ALLENTOWN, Pa. - One of the leading opponents of plans to lease Allentown's water and sewer systems wants City Council to create new legislation that will ensure city voters decide if they want that lease.
Resident Dan Poresky explained his petitioners committee is not abandoning its effort to get a question on the May ballot that would empower voters to make such decisions. But he said an actual referendum on the planned water and sewer lease could not take place until November, at the earliest.
He hopes City Council quickly will take formal action to make sure voters decide the issue, before Mayor Ed Pawlowski asks council to approve a lease contract.
"We're asking you to do this now because in the near future – whether it be weeks or a month – the mayor is going to be coming with a lease agreement," Poresky told council Wednesday night. "We're asking that something be put into place now that says voters will have a chance to vote in May on whether or not the water should be privatized."
Poresky told the seven members of council they will lose politically no matter how they vote on the sewer and water lease: "If you vote for the lease, you have the wrath of the voters to contend with. Over 90 percent of them don't want it. If you vote against the lease, then you are going to be blamed for tax increases. So I understand the dilemma you're in. That's why I'm advocating you do something different and get some legislation that lets the voters decide this – and lets you be heroes."
"The legislation needs to be passed soon," stressed Poresky. After it is passed, he said, when the mayor asks City Council to sign a lease agreement, council can respond: "We have to let the voters choose first."
If council does nothing, said Poresky, the mayor could have the lease contract approved long before voters can take the first step to decide the issue in May. "The voters don't want that," he said. "They want to be able to vote on the lease."
No one on council responded to Poresky's legislative proposal. Later he said he did not expect any immediate response, but is optimistic council will give his suggestion serious consideration. "What do they have to lose? They can come out looking like heroes if they do this."
Poresky is one of five members of a petitioners committee working to get a question on the May primary ballot that would change the city's charter so Allentown voters decide by referendum if city assets worth more than $10 million should be sold or leased.
That question is now Bill 82, which will be the subject of a special City Council meeting scheduled for Jan. 3. That meeting will start at 5 or 5:30 p.m., said council president Julio Guridy.
Poresky said if council approves Bill 82, on May 21 Allentown voters will decide if the city charter should be amended to allow such referendums.
Even if voters approve that initiative, Poresky said next November's election is the earliest they actually can vote on whether the city should do a 50-year lease of its water/sewer systems, which the city hopes is worth up to $200 million.
When addressing council, Poresky claimed "water rates are going to have to rise faster and higher than the mayor has been stating" because provisions in the city's proposed lease agreement are being "tossed." He said that agreement is being renegotiated because companies interested in leasing the water and sewer systems "say the original plan prevents them from making a profit. The final agreement will be much costlier and provide fewer safeguards to water quality, source water and operational standards."
Poresky's assertion about the status of the lease was not challenged by anyone on council or by representatives of the administration at the meeting.
Guridy tried to stop Poresky from addressing council during its "courtesy of the floor" segment Wednesday.
Before anyone stood to address council, Guridy said "courtesy of the floor" is only for the public to address non-agenda matters and instructed the audience not to speak about anything on the agenda. "If it is on the agenda and it's going to be introduced today, please do not speak about it or we'll stop you."
Guridy assumed Poresky was going to talk about Bill 82, which was on the agenda for introduction. But Poresky maintained he was introducing something new, not something on the agenda.
The two men argued. Guridy said if Poresky did not abide by City Council's rules, "I will ask you to remove yourself" -- adding he would ask a police officer to remove Poresky if he did not go voluntarily.
Poresky responded: "I don't want to give up on this, because I'm making a very clear distinction and I hope I get support from the people here and from council on this."
That support immediately came from council member Jeanette Eichenwald.
"Martial law has not been established here in the city of Allentown….yet," said Eichenwald. "According to the rules, during courtesy of the floor, people can speak on any item that is not on the agenda."
"If you want to be deceiving to the public, go right ahead," said Guridy.
"I'm an elected official and I want to hear what the public has to say," said Eichenwald. "They have a right to come here. We should welcome them with open arms, not threaten them with being removed by the police."
Eichenwald was applauded by the audience, despite the fact that Guridy already had told people there should be no applause.
"I'm not threatening anybody for speaking," said Guridy. "I'm saying you've got to be civil, you've got to abide by the rules and you cannot speak on anything that is on the agenda and is going to be introduced."
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