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Allentown City Council tackles flooding and clean air controveries

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 19 2013 06:08:27 AM CDT
Updated On: Sep 19 2013 02:01:39 PM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

City administrators were pressed to take action to solve chronic flooding problems in Allentown’s West End, rather than studying the problem for up to a year.

Those calls for action to help West End residents came during Wednesday night’s City Council meeting.

In another matter at the meeting, two members of City Council were thwarted by their colleagues when they attempted to resurrect a proposed clean air ordinance for the city.

Council was told the Lehigh County Board of Elections will be sued for refusing to put that proposed law on the November ballot, where it would be decided by city voters. Council also was told some who still want to see that proposal on the ballot plan to attend Friday morning’s election board meeting.

Gail Tannenbaum, who lives on the 2200 block of W. Allen Street, went to the meeting to “educate” council about repeated flooding in the West End, which she said is caused by insufficiently sized sewer pipes “in several spots throughout our area.”

She said the city has known for at least 31 years that a flooding problem exists in that part of town, flooding she said has damaged more than 500 buildings.

She gave council members copies of a report done by the city in January 1985 that recommended expanding the West End sewer system.

“The city has been negligent in repairing the problem and therefore financially liable for all past and future damages,” charged Tannenbaum.

“My suggestion is you expedite the repair process to avoid future financial responsibilities. We will be legally dipping into the city’s wallet each and every time it floods until the problem is fixed.”

Tannenbaum said the city should have made repairs to end those problems before spending “a massive amount of money” to renovate the 19th Street theater district, which she noted is among the neighborhoods that get flooded.

“I can’t believe any businesses are willing to operate on or around 19th Street after being hit by floods time after time.”

She told council that property values of hundreds of West End residents plummeted overnight after being flooded by the Aug. 29 storm. She noted reduced property values result in reduced property taxes the city can collect.

On Sept. 12, many top city officials met with about 40 angry West End residents in City Hall to discuss the flooding issue. Officials said a new hydrology study, which could take up to one year to complete, must be done before any work is done to end the problem.

“It’s an issue without an easy solution, but an issue we’re going to address,” promised city managing director Francis Dougherty Wednesday. He told council about the study and also said city’s newly organized storm sewer division will take a much harder look at storm sewer operations.

“What concerns me are words like ‘study’ and ‘a harder look’,” said council member Jeanette Eichenwald. “What about action?”

“In my lexicon, that means action,” said Dougherty.

“I don’t think we need a study for a year,” said council vice president Ray O’Connell, who lives in the West End and drove through flooded areas that night.

“It’s a problem, it has to be resolved. We need action.

“These people can’t go through this storm after storm. The city government has a responsibility to help these people.”

O’Connell asked city administrations to provide council with periodic updates on progress they are making to solve the problem.

“Expedite the situation,” he told them. “We owe the citizens of Allentown action.”
“We don’t need more studies,” echoed another resident who did not identify himself when he addressed council. “Everybody knows what the problem is. Just fix the damn problem.”

Controversy over clean air ordinance continues

Rich Fegley, who represents Allentown Residents for Clean Air, which led the clean air ordinance petition drive, told council the election board will be sued because “it has no right whatsoever to keep this off the ballot.”

“We expect this to be on the ballot in November,” said Fegley.

Fegley asked City Council to step in and demand the election board put it back on the ballot. He said council at least should ask the election board to justify and explain its decision.

When met with silence, Fegley said: “I feel embarrassed that council doesn’t want to help with this. Council being silent on this is really council turning its back on its citizens.”

He said the election board has not explained how it is authorized to keep the proposed ordinance from Allentown voters, in contradiction of the city’s home rule charter. He said the election board has no mandated approval role and its decision is not based on any legal standard.

On June 19, City Council voted 5-1 to table taking action on the clean air ordinance, which was brought before it via petitions signed by 2,175 city voters.

That vote automatically sent the 15-page proposal to the election board to go on the November ballot in Allentown, so city voters could decide if they want it to become law.

On August 27, the election board rejected putting it on the ballot.

It was the second time this year that county election officials rejected ballot initiatives by Allentown residents to have city voters decide if proposals should become new laws.

In February, they ruled that another initiative aimed at stopping the lease of the city’s water and sewer operations would not appear on the May ballot. More than 4,000 residents had signed petitions to get that proposal on the ballot.

Resident David McGuire also said the proposed clean air ordinance should go on the November ballot and also called on council to help residents.

Declaring “we’re being hoodwinked on this,” McGuire asked City Council to request and make public all correspondence between the city and the election board, the state Department of Environmental Resources, Delta Thermo Energy – the company that plans to build the plant that spurred the proposed clean air ordinance -- “and their attorneys and their consultants.”

McGuire said the authors of Allentown’s city charter intentionally included language that allows residents to petition to change laws through referendums and initiatives via elections. “It is there to be used.”

McGuire said residents are being bashed for taking a civic interest. He warned council: “You’re losing support for our political process; you’re turning off citizens. It is so hard to get young people involved and to get citizens in your neighborhood to come out to vote.”

McGuire announced that the election board will meet at 8:30 a.m. Friday. The stated purpose of that meeting is to approve the ballot to be used in the Nov. 5 election “and for general purposes.”

McGuire questioned why the election board is meeting at that time of day.
Fegley said the issue of getting the proposed ordinance back on the November ballot will be discussed at the election board meeting.

No luck bringing proposal back before council

Eichenwald said she and O’Connell wanted to bring the issue up for discussion at Wednesday’s council meeting, but they needed a third signature from one of their other five colleagues on council. They could not get it.

“I find this distressing,” she said, adding City Council meetings should be opportunities for public discussion and public information.

Clarifying what happened after the meeting, O’Connell said he and Eichenwald needed a third signature to bring the proposed air pollution ordinance back onto the floor of council – not just for discussion, but for reconsideration. “We needed three signatures because it was called a repetitive bill – we already introduced it and tabled it. It was repetition.”

“You’ve sided on the side of money,” resident Michele Bowers told the five council members who did not support Eichenwald and O’Connell. “That’s very disappointing.”

Resident Glenn S. Hunsicker said most on council are not representing citizens. He advised them to “vacate your seats and sit behind the mayor; that’s all you’re doing.”

Resident Lou Hershman told council it is not governing; only letting Mayor Ed Pawlowski govern.