Thinking about the Mayor’s role in how we got “here”

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“Here,” of course, is the unpleasant situation of a City Councilman marking a City administrator with possible career-damaging wrongdoing and, in effect, charging the Mayor with dereliction of duty.

Ugh.

Not a place we want to be in.

Gadfly has asked you to think about what you would do if you were a City employee concerned about a superior whom you thought was encouraging unethical behavior.

He has asked you to think about what you would do if you were Councilman Callahan to whom a City employee communicated that concern.

We will want to come back to these two topics, especially that of Councilman Callahan. Gadfly is not finished with him! He’s kind of fascinating.

But let’s go on to think about the two other main figures in this controversy, Mayor Donchez and Alicia Miller Karner.

First, Mayor Donchez.

Mayor 2

What do we know and what don’t we know about his involvement in this controversy?

  • Mid-September: the Mayor received a call from Councilman Callahan informing him of the possibility of unethical behavior by the DCED department head in encouraging a slow down in permit approval
  • We don’t know if the Mayor did anything in response
  • October 17/21: the Mayor receives an email from BGC asking for an investigation of that possible unethical behavior relating to permits
  • We don’t know if the Mayor did anything in response
  • Somewhere in this time frame the question of going into executive session may have come up, and, if so, the Mayor is against it
  • November 6: the Mayor is in attendance at the City Council meeting in which BGC unexpectedly addresses a direct provocative question to AMK about her actions involving the Bethlehem Parking Authority in a context in which BGC is clearly questioning her leadership
  • November 13: the Mayor is present at a Budget Hearing in which BGC engages in a contentious interchange with another City official in a matter unrelated to the permit or Parking Authority issues
  • November 18: in a letter to BGC delivered just before a City Council meeting, the Mayor indicates that he has not done the requested investigation of the permit issue but that he might do so if BGC presents his evidence
  • November 19: in a public statement delivered at the City Council meeting, the Mayor implicitly calls out BGC for the attack on his department head and for BGC’s general disruptive behavior — the exoneration of AMK would seem to imply that at least some investigation had been done
  • November 20: after BGC calls a press conference, the Mayor tries unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting
  • November 25: before BGC’s press conference, the Mayor writes a letter to Council President Waldron arguing the false basis of BGC’s Parking Authority issue with AMK but not the permit issue

So with this background information, let’s think about the Mayor’s actions here.

Can we agree that the Mayor has responsibility to investigate suggestions of wrongdoing in the course of city work on the part of his employees? Probably no disagreement.

Might we further agree that because of their special relationship as elected officials at the head of our City government that the Mayor should be especially responsive to such suggestions of wrongdoing coming from a Councilman? Ha! or do I stretch your willingness to agree here? Is this but an airy notion from an ivory-towered academic’s image of the ideal city government and ignoring on-the-ground realities and relationships?

Councilman Callahan made two claims of possible wrongdoing by AMK — what for shorthand purposes we can call the permit (stalling) issue and the Parking Authority issue. Let’s look at them one at a time.

The permit issue

The Mayor waited two months before responding to BGC on the permit issue and responded to say only that he had not done the requested investigation in that two months but might do so under certain conditions. Why did it take the Mayor so long — two months — to respond to BGC if, in fact, nothing was done in that two months to warrant a delay in responding? Seems like a reasonable question. Why couldn’t such an answer be given, say, almost immediately? Didn’t that two month delay help escalate BGC’s blood pressure to the boiling point and help instigate this public flap? Wouldn’t it have done the same to your blood pressure?

And how reasonable was the condition the Mayor laid down for a possible investigation after that two month delay? That is, the condition that BGC reveal his sources, do his own investigation? To do so would probably have required BGC to violate confidentiality. If the “informants” didn’t feel comfortable going directly to the Mayor or other superiors in City Hall, why would they want BGC to name them? How could BGC in good conscience name them? Seems impossible for BGC to comply to that condition. Moreover, the most important evidence in this case might well be collection of data on a number of permit applications over time, interviewing inspectors as well as applicants, and comparing processing time from start to finish, looking for changes. How would BGC get that information? Another seemingly impossible condition.

The Parking Authority issue

The Mayor handled this issue quite differently. It apparently came to public light for the first time at the November 6 City Council meeting when BGC was questioning AMK’s leadership in the context of a proposed study of the Southside. Contrary to the way he handled the permit issue, the Mayor responded quickly and publicly to this suggestion of impropriety by AMK in regard to the Parking Authority. He confronted it dramatically and directly but superficially in his statement at the November 19 City Council meeting. As part of his response at that meeting to that statement by the Mayor, Councilman Reynolds called for full transparency, and, indeed, on November 25, specifically acknowledging the request of said Councilman Reynolds, and now faced with the imminent potentially damaging effects of BGC’s press conference, the Mayor provided a 3-page memo, “in the spirit of full transparency,” that looks like it positively and effectively resolved BGC’s specific question about unethical behavior in this issue. What took about two months to reach an unsatisfactory resolution on the permit issue, now took only about two weeks to come to a satisfactory conclusion in the Parking Authority issue. Why the difference? Curiously, the Mayor responded here quickly to a request by one Councilman, slowly in the other case to a request by another Councilman. Why the difference? And the Mayor responded only when he was forced to by public disclosure. Or that’s what it looks like.

Comparing the two issues

The permit issue has yet to have its transparency. It has been called a personnel matter, mandating secrecy. Gadfly is not attuned to the fine legal points here. What makes the permit issue a personnel matter and not the Parking Authority issue? Gadfly needs to be schooled here. On the surface they look the same to him — both about unethical behavior by a City employee. But there might be significant difference here that explains why the Mayor felt comfortable providing public transparency to one and not the other. But that still doesn’t explain why apparently the Mayor resisted acceding to the call for executive session, for, as Gadfly understands it, personnel matters can be discussed there under the expectation of confidentiality — and in this way BGC’s request might have been satisfied completely and much sooner.

But something is glaringly discrepant when one looks at the language of the BGC’s request for an investigation and the Mayor’s November 18 letter denying it. BGC is informal, the Mayor legal. In his October 17 email, BGC describes “hav[ing] heard of a number of concerns,” which, “if true,” would be “most disappointing.” The tone is soft; there is nothing accusatory here. However, the Mayor’s long-awaited reply characterizes BGC as making “allegations.” Huh! Where did that come from? In fact, the Mayor’s letter is full of such legalese: “sufficient cause,” “indicia of corroboration” (O, puleeze!), “good cause.”

It’s obvious the Mayor has lawyered up. Why?

Gadfly is an outsider. He can only see what he can see. But what he sees from a comparison of these two documents is that the Mayor (and his team) for some reason have totally mischaracterized BGC here.

It’s perfectly possible, of course, that BGC’s personal conversations were different than his email and his approach in the press conference.

But from what Gadfly can see, the Mayor may not have handled this situation in the best possible way to avoid the public display of dirty laundry that the City is now experiencing.

What do you think?

Gadfly awaits the slap upside the head.

Ha! Should he lawyer up!

to be continued . . .

Councilman Callahan: “I would prefer not to be here”

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Callahan

                                                photo April Gamiz/The Morning Call

If you are going to stand in front of the Bethlehem world as Councilman Callahan did a week ago and mark a City administrator for possible career-damaging wrongdoing and, in effect, charge the Mayor with dereliction of duty, you’d better have a good story.

Agreed?

Read through the extensive timeline on the previous post with Gadfly.

Then put it aside.

Reflect and reconstruct from memory the story from Councilman Callahan’s position.

Boil it down.

See it through his eyes.

Here’s what Gadfly gets.

  • I was told about potentially unethical behavior by the head of DCED
  • I heard that from employees past and present
  • I heard the same thing from outsiders
  • I didn’t know if the stories were true
  • But as a Councilman I felt a responsibility to do something
  • At first I wasn’t sure what to do
  • I talked with a few fellow Councilmen
  • But I basically sat on the information for a couple months
  • Finally, I talked with the Mayor, assuming he would handle it
  • I simply wanted the truth, if there was nothing to the stories, so be it
  • But I heard nothing for a period of time
  • I tried to get the Mayor and Council in executive session to air the matter
  • The Mayor refused, as did Council, following the lead of one member
  • Who has a deal for the Mayor’s endorsement in the next mayoral election
  • I felt that I was being stonewalled
  • Finally, I wrote the Mayor asking for an investigation by “his guys”
  • My purpose was to let the Mayor handle it
  • I simply wanted the truth by their calling members of the dept in and asking them
  • I wasn’t trying to get anybody fired
  • If wrongdoing, the penalty might be a letter in the file or furlough, etc.
  • I wanted accountability
  • Again, I heard nothing for a period of time
  • All the while the matter was private, confidential
  • But, again, I felt I was getting stonewalled
  • I was angry, and I did legitimately directly question the DCED head in public
  • Finally, the Mayor wrote me that he had not investigated
  • And would not do so unless I provided my proof/evidence
  • Simultaneously, the Mayor attacked me in a public statement
  • What was I to do?
  • I went public with my information
  • I didn’t want to do that, but the Mayor left me no choice
  • I was a wrestler, I have a gym teacher’s voice, I am intense
  • My attitude toward life changed dramatically with the tragic death of my wife
  • That’s my personality, and I can’t change
  • That explains my “tone” that seems to offend some people
  • After the Mayor attacked me, I had no choice but to do a press conference
  • When I announced a press conference, the Mayor wanted to meet: I said no
  • I would have preferred not to do a press conference
  • What I want is for the Mayor to do his job, to do an investigation
  • Let the chips from that investigation fall where they may
  • I may run for Mayor
  • I hope to spend the next ten years working for the good of the City

Is Gadfly’s rendition fair?

Has Councilman Callahan made his case?

to be continued . . .

City Council meeting tomorrow night, Tuesday, December 3, 7PM, Town Hall

Our next City Council meeting — the “face” of Bethlehem City government — occurs tomorrow night Tuesday, December 3, Town Hall, at 7PM.

These meetings are video-recorded and can be viewed LIVE or later at your convenience on the City’s website after the meeting at https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Calendar.

The YouTube channel for live or archive viewing is “City of Bethlehem Council.”

Find the Council agenda and documents here: https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Calendar/Meetings/2019/CityCouncil/39

  • possibility of more on the ethics issue: at one point in the press conference Councilman Callahan, though saying he was “done,” also said he would still press for an executive session

As always, as long as he has flutter in his wings, Gadfly urges attending City Council live or virtually — one way or the other.

Be informed.

 

 

Chatter around Gadfly’s water-cooler about: a pedestrian bridge

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Makes you think about priorities here in the budget season!

So $100,000 for a bridge that is not needed and connects nothing to nothing?

  • Drugs – not enough police

 

  • Sidewalks – residential problem

 

  • Walkability –  you have to drive to the bridge because you cannot walk there

 

  • No money for home improvements

 

  • No money for trees

But we might have a bridge!

Gadfly thought you ethicists might need a change of pace!

Councilman Callahan’s response to the whistleblowers’ whistlin’

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Yes, Gadfly is a slow thinker.

To wit: he should have framed the point of his previous post as what would you do if you were a city employee with a serious ethical or criminal concern that you couldn’t discuss inside City Hall?

Actually, the employees did a pretty good thing in regard to the stalling issue. Contacting Lehigh Valley Ramblings got them a public audience, and they hoped Councilman Callahan would get them a political one.

Public and political. Inside and outside. Covering the bases. Good strategy.

Following that cue, I would ask you here in this post to think about what you would do if you were Councilman Callahan and were told things that City employees and you found ethically troubling.

What did Councilman Callahan do?

Here’s the timeline Gadfly has pieced together from the documents, the press conference, and from BGC’s comments at the Q ‘n A after his press conference.

Note that the first two bullet points refer to the firing of Zoning Officer Borzak referenced in Gadfly’s previous post.

  • April 16: at the City Council meeting BGC asks Council to go into executive session with the Mayor to discuss the Borzak firing, but there was no second to his motion
  • May 7: at the next City Council meeting BGC asks Council again to go into executive session with the Mayor to discuss Borzak; this time he gets a second, but the motion is voted down 6-1
  • May 22: BGC is prepared to continue his mission to get Council to deal with the Borzak firing but defers, declining to darken the happy mood of the retirement celebration for Mrs. Kelchner
  • June: BGC receives contacts from the 3 City employees (Borzak one of them) about the stalling instruction from AMK
    • here begins a period of uncertainty for BGC about what to do, he “sat on it for a couple months”
    • during this period of uncertainty BGC had conversation about this stalling issue with 2 councilpersons in the garage under the City Center after a Council meeting (date uncertain)
    • BGC also speaks of having two conversations about the stalling issue with a couple councilpersons during this period (dates uncertain)
    • the upshot seems to be that other people knew and knew that it was on his mind
  • August 28: Bethlehem Parking Authority votes on Polk Street Garage, which will become the occasion of BGC’s second issue with AMK
  • Approx mid-September: BGC has a phone conversation which seemingly is the first time he tells the Mayor about the stalling issue, thinking naturally that the Mayor would look in to it, but time went by and BGC heard nothing (the Polk Street Garage issue doesn’t seem to have been part of this conversation)
    • chronology gets murky here –it is not clear whether that which follows about executive sessions occurs before the mid-September phone call or between it and the October letter, which is the next bullet
    • during the press conference BGC talks of a phone call in which he asks the Mayor to go into executive session with Council, but the Mayor refuses, after which he talks with Council solicitor Spirk about how to make that executive session happen
    • Spirk says he needs to make a motion to that effect
    • Which BGC says he does over a period of maybe 4 meetings — but Council refuses each time
    • either BGC is mistaken or Gadfly’s research is faulty, for he can find no evidence of executive session discussion at Council meetings during the June-October period.
    • Gadfly thinks BGC may be confusing this executive session activity with his activity on the Borzak issue detailed in the first three bullets above
  • Oct 17/Oct 21 (referred to by different dates): BGC emails the Mayor asking for an internal investigation by the City solicitor and business administrator of the stalling issue
  • November 6: During a contentious discussion at City Council of a proposed Southside study, contention he initiated, BGC expresses lack of confidence in leadership by AMK and discloses the issue with the Polk Street Garage for the first time, referring only obliquely to the stalling issue
  • November 13: BGC initiates another contentious discussion with a City official over driving range fees at Budget Hearing #2 (no mention of either AMK issue here)
  • November 18: the Mayor responds by letter negatively to BGC’s October request for an investigation on the stalling issue unless he provides his proof/evidence while expecting BGC to keep this personnel matter confidential
  • November 19: the Mayor calls out BGC, though not by name, at the City Council meeting for “provocative comments and personal attacks,” attacks that were “unwarranted,” attacks that were “unprovoked, out of order, without cause, completely out of line” (not specifically citing either issue) (text version)
  • November 19: BGC responds at the meeting by offering to disclose his information about both issues of unethical behavior that he has with AMK, but the matter is declared a personnel issue — BGC shares info with the media after the meeting
  • November 20: the Mayor seeks a meeting with BGC through a phone call by Business Administrator Eric Evans, but BGC, upset at the Mayor calling him out, declines a meeting: “that ship has sailed”
  • November 20: the Mayor follows up the Evans phone call with a letter inviting BGC to a meeting with the solicitor, the business administrator, and the Human Resources director — same response by BGC
  • November 21: in an email BGC tells the Mayor it is his job to find out what happened with the stalling issue (no mention of the Polk Street Issue), indicates Council’s unwillingness to go into executive session as the result of a Councilman  “currying favor for a Mayoral endorsement from you” (Councilman Reynolds), and connects the “tone” of his behavior to the death of his wife 13 years ago
  • November 22: BGC announces a press conference
  • November 25: several hours before BGS’s  press conference, the Mayor sends a letter to Council president Waldron (quickly available to all) in which he addresses just the Polk Street Garage issue, indicating that Councilman Callahan was confusing a “bid” and an “RFP” (Request for Proposal) and thus that his “attack” on AMK on this point was based on a false premise (no mention of the stalling issue)
  • November 25: BGC holds the press conference at Town Hall, focusing just on the stalling issue, explicitly stating that he is not dealing with the Polk Street issue at this time (text version)
  • November 26: BGC comments on an online media story about his press conference, blaming the Mayor for the situation they are in now, and repeating that it is the Mayor’s job to clear up the stalling issue: “Stop hiding behind your lawyers and advisors and ……. Do your job” (again no mention of Polk Street)

Ok, so here, as best Gadfly can put them together, are the facts so far of what Councilman Callahan did after receiving information from 3 City employees whom we might as well call “whistleblowers.”

This timeline took longer than Gadfly thought to put together. Plenty enough for us to digest on an icy Cyber-Monday morning. We’ll come back next time and think about these facts.

How are you feeling about Councilman Callahan’s actions?

to be continued . . .

If Councilman Callahan had been much more supportive of the comprehensive ethics ordinance . . .

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Gadfly,

Perhaps if Mr. Callahan would have been much more supportive of the comprehensive ethics ordinance advanced by Councilwoman Negron, and worked on by a number of residents, a process would have been put in place to address an issue such as this.

No retribution, confidentiality, a review board, all these features would have existed thereby providing a mechanism for dealing with this kind of matter.

Dana

Dana speaks of a proposal debated in 2017. More on it later.

It begins: City employees contact Councilman Callahan

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What do we know about where this controversy began?

In his November 25 press conference statement, Councilman Callahan states that for him this issue of possible unethical behavior by Alicia Miller Karner “came to [his] attention” in June of this year, June 2019 (he verbally corrected “June of last year” in oral delivery at the press conference) when 3 Department of Community and Economic Development employees — “2 current and 1 prior employee” — told him of AMK’s encouragement to “slow, delay, and stall all permits” to bolster her case for more staff.

(Gadfly thinks BGC might have said he was hearing complaints from developers too, so maybe there might be outside corroborative evidence as well.)

These people came to BGC in June 2019. He did not solicit them. It is not clear whether the contact was individual or group. It is not clear whether the contact was personal contact, phone, or email. It is not clear whether BGC had extended conversation with any of them in which he could determine how strong their claims were or that he was simply put on notice. It is not clear whether the contact was concerted, whether there was association among the employees, or whether the contacts were unrelated individual acts.

BGC apparently did not do any investigation of his own.

It is not clear what it is about the particular timing — June 2019 — that precipitated the simultaneity, the clustering of the contacts.

It is clear, however, that something was in the air in June 2019, for the Lehigh Valley Ramblings blog called attention to a “spike” in Zoning Hearing Board appeals because AMK was instructing staff to delay so she could request more staff. The blogger says, “When you hear it from three different people, it does not [strain credulity].”

So the same 3 employees seemed to contact the same 2 people at the same exact time to air their same complaint.

What would make the employees make such a complaint? Why is it such a big deal that it triggered what might seem a moral response? Perhaps their sense of general fair play, their conscience, their sense of professionalism. Perhaps, on the other hand, animus for some reason against AMK.

Why would the employees go “outside” City Hall to make their complaint (all indications so far are that they did not do so inside City Hall) to a blogger and a Councilman? Perhaps fear for their jobs. Perhaps fear of retribution. Perhaps because there is no system or procedure within City Hall for a person to bring forward such issues in a protected way.

Why would the employees go specifically to these two people — for instance, why not one of the other Councilpersons? Perhaps because the blogger has the reputation for dealing in inside information, has published this kind of whistleblowing, and has outed some situations successfully. Perhaps because BGC has a reputation for siding with the common person/underdog, for being a voice for them.

Who are these employees? We know one of them — Suzanne Borzak, former Zoning Officer — the person not a current employee, who was fired for officially vague reasons (personnel matters would, of course, be confidential) by AMK in January 2019, 6 months before the employee contacts about the stalling tactics with Lehigh Valley Ramblings and BCG.

“Bethlehem/s Popular Zoning Officer Forced to Resign, Lehigh Valley Ramblings, January 11, 2019.

Why in June of 2019, 6 months after dismissal, would Borzak be involved? Perhaps still hurting from being terminated. Perhaps from a sense of doing no wrong. Perhaps because the issue of stalling was a reason for her termination. Perhaps because of her professionalism. Perhaps, on the other hand, animus against AMK for firing her.

So what are you thinking about in regard to this initial phase of the issue? What do you think of the Gadfly’s “perhaps’s”?

Gadfly — ever the problem solver — goes first to the need for employees to go “outside” City Hall with a complaint. Is there no trustworthy “inside” mechanism or system to handle such matters? No suggestion box? No ombudsman? No “whistleblower” procedure? If not, does this issue indicate the need for one in which there is the possibility that some satisfaction, some mediation, or some reconciliation occurs before the issue blows up in public?

to be continued . . .