It looks like Allentown’s voters will decide if the city needs a tough new clean air ordinance to control and monitor air pollution coming from the planned Delta Thermo Energy waste-to-energy plant.
On Wednesday night, City Council voted 5-1 to table taking action on the proposed Clean Air ordinance, which was brought before it via petitions signed by 2,175 city voters.
Friday is the deadline for City Council to act on the proposal and it does not intend to call another meeting to do so, said council president Julio Guridy after the meeting. “With us, it’s done,” said Guridy.
Unless stopped by some legal challenge, approval of the proposed ordinance now will be decided by the city’s voters in the November election.
City Council had until June 21 to act -- 60 days from April 22, when City Clerk Michael Hanlon confirmed that sufficient legitimate petition signatures had been submitted to bring the ordinance before council.
Guridy said the proposal now will go to Lehigh County’s elections board. “The county board of elections will decide whether they’ll put it on the ballot,” said council member Ray O’Connell.
“I feel pretty confident,” said resident Rich Fegley, who led support for the proposed ordinance. ”I can’t see why it wouldn’t go on the ballot.”
Fegley was the only member of the public who addressed council about the proposed law before the vote to table.
Atty. Mike Ewall, who wrote the 15-page ordinance but was not at the meeting, was not surprised by council’s inaction.
“That’s the easiest way out for them—it’s easier than voting no,” said Ewall, founder and director of the Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, which supports communities “threatened by polluting energy and waste technologies.” Ewall helped organize the petition drive that brought the proposed ordinance before City Council.
Saying the city’s voters are “the only people we can trust,” Ewall is “absolutely” optimistic those voters will approve the ordinance in November.
“Who’s not for clean air, especially in Allentown?” said Ewall, explaining the entire Lehigh Valley suffers from poor air quality.
O’Connell cast the only vote against tabling because he wanted council to vote on the ordinance: “We owe it to the people who signed the petition to vote yes or no.”
In the spring of 2012, City Council approved a 35-year-contract with Delta Thermo, after packed public meetings and many hours of debate.
“I voted against the Delta Thermo project because it was totally unproven technology and environmentally unsound,” said O’Connell Wednesday. “I fully support this clean air act….I’ll be voting yes for the clean air act.”
City Council member Jeanette Eichenwald, who joined O’Connell in voting against Delta Thermo last year, was not at Wednesday’s meeting.
Guridy said the ordinance would have become law within 10 days if council had approved it.
No time left for review
Part of the reason for council’s indecision was that it requested a written legal opinion about the proposed ordinance from the state Department of Environmental Protection, but at least some council members did not receive that opinion until Wednesday. (It is dated June 19, but the city administration released it to Channel 69 News Tuesday afternoon.)
Council member Joe Davis moved to table the proposed ordinance, saying he had just received DEP’s opinion as well as a written response to it from Ewall.
“With this new information, I would feel very uncomfortable voting,” said Davis. Council member Cynthia Mota agreed.
Council member Peter Schweyer said a no vote by council would send a signal not only to the city’s residents but also to the county elections board that a majority of council members oppose the clean air proposal.
“If council doesn’t vote on it, it still goes to the ballot as if we voted no,” said Schweyer.
That was confirmed by Assistant City Solicitor Frances Fruhwirth: “The [city] charter says if council fails to take action –and that could be either a negative vote or nothing at all – then it goes to the county.”
Schweyer maintained voting to table sends a different message: that council received information only a few days before the deadline to make a decision.