Gadfly slapped upside the head

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That casual reference in the last post about slapping Gadfly upside the head reminded him.

Gadfly did get slapped upside the head.

Not pleasant. He thinks he will stop saying that. More people will take him up on it.

Public comment. Bethlehem Parking Authority meeting February 26.

Gadfly was winging it as usual. (“Winging,” get it?)

Three things on his mental agenda to talk about as he remembers it.

1) The BPA website: giving a pat on the fanny for changes in an already terrific website for changes that moved the Board meeting link to the more visible top menu and thus easier to find but a reminder that the Gadfly had been asking for months that the agendas for meetings be posted, bringing BPA in line with most of the other ABC’s (Authorities, Boards, and Commissions) in the City as a courtesy for residents.

2) ‘Fessing up: At the February 18 City Council meeting, Gadfly was riding his hobbyhorse again (he had done so as well at the February 4 meeting and other times in the past) about a more rigorous reappointment process for ABC members — a reappointment based on evidence of performance. In doing so he referenced the Parking Authority, as he has done in the past, since a member of the Board was up for reappointment. That generated an interesting discussion on Council that even raised the topic of term limits for certain ABC’s, a conversation Council president Waldron said that he would entertain. (Gadfly audio below, if you want video City Council video 2 18 20 begin min. 4:20)

In those Council discussions both Gadfly and Council members were clear and careful to say that they were not casting aspersions on any specific person but that the focus was on the system, the procedures. Gadfly wanted to be honest with the BPA — though he was not sure that they would have even been aware of the Council comments and discussion — that he had raised this issue with specific reference to the BPA. So he told them, prefacing his remarks with the admission that he knew little of finance and nothing of the nitty-gritty of Parking management but that as a resident his interest was in procedures and policies and rules and transparency and visibility.

February 26 was a BPA reorganization meeting. New year. New beginning. In a sense, a “new” Board (though only the exec director was new). So that it was a good time for Gadfly to repeat what he had said before to them on at least two occasions about being active and creating a record of performance on the minutes for reappointment purposes if they were interested in reappointment.

3) In the same vein, Gadfly said that he was often unclear how decisions were made since in his experience over almost two years there was little substantive discussion of issues at the public meetings. As an example, he used the issue of variable rate parking, which the Mayor had asked the BPA to consider when he approved the parking meter rate increase in late fall 2018 when there was the big controversy over the rates. This idea was raised by members of the public in public meetings, and the BPA was cool about it, yet the Mayor did suggest consideration, and Gadfly was looking forward to BPA discussion and reporting back to the “public” that their words were heard.

Gadfly, as the BPA minutes will show, started asking about such discussion at BPA meetings in March 2019. But there was no sign of talk of variable rate parking during the ensuing months. Then Gadfly was surprised to hear in a Parking Authority presentation to City Council in, he thinks, August or September or October 2019 that there were two consultant reports on the issue, both in the negative. In a later Board meeting, the studies were referred to casually in regard to another issues as costing more than $25,000. That perked Gadfly’s curiosity. That was a lot of money. Should it have been discussed and voted on at a public meeting?

Gadfly knew (or thought he knew) that the Sunshine law required “creation of liability by contract” to be approved by the Board, and he didn’t remember that happening.  So he filed a “right to know” request for the contracts on the consultant reports and other associated material. The requests were filled the day before the Board meeting. The answer on the contract was that “Records that you are requesting do not exist.” Gadfly believes he said how perplexing that was and that he must be missing something in his understanding and that he would consult with the exec director for clarification.

Here’s where it gets interesting. As Gadfly returned to his seat, the BPA chair, rather heatedly in Gadfly’s recollection, said, paraphrasing, “I do not usually answer such questions, but I will here.” And went on to say that by BPA policy, disbursements under (I’m not sure, but I think he said) $25,000 don’t need to be approved by the Board. Now that sounds reasonable to Gadfly. It would not make sense for every small bill to wait for Board approval.

So it was not the content of his reply that surprised Gadfly. But his agitated tone. As if Gadfly had hit a nerve. Agitated enough, in fact, to arouse the Gadfly’s “Irish.” And the extension to which he took the topic. As Gadfly remembers it, the chair said something about not discussing policy here, that that was the role of Council. I remember feeling that was an odd thing to say. And other things.

Gadfly frankly does not remember the transition but the subject of that mention of variable rate parking at a meeting with Council came up, and Gadfly must have been asking about the involvement of the Board when he said something like “but they weren’t there.” And the chair replied something like “it doesn’t matter, I was there.”

Now Gadfly really wanted to hear the audio record of the meeting (the BPA does not meet in Town Hall where they can be video’d, and thus they do their own audio for public record purposes) for two reasons:

1) to find out his tone: was he snarky, angry, gretzy, irritable, irascible? He knows he can be. He wonders if he set the chair off.

2) Gadfly took mental note as it all was happening of two comments by the chair: a) that he was making an exception by answering the Gadfly question and b) the “I was there” phrase.

Gadflies by nature are pests. Gadfly may well have been out of bounds.

Those two comments by the chair — if Gadfly remembered them correctly — fit into the topic of term limits for members of certain ABC’s raised at Council. Gadfly remembers that months and months ago, the Board solicitor, first appointed in 1998, addressed him, rather stentorianly (good SAT word), with “No one questions the Board.” The chair’s preamble about not usually answering questions — if Gadfly remembered it correctly — fits the same pattern of the sense of untouchable power. And if Gadfly also remembers correctly that the chair said all that mattered was that he was present at a meeting might indicate a kind of identification of himself as the Board.  Not good. Perhaps marks of a person who’s been in a position too long. The chair’s first term was 2008 according to newspaper records.

So, lots to be resolved, Gadfly was really interested in hearing the tape of the February 26 BPA meeting to try to figure some things out. He’s old, and his memory ain’t what it used to be. But, golly, guess what?

BPA 1

Drat!

Call me Ahab! (in-joke between me and faithful follower)

The Bethlehem Parking Authority asks for detailed proposal from Council on a free parking pilot program

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The Parking Authority Board meets today: 4PM at their headquarters.

See the memo below: the exec dir did move immediately after the October 23 Board meeting to contact City Council about the free parking pilot program suggested by Councilwoman Van Wirt.

Gadfly — certainly skeptical of BPA’s intention, for the Board has shown noooo interest in such a program — sees the memo as an attempt to stifle the idea with a daunting homework assignment.

He’d have hoped for a meeting of the Board with interested Council members out of which a cooperative plan for a pilot might have emerged.

Of related interest is the provision for free parking in the Northside downtown for the holidays: see https://bethpark.org/news.

BPA pilot

“The BPA has given Council the assignment to do what it should be doing”

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Gadfly:

It sounds to me like the BPA has given Council the assignment to do what it should be doing all along, which is to look at innovative parking programs so that the parking burdens are lessened for residents — in particular, small businesses and visitors to Bethlehem. Asking the City to “put money into the program” is double-dipping by the BPA in my estimation. It’s their responsibility to fund the parking system, not ask the taxpayers to fund it on top of increased meter rates, increased fines, and increased garage rental rates. Sometimes I can’t believe what I’m reading and hearing from that authority.

Dana Grubb

Parking Authority to Council: identify what you want

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Nicole Radzievich, “Parking meter rates went up this year in Bethlehem. Look what’s going up next year.” Morning Call, October 23, 2019.

So as detailed in the last several posts in this parking thread, moderate voices prevailed at the last Council meeting on the subject of raising the long-locked parking fines.

Council decided to approve raising the fines per the Parking Authority request, but at the same time what Gadfly would take to be a majority of Council favored as well exploring some new ideas for the parking system — such as those proposed by Councilwoman Van Wirt — with the BPA.

PVW’s idea was to do a pilot program on selected areas of the Northside and Southside where parking would be free for a limited amount of time (2 hrs? 3 hrs?) but where the fines would be significantly increased ($30? $40?).

These recent interactions with City Council were discussed by the BPA at yesterday’s BPA Board meeting.

Here is the short audio of that discussion:

Rough summary below, but you know Gadfly always says go to the primary source, don’t depend on him!

The Board chair tells the BPA Board that he told Council he would be willing to discuss Council ideas, and he proposes sending a memo next week to Council asking for their specific ideas, asking whether they would put money into the pilot program, asking for documentation of studies of other cities. If Council would put their ideas together, he says, the Board would be more than happy to listen to them. To which the BPA Exec dir says that when we get their return memo, he will put the item on the Board meeting agenda as New Business. One participant in the meeting then suggested a modification, that the Board wait on sending the memo to Council till they hear if there is any discussion of specific ideas by Council members along with the two votes. The following group conversation goes like this. After the votes, we’ll have more of an idea what they want. It isn’t clear they [Council] are all swimming together right now. We need to know what the majority of Council wants. We don’t want to go down a road and then they say that’s not what we were talking about. We want the majority of the Council to tell us what they’re looking for. There’s a dangerous or slippery slope if we have to chase one idea, then another, then another  — it gets expensive. We will be asking Council to give us a letter back from Council identifying what they want.

So, as Gadfly understands it, the BPA will not contact Council now. The BPA will listen for whatever further ideas are put forth in discussion of the votes on the fine increases during the next two Council meetings, then ask for one specific proposal backed by Council for the BPA to consider.

See if that’s what you got out of the audio.

Now Gadfly will take BPA willingness to consider Council ideas as a good thing.

He wonders, though, if this process is what PVW envisioned. Gadfly thinks she envisioned herself going to BPA with whomever Council members wanted to join her (JWR used the term “on board”) to discuss her idea(s) with the BPA.

What Gadfly heard — he could be way off, of course — was that the BPA will be looking for presentation of a formal Council position/plan. So that means PVW would need to negotiate a Council consensus before going to BPA.

Now that might be a good thing. The request for a pilot would have more force coming from full Council. And if Council were going to kick in some money as the BPA would be looking for, then some formal agreement on appropriation would be necessary anyway (does Council have discretionary funds? or would this come from the City budget?).

But Gadfly — ever the idealist — wishes that Council members and the BPA Board could work together from the beginning on the very formation of a pilot, that the specific plan would grow out of cooperative ideas from both sides, that BPA would feel part ownership of the plan itself rather than just the managers of a laboratory setting up an expensive experiment to test someone else’s idea.

For instance, take the proposal by the Mayor but coming from the public and Council members to consider variable rate parking. It had no discussion at BPA. Gadfly is not sure some BPA Board members even know what variable rate parking is, much less that the BPA was asked to study it. Somebody authorized a consultant study for (it sounds like from an off-hand comment at yesterday’s meeting) $25,000. Gadfly sees nothing of that in BPA minutes. It’s pretty obvious to Gadfly that BPA saw the process of studying variable rate parking as wasted time and money — just something that they went through the motions about because forced to.

Gadfly fears that would be the way that a free-parking pilot would be handled.

The basic problem that PVW and other innovators have, Gadfly thinks, is that the BPA doesn’t see there is a problem needing to be addressed.

Joint recognition of a problem seems to Gadfly to be the problem.

“City Council should have some ways to influence the conversation” with the Parking Authority

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So here we are again.

Councilwoman Van Wirt, as we have detailed in earlier posts in this thread, has a new idea about how the City does parking that she feels will be beneficial to the residents and the merchants.

Whether you like her idea or not is not the point here.

Whether you think the idea a good one or not is not the point here.

The point here is that City Council and the Bethlehem Parking Authority don’t seem to have a way to talk to each other.

Authorities are “independent.”

Council does not have control, especially budget control.

He or she who controls the purse strings, they say, calls the shots.

But here the Mayor controls the meters, Council the fines, and the BPA the garages.

Awkwardly divided power and responsibility in what should be unified and seamless.

One Council member seems to accept this awkward structure: Callahan.

Three others either accept it or at least have not offered an opinion one way or the other: Waldron, Crampsie Smith, Colon.

(Gadfly has a memory that he can’t document right now of President Waldron perceptively explaining that the “push back” from some members of Council over the fine structure stems partly from lack of occasions for Council to “weigh in” on parking policies. Gadfly hopes he is remembering correctly, for that is the point he is making here. Apologies if he is mistaken about President Waldron.)

Three members, such as at the last Council meeting, have seen a problem in the structure: Van Wirt, Reynolds, Negron.

Gadfly has amateurishly cobbled several clips together to highlight this last group.

  • Councilman Callahan outlines the structure: the Mayor controls meters, Council fines, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority the garages.
  • Councilwoman Van Wirt speaks of having a “dialogue” now between Council and the BPA consonant with Council’s “role” in doing what’s best for the City, rather than “hoping” the BPA would take up her issue at some future time.
  • Councilman Reynolds notes the awkward way “the system is designed” and agrees with PVW that “City Council should have some ways to influence the conversation.”
  • Councilwoman Negron wishes “that we could reconsider the structure that we have” that’s “causing a stretch that shouldn’t be.”

Councilwoman Van Wirt is left to wait for an invitation from the BPA to bring her ideas to a Board meeting. She has not been invited to tomorrow’s meeting, and, as far as Gadfly knows, she has heard nothing from BPA.

Gadfly wonders three things:

1) why Councilman Callahan, who is Council “liaison” to the BPA, doesn’t see it as his role to engage the kind of meeting in which PVW and other interested Council members could trade ideas.

2) why Council doesn’t invite the BPA to City Council meetings twice a year for an open dialogue and discussion as Gadfly outlined in a “modest proposal.”

3) most radical of all, why doesn’t Council “reconsider the structure,” as Councilwoman Negron suggested, for according to Gadfly’s researches, Council delegation of meter power to the Mayor under the “Calvo Plan” in 1988-1989 was not on some sacred principle of checks and balances and in that act of delegation not including the fines seems an oversight.

The Strange Separation

The Timeline of the Strange Separation

In other words to correct the problem here, Council should rescind its delegation of meter responsibility. Gadfly, speaking from a basis of absolutely no legal knowledge (Ha!), assumes what Council has done, it can undo.

The goal of this most radical proposal would be to return ultimate power over an area so crucial to the quality of urban life life as parking to the highest body in the City and, perhaps most importantly, an elected body directly answerable to the residents.

Right now the BPA is not directly responsible to residents.

Right now the BPA is not even directly responsible to Council.

Gadfly is certain there are downsides to the radical proposal even if legally possible, but it’s a conversation that he would like to see.

Gadfly sees good people struggling with a broken system that they know is broken and would like to see them try to fix it — for the good of us all.

Good Council interplay in the parking fine deliberation

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Always remember that part of Gadfly’s mission is to help us know our Council members better so that we are better informed when we vote. (Some members will run again; one or two might run for mayor.)

The discussion over the proposal to increase the parking fines at the October 15 Council meeting went well — though it might not have had the outcome you wanted — and provided a good portrait of three Council members.

Council rejected the Public Safety Committee’s rejection — led by Councilwoman Van Wirt — of the Parking Authority proposal to raise the rates, putting that BPA proposal back on the agenda for consideration at the next Council meeting.  (See “Parking” on the sidebar for the history of this issue.)

Council vote was 5-2 for the motion to reject the committee report — Van Wirt and Negron as the “nay” votes.

Some of you might remember the dialectical method from somewhere in your schooling: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Thesis: Councilman Callahan argued for moving forward (he is not on the Public Safety Committee and thus was a new voice in the discussion) on the BPA proposal.

Antithesis: Councilwoman Van Wirt restated her case for holding up the proposal till the BPA conducted a pilot study that included free parking but a much harsher fine structure.

Synthesis: Council senior citizen Reynolds made the case for doing both, approving the fines now but engaging as well in discussions about a pilot study.

Textbook.

There has been contention between the right and left sides of the Head Table. Not tonight. Good conversation. BC made a good case. Even PVW seemed calmly resigned to losing the vote though inviting her colleagues to join in exploring her idea further with the BPA.

And even Gadfly — who finds new ideas and pilot programs aphrodisiac — thought Council action as the best outcome and looks forward to hearing some good discussion on PVW’s ideas at BPA board meetings. He hopes she is not alone in attending.

Listen to some reasonable discourse at Council, your tax dollars at work.

Councilman Callahan

  • “We’ve been discussing this . . . for almost a year now.”
  • “I think at some point we need to let the Parking Authority know where we stand.”
  • “You can hardly ever find a parking space on Main St.”
  • “We don’t want people parking at a meter all day long.”
  • “The goal is to make it cheaper for people to park in the garages.”
  • “We are actually rewarding people breaking the law.”
  • “You are saving two dollars by breaking the law.”
  • “The downtown’s not struggling.”
  • “‘We have one of the most vibrant and booming downtowns in the state of Pennsylvania.”
  • “We need to let the Parking Authority know so that they can move ahead with Plan B.”
  • “Right now it’s out of control down there.”
  • “It’s cheaper to just take a fine.”
  • “It’s time to move it forward.”

Councilwoman Van Wirt:

  • “I wanted to make sure that when the Parking Authority was taking into consideration making structural changes . . . that the Parking Authority was considering what’s best for the people of Bethlehem, the parkers of Bethlehem, the small businesses of Bethlehem, and not just the bottom line of the Parking Authority.”
  • “I requested that the Parking Authority consider instituting free parking in a pilot area . . .  “
  • “Any proposal that the Parking Authority would put forward that would entail free parking and helping our downtowns be more lively . . . something that shows that we can use the power of parking to help our downtowns and not just continue to add fees.”
  • “Hoping to accomplish is having that dialog now rather than hoping the Parking Authority will do this at some future junction.”
  • “I would still like to go before the Parking Authority, and I hope that my colleagues on Council . . . would come with me.”

Councilman Reynolds:

  • “The one thing we all agree on is that the parking system is complicated.”
  • “And I also thinks that everybody hates the Parking Authority so much, it’s hard to have a rational conversation about some of these things.”
  • “I think going forward there’s not a reason we can’t do both of these things.”
  • “I agree . . . City Council should have some ways to influence that conversation.”
  • “I think both of these ideas have merit.”
  • “We should have a vote on this in three weeks, but I also think that as a City Council, we should take a look at some of the different ideas such as creating a pilot program.”
  • “I think both of these ideas are worthwhile.”

Council decides to move forward now on the Parking Authority proposal to increase fines

(132nd in a series of posts on parking)

For the past half-dozen or so posts in the parking thread (see “parking” under Topics on the sidebar), we have focused on the Bethlehem Parking Authority proposal to raise the penalties in the fine structure. Meter rates increased January 1 by authority of the Mayor but the fines, which are under the authority of Council, were not raised, rendering the fines an ineffective deterrent in controlling curbside turnover. Council withheld its permission to get more information on BPA funding of the Polk Street Garage and to encourage the BPA study of variable rate parking.

The Council Public Safety Committee recently voted 2-1 to hold off on the proposed fine increases pending consultation with BPA on a Councilwoman Van Wirt idea to do a pilot study of a plan to provide free parking for a limited period but to substantially increase the fine structure, well over what the BPA has proposed.

Last Tuesday committee action was before the full Council, and it was not accepted by a 5-2 vote. The original BPA proposal will now be before Council at its next meeting.

Gadfly thought the discussion a good one and will provide video and commentary in the next post in this series.

Sara Satullo, “It looks like Bethlehem’s parking fines are going up.” lehighvalleylive.com., October 16, 2019.

Nearly a year after the city parking authority first requested an increase, it appears Bethlehem City Council is poised to back hiking the city’s parking fines to $15. A majority of city council voted Tuesday night to override its public safety committee’s recommendation to hold off on the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s pitch to increase fines by $5. The two councilwoman who voted Oct. 1 to wait on hiking the fines — Olga Negron and Dr. Paige Van Wirt — opposed the motion.

On Oct. 1, the authority was back before council’s public safety committee to again hash out why the authority needs to hike fines to deter parking violations. Currently, it costs $10 a day to park in a city garage, so people are willing to roll the dice, not feed the meters and risk a $10 ticket, Livingston has said. “You are saving $2 by breaking the law,” said Bryan Callahan, who is the parking authority liaison.

Callahan made a motion Tuesday night to release the public safety committee from considering the fine increases. That motion passed 5-2 and then council voted along the same lines to bring the fine hike up for first reading at the council meeting Nov. 6. Negron and Van Wirt also opposed that measure.

A majority of council members expressed broad support for Van Wirt’s suggestion that the authority pilot offering free parking in concert with more expensive parking fines — like $40 or $50 for overstaying time limits — in hopes of putting more shoppers on the streets of the Historic District and Southside. But they didn’t wish to link approving the higher fines with the enactment of a pilot, which some noted could take time to develop.” I don’t think there’s a reason we can’t do both of these things,” Councilman J. William Reynolds said.

The unique structure of the city’s parking authority — the mayor approves meter rates, council approves parking fines and the authority’s board sets the garage rates — creates a power struggle each time council is asked to hike the cost of violations. It is one of the only times council gets to weigh in on the authority’s finances and parking policies.

On Tuesday night, Van Wirt said when she didn’t support the fine increase when it was before the committee she wanted the authority to consider what is best for the people of Bethlehem, the folks that park in the city and the businesses of Bethlehem when it makes structural changes. She wants to have that conversation now with the authority’s board in hopes of the pilot occurring soon.

Callahan argued the authority needs clarity on the fine increases and that there’s a major problem with parking turnover on Main Street where he said it is hard to find a spot. Businesses don’t want meters tied up with the same parkers all day, they want constant turn over, he said. “It is hurting downtown businesses with the meter fee the way it is,” Callahan said.

Van Wirt emphasized that the pilot she is proposing would keep meters turning over and perhaps convince some, who avoid the area after a bad experience with the parking authority, to come back downtown. “It is a model,” she said. “It is well studied. It is effective.”

Nicole Radzievich, “Will parking fines go up in Bethlehem? The hike has been stalled for a year, but is now making some headway.” Morning Call, October 16, 2019.

A proposed parking fine hike, which has been stalled in committee for a year, is making some headway on Bethlehem City Council. Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to take the proposal out of committee and vote on it next month, bypassing the recommendation of its public safety committee. Earlier this month, the committee decided to postpone the issue until there could be a pilot study on whether to offer free parking in the downtowns for a limited amount of time.

While council members still appeared open to the pilot program, a majority indicated that it doesn’t change the fact that fines, now at $10 for a meter violation, are too low to deter people from parking illegally. The current meter fine is the same cost as all-day parking in the garage. The goal is to encourage long-term visitors to park in the garage, freeing up the $1.50-an-hour meters for visitors on shorter trips. “It’s been on the table and discussed for almost a year now,” City Councilman Bryan Callahan said. “At some point, we have to let the parking authority know where we stand on this.”

Van Wirt said she still hopes that the parking authority will give the pilot program serious consideration. The idea would be to offer free parking on selected downtown areas — such as Main and Broad streets on the North Side and Third Street on the South Side — for two or three hours. Violators would be ticketed at a much higher rate — perhaps $30 or $40. She said other communities offered similar programs. She said she wants the authority to consider the impact of its financial decisions on visitors to the downtown and businesses, not just its bottom line.

Comparing the first six months of last year and this year, the number of meter violations jumped by 27% to 15,700 tickets. Overall tickets during that time rose by 7% to 41,642. From 2014-2018, the parking tickets increased from 22,940 to 78,000 — a 240% increase.