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Lehigh County commissioners narrowly reject humans services director nominee

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 13 2014 06:11:37 AM CDT
Lehigh County human services director candidate Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

In a 5-4 vote Wednesday night, Lehigh County commissioners narrowly rejected the appointment of Thomas A. Walker to become the county's next human services director.

Walker, who has been human services director at the Lehigh County Conference of Churches for 13 years, was nominated for the position by county Executive Thomas Muller.

Commissioners did not offer any opinions on the merits of Walker's qualifications for the position before their Wednesday night vote.

After the meeting, Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the nine commissioners, said she can't speak for the other four commissioners who joined her in voting against Walker, "but it really came down to his experiences and the qualifications he came to the job with. It's a very, very significant department."

After the meeting, Muller responded to the rejection of his candidate.

"I'm disappointed that certain commissioners with little management experience or human services knowledge chose to vote against such a well-qualified individual as Tom Walker," said Muller. "It's another example of partisan politics at its worst.

"That said, I will present them with another candidate in the near future."

Joining Scheller in voting against Walker were Thomas Creighton, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott and Michael Schware. All are Republicans and most frequently are at odds with Muller, who is a Democrat.

The four commissioners voting for Walker were Geoff Brace, Percy Dougherty, David Jones and Brad Osborne. Brace and Jones are the only Democrats among the nine commissioners.

In late February, after much debate over four meetings, commissioners voted 5-4 to approve Muller's appointment of Daniel McCarthy as the county's new director of administration. In that vote, Creighton voted with the majority for McCarthy.

All the commissioners attended an intergovernmental and appointments committee meeting before their main meeting, where Walker again was introduced and invited to speak.

He previously had responded in writing to seven questions submitted to him by commissioners.

"This position is a significant one in terms of administrative responsibility and also service to the community," said Osborne, who chairs that committee.

Osborne said the human services budget comprises about 39 percent of the total county budget, "a significant amount of money." He said it also has about 13.5 percent of the county's total employees.

Mazziotti, who also is on that committee, provided figures showing the county's human services department has 273 people and a $137.8 million budget.

Walker previously told commissioners the Conference of Churches has 28 employees and he manages about a dozen, three of them directly.

Saying he was going to the root of the concern some commissioners -"including myself" -- have about Walker's ability to handle the position, Osborne challenged the appointee "to convince this board that you can do this job."

Rather then responding directly, Walker talked about the growing need for human services in the county, while "there are shrinking dollars to meet that need."

"If confirmed to the human services director position, I intend to guide the human services department - and all of our departments - toward facing head-on the challenges ahead," said Walker.

He talked in detail about four key areas where he would make improvements and reviewed his strengths and accomplishments.

Walker concluded by telling commissioners: "It is my sincere hope that you will have me as your next human services director and I ask for your favorable vote tonight."

Osborne's committee declined to make a recommendation for or against Walker to the full board of commissioners.

When first introduced to commissioners as Muller's nominee in February, Walker said he has 15 years of experience managing non-profit organizations.

Walker also said he is the co-chair of the local Commission to End Chronic Homelessness.

Action on homelessness

Also during the meeting, commissioners formally and unanimously agreed that one of them should serve on that Allentown-Lehigh County Commission to End Chronic Homelessness.

If the city agrees, one county commissioner will be appointed by Scheller to serve on that commission.

Commissioner Geoff Brace, who proposed the resolution to do that, explained a parallel proposal will go before Allentown City Council at its next meeting, to also get a member of City Council on that commission.

Brace stressed getting elected officials from the city and county on the commission will be only "a starting point to a very broad conversation" needed to address the issue.

His resolution was co-sponsored by Osborne and Ott.

"It is a good first step in opening up a conversation," agreed Ott, who added he would like to be appointed to the commission or permitted "to tag along" with whomever the chairwoman appoints.

"We've got to figure out exactly what the county's role is with regard to these issues and how we can best coordinate and interface with all the various entities that are participating in this," said Ott.

Ott noted that individual county commissioners and City Council members do not have any authority or any control over the operations of their organizations. Both Ott and Osborne indicated support will be needed from the county and city administrative staffs.

Said Osborne: "In and of itself, a commissioner sitting on this board means nothing unless there is a support system behind it."

Some commissioners suggested they arrange a hearing to better understand the county's role in addressing the homeless issue. Ott said such a hearing should include diverse voices rather than "just taking the administration's account of things as the full extent of our knowledge."

New location for committee meetings

Commissioners voted 7-2 to approve Scheller's proposal that their committee meetings should be held "on an on-going basis" in the main meeting room on the first floor of the county government center, just off Center Square in Allentown.

Until Wednesday night, meetings of the commissioners' various committees usually were held in their conference room on the fourth floor of the government center.

A series of committee meetings usually begin as early as 5:30 p.m. on the same Wednesdays that commissioners meetings are held.

Commissioners sit around a table in that small conference room, which also has chairs along one wall.

Much of the discussion leading up to action during the main commissioners meetings takes place in those committee meetings, which also are open to the public.

In addition to members of the county's administration, those committee meetings usually are attended by only a couple of reporters and one member of the public - in a county with a population of more than
355,000 people.

Scheller later explained why she proposed the change: "There's more room down here and in my estimation it makes the meeting more public. People feel this hearing room is a public place, rather than being crammed up in our little conference room."

She also said "it's a more neutral place" than the commissioners' conference room.

Schware called it a great idea, saying it's better for the public, because the glass-enclosed main meeting room is just inside the S. 7th Street entrance to the government center.

Mazziotti also liked the idea, but expressed some reservation about commissioners sitting behind the dais in the main meeting room during committee meetings, saying "it's a little uncomfortable talking to people" from behind it.

"It doesn't seem as informal. That's one of the advantages of being face-to-face at a table."

Mazziotti suggested commissioners might sit around a table in the meeting room for committee meetings, rather than behind the dais.

Osborne agreed the dais may make the committee meetings more "uninviting" than commissioners want, but added the fourth floor conference room also is uninviting because it's crowded, without much seating.

Creighton and Jones voted against changing the location of committee meetings, without saying why they opposed the change before the vote.

"I just like it the way it is," explained Creighton after the meeting. He said he keeps notes and other materials in the commissioners' office next to that fourth floor conference room, so he readily can get up and retrieve whatever he needs for a committee meeting.

New lease with Velodrome deferred

Commissioners voted 6-3 to delay action on a renewing a long-term lease with operators of the Velodrome, the world famous bicycle racetrack in Trexlertown that officially is known as Valley Preferred Cycling Center.

They plan to arrange a joint public meeting with the Velodrome's board of directors.

That meeting, at a time and place to be announced, will be for commissioners to learn more about the operation before acting on the lease.

The current lease doesn't expire until 2018, but some commissioners have concerns about extending it for 20 years beyond that.

They also don't like that the proposed lease includes language that requires the county to help pay for electricity at the site.

Marty Nothstein, the Velodrome's executive director, said he would welcome what Ott called a board-to-board get together about the county's future relationship with that property.

"A lot of commissioners may not understand the history of the Velodrome, what it really provides to the community," said Nothstein.

"Most people think of the Velodrome as a place where Olympic athletes and professional racers compete. That's just a small piece of the pie.

The majority of what we do are free community programs offered to kids
- the same program I went through as a 15-year-old, and then went off to win the Olympic Games. There is so much more to the Velodrome than just the professional racing that goes on there."

Jones, one of the three commissioners who voted against delaying action on the lease, questioned what information commissioners will be looking to gain, and "to make what determination," by meeting with the Velodrome's board.

Schware said some commissioners also are concerned about plans by the Velodrome to begin doing fund-raising to build a wellness center.

Nothstein said development of a wellness center on the property still is in its infancy stages.

Dougherty and Brace also voted against deferring action on the lease.