Lehigh Valley

Northampton County voters to weigh in government's future

Ballot question will appear in November 2018

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County voters will get the chance to commission a study of the county’s home rule charter during the 2018 general election.

If residents say “yes,” the vote will authorize an elected commission to determine whether Northampton County should stay under its home rule charter, which has been the form of government since 1978, or to change government structure.

Though the commission’s decision carries no final weight, it will be a serious comparison of how the county currently functions versus how it might work under commissioner-manager or a traditional three-commissioner relationship.

Debate was at times heated as council members discussed the government study.

Councilman Kenneth Kraft led the charge against the study, calling it a waste of time and accusing the bill’s author, Councilman Hayden Phillips, of political grandstanding in an election year.

Phillips argued the study would look at personnel qualifications, and how the sheriff and controller were hired. It would allow a holistic look instead of approaching fixes piecemeal, he said.

Under the Home Rule Charter, the sheriff is appointed and the controller elected. Also, the government operates as separate branches, with council serving as the legislative branch and the county executive as the executive branch.

But the independence can also lead to miscommunication.

Ryan Woodmansie, a Nazareth resident, said the disconnect between the county executive and council was apparent. He questioned how the council didn’t raise its eyebrow at how the county’s prison study was progressing.

The council did butt heads with the executive branch over the study during the summer, even threatening to sue before the matter was resolved.

Kraft maintained those problems were all handled in the administrative code, not the county charter.

“The administrative code is what’s wrong with this county governing properly,” Kraft said. “You have power to fix the code.”

Council Vice President Glenn Geissinger, who ultimately voted against the study, said the study was putting the cart before the horse. The county shouldn’t be reviewing its charter when it had already budgeted – but not spent – money to fix the administrative code, he said.

“I don’t think this is the proper step at this time,” he said.

Councilwoman Margret Ferraro, who also voted against the study, said it wasn’t smart to look at the entire county charter before checking whether problems could be fixed faster by changing the administrative code.

“Let’s be realistic here,” she said.

Ferraro said she was uncomfortable with how it was proceeding. When the commission was appointed in 1976 that led to the current charter, it was staffed by experts in county government, she said.

Without time for a learning curve, the study commissioners could be newcomers with no experience in the subject, she said.

The vote was moved from primary elections in May after Geissinger and several other council members argued that it would eliminate the average independent voter from participating. 

Holding study commission votes during the primaries would also prevent independent voters from running for the commission, Geissinger said.

Council President John Cusick and Councilman Mathew Dietz said that independent voters who were keyed into local politics would understand.

“Anyone who’s Libertarian, vegetarian, Republican or Democrat is welcome to run,” Cusick said.

Cusick suggested council-manager and three-commissioner styles could be better forms of government than the current council-executive format. Without a study, the government and voters would never know, he said.

“We owe it to ourselves to ask the question, ‘Ss it working?” Cusick said. “What’s the harm in letting (voters) decide?”

After a motion to table the vote failed, council approved it 5-4. The issue will be put to Northampton County voters in November 2018.

In other news, Cusick asked the county executive to reach out to Wilson Borough or the Dixie Cup Plant property owner to move their development project along. Five years is a long time for nothing to be done, and the Keystone Opportunity Zone designation is finite, he said.

Kraft suggested the project might have been stalled because the market for condos wasn’t up. But with the market coming around, there could be hope in the future.

“We may see something come soon,” Kraft said. “Hopefully.”

Also, resident outcry against a potential jail at the Gracedale complex in Upper Nazareth Township continues. Residents of Nazareth and Eagle’s Landing came forward with more petitions against using the location for a prison.

Residents are conducting their own investigation into a jail at Gracedale, digging through old meeting minutes, presentations and recorded council meetings.

A Sep. 14, 2016, meeting came under criticism for its discussion of jail locations and, residents charged, innuendo as to a future location.

“We’ve all seen the video, and we’re upset about it,” resident Kelly Schrier said.


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