Due to an uncommon combination of events, an out-of-area judge now has the responsibility of appointing a Lower Saucon Township Council member from among three applicants who testified before him in a public hearing at the Northampton County Courthouse Feb. 10.
Luzerne County judge Joseph M. Augello was brought in to hear the unusual case because one of the applicants’ spouses is an attorney who works for the county court.
Augello asked each of the three candidates identical background questions before giving them an opportunity to tell him why they feel they’re the best choice for the coveted seat.
The three applicants represent a wide range of views and have diverse life experience.
They also span the political spectrum, with an independent, a Democrat and a Republican in the mix.
‘They all show a passion for doing what’s right,” Augello said at the conclusion of the hour-long hearing. “The court has a difficult decision to make.”
The candidates include:
- Donna Louder (R), a former Lower Saucon Township Council member and lifelong township resident. Louder told Augello she is a former mammographer and realtor. She lost her bid for another four-year term on township council when she finished in fourth place in the November election. Louder represented herself at the hearing.
- Kristen Stauffer (D), who also ran unsuccessfully in November. Stauffer’s vote tally put her last among the six candidates who ran for three seats, however she entered the race late in the summer as a replacement for a candidate who withdrew following the primary. A three-year township resident, Stauffer said her late entry meant she had less time to campaign. Stauffer was represented by attorney Theresa Hogan at the hearing.
- David Jauregui (I), a township resident since 2008 who is a professional engineer and entrepreneur. Jauregui moved to the township from Los Angeles and has been involved in township affairs as a member of its Environmental Advisory Council (EAC). Unlike Louder and Stauffer, he has not appeared on the ballot for a council seat in the past. Jauregui was represented by attorney Victor Scomilio at the hearing.
The vacancy which Augello will now fill on Lower Saucon Township Council is a result of a mid-term resignation by former councilman Ryan Stauffer (D), an attorney who stepped down in November in order to accept a county government position.
Ryan Stauffer is Kristen Stauffer’s husband.
Council attempted to fill the vacancy created by Ryan Stauffer’s resignation at its meeting Dec. 18, but deadlocked 2-2 in two successive votes.
The first nomination that failed was a nomination to appoint Kristen Stauffer.
The second nomination that failed was a nomination to appoint attorney Tom Carocci to council.
According to the Lower Saucon Township code, when council is unable to make an appointment to fill a vacancy, that duty becomes the responsibility of the court:
If, by reason of a tie vote or otherwise, such vacancy shall not have been filled by the remaining members of the Council within the time as limited herein, the Court of Common Pleas, upon the petition of 10 or more qualified voters, shall fill such vacancy by the appointment of a qualified person for the portion of the unexpired term as above provided. (Art. III, 5-8 Council, B. Number, election, terms and qualifications of Council members.)
Carocci along with Kristen Stauffer, Louder and Jauregui applied to fill the vacancy that went unfilled due to the council deadlock, however he later withdrew his petition and was appointed to fill a different two-year vacancy at council’s Jan. 6 meeting.
That appointment–along with the current vacancy–is through Dec. 31, 2021.
Carocci’s appointment was made possible because council newcomer, attorney Jason Banonis (R), had won two different council seats in November.
Banonis was on the ballot for–and won–both a two-year and a four-year seat, and legally had to decide which of the two he would accept at the first council meeting in January.
Had he accepted the four-year seat, outgoing councilman George Gress (D) would have been appointed to fill the two-year seat, due to how the seat was filled in the first place.
For that reason, Gress was essentially appointed to fill a two-year seat, and a special election had to be held to determine who would fill the seat for the remaining two years.
Banonis won that special election in November, and since Gress didn’t compete in it, had Banonis opted to fill the four-year seat, the two-year seat he (Banonis) had just vacated would have been filled by the last person who held it, i.e. Gress.
“Since I did not run for the two-year seat, I could not lose the two-year seat,” Gress said.
Gress admitted that the legal precedent may be difficult to understand, and said the final determination about what would happen if Banonis chose not to fill the two-year seat was made by legal counsel for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS), who along with the township’s own legal counsel were consulted on the matter because of the unusual confluence of resignations and vacancies.
As for the current vacancy, it is not known when it will be filled, and there is no proscribed timeline within which the judge must render a decision.
The next Lower Saucon Township Council meeting will be held Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. at Lower Saucon Town Hall, 3700 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bethlehem, Pa. A draft meeting agenda may be reviewed in advance on the council page of the township website.