Bethlehem Moment 4: Zoning comes to town

Bethlehem Moment 4
City Council
January 2, 2019

Ed Gallagher 49 W. Greenwich

A Bethlehem Moment: February 24, 1926

On February 24, 1926, the Bethlehem version of the open-range Wild West ended. The new sheriff in town, two years in the studying, was Bethlehem’s first zoning ordinance, whose purpose, in the exact same words of our zoning ordinance today, was to “preserve the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” If the zoning ordinance was Wyatt Earp, the Real Estate Board was the villainous Clanton family. The ordinance was ready to go in November 1925, but the Real Estate Board succeeded in getting it delayed till the next Council took office. If this ordinance becomes law, Bethlehem’s industrial growth is at an end, they said. Commercial interests constitute the life blood of the city, they said. Taxes will rise, they said. “You can sewer us up, but don’t zone us,” they said. The ordinance is so lengthy, complicated, and obscure, it’s utterly impossible for even the most intelligent man to digest, they said. The Real Estate Board generated a large crowd that turned an informational meeting heated. They claimed that 98% of businessmen on the West Side were opposed to zoning. On February 15, the day of the first reading, a petition to abandon the ordinance signed by 114 residents was delivered to City Council. On February 24, the day of the second reading, the Real Estate Board presented a 10-point manifesto climaxing in the claim that the Zoning Board of Appeals was open to favoritism and discrimination. But the ordinance prevailed. As one wise head remarked at the time, “more property values are destroyed for lack of zoning than by fire.”

 

“City Engineer Tells Real Estate Board of Zoning Ordinance,” Morning Call, December 15, 1925,

“Voices Opposition to Zoning Ordinance,” Morning Call, December 29, 2015.

“Real Estate Board Wants Zoning Plan Further Considered,” Morning Call, January 4, 1926.

“Zoning Ordinance under Discussion, Morning Call, January 13, 1926.

“’Special Interest’ Talk Heard at Zoning Ordinance Hearing,” Morning Call, January 23, 1926.

“Several Banks Join Real Estate Board,’ Morning Call, February 2, 1926.

“Zone Bill Passes the First Reading,” Morning Call, February 16, 1926.

“Zone Bill Passes Second and Final Reading in Council,” Morning Call, February 25, 1926.

“Council Faces Problem in Zone Bill Appeal Board,” Morning Call, March 1,1926.

“Realtors Discuss Multiple Listings, also Fire Final Gun at Zoning Ordinance,” Morning Call, March 2, 1926.

“Permits Refused under Zone Ordinance,” Morning Call, February 7, 1927.

Bethlehem Moment 3: An Aroused City Beats City Hall

Bethlehem Moment 3
City Council
Dec. 4, 2018

Ed Gallagher 49 W. Greenwich

A Bethlehem Moment: November 4, 1958

They say “Ya can’t beat City Hall.” On November 4, 1958, an “aroused city” of Bethlehem did just that. Forty years after the city’s birth, the Bethlehem Junior Chamber of Commerce mounted a campaign to establish a Charter Commission to study and possibly change our form of local government. Our entrenched Democratic City Council at that time, realizing their power was at stake, vigorously fought this challenge to their existence, smelling the hidden hand of an “ivory towered” newspaper editor; raising the spectre of dictatorship; arguing widespread satisfaction with the status quo; meddling by the Jaycees, who may not even be taxpayers; and voting by Commission members who “might not know the difference between forms of government and a groundhog hole.” That editor, the legendary John Strohmeyer, lashed out at this “flagrant abuse of political power” aimed at perpetuating a “spoils system”; the Jaycees worked the public door-to-door; and in a turnout higher in some sections than the 1956 presidential election, the entire non-partisan Jaycee slate was elected to the Commission. On November 4, 1958, “political novices” tapped the power of democracy, reminded “the machine” where the power ultimately lies, took control of their own destiny, and started a process that gave us our current mayor-council form of government.

For the full story, see the attachment to “Fighting City Hall – and Winning, November 4, 1958” under Bethlehem Moments on The Bethlehem Gadfly, December 2, 2018 (thebethlehemgadfly.com/).

too much like the imperial executive

Breena Holland is an Associate Professor at Lehigh University in the Department of Political Science and the Environmental Initiative. She is a past and current director of Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative.

Gadfly, thanks for this information. It’s fascinating!! Do you have any information about what the “weak Mayor” form of local government would be? That is the form I would be interested in understanding better, especially if it gives more power to the City Council. I think one problem we have is that we need more ideas than just one person — the Mayor — can provide. What would happen if councilmembers were paid a more reasonable wage to help with some of the tasks involved in city governance? Right now the mayor gets all the money and has all the power and all the responsibility. I fear it is too much like the imperial executive. I think the city would benefit from a broader distribution of responsibility, in particular.

Breena

Yes, Gadfly can return to this with, especially, some opinion from that time period about how the Commission form was perceived. His sense at this point is that the Commission form was not well liked, was seen as inefficient. But this deserves a closer look at the specific reasons. And Gadfly, ever-the-utopian, wonders whether there is a 4th and even better choice, wonders with Thoreau whether “there is a still more perfect and glorious [form of city government] imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

 

Fighting City Hall: November 4, 1958

This story will be the subject of the next Bethlehem Moment at City Council.

You just never know. Where there’s an interesting – and even inspiring – story for a Bethlehem Moment.

Gadfly, as some of you are aware, is coming up on his first-year anniversary of observing City affairs. It was Christmas-time last year that he resolved to act on his long-time hankerin’ (Gadfly loves and for many years taught the classic Westerns – can you tell?) to attend some City Council meetings.

And he was immediately struck by the “architecture” of the meeting – Council members in judicial-like semicircle at the head of the hall, with the Mayor on the side. What’s with this, Gadfly thought? Isn’t the Mayor top-dawg?  Then hearing the occasional distressed resident addressing his or her distress to a Council that in most instances had no direct powers to redress the distress.  And meetings in which the Mayor seemingly rarely spoke, even in his assigned “report” time on the agenda. It took a while for Gadfly to recognize the Mayor’s voice. At election time, from Gadfly’s sideline seat, the mayoral race seemed the focus. City Council members were faceless to him. Yet here the site of power was the “City Council” meeting, seemingly above the mayor. City Council ran the meeting – did they “run” the City?

Curious to Gadfly. Odd. Puzzling. Intriguing.

How do things get done in the City? Who’s in charge? Where’s the power?

And why do we have this form of city government? And how did we get it?

So Gadfly was happy to use a Bethlehem Moment as the occasion to do a little historical research. You’ll find the long version of a piece of his research on this linked short essay – short but still too long for top billing on a blog like this. Gadfly hopes you will click the link and take a few of your own Bethlehem moments to read:

Fighting City Hall – and Winning, November 4, 1958

The short of this part of Gadfly’s research is that when Bethlehem was born in modern form in 1917, it operated under the state-mandated Commission (so-called Weak Mayor) form of government. In 1957 the state granted cities the voluntary option of staying with that form or choosing between two other forms: the Strong Mayor-City Council form and the City Manager form.

The Democrats ran Bethlehem, and an entrenched element of the Democratic Party fought efforts by the Bethlehem Junior Chamber of Commerce to study the advantages and disadvantages of the three options and provide residents with an opportunity to choose among them. How’s that for democracy – the opportunity to choose your form of government!! The “political novices” successfully fought the “machine,” educated the general populace about the choices they had, and voters ultimately chose our current Strong Mayor-City Council form of government.

gov 4

It’s a pretty amazing and, I say again, inspiring story of the power of the public to fight – and beat – City Hall. Not that every City Hall has to be beaten, mind you.

But this is the kind of story that we need to periodically remind us where the power ultimately lies. With us. Out here in the cheap seats at Town Hall. And beyond.

Please read: Fighting City Hall – and Winning, November 4, 1958

This is a story of Bethlehem residents taking control of their own destiny. Never easy. But doable.

Founding Fathers and Mother

Gadfly is researching the history of the Bethlehem Charter Commission for the next “Bethlehem Moment.”

Charter

Here is the newly elected group — November 13, 1958 — that gave us our current Mayor-City Council form of government.

Elaine Meilicke was the top vote-getter.

Not all that long ago — any connections with these folk we should know about?

Charles Donches is not related to our Mayor but is the father of Steve Donches, who was head of the National Museum of History.

An interesting story here, but you’ll have to wait for the “Moment” to hear all about it!

Bethlehem Moments: A Proposal (8)

(8th in a series of posts on Bethlehem Moments)

Taking a break from the big project of organizing the public hearing on 2 W. Market last Tuesday.

Remember that in these 8 posts, Gadfly is kind of drafting a proposal for Council to add a Bethlehem Moment to the opening of each Council meeting. Thinking out loud about all the components of such an addition.

So we have had 2 so far, one on the Hill-to-Hill bridge fund raising as a precursor to the joining of the boroughs that  gave us the single town of Bethlehem, the other on the death of 14 Bethlehem “boy” Army recruits in what was then the greatest air tragedy in Lehigh Valley history.

Too random? The scholar in Gadfly would start at the beginning way back in Europe and work up to the present over the next 50yrs of his life. But that wouldn’t work, would it? But is just bouncing around too random? Gadfly is reading and thinking about Bethlehem history in an unorganized way, and, as long as he is doing the Moments in this trial period, he will just wait to be struck by something interesting.

Gadfly’s Hill-to-Hill Moment came as a result of the billboard controversy (Whatever happened to that? Did Gadfly hear we did get sued?). The plane crash came out of studying Triangle Park and the presentation at Council on plans for the Rose Garden.

So Gadfly’s finding the Moments so far from what seems to be going on now.

Does that feel alright? Or should there be more structure?

So that’s one thing Gadfly is thinking about, Moment-wise.

A second is that he is not sure the Moments will really be meaningful unless they are ultimately incorporated at the very top of the meeting right after the prayer and the pledge.

To do them as part of public comment feels not right at all.

There they lose their isolated and high-lighted significance. There they get mixed in with business. When the meeting starts after the pledge, people go into work mode. The introduction is over, and now we’re focusing on the “meat” of the meeting.

If there is any future for the Bethlehem Moment idea, it has to be as part of the introduction to the meeting.

A third thing Gadfly is wondering about is the title. Would “Bethlehem Remembers” be better?

So that’s what Gadfly has been thinking about in regard to the “Bethlehem Moments.”

Shoot me some ideas, or do one in this trial period. What say?

Ok, back to 2 W.

Bethlehem Moment 2: Bethlehem Mourns

Bethlehem Moment 2
City Council
Nov 20, 2018

Ed Gallagher 49 W. Greenwich

A Bethlehem Moment: November 8, 1961

In Berlin August 1961, the Communists built a wall, and in Bethlehem November 1961 fourteen young men joined a U.S. Army expanding to meet an escalating international crisis. Before these “boys” touched a uniform, much less a weapon, they were dead, incinerated in a tragic plane crash near Richmond on the way to basic training. Their deaths hit the town hard. They were our neighbors, living on Broad St, Center, Brodhead. Though aged 17-22 – yes, one was 17 — they were “boys” to us. Their high school class pictures stared at us from the obituaries. They lived at home with Mom and Dad, had nicknames from cowboy heroes, pets that followed them everywhere, girls they didn’t want to leave, careers on hold. Some had never flown before. We gasped at the terror of the phone that rings in the dead of night. We watched helplessly as hope drained away. We grieved with mothers who ran shrieking from houses, never to be the same again. We shrugged shoulders with fathers who had premonitions of disaster. We were reminded through our shared mourning that we are a town not just a geographically framed collection of individuals. We were reminded that there is no such thing as a “cold” war. Lest we forget these valuable lessons, we erected a monument, which now resides in the Rose Garden.

For a more detailed description of this event, see the “Bethlehem Pays the Price for Freedom 1961” post dated Nov. 18.