Council oversight of hot-button City committees: Gadfly makes the case for making a case

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So you know about the Mayor. And you know about City Council. But what you might not know so much about are what Gadfly calls the ABCs, the 25 or so Authorities, Boards, and Commissions volunteer-staffed by maybe 125 residents. These ABCs do much work for the City, for you. Your non-tax dollars at work.

The Mayor nominates residents to serve on the ABCs; Council approves them. Historically, those mayoral appointments have been met in virtually all cases with a Council rubber stamp.

Most times that’s ok.

Just three days ago you saw Gadfly extol the work of one of the ABCs — the Environmental Advisory Council. And there are many other individuals and groups he could single out for praise.

But there are problems. And, in Gadfly’s mind, the Bethlehem Parking Authority has been one of them.

What Gadfly modestly proposed on April 29 last  — going on a year ago — was that mayoral nominations for reappointments on the ABCs be supported by evidence of performance on the ABC on which the reappointee served.

In other words, it should be expected that the Mayor “make a case” when reappointment is involved.

Seems harmless enough to Gadfly.

Last Council meeting February 4 there were nominations from the Mayor for several ABCs, one being the Parking Authority. Gadfly raised the question of evidence of performance. There ensued later in the meeting an interesting and important discussion on this and related issues. Gadfly would like to spend 2-3 posts fleshing out that discussion and suggests, for context, we begin by re-reading his April 29 post.

Gadfly specially calls your attention to the audio clip below of the short presentation he made at the Parking Authority meeting April 24.

Hear him first make the case for making a case.

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April 29, 2019

“A Modest Proposal: regarding Council oversight of hot-button City committees”

So Gadfly went to the Bethlehem Parking Authority meeting last Wednesday April 24. Perhaps more on the substance of that meeting later.

The meeting was at 4PM. Gadfly recently reported that at a Planning Commission meeting both Diane Szabo Backus and Paige Van Wirt made what we might call “vigorous proposals” [ha! not modest!] for later meeting times to accommodate the large number of citizens who work at that hour and are unable to attend such meetings. And Gadfly was later able to report that the Mayor heard those vigorous proposals and has pledged to require later times across the board in City committees for 2020.

A solid blow for citizen participation. Another shout-out to Backus-Van Wirt-Donchez.

There are many City Authorities, Boards, and Commissions. Take a look. Made up almost entirely of resident volunteers. Gadfly doesn’t know exactly, but he guesses the volunteers probably number in the vicinity of 125. A small army.

That’s a lot of people the Mayor has to round up. I mean, I’m not sure that people are thronging the Mayor during “Open Door” days and clamoring for such positions. He no doubt has to recruit. Though I hope we never see the day when he has to set up a card table in a mall and hawk for warm bodies.

Gadfly goes to a lot of these meetings. And can say without hesitation that there are a lot of wonderful people doing wonderful work. Good for the Mayor, good for the great people volunteering.

The Mayor nominates resident members, Council approves. Most of the time the approvals are pro forma. But there was one significant denial recently, probably for conflict of interest, a person serving on two closely related bodies.

Approvals should not be pro forma, especially for certain committees, and the Parking Authority is one such group. The Parking Authority was a center of controversy in the latter half of 2018 as 70+ posts in the Gadfly parking thread will attest (see the link on the sidebar).

Gadfly could not tell and had suspicions about the range and quality of Board member involvement. The New St. Garage, the Polk Garage, the Desman Parking Study, the conflict with Council, etc., etc. — strangely to Gadfly, it’s almost impossible to tell from the Board minutes that these things were going on much less that there were “hot” public “issues” about them. The Authority then had a powerful, involved solicitor and a long-standing Chair — Gadfly wondered if there was any debate or discussion at all, wondered what the role, if any, of the appointed members was.

For we must depend on the Board members to be our “voice” in Authority decisions. Gadfly would like to make sure that they are.

Reviewing minutes, Gadfly saw no evidence of conflict, dissent, alternative opinion; Gadfly is not sure that he saw a motion that truly originated with a Board member or new business that originated with a Board member. And if it were not for routine responses to “asks” by the chair for a motion and a second, you might not even know who is on the Board. Attendance at a few meetings suggested that the Authority authority resided in the Executive Director, the solicitor, and the Board chair.

Which is not to say that hot issues weren’t ever aired and that all Board members were not heavily involved. But the minutes — basically the only official public record of what transpired — don’t reveal much in that respect.

When those Board members come up for re-appointment, on what basis will Council make its oversight decision? Evidence of the quantity and quality of their participation and contributions in deliberations about non-trivial and non-routine matters — as attested to in the minutes — should be a prime body of evidence.

At the April 24 meeting, Gadfly suggested to the Parking Authority Board that the minutes be improved to at least capture the flavor of all viewpoints in discussion, that votes that are not unanimous clearly indicate who the yays and nays are, and he suggested to the members that they be sure not only that they contribute but that their contributions are detailed in the minutes. If they want to be re-appointed, that is.

You can hear Gadfly talk about this as an aspect of his “passion for public participation in city matters” (soooo pompous is your Gadfly!) here:

My modest proposal is that Council let the Mayor know that proposals for re-appointment of members of “hot” committees, commissions, and boards should include — in addition to resumes*** — specific and substantive evidence of the quality and quantity of member contributions as attested in the minutes.

At the last City Council meeting Backus made the interesting point that since such Board members are appointed by elected officials, they too are in a sense elected. And the public needs accountability, especially on the “hot” committees, and will call for it from Council when re-appointment time comes around.

*** Instructive here is the good dialogue about oversight initiated by Councilwoman Van Wirt and joined by Council President Waldron and Business Manager Evans sitting in for the Mayor at the January 15 Council meeting and recorded in the minutes on pp 11-12. But for re-appointments, Gadfly is suggesting more than resumes and contact info. There should be evidence of performance.

The BPA presentation on the Polk Street Garage at City Council July 2 (81)

(81st in a series of posts on parking)

Here is the detailed document the BPA supplied to City Council before the meeting: BPA Presentation – 7-2-19 – City Council – DRAFT. It provides two financing scenarios, one with a fine increase, one without.

Interestingly, the project is financially viable either way.

Key points include the letters of commitment to lease 80% of the proposed spaces and the decision to fund the garage with a private bank loan without guarantee by the City.

Mayor Donchez:

The Mayor emphasized that he fully supports a project that he sees as important for the development of the eastern end of 3rd Street.

Video of July 2 City Council meeting at min. 21:45.

  • “This is a project that has been a priority of mine for several years.”
  • “It’s a critical project to support the parking needs of Northampton Community College and other businesses in that vicinity of the eastern corridor of 3rd Street.”
  • “Last year I believe that the Authority had the responsibility to research all possible options for financing and proceed in the manner in the best interests of the taxpayer.”
  • “I strongly support this project. . . . I think it’s important for economic development of the eastern corridor of 3rd Street.”
  • “Out of 470, they have roughly 370 commitments for leases.”
  • “And even when you look at the New Street Garage . . . in the year and a half since it opened, there’s 400 leases without Lehigh students, and I think that’s probably exceeded expectations.”
  • “I did make a commitment as Mayor that we would try to wean ourselves off the contribution from the Bethlehem Parking Authority when the TIF would end, and I do want to fulfill that commitment. . . . When the TIF expires, the City will receive some additional revenue from the TIF.”
  • “So I think this is a good project . . . I think that the financials [are in good order].

Kevin Livingston, Exec. Dir., Bethlehem Parking Authority

Again, key points are that the BPA doesn’t need City backing for the financing, and though it will recommend fine increases, they are not necessary for the financial viability of the project.

Video of July 2 City Council meeting at min. 23:50.

  • “The Bethlehem Parking Authority explored both a public and private financing of the Polk Street Garage.”
  • “The bank loan does not require a fine increase or a City guaranty of the debt.”
  • The garage is currently [planned to a 470-space garage with a 30-space parking lot.”
  • “We intend to add a bid alternate to build the garage 91 spaces larger.”
  • “Furthermore, there is an opportunity for a horizontal expansion of the garage of approximately 159 spaces.”
  • “The maximum size of the garage is approximately 750 spaces.”
  • “For $2.1million, the Bethlehem Parking Authority purchased the land for the proposed garage from the Sands Casino in April 2019.”
  • “It is the intention of the Bethlehem Parking Authority to close on the private bank loan in July and hope to start construction in December 2019 with anticipated completion 2020.”
  • The BPA also plans to send the official request to Council in the summer of 2019 to consider fine increases to improve the parking system.”

PFM Financial Advisors

The BPA financial advisors answer President Waldron’s question, “What is the reason you are not looking for the City guarantee that you most recently did for New Street [garage]?”

Video of July 2 City Council meeting at min. 26:19.

  • “Our goal is to always try to kinda move the Parking Authority . . . financially away from the host city.”
  • “[With New Street Garage financing] the Authority went out and established their own trust indenture, issued the debt, but guaranteed by the City, so we were starting to give the Authority a little bit of its own name, its own credit out there, but still with the backing of the City.”
  • “That coincided very nicely with the financial resurgence of the City . . . perhaps now the highest [credit rating] of 3rd-class cities in the state.”
  • “The goal was as the Authority became more financially healthy was to have the Authority possibly be able to do their own financing without the City backing.”
  • “Again, that’s our goal as financial advisors . . . if they are financially stable enough to do that, they should do it . . . to take some of the liabilities off the City taxpayers.”
  • “A win-win to be able to secure a financial package for this garage with very good terms and conditions.

Are you grounded in the “facts”? Next we’ll move into the discussion by Council and audience members of this presentation by the BPA.

How did the BPA presentation go over? What are you thinking?

An overview of discussion about the Polk St. Garage with BPA at the July 2 CC meeting (80)

(80th in a series of posts on parking)

We can use our good newsfolk for an overview of this discussion preliminary to a final proposal in August.

Nicole Radzievich, “Does South Bethlehem need another parking garage? Mayor and parking authority think so, but others fear risk to taxpayers.” Morning Call, July 3, 2019.

Sara Satullo, “The $16.8M planned Southside parking deck plans to pay its own way and open by end of 2020.” lehighvalleylive.com, July 3, 2019.

  • BPA bought the 3rd and Polk property from the Sands in April for $2.1m
  • The PSG is planned for 470 spaces (New St. = 626, Walnut St. = 777)
  • Open is the possibility of expanding PSG to 750 spaces
  • Price tag for PSG = $16.8m
  • PSG could open December 2020
  • The BPA will not need a loan backed by the City for PSG (unlike for NSG)
  • As planned, the BPA will stop paying the city $450,000 annually in 2021
  • That planned reduction helps the BPA pay new debt on its own
  • No decision yet on whether to renovate or reconstruct WSG
  • Thus, no decision yet on whether WSG will need a city-backed loan
  • The Mayor wants the PSG
  • The Mayor wants the BPA to stand on its own financially
  • The financial advisors say that the BPA can stand on its own for PSG
  • The BPA has commitments now for 370 spaces
  • PSG would include commercial or residential space
  • For policy reasons, the BPA will recommend increasing the fine structure
  • But increased fines are not needed for financing of PSG
  • Questioned was the amount of debt the BPA plans to carry
  • Questioned was what happens if BPA can’t pay its debt
  • Questioned was why contract rates were far under market rate
  • Suggestion was waiting till demand pushes the need for a garage
  • Exploring the use of the “Ruins lot” in the meantime
  • Countered by information that the “Ruins lot” is not and would not be in play
  • Questioned was subsidizing a garage outside city’s historical district
  • BPA plans to vote on securing the private bank loan at its July 24 meeting

Got the general idea? Now let’s go a little deeper.

 

 

Summer reading

Gadfly always worries that “comments” to posts get lost in the WordPress design.

Did you see this comment from Peter Crownfield a week or so back?

People who are deciding or contributing to public policy should probably read Bill McKibben’s latest: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Spurs me to ask what you are reading. Spurs me to ask what we should be reading? In regard to City issues, I mean.

To give us some ideas. Some solutions.

I am nibbling at McKibben’s anthology American Earth: Conversations on the Environment since Thoreau. Small anthology chunks. Reading in bits and pieces. Suggested by follower Ed Lotto.

I’ve also been dipping in to works by Jeff Speck — who did a study for Bethlehem, actually — works like Walkable City. Suggested by Tony Hanna.

Give us some ideas!

 

Concern for public safety bumps up against safeguarding the First Amendment

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

“Bethlehem is considering an ordinance that would require a prior permit if five or more people plan a demonstration in a public place like a sidewalk or park.”

Bill 19-2019 Establish Article 961-Special Event Activity Permits-1

The rationale is based on public safety, but there is concern over limitation of free speech.

Councilpersons Van Wirt, Negron, and Waldron have trouble with the number 5 triggering the need for a permit. They would like the number higher.

There was a 2-hour Public Safety Committee meeting (CM Colon, chair, with CWs Van Wirt and Negron) on the proposed ordinance last week. Gadfly suggests that you watch 1:30:00 onward to focus on the important concluding discussion.

It is expected that the critics of the proposed ordinance with 5 people triggering the need for a permit will be introduced tomorrow night.

Local blogger Bernie O’Hare belted the proposed ordinance today in “Bethlehem City Council Takes Aim at First Amendment” (and you will enjoy seeing Bernie refer to the Gadfly as “very gentile”).

Expect a spirited debate tomorrow night at Council.

Nicole Radzievich, “Want to protest in Bethlehem? There could soon be a permit for that.” Morning Call, June 14, 2019.

A street preacher calling a passerby a whore. A nearly naked woman protesting a circus in town. Workers rights. Immigration. School shootings. Occupy Wall Street. Make America Great Again. Over the years, Bethlehem has witnessed more than a few headline-grabbing demonstrations as activists spread their message in a city that often teems with visitors attending festivals and special events on any given weekend.

Now, in the name of public safety, Bethlehem is considering an ordinance that would require a prior permit if five or more people plan a demonstration in a public place like a sidewalk or park. City officials say the goal is not to restrict free speech, but gather information. Police want to know where and when potential flare-ups may occur, and then deploy police and other emergency personnel accordingly. They say they’re concerned about the conduct of the demonstrators, not their message.

Pennsylvania ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper said she believes a threshold of just five people would not hold up in court. Some City Council members are considering increasing that threshold in the proposed ordinance to avoid a First Amendment conflict. “I have concerns about potential overreach,” Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt. She is concerned the requirement could deter small groups from speaking out.

Philadelphia has an ordinance similar to what Bethlehem is considering, but the permit requirement would be triggered by demonstrations of 75 people or more, and Pittsburgh’s limit is 50, according to a survey presented to City Council at a recent public safety committee meeting. Bethlehem police Chief Mark DiLuzio said at a June 5 meeting those municipalities have police departments much larger than Bethlehem’s 155-officer department. Ideally, he said he would like to have at least two officers for every protester, if they are uncooperative. DiLuzio said the city has about 20 officers working the South Side and 50 on the North Side during Musikfest. So, even a handful of people protesting during a festival can significantly divert resources, he said.

“You’re putting police in position to confront American citizens over nothing more than a peaceful assembly,” said Carroll, also the Republican nominee for Northampton County district attorney. ”It’s absurd.”

Council President Adam Waldron said he appreciates the public safety argument, but it makes him nervous any time government “is tip-toeing up against the First Amendment.”

Council could vote on the ordinance as early as Tuesday, which would put it in effect for Musikfest Aug. 2-11.

“Bethlehem Moment” status report: One more volunteer needed

(Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Moments)

Gadfly has asked President Waldron if we can move the Bethlehem Moment to the top of the meeting after the prayer and the pledge.

Here’s the document I supplied to support the request:

Bethlehem Moment Project
Ed Gallagher
ejg1@lehigh.edu
version 1 6/4/19

Proposal:

That beginning July 2, 2019, as a one-year pilot program, Bethlehem City Council add a historical moment – “A Bethlehem Moment” – to its opening meeting protocol immediately following the prayer and the pledge of allegiance and before the body of the meeting starts.

What is a Bethlehem Moment?

  • an historical vignette
  • a scene or event from Bethlehem history between 1741 and the 1960s
  • topic of the author’s choice, approved by the program coordinator
  • short, so as to not unduly delay the business of the meeting
  • entered in the minutes, published on the Gadfly blog and perhaps also on the City website or social media
  • examples can be found at https://thebethlehemgadfly.com/category/bethlehem-moments/

Why a Bethlehem Moment?

  • we are a town that has made significant history
  • we are a town that values our history
  • we have three historical districts
  • our history completes the triumvirate of God and Country that is the source of our values and the context for our decisions
  • without a sense of our shared history, we can never be a true community
  • by invoking our history at the beginning of the meeting, we would be powerfully signaling our commitment to our history
  • by invoking our history at the beginning of the meeting, we would be encouraging knowledge of that history
  • this addition to our meeting protocol will make us unique among our peers

How will the project be administered?

Ed Gallagher will engage to find readers and arrange the schedule for the year. After which, he will find a successor coordinator. Or City Council could take the project over and line up participants as it does clergy. Or the program could languish, having run its course.

All elements flexible!


A profound Gadfly thanks to these good people who have signed on for the rest of the year. Several people have indicated interest in that last date but no firm commitment yet. So we could use one more “Momentor” to finish off the 2019 line-up.

Volunteer needed, please!  Info here: Bethlehem Moment Information


Ed Gallagher
ejg1@lehigh.edu

Bethlehem Moments Schedule 2019

July 2                        Lynn Rothman

July16                       John Smith

August 6                   (Musikfest)

August 20                 Mary Toulouse

September 3             Olga Negron

September 17           Jim Petrucci

October 1                  Johanna Brams

October 15                 Stasia Brown-Pallrand

November 6               Steve Repasch

November 19             Rayah Levy

December 3                Robert Bilheimer

December 17