Allentown’s City Council plans three April public meetings on the city’s proposed water and sewer lease, with a final vote to approve that lease set for April 24 -- but council would not allow residents to speak about that lease during its Wednesday night meeting.
Resident Rich Fegley confronted City Council about that refusal, saying nothing in the city charter prohibits the public from speaking about issues on the agenda of a City Council meeting.
“You guys cheated, you broke the rules,” Fegley told council, to enthusiastic applause. “You made up your own rules.”
The situation threatened to become chaotic, with people noisily walking out of the meeting at Fegley’s suggestion and a police officer approaching Fegley at the podium.
At the beginning of the meeting, Council President Julio Guridy announced people could speak on anything they like during “courtesy of the floor,” but added: “You can only speak on things that are not on the agenda.”
Guridy noted both a bill and a resolution regarding the water and sewer lease were on the agenda, adding: “We will not speak about those tonight.”
Later Guridy elaborated: “When we introduce an ordinance or a resolution, we don’t discuss it; we send it to a committee.”
Guridy promised the public can speak “as much as you want” about the lease at council meetings on April 17, April 22 and April 24. “We’ll be here as long as you like.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Ed Pawlowski announced Lehigh County Authority was the winning bidder for the lease, offering the city $220 million. That bid must be approved by City Council.
A larger-than-usual crowd was at council’s Wednesday meeting, Many wore red (or cranberry) to demonstrate their opposition to the lease. “Save Allentown’s Water” yard signs were being distributed outside the meeting room.
Twice people addressing council asked how many were there about the lease and twice hands shot up all over the room. The rowdy crowd repeatedly ignored Guridy’s request that they not applaud, cheer and whistle for other speakers.
Because residents who stood to address council were not allowed to talk about lease issues, several asked questions about the lease approval process.
Fegley stood to challenge council’s refusal to allow people to speak about the lease after two other people unsuccessfully asked council to suspend its rules so people could weigh in on news of the LCA bid.
Fegley repeatedly challenged council to give him “an official reading” of where the city’s charter or council’s own rules state an item on a meeting agenda cannot be spoken about by the public. “I would like someone to read it right now. Please tell me where it states that.”
His request was met with silence from the five council members at the meeting, as well as from Assistant City Solicitor Dale Wiles.
“I take that as it doesn’t state it anywhere and nobody knows,” said Fegley.
When Fegley said council did not follow proper procedure, Guridy said council has been following the same procedure “for as long as I can remember. For the 12 years I’ve been here, that has been the rule.”
But City Clerk Michael Hanlon told Fegley: “It’s a tradition, not a rule.”
Fegley told council: “You shut us down this evening.” He same many people came to the meeting to speak on the lease, but several gave up and left after Guridy said they could not.
“You guys are trying to stop the voice of the public,” said Fegley, to cheers and loud applause. Fegley asked everyone to walk out of the meeting and many people did.
Guridy told Fegley he did not have to yell at council.
Fegley said he was very angry: “I don’t feel anyone’s listening.”
“We are listening,” said Guridy.
“No, you’re not,” said a chorus of people in the audience.
When Guridy said he was going to move forward, Fegley said: “I’m not going to sit down… I won’t accept that.” He again was applauded.