SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. – South Whitehall Township's commissioners ran into gridlock on an appointment and a proposed policy change Wednesday, as the resignation of Matthew Mobilio has resulted in a 2-2 split.
The meeting was the first since Democrat Mobilio resigned last week. Mobilio often voted with President Christina "Tori" Morgan, a Republican, and Democrat Joe Setton, leading to 3-2 decisions with Republicans Michael Wolk and Diane Kelly coming up short.
The divided board now faces the task of picking a fifth commissioner within 30 days, and South Whitehall may have three spots open in the fall election instead of two.
During a discussion about appointing Mark Leuthe to the planning commission, Wolk raised the issue of how nominees to boards and commissions are chosen. He said all commissioners should be involved in interviewing candidates in public, leading to a debate early in a three-hour-plus meeting.
Morgan said the process is transparent and that the discussion of Leuthe's candidacy was not the time to raise the issue.
"I'm forward-looking and you're backward-looking," Wolk said to Morgan. He said defending the status quo as "good enough" is typical of South Whitehall leadership.
"You can do your best to paint me as somebody who doesn't want to change," Morgan replied. She said his proposal would be considered, but she wanted to proceed with the scheduled vote on Leuthe.
Wolk's proposal "has to be modified and looked at before we can even think about it," Setton said.
Monica Hodges and David Kennedy, who along with Morgan are candidates in the Republican primary election for commissioner, spoke in favor of Wolk's plan.
Then former commissioner Mark Pinsley, now the Lehigh County controller, challenged Wolk's approach to changing the process without going through the usual steps.
"When he said he was forward-thinking, he wasn't forward-thinking enough to get it on the agenda," Pinsley said. He said the real issue is "you guys don't trust each other."
Former commissioner Brad Osborne asked what questions were posed to applicants for the planning vacancy and how they responded. Morgan went over the interviews briefly, then reminded Osborne that the process is about the same as when he was on the board.
Wolk's proposal to involve all commissioners in interviews and to make the questioning public failed with a 2-2 tie. He and Kelly supported it, with Morgan and Setton opposed. A majority is needed to pass a motion.
"This discussion is not reflective of you," Kelly said to Leuthe, who was present during the virtual meeting.
Then she and Wolk voted against appointing Leuthe to the planning commission, while Morgan and Setton were in favor for another 2-2 deadlock.
Mobilio cited frustration with obstructionist policies and misinformation in his resignation letter. The board voted to accept his resignation Wednesday. That vote was unanimous: 4-0.
Having failed to fill a spot on the planning commission, the board now has to replace Mobilio.
The board has 30 days to fill the open spot, and if it cannot pick a replacement, a township vacancy committee would have 15 days to make a choice. Failure to replace Mobilio within 45 days would lead to a Lehigh County judge picking a fifth commissioner.
The vacancy may mean there is another board seat up in the fall election. There are two spots open now — the seats held by Setton and Morgan. If Mobilio's replacement only serves through Jan. 1, that spot could be open in the fall election, creating a third contested seat. Solicitor Joseph Zator will review that process.
Applicants for the vacant spot on the board must apply by 4 p.m. April 21. Information about qualifications and the process will be posted on the township website.
In other business, the board voted to approve $3,500 grants to eight South Whitehall small businesses with demonstrated loss of revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 39 applicants, but 31 were either not in the township or did not meet other criteria.
The Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce processed the applications. The recipients are: Dr. Bruce Hillman, optometrist; Alexia's Nails; Auntie Kim's Dog Walking and Pet Sitting; European Concept Salon; The Chicken Lounge restaurant; Intuitions Wellness, a massage parlor; Roy Danner Paving; and Smile Cleaners.
The vote for grants was 3-0-1, with Kelly abstaining because she has business relationships with some of the grant winners.
The meeting ended after three hours and 34 minutes. The next board meeting will be April 21.