ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Voters will not get a say in Allentown's controversial water privatization plan -- at least not in time to stop it.
The Lehigh Co. Elections Board has ruled the issue will not appear on the May ballot because a citizens' petition didn't meet state legal requirements.
Privatization opponents concede that they are now out of legal options, but vowed to target City Council members who back the plan.
The May vote would have allowed citizens to vote on selling or leasing any city asset worth more than $10 million. That would have effectively halted the deal until November, when voters would actually decide on the plan.
The plan is as controversial as it is massive.
Mayor Ed Pawlowski wants to let a private company run Allentown's lucrative water and sewer system for the next 50 years. In return, the city would get up to $200 million, up front, to pay off its growing pension debt.
Pawlowski has warned of crippling tax hikes if the lease doesn't happen.
Opponents quickly mobilized, gathered more than 4,000 signatures to let voters decide. The issue has turned heated.
"You let the people decide!", one protester shouted at a January city council meeting. "It's all about power of the people, and you're here to represent us."
But now, in what's likely a fatal blow to their efforts, the county elections board says the petition is invalid.
"We need to follow the rules that are in place from the state level down to the county level," said chief clerk Tim Benyo.
Petitioners gathered the signatures in the fall and delivered them to the city in December. Benyo said, according to state law, the signatures were collected too early for a referendum to change the city's charter.
"For this election, it would have been January 1st through February 19th," he said.
It's doubtful a vote in May would have stopped the project anyway. City Council expects to approve a lease bid by April, and most members have expressed support for the lease idea. Opponents were hoping the threat of a vote would convince council to delay a decision.
Project opponents said they will not appeal the election board's decision. Instead, organizer Dan Poresky said they will aggressively target any city council member who backs the plan. While most council members have voiced support for the privatization plan, several face primary opponents in May.
Opponents could also collect signatures between June 18th and August 6th to get an item on the November ballot, but that would be months after Council expects to vote on the deal.
Even then, voters would still have the option of approving the lease deal in May 2014.
"They're welcome anytime to petition and to present the county board of election with their petitions, but it must follow the rules," said Benyo.
Pawlowski's office would only say that they mayor has been informed of the decision, but deferred all other questions to the county election board.
Meantime, the union representing Allentown water and sewer workers publicly came out against the lease proposal Tuesday. The SEIU Local 32BJ will hold a news conference Wednesday morning to address the issue.
Allentown, PA 18102