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.

————-

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.

Climate Action Plan: “This is a big deal”

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In a surprise addition to Monday’s City Council agenda — so surprising it occasioned a procedural question — City Council voted on and approved a contract with a firm to develop our Climate Action Plan.

An exuberant Councilman Reynolds, who — working with the Administration, the Environmental Advisory Council, and others — brought us to this moment, called the plan a “big deal.”

Which it certainly is!

Kudos all around.

Beautiful Reynolds’ words about the plan we love to hear:

  • City-wide energy reduction plan
  • Sustainability initiative
  • An Education piece
  • Connection to social justice
  • Discussion of pedestrian bridge
  • Discussion of Food Co-Op
  • Discussion of walkability

It’s Wednesday January 8, 2020. Do you know where your Climate Action Plan is?

Yes!

Southside magistrate has difficulty dispensing equitable justice in marijuana cases

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Nicole Radzievich, “District judge questions how Bethlehem treats minor marijuana offenses.” Morning Call, December 16, 2019.

We thought that the difficulty with decriminalizing uses of small amounts of marijuana in Bethlehem would come because of our bi-county status.

Because of the different views of the respective District Attorneys, marijuana use in Lehigh County Bethlehem would remain a criminal offense whereas in Northampton County Bethlehem it might only be a summary defense at the discretion of the arresting officer.

Different legal jeopardy on two sides of the same Bethlehem street, as it were.

Gadfly has not heard problems or complaints about this anomaly, however.

But the disparity is of another kind — unregarded, though probably easily enough foreseen, when the legislation was discussed.

In the following letter, Southside magistrate Nancy Matos Gonzalez points out that Southside residents are penalized much more severely than Lehigh students for the same marijuana offense.

Lehigh generally charges students under the city ordinance with a summary offense on the order of a traffic ticket. But city officers, with discretion to file either a summary or a criminal charge, choose the criminal charges against Southside residents 3+ times more than Lehigh police do against Lehigh students.

The disparity is so great, says Matos Gonzalez, “that the differing policy practices between the two agencies has, in my professional opinion, brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.”

In short, it would appear that the Lehigh students are getting a break that Southside residents aren’t from our well-intentioned legislation to decriminalize use of small amounts of marijuana.

By a big margin.

Sensitive to the “vastly differing” demographics “between both communities” unarguably based “on race, ethnicity, and economic levels,” Matos Gonzalez asks how this disparity can be justified.

The differential financial burden of a criminal charge is severe, as Matos Gonzalez documents, but the part of the decriminalizing legislation rationale that Gadfly remembers most vividly from City Council discussion as well as the horror stories at the local public hearing held by Lieutenant Governor Fetterman was the “residual sanction of a resulting permanent criminal recordfor using a small amount of marijuana.

By and large, Lehigh students are being spared that career impediment.

Hmmm.

Gadfly remembers vigorous public comments last year at Council meetings by Jeff Riedy, Executive Director of Lehigh Valley NORML and would welcome hearing from him again on this situation.

And also some expanded remarks on marijuana enforcement by the Chief beyond what he said about drugs in Bethlehem during the recent budget hearings (the last few minutes of this video).

The question would seem to be whether enforcement practice by Bethlehem police is undercutting the intent of the legislation and whether that enforcement practice is different on the Southside than in other parts of the City.

A tip o’ the hat to Magistrate Matos Gonzalez for calling attention to a possible “systemic issue” that should be addressed.

Gadfly always recommends going to the primary source. The magistrate’s full letter is printed below.

Dear Chief DiLuzio,

I recently received your letter referencing my previous discussions with both yourself and Mayor Donchez. To be clear, I initiated contact to voice my concern regarding a noted potential for disparity in sanctions, permanent records, and financial cost for Individuals prosecuted for small amount of marijuana. This noted potential for disparity is solely based upon which one of the two police departments operating within this district prosecutes the case. Further, expressed that the differing policy practices between the two agencies has, in my professional opinion, brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.

As you are aware, Bethlehem Police and Lehigh University Police both operate in South Bethlehem. Understandably, as independent agencies, each has its own Standard Operating Procedures. I am fully cognizant it is not my role, practice, nor desire to critique those procedures. I do, though, unabashedly feel compelled to illuminate what is potentially an undetected consequential result of policy implementation and absolutely believe it is my role to speak out to systemic matters affecting my rulings and sworn oath to uphold justice.

As the presiding Magisterial District Judge in this district, I offer the following summary of happenings since the enactment of the law up until the date of meeting with the Mayor on September 26, 2019. These are the pertinent factors relating to these case filings on which I base my concerns:

  • Lehlgh University PD has by general policy and practice filed the local summary ordinance in the Small Amount cases, which decriminalizes the possession of marijuana.
  • Bethlehem PD policy allows for “Officer discretion to use ordinance, state law or both. By practice, the Bethlehem Police officers have, in this district alone, filed the criminal grading of Poss of a Small Amount at a rate” of 3.25 times more often than the ordinance offense. Additionally, for cases that a Bethlehem Police officer has filed a Poss of Drug Paraphernalia charge related to Marijuana, the officer is 7 times more likely to file the criminal Poss of Small Amount charge.
  • Defendants who are charged with a city ordinance of Poss of a Small Amount of Marijuana are ordered to pay a set fine and cost amount of $116.25 for a first offense and a maximum set fine and cost of $241.25 for up to a offense within one calendar year.
  • Defendants who plead guilty to the criminal charge of Poss of a Small Amount of Marijuana can be ordered to pay fine and cost of up to $1073.75 and up to 30 days incarceration.
  • In an effort to balance the scales for parties prosecuted for the criminal charge rather than the summary offense, I, by practice, set the fine at $1.00 minimal amount. Unfortunately, once the cost for criminal processing fees are attached the total minimal amount due is $574.75. These parties are subject to cost almost 5 times higher than the summary cost and they are subject to a potentially more serious residual sanction of a resulting permanent criminal record.
  • Unfortunately, there are many individuals who wish to plead guilty to the charge at the Preliminary Hearing but do not have the means to post the $574.?5 fine and cost assessment. The district court does not supervise fine and cost collection of criminal cases and those parties, more often than not, waive their preliminary hearings, often by necessity to have time to raise some funds. In the interim months awaiting their case, they are subject to bail and with the potential for supervision with specified conditions. Once their case comes to resolution, they are subject to a significant increase in cost at the higher court level.
  • For the defendants who do not dispute the merits of the case but are interested in preserving their record, they often chose to waive their Preliminary Hearing to the higher court and seal: the ARD program. They are then subject to the assessment of bail with potential conditions, often subject to further cost to hire legal counsel to maneuver through the process of the higher court application process; face even more significant court cost at the higher level; and may be Subject to probationary Supervision.

For the sake of transparency, I will state my motive in addressing my concerns is not based on a philosophical stance regarding how Marijuana cases should be prosecuted. Undoubtedly, the approach towards the prosecution of Marijuana cases is in a transitional time period on the national, state, county, and city level. I am also aware that has complicated circumstances specific to the City of Bethlehem, which lies within two differing counties. My motive is purely to strive for an equal playing field for all who appear before this District Court. Right now, that does not currently exist and the result is polarizing. To be as frank as possible, if you are arrested for the charge at hand by Lehigh University, which is a long standing prestigious academic institution, you will likely, by far, be subject to less sanctions, court supervision, and permanent effects than if you are a citizen in the same circumstance from the city streets charged within the same Magisterial District that is all contained within a one square mile radius. I ask how that can be justified. I will not ignore that the demographics between both communities are unarguably vastly differing based on race, ethnicity, and economic levels. Therefore, I stand by my comment made earlier that there is a systemic issue to address here, of which I do not wish to be complicit. I remain hopeful this writing will prompt a closer look at the circumstances at hand and potential for disparity, particularly with the order “Officer discretion to use ordinance, state law or both.”

Sincerely,

Nancy Matos Gonzalez

Bethlehem’s Catch-22: what attracts can also erode

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Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

It’s a “Catch 22” situation in Bethlehem, maybe more than ever before. What is attracting visitors, new residents, and development to Bethlehem is a city with many opportunities and amenities. However, with each of those advances it begins to erode the very quality of life and aura that Bethlehem offers. When will enough be enough? Individually an AirBnB, an out-of-context development, non-compliance may not seem that intrusive. But, when you start looking at the sum total of what is happening, the very characteristics that people find attractive become tarnished, and that sought-after quality of life is no longer maintained. Bethlehem has to be better by establishing standards so that those that come respect those that are already in place in Bethlehem. That is often not happening and is why residents are showing up to defend what they want and like about this town. Unfortunately, greed is often overwhelming what makes sense and builds a sound community, and some politicians are weak-kneed and often influenced by campaign contributions. We who are already here deserve better.

Dana

Concern that our original short-term lodging ordinance isn’t working

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In our last post in this series about the Planning Commission consideration of this proposed new Short-Term Lodging amendment to the City Zoning Ordinance, we listened to discussion led by one Commissioner about limiting the duration of a transient’s stay in short-term lodging and limiting the total time annually in which a home-owner could offer short-term lodging. Both questions related to the impact of short-term lodging on the quality of neighborhood life. Good.

Next, to understand the concern of Bruce Haines, managing partner of the Hotel Bethlehem — and “representing a neighborhood” — one has to back up to the passage in 2017 of the original attempt to control the perceived and experienced dangers of short-term lodging to the Northside Historical District represented by Airbnb: Article 1741.

Article 1741 was designed to address the concerns of neighbors about Airbnb (and no doubt similar businesses), and the current proposed zoning amendment requires that short-term lodging hosts must comply with “all aspects” of 1741.

So here’s Haines framing the purpose of 1741:

Haines’s present “beef,” if you will, is that the zoning amendment under consideration by the Planning Commission does nothing to address the shortcomings of 1741 (shortcomings of enforcement?). He identifies, for example, two specific properties in the Northside Historical District that have separate apartments and thus are not single family homes yet are licensed by the City for short-term lodging — even after being reported to the City.

“The ordinance that’s in place has been an utter failure . . . . and this isn’t going to help it. . . . The only time you should allow transient visitors in a residential community should be if they are sharing the space.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Haines seems to have run into the wall of compartmentalization. The Planning Commission chair focused just on the zoning amendment at that moment before the Commission and not this shortcoming of what we might call the “parent” 1741 ordinance.

And thus all Mr. Haines could do was make known his disappointment that persisting problems with short-term lodging in his neighborhood weren’t being addressed.

And so the long-standing “Airbnb” issue in the Northside Historical District is still not resolved despite legislation supposed to address their concerns.

Still wrestling with Wind Creek

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There are some people with whom you just don’t argue.

One is your barber.

While you are in the chair. Especially for your holiday haircut.

Somehow Wind Creek came up.

And Gadfly stupidly said — as he has said several times in these pages — that the Wind Creek desire to make Bethlehem “the #1 destination in the Northeast” with a waterpark troubles him greatly.

Call him “Mohawk Gadfly” now.

Gadfly has taken somewhat of a beating in circles other than that surrounding the barber pole for holding the negative feeling about Wind Creek’s plan, making remarks about it here, and refusing to automatically genuflect to the Economic Deity.

(After all, he hasn’t even seen any plans or heard any details of the Wind Creek project, so how fair is that feeling?)

And he hasn’t quite been able to articulate why he feels that way. But he’s getting there.

Gadfly has the kind of mind where particles float around looking for a point of coalescence.

Particles like Wind Creek’s #1 destination quote, the goal of Festival UnBound, Dan Church’s line “the city has no jurisdiction over architectural style” (except in the historical districts), the “blending” architecture promoted by the Smith women, a line from one of the Festival UnBound panel members that “it matters who is at the table,” multiple posts and conversations about residents trying to control the quality of life in their neighborhoods, and the  “imploring” letter from the South Bethlehem Historical Society (remember that one?).

Coalescence occurred when a follower recently used the term “creative placemaking,” a term Gadfly had never heard, and a practice fairly new but apparently well known by people who work to shape public spaces, neighborhoods, cities, regions.

Gadfly did some quick google searches. So he’s no expert on “creative placemaking.” But he liked what he was able to glean from some surface reading.

If Gadfly understands “creative placemaking” correctly, artists are instrumental, catalytic in design processes.  And design comes bottom up, design grows out of the community, design is community-led.

Here’s one description of “creative placemaking”:

Creative placemaking refers to the process in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” Creative placemaking advocates believe that community development projects benefit from the participation of artists at the onset of projects, and on the planning and design teams that shape our communities. . . . Forget the traditional, staid public meeting format and instead imagine artists engaging community members using multiple languages to generate meaningful dialogues, capturing their creativity and local knowledge to better inform the ultimate design of the project.

Or, again:

Creative placemaking is a process where community member, artists, arts and culture organizations, community developers, and other stakeholders use arts and cultural strategies to implement community-led change.

Wind Creek has bought some space in “our” town and is now going to give “us” a new identity of its own choosing.

(Or at least so it seems. Maybe there was more interactive discussion behind the scenes.)

Gadfly, as your self-appointed and — ha! — maybe self-serving representative resident, feels forced on his back, forearms at right angles, palms facing up, resisting the overpowering and unquestioned weight of economic argument.

Gadfly is soooo dramatic.

Simply put, Wind Creek is telling us what’s good for us.

Gadfly’s having a hard time with that.

It’s not like we are without an identity now.

Steeples and stacks.

It’s not like we cannot evolve a new identity.

That’s what Festival UnBound was all about.

But steeples and stacks and slides?

Gadfly’s learned there was a different way.

What if Wind Creek had engaged in a collaborative process with us of creative placemaking for that several acres in the southeast end of town instead of decreeing our destiny?

When it comes to creating identity, Gadfly would like to participate.

———

Gadfly’s quick google search on creative placemaking:

American Planning Association

Defining Creative Placemaking (NEA)

Approaches to Creative Placemaking

What is creative placemaking?

2020 budget approved

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City Council adopted the 2020 budget. Gadfly found the budget hearings interesting as always but “un-remarkable” in regard to blog-worthy doin’s, so he didn’t post too much about them.

The handy article in the Morning Call this morning provides an overview of the new budget highlights.

Tax bills won’t go up (yay!) but note bullets #2 and #3 below from the article for increased fees (boo!) for homeowners.

Nicole Radzievich, “What Bethlehem taxpayers can expect from next year’s budget.” Morning Call, December 17, 2019.

  • Real estate taxes will stay the same
  • Sewer bills will be going up
  • Expect a new stormwater fee mid-year
  • The new Memorial Pool will open, but it will cost more to swim there
  • Rentals will be inspected once every three years
  • The city will complete a Climate Action Plan
  • And encourage all residents are counted

Gadfly expects to spend the day watching impeachment coverage — can you?