Zoning Board controversy: part — O my god! — 9

(The latest in a series of posts on City government)

Gadfly thought he was done. He promises this is finale on this topic.

He had shied away from newspaper accounts, wanting not to be influenced.

But he was curious how reporters rather than analysts would cover the contentious part of the meeting.

Here’s coverage by the Morning Call just this morning:

Nicole Radzievich, “How a meeting over a routine board appointment became Bethlehem City Council’s most streamed video.” Morning Call, August 27, 2019.

Heck of a way to get a big tv audience!

The headline in the print edition this morning is “Feud on council turns personal.”

And here’s coverage by lehighvalleylive. com. Sara’s diction is a bit more pungent.

We learn the Mayor’s reasons for the nomination; we learn that Councilwoman Van Wirt is indeed drafting an ethics ordinance; and we learn more from Nominee-1’s side.

The meeting was “fiery.” Councilman Callahan’s defense of Nominee-1 was “impassioned and rambling.” The interchange between Callahan and Councilman Reynolds was “strained,” a “strange exchange,” and “a weird moment in local politics.”

Amen, Sara, Amen.

Sara Satullo, “In fiery meeting, how some campaign donations may have just revived ethics law talk in Bethlehem.” lehighvalleylive.com., August 22, 2019.

Questions surrounding the potential appointment of a recent Bethlehem City Council candidate to the city’s zoning hearing board led to a fiery meeting of council on Tuesday. But they may have also revived talk of creating an ethics law in the Christmas City.

The mayor says Ritter seemed like a logical choice as she was the senior alternate with a long resume of volunteerism and an interest in public service. She also applied to replace Councilman Eric Evans’s on council after he stepped down to become city business administrator.

“If there is going to be an issue that involves someone (who donated to them), they should recuse themself,” said Donchez, who pays for his own car, expenses and meals. “The question is where is the line as far as dollars go? We don’t have a benchmark here.”

The pulled nomination sparked an impassioned and rambling defense of Ritter by Councilman Bryan Callahan, a long-time supporter who nominated her to replace Evans and who loaned her council campaign $4,000. He critiqued Councilwomen Olga Negron and Paige Van Wirt and Councilman J. William Reynolds for not supporting Ritter.

This sparked a strained back-and-forth between Callahan and Reynolds, as Reynolds tried to explain to Callahan why he was failing to connect with his colleagues.

Ultimately, the strange exchange that unfolded Tuesday could go down as more than a weird moment in local politics. It just might have made the case for a comprehensive ethics law in Bethlehem.

Van Wirt is working with the city solicitor to craft an ethics law to bring to council. It is up to council to hammer out contribution levels and time frames for recusals from votes after receiving certain donations, she said. “If anything, this experience has brought into strict definition the fact that we need to have some understanding of when recusal is important,” she said.

In an interview Wednesday, Van Wirt said she called Ritter before the meeting as she does with most nominees. The campaign contributions from developers left Van Wirt concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest and she wanted to know if Ritter planned to recuse herself from projects involving those developers.

From serving on the zoning board, Ritter said Wednesday she feels the board’s attorney already acts as a check against conflicts of interest. “If there is an appearance of a possible conflict, I think you need to disclose that,” Ritter said. She noted when a controversial project near her home came before zoners, she flagged it with the attorney. “You bring it up, disclose it and the chips fall where they may,” Ritter said.

But Ritter does not think the fact that she accepted donations from developers should disqualify her from serving on the zoning board. The donations were legal, Ritter noted most council members have accepted similar donations, and helped her pay to market her campaign.

“Not one person who gave me funding during my campaign asked me for a favor and they know me well enough not to ask because I would never do that,” Ritter said.

Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board Chairman Bill Fitzpatrick said the board complies with any city laws, but there are no campaign contribution guidelines. Ritter has been a conscientious member, he said. “We’ve relied on people to just use their own conscience,” said Fitzpatrick, who was first appointed by former Mayor John Callahan. “… The entire time I have been on the board no one has knowingly advanced any kind of an agenda. There have been numerous members who have recused themselves.”

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