Allentown’s City Council plans three April public meetings on the city’s proposed water and sewer lease, with a final vote to approve that lease set for April 24 -- but council would not allow residents to speak about that lease during its Wednesday night meeting.
Resident Rich Fegley confronted City Council about that refusal, saying nothing in the city charter prohibits the public from speaking about issues on the agenda of a City Council meeting.
“You guys cheated, you broke the rules,” Fegley told council, to enthusiastic applause. “You made up your own rules.”
The situation threatened to become chaotic, with people noisily walking out of the meeting at Fegley’s suggestion and a police officer approaching Fegley at the podium.
At the beginning of the meeting, Council President Julio Guridy announced people could speak on anything they like during “courtesy of the floor,” but added: “You can only speak on things that are not on the agenda.”
Guridy noted both a bill and a resolution regarding the water and sewer lease were on the agenda, adding: “We will not speak about those tonight.”
Later Guridy elaborated: “When we introduce an ordinance or a resolution, we don’t discuss it; we send it to a committee.”
Guridy promised the public can speak “as much as you want” about the lease at council meetings on April 17, April 22 and April 24. “We’ll be here as long as you like.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Ed Pawlowski announced Lehigh County Authority was the winning bidder for the lease, offering the city $220 million. That bid must be approved by City Council.
A larger-than-usual crowd was at council’s Wednesday meeting, Many wore red (or cranberry) to demonstrate their opposition to the lease. “Save Allentown’s Water” yard signs were being distributed outside the meeting room.
Twice people addressing council asked how many were there about the lease and twice hands shot up all over the room. The rowdy crowd repeatedly ignored Guridy’s request that they not applaud, cheer and whistle for other speakers.
Because residents who stood to address council were not allowed to talk about lease issues, several asked questions about the lease approval process.
Fegley stood to challenge council’s refusal to allow people to speak about the lease after two other people unsuccessfully asked council to suspend its rules so people could weigh in on news of the LCA bid.
Fegley repeatedly challenged council to give him “an official reading” of where the city’s charter or council’s own rules state an item on a meeting agenda cannot be spoken about by the public. “I would like someone to read it right now. Please tell me where it states that.”
His request was met with silence from the five council members at the meeting, as well as from Assistant City Solicitor Dale Wiles.
“I take that as it doesn’t state it anywhere and nobody knows,” said Fegley.
When Fegley said council did not follow proper procedure, Guridy said council has been following the same procedure “for as long as I can remember. For the 12 years I’ve been here, that has been the rule.”
But City Clerk Michael Hanlon told Fegley: “It’s a tradition, not a rule.”
Fegley told council: “You shut us down this evening.” He same many people came to the meeting to speak on the lease, but several gave up and left after Guridy said they could not.
“You guys are trying to stop the voice of the public,” said Fegley, to cheers and loud applause. Fegley asked everyone to walk out of the meeting and many people did.
Guridy told Fegley he did not have to yell at council.
Fegley said he was very angry: “I don’t feel anyone’s listening.”
“We are listening,” said Guridy.
“No, you’re not,” said a chorus of people in the audience.
When Guridy said he was going to move forward, Fegley said: “I’m not going to sit down… I won’t accept that.” He again was applauded.
“You’re obviously trying to be argumentative, sir,” said Guridy.
Fegley said he would have not been as angry if Guridy had announced the public could comment on the lease when council got to the proposed lease ordinance and resolution on the agenda.
Guridy claimed: “That’s exactly what I said.”
Replied a stunned Fegley: “No, you didn’t say that.”
A police officer who was on duty at the council meeting approached Fegley at the podium. When Fegley asked why, someone in the audience joked: “Because you’re not following tradition.”
“You want this gentleman to take me away?” asked Fegley. “Have I broken the law, speaking up as a citizen? Does everyone see this? I am not breaking the law.”
Council vice president Ray O’Connell asked the police officer to back down and he did. O’Connell told Fegley: “I don’t want anybody to escort you out. You don’t deserve that.”
O’Connell promised Fegley, who owns Allentown Brew Works: “We’ve been listening and I will continue to listen. That’s all I can tell you.”
Fegley twice asked that both the lease resolution and bill be taken off the agenda for two weeks, until the next regular council meeting.
He also said the time limit placed on people who stand to address council – three minutes for individuals, five minutes for those representing organizations – is only imposed by council’s president. He said the city charter states residents have an unlimited amount of time to speak about anything.
Resident William Hoffman, the first person to address council, asked if Guridy could waive the rule prohibiting people from speaking about the lease. Guridy said he would not. Bethlehem resident Al Wirth later asked for the same the thing.
That time, after repeatedly asking people to not applaud, Guridy said “it is possible” to suspend the rules and allow people to speak, but made no attempt to do so.
Resident Kathryn Hoffman was met with shouts and applause when she said she will not vote for any council member who did not allow city residents to vote on the lease issue. Five of council’s seven members are up for election in the May 21 primary.
In response to questions from the audience, Guridy said council will meet as committee-of–the-whole at the April 17 meeting, which he said will start at 5:30 p.m.
At that meeting, council will cast its first votes on a water ordinance bill adopting rates and charges in the lease agreement and on a resolution authorizing the administration to enter into that agreement, according to council member Peter Schweyer.
He explained proposed ordinances are voted on twice, first by a committee – in this case the full council as committee-of-the-whole -- and then a final vote. He said resolutions can be voted on once or twice, but this one will be voted on twice.
Also at that April 17 meeting, said Guridy, the mayor will do a presentation about the lease. He said PFM, the city’s lead consultant on the lease, will be there and added if time permits, Dan Koplish, City Council’s consultant on the lease deal, will speak about standard operating procedures.
Later Guridy promised resident Tom Hahn that lease opponents will be permitted to do a Power Point presentation at the April 17 meeting. Hahn said they need more than five minutes. “We can allow that,” said Guridy.
At the April 22 meeting, said Guridy, council will discuss a report from the Pennsylvania Economy League, which it hired to review the lease agreement and look at the alternative of creating an Allentown public authority to operate the water/sewer systems.
Resident David McGuire asked how council can cast its first votes on the lease on April 17 if the lease information it has sought from the Pennsylvania Economy League won’t be presented publicly until April 22.
“That’s an interesting question,” said Guridy. He suggested council may get a recommendation from the economy league before April 17. He also said the economy league’s report will be posted on the city’s website before April 22.
But McGuire said council will deny the public the opportunity to speak on “that which you promised us”—the economy league’s analysis—before voting. McGuire urged council to be more transparent and to slow the process down by two to four weeks.
Guridy said council will cast its final vote on the lease on April 24. He said LCA representatives probably will be at all three meetings before the final vote.
He said starting times have not yet been set for the second two April meetings.
City Council’s two female members – Cynthia Mota and Jeanette Eichenwald – were absent Wednesday night.