This week, longtime Hellertown Borough Councilman Phil Weber resigned suddenly via an announcement at Tuesday’s regular council meeting. Hellertown owes a debt of gratitude to Councilman Weber for years of faithful, and admittedly often thankless, service. These council members give a lot, and Weber gave and gave for years.
Nonetheless, the remaining six members must use this golden opportunity to appoint a replacement who helps to diversify Hellertown’s all-male, all-white council. It’s long past time.
This isn’t 1950, or even 1980. We don’t yet have the 2020 Census data easily available (it’s coming soon), but Hellertown and the Saucon Valley seem to be rapidly diversifying, and we need leadership to reflect both our changing realities and our rising aspirations.
This particular appointment will complete Weber’s two-year term that ends on Dec. 31, but symbolically, it’s so much bigger than that, especially given Weber’s inarguably huge impact on Saucon Valley’s direction for years.
We want our wonderful Hellertown home to be a beacon of forward-leaning American culture and commerce, filled with new perspectives, fresh opportunities to learn from one another and a vital richness of humanity. This all isn’t just good for the spirit—it’s good for business and civic development, too.
As one noted economist put it recently, diversity in business has a “capacity to foster innovation, creativity and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do.” And this is even more true for civic life, I would suggest.
There are some fine public servants on our council currently. Council President Tom Rieger has expressed a desire to help build a more inclusive and diverse Hellertown, and our mayor spoke of “fairness” and how “we can embrace change” in his March re-election campaign announcement. And it’s not like we haven’t had women on council before (Dewey Fire Co. President Gail Nolf, for example, served admirably for years).
But there’s inertia on the current all-men’s council, too (despite a top-flight woman borough manager), and the old excuses surely feel cozy, like an old, threadbare comforter you don’t want to get rid of. “We won’t get minority applicants.” “Women don’t seem to want to serve on council.” “It’s illegal to favor one group based on what they look like.” But all these excuses are just that, to put it kindly.
We don’t get minority applicants because we haven’t actively reached out enough to minority groups. Women, especially those with younger families, are discouraged from applying because they often face a double standard. Expectations are unrealistically high for female council members, whereas some men on local councils get by for years either largely checked out or given to bursts of bullying and other domineering behaviors. And while it may be illegal to hire someone (this is different from an appointment to council) because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation, it’s not illegal to make sure minority groups know about open positions and know their applications will be treated equitably. That takes a will. It takes drive. It takes more than nice words.
I’ve heard the same misinformed or cynical excuses proffered to defend the stomach-turning lack of diversity in the faculty at Saucon Valley School District.
I’ve served on hiring committees at at least one state institution, and we have a robust, pro-active, perfectly legal set of policies to encourage applications from underrepresented groups. It’s not that hard.
Finally, what we see on council also connects to hiring policies throughout municipal government and in local businesses. It sets the tone and creates ripple effects. Bring a black or Asian woman onto council, and you’re far more likely to get a black or Asian woman applying for the next open borough job. We may soon see an African-American detective on the police force or a transgender sanitation worker. And why shouldn’t we?
It’s 2021, folks.
Bill Broun is a writer who lives in Hellertown. You can learn more about him at billbroun.com. To apply for this council appointment, you must be a resident of Hellertown borough, at least 18 years old and a registered voter. Letters of interest may be sent to Borough Manager Cathy Hartranft at email@example.com.