The process of getting Allentown City Council back up to full strength began when the first four of nine candidates were interviewed Tuesday night.
Five more candidates who applied to fill one vacant seat on council are scheduled to be interviewed Thursday, beginning at 5:45 p.m.
Council will appoint one of the nine at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17.
After that appointment is made, three of council’s seven members will be appointed rather than elected. The newest appointee will have to run for election in 2013 if he or she wishes to serve a full four-year term on council.
This is the third time this year council is appointing someone to fill a vacancy.
The candidates, all Democrats, want the seat that was occupied by Michael Schlossberg , who resigned from council Sept. 5. Schlossberg is unopposed in the November election to become the state representative for the 132nd Legislative District.
Each candidate is given a total of 30 minutes to convince five council members they are the most qualified. Rather than an exchange of questions and answers, candidates are given a series of five questions in advance, with specified time limits to answer each. That includes five minutes for council members to ask them questions. Another question asks how candidates would go about making a decision on the city $158 million police and fire pension crisis.
Council member Jeannette Eichenwald could not attend Tuesday’s interviews.
Council vice president Ray O’Connell said Eichenwald will listen to recordings of all interviews so she can participate in selecting the new council member next week.
Those who took turns sitting alone before council Tuesday were Joseph Lewis, Carmen Bell, Lamont King Cope and John R. Ingram.
Ingram and Cope applied for openings on council in January, when Cynthia Mota was appointed, and in April, when Joe Davis was appointed. Bell applied in April.
Scheduled to be interviewed Thursday are John Stribula, Devon Cade, Kenneth P. Heffentrager, Jeff Glazier and April Riddick.
Heffentrager also applied for the openings in January and April. Stribula applied in January and Riddick applied in April.
Officials said another city resident, Robert Stanley Saylor, has withdrawn as a candidate.
Lewis, the first candidate interviewed, is assistant vice president & community office manager for KNBT, a division of National Penn Bank. He was born and raised in Allentown and served on the city’s planning commission from 2006 to 2011.
Lewis is confident and optimistic that better days are ahead for the city and takes issue “with those who say our best days are behind us.” His goal is to help Allentown to be successful during tough economic times: “Not simply keeping our heads above water but being ahead of the game.”
He said council has an obligation to “challenge each and every choice, option and endeavor to make sure we’re looking at everything from all angles.” He said council should work with the city’s administration, and not challenge just for the sake of challenging, but also should not be “rubber stamps.” He also said those who object to the administration’s plan to lease the city’s water and sewer systems should not only be heard, but addressed.
Bell is committed to serving citizens and helping the city fulfill its greatest potential. “I think I can do a great job on council,” she said.
She said her strengths as a candidate include expertise as a marketing manager and as a database selections analyst, a position she held at Rodale from 2001-2011. She lives in the Lehigh Valley for more than 20 years and bought a home in Allentown four years ago.
Bell said the city’s real financial problem is not the pensions, but a lack of income.
Before making a decision on options being considered to resolve that crisis, as a member of council she would “exercise some caution, make sure you have all the facts, that you researched it and that you don’t rush into a decision.”
Cope said he works in security and maintenance at the Allentown Farmers Market. He lives at his current address in the city for 18 years. He said he knows a lot of people and saw “businesses come and businesses go. And bad things that happened to the city and good things that happened to the city.”
Admitting he was shaking as he sat before council, Cope said he wants to help people who are handicapped, homeless and needy.
Cope gave short answers and was confused by some questions, saying he did not study them too long. He told council he did not really understand Allentown’s “strong mayor” form of government.
In response to two different questions, Cope complained about city police having too much time on their hands, including parking and even “racing” near Agricultural Hall from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. “They should be out driving around, showing themselves, then maybe there will be less crime.”
Ingram is president and CEO of Ingram Real Estate Group. He said council can benefit from his expertise, “especially at this critical time with regard to a number of different issues.” He said that includes financial expertise, especially commercial real estate. He has analyzed “thousands of leases, including hundreds of long-term leases involving millions of dollars in annual rent.”
Regarding options to resolve the pension crisis, including leasing the water and sewer systems, Ingram said: “I would be the perfect person to keep your consultants honest.” He predicted a lease will raise water rates more than five percent every year.
Ingram said he would be a team player on council who seeks common ground to resolve issues. He said he will not run for a full-term in 2013 if he is appointed.
Ingram served on the city planning commission for three years. He recently was an unsuccessful candidate to be appointed Lehigh County executive.