By Sam Bernhardt
Sam Bernhardt, Pennsylvania Organizer for Food & Water Watch
Last night’s Allentown city council meeting was the latest slap in the face for residents who have been trying to exercise their right to weigh in on the fate of their water and sewer system. Mayor Ed Pawlowski is rushing through a proposed 50-year lease of the city’s water and sewer system as fast as he can, and many members of the city council appear to be going along with it and silencing dissent.
At the meeting last night — a mere day after the city opened the final bids — the city council introduced a resolution and a bill to approve the lease to the winning bidder, the Lehigh County Authority.
More than 100 city residents, many wearing red shirts to show their opposition to the water lease, packed the council chambers to give public comment against the lease. However, the City Council President Julio Guridy and Vice President Ray O’Connell denied the public the right to speak on the water lease, stating that it was tradition not to discuss or take public comment on a bill the night it is introduced.
Residents made clear that the city charter did not say that the council should refuse public comment that night. Check out Rich Fegley, the owner of Brew Works, and other residents taking a strong stance and challenging the council, in the video on 69 News WFMZ-TV.
In fact, the charter explicitly states that the public has the right to comment on any topic of concern and be heard by the city council at the beginning of a meeting (see photo):
There are many good reasons why Allentonians oppose the lease, which Mayor Pawlowski touts as the only way to offset budget shortfalls and pay down the city’s pension debt. However, a new Food & Water Watch report released today, Borrowing Trouble: Water Privatization Is a False Solution for Municipal Budget Shortfalls, explains that taxpayers ultimately suffer when water systems are leased off. A lease is a one-shot ploy that simply masks, not alleviates, local budget shortfalls. Such backdoor borrowing may take debt off the city’s books, but it is only possible because the city is sacrificing future revenue and allowing the authority to hike water rates.
Residents in Allentown are well aware of these problems and have been working to try to stop the water lease. But they have faced an uphill battle against a mayor so intent on his lease scheme that he has undermined the democratic process. Last fall, for example, Mayor Pawlowski interfered with the residents as they worked to collect the signatures to put a question on the ballot to require voter approval before any major lease or sale of public assets.
Despite his interference, they collected more than 4,000 signatures, more than enough to get a public vote. Unfortunately, however, the county rejected the petitions because the residents collected them at the wrong time by following the city’s charter, which differed from state law.
The mayor’s administration has also bullishly supported the lease by limiting public input and refusing to disclose important information about the companies that sought to take over the water and sewer systems. It refused to reveal the full identities of the bidders and the responses to the request for qualifications for the water and sewer concession. This lack of transparency is common with these asset deals, and it is clear the mayor is trying to hide behind closed doors to rush this deal though.