keeping Bethlehem safe.  It is disheartening that even with the exemplary service to its citizens, our officers are again under attack.  Rather than stand up to announce Bethlehem Police Department as one of the best departments in Pennsylvania, Council Member Crampsie-Smith questioned the impartiality of our officers working at the Coca-Cola facility.  All in the same breath, Crampsie-Smith followed-up with an ambush of our retirement earnings.  The cruelest part of it is, Council Member Crampsie-Smith proclaims it under the guise of “daughter of a police chief”.  

In order to pander to one union, Crampsie Smith has thrown another under the bus. Or perhaps it's a truck. It's something she has done before. Just ask firefighters.

Omicron Hits Jail, Pa. National Guard to Assist at Gracedale

Late last week, I told you Omicron infections have hit Gracedale. At the time of my story, 2 residents and 22 staffers had tested positive.  Residents who test positive are placed in an isolation ward until they recover. Workers quarantine at home. This latest surge exacerbates a pre-existing staff shortage, so the Pa. National Guard has been asked to assist. It is sending six soldiers to help out. 

These guardsmen are non-medical  personnel. They will pass out food trays and water, transport patients, answer call bells and generally facilitate the non-medical needs of the residents. They will be at Gracedale, the largest public nursing home in the state, for five days. 

During the last election cycle, Executive Lamont McClure came under harsh criticism for hosting the national guard once before. In the wake of a staff shortage and surge in infections, it appears to be a responsible solution.  "The Guard has always come when we've called, " observed an appreciative McClure. The home's administrator, Jennifer Stewart-King, said residents come first. 

In addition to the nursing home, 15 of 682 inmates at the jail were positive as of January 4. Inmates who test positive are segregated from the rest of the jail population. 

Noting this latest surge, McClure is urging everyone who can get vaccinated to do so.  He also recommends masks in public (they are mandatory inside county buildings) and urges those with symptoms to get tested.

The County has established a testing drive-thru at t 3100 Emrick Blvd. Bethlehem Township, 18020. Hours of operation have been expanded this week: Monday/Wednesday/Friday from 8:00AM – 4:00PM and Tuesday/Thursday from 10:00AM – 6:00PM. The drive-through testing center is located in the parking area to the rear of the Coordinated Health Building and is separate from patient parking and routine patient care.  No appointment is needed for this free test. You can also get a vaccination there, but need an appointment. I understand the drive-thru is busy but you will be through in about an hour.. Unfortunately, there's been a four-day delay in getting test results. If yoiu have symptoms, you should isolate yourself until you get the results. 

Steve Thode, who has been faithfully tracking the LV numbers since the inception of this virus, observes that new records are being set daily:

Today, Lehigh reported 1,640 new cases one day after the previous single-day record of 1,339 new cases was reported.

Meanwhile, NorCo reported 1,144 new cases. That beats the previous record of 1,046 new cases on New Year's Eve.

Obviously, the combined total of 2,784 new cases is a new single-day record.

Cases have surged more in Lehigh than NorCo. Over the past week, Lehigh/NorCo combined have reported a record 13,439 new cases of which more than 57% (7,661) were in Lehigh County. More than 2% of the entire population of Lehigh County has tested positive during the past week. No speculation as to why the surge has been higher in Lehigh County.

Friday, January 07, 2022

NorCo Council Partially Overrides Veto of Elected Official Payhikes

At their final meeting last year, Northampton County Council passed a payhike for themselves ($12,500 in two years), the Controller ($85,000 in two years) and the Exec ($120,000 in four years). Executive Lamont McClure vetoed it, so Council voted last night whether to override the veto. Six votes are needed to override a veto. Council voted on the payhike for each office separately. 

Controller - Only Tara Zrinski and John Brown supported McClure's veto. The veto failed. 

Executive. - Tara Zrinski. John Brown, Tom Giovanni, John Goffredo, Ron Heckman and Kerry Myers all supported the veto. The veto  holds. 

Council. - Tara Zrinski, John Brown and Kevin Lott supported the veto. The veto failed. 

So everyone will get a raise but the Executive. 

Is It Time for a NorCo Health Department?

Although there are over 2,800 local public health departments in the U.S., only 10 are in Pennsylvania. According to the state Department of Health (DOH), six counties (Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia) and four cities (Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York) have their own local public health departments. Is it time for one in Northampton County? That question was posed by Executive Lamont McClure at last night's County Council meeting. He informed them that he is seeking proposals (called RFPs) from several leading academic institutions to study the feasibility of a county public health department. If he decides it is, he'll be back.

About ten years ago, both Lehigh and Northampton Counties considered, but ultimately rejected, a bi-county health department. Former NorCo Exec John Stoffa argued for this regionalism, noting that a contagious disease knows no boundaries. There were numerous fierce advocates, including NorCo Council member Peg Ferraro and LC Comm'r Percy Dougherty. But the price tag, lack of financial assistance from wealthy area hospitals and an added layer of government bureaucracy, doomed it. 

"Why create a health department when we can't afford the level of government we have now?" asked then Council member Ron Angle. "Why lead people on such a trip if you don't have the ability to buy a car?" 

At the time it was under consideration, it would have cost both counties about $500,000 per year and would have absorbed separate health departments within the cities. McClure indicated last night that the annual cost of a stand-alone county department would be $1.6 million per year. But he added that the County will be receiving at least $33 million from the federal government this year, which would solve funding for several years. 

There was a question whether a regional department would have been beneficial to anyone outside the cities. Would someone in Portland or Slatington really be helped the same way as someone living in the heart of the Lehigh Valley's cities? Proponents thought so, but others were dubious. 

This includes then Council member Lamont McClure.  He opposed a regional public health department. He continues to be skeptical of a regional approach and last night worried about an "unresponsive bureaucrat" ignoring the rural areas of the county/ He believes a stand-alone county agency, however, would be more responsive.

If a county public health department made a difference in fighting the pandemic, this would be a no-brainer. But as McClure himself acknowledged last night, they made none. His argument, however, is that a county health department can perform numerous other public health initiatives, from rabies warnings to drug addiction to maternal care.  There are still numerous negatives.

First of these is the concern that we are creating an unelected "unresponsive bureaucrat" who is just as likely to ignore areas away from Bethlehem and Easton as the reviled bi-county health department.  We all think of the cities as most in need of public health because of the underlying poverty. But there's a need in places like Bangor, too. Several students at their schools describe a cesspool of overt (not subtle) racism and poverty, where drug sales are just as common as in any urban core. Public health might make a difference, but would a county health department really give a shit about anyone outside the cities?

Second, I am very concerned that McClure might be bailing out a financially distressed Bethlehem, which raises taxes as often as a bulldog farts. He indicated last night that he's been discussing the matter with Mayor Willie Reynolds. This might be more of a Bethlehem bailout than an actual desire to address public health. 

Third, public health officials are currently about as popular as elections officials. They are subjected to threats, harassment and even doxing.  Creating a public health department could certainly create the impression that government officials are chipping away at our right to live our own lives as we see fit. Under the Local Health Administration Law, an unelected health department has very broad powers to "prevent or remove conditions which constitute a menace to public health." That's way too broad and, at least in my view, an unconstitutional overreach.

I do support the idea of a study and would even support a county health department if  (1)  its powers were extremely limited to prevent over-reach; (2)  it serves all county citizens equally, not just those in Bethlehem or Easton; and (3) our local nonprofit hospitals prove in-kind services.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Omicron Hits Gracedale

Northampton Country officials are reporting that, as of January 4, there are two COVID-19 among Gracedale residents. They have been moved to an isolated ward set up in the eqarly stages of the pandemic. In addition, 22 staff members have tested positive for the virus and are currently in quarantine. 

Though visitation is strongly discouraged, compassionate care visits may be scheduled through Therapeutic Recreation and the Social Services Department. Visitors are requested to wear N-95 or K-95 masks while in the facility.
According to the county, 92% of residents have been vaccinated with 71% also having received the booster; 87% of healthcare workers are vaccinated. Gracedale continues to offer vaccination clinics as well as booster shots against the virus.
“Staffing a nursing home in this environment is extremely difficult,” says Lamont McClure. “When you throw in the Omicron variant on top of that it makes it nearly impossible. We encourage everyone to get fully vaccinated and boosted. It will save lives.”
“Every step we take as healthcare professionals and visitors in the fight against COVID-19, helps to keep our residents and staff safe,” says Jennifer Stewart-King. “Vaccinations don’t just protect you, they protect others as well.”
Employees and residents of Gracedale began receiving vaccinations against COVID-19 in December 2020.

According to the Associated Press,  the Omicron surge differs from previous surges in that it has infected far more healthcare workers, creating staff shortages. Moreover, many people who appear at the hospital for something else learn they have COVID-19 as well. This indicates that the disease may be milder in those who've already been vaccinated. 

Locally, the virus has decimated a college basketball team. DeSales MBB tests players routinely. All players and coaches are vaccinated. On Sunday and today, 11 of the 18-man squad tested positive along with Scott Coval's two assistants. The team traveled to FDU-Florham with just seven players and only two starters. Short on men, the team managed to rack up 102 points in its most dominating win in what is a 13-1 season so far. 

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

What Would You Like to See at Minsi Lake?

How would you like to see the area around Minsi Lake developed? Would you like to see more active recreation opportunities or prefer the hiking trails to remain the way they are? Northampton County is seeking public input for its Minsi Lake Corridor Greenway and Stewardship Plan on Wednesday, January 12, 2022 from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM at the Pocono-Slate Belt Shooting Association’s Clubhouse, 744 Lake Minsi Drive, Bangor, PA. This meeting can be accessed online or by phone at 1-412 447-5128 (Conference ID: 855 183 688# - audio only) The final plan will be presented and the community is invited to comment.

As explained in a county news release, the approximate 3.7 mile long corridor is located in the northeast corner of Northampton County in Upper Mount Bethel Township. The Corridor’s contiguous 1,100 acres of land is owned or leased by Northampton County, PA Fish & Boat Commission and The Nature Conservancy. It  includes Minsi Lake, the Gerald E. Seyfried Bear Swamp and Archery Complex, and the Totts Gap Conservation Area.
Today, the Minsi Lake Corridor provides opportunities for fishing, non-motorized boating, hiking, walking, birdwatching, archery and hunting. The corridor is home to a complex network of flora and fauna and environmentally sensitive lands.  The Stewardship Plan will address the compatibility of outdoor recreation with the conservation of sensitive environmental habitats. It will include recommendations for an interconnected system of passive recreation infrastructure and conservation initiatives linked by a system of trails.
The County retained the team of Simone Collins Landscape Architecture of Norristown, PA, and Resource Environmental Solutions, LLC (RES) to prepare the plan.
The final draft of the Minsi Lake Corridor Greenway and Stewardship Plan will be presented at the meeting on January 12th. The public is invited to attend and comment. Information will be posted on the County’s  website and the Facebook page NorCo Parks and Trails.
Sherry L. Acevedo, Conservation Coordinator
Northampton County Parks & Recreation
Office: 610-829-4872

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Vargo-Heffner To Lead NorCo Council in 2022

During a six-minute reorganization meeting yesterday afternoon, Lori Vargo-Heffner was elected President of Northampton County Council in 2022. She received votes from all eight of her colleagues, both Democrat and Republican. She abstained from voting for herself. A Council President receives an extra $500, so it would  be a conflict of interest for her to vote for herself. 

Council voted unanimously for Kerry Myers as Council VP. 

Finally, Council voted to retain Chris Spadoni as their Consigliere.     

Northampton County Council is a nine-member board consisting of five Democrats (Lori Vargo-Heffner, Kerry Myers, Ron Heckman, Kevin Lott and Tara Zrinski) as well as four Republicans (John Cusick, John Brown, Tom Giovanni and John Goffredo). 

Northampton County Council has beefed up its contingency fund (over the veto of Executive Lamont McClure) with plans to fund a much needed salary study, a third-party independent review of Gracedale and a review of the county's IT services. 

At Gracedale, there are two very different narratives about the quality of care and employee morale. It's also quite clear that there's widespread resentment over meager salaries as well as salary compression. Finally, the IT services being supplied to the county are woefully substandard. In addition, Council needs to consider a Home Rule Charter overhaul.


Monday, January 03, 2022

McClure: Retroactive COLA for NorCo Retirees Likely This Year

While shopping at the grocery store last night, I ran into a NorCo retiree who read my New Year's Eve blog about a COLA for retirees in 2022. "Tell McClure we want that COLA," he instructed me, adding that McClure did indeed promise one for this year. 

McClure will keep his word. In a conversation with him after my blog published, he assured me that he has every intention of seeking a COLA for retirees this year, and will also ask the Retirement Board to make it retroactive until January 1. Since the Exec basically controls the votes on this board, a COLA appears to be likely. 

I still believe this should have been done last year. 

LV Omicron Variant Sets New Case COVID-19 Record,

Steve Thode has been tracking the COVID-19 data for this blog from the onset of the pandemic. Here's his latest:

For the month of December, Lehigh County recorded a total of 11,464 new COVID cases while NorCo recorded a total 10,872 new cases. That's a new single month record for both counties.

The combined total for Lehigh/NorCo of 22,336 new cases for December smashes the old record set in December 2020 when 16,836 new cases were recorded for the two counties.

December ended with Lehigh/NorCo setting a new record for 7-day new cases with a total of 8,027 new cases reported between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. By comparison, this is almost 85% higher than the peak 7-day case rate last winter which was set on January 10, 2021:

Blogger's Note: Though Omicron is raging, it may be less severe. One recent study suggests it spares the lungs. 

I follow a local basketball team whose players are regularly tested.  Though showing no symptoms, three starters (and one or two others) tested positive yesterday and will be unable to play or practice for five days. Before they do, they must visit a cardiologist.

All players have been vaccinated.