The great Allentown water fight ended shortly before midnight Thursday, when City Council voted 6-1 to approve a $220 million lease of the city’s water and sewer systems to Lehigh County Authority.
The only no vote was cast by Jeanette Eichenwald, who has stood alone for months as the only member of City Council to vocally oppose the lease.
For the first time in a City Council meeting, the other council members explained their positions on the lease just before voting. Yet the outcome was not surprising.
Council member Cynthia Mota, who is recovering from surgery in a hospital in Venezuela, voted by phone from her hospital bed.
Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who has been leading the charge to lease the water and sewer systems for nearly a year, was asked how he felt when council adjourned the 4.5-hour meeting after midnight. Rather than immediately launching into a victory speech. Pawlowski responded: “I feel tired. Tired and hungry.”
But he added: “At the end of the day, this is the best scenario we have to really address this long-term, crippling debt issue that’s affecting our city’s finances. It’s the right approach to take and I’m glad the City Council also agreed.”
The primary reason for the lease is to wipe out a rapidly increasing police and fire pension debt of at least $158 million. Pawlowski warned the city faced crippling tax increases and cuts in services if the lease deal failed.
Both Council president Julio Guridy and vice president Ray O’Connell promised they will work to develop an independent oversight committee to monitor the lease agreement with LCA. Guridy said he also will advocate with Lehigh County officials that LCA should expand its board to include more Allentown residents.
Responding to comments by numerous residents that council was moving too quickly, Eichenwald made a motion to defer a vote authorizing the lease.
Explaining it has always been her intention to be the voice of citizens, she said deferring would give council and residents more time to thoroughly review alternatives and lease bid documents that have not yet been made public.
When none of her colleagues would second Eichenwald’s motion, people in the audience angrily shouted: “That is a disgrace….Not one of you? ... You’re disgraceful…Unbelievable…”
Eichenwald said she was deeply distressed that no one would second her motion and warned her colleagues there could be dire consequences for the city if they are wrong in voting for the lease.
“What is the rush?” she asked. “Why do it today? Please, please consider what will happen if those who vote for this turn out to be wrong, just as a City Council many years ago voted to acquiesce to the pension agreement that put us into this position.”
More than one speaker warned council members their action on the lease will cost them votes in the upcoming May primary.
Facing a hostile crowd
Council faced a noisy, unruly and hostile crowd. People groaned and shouted.
Guridy eventually gave up telling them not to applaud. At one point he scolded them for acting like children.
People even shouted at the mayor when he tried to speak.
Resident Patricia Infanti thanked City Council and the mayor for being cordial and respectful to people who spoke, but said those in the audience were “shooting off their mouths” and not returning that respect. Several people argued with her.
Considering the mood of the audience, the bravest people in the room may have been those who stood to speak in support of the lease. They included a number of local VIPs: Allentown developer J. B. Reilly, Charles Marcon of Lehigh Valley Partnership, Tony Iannelli of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and Don Bernhard of PPL.
A total of 46 people spoke for more than three hours before council voted. Twenty-seven opposed the lease, 17 supported it and two offered no opinion.
As resident Mark Enriquez pointed out, “no matter what is said here, it’s probably not going to sway anyone’s opinions. People are just here standing on their soapbox giving their opinions.”
“What’s going to take place tonight is illegal,” city resident Joe Hilliard told council. “You’ve denied the citizens’ right to review the documents to form an opinion. How can I speak on something if I can’t review it?” Hilliard also accused council of violating the state’s Sunshine law and said he was going to take legal action: “We’ll sort it out later in court.”
Late in the meeting, council was informed the doors to City Hall had been locked and people could not get in. City officials quickly got them reopened. Some in the audience loudly declared that also was a violation of the Sunshine Act.
“You’re dealing with an LCA management that is not transparent,” warned Lisa Scheller, a city resident who is chairwoman of the Lehigh County commissioners.