ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Six candidates running for Lehigh County Commissioner touted their campaigns during a debate held Monday night at the Lehigh Valley Active Life Center in Allentown.
Four Democrats – Commissioner Dan Hartzell, Zakiya Smalls, Dave Harrington and Bob Elbich – one Republican, Dennis Nemes – and one independent, Matthew Schutter, a Libertarian – offered stump speeches and answered audience member questions.
Three other candidates – Chairman Marty Nothstein, Commissioner Brad Osborne and Antonia Pineda – were not in attendance Monday night. All three are Republicans.
The evening's event began with an introduction. Hartzell, the only incumbent in attendance, recalled his 38-year career in journalism and how he was approached by the Democratic Party to run for commissioner. Initially hesitant, Hartzell saw how his career as a journalist was one in which he served the public and how that elected office could present that same opportunity for him in a different context. Among his priorities were keeping Cedarbrook Nursing Home in "public hands."
Smalls said she had started her own commercial cleaning company. She stated her priorities as commissioner would be the budget, the economy and presenting a unified voice for Lehigh County residents. She added that she wanted to "encourage high paying tech jobs" and that the county needed to "look at how much money was coming in first, before we start spending it."
Harrington, an attorney, said that he wanted a government that was "focused on the people." He said he had stood up to "the injustices of the system." He added he founded a volunteer organization. Harrington noted his priorities would be community, government transparency and social justice predicated on "smart solutions."
Elbich discussed how the government helped him advance in his own life. He noted how he started two separate manufacturing companies that created 50 jobs. He said he served on the Weisenberg Township Zoning Hearing Board and as a member of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Elbich said his approach was a "common sense" approach to government.
Nemes, served 30 years as principal of Northwestern Lehigh High School. He said that in 36 years of fiscal management, he’d never exceeded a budget. He stated that if elected, he would curtail government spending and reduce government mandates. Nemes advocated for a strategic plan garnering responses from county residents.
Schutter, a bartender, and former Penn Township auditor, said his campaign was focused on minimizing government and advancing individual liberty. He said there was little difference between the two major parties and that government spending was not the solution, but the problem.
When asked by audience members about development in Lehigh County, Harrington said it was crucial that companies establishing businesses "help pay for infrastructure."
Smalls was concerned that the jobs created at manufacturing companies would eventually be replaced by automation, putting people of out work.
Nemes noted the balance between commerce and open space was challenging, but added that every time we raise taxes, it's a burden on people on fixed incomes.
Candidates were asked when was it appropriate to raise taxes.
Hartzell said the county executive has a five-year budgetary plan that if followed would put the county on the right path toward spending. He added that last week commissioners voted to increase taxes on property owners and that the vote included four Republicans because it was based on responsible projections while also keeping the increase to a minimum.
Harrington said each line item in the budget was real person helped by the government.
"We need to take care of one another," he said.
Harrington said government programs – funded by taxes and tax increases – played a role in that care.
Schutter said that only after "all the waste, fraud and abuse was addressed could we consider raising taxes." He added that "no one voluntarily pays taxes" and it was only through the threat of the Internal Revenue Service that anyone does. He equated taxation to "theft," and concluded by saying there were "a lot of chiefs" in county government, but not "many indians." Given this situation, Schutter said a spending reduction strategy would involve "the chiefs cutting their own salaries."
The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Lehigh County. The general election is Nov. 5.