Inside Your Town

Bethlehem City Council dumps its long-time solicitor

John Spirk replaces Christopher Spadoni, who'd held the post since 1998.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem City Council dumped its long-time solicitor Tuesday night.

By a 6-1 vote, council terminated Atty. Christopher Spadoni as solicitor and replaced him with Atty. John "Jack" Spirk, who until recently was the city solicitor in Bethlehem.

Spadoni was conspicuously absent at the meeting, although his name plate still was in front of his usual seat on the dais. Spirk was at the meeting, but did not address council.

Only council member Eric Evans voted to retain -- and passionately spoke on behalf of -- Spadoni, who served as council's solicitor since 1998.

Evans questioned how council's three newest members could have positions about the City Council solicitor when two of them, Bryan Callahan and Adam Waldron, were just sworn in last month and the third, Cathy Reuscher, was just appointed to council this month.

"It just seems a little absurd," said Evans. "It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense."

Evans said those three council members have no more than one month's experience on council -- and with Spadoni. "I find it hard to believe they can make a judgment that he needs to be replaced."

Evans said City Council is inexperienced. "We have a member with just a week or two of experience and a couple with just three weeks' experience. It's really difficult for them to come in and make a decision to replace someone who's been here since 1998 -- delivering opinions and helping as a parliamentarian, among other things."

Council president J. William Reynolds said several members of council had requested "a conversation" about the City Council solicitor.

"You want to surround yourself with people you feel comfortable with," said Reynolds. He said Spadoni served Bethlehem well for 17 years "but City Council is moving forward.

"It's not necessarily that there was something wrong with the representation we had; it's just that people would like to go in a different direction."

Council member Karen Dolan made the motion to terminate the services of Spadoni and immediately appoint Spirk as the new solicitor. Her motion was seconded by Waldron.

Dolan said that, during her eight years on council, Spadoni gave the council president an excessive level of access and influence "instead of serving all members of council as a solicitor should do."

Evans, the previous council president, said any elevated level of communication with Spadoni was based on his phone calls to the council solicitor. He maintained Spadoni was accessible to all council members, even on days when he was in court.

"He's been responsive, he's been thorough, he's been clear. I have full confidence in his ability and his commitment to this council.

"It's a mistake to remove the experience he has, the sense of history he has, the precedents he has set and the perspective he has."

Dolan initially said she preferred not to go into details about why she made the motion to replace Spadoni with Spirk.

"I really like Chris Spadoni, genuinely," she said. "You don't hear the word 'love' very often around here, but I love him as a person."

But she said council has the legal right to name its own solicitor.

She also said no current council members were serving when Spadoni was hired for the job.

"Mr. Spadoni had a great run as City Council solicitor," said Dolan. "He gave his all to this council."

She said if a majority of council members believe they can get a better legal adviser - "someone who would serve us better, we have a responsibility to bring that person in. We have to do the best thing for this council."

Praise for Spirk

Evans acknowledged that Spirk is excellent, adding: "I have all the respect in the world for Mr. Spirk."

Dolan said she's known Spirk for 10 years. "Jack is a brilliant lawyer and he is highly respected. He has decades of experience with Pennsylvania law, working with top attorneys in his field, including District Attorney John Morganelli and City Solicitor Bill Leeson.

"If we're looking for the best representation, I hope we will hire Mr. Spirk. He understands the issues from inside. That's a knowledge we could really use on this council."

Council member Michael Recchiuti also praised Spirk. He said Spadoni gave council "competent legal advice over the years." But Recchiuti indicated Spadoni failed to build relationships with current City Council members.

Recchiuti, who is a lawyer, said: "You have to have a level of trust with the person giving you your legal advice. If the trust isn't there, the legal advice isn't going to get through. If your client doesn't trust you, they are not going to listen to you. I don't know if there was a trust issue before, but I certainly think going forward there will be."

Although she voted to replace Spadoni with Spirk, Reuscher admitted she felt uneasy about letting Spadoni go after being on City Council only two weeks. She said she never had an opportunity to work closely with him.

Reuscher did attempt to abstain on the initial vote to consider Dolan's motion, but was told she could not do that.

Waldron said he was not voting against Spadoni, but for Spirk. Yet he also said he attended City Council meetings for months before he was elected and did not see the leadership he expected from Spadoni. In his second month on council, Waldron said he still had not had much personal interaction with Spadoni.

On the leadership issue, Evans said it's not the job of the solicitor to be the leader of council. He said Spadoni was not intrusive and, except for legal advice, did not give suggestions. "One of the things Chris did great was staying out of the way and letting council do their thing."

Evans indicated both Dolan and Reynolds have had issues with Spadoni in the past.

This year the solicitor to City Council will be paid $21,029.

Reynolds said an executive session to discuss the appointment of a City Council solicitor had been scheduled for earlier Tuesday evening, but was cancelled, "to have the full conversation in public."

Dolan said she did not want to have that discussion in public, because it would be difficult and tough to watch.

Resident questions action

Resident Stephen Antalics blasted council for terminating Spadoni, both before and after its vote.

"What's going on?" asked Antalics. "It doesn't make sense. It reeks of politics."

Referring to Spadoni, Antalics told council: "Maybe the gentleman's problem was he was quoting the law rather than what you wanted to hear. If that's the case, this is a sad day for Bethlehem, because of the deterioration of the integrity of this council. I ask you to show integrity."

He said some council members he talked to recently spoke very highly of Spadoni, whom he said "served the city beyond the call of duty."

Antalics said the three new members of City Council have no idea who Spadoni is, adding one of the three never even heard him speak. "If they are going against the solicitor, they are going on hearsay. Whose hearsay?"

Responding to Antalics before the vote, Dolan insisted: "This is not political, not at all. This is practical. It's an employment decision. And I disagree that it shows a lack of integrity. It takes integrity to make strong decisions.

"Even the new members of council have to make decisions from the get-go, the moment they're sworn in. That takes integrity. They can't bow out of that, no matter how new they are."

After the meeting Dolan said it was not a matter of partisan politics. She said Spadoni, like all members of council, is a Democrat.

Spirk was city solicitor during Mayor John Callahan's administration. After the meeting, he said he served as city solicitor for 10 years. He added he was Northampton County's solicitor from 1998 to 2004.

Retired fire official honored

Also during the meeting, council honored retired Assistant Fire Chief Michael Sankovsky, with a citation of gratitude and a standing ovation. Reynolds said Sankovsky worked in the city's fire department for 33 years. He became assistant chief in 2001.

Sankovsky thanked the city for the privilege of being a fireman, and serving residents, for all those years. He said his father was a Bethlehem firefighter for 43 years and an uncle worked for the department for about 40 years.

A ruling on windows

In other business, council unanimously rejected a recommendation from the city's Historic Conservation Commission regarding replacing windows in a south Bethlehem building being renovated.

The appeal to council was presented by Louis Intile, owner of a building at 202-204 E. 4th St. He said the building, at 4th and Webster streets, formerly was Holy Infancy Convent.

The commission, which advises City Council, recommended the building's owners replace all 40 windows with new wood or fiberglass windows, which are much more expensive than vinyl - adding as much as $11,000 to the building renovation cost.

Only six old wood frame windows remain in the building. They may have been there since it was built about 100 years ago. Intile said the six wood windows fall under a city ordinance because they can be seen from a public right-of-way, but added they are rotten and not repairable.

He said most of the other wood windows were replaced over the last 60 years with different types of vinyl or metal windows.

Intile wants all 40 windows to be the same, rather than having a hodgepodge of different kinds. He wants to replace all 40 with vinyl windows. City Council agreed to allow him to do that.

Dolan said she almost never goes against the Historic Conservation Commission, "but this is an example of perhaps going a bit too far in expectations. I'm going to go against eight years of consistent this one instance."

Intile said he has completed 34 projects in south Bethlehem in the last five years, "representing many millions of dollars of renovations."

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