Lehigh County board discusses term limits
Lehigh County Board of Commissioners discussed the ramifications of a proposed referendum amending the Home Rule Charter contained in a motion by Commissioner Amy Zanelli to limit commissioners to three terms.
Commissioner Nathan Brown, speaking during the governance committee before the regular Feb. 27 meeting, said he does not see a need for term limits in local government, which he defined as county government and below.
Chairman Marty Nothstein said he supports term limits for higher government levels.
“[But the proposed change would be trying] to fix a problem that doesn’t exist at the county commissioner level,” Nothstein said. “Nobody’s getting wealthy. Nobody’s abusing their power as a county commissioner.”
The term limits idea was a key point of Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong’s State of the County address Feb. 21. He did not attend the commissioners meeting when Zanelli introduced the motion.
“I was surprised it turned up in the executive’s [State of the County] speech,” Zanelli said.
According to the proposed change to the Home Rule Charter, “No four-year term commencing prior to the first Monday of January 2020 shall be included in calculating this limitation.”
This wording safeguards long-tenured Dr. Percy Dougherty’s seat on the board.
“I promise I’m not going to stay around for another 12 years,” Dougherty said, receiving a round of laughter from the audience.
Zanelli said there was no intent to injure anyone now serving on the board.
Commissioner Geoff Brace said he is “philosophically opposed to term limits.”
Commissioner Marc Grammes also commented on the proposal: “I don’t know where this came from. It came out of the blue. Commissioners are not professional politicians.”
Nothstein asked if Zanelli’s motion for term limits extended to row officers (sheriff and coroner). She said the motion should only apply to commissioners.
Brown suggested the question of term limits was one for voters to decide.
“If an incumbent is doing a good job, they should be rewarded by the electorate,” Brown said.
Dougherty then offered a suggestion.
“If we’re going to make major changes, do a charter study commission,” Dougherty said.
Commissioner Brad Osborne suggested obtaining more information from Armstrong.
“We have not heard from the county executive on this,” Osborne said. “I would like to hear from him.”
Osborne then moved to table the issue on term limits, but Brace suggested it remain on the agenda so Armstrong could address the issue at the next regular commissioners meeting.
Osborne’s motion to table was defeated 5-4.
In other matters, commissioners approved professional service agreements with Cetronia Ambulance Corps, Crime Victims Council of the Lehigh Valley and Turning Point of Lehigh Valley.
During public comment, Emmaus resident John Donchez commended Nothstein and Brown’s letter rebuking Armstrong for an alleged insensitive joke delivered during the Feb. 21 State of the County address at Coca-Cola Park, Allentown.
“It seems funny to me the Democrats didn’t also condemn Armstrong’s joke,” Donchez said, in a later interview.
Two Democrats on the board of commissioners said they did not get an opportunity to sign or endorse the letter.
Nothstein’s letter of condemnation for Armstrong’s joke was on a Lehigh County Board of Commissioners letterhead and emailed to local media the day after the speech.
Nothstein and Brown, both Republicans, were listed as points of contact. The two are chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the board of commissioners.
Nothstein, in an interview, said the letter was released under his and Brown’s name because it amounted to leadership’s prerogative to release the document. He said all members of the board had been consulted or seen the draft before he released it.
Osborne said he had been consulted, and he concurred with the message.
Zanelli, however, said in an interview that Nothstein and Brown “did not discuss this news release with [the Democrats] before he sent it out.”
Zanelli said she had received an “FYI” copy when the letter was released to the media.
“He is trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” Zanelli said. “The only people I heard complain about whatever Phil said was them.
“As a woman, I surely don’t need men to tell me when I should or shouldn’t be offended,” she said.
Commissioner Dan Hartzell, a Democrat, said he saw a political aspect to the letter.
Hartzell said he agreed the letter addressed a legitimate issue.
“But, this being an election year, there seems to be an element of politics in the letter,” Hartzell said.
He also said no one discussed the Nothstein-Brown communiqué with him before it was released.
In other business, commissioners reappointed six members — Christina “Tori” Morgan, Donna L. Wright, Kathy Rader, Michael P. Harakal Jr., Stephen Repasch and Kevin Schmidt — to Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
Three candidates for commissioner — Bob Elbich, of Weisenberg Township; Dave Herrington, of Lower Milford Township; and Zakiya Smalls, a local businesswoman — attended the meeting. They are all running for at-large seats.