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Allentown Council challenges administration hiring parks director before he's confirmed

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: May 02 2013 12:00:01 AM CDT
Updated On: May 02 2013 08:22:59 AM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

The hiring of a new Allentown parks and recreation director was marked by controversy Wednesday night, not because of the candidate or his qualifications, but because he’s already been put to work by the administration.

Allentown City Council unanimously approved the appointment of John Mikowychok, at an annual salary of $80,000 – but only after objections were raised about the hiring process.

Although Mikowychok already started on April 15, he was nominated by Mayor Ed Pawlowski in a committee-of-the whole confirmation hearing just before Wednesday’s regular council meeting.

“How can you have a confirmation hearing when the candidate is already employed by the city?” asked council member Jeanette Eichenwald.

She said she has a grave concern about the confirmation process, a concern that in no way reflects on the candidate.

She told city managing director Francis Dougherty: “We went through this last time with the human resources director and you promised me that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Dougherty said letters offering employment to job candidates are explicitly conditional. He also said the administration chooses candidates that it is optimistic council will approve.

Insisted Eichenwald: “It’s not good government and you gave me your word last time it wouldn‘t happen again.”

Dougherty said the administration is quite amenable to any suggestion from council.

Replied Eichenwald: “It’s an easy answer: Confirmation hearing before the candidate is officially hired and brought to the city. Previously we always did it that way.”

Council president Julio Guridy and vice president Ray O’Connell agreed with Eichenwald that department directors should be approved by council before they start working.

Said O’Connell: “The process needs to be confirmation hearing, vote, then the person that’s being recommended for a position starts.”

“Duly noted,” said Dougherty.

Guridy doesn’t remember council ever not approving a candidate nominated for a position, but said: “The process needs to be consistent.”

Dougherty said the city solicitor’s office had reviewed the hiring process. Assistant city solicitor Dale Wiles told council the city’s regulations allow appointments to be made “anticipating confirmation by council.” He argued Dougherty “is correct in what he has done.” But Guridy replied: “The administration appoints a candidate, who is brought to council. Council will confirm it and the person will start working. It’s a good process. Let’s continue it that way for the future.”

The mayor was at the committee-of-the-whole confirmation hearing, but left before the start of the regular council meeting, where council voted on Mikowychok and Eichenwald expressed her displeasure with the “odd” hiring process.

Mikowychok now is responsible for the city’s 2,000 acre park system, which Pawlowski called world-class. He said the director manages the parks, recreation, watershed and golf course bureaus.

“John has compiled an extensive record of achievement,” said the mayor. “I am convinced he is the right choice to drive and steer this department. I eagerly await your vote to approve his nomination.”

Mikowychok called managing the city’s park system “a great privilege and a responsibility I don’t take lightly. I am very pleased to be here and hope you will vote favorably.”

He was the director of Chester County’s parks and recreation department for nearly 11 years, after serving more than 16 years as executive director of the same department in Lancaster County. He said he also served two terms as township manager in Lower Providence Township, Montgomery County.

Pawlowski said Mikowychok is a certified parks and recreation professional who holds a bachelor of science degree in recreation and parks from Pennsylvania State University and a graduate degree from the School for Managers of Aquatic Facilities at Oglebay Park, W. Va.

Mikowychok said he was one of 48 candidates considered for the Allentown position, adding the field was narrowed to six, then three for the final round of interviews.

But Dougherty later told council there were two nationwide searches for a new parks director. “We had approximately 112 applications from all over the world, including applications from Australia. I think we got the best candidate. I’m very pleased.”

Mikowychok replaces Greg Weitzel, Allentown’s parks and recreation director who resigned in May 2012 to take the same position in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Rick Holtzman, who has served as Allentown’s acting parks and recreation director for the last year, and his staff were praised by members of City Council and Dougherty.

Council member Peter Schweyer told Mikowychok “you are inheriting an absolutely tremendous staff. All of them do a ton without nearly enough support. Treat them well.”

The new parks and recreation director resides in Uwchlan Township, Chester County.

Mikowychok told council he already has toured nearly 50 percent of the city’s parks, adding: “Some of them I know from my background.”

Although born and raised in Norristown, the 58-year-old Mikowychok said he is familiar with Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. His aunt and uncle, Jasper and Kathryn Santoro lived on N. 12th Street. His uncle was a music educator in Allentown School District and “an extraordinary” violinist in the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. When growing up, Mikowychok would stay with them for a week every summer, which included swimming with his cousin in the Jordan and Cedar Beach pools. His wife Louise attended Lehigh County Community College and they often spent dates walking through Cedar Parkway. He said he also often went fly fishing in the Little Lehigh.

Another big city position will have to be replaced soon. With the impending retirement of Police Chief Roger MacLean, council’s public safety committee will be discussing police succession at 6 p.m. May 15. A consultant hired to find a new police chief will be at that meeting