A five-man committee is charging ahead to collect at least 2,000 signatures to get a public referendum question on the May ballot in Allentown, despite a legal opinion from the city solicitor that the committee improperly is circulating petitions.
The committee hopes city residents will not only get an opportunity to vote in that referendum but also will stop Allentown from leasing its water and sewer systems for the next 50 years. And they dismiss the solicitor’s opinion as being “without merit.”
People working with the committee probably collected more than 500 signatures outside polling places in the city during Tuesday’s presidential election, said committee spokesman Dan Poresky. He added the exact number probably won’t be known for a few days. Five hundred signatures of city residents who are registered voters would put the committee one quarter of the way toward the required 2,000.
The committee began collecting signatures nearly three weeks ago. Poresky could not provide a total figure on how many names were collected before Tuesday. But he said hundreds of signatures already had been collected before his committee heard about the solicitor’s opinion.
In an October 25 written legal opinion, City Solicitor Jerry Snyder maintained the five city residents on the committee single-handedly must collect all 2,000 signatures to get a referendum on the May primary ballot.
Snyder said only registered voters who reside in Allentown can circulate petitions. More specifically, he said only the five members of the petitioners committee can circulate those petitions.
“I do not believe that the petitioners committee could meet its responsibility for circulating the petition by delegating the task to some other person or persons,” wrote Snyder in a memo to City Council. He based his opinion on his review of the city’s Home Rule Charter, Optional Plans Law and other “pertinent legal precedent.”
“We realize the city has put a challenge to us and said what we are doing is wrong,” responded Poresky. “We feel the conclusions in their opinion are baseless. Their intent is to inhibit our ability to collect signatures.
“They have not stopped us from collecting signatures according to the instructions we were given by City Clerk Michael Hanlon when we formed the committee.
“We are getting legal advice and we will be prepared to defend what we’ve done. We’re confident we are doing the right thing and that our petitions will be approved -- if not by the city, at least by the courts.”
In addition to Poresky, the committee members are Michael Donovan, William Hoffman, Glenn Hunsicker and Glenn S. Hunsicker. All oppose leasing the city’s water and sewer systems.
Poresky said those five men never have been the only ones getting signatures. “Right from day one, we had additional people circulating petitions.”
On Tuesday, committee members collected signatures outside some Allentown polling stations and continued to use other people to help do that -- including at least a couple of people who are not city residents. “We want to collect as many as we can today,” said Poresky on Tuesday. “It’s real easy to capture people at the polls.”
The five residents formed the committee on Oct. 18 to collect up to 3,000 signatures – 1,000 more than they need to get a referendum question on the May ballot. That question would ask if voter approval should be required before the city sells, leases or transfers any land or asset worth more than $10 million.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski hopes to get up to $200 million by leasing the city’s sewer and water systems.
The mayor also hopes City Council will approve a lease agreement by March, two months before any vote on the referendum question. Opponents of the lease hope just getting enough signatures to put it on the May ballot will convince council to not sign any contract until after the referendum.
Food & Water Watch, a national public interest organization that opposes the proposed lease of Allentown’s water and sewer systems, accuses Pawlowski of “interfering with democracy” by using the solicitor’s office to try to impede the petition drive.
And City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald said the administration’s attempt to stop Allentown voters from deciding the issue is the most “disgraceful” and “disgusting” thing it has done since it began promoting the lease deal as the only practical solution to the city’s financial woes. Eichenwald was the only member of City Council to vote against the city seeking requests for proposals from seven water companies interested in leasing the water/sewer systems.
“The solicitor’s opinion is absurd,” declared Eichenwald. “The administration is trying to stop the petition effort. They’re throwing up any roadblock they can think of. The solicitor’s office was looking at every way possible to thwart the petitioners committee.”
Eichenwald said that when she told Snyder, the solicitor, that five people could not collect 3,000 signatures, he said the committee could be expanded, but anyone wanting to join had to register with the city clerk.
Said Poresky: “Then there’s nothing to stop anyone from walking in and making themselves part of our committee” -- including people who do not agree with its objective.
Eichenwald said a referendum was placed on the ballot in 1999 for city voters to decide if there should be rental inspections. She said in that case, there also was a petitioners committee and its five members were able to use as many people as they wanted to circulate petitions.
“That’s a very strong precedent,” said Eichenwald. “And no one disputes that it happened.”
Eichenwald said when she told Snyder about that 1999 referendum, the solicitor said he would look into it and get back to her. “He has never returned my call,” she said.
Snyder could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In a news release, Mary Grant, a Food & Water Watch researcher who specializes in water privatization issues, called the solicitor’s ruling “outrageous.”
“The city didn’t impose such a restriction on earlier referendum efforts,” said Grant. “And why does it matter who circulates the petitions? The signatures are the important factor, and only those of Allentown voters are counted.”
Asked about the solicitor's opinion which was prepared for City Council, Mike Moore, Pawlowski’s spokesman in City Hall, said, "I can’t speak to the petition requirement. The petitioners have not had any discussions with our office."
A Food & Water Watch spokesman said others were distributing pro-lease materials on behalf of the mayor at the same polling stations where referendum petition signatures were being sought Tuesday and that Pawlowski himself visited at least a couple of them.
Sam Bernhardt, Pennsylvania organizer of Food & Water Watch, said he witnessed Pawlowski asking people not to sign petitions at one polling station.
“In coming out to polling places today and personally trying to dissuade voters from signing a petition that would allow for a referendum on his city water privatization plan, Mayor Pawlowski has demonstrated a clear fear of the will of the people he serves,” said Bernhardt. “If the mayor were confident in the virtue of the plan he espouses, he would be eager to put it up for a vote. Clearly he isn’t, or he wouldn’t be so desperate to avoid a public referendum on the matter.”
“The mayor might have had a right to do that,” said Eichenwald, “but it was not the right thing to do.”
In a written statement, Mayor Pawlowski told 69 News, “I haven’t organized any opposition to the referendum petition. Four people are observing various polling places to make sure that the petition process is done in the proper manner. We have gotten reports that circulators are telling people that the city will be selling the plants. We have spent nearly four months educating people about a proposed Lease/Concession. We can’t allow a distortion of the facts. We are seeking to make sure that individuals are getting the correct information.”