Debate Over Etiquette at September 3rd Bethlehem City Council Meeting

The September 3rd Bethlehem City Council Meeting featured a variety of topics including: the swearing in of Grace Crampsie Smith to city council, the presentation of a “Bethlehem Moment,” a discussion about campaign contributions, and the appointment of new officials to the Zoning Hearing Board and Recreation Board. There was also a long and heated debate over Councilmember Callahn’s actions at the last meeting, where he was accused of inappropriately making direct, derogatory comments to other members.  

City Council meeting began with the swearing in of new councilmember Grace Crampsie Smith. Shortly following, there was a public hearing to review and accept the proposed use of $45,319 provided by the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG).The program is administered by the federal government in order to provide funding to local jurisdictions to be spent in areas such as training, equipment, and personnel. Police Chief DiLuzio applauded the generosity of the grant, and explained that it will be used for valuable computer and software updates. Councilmember Olga Negron commended the police for making such necessary provisions. The proposal was later approved. 

Following the approval of funding for computer updates, Councilmember Olga Negron presented a “Bethlehem Moment.” The “Bethlehem Moments” project was started by former Lehigh professor Edward Gallagher, in an attempt to remind Bethlehem residents of the city’s significant history. Every week, he or another local resident presents a short historical anecdote about Bethlehem. This week, Negron summarized a 2003 Morning Call article entitled, “Forging America, the History of Bethlehem Steel, Chapter 7,” which discusses the emergence of a vibrant Puerto Rican community in Bethlehem. According to the article, large amounts of Puerto Ricans migrated to Bethlehem in the 1940s. Many lived on the South Side, and worked in agriculture. By 2003, there were over 33,000 Puerto Ricans living in Bethlehem, working in every facet of the job market. 

After the “Bethlehem Moment,” the floor was open for public comment. Dave Harrington, a resident of Coopersburg who is running for Lehigh County Commissioner, cheerfully introduced himself to everyone. He said he was delighted to attend the swearing in of his good friend Grace Crampsie Smith. Harrington explained how he grew up in Lehigh Township and used to ride his bike on the canal path as a kid, and that he was excited to meet the local residents in attendance. 

Later, Ed Gallagher took the floor. He thanked Councilmember Negron for “breaking the ice” by agreeing to present a “Bethlehem Moment.” He stated that his project can bring citizens together. He argued that  “without a shared history we are not truly a community.” After these remarks, he criticized the Bethlehem Parking Authority (BPA) for its proposed design for the Polk Street garage because of its lack of aesthetic appeal. He claimed the predominant reason for the choice of the design had to do with money, stating, “the parking authority members were blinded by the purchase price.” 

Additionally, during the public hearing, local resident Steven Antalics reprimanded the Council for its actions at the previous (August 20th meeting). At that meeting, there was a heated debate, during which some of the Council Members made direct, defamatory comments to each other. 

After, Bill Sheyer addressed one of the main topics of last meeting, which was campaign contributions and the potential for conflicts of interest. To avoid situations where campaign contributors could potentially influence councilmember’s choices, he proposed enacting a limit of $400 donation per person. 

Following the public discussion, the Mayor appointed Peter J Schneck and Mary-Frances Stone to the Zoning Hearing Board, and he appointed Peter John Mayes, Jane Persa, and Steven Fernstrom to the Recreation Board. Before the appointment of Mr. Schneck, Councilmember Van Wirt commented that the Zoning Hearing Board should make their meetings public. 

A number of ordinances and resolutions were passed, all 7-0. (See below for a comprehensive list at the bottom of the article). The only resolution with lengthier discussion was Resolution 10-C: “Approval for the contract with Diefenderfer Electrical Contractors Inc.” This contract is meant to expand decorative lighting along West Broad Street. The project is predicted to cost around $246,00, a number that Councilmember Reynolds admitted seemed quite high. But, after a short discussion, a representative of Diefenderfer ensured the council that the expenses were necessary, with each fixture alone costing many thousands of dollars. Ultimately, the resolution passed with full support from Council.


Bethlehem City Council Meeting. Photo courtesy of:

At the end of the night, Councilmember Callahan discussed the events of last meeting and the direct comments that he made about Councilmembers Reynolds and Van Wirt. He attempted to defend himself from allegations that his actions were inappropriate. Though he apologized, he acknowledged that, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, councilmembers technically are allowed to address other members directly. He also claimed that everyone breaks the rules, saying that he “doesn’t want to be called out for something they’re all doing.” To prove his point, he played video recordings of quotes said by other councilmembers at the last meeting, where they supposedly violated the standard rules of conduct as well. Callahan admitted that at one  hour, 32 minutes, and 46 seconds in the last meeting he did inappropriately attribute a motive to Mr. Reynolds. But, he defended his actions, saying, “we’re all breaking them. I just feel like I’m the only one being called out for it.” He urged everyone to be held to the same standard in the future. Despite heated argument, Mr. Callahan said many residents enthusiastically reached out to him saying that the previous meeting’s debate allowed for necessary, relevant discussion. 

Following Councilmember Callahan’s statements, President Waldron responded. He said he tries to enforce the rules fairly and consistently, but that’s hard to do when rules are habitually broken, and his advice is ignored. He’s been criticized in the past for “having a light gavel,” and said that will not change. He feels everyone has the right to be heard and to speak, and that silencing people’s thoughts is not a productive way to have a conversation. But, he noted that there needs to be a level of decorum and respect for others in the room, and at certain times in the last meeting that was not present. Moreover, despite Mr. Callahans’ claims, President Waldron said no one gave him positive feedback from the last meeting, but rather stated that it was “cringe-worthy and embarrassing.” Walrdon said, “We can do better and must do better.”

*Feature photo credit: Jeff Kirshenbaum*

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