They strived for five, but at the end of Lower Saucon Township Council’s meeting last Wednesday there were still just four on the floor–four township council members, that is.
Council deadlocked in two successive votes to appoint a replacement for Democratic councilman Ryan Stauffer, an attorney who resigned Nov. 21 after accepting a government job that would have conflicted with his public service.
One of the applicants under consideration for the open seat was Stauffer’s wife, Kristen Stauffer, who ran as a Democrat for her own four-year seat on council but lost in the November election.
That was a point of contention for councilman-elect Jason Banonis, who spoke several times during the discussion about the appointment.
“Mrs. Stauffer, while she’s a fine person, she was also the last place vote-getter,” said Banonis. “The voters have already spoken on this issue.”
Stauffer responded to his comment by pointing out that she was a last-minute replacement for another candidate who won the primary election but later withdrew from the race.
“I respectfully followed all campaign laws,” she said. “I do care deeply about this township. I want to see it succeed for the next 50 years.”
Banonis also criticized applicant Kathy Pichel-McGovern, who he said “did not recognize the difference between Hellertown and Lower Saucon” in a comment she made while being questioned by council members about her qualifications, which she said included service on the township planning commission and on the Hellertown Area Library board of trustees.
Pichel-McGovern has been an outspoken critic of the proposed PennEast pipeline–a portion of which would pass through land she owns in the northeastern corner of Lower Saucon Township–and she reiterated her opposition to it before council.
“The Penneast Pipeline is not necessary,” she said. She claimed that the natural gas the pipeline would transport would be “for exportation…not for Lower Saucon or Northampton County use.”
Stauffer said she was inspired to seek a seat on council by the civic involvement of her grandparents in her hometown, where her grandfather was a town councilman and police officer and her grandmother was a member of a ladies auxiliary.
Responding to a question that was asked of all six candidates, she said she thinks the township’s greatest resource is its leadership.
Stauffer also cited the township’s record of preserving open space as a positive attribute, and said it was one of the reasons she and her husband moved to Lower Saucon.
The other candidates for the vacancy included:
- Thomas Carocci, who cited his membership on the township’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) for the past six years as evidence of his commitement to public service. Carocci said that in lieu of preventing an underground pipeline from being constructed in Lower Saucon Township, local officials should do their best to protect the interests of residents by working with the company that owns the pipeline.
- Ted Eichenlaub, who said his experience as a private sector businessman who’s always focused on increasing revenue would benefit the township if he were seated on council. Eichenlaub said a councilperson should consider public health and safety as well as rights of way in evaluating a proposed pipeline project, and although he’s lived in the township for six years, admitted that he has not visited all areas of the township in response to a question posed by councilwoman Donna Louder.
- David Jauregui, who is a member of the township’s EAC and said he would like to help steer Lower Saucon in “a direction of growth.” Jauregui said pipelines are “a necessary evil” that can be beneficial as long as all rules and regulations pertaining to them are followed. He told council he moved to the area from Los Angeles in 2008 and was surprised by things such as the fact that fire protection in Lower Saucon Township is provided by volunteers. Jauregui said he believes the township’s most valuable asset is its people, and that the greatest challenge it faces is supplementing revenue that will be lost when the IESI Bethlehem Landfill closes at some point in the coming years.
- Andrew Lauden, who said he enjoyed being a part of an economic advisory council that made recommendations to council several years ago. “I’m a business owner and I went to Lehigh University for a degree in engineering,” he said. “When people ask me what I do I say ‘I solve problems.’” Lauden said there is a perception that the township is not friendly toward economic development, and also cited the impending loss of landfill revenue as the greatest challenge facing the township and its leaders.
In spite of the concerns raised about landfill revenue, council at the Dec. 18 meeting unanimously adopted a 2020 budget that includes no property tax increase and reflects the fact that all outstanding township loan debt has been paid off.
When it came time for the four members of council to discuss the candidates seeking the appointment, councilman George Gress was the first to make a motion to nominate Kristen Stauffer to fill the seat, which was then seconded by council president Priscilla deLeon.
Gress–who lost his bid to win a four-year term on council in November–said he was impressed by Stauffer’s regular attendance at meetings during the year-plus he’s been on council. He said he did not recognize the other candidates as regular meeting attendees.
The motion by Gress failed by a vote of 2-2, with councilwomen Sandra Yerger and Donna Louder opposing it.
Yerger subsequently made a motion to appoint Thomas Carocci to fill the seat, which also failed 2-2, with Gress and deLeon opposing his appointment.
At that point a deadlock was declared, and council solicitor Linc Treadwell explained that 10 registerd voters now have the option to file a petition asking the court to assume jurisdiction over the process. There’s no limit to the number of petitions that can be filed, and Treadwell said they can–but don’t have to–name a specific candidate to fill the vacancy.
He added that there’s no time limit for filing such a petition.
“It’s an extremely unique situation,” Treadwell said, noting that unlike many other municipalities, Lower Saucon Township does not have a vacancy board. If it did, that board rather than a court of law would have jurisdiction in this situation.
Council’s next meeting will be its annual reorganization meeting, which will be held Monday, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. at Lower Saucon Town Hall, 3700 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bethlehem. The meeting is open to the public.
At that time, there will be another vacancy declared on council, since councilman-elect Jason Banonis won two terms–one for a two-year seat and one for a four-year seat–in the November election. By law Banonis can only serve one of the two terms, which means his other seat will be vacant.
Along with Banonis, the other two council members who will be sworn in on Jan. 6 will be deLeon and Yerger, both of whom won four-year seats in the November election.