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Allentown Council one step closer to picking new member

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 12 2012 08:07:40 AM CDT
Allentown City Council

Allentown City Council

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

A union president and a former school board president were among the four candidates interviewed Thursday night to fill a vacancy on Allentown City Council.

Council now faces the tough job of deciding which one of eight candidates interviewed this week is best qualified to become its seventh member.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, council will vote to select one of the candidates. That person immediately will be sworn in and go to work, joining the rest of council at the front of its meeting room in City Hall for its regular public meeting at 7 p.m.

The seat filled by that appointee has been empty since Sept. 5, when Michael Schlossberg resigned. Schlossberg is unopposed in the November election to become the state representative for the 132nd Legislative District.

Because Schlossberg is a Democrat, he must be replaced by a Democrat.

Taking their turns sitting before council Thursday were John Stribula, Kenneth P. Heffentrager, Jeff Glazier and April Riddick.

The other four candidates -- Joseph Lewis, Carmen Bell, Lamont King Cope and John R. Ingram -- were interviewed by council Tuesday night.

Thursday’s interviews featured more exchanges between candidates and council members, including council president Julio Guridy confronting Glazier, the former Allentown School Board president, about the district’s poor academic performance and rising property taxes.

While both interview sessions were open to the public, council’s meeting room was empty except for one resident, a couple of reporters, other candidates waiting their turn or checking out the competition and -- on Tuesday – a few friends or family members of candidates.

Stribula said that lack of attendance was quite disappointing, especially when the person selected by council will help decide whether to agree to “a $200-million concession” to prevent the coming pension crisis in the city.

Gesturing at the nearly empty room, Heffentrager said: “This is sad, it really is sad.” He said he doesn’t know why more people don’t show up, “but it’s not that they don’t care.”

Stribula was up first Thursday. He has lived in Allentown since 1969 and graduated from Allentown Central Catholic High School. He is president of Local 302 of the International Association of Fire Fighters and a retired city fire lieutenant.

He said some of the other candidates “are coming from the outside,” but as a city firefighter for 16 years, he sees issues facing Allentown “from the inside out.” He said he is one of the better candidates, if not the best, and “I specifically am asking for your vote.”

Stribula said as a council member he will make decisions on behalf of his electorate, even if it means taking positions he personally may not agree with. He said that approach might be considered by council, which faces many residents who oppose privatizing the city’s water and sewer system to solve the pension crisis.

Council member Peter Schweyer said four years ago, council routinely faced 30-50 angry people opposed to building the handicapped-accessible playground at Cedar Beach. He asked: “Should we have built the playground in spite of the angry mob that was here on a regular basis?” Stribula said building it was the right decision, because of its positive benefits. He indicated that is not the same as leasing the water system for 50 years.

Heffentrager told council he lives in the city for 23 years. He is a founder and vice president of the Tenant Association of Allentown. He wants to help make the city a better place to live and raise families. He said he works all over town to help people with landlord-tenant issues. “I’ve talked to hundreds of people in every single section of the city,” said Heffentrager. “I hear what bothers them day in and day out.

No other candidate here deals with as many different people from different sections of the city as I do on a daily basis. I do believe I am the best choice.”

Heffentrager said the city’s administration has demonstrated a lack of communication with residents on plans for the hockey arena, the trash-to-steam plant and the possible water lease. He believes council should address that problem.

Heffentrager said the water/sewer system lease would go “to a private company that is here to make a profit. Bottom line. That’s it. That’s their only goal.”

He said a combination of solutions will be needed to solve the pension crisis, possibly including tax increases, re-evaluating union contracts, implementing a hiring freeze and even lay-offs. He said the city also can gain revenue by aggressively going after owners of blighted properties who are not paying taxes.

An Allentown native, Glazier is the third generation owner of Glazier’s Furniture in the city. He served 12 years on the school board, until 2011, including six years as president. “I think I served with honor and maybe some distinction. I have a long history of working hard to master the issues.”

Glazier said city council’s role can be summed up in three words: “It’s the budget, it’s the budget and it’s the budget.’ He said that is where council can exercise its most effective oversight in running the city.

If the city does lease its water system, Glazier said customers will have some control over rates by being flexible in their usage and economizing.

Guridy said Allentown School District has been one of the worst in the state, including during the 12 years Glazier was on the board, with a high drop-out rate, low PSSA test scores and low graduation rates. Guridy also said school taxes increase by four percent or more almost every year, while Allentown’s taxes have not increased for seven years.

Glazier responded by saying the state has done a lousy job financing school districts. He said the state’s “shortfall” to ASD during his 12 years added up to a half billion dollars. He said if the school district had gotten that money, local property taxes would have been much lower. He also said the district has become poorer, adding there is a direct link between poverty and academic achievement.

“We made sure the resources we had were spent as effectively and efficiently as we could,” said Glazier, calling it “a record to be proud of.”

Riddick, the last candidate to appear before council, is an Allentown native who has been a volunteer for more than 20 years and is active with Little League. She was last employed as a teller and certified notary at Wells Fargo Bank and its predecessors from 1999 to 2010.

Riddick said she is the best candidate for council because: “I care. I’m in the trenches every day. I’m in touch with the community. I know what the community wants and what the community needs. I have no problem with getting out there and knocking on doors and saying ‘what can we do to make the city better?’”

She told council: “I love the fact that I can hold my head up high and say I’m from Allentown.”

She said council should do a better job communicating with city residents, adding many people don’t even know what city council is.

Regarding the pension crisis, she said: “Unfortunately, taxes will have to be raised, there’s no way around it.”

She suggested the city should create a program where people can work, such as doing snow removal, if they can’t afford to pay a traffic ticket or some other minor fine.

This is the third time this year council is appointing a seventh member.

Both Stribula and Heffentrager applied for previous openings in January, when Cynthia Mota was appointed, and in April, when Joe Davis was appointed. Riddick applied in April. Ingram and Cope also applied in January and April. Bell applied in April.

Council member Jeannette Eichenwald could not attend the interviews this week, but council vice president Ray O’Connell said she will listen to recordings of all interviews so she can participate in selecting the new member next week.

Two other men, Devon Cade and Robert Stanley Saylor, withdrew as candidates before being interviewed.