Bethlehem City Council begins planning to appoint a new member

Posted: 6:42 PM EST Dec 24, 2013   Updated: 2:05 PM EST Dec 04, 2013
Bethlehem Council

Bethlehem City Council honored its fire chief, began planning how it will appoint a new member to replace Mayor-elect Robert Donchez and heard appeals from Lehigh University students to find a new community garden to replace one that soon will be gone in south Bethlehem.

The Tuesday night meeting began with council president Eric Evans reading a citation honoring Fire Chief George Barkanic, who retired last week after 33 years with the department.

Barkanic, who rose through the ranks to become chief in 2006, was praised for the special contribution he has made to the safety and well-being of city residents. The citation stated he has helped thousands of Bethlehem residents during his career.

Council wished Barkanic and his wife Judy “a long and satisfying retirement.”

After receiving a standing ovation, Barkanic shook hands with council members then thanked the city for giving him “a wonderful job. You couldn’t buy a better job than firefighter in the city of Bethlehem.”

He said the job is so good that Bethlehem has 15 or 20 legacy firefighters – those who followed their fathers into the department – including his own daughter. “She loves it.”

He said the only problem is his daughter called him about 7 a.m. one recent day to tell him about an early morning fire call she had been on. “She could have waited until noon or a little later.”

Barkanic praised out-going Mayor John Callahan, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever met a man more passionate about improving the city. He kept telling us over and over ‘don’t worry about how it looks now; it’s how good the city will look in 10 years’. I could see his vision. And hopefully it continues.”

While Mayor-elect Donchez was at his regular seat on council, his letter of resignation was read by City Clerk Cynthia Biedenkopf. His resignation from council will take effect Jan.6, the same day he is sworn in as mayor.

Donchez thanked his colleagues on council for their professionalism on many issues while he served with them and added he looks forward to continuing to serve the city as mayor.

Replacing Donchez on City Council

Evans congratulated Donchez on winning the election -- the Democrat faced no Republican opponent – and announced council has advertised to find someone to serve the last two years of Donchez’s term on council.

That notice also is posted on the Bethlehem website.

Letters of interests and resumes must be submitted to City Hall by Dec. 31. Evans said candidates must be city residents, but can be either Democrats or Republicans.

Evans hopes the details about how council will appoint a new member can be formally worked out at its Jan. 6 reorganizational meeting.

At that meeting, two newly-elected council members will be sworn in:
Democrats Adam Waldron and Bryan Callahan, who is Mayor Callahan’s brother.

They will replace council members Jean Belinski and David DiGiacinto, who did not seek re-election. DiGiacinto was elected the new city controller in November.

The two newcomers will join Evans, Karen Dolan, Michael Recchiuti and William Reynolds on council.

Evans said four of those six council members will have to vote for an appointee.

And he said council has 30 days to make that decision from the Jan. 6 resignation date of Donchez.

Council had an initial discussion about how it will pick its new seventh member, but Evans stressed nothing will be carved in stone until after the two new members are sworn in.

Recchiuti said council has not been through the process of appointing a new council member for 10 years.

Council may schedule a special committee-of-the-whole meeting in mid-January before its second regular meeting on Jan. 21.

At that special public meeting, council will meet and interview candidates for the vacant seat. Evans suggested each will be given 3-5 minutes to make an opening statement, then will answer questions from council.

Dolan suggested that if only a half dozen or so candidates apply, council should make no decision at that special meeting. But she suggested if a larger number apply, council might have to vote that night to whittle the number down to three finalists, then make a final selection and immediately swear in and seat the winner at its Jan. 21 meeting.

Reynolds expressed support for that approach if there are a large number of candidates.

But Recchiuti said council should not vote the same night it interviews candidates and Evans later agreed.
“This is a very difficult thing for citizens to go through, to stand up there and answer questions, then either hear their names nominated or not,” said Dolan.

“People come to those meetings with their family members and they come with very high hopes. And they are nervous wrecks. They have a lot riding on it. We all know how it feels to run through an election, but it’s like an election all squeezed into one moment. They are chosen or shot down all in one evening.

“I would suggest making this a two-meeting process. It’s too much for us to absorb in one meeting.”

Reynolds also said having two meetings is a good idea.

Recchiuti called it a mini-election, with council members voting for a winner as the elected representatives of the people. “In a sense, they are campaigning that night. We should have a chance to digest that information and give it some real thought, rather than just taking a vote that night.”

Council member-elect Waldron, who was at the meeting, also supported having two meetings to select a new member.

Reynolds stressed it will be important to have all six council members present at both meetings.

Evans asked if council members want to send all candidates lists of questions before they meet with council, so they can answer them in writing before the meeting. Reynolds preferred people answering questions “on their feet” rather than having the time to come up with “safe” answers.

Reynolds also suggested the candidates might be given up to five minutes to make closing statements at the meeting where one of them will be appointed.

Replacing Maze Garden

Council members were criticized for the way they treated Lehigh University students at their Nov. 19 meeting, when they approved selling a city-owned property so an office building can be erected on the site,

Part of that property is called the Maze Garden, a community garden for 17 years near the intersection of Third and New.

Resident Peter Crownfield criticized council’s “condescending tone”
toward Lehigh students at that meeting. He said no one was trying to block the sale, only to delay it until a suitable replacement site can be found for a new community garden. He said council still needs to make sure that happens.

Resident William Sheirer said the idealism of those Lehigh students was undermined and blatantly ignored by members of council.

“You gave them a course in Cynicism 102,” said frequent council critic Stephen Antalics.

Sheirer said Donchez has said he will find another spot for the garden in the city.

Student Emily Gibbs pushed council for a timeline for when a new garden will be created, so she can plan spring plantings for children with whom she works in the Maze Garden. She asked what space she will have “and what kind of sunlight is going to be in that space.”

Student Jocelyn Providence said students want to be involved in the process of finding a site for a comparable garden.

Providence listed several features needed in a “comparable” garden:

• Soil will have to be tested to ensure it is not contaminated.
• If the soil is contaminated, building materials will be needed to
create raised beds, which would be filled with uncontaminated soil.
• A nearby water source
• A place to store tools.
• Moving or replacing a small pond at the existing garden.
• A landscaping plan.
• Transplanting or replacing some vegetation in the Maze Garden.

Breena Holland, a political science professor at Lehigh, also said people were disrespectful in criticizing students at the last council meeting.

She said not all Lehigh students “want to sit up on the hill and do a lot of drinking and have no respect for anyone and just go to the Promenade and shop. It’s a really big mistake to perpetuate any characterization of Lehigh students in that way.”

Holland said many students want to be involved in the community.

Holland joined a student in recommending that City Council create a student advisory council.