A ballot question is in the works that would stop Lehigh County from going into debt for projects such as Coca Cola Park without giving the voters a say.
Commissioners spent almost an hour recently discussing the wisdom of an amendment to the home rule charter that would require voters to approve when the county wanted to issue so-called "private activity bonds" or take on "lease-rental debt" that primarily benefits private enterprises.
Some advocates of the amendment wanted the commissioners to vote on it by Jan. 9, so a referendum on changing the charter could be on the May 9 primary election ballot and take effect on July 1.
But the commissioners decided that any such referendum should be on the November general election ballot and take effect Jan. 1, 2014. By doing so, they gave themselves until August to approve or scuttle the amendment.
The proposed amendment was sponsored by commissioner Thomas Creighton III, and explained to the commissioners by one of their former colleagues, Dean Browning, who began working on the change to the home rule charter while he was still in office two years ago.
Browning said the county now has $177 million in what he call "non- electoral debt" which primarily benefits private parties, and that the commissioners could theoretically increase that to $533 million.
He pointed to Coca Cola Park as an example of the county taking on such debt, noting that while the stadium is a hit with the public, "the county taxpayers are ultimately responsible for payment of the bonds that helped build it, even though they don't own it."
Browning also mentioned a project proposed in 1999 to spend county money to help build a theme park at the Lehigh County Game Preserve.
"We should allow the citizens to act as gatekeepers before we act on any project that incurs taxpayer debt but is operated by a private entity," he said.
Commissioner Scott Ott said he had some philosophical problems with the proposed amendment. "We are a representative form of government, but you are saying [such questions about taking on debt] should be handled as a democracy," he said, noting that the commissioners were elected to make difficult decisions. "I think it has to be a pretty exceptional thing to have it taken out of the hands of the [elected representatives]."
Ott also had questions about the campaigns that would surround ballot referendums. "A powerful, well-funded organization [in favor of a certain referendum] could be running a campaign against solitary individuals [who oppose it]," he said.
Browning admitted that there is nothing in the amendment that would prevent anyone from mounting a campaign for or against a particular referendum. "But," he said, "this [amendment] is looking at it the other way: Stopping a county executive and five commissioners from wandering off the reservation and funding enterprises that benefit private entities."
Commissioner Michael Schware took issue with the proposed amendment being placed on the May primary ballot. "It should be on the [November] ballot to get maximum input [from voters]," he said. Ott added, "More independents vote in the general election.
Traditionally, because they don't vote Democrat or Republican, they don't have a stake in the primary election."
Creighton replied, "Why wait? Let's get it on the ballot."
However, the commissioners voted 7-2, with Creighton and commissioners chairman Brad Osborne dissenting, to have the referendum on the home rule charter change take place during a general election, if they decide to go forward with it.
By a 8-1 vote, with David S. Jones Sr. dissenting, the commissioners also voted to have the charter amendment take effect Jan. 1, 2014. The commissioners have until August to make a final determination on whether to put the matter on the November ballot.