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11 candidates questioned for 1 Bethlehem City Council seat

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 31 2014 05:05:54 AM CST
Updated On: Jan 31 2014 09:27:53 AM CST
Bethlehem City Council candidate Ronald Heckman

Bethlehem City Council candidate Ronald Heckman

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

For nearly six hours, members of Bethlehem City Council questioned 11 candidates for one vacant seat on council.

The special meeting began at 7 p.m. Thursday and ended just before 1 a.m. Friday, with one 10-minute potty break.

Each candidate was interviewed for about 30 minutes by five council members.

The process will continue at 7 p.m. Monday, when City Council holds another special public meeting to begin deciding which of the 11 will get picked. If they can't agree on Monday night, they will continue deliberating at their next regular meeting on Tuesday night. The candidate selected immediately will be sworn in.

Council president J. William Reynolds said council members need a few days to observe all they heard and review their notes. He explained council members will nominate their preferences Monday night and it will not be necessary for those nominations to be seconded. Council then will deliberate and vote on nominated candidates.

When the meeting ended, council member Karen Dolan said she has decided to support Sonya Vazquez, because Vazquez will represent the Latino community and has her roots in south Bethlehem.

Dolan stressed Vazquez is top-notch in all other areas - even if she was not female, Latino and had connections to south Bethlehem.

At one point during the meeting, Dolan said City Council needs more diversity.

After the meeting, she noted that she is the only woman on council although 53 percent of Bethlehem's residents are female. She said council has no shortage of young white men.

Based on questions and answers, it was impossible to gauge whether any of the other council members had a favorite candidate by Friday morning.

Robert Donchez, the city's new mayor, sat through the entire meeting, but did not join his former colleagues in asking questions. The person appointed will serve through 2015, completing the last two years of Donchez's term on council. His council seat became vacant when he was elected mayor in November.

Far fewer people were in the audience Thursday night than attended City Council's Monday night meeting, when each of the candidates was given five minutes to make an initial presentation about why he or she should be selected. Council asked no questions at that meeting.

Candidates spoke in alphabetically order Monday night, so Reynolds reversed the order Thursday night. Some council members asked all the candidates the same questions, which gave those being interviewed later in the evening the opportunity to at least think about how they would respond.

Before the interviews begin, Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, told council: "You've got an embarrassment of riches in the candidates you've got tonight."

Jennings said he was not there on behalf of any single candidate, but on behalf "of a desperately under-represented constituency." He said one in four Bethlehem residents is Latino - "in south Bethlehem half are Latino"-- but no Latinos are on council.

"Admittedly, lower income and minority residents are not participating in the electoral process adequately to translate into power at the polls," said Jennings. "If we had district elections, that problem would take care of itself.

"But I hope you agree that our community is enriched by its diversity and we are strengthened by our inclusion, not exclusion. People who feel left out often learn apathy. They give up. Having leaders, role models from their ranks, can reverse that alienation. .Please make the statement that we welcome everyone."

Until Thursday night, Vazquez was the only candidate who identified herself as Latino. On Monday night, candidate Michael Colon mentioned that he was bi-lingual. When Colon was interviewed Friday morning, he said he is both bi-lingual and Hispanic.

Colon was the last candidate interviewed, beginning at 12:24 a.m.

Dolan praised Colon, saying his activities and his commitment to volunteerism set him apart. She said Vazquez and Ron Heckman were the only other candidates she would equate with him, regarding his ability to deal with people. "That's quite powerful company I would put you in,"
she said.

Recently-elected council member Adam Waldron told Colon: "I can't help but notice your age and gender. And looking up here, we don't lack a young male presence on council. How would you speak to that lack of diversity?"

Colon said when he was born should not be held against him. "I bring a different perspective" He said gender, race and age do not "necessarily put you in the same mindset with your colleagues."

Waldron complimented Colon for regularly attending City Council meetings, saying he had never seen a lot of the other candidates at a council meeting.

Some members of council told Vazquez, who is a principal in a city elementary school, that council already has at least two teachers and one retired teacher among its six current members. Vazquez stressed she is an administrator, not a teacher, and deals with budgeting and other issues similar to those faced by City Council. "I have not been a teacher for over 20 years," she said.

Dolan, who asked some of the toughest questions of the night, told her colleagues that City Council always has had a policy that it would not automatically appoint people to positions if they had run but not won.

She was referring to candidates David Sanders and Stephen Melnick, who ran for City Council but lost last November. She indicated that does not mean council should not appoint Melnick or Sanders, adding: "I'm not always for tradition; I'm just sharing this with you." But she indicated they should be considered on their strengths, not on the fact that they ran for council.

Reynolds said more than half the city's budget is spent on emergency services.

Recently-elected council member Bryan Callahan told the candidates that this year City Council may be faced with cutting police and firefighters or imposing a "slight" tax increase. He asked each candidate which way they would vote.

Most did not want to cut police or firefighters. Most said they would support a tax increase. But many also said they would hope other ways could be found to generate more revenue for the city - primarily through economic development.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Callahan noted: "The more people we listen to tonight, it seems like it's going to be a harder and harder choice for us."

A few minutes later, Reynolds noted all the candidates "have brought something unique to the table."

Council member Michael Recchiuti made a point of thanking each candidate for applying for the vacancy. He asked each what sets him or her apart from the others and what platform they would run on if they were running for council. He also asked if they intended to run for a full term on council if they are appointed.

Most of the candidates said they would run for a full term. But Thomas Miller was one of the exceptions -- and drew one of the few laughs during a very long night.

"I'm 84 now," Miller told Recchiuti. "If I'm picked for this job, I'll be 86. If I ran, I'd be 90. So no, no sir. You can have two years. "

Another issue discussed was trying again to get "payments in lieu of taxes" as a revenue generator from large non-profits in the city - specifically St. Luke's Hospital, Lehigh University and Moravian College. Most candidates asked supported that idea.

Another issue that may come before council again is a proposal to have a single trash hauler serve the entire city, which candidates who were asked said they supported.

Several also supported the idea of having council members elected from specific districts in the city. And Miller stressed the old Boyd Theater should be brought back to life.

Reynolds asked candidates what they think will be the toughest part of being a member of City Council, the biggest challenge they feel is facing the city and their top goal if they get on council.

Just before the final interview ended, Recchiuti observed that all 11 candidates had stayed to the end and complimented them for doing so.

"I probably would have left," he said. "It's way past my bedtime."

The other candidates are Bruce Smackey, Jeremy Sistito, Lynn Fryman Rothman, Cathy Reuscher and Melody Frey.

After most of the candidates spoke, Reynolds said he appreciated the honesty of their responses, saying it took political courage to do so.

"Whoever ends up getting the support of council is clearly someone who will be able to do the right thing rather than just say the right thing. All the candidates deserve a lot of respect."

Council member Eric Evans was not at the meeting.