Tension simmering for months between Allentown City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald and city managing director Francis Dougherty boiled over Wednesday night.
Dougherty is the city administration’s chief representative at City Council meetings, which Mayor Ed Pawlowski rarely attends.
In the last several months, complained Eichenwald, Dougherty has been disrespectful in his responses to questions she and city residents have put to the administration during council meetings.
Dougherty was gone when Eichenwald made her remarks at the end of Wednesday’s meeting. She also complained that he has been leaving council meetings long before they end.
“Mr. Dougherty represents the administration,” said Eichenwald. “And it is incumbent upon the administration to respond to a question from a City Council person – and also to any citizen.
“Someone from the administration needs to be here and needs to at least make a good faith effort to answer a respectful, responsible question,” she added.
Eichenwald said she has been on City Council for nearly seven years “and I’ve never come across this before --- other than the last several months.”
She told her four fellow council members at the meeting that she is disappointed that she gets no support from them when she is treated disrespectfully by the managing director.
(Council members Ray O’Connell and Cynthia Mota were absent.)
Council president Julio Guridy said Eichenwald’s points “are well taken” and agreed someone from the city’s administration should be at City Council meetings at all times.
Added Eichenwald: “And to answer questions in a respectful manner, in the same way in which those questions are asked.”
In recent months, Dougherty also has become curt with members of the public who have questions for the administration during council meetings.
At council’s April 16 meeting, for example, he refused to answer a resident's question.
"I have no obligation to answer any questions," he declared.
Eichenwald immediately called him on that, saying residents with questions are entitled to answers.
Dougherty said they can't expect answers if he's not prepared with answers.
Question about a blighted property
The managing director and city council member had their latest terse exchange at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, before Dougherty left.
It happened after Ken Heffentrager of the Allentown Tenant Association addressed council.
Heffentrager implored the city to deal with a blighted home at 338 N. 12th St., which he said is “probably the worst property in the city – a major eyesore.”
He said the city put an unsafe structure tag on the building, which gave the owners 30 days to raze or repair it.
“This has been like this for a year,” said Heffentrager. “Please take care of this.”
He said bricks and other materials are falling off the rapidly deteriorating building.
Saying many people walk along 12th Street, Heffentrager warned: “Something is going to come down on somebody. And you know who’s going to be liable? The city.”
After Heffentrager spoke, Eichenwald asked Dougherty if he would please tell her how Allentown’s program called “Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods: The Center City Initiative” will impact that blighted home on N. 12th Street.
“No I won’t,” replied Dougherty. “I’m not prepared tonight.”
“Will I ever get an answer?” asked Eichenwald.
“I don’t know,” said Dougherty. “Probably not.”
“Probably not,” repeated Eichenwald. “OK.”
She added sarcastically: “Our tax dollars at work.”
Just before council adjourned, Eichenwald expressed her unhappiness with the way Dougherty responds to her questions.
She said he was not respectful when he told her she never was going to get an answer to her question.
“I have to argue with Mr. Dougherty every time I want a question answered,” said Eichenwald. “And you, my colleagues, never say anything in my defense. I have every right to be treated with respect.”
Eichenwald said she was in a quandary because her remarks had to do with Dougherty, but he had left the meeting before it ended.
“To my knowledge, this is the third meeting in which Mr. Dougherty has left early,” said Eichenwald. “Every time I want to say something, he’s not here.”
“It is incumbent that there be somebody here who represents the administration while we’re doing City Council business.”
She asked City Clerk Michael Hanlon to communicate her concerns to Dougherty via the meeting’s minutes, “since I don’t have the opportunity to speak with him, since he leaves early.”
In the past, Dougherty routinely stayed until council meetings ended.
And if he was not able to immediately answer a question, he often would write it down and promised to get an answer.
“I’m fine with not getting an answer the minute that I ask a question,” said Eichenwald Wednesday.
Dougherty also used to regularly give informative managing director’s reports during City Council meetings, but in recent months he often has had no report.
On Wednesday night, he told council he had no report, only “two notes of interest.”
One was that, at its next meeting, council will get a report on graffiti abatement in the city since winter.
The other was: “I think friend and foe will join me today in wishing the mayor a very happy birthday on his special day.”
Lack of respect from audience
Council also faces a lack of respect from members of the audience.
On Wednesday night, resident Rich Fegley shouted out “boo” or “boom” every time Eichenwald made a point about Dougherty.
When Guridy indicated Fegley should stop, Fegley replied: “He left; it’s disrespectful he left.”
Responded Guridy: “It’s disrespectful what you’re doing too.”
When Fegley, council’s most vocal critic, stood to address council earlier in the meeting, he told council members “you’re all a bunch of sell-outs” and called them “a bum City Council.”
Fegley criticized the financing of the city’s deal with Delta Thermo Energy to build a waste-to-energy plant in Allentown, which he called an incinerator. He said Reading’s City Council rejected a bid by Delta Thermo to build a similar plant in that city.
He said Allentown is going to look like “a bunch of horses’ -----, because we’re going to burn our trash for over $100 a ton. Easton will pay $40. People will laugh at us.”
Fegley told them they could speak up and stop the project, but: “You have all decided that you can just zip your lips up and not say anything to us. You’re useless, is basically what you’re saying to us.
“The fact that you remain silent scares the ---- out of me.”
Eichenwald, who was one of only two council members who opposed the Delta Thermo project, said in nearly four years “Delta Thermo has not sold this to any other city but Allentown. You don’t have to be a business guru to recognize there has to be something fundamentally wrong with this process.
“It is incomprehensible that the City Council of Allentown voted for this.”
No one on council expressed any objection to Fegley’s language.
But council member Joe Davis did object later, when Heffentrager blurted out “come on” from his seat when Davis was asking a question.
“Do you mind if I say something?” asked Davis. “Do I interrupt you when you talk? Let me ask my question. You don’t even know what my question is.”
Said Guridy: “Please, let’s keep it courteous.”
Also during the meeting:
• Council approved plans to install a connector bridge over Church Street, an alley between Hamilton and Linden streets. The 18-foot-high pedestrian bridge will link apartments in the Four City Center building being built at 27 N. 7th St. with the Linden Parking Garage. The bridge will be 28 feet long.
• East Allentown resident Dennis Pearson asked the city to do something about a home at 404 N. Jerome St. He said the house was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, but still has not been repaired. “This is an eyesore on our community,” said Pearson.
• After a lengthy discussion, council decided to wait until its next meeting to vote on a resolution that would authorize the city to apply to the state Department of Community and Economic Development for a Keystone Community designation. That designation would improve Allentown’s ability to win state grants for center-city projects, by having several of its neighborhood groups working together. Council members decided they want to learn more about the Keystone Community designation before voting on the resolution.