Bethlehem Press

Friday, September 22, 2017

Council passes on greater contract oversight

Monday, July 10, 2017 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

In the wake of a federal investigation of political corruption in Allentown that has already resulted in nine guilty pleas, local governments are taking notice. Bethlehem, Allentown and Lehigh County have all taken at least some steps to improve transparency and impose greater oversight with government contracts.

But Northampton County Council passed at such an opportunity at their July 6 meeting. To be specific, they rejected an ordinance giving them more authority over county contract approvals.

Under current law, the executive needs council’s approval for contracts larger than $100,000. Hayden Phillips proposed lowering that threshold to $25,000. But only he and Matt Dietz voted yes to this measure.

Executive John Brown was absent, but solicitor Ryan Durkin read into the record a memo from purchasing manager Kathryn Anderson. She complained that requiring council approval for contracts under $100,000 “will negatively impact the contracting process” and cause delays.

Ken Kraft called the ordinance, one for which he voted in a “ridiculous overreach” by county council. “We’re not here to micromanage everything that happens,” he said, and then slammed sponsor Hayden Phillips with the snark that this “always seems to come up during an election year.”

Ironically, Kraft voted to support an almost identical ordinance. That measure was proposed by Hayden Phillips, too. His first attempt to check on the executive’s power with a different council was successful and passed by a 7-2 vote. The votes against came from Glenn Geissinger and Mat Benol, who usually can be counted on to support Brown.

Brown vetoed the ordinance because it would “restrict the ability of the current and future administrations of Northampton County [to enter contracts] in a timely and cost effective way.” A subsequent attempt to override Brown’s veto failed by a five to four vote, with Peg Ferraro, Seth Vaughn, Mat Benol and Glenn Geissinger voting no.

In 2015, Vaughn lauded the measure as one that would give Council “more oversight. ... I just think it’s better government,” he explained. But a few days later, he voted against himself. So did Peg Ferraro.

Lamont McClure, who was then on council, chided Ferraro. “Two weeks ago, you and Mr. Vaughn showed courage and voted with Mr. Phillips, and tonight, you and Mr. Vaughn showed the opposite of that. A lack of courage.”

In 2017, Vaughn now thinks the measure he endorsed in 2015 would “hamstring the executive” and result in more meetings. In 2017, Peg Ferraro thinks the bill she supported in 2015 “would almost bring the wheels of government to a halt. The wheels of government move slowly enough.”

Bob Werner, who voted the measure down, was a civilian in 2015. But he was far from enthusiastic over executive contracts. “I’m tired of having things put in front of me with two or days notice,” he said. “The administration does not respect Council’s time frames.”

This is Phillips’ second effort to impose greater oversight with county contracts. “I’ve been on this almost since I’ve been here,” he said. “You’ve got me offended that you think I’m doing this for political purposes. I’m not.”

Phillips argued that his bill would have no impact on cooperative purchases or what the courts think are necessary. And Matt Dietz added that Lehigh County requires legislative approval for contracts greater than $10,000.

In 2015, when council voted 7-2 to give themselves control over contracts greater than $25,000, they did so over the protests of Purchasing Manager Kathryn Anderson, who appeared at the meeting and complained it would slow things down. In 2017, a memo from her sufficed.

“You have the perspective of an employee,” said resident Jeff Fox, who supplied the perspective of a citizen and said the bill would result in more transparency.

President John Cusick said he was swayed by Anderson’s concerns, but cautioned everyone that something really needs to be done about the purchasing provisions in the Administrative Code.

Those concerns have been raised since 2015, too, and Controller Steve Barron even prepared an outline for council. It has been collecting dust for about a year.