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Special council meeting on lease initiative postponed due to advertising mixup

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 30 2013 12:25:02 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 03 2013 08:25:08 AM CST
Ray O'Connell and Julio Guridy

Allentown City Council vice president Ray O'Connell and president Julio Guridy

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Allentown City Council blamed an advertising mixup for forcing it to postpone a special meeting long promised to opponents of the administration’s plan to lease the city’s water and sewer systems.

That meeting, which was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, has been postponed until 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8.

Resident Adam Bevan questioned the postponement, saying many people who intend to speak on the issue cleared their schedules to attend the meeting on Thursday night.

Officials explained they legally are required to advertise a meeting in the local newspaper before that meeting can be held.

“The Morning Call did not publish the ad,” said council president Julio Guridy. He asked City Clerk Michael Hanlon to explain what happened.

“For whatever reason, The Morning Call didn’t publish it,” echoed Hanlon.

Hanlon apologized to Bevan but said: “It was nothing nefarious.”

Bevan wasn’t convinced, saying: “I just think it’s very shady, the things that are going on here.” Several people in the room groaned and someone said: “That’s ridiculous.”

“You’re allowed to say anything you want, but you should not insult us,” Guridy told Bevan.

Dan Poresky, one of the leading opponents of the city’s plan to lease the water and sewer systems, said many people may view the postponement of Thursday’s meeting as suspicious. Although he said he was not doing that, Poresky questioned whether the City Clerk’s office failed to provide the information to the newspaper.

Hanlon said a request to advertise the meeting was sent to The Morning Call on Dec. 24, but that advertisement never ran in the paper. “Why it wasn’t advertised I don’t know,” said Hanlon. “I can tell you The Morning Call was very apologetic. This has happened before, but not recently. Unfortunately, it happened this time.”

Poresky said he will be outside council’s chambers before 6 p.m. Thursday to warn people who don’t get the word that the meeting has been postponed. He said people “are going to be looking for somebody to blame.” He will tell them “it was an honest mistake,” that Hanlon sent the meeting notice to The Morning Call “and they failed to publish it.”

Assistant City Solicitor Frances Fruhwirth told council member Jeanette Eichenwald said the fact that the date of the upcoming meeting was included in news reports does not suffice to meet requirements of the state’s Sunshine Law. Fruhwirth indicated a legal ad in a newspaper’s classified advertising section is required to comply with that law.

The sole purpose of the rescheduled meeting is for City Council “to discuss, take public comment and vote on Bill 82."

If council approves that proposed ordinance, a question will be put on the May 21 primary ballot that asks Allentown voters if they want to change the city’s charter so they can decide by referendum whether any city assets worth more than $10 million should be sold or leased.

Poresky also wants council to promptly pass additional legislation to ensure voters will get to decide if they want that lease, before council is faced with signing lease contracts. He fears a lease will be signed long before city residents have a chance to cast any votes on the issue.

A petitioners committee gathered more than 4,000 signatures of city voters to get that $10 million question on the May ballot, which led to the creation of Bill 82.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, council unanimously re-elected Guridy to a second term as president and Ray O’Connell to a second term as vice president.

“Thank you very much,” said Guridy after he was elected. “I will continue to do the hard work I am doing.”

O’Connell thanked his colleagues for their support. “I think we have an excellent council. We have a brain trust here – a lot of wisdom, a lot of experience. Like all my colleagues on council, I care very deeply about the city of Allentown. We’ve had many tough decisions to make in the last year and we’re going to have many more to make in 2013.”

Guridy is beginning his 12th year on council and O’Connell is beginning his fourth year. Both men are Democrats who will have to run for re-election this year.

Council approved hiring four more police officers, each at a base annual salary of $46,856. They are Ryan Alles of Quakertown, Michael Vernotica of Bethlehem, Matthew Christman of Allentown and Michael Lovett of Harrisburg.

Police Chief Roger MacLean said all four patrolmen will be sworn in at 11 a.m. Jan. 10 in City Hall and will on the streets working shortly after being hired, following some training in procedures at the city police academy.

McLean said those four men will give his department 213 police officers. He added another officer is “waiting in the wings. We should be bringing his name forward to you within the next two weeks. He broke his arm, so we have to wait until his arm heals.” He said two more vacant positions have to be filled, adding the department already has begun background checks on candidates based on a new 2013 Civil Service list.

After the meeting, council members said in the last 10 years, the number of city police officers in the department has ranged from less than 190 to 224. They said money is in the 2013 budget to hire up to 220 this year.

In response to a question from Eichenwald, the police chief said none of the four new officers are female or minorities. He said the department currently has 19 Hispanics, six African-Americans and 11 females.

Guridy encouraged the chief to keep working hard to recruit more minorities and women to the police department. Said MacLean: “We do that as much as we can within the constraints of Civil Service.”

MacLean reminded council that police officers do not have to be Allentown residents.

Council member Peter Schweyer said whenever possible council should support “any opportunity we have to promote somebody that lives in the city of Allentown to a taxpayer-funded job.”

Schweyer said many people have Allentown mailing addresses, but actually live in surrounding townships. Council does not make public specific addresses of police, but Schweyer was skeptical the four new patrolmen actually live in Allentown, Bethlehem, Quakertown and Harrisburg. He suggested in the future they should be identified by the municipalities in which they live.

In response to suggestions from two residents that the city should do more to publicize swearing-in ceremonies for new police officers and fire fighters, officials said the city issues news releases to local media and announces those ceremonies on its Web site. Schweyer suggested they also should be announced when council hires new officers.