Allentown City Council was called upon to stand up and challenge Lehigh County’s election board Wednesday night.
On Aug. 27, the three-member election board unanimously rejected putting a proposed clean air ordinance on the November ballot so Allentown voters could determine its fate.
If passed by voters in November, that ordinance would have imposed tough regulations on the Delta Thermo waste-to-energy plant planned next to the city’s wastewater treatment plant along the Lehigh River.
The county election board has usurped the city’s authority, maintained Al Wurth of Bethlehem, a political science professor at Lehigh University.
Wurth advised council: “You need to push back here, to represent the integrity of the city, certainly to represent the rights of your citizens and especially to represent the poor and working class folks in Allentown who are going to breathe what comes out of this incinerator.”
Wurth said the three election board members were not elected and do not live, vote or pay taxes in Allentown. Yet they decided “the autonomy of the City of Allentown is something they can throw out the window. Who are these people and how do they get to decide what you can and cannot do in your own city? This is really an issue about democracy.”
Twice this year the county election board has rejected ballot initiatives by Allentown residents to have the city’s voters decide the fate of proposed new laws.
If City Council does nothing, said Wurth, the city is accepting a bad precedent.
“If you go away with your tails between your legs, you are not representing the citizens,” he charged.
“I’m here to ask for council’s help,” said city resident Rich Fegley, representing Allentown Residents for Clean Air, which led the clean air ordinance petition drive.
“Twenty-one-hundred-plus citizens wanted to see this on the ballot and the Lehigh County Board of Elections stopped it from being on the ballot.”
Fegley also maintained the election board exceeded its authority and had no right to stop the ordinance from going on the ballot.
He said Allentown Residents for Clean Air intends to hire a lawyer to legally appeal the election board’s decision. He asked if City Council can make any recommendation “on how we can proceed.” He also asked council to go to the election board to find out why the initiative was stopped.
“I don’t necessarily have an answer for you tonight, but it’s something that we could and should look into,” said council vice president Ray O’Connell.
Despite O’Connell’s pledge, Fegley interpreted the silence from the other four council members at the meeting as “City Council is not willing to help its citizens get this ordinance on the ballot.” He acknowledged that he was putting words in council member’s mouths.
When Fegley suggested council president Julio Guridy admit council would not help, Guridy said he had no comment.
Election board vs. city charter
Fegley said the petitioners followed the city’s home rule charter to get the proposed ordinance on the November ballot.
On June 19, City Council voted 5-1 to table taking action on the clean air ordinance, which was brought before it via petitions signed by 2,175 city voters.
That vote automatically sent the 15-page proposed ordinance to the election board to go on the November ballot in Allentown.
Fegley read to council section 1002 of Allentown’s home rule charter, which states: “The qualified voters of the city shall have the power to propose ordinances to Council. If Council fails to adopt a proposed ordinance, the initiative process gives the qualified voters of the City the opportunity to adopt or reject the proposed ordinance at a primary, municipal or general election.”
“Nowhere in here does it state that the election board has any authority to stop it from going on the ballot,” said Fegley. “The political process starts with
the citizens, moves to the City Council and finally to the ballot to be voted upon.”
Resident Paulette Hunter said the city charter is not effective and needs to be reviewed so there are no obstacles when a proposed city bill reaches the county election board.
“When we follow it, we’re finding obstacles along the way,” said Hunter. “There’s something wrong with the charter when you cannot use it to do what you need to do, based on what is says you can do.”
Guridy said such a charter review can be done, but not until next year. “It may be time for us to start refining it.”
Second ballot failure for residents