Two different grassroots attempts are being made to let Allentown voters decide whether the city should lease its water and sewer systems.
A public referendum is the goal of both efforts, which were initiated by residents who oppose the lease. One requires City Council to initiate a referendum, the other does not. But council ultimately would play a key role in the success of either attempt.
The big question is whether either referendum effort can stop the city administration’s plan to lease those systems for about $200 million -- money the city needs to avert an imminent pension crisis. One proposal doesn’t appear to have any support from council and the other initially will only have the weight of public opinion behind it.
At Wednesday night’s council meeting, resident Dan Poresky announced a petition is being circulated that requires the sale, lease or transfer of any city land or asset worth more than $10 million must be decided by a referendum. He hopes that referendum will be held as part of next May’s primary election.
“It says nothing about water,” said Poresky of the referendum. “Should the citizens have the right to say yea or nay to actions such as this worth $10 million or more?”
Poresky’s petition requires no action by council to get a referendum on the ballot.
To do that he needs the signatures of at least 2,000 registered city voters.
But he hopes once he gets all the required signatures, council will decide not to sign any contract for a lease until such a referendum is held.
The other referendum proposal was on council’s agenda under new business as an “item for discussion" Wednesday, but there was not much discussion about it.
Only council member Jeanette Eichenwald asked any questions and council took no action on it.
That proposal came from resident Elijah LoPinto. After the meeting, LoPinto maintained council violated the city charter because it did not discuss or debate his proposal as required.
LoPinto wants council to authorize a ballot referendum that would allow city voters to decide any sale or lease of a publicly-held utility.
If council would support LoPinto’s proposal, he said it would have an immediate impact because the administration could not lease the systems without the public’s approval in a referendum vote.
LoPinto also had circulated a petition, but only to get his referendum proposal on council’s agenda for discussion.
Wednesday’s meeting was LoPinto’s second attempt to get council to consider his petition to pass a resolution for a referendum on privatizing the water and sewer systems. He got his petition turned in to City Hall in time for that resolution proposal to be on the agenda for discussion at council’s Oct. 3 meeting, but it was not on the agenda. He maintained that also violated the city charter.
While LoPinto is calling on council to authorize a referendum, he said Poresky’s petition would put a referendum directly on the ballot, circumventing council and the administration.
Poresky confirmed his approach to get a referendum on the ballot requires no formal action by council, but he hopes council “sees the wisdom” of letting voters decide the issue once it realizes he has enough signatures to get the question on the May ballot.
“We hope to bring it back to them as something they can use to their advantage,” said Poresky.
He needs 2,000 signatures of registered city voters within 60 days, but hopes to get 3,000 or more.
Poresky acknowledged the referendum vote he proposes may not take place before the city administration closes a deal to lease the water and sewer systems. But he hopes just getting it on the ballot will convince council not to approve that deal.
He told council it has the power to hold up approving any lease contract the mayor brings to it until after the May primary.
“You’re going to have the opportunity to allow the citizens to make the decisions so you don’t have to go down in infamy along with the mayor for this debacle,” he told council. “Hopefully you won’t be willing to give away our most valuable asset for 50 years.”
In addition to Poresky, other members of that petition committee are Glenn Hunsicker, Glenn Scott Hunsicker, William Hoffman and Michael Donovan.
That committee is inviting anyone interested in signing petitions or helping circulate petitions to attend a meeting at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Allentown Patriots Community Building, 1027 Wyoming St.