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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Baratta Weighs in on Major Crimes Task Force

Last week, flanked by blue behemoths from local police departments, NorCo DA Terry Houck announced the establishment of a major crimes task force. Manned by 42 of the "best and brightest" cops in the county, this squadron would be tapped to respond to catastrophic crime (e.g. mass shootings), complex crime  (a drug gang operating in several municipalities) and serious crime occurring in smaller jurisdictions. Because Houck is seeking re-election, I reached out to his primary opponent, Steve Baratta,  for his perspective on this idea.  He called yesterday to let me know what he thinks. 

Baratta agreed that announcements like these "look good in the paper," but has questions about specifics. He noted that the Pennsylvania State Police already has an emergency response unit trained to deal with standoffs and mass shootings. He also indicated that different police departments have never had a problem working together. Finally, he questioned what types of resources would be used. He would like to know more.  

Monday, January 30, 2023

NorCo County Race Update

What's going on in the race for judge, Controller, District Attorney and four County Council District seats?  Here's what I know so far. 

Judge. Brian Panella and Nancy Aaroe are the two announced candidates in this nonpartisan race made necessary because Judge Steve Baratta resigned in the middle of his term.  Panella's Facebook page shows he's been pretty busy, both as a candidate and as a volunteer with groups like the Boys and Girls Club of Easton as well as Palmer Kiwanis. He believes community service matters. 

Aaroe has scheduled a news conference on Thursday. "Pennsylvania has minimal eligibility requirements to become judge, and that ... will impact this race specifically. The citizens of this county should be aware of the gravity of this race.” she states.  It's unclear to me what eligibility requirements she thinks should exist. She clearly has more seniority than Panella.

Panella's webpage shows that he already has picked up endorsements from a large number of well-respected local lawyers. 

District Attorney. - Incumbent Terry Houck and Steve Baratta are both seeking the Democratic nod. Houck and Baratta both attended Easton's annual  NAACP dinner, along with numerous other Democratic candidates. Houck, but not Baratta, is scheduled to appear at the February meeting of "Lehigh Valley For All," 

Baratta is waging a negative campaign in which he calls into question the integrity of three lawyers - - the DA, his top Assistant and a locally well-liked and prominent criminal defense lawyer. This strategy appears to have backfired among lawyers.

Baratta's webpage promises transparency, but he has ignored several emails from this blog, including an email last week asking him for his stance on a Major Crimes Task Force  

Controller - Popular Bucky Szulborksi has served as Controller twice. He was appointed to replace Steve Barron on condition that he not run. He was then appointed a second time because the person who did run and won - Tony Bassil - unfortunately passed away.  I've not spoken to Bucky about his plans, but believe he is leaning against running. 

Tara Zrinski, a current member of County Council, is reportedly mulling a run.  She has run in four elections over the past five years. 

District Council Races. - Ken Kraft (D1), Jeff Warren (D3) and Tom Giovanni (D4) are running unopposed thus far. Kerry Myers, the Current Council President, is being challenged in District 2 (Easton area) by Kelly Keegan.

Keegan is listed as a speaker at the February meeting of Lehigh Valley For All, but Myers is not. 

Republicans?  - Aside from Tom Giovanni and Nancy Aaroe, I've heard nothing about Republicans who might be interested in county government.  If you have any intelligence to share, please feel free. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

NorCo DA Forms Multi-jurisdictional Major Crimes Task Force

Northampton County DA Terry Houck yesterday announced the formation of a major crimes task force comprised of 42 law enforcement officers from Bethlehem City, Bethlehem Tp, Colonial Regional Police Department, Easton, Forks Tp, Pennsylvania State Police and Northampton County detectives. Its purpose is to use the "best and brightest" officers in the county to combat catastrophic crime, complex crime or a major crime committed in a smaller jurisdiction that simply lacks the resources to investigate on its own. 

At a news conference attended by many of the officers in this task force, Houck explained that a major crimes task force is unlike the existing cooperation that exists between police departments as a result of mutual aid agreements. Houck noted that mutual aid agreements allow for a concentrated police presence for many major emergencies like standoffs. But once the immediate crisis is over, officers from other departments are gone and investigation falls into the hands of one police department. 

Bethlehem Tp Police Chief Greg Gottschall provided an example. Last year, his department charged Joshua Leone with homicide following an argument with a neighbor. That case awaits trial. Leone is claiming self defense although he allegedly shot the victim in the back. Noting his department sees few homicides, Chief Gottschall said "it would have been nice if [a major crimes task force] had been in lace at that point." 

Another example came from Colonial Police Chief James DePalma. That was the 2021 shootout at a Target in Lower Nazareth Tp, which resulted in one man's death. Following a months-long investigation, charges were filed against two Harrisburg men. Chief DePalma noted that mutual aid agreements enabled numerous departments to respond to the initial incident, but where he really needed help was in the lengthy investigation that followed.

Houck noted that incident is what made him realize a major crimes task force is needed.    

It would be up to Houck to decide when and if to activate the major crimes task force. It could be in response to a catastrophic crime like a mass shooting at a school or church. It could also be a response to drugs and gang violence that sometimes extends beyond municipal boundaries. It could be a major crime committed in a jurisdiction with a small police department and few resources. 

Houck thanked Northampton County Council for "believing in our vision." He noted that County Council unanimously approved a small increase in his budget to fund specialized equipment and training. It was also pay for any overtime by officers working on the task force. 

Houck denies a political motivation for this major crimes task force, but does take credit for it on his campaign webpage. I have asked Steve Baratta, Houck's opponent, for his take on a major crimes task force. I will share his response when received. 

Bids Are In For NorCo Pay Study and Gracedale Performance Review

In response to a Request For Proposals and Qualifications, (RFPQ), Northampton County has received bids for both a pay study and Gracedale performance review. So you should expect to see an up or down vote on contracts for these services next month.

Although Northampton County Council voted to seek a pay study for all positions, both union and nonunion, the RFPQ it approved was for nonunion positions only.  

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Why There Was No Red Wave

In order to get elected, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was forced to make numerous deals with the devil, i.e. the far-right ranks of the GOP.  One of them was his agreement to let the House vote on the Fair Tax Act, a proposal to replace the IRS and federal income tax with a 30% sales tax.  Under this scheme, only the top five percent would pay less. And yes, Republicans are indeed considering cuts to Social Security and Medicare, despite protests to the contrary.  

And they wonder why there was no red wave. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

NorCo Employee Health Center Bad Idea ... For Local Health Networks

The Morning Call has published an op-ed written by two well-heeled residents of affluent Upper Saucon Tp, arguing that an employee health center is a bad idea. I agree. It's a terrible idea if you're St. Luke's of Lehigh Valley Health Network. They might lose a little revenue. But if you're a county employee or taxpayer, this is just about the only thing that a local government can do to slow the rising tide of healthcare costs that plague us all. 

A few years ago, when I was a stringer for a local weekly, I was assigned to cover the dedication of the 15,000th expansion of St. Luke's Anderson campus. I was shocked at the number of high end Mercedes, Land Rovers and Jaguars in the parking lot specially set aside for the optimates. Nothing like you'd see in the lots set for the populares who pay the bills. Around that time, a close friend of mine was injured in a car accident and rushed to St. Luke's emergency ward. I spent hours with her as she nervously waited for medical care with blood spattered all over her body and clothing. I had to ask for washcloths myself to clean her off as the staff joked with each other and ignored a person who needed medical attention. Without question, our healthcare system is broken.  An independent health center that focuses on the person, as opposed to the bottom line, is a refreshing idea. 

The authors of The Morning Call Op-ed are two retired professors. One of them, Accounting Professor James Largay, was criticized by a former student for requiring his pupils to purchase "his overpriced text books."  While that may or may not be true, it's pretty clear that these authors have a poor opinion of county employees. They complain that county employees have seen no increase in the cost of their medical care for the past eight years. "[P]erhaps it's time for them to wake up and smell the same roses that every other resident smells. Medical insurance, like every other commodity*, has gone up. None of us find this appealing; why should county employees be spared the burden that the rest of us must bear?" 

It's a lot easier to bear that burden when you get paid well over $100,000 a year than it is when you're a single mother trying to raise three kids on a little over $30k. Moreover, these supposed fonts of knowledge are painfully unaware that, the county has no legal authority to reduce benefits promised to nonunion workers at the time they are hired. And I know of no union that would agree to force workers to pay more.  

After attempting to paint underpaid county workers as grifters, these supposed educators raise "practical considerations" that reveal only that they failed to do any homework. 

Saving money. - This has been demonstrated now in several memoranda addressed to Council members, some of which have been published in their entirety. As recently as last week, Executive Lamont McClure advised County Council of yet another actuarial report showing how an independent and exclusive employee health center saves money for the taxpayer. 

The health center proposed would be voluntary and offer same-day appointments as well as a wide variety of medical services that are simply unavailable at other primary care facilities. It would save between $1.44 million and $1.76 million in healthcare costs paid by the county taxpayer. 

In 2017, healthcare costs averaged $16,000 per employee. In 2023, County Council member John Brown has projected they would be $24,000.

A health care center puts a thumb in the dike of rising medical costs.  

We Already Have Excellent Health Care Facilities.  - The op-ed contends we already have "excellent health care facilities" within a 10-mile radius of every resident. This is simply false. After you spend a few hours in a waiting room for a 30-seconmd visit with an impersonal physician's assistant, you'll agree. Our system is both expensive and broken. 

But this assertion tells me who is really behind this op-ed. It certainly has the odor of a put up by our two "excellent health care facilities" that are threatened that they might have to trade in their Mercedes for Honda. Why else would Upper Saucon residents give a shit about what's happening in Northampton County? The Brahmins are worried, and they should be.  

Recruiting.- The Morning Call missive  argue that an independent health center would be unable to recruit staff. Wrong. This was addressed in several meetings. There are physicians and nurses who are tired of the rat race and long hours at hospitals, where the Almighty Dollar, and not the patient, is the focus. They are willing to work at a lower pay to actually do what they were educated to do - heal the sick. There has been no issue staffing five health centers in New Jersey and one in Lycoming County.

Health Center Only Handles Routine Care .  That's true. You won't get open heart surgery or a transplant at an employee health center. But that misses the point. The whole idea of an exclusive employee health canter is to catch the problem before you need open heart surgery or a transplant. That's better for the patient and the bottom line of a self-funded medical plan. 

Competitive Bidding. - The only valid criticism is the lack of competitive bidding. Executive McClure has told County Council that he wants their approval for a sole source bid because no other health care provider can "check all the boxes" that Integrity Health can. If that's so, why not prove it by seeking bids. Several Council members have made this suggestion, and McClure indicated he will compromise and seek bids. 

Aside from its condescending attitude, this op-ed betrays complete ignorance of both the proposed health center as well as county government. And these are former professors? The worst kind of arrogance is that which blossoms from ignorance. 


* A commodity is defined as a raw material or an agricultural product. Medical insurance is no commodity. It is more accurately described as a lifesaver.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

D&L Trail Nonprofit Opposes Bethlehem Landfill Expansion

Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L)  is a the nonprofit that helps manage the 165-mile transportation route between Wilkes-Barre and Bristol, Pennsylvania. Canal boats that once brought King Coal have been mostly replaced by tourists, cyclists, hikers, campers and fishermen. As you might have guessed, hiking through a landfill is hardly any way to take advantage of our recreational resources. 

Brit Kondravy, Conservation Coordinator at D&L, has provided this statement to Lower Saucon Tp Council after it approved zoning changes that will permit the landfill to double its size:

The DLNHC was designated by United States Congress in 1988 under President Reagan to preserve, protect, and celebrate the nationally-significant industrial heritage of our five-county region (Bucks, Northampton, Lehigh, Carbon, and Luzerne). This is our 35th year of making connections focused around our four pillars of the mission: industrial heritage, nature and environment, health and wellness, and economic development. We believe considering either of these parcels for landfill expansion in any capacity is a mistake for the whole region and generations to come.

We specifically feel this would go against each pillar of our mission for the following reasons:

Industrial Heritage – the Redington Historic District within this land area supported the work force of Coleraine Furnace in the 1800s before Bethlehem Steel used it as an armaments testing area and shell-filling plant through World War 1 and had rail lines servicing the area – all related to the strong industrial heritage of the region 2) this land is within the viewshed of the D&L Trail built along the former Lehigh Navigation towpath following the historic path of canals and railroads from Wilkes-Barre to Bristol.

Nature and Environment – clearing the steep wooded slopes leading to the Lehigh River would be detrimental to the entire watershed and the river corridor that many generations have worked hard to clean up since our society degraded it with the prior industries – we must learn from our mistakes and be sure to balance the environmental and economic benefits; these parcels make one of the largest contiguous wooded areas adjacent to the entire Lehigh River and we cannot get something like that back.

Health and Wellness – yes, we all need places to put trash (and we should be doing more to limit our trash production) but the recreation benefits of getting in nature, the air quality and water quality are all critical to maintaining the health of our population. expanding this landfill that takes on its majority of trash from out of state and taking over such a critical area of open space is detrimental to our community.

Economic Development – The D&L Trail is well on its way to being the longest multi-use trail in Pennsylvania, longer than the Great Allegheny Passage, and bring in tremendous ecomonic growth for small businesses, hospitality, outfitters, and retail. You are discussing clearing wooded area within the viewshed of the trail as it goes through Bethlehem and Freemansburg and expanding a landfill. What will that do for encouraging cyclists to take three day trips along the D&L Trail?

There are always other ways to balance budgets but there’s not always a way to get back heritage and environmental resources.

LVIA Sets Record On Air Cargo Transported

Tom Stoudt, Executive Director at Lehigh Valley International Airport, updated Northampton County Council on its operations last week. It is the fourth largest airport in Pennsylvania, serving as a host for four commercial airlines (Allegiant, American, Delta and United). It also has two general aviation facilities at Queen City (Allentown) and Braden (Forks Tp). 

Traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels. Annual passengers dropped to 390,000 in 2020, but soared to 912,000 in 2022, which is actually slightly higher than it was in 2019. The airport also moved nearly 238 million pounds or air cargo last year, the most it's ever transported. 

Although LVIA may host four airlines, two of them begin your flight by bussing you to a larger airport. American provides two trips daily to Philly, while United provides three daily pilgrimages to Newark. "They're more of a motor coach than a typical bus," said Stoudt. 

The airport is actively searching for new flight destinations, and Stoudt reported that San Juan, PR was very high on a wish list sent to passengers. Airfares are high because of demand and limited resources. Stoudt doubts there will be many major announcements this year.  

The airport operates on a $41 million budget. Interestingly, 17% of its total revenue comes from parking. It also is spending about $4 million in federal pandemic relief funds. Before that relief funding came, the airport deferred its debt service on existing obligations 

The airport does have an agreement with Majestic Realty for the nonaeronautical development of 308 acres in Hanover Tp (NorCo) over the next 50 years. 

Stoudt advised that the deadline for REAL ID has been extended until May 7, 2025.    

Monday, January 23, 2023

San Francisco or Eagles?

Before the Dallas game, San Francisco scared me. I now believe the Eagles are going to the Super Bowl. What's your take? 

Feds Prosecuted 96% of Criminal Referrals for Immigration in FY 2022

I'll admit that, when it comes to immigration, it's hard for me to understand what's going on.  If I lived on a border state, I might be better informed. As things stand, I read diametrically opposing points of view in the news accounts coming from major news sources. But I can tell you that, according to an analysis by nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), federal prosecution of criminal referrals for immigration crime was 96% in FY 2022. 

Interestingly, prosecution of corporate crime is at its lowest level since record keeping began in the Reagan administration.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Due to Sunshine Act Violation, NorCo Council Unable to Vote on Anything

Yesterday, I advised both you and all members of Northampton County Council that they failed to comply with the Sunshine Act requirement that an agenda be posted online at least 24 hours before last night's meeting.  My view was that Council's violation made it impossible to take official action (vote) on anything. County Council Solicitor Chris Spadoni apparently agrees.

At the beginning of last night's meeting, he made this announcement. "It is clear that we may not take official action this evening.  ... All votes will be at the first meeting in February."

Council member John Cusick apologized for the delay in matters that should have been considered last night. "We should do better next time. That's all I have to say." 

County Council Clerk Linda Zembo apologized for the error, but never bothered to offer an explanation. 

"Actions have been taken to correct the unfortunate thing that happened for today's meeting and we will move forth with it," said Council President Kerry Myers. "If there is anyone at fault, it stops with me because I am the President. I am the one who has to take ... I will take the hit for this because it is my responsibility as your representative to make sure things run smoothly."

No other Council members said anything. Council member Ron Heckman instead complained about the lighting. 

The meeting could have ended at that point, but having a captive audience, Executive Lamont McClure took the opportunity to lobby for the 15,000th time for a voluntary health care center that would be exclusive to employees.

This time, he introduced Lycoming County Comm'r Richard Mirabito. Lycoming County started its own health center in December and is using the same outfit - Integrity Health - that McClure wants in Northampton. 

Lycoming's employee health center was only established in December, but Mirabito explained how it saves money. If an employee goes to a doctor for blood work, it might cost $60. But at a hospital, it is about $600. He noted that, like the Lehigh Valley, there are two major health care systems in the Williamsport area, and they compete for the same market share. Doctors who work there must meet quotas and more than half are employees of the hospital. 

An employee health center would be focused on keeping employees healthy as opposed to meeting quotas and hence would be more likely to catcha medical condition like cancer before it becomes too costly.  

McClure advised Council that yet another union, Local SEIU 668, supports the proposed proposed health center. (AFSCME and Steelworkers also support the health center). Business Agent Chris Ellis calls it am "innovative way to keep the costs under control" and a "win win proposal."  

This union represents human services emplyees. 

In addition, McClure advised County Council that an actuarial report on an Integrity health center in Toms River shows that it saved $5.5 million last year, which is a return on investment of 1.33 to 1. 

It appears that the main hurdle at this point is McClure's refusal to send out a Request for Proposals (RFP) and competitively bid the project. He has argued that no potential bidder "checks all the boxes" that Integrity does. 

If that's so, just bid it already. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

NorCo Council Starting New Year With Sunshine Act Violation

Above is a screenshot of Northampton County Council's meeting agendas. The image was captured at 6:48 pm last night. It fails to include either the agenda or any supporting documents to be considered at the meeting scheduled for tonight. It was finally posted, but not until about 10 pm. This failure to provide 24 hours of advance public notice of what it intends to do is a violation of the state Sunshine Act. What this means is that County Council will be unable to take any official action this evening. 

Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act states the following: "(i) If the agency has a publicly accessible Internet website, the agency shall post the agenda, which includes a listing of each matter of agency business that will be or may be the subject of deliberation or official action at the meeting, on the website no later than 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting." See Sunshine Act, Section 709 (c.1)(1) (i). The purpose of this 24-hour rule is to promote transparency and expand access to public records. It was adopted unanimously by both houses. 

Northampton County Council is an "agency" as that term is defined in the Sunshine Act. Section 703. Northampton County Council has a publicly assessible Internet website for agendas, located here. It failed to comply with the Sunshine Act requirement that the agenda be posted, and on the website, no later than 24 hours in advance of the meeting. It was eventually posted, but without the time for review required by law. 

As a result of this failure to comply with state law, Northampton County Council "may not take official action on a matter of agency business at a meeting if the matter was not included in the notification required under section 709(c.1) (relating to public notice). "See Section 712.1(a).

I am sending a copy of this blog entry to all members of Northampton County Council as well as their Solicitor.  This way they will be unable to claim they had no idea they were violating the law. "Any member of any agency who participates in a meeting with the intent and purpose by that member of violating this chapter commits a summary offense." Section 714(a)

One could argue this lapse is a de minimis violation since the public did eventually get notice. I'd disagree. The word "shall" is mandatory, not precatory. The public is entitled to 24 hours advance notice of what its government is doing. 

To Catch a Predator - Lehigh Valley Style!

Most of you probably remember To Catch a Predator, a television series that ran sting operations on pedophiles, using adults who pose as minors. Well, a Facebook page called Chris-Hensen Valley Leigh, using the same MO, is stinging local child predators left and right.  He poses as a minor, schedules meets with would be predators and then ambushes them on video. 

The fellow on the right, Kyle Gardner, age 33, was actually caught on video after arranging to meet a boy for sex whom he thought was 15. He lives in the Nazareth area.. He admitted "this is my first time," but lied about who he is. Amazingly, he came in his employer's truck, but tried to hide the name as he left the scene.  

Whoever runs this page has already snared predators from Easton and Bethlehem,

I believe police could use this evidence to launch a prosecution and could avoid the issue of entrapment. But the fellow running this sting is risking his life. 

"I'm the black Chis Hansen, baby!" he concludes.  

Ken Greene to Run For Easton City Council

From the Candidate: Today, Ken Greene announced his campaign for Easton City Council-At-Large. Ken Greene has worked for 35 years in education, the last 13 of those as superintendent of schools. With a proven track record of public service, Greene enters the race with the experience to continue to make Easton even better.

Greene released the following statement upon the announcement of his campaign:

“I love Easton because our city has an energy to it that is inclusive, diverse, and welcoming of everyone. I believe Easton can be at its best with a shared vision to make our city safe, clean, and accessible. I’m proud to call Easton home because with strong, independent-minded leadership, our city’s future is incredibly bright.

"I believe Easton City Council needs strong leadership that is future focused towards helping our city reach its highest potential. That means working hard to harness the opportunity to build upon the unique history of each of Easton’s neighborhoods. We must work together to increase our resident population and support economic growth.”

Ken Greene has been a member of the Easton Planning Commission since 2019 and is in his second year as chairman. Since 2014, Greene has served as Treasurer of “Friends of Easton PA”, the non-profit organization that designed and sponsored the lighting of the trees in Centre Square and the Smith Avenue/St. John Street gateway on South Side. The group has also raised funds for Easton Ambassadors and Easton Block Watch. Ken and his wife Diane Haviland were recently honored with the Gretchen Wrenshall Memorial Award for community service as Easton’s volunteers of the year. You may have also seen Ken entertaining crowds with his bands at Easton Farmers Market or Clam Jam.

In a show of strength and momentum to start his campaign, Ken Greene enters the race with the support and endorsement of Mayor Sal Panto.

“I support Ken Greene for City Council. He has been a strong advocate for Easton, and he has the character, integrity, and intelligence to keep our city moving forward. ”

Ken Greene is ready to lead on day one to move Easton forward and continue its trajectory of growth and prosperity. After retiring from being a superintendent in 2022, Ken continues to be an education consultant focused on equity, leadership, and policy. Greene is also an adjunct professor of school finance at Columbia University.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

My Nomination For NorCo Outstanding Senior

Northampton County's Area Agency on Aging are seeking nominations for outstanding seniors. Nominees must be sixty-years-or-older, a resident of Northampton County, and have a passion for helping others through personal action, inspiration, public service, sports, educational instruction or humanitarian efforts.

Nominations may be made in an essay of 250 words or less with a description of why the nominee deserves to be recognized and a listing their volunteer activities. Forms for nominations can be obtained from Melissa Titus at 610-829-4509 or mtitus@northamptoncounty.org For each nominee, please return one entry form along with the essay to:

Melissa Titus, Area Agency on Aging, 2801 Emrick Blvd., Bethlehem, PA 18020

Nominations must be postmarked by March 22, 2023. The selected individuals will be announced in April.

I am nominating Dave Powell, Sr., age 65. Dave, a 1976 graduate of Nazareth Area High School, was a demolition and enduro race car driver on local race courses. More importantly, he has been a volunteer firefighter and fire-police officer for the past 42 years in both Nazareth and Upper Nazareth. He still responds to numerous calls of accidents and fires, and at all hours. 

We've seen a 17% drop in volunteer firefighters since 1984, and should recognize and cherish those who remain because they are true life savers. 

Nancy Aaroe Running For NorCo Judge

I've previously told you that Brian Panella is running for the judicial vacancy created by the mid-term resignation of former NorCo Judge Steve Baratta. Well, Brian has company. Nancy Aaroe, a prominent Bethlehem Tp attorney who has practiced law for nearly three decades, is running as well. Her announcement just reached me last night or I would have published it sooner. She currently practices law with her husband Paul, who calls himself the DUI guy.  Her long career has also included service  as a public defender, assistant DA and conflicts counsel (these are attorneys who represent Defendants when there is a conflict of interest in the public defender's office).

From Aaroe's announcement: “I feel a strong sense of duty to fill the opening on the Northampton County bench with my decades of legal experience,” said Aaroe, “I am running because I am committed to defending our community and will stand for the rule of law. ”

Aaroe concluded, “I have seen firsthand the gravity of the decisions made by the judges and I am uniquely qualified to fill the bench because the citizens of Northampton County deserve a judge that will stand and defend them”.

Nancy Aaroe was born and raised in Bethlehem Township, attending elementary through high school in the Bethlehem Area School District. She received her undergraduate degree from The College of William & Mary and her law degree from Dickinson School of Law, where she served on Law Review and interned with Duane, Morris and Heckscher, focusing on corporate law. After law school, she returned to the Lehigh Valley to raise a family and dedicate her work to public service. For over a decade, she gained courtroom experience on both sides of the aisle, working as an Assistant Public Defender, Assistant District Attorney, and as court-appointed Conflicts Counsel. In her tenure at the Public Defenders’ Office, Nancy gained indispensable criminal trial experience, including jury and non-jury trials, and arguments before the Superior Court. While at the Northampton County District Attorney’s office in the DUI Unit, she successfully prosecuted several memorable cases, including a DUI homicide by motor vehicle jury trial. While serving as Court appointed Conflicts Counsel, she represented the interests of senior citizens and the disabled, indigent criminal defendants, and parents who were suffering the potential loss of their children. Over the more than ten years of public service, Nancy was also building a private practice. Her concentration was family and small-business-focused. She and her husband, now of 32 years, established Aaroe Law Offices. She is proud of the success she has had in the business, but even more so, of the lasting client relationships she has built. Over the years, she has had many repeat clients, some of which she has represented for over a decade. Nancy is proud to have served so many while raising 3 wonderful children, Annie, Nicholas and Paul. She recently became a grandmother, and she enjoys spending time with her children and grandson, who also reside in the Lehigh Valley.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Is Case Against Bryan Kohberger Bulletproof?

It's not everyday that a local college grad is accused of a series of four horrific murders, so I've been interested in the case against Bryan Kohberger. The affidavit of probable cause certainly establishes a prima facie case. Prosecutors have knife sheath DNA found at the scene. There are multiple videos of a car that looks like his in the general area. Numerous cell phone pings have put him in the area. An eyewitness in the house saw someone who looked like him. Based on this evidence, would you vote to convict? I say No. 

The strongest piece of evidence is the knife sheath found at the scene with his father's DNA. But how do we know how that knife sheath got there? Is it possible that Kohberger gave that knife to someone or that it was stolen from him? If he was stupid enough to leave that key evidence, why are there no other sources of DNA in the house of on the bodies of his victims?  

There are also numerous videos of a white Elantra in the vicinity and Kohberger owns one. So do thousands of other people. 

Cell phone pings could be anywhere within a 20-mile radius of the tower. Kohberger lived just 10 miles away. 

The eyewitness testimony of someone describing another masked person wearing black in the dark means little more than that the assailant was probably male. 

Of course, there could be much stronger evidence than this. But I think the evidence in that affidavit is insufficient for me to0 conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Kohberger is the murderer.

What's your take?  

Becky Bartlett Resigning

From Northampton County: Becky Bartlett has announced that she will be leaving County Government effective 1/27/23. Bartlett has served as Deputy Director of Administration for 5 years and as the County’s Chief Information Officer.

In a letter to Director of Administration Charles M. Dertinger, Bartlett wrote, “Please accept this letter as formal notification that I am resigning from my position as Deputy Director with the County of Northampton. My last day will be January 27, 2023. Thank you for the opportunity to work in this position. I have very much enjoyed my five years with the Administration.”

County Executive Lamont G. McClure said of Bartlett, “It is not an over statement to say, that Becky has played a vital role in the success of this Administration. She took her responsibility to keep the public informed – especially through the pandemic very seriously. Becky has our deepest thanks and our most fond wishes for happiness in this next phase of her life.”

LWV to Host Candidate Workshop on Saturday

LWV Brochure Running for Office by BernieOHare on Scribd

If you're running for local office for the first time, there are lots of landmines that can ruin your campaign before it even gets off the ground. You better be sure that you have twice the number of signatures that you need because, all too often, people will sign nomination petitions without paying much attention to political party or whether they are even registered. The second most important requirement is to make sure you provide a copy of your Statement of Financial Interests with the Clerk of your municipality. That's in addition to attaching it to the nomination petition you file with the elections office. Every municipal cycle, several candidates bounced for this simple mistake. 

Fortunately, a candidate workshop is being conducted this weekend by the League of Women Voters. It takes place Saturday, January 21, from 8:30 am until noon at Penn State Lehigh Valley, Room 135, 2809 Saucon Valley Road, Center Valley, PA  18034. 

You can sleep through most of it. There's no need to listen to local party bosses. If you think they will help you, you're nuts. You need your own team. You can also snooze through Bill White's lecture on working with the press. In a local race, there's basically no press. You'll be lucky to see one story about your race, 

The time to pay attention is when Tim Benyo, Lehigh County's Elections Register, speaks. That's where the real landmines are located. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Easton Controller Chris Heagele Seeks Re-Election

Easton's former finance director and current Controller, Chris Heagele, is running for re-election to the seat he won four years ago. 

Heagele, an Easton resident since 2002, was appointed Easton Finance Director in 2008, and served in that capacity until 2015. During his tenure, the City has had an operating surplus each year. In 2014, Lehigh Valley Business Journal named Heagele one of the Lehigh Valley Chief Financial Officers of the Year as well as Best Turnaround Specialist for his work at the City of Easton.

Prior to joining the City of Easton in 2008, Mr. Heagele was a Vice-President at the Bear Stearns Companies, Inc. Healso was the School Business Administrator at North Warren Regional School District in Blairstown, NJ where he was responsible for an $18 Million budget. 

Heagele has a very impressive educational background. He's a 2001 grad of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he earned his Master of Public Policy. He's also a 1994 magna cum laude grad of the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned two degrees: a Bachelor of Economics with concentrations in Finance and Accounting from the Wharton School of Business; and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

I rarely see anyone with this kind of education seeking public office. 

Heagele is also active in the Easton community as both a Scout leader and as an Elder at his church. He's an Eagle Scout himself.

He resides on College Hill with wife Donna and sons Zachariah and Alexander.

According to his statement,
"Mr. Heagele pledges to become the City watchdog in the area of fiscal responsibility. Mr. Heagele not only plans to build on the successes of the current City Controller, but also raise the exposure of the City Controller position, which is clearly important to good government, but is often underneath the radar. Mr. Heagele intends to implement a communications strategy which will elevate the position via periodic reports to City Council and periodic meetings of the Audit Committee. Easton’s future is very bright; Mr. Heagele looks forward to the opportunity to make it just a little bit brighter by providing more transparency after he is elected City Controller."

Lawsuit Filed to Halt Bethlehem Landfill Expansion

On Friday, prominent Easton Attorney Gary Asteak filed a lawsuit that, if successful, will put the brakes on the controversial planned expansion of Bethlehem Landfill.  At a crowded meeting right before Christmas (Dec. 21), Lower Saucon Tp Council voted 3-2 to approve zoning changes that would allow the dump to add 275.7 acres to the dump site. This will more than double the existing 212 acres. Council members Jason Banonis, Thomas Carocci and Mark Inglis voted Yes, while Sandra Yerger and Priscila deLeon said No. This enlargement was also panned by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission as contrary to the "health, safety and welfare" of the Lehigh Valley. 

The zoning appeal has been filed on behalf of Bruce and Ginger Petrie, Lawrence and Margaret Opthof, Frank Palumbo and Robert and Cynthia McKellin. 

Asteak's two-pronged lawsuit (you can read it below), filed on behalf of seven residents opposed to the expansion, contends that the zoning change is invalid on its face (void ab initio) because Lower Saucon Township failed to adhere to strict notice requirements concerning advertising and posting contained in the Municipalities Planning Code. In addition, he claims that the zoning changes run afoul of a Scenic and Conservation Easement along the Delaware and Lehigh Canal National Heritage Corridor.

This preservation easement was granted to the City of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is always adopting climate action plans, so this might  be a way for the City to actually take action - acta non verba.  Northampton County also has the legal standing to oppose any permits.  

The landfill, incidentally, plays hardball. It pours money into local races. In 2015, it spent nearly $150,000 to buy the Lower Saucon Council race. Corporate contributions are illegal, but permitted if done as "independent expenditures." Priscilla deLeon managed to hang onto her seat by a scant five votes. 

Landfills are necessary. They make more sense than incinerators or ocean dumping. Host communities do see a financial windfall. Our tendency to want so many things exacerbates the problem. But an expansion that gobbles up preserved land should be fought tooth and nail. 

The seven residents who filed this suit have released a statement that, in part, says they've been betrayed: "“We filed this appeal because the majority of Lower Saucon Township Council betrayed the trust we instilled in them to protect us. The landfill came before council in October with this proposed ordinance and text amendments hoping they would get a blank check to expand their out of state garbage operation without the protections afforded to the residents who live here. They must be held accountable for their violations of public trust and law. Since they will not fulfill their oath of office we had no other choice to protect our Township against destruction by the landfill.”

Bethlehem Landfill Lawsuit by BernieOHare on Scribd

Lizzie Hyman Published by People's Magazine

Back in 2018,  I published a thoughtful essay written by a college sophomore. She was bothered that her Jesuit school - Georgetown University - had basically no reaction to the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh. As a Georgetown alum and shitty Catholic, I agree we could do better. We can always do better. But I digress. This story has nothing to do with anti-Semitism  or my imminent future with Satan. It's instead about the author of this reflective piece. Her name is Lizzie Hyman. She went on to graduate from Georgetown (Civilization, Journalism), Columbia School of Journalism (M.S.), became a Fulbright Scholar and is currently employed by People Magazine as an Editorial Assistant. 

People just gave her bylines in a Tom Hanks interview about his latest movie as well as a discussion with Buffalo Mayor about Damar Hamlin, the Bills' player who suffered a cardiac arrest during a game against the Bengals. 

Amazingly, some young people still are pursuing journalism as a career. 

Fortunately, Lizzie's intelligence comes from her mother. Her father took  7 1/2 years to graduate from Georgetown after flunking out at Kutztown. He is the Commissioner of  the Lehigh Valley Hearts Ass'n, but that's only because he's the worst player in the history of mankind.  

Friday, January 13, 2023

Terry Houck Seeks Re-Election as DA

It's bad news for criminals. It's good news for those who believe in the fair and prompt administration of criminal justice. Northampton County District Attorney Terry Houck, who has over 45 years of experience as both a cop and prosecutor, announced yesterday that he is seeking re-election. (You can read his statement below).

Houck made his announcement over the noon hour at the courthouse rotunda. He was surprised and gratified when a large portion of his staff (assistant DAs, detectives and clerks) came and stood behind him. He's been accused by opponent Steve Baratta of "permitting a toxic office environment for both staff attorneys and supporting administrative staff which [has] resulted in significant turnover, especially of female employees." The presence of so many prosecutors at Houck's campaign kickoff belies any suggestion of a morale problem. Houck's office is fully staffed. Three of his top four deputies happen to be women. 

DA Terry Houck
Unlike most DA offices statewide, Houck kept the doors open during the pandemic, and continued trying cases. President Judge Michael J Koury and Executive Lamont McClure also should be credited with this "business as usual" approach. Other counties fell behind, but Northampton County was recognized by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) as the most efficient in the state in its handling of criminal cases. 

According to the AOPC, Northampton County has the most efficient numbers for criminal case management in terms of the highest percentage of cases disposed of within both 180 days (71 percent) and 365 days (93 percent) from the time of filing. It also has the lowest number of days from filing to disposition, 129 days. DA Houck's conviction rate is about 90%. 

Houck created a full-time Drug Task Force, manned by trained detectives, to both investigate and prosecute drug dealers who sell drugs like heroin laced with fentanyl. He sued big pharma and won a $2 million (and counting) settlement. He joined a Child Advocacy Center that gives abused children a comfortable and safe place to discuss their victimization. He assigned an Assistant District Attorney to participate in the county's problem-solving courts, which has reduced recidivism. He has conducted several gun buyback programs, which has taken 300 guns and hundreds of pounds of ammo off the streets.

Future plans include a Human Trafficking Task Force to prosecute those involved in the trafficking and abuse of vulnerable women. In addition, he is establishing a Violent Crimes Task Force manned by the "best and brightest" officers to assist smaller departments confronted by violent crime. 

After announcing his re-election plans, Houck took questions from reporters about the complaints from opponent Steve Baratta, who was himself a judge until the end of last year. 

Houck defended the practice of permitting full-time assistants to work part-time in civil practice or unrelated fields. He noted the pay for a full-time assistant is very low, and allowing unrelated outside employment is a way to retain experienced prosecutors. "There is no conflict of interest with anything anybody does here. They all put in a ton of hours."  He said that a Bucks County prosecutor doing part-time work was terminated because he was double-dipping, getting paid by the county and a private entity for the same hours.

Northampton County Drug Court is one of Northampton County's problem-solving courts. Baratta describes it as "a pretrial diversion plan that offers an opportunity for users to avoid incarceration so long as the participants enter a drug treatment program and remain sober." This is incorrect. Drug Court is actually a post conviction court in Northampton County. Baratta argues that Houck, and apparently DA John Morganelli before him, have created "arbitrary barriers to deny entry into these programs." But Houck explained yesterday that he actually wants to convert Drug Court into a pretrial diversion plan to prevent users from being stained with a criminal conviction for an addiction. He is working with the courts to make that happen.

Baratta also complains that prosecutions for possession of a small amount of marijuana have "clogged Northampton County's courts," destroying the future of many young adults. Houck responds that the legislature, and not he, is responsible for changing laws. But he denied these prosecutions have "clogged" the courts because they are diverted, either through summary citations at the magisterial level or through a first offender program that dismisses the charges.

On his webpage, Houck outlines in detail his positions on protection of child victims, community outreach, diversionary programs (problem solving courts), victims' rights, training, gun violence, a violent crimes task force and a full-time drug task force.

Houck has been married for 44 years, has two daughters and one grandchild.         

Houck's Statement:  

As someone who worked his way up from a street cop in Philadelphia, earning my undergraduate, Masters, and law degree all at night, and as a result of my over 45 years in law enforcement as both a police officer and prosecutor, I have learned a few things about the nature of this work.

This job is not a birthright; it is not something you attempt to pad a pension on. To get this job and to be effective in it, you must earn it. In order to fully understand this job, you must sit with victims and their families; you must spend years working with police to effectively and efficiently investigate complaints of crime. You work nights and weekends, going to scenes and digging for evidence. You must train and be trained. You must dedicate your life to advocating for victims and for justice.

That is why this is more than just a job to me; it is who I am and what I have dedicated my life to. It is why I humbly believe I deserve to be reelected. It is also why I have repeatedly said I will never leave this job to seek another elected office, whether it is with the courts or the legislature. I pledge I will not quit the job in which I was elected to chase money or publicity. I am a proud and dedicated prosecutor.

When I was sworn in as District Attorney on January 6, 2020, we had no idea the adversity a global pandemic would soon cause. Although our world changed dramatically, for the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office it was business as usual. While the county offices were closed, law enforcement remained open and vigilant. We pushed to move forward with criminal jury trials in the interests of justice and as a result we have been recognized as the most efficient county in Pennsylvania as it pertains to the handling of our cases.

In addition, during the pandemic, I continued to serve the residents of Northampton County by creating a Community Outreach Program. This unprecedented level of transparency has helped educate our citizens on issues of the day. This program continues in effect and has, as of this date, been a part of over sixty appearances with this office participating or lecturing on such topics as sensible gun laws, concealed carry, opioid detection and abuse, community block watch, children in crises, senior expos and teenage job shadows, to name a few.

One of the promises I made upon election to my first term was to do everything in my power to eradicate the opioid abuse problem, and I attacked this issue in an unprecedented way through several avenues. For the first time in this county’s history, I created a full time Drug Task Force, which consists of trained detectives dedicated solely to the job of investigating and eliminating drug distribution sources and dealers. In addition, this task force has seized and forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars in money and property, which was used to fund the ongoing investigations against these drug dealers. In other words, we turn the illicit profit of drug dealers against them to further our investigations.

Moreover, I was the first Northampton County District Attorney to go after big pharma and to date, have won a settlement of over $2M and counting. That money has been released to our Drug and Alcohol section of Human Services to put toward drug abatement programs. Finally, this office has sponsored a drug awareness video involving Northampton County residents who battled addiction. The documentary portrays the heartbreak and triumph of people who suffered from addiction as well as their families. It is a powerful and impactful video that will hopefully be shown in all of our schools.

In spite of the 20-month pandemic, this office accomplished so many more “firsts”: We joined a Child Advocacy Center that tends to the needs of abused children, giving them a safe and comfortable space to report and discuss their victimization, while at the same time increasing the effectiveness of the police investigation. With the help and cooperation of our local police, we conducted the first of several gun buybacks at two separate locations, which ultimately removed over 300 firearms and hundreds of pounds of ammunition off our streets. I am convinced this community, police, and District Attorney cooperative effort saved the life or lives of those that would have otherwise been involved in an accidental, reckless, or intentional shooting.

In 2014, The District Attorney’s office, along with the County Executive and the Courts, created the concept of problem-solving courts for nonviolent offenders. Immediately after I was elected, I expanded its reach by dedicating a full time Assistant District Attorney to sit on the panel. When this was done, it allowed for statewide certification, which in turn created new funding sources for the program. Today, these courts are servicing more people in need than ever before. It also is cutting down on our recidivism rate. 

With the unprecedented level of cooperation from police I receive due to my background and experience, along with our continued vigilance and dedication, we have seen an overall decrease in crime in Northampton County. With that said, we must remain diligent. In the next several weeks I will be unveiling both a Human Trafficking Task force that will work with local police and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a Violent Crimes Task force comprised of the best and brightest police officers and State Police our county has to offer. These task forces will stand ready to assist smaller, less equipped departments when and if the situation arises and a violent crime occurs. We will now, for the first time, also be equipped to immediately respond to catastrophic incidents. Although we hope and pray this response will not be needed, we will stand ready and prepared.

It is for these reasons the people of Northampton County require and deserve a dedicated professional with a lifelong commitment to law enforcement. It is the reason I continue to receive unwavering police support from the rank in file to the chiefs. We are all committed to keeping you safe and saving lives. That is why I am humbly asking for you to allow me to continue in another term the work I started when you elected me your District Attorney in 2019.  

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Vince Milite, Hanover Tp (NC) Public Works Director, Unexpectedly Passes Away

Vince Milite, RIP
Vince Milite, age 58, the highly regarded Public Works Director for Hanover Tp (NC), passed away unexpectedly on Monday. He thought he had beaten cancer, but it returned and he died on the operating table. His death was announced Tuesday night at a somber meeting of Hanover Tp's Board of Supervisors, all of whom had great admiration for the "teddy bear."

Vince was a Freedom High School grad, a lifeguard, Eagle Scout, first responder, emergency manager, animal control officer (over his objection) and community cheerleader. Whenever Hanover Tp had an event, and it has lots of them, he was always the first to come and last to leave. 

Vince's unexpected death hit Township Manager Jay Finnigan particularly hard. They started out as co-workers, but turned into brothers who loved to play jokes on each other and on the occasional Supervisor as well. The two were inseparable.

I used to cover Hanover Tp for a local weekly and I can tell you that Vince went out of his way, over Finnigan's objections, to make me feel at home.  I did, and actually considered their meetings a mental health break from all the silliness that goes on elsewhere. 

He was the kind of guy who, with his wife Trisha, would stop on a cold winter day to help a small shoeless and pantless child wandering the streets of Bethlehem with just a diaper and a shirt. He managed to get Bethlehem's finest to help while neighbors rushed to get clothing for a cold toddler. 

The world now has one less good Samaritan, but his example may have created others. 

I will miss you, Vince. 

St. John's Prayers Are Already Answered

Yesterday, I told you that St. John's Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church was going to respond to an eminent domain threat from Bethlehem Parking Authority with prayer. It worked. After an emergency meeting of the parking authority yesterday afternoon, Executive Director Steven Fernstrom penned a letter to the church, advising that "[t]he Bethlehem Parking Authority will not stand in the way of the church's sale." 

St. John's Windish plans to sell three churches and a large parking lot to Lehigh University, and use the proceeds for one new church.

Bethlehem Parking Authority, which does have a lease for a portion of this parking lot, indicated that its sole concern is the availability of parking "to avoid saturating an already stressed parking system."  

It appears that Bethlehem's bid to turn the parking lot or the churches into homeless shelters or affordable housing is no longer being considered.  

Who Does Benny Suport For Judge and DA?

Benny has been in a lonely corner of the Northampton County Law Library for quite some time. He's so engrossed in legal research that, as you can see, he has no time to eat. 

If anyone knew who would make a great DA or judge, Benny would. So I asked him. 

He took the fifth. 

Luke Verdes Running For BT Comm'r

From Luke Verdes: I would like to officially announce my candidacy for the at-large seat of the Bethlehem Township Board of Commissioners. It has been an honor and privilege to serve in this role since I was appointed in November 2022 to fill the seat left by the passing of Commissioner Davis. I am committed to continuing her legacy of public service and community engagement.

Bethlehem Township is a wonderful community and as your Commissioner I’m dedicated to continuing to make it a better place to raise a family, retire, or plant new roots. My focus on the board is, and will continue to be, engaging our community directly, and through our boards and committees, upholding fiscal responsibility, addressing overdevelopment, ensuring our first responders have the training and resources they need, maintaining critical infrastructure including our roads and stormwater system, and finding cost effective ways to make the township greener.

My commitment to public service is rooted in my professional career of over 20 years working in the non-profit, social services, healthcare, and government sectors in various leadership roles. This experience is very relevant to the work of the Board of Commissioners and has given me direct knowledge of grant management, project planning and execution, budget management, and emergency management systems. I also hold a master’s degree in Public Administration, as well as professional certifications in Project Management and Organizational Development. My current position with Lehigh Valley Health Network as a Sr Project Manager provides me with the opportunity to work in our community implementing projects that help improve health outcomes for patients throughout the Lehigh Valley.

I look forward to the 2023 campaign and continuing to serve our township as the at-large Commissioner. Thank you so very much for your support!

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Baratta Announces NorCo DA Candidacy

Yesterday, Steve Baratta announced his candidacy for NorCo District Attorney in a news release that was distributed to multiple new outlets. I would have posted his announcement, but I never received it. Either something got mixed up or he's angry because I consider his 65-page diatribe against three excellent lawyers a gigantic bullshit burger.  

He does have a webpage - Baratta for DA - in which he pledges to be "accountable, accessible, responsible." He's already failed to respond to a text message asking whether he provided copies of his complaint to the persons he's attacking. And I never got his official announcement. So far, I see scant evidence of accountability, accessibility or responsibility. 

In my experience, people who are in power will sometimes shut off access to people who ask uncomfortable questions. You have to play ball or they keep you in the dark. Edwin "Fed Ed" Pawloski and former Exec John Brown were that way. The former is behind bars and the latter lost a re-election campaign. 

Kelly Keegan Makes It Official - She's Running Against Myers

Kelly Keegan, a Forks Tp Supervisor, has made it official. In a statement sent to me yesterday, she announced she's running for the District 2 (Easton area) NorCo Council seat currently held by Kerry Myers. Her agenda? Keeping taxes down, Gracedale open and acquiring farmland and open space. 

Keegan, whose term as a Supervisor is set to expire in 2026, chairs the Forks Tp Open Space Task Force. She claims she will "will always put our children, seniors and the preservation of the environment first."

She is employed at Easton Area School District as a nurse, which makes her acutely aware of the struggles many people in her district face. 

Someone in the Kerry Myers camp has already played the race card. "Democrats going after the only African American on council. Dem's being Dem's, real nice."

Myers' problems have nothing to do with his race. He regularly uses profanity at County Council meetings. During a meeting last year, he actually argued that Deputy Sheriffs should ignore direct orders from the Sheriff when he directed them to take no action to a raucous demonstration outside the courthouse after the last Presidential election. "I think my life would be in danger," he ridiculously asserted. 

He also felt that a proposed Elections Comm'r who worked for a Congress person seeking re-election should be appointed despite an obvious conflict of interest. That's because the nominee happened to be black. Myers felt that race trumps a conflict of interest. Council eventually approved another black nominee who had no conflict.

St. John's Windish Responding to Eminent Domain Threat With Prayer

St. John’s Windish Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has issued a news releaase responding to reports of a threatened condemnation and seizure, via eminent domain, of the Church’s parking lot at 616 East Fourth Street, Bethlehem. That threat was first reported here.

The city block-sized lot has been owned by the Church since 2002. The Church was founded in 1910, and has been “a South Side community anchor for over 100 years”, in the words of Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds. The Church’s parking lot is not only used for parking for church services and events, but also for community events such as Lehigh University’s Spring Sale event. Several organizations, including St. Luke’s Hospital and the Bethlehem Parking Authority, lease spaces on the lot. The BPA has leased portions of the lot for 20 years.

“For the past three years,” said St. John’s Council President Ken Remaly, “St. John’s has been worshipping with two other churches, and working with them toward joining together as one congregation.” According to Remaly, one of the last steps in this process has been the sale of the four church properties: three churches and the parking lot.

“We received three bids for purchase of the properties, one of which was from the City of Bethlehem. When the individual Church Councils met on December 7, 2022, we chose only one of those offers, and it was not the City’s, to forward to our congregations for review and vote.”

After the City’s bid was not moved forward for consideration, the Church received a draft letter, of a “Condemnation Resolution … which will allow the Authority to legally condemn the surface parking lot so that it can continue to be used for public parking.” The letter also warned of seizure of the property by eminent domain. The BPA notice of condemnation and seizure was sent to the church on December 20, 2022, five days before Christmas.

The proposed sale of the church properties – three churches and the parking lot – came to a standstill when the BPA notice was received.

“Our coming together as one congregation has also been halted,” said Remaly. “It is our understanding that, if we proceeded to blend, to come together to create our new church, already named Blessed Trinity, the City or the BPA could condemn and seize all the properties.”

Carol Henn, a media spokesperson for St. John’s, said that media contacts would now begin, as will special prayer vigils. “We did not want to jeopardize the pending sale in any way,” she said, “but, unfortunately, our hoped-for sale is now on hold. In addition, there has been much public and social media commentary, much of it inaccurate, from people who are not members of the church and who cannot speak for St. John’s.”

Henn confirmed that the prayer vigils will be held at St. John’s on January 16, 18, and 20, from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.

“The prayer time will be informal,” Henn noted, “with people welcome to come and to leave whenever they wish. They will be welcome to offer their own prayers, for their own lives and needs, while together we pray for nothing less than God’s powerful intervention in this David and Goliath battle.”

“People have inundated us with their ideas about to whom the lot should be sold and what it should be used for,” said Remaly, “but we know we can’t please everyone. What we are necessarily focused on now is seeking a withdrawal of this threatened condemnation and seizure of our property, and the assurance that we can proceed with our plans for sale of our properties and our coming together as Blessed Trinity, without coercion or threats from any entity. If this can happen to our church,” said Remaly, “it can happen to other churches. If it happens to non-profits, it can happen to individual property owners.”

Blogger's Note: I understand the Bethlehem Parking Authority plans to conduct an "emergency meeting" today at 4 pm. Will it vote to condemn? Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

NorCo Council Race Update

I've previously told you that Ken Kraft, a County Council member who quit midstream to take a job with the Lamont McClure administration, now wants to again represent the very people he snubbed. He's running in District One, which includes Bethlehem. Kevin Lott, who currently holds the seat, is stepping down. If Kraft is elected, McClure will have a reliable rubber stamp to replace a reliable rubber stamp. I consider Kraft's candidacy insulting. As much as I want a health center, members of Council must be a check on the power of the Executive. This is a solid Dem district, so whomever wins the Dem nomination wins this seat.    

District 2 (the Easton district) is currently represented by Kerry Myers. He turned me off when he bullied Northampton County Sheriff Rich Johnston. The icing on the cake was his recent profanity-laced tirade at the Easton School Board. He's running to retain his seat, which is no doubt why Democrats (at the disappointing urging of Ron Heckman) elected him President.  (Myers had to voter for himself.)

I'm unable to confirm this yet and have received no announcement, but I'm hearing rumors that Forks Township Supervisor Kelly Brauchle-Keegan might be taking him on. If this is confirmed, I'll let you know. 

District 3 has been represented by John Cusick, but he's unfortunately stepping down at the end of his term. Lehigh Valley News reports that Hanover Tp Supervisor Jeff Warren is running for the Dem nomination. The news account goes on to state he lives in Bethlehem Township, which is rather odd for a Hanover Tp Supervisor. 

District 4 is represented by Tom Giovanni, who is seeking re-election. Tom will win easily Even though he opposes the health center, I'd vote for him. He's in a solid Republican district, so any Democrat who takes him on is wasting his time and money. 

Monday, January 09, 2023

Pa. School Districts Trying Health Centers To Attract Teachers, Save Costs

After learning the details of the voluntary and exclusive health center proposed for Northampton County employees, my biggest question is why aren't all self-insured local governments doing this? It turns out that it's starting. This weekend, the Inky reported that North Penn School District is the latest to open a voluntary, employee only health center. 

Like Northampton County, North Penn has about 1,700 employees. It spends a bit more ($30 million) for health care than Northampton County ($23 million). According to the news account, a school district health center at Lebanon-Lancaster has operated a health center since 2015, and health costs have remained stable. 

Northampton County Council remains opposed to a health center. Three Council members - Republicans John Brown, John Goffredo and Tom Giovanni - are hard-line Nos. Brown and Goffredo would publicly stated they prefer to cut health benefits.  

Council member John Cusick stated pretty clearly that he would support a health center if Executive Lamont McClure sought competitive bids. 

Council member Lori Vargo-Heffner has complained about the rush, though this matter has been under consideration since August and no one has proposed a contract. It took her nearly a year to get a request for proposals on a pay study out the door after Council set aside the money for it. Also, she wants competitive bids but is herself conflicted because she works for St. Luke's, which wants to bid. 

It's hard to say where Council member Ron Heckman stands. I have rarely witnessed a person consume so much oxygen and utter so many words that say absolutely nothing. He did say at one point that he wanted competitive bidding, but never said he'd be happy with the recommendation. 

Council member Kerry Myers initially complained because he thought the survey was inadequate. Now he complains that it might some day be mandatory. 

The two supporters are Council members Tara Zrinski and Kevin Lott. 

McClure has claimed that Integrity Health is the only entity he knows that "checks all the boxes" for what he wants. If he did seek competitive bids, he really is only assured of three votes to support a health center. 

Baratta: Prosecutor or Persecutor?

Last week, fresh off the Christmas and New Year holiday, Steve Baratta fired the opening salvo in the upcoming Northampton County DA's race. It was a 65-page manifesto attacking the ethics of the District Attorney, First Assistant District Attorney and a prominent local defense lawyer. It was addressed to the County Executive, County Solicitor, County Council and the Pa. Disciplinary Board.  Copies were sent to The Morning Call, Express Times, WFMZ-TV69 and Lehigh Valley News. After receiving this missive, I asked DA Terry Houck and First Assistant DA Rich Pepper for comment. But I had to send them a copy. Baratta made certain that the entire county knew except for the three lawyers whose integrity he impugned. 

If this were an ordinary political contest, I fully expect to see this sort of thing. But Steve Baratta was a judge. He was a prosecutor. He lodged a 65-page complaint with the state disciplinary board, attacking the integrity of three different lawyers, I would expect he'd have enough respect for his fellow lawyers or sense of fair play to let them know he was threatening their ability to practice law.. I was mistaken. 

I remember once talking about a criminal case with Jackie Taschner when she was an assistant DA. She was being assailed outside the courthouse for going too easy on a criminal defendant. "I'm a prosecutor, not a persecutor," she answered.  

I did ask Baratta whether he bothered to provide copies of his complaint to the persons he attacked. He never answered. 

Prosecutors have immense power to flood jails, ruin lives and deepen existing divides. Baratta's misguided attempt to sully the character of three good lawyers makes me worry whether he's be a prosecutor or a persecutor.  

Friday, January 06, 2023

NorCo Council Overrides Veto of Employee Health Center Ban

Following a lengthy discussion, Northampton County Council voted last night to continue its ban on a voluntary employee health center.  This health center was effectively killed in an ordinance adopted by Council on December 1. 2022. The only Council members who supported Executive Lamont McClure's veto were Tara Zrinski and Kevin Lott. Council members who spoke offered varying reasons for their opposition to a health center as currently proposed. 

The two hard-liners are John Goffredo and John Brown. Goffredo said employee health benefits should reflect what the average citizen gets. Council had previously complained that an employee survey about the center was incomplete. But last night. McClure noted that 78.2% of 481 respondents supported the idea. Now, in yet another attempt to move the goal posts, Goffredo argues that a survey should be sent to taxpayers for a "luxury that we are asking other people to pay for." Actually, and Goffredo appears to have missed this point, one of the main reasons for the health center is precisely because it will save money.  Goffredo went on to assert that the county should stop serving soda in the cafeteria if it really wants the workforce to be healthy.  

The other hard-liner, John Brown, argued that there's "not enough meat on the bone." He said he was able to realize a lot of savings as Exec by spending just $30,000  for a consultant who advised him to cut employee benefits. 

After the hard-liners, there are several Council members who really, really, really, really like the concept. But they want it competitively bid. These include Lori Vargo-Heffner (who workers for competitor St. Luke's), John Cusick and possibly Ron Heckman. It's hard to say for sure what exactly bothers Heckman because he spoke several times out of both sides of his mouth. He did note at one point that he's like to see several bids. 

Then there's Kerry Myers. He previously hated the health center because he wanted more employees surveyed. Now he likes it, but claims to be worried that it could become mandatory. 

Tara Zrinski and Kevin Lott, who supported the veto and the health center, were consistent with what they've been saying all along. Goffredo claimed medical services are easily accessible, and that he could "swing a cat and hit four hospitals." Zrinki agreed that we are "surrounded by surrounded by hospitals, but that does not mean we have access. We can do what is in our power to do." She then related her own experience of being without medical insurance. Lott made the salient observation that "if we don't start getting creative with our health care costs we will have to cut benefits or raise taxes."  

Priscilla deLeon, Victoria Opthof-Cordaro and Laura Ray Run for Lower Saucon Township Council

FROM SAUCON VALLEY TOGETHER(Lower Saucon Township, PA) Councilwoman Priscilla deLeon and residents Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, and Laura Ray announce they will run for the three open seats on Lower Saucon Township Council in the 2023 election.

deLeon, a retired radiologic technologist, is seeking re-election of the seat she has held since 1988. She is running to restore integrity, civility, and confidence on Council. She pledges to revive the relationship developed over decades with Hellertown Borough through the Saucon Valley Partnership she helped create. She supports rejoining with and fully funding the Hellertown Area Library. “The 3-party Contract should have been negotiated to have HAL as Lower Saucon’s home library last year. I am also enraged on the amount of money paid to the township solicitor and special council regarding Library services. ($63,345.61 up until 11/30/2022).” Councilwoman deLeon pledges to continue working to preserve Lower Saucon’s natural and historical resources and is strongly opposed to the rezoning of 275.7 acres for landfill expansion in the township. deLeon’s record over 35 years on township council is a testament to her dedication and service to Lower Saucon Township. She looks forward to continuing her work for all residents.

Victoria Opthof-Cordaro is an attorney and community activist who while managing the care of her 2 special needs children has championed community causes to improve the quality of life for residents in Lower Saucon Township. She championed the campaign to keep Lower Saucon’s library services with the Hellertown Area Library, and to save 275.7 acres of Rural Agricultural forested land from being rezoned for landfill expansion. Opthof-Cordaro serves as one of Saucon Valley’s consumer representatives for Local Task Force 20 and is a member of Saucon Valley’s Special Education Alliance and PTO. She volunteers with the Autism Society of the Lehigh Valley and the Colonial IU20 Parent Support T.E.A.M. Through her work with the FamilieSCN2A Foundation and state elected officials, she lobbied to have Pennsylvania recognize February 24th as National SCN2A awareness day by the Governor’s office and the State House of Representatives. In announcing her candidacy, Opthof-Cordaro pledges: “Local government should protect our community resources, including library services, open space, and natural and historic landmarks. I will rebuild our community relationships, and serve the residents of Lower Saucon with integrity and respect. I will uphold the values our community expects of our elected officials. I pledge to work for all Lower Saucon Township residents in restoring confidence in local government, renewing community partnerships, and protecting our open space and natural resources.”

Laura Ray is a lifelong resident of Lower Saucon Township, holding an MBA from St. Joseph’s University with 25 years of experience working in Information Technology (IT). She serves on Lower Saucon’s Environmental Advisory Council, where her accomplishments include helping create the open space referendum program voters overwhelmingly supported in three elections. Ms. Ray served as Vice President and Treasurer of the Saucon Valley Conservancy, on the board of the Lower Saucon Township Historical Society, on the Saucon Watershed Steering Committee, and as Treasurer and President of the Saucon Valley Jaycees. “Having witnessed the unnecessary degradation of the community relationship with Hellertown over the past two years has motivated me to seek a position on the Lower Saucon Township Council. I promise to work on restoring library services in a non-litigious manner and work towards repairing the community relationship with Hellertown Borough.” Having served on the Township Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) for over 16 years Ray firmly believes that preserving open space and protecting our environment is a key feature that makes Lower Saucon a desirable place to live with a sustainable tax base. “If elected I will honor my oath to act in the health, safety, and welfare of all residents and expand community engagement and communication with township residents.”

deLeon, Opthof-Cordaro and Ray announce their candidacy together to show the community they are committed to using their diverse backgrounds and skills for a collaborative, transparent and future forward Lower Saucon Township Council.