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Police chief, planning commission appointments spur Bethlehem city council debate

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Aug 20 2013 10:26:12 PM CDT

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

A new police chief and a new member of the planning commission were approved by Bethlehem city council Tuesday night, but not without some debate.

Craig Finnerty, the deputy police chief since July 2011, won the backing of council for the police chief's post by a 6-0-1 vote, while developer Thomas A. Barker was backed for a term on the planning commission that ends in May 2015 on a 6-1 vote.

In both cases, some council members said council as a whole needs to take such votes more seriously and not just rubber-stamp appointments by the mayor.

Council member Robert Donchez -- who is likely Bethlehem's next mayor, since he is running unopposed in the November election -- abstained on the vote to approve Finnerty as chief.

Beforehand, Donchez explained why he was going to sidestep making a decision on outgoing Mayor John Callahan's choice of Finnerty to replace Jason Schiffer, who is retiring at the end of the month after two years in the job.

Donchez said, "Since it's likely I will be the new mayor, I will be evaluating all city department heads ... and I don't want to give the wrong impression one way or the other" regarding Finnerty as police chief.

Council member Karen Dolan said it would be more appropriate if Finnerty was named acting police chief, adding, "This is going just a little too fast ... considering we are undergoing a major transition [on council and in the mayor's office] in four months."

After the meeting, Finnerty told WFMZ.com that he would like a chance to stay on as chief in a Donchez administration. "I've put too much into this organization," said Finnerty. "Of course I'd want to be considered."

The appointment of Barker to a term on the planning commission that would end in May 2015 also took a couple of unusual turns before council voted.

First, city resident Bill Scheier spoke against the appointment, saying Barker went ahead with plans for developments in the Stratford Park area and on Thirteenth Avenue despite opposition from neighborhood residents in both cases.

"This man who twice said, 'What I want is better than what you want' ... is too big a risk to take," Scheier told council.

Then, Dolan said approving Barker's appointment would create an "unbalanced" planning commission, because two of the five members would be developers.

"I don't know anything about [Barker], but everything on his resume would lead you to believe he's a great guy," Dolan said. "But sometimes it's not about being a good guy."

While Barker has 25 years' experience in paving and contracting, Dolan said a person knowledgeable in other areas, such as urban infrastructure and sustainability, would bring something new to the commission.