Change versus status quo. Transparency versus exclusion. The individual versus party ideology. These were the central storylines that permeated through a 90-minute debate held Wednesday night between the five Republican candidates who are running for the three available slots on the Lower Macungie Township board of commissioners.
From the start it was evident that while there were five candidates in the fray at the township's community center, there were really only two sides. And while the debate had the potential to be a knock-down, drag-out donnybrook, it instead featured a series of jabs and uppercuts that resulted in no candidate knockouts or standing eight counts.
In the one corner were challengers, Ron Beitler and Brian Higgins, fighting for what they termed smart growth and open government respectively, neither of which, they argued, had been accomplished particularly well during the last three and one half years under the current board.
In the other corner were incumbents Ryan Conrad, Ron Eichenberg and Roger Reis, who in their own styles presented themselves as embodiments of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech where “it is not the critic who counts…but the man who is actually in the arena” and who were battling, as Conrad put it, “Monday morning quarterbacks” in Beitler and Higgins, who offered their stinging critiques of the incumbents while warming the bench.
The night’s first question was a nearly age-old one – Do the township’s 33,000 resident need their own police force?
Conrad said he supported initiating a study to examine whether it was merited, opting not to rely upon a public questionnaire.
“I wanted to take politics out of the equation and to make a decision on real data,” said Conrad to the question. “We want to take that and present that to the public so the public can weigh in whether or not they believe we need a police force or not.”
He added that if residents thought a police force was warranted based on the data, the next step would be whether a local or regional police department needed to be created, or whether the township could continue to rely upon Pennsylvania State Police protection as is the case now.
Higgins agreed with the study, adding that a police force could be had, “but at what cost” adding that there would, of course, be a “cost” associated with a township police force, in the form of taxes. The township, currently has a zero percent property tax.
“You cannot talk about this issue without talking about taxes,” added Beitler.
“I see this really as two questions,” said Reis, who had a 25-year career with the Pennsylvania State Police. “First, are we satisfied with the service we get from the State Police?” If the answer is “yes,” the case is closed. If not, Reis said the township had three options – a standalone force, a regional department or a contracted force, where the township would hire other police officers to come into the municipality and police the township.
“We have already been contacted by Salisbury Township and the City of Allentown,” Reis said. “…If we want to do that, they do want a five-year contract.”
Reis said Salisbury and Allentown have not yet presented the township with a cost of that scenario.
When the current study is complete he said hearings would be held to garner public input.
“My promise is that I will vote for what I feel is the best solution for Lower Macungie Township,” he added.
Eichenberg said the study should be completed in June and that all residents will have the chance to read and be heard on the study.
“I think this is really a quality of life issue,” he said at one point. “Personally my least favorite is the start-up operation.”
The next question centered around the township’s efforts to sell a house and barn on slice of the so-called Kratzer Farm, a township owned land, that is located on Willow Lane. The total amount up for sale, according to Eichenberg was 1.5 acres.
“The Kratzer Farm is a jewel,” said Higgins. “…I don’t think selling off the assets in a township where you have a pretty sizeable fund balance is the right thing to do.”
“I don’t necessarily disagree with this thought that we should get out of the landlord business,” argued Beitler. But added that I don’t think we should be “heading down a checklist” and that each township property the township owns, should be evaluated under a parks, recreation and open space comprehensive plan criteria.
“I want to take preservation (of these type of properties) out of the hands of politicians.”
The incumbents stuck together on this issue, in essence saying the township should get out of the landlord business.
The candidates also answered questions on what should business should go into the former and now vacant Day-Timers location, what their top three priorities would be if elected, whether developer David Jaindl’s Spring Creek Properties plan would benefit or hinder the township, and whether they wanted to keep the township’s real estate tax at zero percent.
As the evening progressed, each of the two camps began to take swipes at one another, first casually, and then directly, on pet issues. Conrad said that Beitler had written in social media about his potential interest in raising taxes. Beitler responded that “context is everything” and that the post Conrad was referring to was concerning a potential township police force, which all candidates acknowledged would cost money to residents. Beitler said he found the allegations of being a tax-raiser as “insulting.”
Another issue that wouldn’t die was Republican credentials. It was obvious that Conrad, Eichenberg and Reis were taking great pains to note that they had long-time associations with the Republican Party unlike their opponents who had only recently adopted the political party affiliation.
In his closing statement, Higgins said that what the Republican or Democratic parties did on a national level had no impact on what he would do as an elected official in Lower Macungie Township.
Conrad noted several times that he was a “real” Republican. While Eichenberg noted that he has been a Republican for 46 years and Reis had said he had been a member of the GOP his entire life.
“I am proud to be a Republican,” Eichenberg said. “The values of a Republican mean something to us. These are our values.”
The Democratic candidate for commissioner, John Yurasits, did not participate in Wednesday night’s debate. The primary is May 21st.