ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Past members of Allentown City Council were invited back for the formal rededication of council chambers Wednesday night, following a just-completed $120,000 renovation.
It is the first major overhaul of council chambers since City Hall was occupied 50 years ago, according to Donald Hoegg, the city official who was project manager.
The audience responded with applause when council president Julio Guridy remarked: "Isn't this a beautiful place? Isn't it wonderful?"
"We are the third largest municipality in the state and now we have a council chambers that is reflective of being the third largest municipality in the state," declared Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
The room feels larger and seems brighter.
It also has more comfortable chairs for the audience, chairs that are not locked in place.
"This project has been long in the making," said Guridy. He said one of his priorities since becoming president of council was to bring council chambers into the 21st Century.
Most impressive is the room's front wall, which has a stonework facade bearing the silver words: City of Allentown. It seems to symbolically combine the city's history and its future.
In the past, said Guridy, only patchwork alterations to council chambers had been made because of a lack of funds.
The old seating and carpeting that were torn out and replaced had been there since City Hall first was occupied in 1963.
Also gone is the wood-paneled front wall, which bore a circular plaque of the city seal, and the floor-level dais that stood in front of it.
The new dais is raised, but includes a sloped floor on one end for handicapped access.
Unlike the original dais, which directly faced the audience, the new one is curved. And it can seat more people, allowing City Clerk Michael Hanlon, City Controller Mary Ellen Koval and assistant city solicitors to sit with council.
Guridy invited former council president David Howells Sr., who also is a former Allentown police chief, to give the invocation at the start of the rededication program.
Howells was applauded by some as he approached the podium, causing him to quip: "Maybe I should have run for office."
Unfortunately, current council member Ray O'Connell was unable to attend because he is recovering from a serious illness. Howells asked the people in the audience to remember O'Connell in their prayers.
After the rededication, former council member Michael Donovan went to the front of the room to shake hands with Pawlowski, who beat him in the race for mayor only 24 hours earlier.
Other former council members at the rededication included Tom Burke, Mike D'Amore, Lou Hershman, Benjamin Howells, Linda Rosenfeld and Pam Varkony.
Guridy commended them all, saying: "You ran for office because you care about the community and doing good for our residents."
The mayor told the former council members: "You left a lot of sweat and maybe some tears in this room. Hopefully you've never lost a drop of blood, but there may have been some occasions when you felt like you did.
"That's what makes our system of government so great. We argue passionately over our positions, but in the end majority rules and we come back to debate other issues on another day."
Because Hershman is a regular at City Council meetings, Guridy joked that "Lou Hershman never leaves council." He also razzed him about developing a filing system for his "never-ending memos."
Guridy also joked that everyone is invited back the next time council chambers are renovated, "50 years from now."
After the rededication, council held its first meeting in the room since it closed for the overhaul in mid-September.
Some council members indicated they missed the buttons they pushed on the old dais to get the president's attention when they wanted to speak. Guridy said a new time clock will be added so members of the public know when their time to speak is running out.
Hoegg, the city's facilities manager, said the old vinyl wallpaper, which was peeling off, was removed and the walls were repainted.
New lighting also has been installed at the front of the room.
Outlining other changes made, Pawlowski said the $120,000 to redo the chambers was consolidated from funds remaining from old capital projects that had been completed. "It was money well spent."
He said the room is now ADA compliant and the audio system has been upgraded.
The room has large state-of-the-art audio visual screens in both front corners "so you can see my Power Points more clearly." (In fact, when he later did a 2014 budget Power Point presentation, many of the words were too small to read.)
Unlike the old and uncomfortable seats, which were bolted to the floor in rows, the mayor explained the new chairs allow for "flexible seating configurations" so the room can have multiple uses, adding tables can be brought in for training classes or conferences.
In addition to City Council, the Allentown Planning Commission, Allentown Zoning Hearing Board and other city boards and organizations meet in council chambers.
The total number of seats has increased from 110 to 130, said Pawlowski.
Some of that seating is outside the meeting room "to accommodate overflow crowds to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act." People in those seats will be able to watch meetings via an audio-visual feed from inside council chambers.
Allentown, PA 18102