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Bethlehem City Council meets 12 candidates for one vacancy

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 28 2014 04:35:21 AM CST
Updated On: Jan 28 2014 11:45:48 AM CST
Bethlehem council candidate Sonia Vazuquez

Bethlehem council candidate Sonia Vazuquez

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

In a city where 25 percent of the population is Hispanic, should an Hispanic be appointed the next member of Bethlehem City Council?

Or, in a city where almost half the population is age 50 and older and as many as 25 percent are 65 and older, does City Council need an advocate for its older residents?

On a City Council where all members live north of the Lehigh River, should council appoint a resident who lives in south Bethlehem?

Or should it appoint someone with Wall Street caliber international financial experience to help guide Bethlehem for the next two years?

Those are some of the tough questions members of City Council are wrestling with this week, after hearing from a dozen applicants for one vacancy during its committee-of-the-whole meeting Monday night.

"This is nearly an impossible decision for us," said new council president J. William Reynolds after the 12 candidates spoke.

One man or woman will be appointed sometime within the next week. He or she will serve through 2015, completing the last two years of the term of former council member Robert Donchez, who was elected Bethlehem's new mayor in November.

Although Donchez is a Democrat, Reynolds said city residents of any political party were able to apply for the vacant seat on council.

Each applicant was given up to five minutes to speak Monday night, a rule carefully enforced by Reynolds. Only a couple of them still were speaking when their time ran out on the red digital clock facing them.

After all the candidates spoke, Reynolds invited anyone in the audience to also speak for five minutes.

The most popular candidate of the night was Sonia Vazquez, a Bethlehem native who is principal at Donegan Community Elementary School in the city.

Seven of the nine people who spoke at the end of the meeting encouraged council to pick Vazquez. They praised her as a talented teacher, a creative administrator, a tireless problem-solver, a community builder and an inspiring leader.

Because the candidates made their pitches in alphabetical order, Vazquez was the last to speak to council.

She said she will provide a perspective that has been missing on City Council.

"Bethlehem reached a 24 percent Latino population during the last census and the number continues to rise, but Latino people remain a disenfranchised group," said Vazquez. "I can provide the perspective you are presently lacking."

Five of council's six current members are male. Five of the candidates to fill the seventh seat are women.

Town Hall was filled with friends and families of the 12 candidates.

Reynolds asked the audience not to applaud until everyone had spoken.

Reynolds said none of the candidates being considered ever served on City Council before, but three have run for council -David Sanders, Stephen Melnick and Ronald Heckman. He said Heckman ran in 2007 and Sanders and Melnick ran last year.

Although council members already had their resumes and cover letters, some candidates stressed their professional and community qualifications more than focusing on what strengths or ideas they will bring to City Council

"Because a large segment of our population is elderly, I would like to give a voice to the elderly," said candidate Marlene Burkey, the first candidate to speak. She said she is an advocate for senior citizens and active with the Steelworkers Archives.

Burkey got the best laugh of the night when she thanked city police and ambulance personnel. "They always come to our high-rise and they're very courteous to us when they are carrying us out...either to the hospital or the morgue."

Michael Colon, coordinator of volunteers at Northampton County's Gracedale nursing home, said he is bi-lingual, which he stressed will be an asset in communicating with Spanish-speaking residents. He said he would not have a problem walking into any neighborhood and knocking on any door to talk to people about issues they may not feel they can bring before City Council.

"I'm a young guy who fell in love with the city he grew up in," said Colon. "I like to show young college graduates that there is opportunity here in the city. They don't have to worry about moving to Philadelphia or moving to New York after they graduate. They can make a life for themselves here."

Colon said he will be effective legislator on behalf of those who live in every corner of the city, as well as those who work in or visit Bethlehem.

Melody Frey said her professional background is in financial analysis and institutional investing on Wall Street.

Frey brought back some memories when she said her father worked at Bethlehem Steel and her family would schedule any errands around steel traffic patterns, particularly shift changes "because traffic was so heavy."

Frey said she was positive Bethlehem would become a ghost town when Bethlehem Steel went out of business, but instead it has experienced "an amazing rebirth." She said the key to the city's success has been diversification of industry. "That diversification has been the saving grace of this city," she said. "Cities around the country are looking at us to see what we've accomplished."

Her priorities on council will include increasing revenues while controlling costs and spending. "We also need to find a way to expand the Sands [Casino] revenue for tax stabilization." She said there also is an increased need for public safety. "While I truly feel safe walking the streets, we must maintain our vigilance."

Heckman, a Northampton County Council member for more than eight years, indicated he is an advocate of open government and fiscal transparency. "I never voted for a property tax increase, although I never closed my mind to the possibility," said Heckman.

Heckman said numerous Bethlehem residents live on fixed incomes, while others are stretching their incomes to try to keep pace with rising costs.

"Based on current demographics, residents aged 50 and over make up almost half of our city's population, with those 65 and over making up over 25 percent of all residents," said Heckman. "I understand these struggles and want to give voice to the need for balancing quality services with fiscally responsible government that recognizes the cumulative impact of local taxes and fees on family budgets."

Heckman also has served on the city's redevelopment authority for 10
years and was director of the Northampton County Department of
Humans Services for eight years.

Melnick, a small business advisor, said he worked on many major development projects in the city, including getting Hotel Bethlehem out of bankruptcy and back into operation.

Melnick supports investigating going to a ward system to elect council members in the city. "That way residents of all corners of our community can elect qualified candidates from their own neighborhoods."

"Individual council people don't often get enough information," said Melnick. "I know what questions to ask. I know how to get things done. I would make an ideal addition to council and together we would become a formidable body."

Thomas Miller admitted to council that he is a complete outsider. "I
am not a political person, I never ran for anything. I'm a registered Democrat who votes in every election. I don't have any political connections in the city or in this room tonight. But there are some experiences of value I can bring to the City Council."

Miller said he retired early as a senior vice president of Bankers Trust Company, now Deutsche Bank, which was the sixth largest bank in the United States. He managed a department that financed commodities throughout the world. He said he has analyzed thousands of financial plans and budgets. "I can bring that expertise to the city."

Miller said he retired early because "banking was going into the sewers at that time. When my CEO one morning suggested I leave my morals at the door when I came to work, I headed for the door."

Miller also touched on the age issue, saying "I see a rather youngish council in front of me, in the 30s and 40s. And yet 20 percent of the population of our city is over 65 years of age."

Cathy Reuscher said she decided to apply for City Council when she realized it has no representatives from the south side of the city. "I do firmly believe both sides of the Lehigh River should be represented in the city," said Reuscher, who lives on Brighton Street.

"I love that while our city is firmly rooted in history, it is successfully growing into the future," said Reuscher, who called herself a community organizer. She said she is an advocate for better environmental planning.

Reuscher stressed the need for a downtown grocery store that is within walking distance of residents.

Lynn Fryman Rothman offered council both leadership skill and environmental expertise.

She is congregation president at Temple Beth El in Allentown, responsible for both finances and fund raising.

She also is a former environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency and a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers.

She said she often appeared before citizens at town meetings when working for the federal government. As president of the synagogue, she said some of her duties are similar to those of City Council, including approving the budget, appointing people to committees and acting on concerns of constituents.

Sanders, vice chairman of the Bethlehem Housing Authority, said everybody on City Council knows who he is.

Declaring "I'm going to make this easy," he argued only two people in the room --- "Mr. Melnick and myself" - are most qualified to serve on council because they both unsuccessfully ran to be elected to council.. He said the other 11 candidates have not put in their time campaigning. He said more than 2,000 people voted for him and Melnick.

While council is only filling on vacancy, Sanders asked that both of them be given the opportunity to serve on council.

Sanders was supported by resident Lou Zsido, who later told council Sanders deserves the seat because he campaigned in the last election for City Council. "It would be much easier for you guys to take the top vote-getter and give him that seat. The people of Bethlehem spoke, that's what we have elections for. You guys would be well served to give that seat to Dave Sanders."

Jeremy Sestito, a senior accountant in the international accounting department at PPL Corporation, said he lives in Bethlehem for almost three years.

Sestito's priorities for the city are public safety - "police and fire," continuing the momentum on redevelopment and maintaining a balanced budget.

He said City Council has a well-rounded board "but I think you need an accountant. You need someone with that experience."

Sestito said before making decisions at any council meeting, he'll ask
himself: "What's best for Bethlehem?"

Bruce Smackey is a management consultant and professor emeritus of marketing and manufacturing systems engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

He said economic development is the top priority of the city.

Smackey said: "In the past five years City Council and the mayor's office have kept total revenue and total expenditures to slightly less than four percent of a compound rate. This is quite an accomplishment given the almost brink of total collapse of the financial markets in 2008."

But he added earned income tax has only grown at 1.5 percent compound rate, which he called troubling because earned income is a barometer of economic development.

Vazquez told council she was born and raised in south Bethlehem, but now lives on the west side of town.

She said she is not afraid to make decisions that are not popular but necessary for the goal of keeping the best interests of people in mind. "Do I have all the answers now? No. But given the opportunity to learn all the different perspectives on each issue, I can assure the residents of Bethlehem that I will provide them with accurate and efficient solutions to address their concerns."

She said Bethlehem needs more financial responsibility and efficiency in city services. She said areas of concern are public safety and code enforcement with landlords.

What happens next

Reynolds said council initially had 16 applicants for the council seat, but three withdrew their names before Monday night's meeting.

The 13th applicant did not show up Monday night, but Reynolds said that does not eliminate him from consideration by council. He is Dr.
Andre Simon, an adjunct professor at DeSales University in Center Valley.

Council will meet again with the candidates at 7 p.m. Thursday in Town Hall.

That meeting will begin with public comment, then council members will ask candidates questions for the first time. Depending on how long that takes, Reynolds said deliberations to select an appointee may at least begin Thursday night.

"It's very unlikely that the majority of us are going to agree on who our first choice could be," predicted Reynolds.

If a decision has not been reached at the conclusion of Thursday night's meeting, council will reconvene Monday for another meeting to select an appointee.

"Hopefully we will be able to come to a conclusion and that person will be able to join us on Tuesday for our regularly scheduled City Council meeting," said Reynolds. But he added it's possible the final decision won't be made until Tuesday night's meeting.

Reynolds indicated council intentionally decided not to ask any questions Monday night, so all the candidates could make their five-minute presentations. He said if questions were taken Monday, the meeting might have gone for "three, four, five hours" and it might have gotten very late before some candidates could even speak.

Reynolds encouraged those who don't get picked to run for a seat on City Council next year.

On Tuesday,both Marlene Burkey and Andre Simon withdrew their names from consideration for council, according to city officials.