Allentown City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to reject a proposed bill that would have allowed voters to determine if any city-owned assets worth more than $10 million should be sold, leased or transferred.
If council had voted for the bill, the $10-million question would have gone on the ballot in Allentown’s primary election in May and voters would have decided the $10-million question.
Council’s vote handed a big victory to Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
Opponents of Pawlowski’s plan to lease the city’s water and sewer systems created Bill 82 through a petition drive late year. They hoped council would delay voting to approve a $150 million or $200 million lease agreement if, only a short time later, city voters would be deciding if they should be the ones to determine the lease of any assets worth more than $10 million.
Opponents assumed the majority of city voters would join them in opposing the lease by voting yes on the $10-million question.
Now council won’t be faced with the quandary of possibly being asked to sign a 50-year contract to lease the systems only weeks before the $10-million question would be put to the public.
However, the $10-million question is not dead, because the proposed change to the city’s home rule charter was created by residents.
Here’s why, according to that city’s charter: Qualified voters have the right to propose ordinances to City Council by collecting petitions signed by 2,000 registered voters. If council fails to adopt a proposed ordinance created by the initiative of city residents, that “initiative ordinance” is submitted to the city’s voters at the next election.
That means Allentown residents will get to vote on Bill 82 in May, even though council rejected it Tuesday night.
If voters reverse council’s decision by approving the bill, in November they will have an opportunity to vote on whether the $10-million amendment should become part of the home rule charter.
But November will be much too late for those who hoped to use the $10-million question to stop the water and sewer lease. A deal to lease those systems could be wrapped up before late spring.
Council held Tuesday’s special meeting solely to consider and vote on the proposed Bill 82.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald cast the only vote in favor of council putting the $10-million question on the May ballot.
Challenging her council colleagues, Eichenwald said: “If we care so much about what the people think, why do we not let the people decide?”
“We’re elected to do this, to look into the right decision,” responded council president Julio Guridy.
Before the vote, Eichenwald said “the people have spoken” and urged her colleagues “to listen to what we have heard this evening and over the last several months and to give the citizens the opportunity to decide this very, very important issue.”
Eichenwald got into arguments with both Pawlowski and Guridy during the meeting and made several statements that spurred applause from the audience, causing Guridy to repeatedly ask the audience not to applaud.
When Guridy adjourned the meeting immediately after the vote, someone in the audience shouted: “Eichenwald for mayor!”
“I’m profoundly embarrassed and ashamed that these council members represent the citizens of Allentown, that they were unable to vote on Bill 82 on its merits,” said Dan Poresky, one of the leading lease opponents after the meeting.
“They were unable to separate Bill 82 from the water issue. I had hoped a couple more people would be able to separate the water issue from the value and legitimacy of the referendum.”
About 4,300 people signed petitions saying they wanted a vote on the $10-million question, which spurred the creation of Bill 82. Resident Glen S. Hunsicker told council: “That’s 20 percent of the voting population in Allentown. There were 20,000 voters in the last election. Those are the same people that elect you, council, and elect the mayor. People are asking you to put this on the ballot.”
Guridy told the audience that council would be “sending a really bad message” to potential lease bidders if it supported the $10-million referendum question by approving Bill 82.
Elaborating after the meeting, Guridy said: “If the voters vote on it, there will be no bids on it. Nobody’s going to bid on something that people don’t want.”
Resident Rich Fegley told council that, with more than 4,000 registered voters asking for a referendum, those potential bidders “should know the citizens aren’t happy with this and it may be a deal they shouldn’t get involved with.”
Jonathan Bingham, one of the first residents to speak, told council it seems “decisions already have been made by many of you.” He said he sat through many meetings where compelling arguments were made against leasing, but hasn’t seen any change in the viewpoints of council members.
Bingham angered some council members when he accused them of arrogance and suggested there is some ‘”wink-wink-shaking-hands-behind-the-scenes deal being made or some form of political gain. I’m disgusted by the process that I’ve seen.”
“You don’t have to insult us,” said Guridy. “We’re not insulting you.”
Council vice president Ray O’Connell told Bingham: “I take that as a true insult. I’ve been at every meeting. I listen to everybody. I’m not arrogant. I take offense to what you said about me. For you to come up and do that to me, you were wrong.”
Council member Joe Davis said the only political pressure he’s felt has been from residents who threaten to never vote for him if he supports the lease. Davis also maintained referendums weaken democracy, by giving legislators an easy way out when it comes to tough decisions.
Council member Cynthia Mota said she is trying to make the best possible decisions for the city and its residents and added: “This is not a done deal.”
Council’s special meeting lasted nearly three hours. Before the vote, nearly 30 people stood to address it about the proposed charter change and the water lease issue.
“Let the people decide” was the underlying cry of many speakers.
Several read the section of the city charter that states “council shall protect and promote the rights of the citizens” to participate in the government in a positive and constructive manner, including “by exercising the right of initiative and referendum.”
Council’s meeting room was crowded, but not filled to capacity.
Pawlowski, along with Finance Director Gary Strathearn and Managing Director Francis Dougherty, sat at a table in the front of the room facing council, with their backs to the audience. The mayor and his aides were not introduced to the public and Pawlowski did not speak until more than an hour into the meeting.
Before the vote, he asked council not to vote for a charter change amendment because “if you vote yes, it will skew the process of us getting these bids.”
Pawlowski reminded residents that the city faces a rapidly rising multi-million-dollar pension debt that he hopes to resolve by leasing the water and sewer systems. “We have a desperate situation on our hands.”
He said if a solution is not found, the city will go bankrupt and taxes will rise between 75 and 125 percent just to pay the minimum payment on pensions.
“Everyone who has the ability to move would leave the city in droves.”
Saying the mayor does not speak with neutrality, Sam Bernhardt, Pennsylvania organizer of Food & Water Watch, announced that Pawlowski accepted more than $3,700 in 2011 from the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr, which represents United Water, one of the companies bidding on the water/sewer lease.
Just before council’s vote, resident Tom Hahn tried to address council for a second time. Guridy said Hahn was out of order. When Hahn shouted back, Guridy instructed a police officer to escort Hahn out of the room, which was done. Some in the audience booed. At the start of the meeting, Guridy warned people he would do that if anyone became disorderly.
Mota, Guridy and O’Connell said there will be more public meetings on the lease issue before council votes on it. After the meeting, Guridy said the lease should be decided by council before May. He said the city has not yet received any bids from companies interested in leasing the water and sewer systems.
Eichenwald said the administration’s “hired consultant” told council that it will get lease bids by March.
Council member Peter Schweyer explained at least several weeks will pass from the time bids come in and any privatization vote, so council and the public have time to review and discuss those bids.
O’Connell added: “There’s a lot of work still to be done in January, February and March with this whole concession agreement. It’s a work in progress.” After lease bids are received, O’Connell said council is going to have the Pennsylvania Economy League look into the possibility of creating a public authority to run the city sewer and water systems.
Guridy got off the subject when he mentioned the mayor’s recent unsuccessful proposal to sell Queen City Airport and got into trouble when he said “the majority of the people who own planes are pretty much rich.” When confronted about that statement a few minutes late by Michael Rosenfeld, president of the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association, Guridy retracted that comment.
“Too late,” said some in the audience.
“I don’t care if it’s too late or not, I’m retracting it,” said Guridy.