Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Clearing the Air...An Ongoing Project

Posted by: Dennis Lieb

My apologies for the delay in submitting my second post. I have been having time conflicts with work that have cramped my style lately. Hopefully, some of that work will lead to some exciting new projects in Easton that I can talk about in the future. I thought I'd spend a little time reacting to some reader comments to past posts by the other contributors. Its easier to assemble them here than have people search back through the various old posts to find them and besides, its much easier to stir up trouble this way.

My first impressions of how things have unfolded under the new format is both encouraging and disturbing. I am happy to see higher reader comment counts. I would like to see even more new readers adding to the conversation as the issues hit you where you live. Democracy works best when free thinking people are able to express thoughts in open forums without intimidation or fear of reprisal.

During our Revolutionary period the British Empire tried mightily to close down the bars, hotels, pubs and cafes of Colonial America. There were various excuses given. The real one was that these were the gathering places of their time; places where revolutionary ideas and radical changes were incubated. Nothing could serve the Empire's ends better than to shut down the venues of public discourse...the meeting places of the common folk. So, keep thinking radically and submitting those ideas and impressions via this outlet, but don't think you can't do the same thing, face-to-face, over a beer or coffee in our neighborhood pubs, (or barber shops, bakeries, farmer's markets, etc.). Community gathering places are more than bricks and mortar or simply economic generators. They also serve as the social capital builders of a free society.

This brings me to some of the more disturbing points of the blog so far...

I greatly respect the difficulty of the individual jobs of our mayor, other elected and appointed officials and the uniformed employees of the city. You will seldom hear me insult individual personalities directly (accept for the Vulcanos of course - they are truly nitwits). I may take people to task for their comments - as I will below - but mostly I try to be pragmatically critical, not only of certain decisions, but also - and I find this most important - critical of the current processes by which decisions are made. The personalities may have changed somewhat since I started paying attention (that was 1999...probably not enough change though for most people's liking) and some of our processes have certainly been improved. There are still lots of them that need to be changed.

On to specifics...

Terrance's first post, Easton's Monopoly on Justice, generated some disturbing reader comments. Unfortunately, these came from the administration and police. I read the piece carefully and critically and no where in it does he personally accuse the city of deliberately putting forth racist policy regarding the playground ban. He is careful to relate the feelings and perceptions of someone else who was removed from the park. He goes on to explain why a policy that is perceived positively by those affected by it's outcome (the neighbors surrounding the park) can be both locally successful while being problematic in the general context of city policy.

Most of this friction that develops between expedient policy decisions and bigger social justice issues can only be satisfactorily lubricated if the city comes to the realization that communities need to be given leeway to drive the process at the neighborhood level. So far, the city is still trying to drag us, kicking and screaming, to a table that they have set. It has to be our table. That can't happen until either the city trusts us with our own decisions or we replace them with people who do. Social programming is not my area of expertise so I listen and learn from people like Terrance, who have a background of documented experience. Why can't the city show him the same administrative humbleness? If he is wrong, they can always go back to what they think works better.

The mayor's comments...

("Terrance, you know full well that the intent was not to put teens out of the playground if they were productive. You should have called me or the Chief to report the incident and it could have been cleared up with the officer") first seem to miss the point in that we aren't interested in micromanaging their discetionary policy, but then later...

("I won't be posting anymore on this blog because you all want to endorse your side of an issue. A one-sided blog is like a rocking chair -- it gives you something to do but you don't get anywhere.")

...take the form of an ultimatum to stop participating out of some sense of persecution when in fact no one has deleted anything he wants to say. He also comments that he will only respond to certain bloggers (including me) who he respects and not to the rest. I see in that comment (and I hope I'm wrong) the seeds of political expediency; the cynical, old, divide-and-conquer mentality that is often used to keep otherwise likely allies at each others throats to perpetuate the political status quo. My enemy's enemy is my friend.

Captain Vangelo's comment...

("It is so convenient to criticize while sitting behind a computer and composing your thoughts. Try making split second decisions at 3:00 am while a drunken idiot is in your face. Until you walk in our shoes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year please don't attempt to tell us how to do our jobs.") both highly troubling to me as a citizen and a window into the mindset of a department still struggling to find itself. Beside the fact that a discussion about a playground ban has nothing to do with 3am drunken brawls or life-and-death decisions per se, it actually IS our job to tell him how to do his. We elect officials and then we expect those officials to enact and follow policy that is a reflection of both the People's will and the Constitution's intent. These policies then flow down to the department level and are enforced by those who make the independent choice to work as police officers. Officers learn the nuts and bolts of police work in the academy and then street smarts fill in the gaps over time. This has nothing to do with how laws are made and then promulgated down through the system, which is what we are talking about here.

This discussion could go in all kinds of directions at this point...what is community policing? Does Easton really have it? (No.) Do the People have to restrict their commentary on the police simply because they didn't choose to carry a badge or gun for a living? I don't think so...That kind of thinking is the seed of totalitarian regimes and kind of gets to the heart of what "police state" can mean depending on your context. What does a real democratic decision making process look like and who decides how to get to it? How long can any city function with a philosophical disconnect between day-to-day operations and how we decide (and who decides) what those operations should be? The answer to this last one is self-evident. One can function on a limited basis for a very long time, just as Easton has limped along for decades under less-than-ideal governing policies, but it doesn't mean its a healthy situation.

I'm going to wrap this up this way...

This blog is a voice for the citizens who can't get their thoughts out in 300 words or less on the editorial page...those for whom five minutes at a council meeting is too short or too intimidating. We seem to think that democracy operates under certain time and space limits - like a football game - but it doesn't. Robert's Rules of Order are not the law. They are adopted procedures that are superseded by the law. This is the place for discourse outside the business-as-usual venues.

The city needs to be very careful about how they monitor and respond to this blog because it is very easy to step over the line. If every time we say black someone at city hall says blue then this becomes a pissing contest, government intimidation of a public forum is perceived to exist and the People aren't served...we can always take this underground and deal with our issues that way if necessary.

The difference between law enforcement procedures and public policy is a fine yet clearly delineated line. I have no desire to micromanage daily police activity. I have personally been happy with the services provided in my neighborhood lately despite occasional minor problems. I am glad to see a new breed of EPD officer replacing an old guard whose time has gratefully passed. Neither the police nor the administration can claim however to have a community policing program here. That opportunity presented itself five or more years ago and it wasn't adopted. I know who taught the classes and could have made it happen. He isn't coming back here any time soon.

The force has made great strides and I am cautiously optimistic. But we also have very recent memories of guns lost at steakhouses, shootings in the police station, drunken cops driving through convenience store walls and fighting in the streets with other cops, thefts from the chief's file cabinet and the infamous Rat List. The current public trust is tenuous and needs daily positive reinforcement. Both the police department and city must read and listen to public criticisms carefully and pragmatically, without being thin-skinned (not always easy of course) before reacting with the kind of tactics exhibited recently on this blog that could easily be construed as bullying.

Finally, it always amuses me - I won't say amazes because nothing does that anymore - how public officials will place great trust in the voting public to elect them to any position and thank them profusely for the opportunity to serve then give them very little credit to be smart enough to help direct policy thereafter. Real Democracy depends on this last point.

I'm going to return to this "clearing the air" format from time to time about a couple other posts but will be posting later this week on my thoughts about the Movies at the Mill, the Silk Mill project and the upcoming decisions Easton has to make (the public WILL be at the table) to revive passenger rail service before it's literally too late.

Onward and Upward,



noel jones said...

Great post Dennis--you're getting right to the heart of our issues on this one.

What seems to be plaguing this town is an elitism that has elected officials and even some so-called "grass roots" nonprofit programmers believing that THEY are really the only ones who know what's best for West Ward residents, and Eastonians in general, and that they have the right to TELL us what's best for us, because they don't believe we could possibly have any good ideas on that topic ourselves. So over and over again, we are TOLD what we should think and feel, and are asked to just get on board and attend meetings. Apparently these people are not doing their reading and have not yet realized that top-down policies and processes do not result in successful revitalization. Only bottom-up revitalization works long-term.

What is particularly annoying is the attitude that many at the City seem to have that somehow because they are paid by the City, because they "do the work" that they somehow have the best ideas in the City (as if we aren't working and supporting society in our own ways). They somehow think that they are the boss of the taxpayers, not the other way around.

I have heard the mayor say, on more than one public occasion, that "just because we work in public service, doesn't mean we are public servants." This is flat wrong, and indicative of the problem. A public servant IS a person working in public service, and if he or she has a problem with that, then public service in the wrong field for him/her. There is a necessary humility required that is sadly lacking in most of our public servants in Easton. But that tide is going to be changing in the next few years...

Dennis R. Lieb said...


I can't presume to know or understand what the people in charge of certain departments or programs in Easton are thinking when they make decisions so I also can't place any sinister connotations on their motivations.

All I know is that it baffles and frustrates me to see year after year pass, watching different people - inside and outside of these programs - ask the same questions, come up with the same solutions, duplicate efforts, operate in silos, fail to motivate in effective ways, resist new methods and keep very poor track of what has been done before, whether it worked or not and why.

I am not speaking about specific policy here. I am speaking about the methods of organizing and motivating people, diseminating information effectively and following well understood, transparent management practices.

It would also help if we knew with relative certainty who the members of standing committees were and that they would be the same people next month as they are this month. I'm not mad at anyone...I'm sure they have reasons in their own mind for what they do. I just don't think it is working on any kind of level proficient enough to make a real difference in my lifetime.

There are more and more days lately when I think we might be better off without any special programs. Maybe we need to think about whether continuing to financially support these programs is viable or if there are more effective ways within our own community to accomplish the tasks without the top heavy bureaucracy that non-profit/state sponsored programs impose on the community.

I don't presume to have all the answers or even know what all the questions are. I think it might serve us well to critically analyze where we are from a devils advocate point of view and go from there.


noel jones said...


I don't think elitism is "sinister"--in fact, most of the time, it comes from well-meaning souls in some position of power, privilege or influence, who simply fail to believe that the general public can come up with better ideas than they can themselves.

Then they get upset when there's no "buy-in" from the community. Top-down philosophies are elitist philosophies, no matter how well-meaning.

Sal Panto, Jr. said...

I firmly believe that individuals in public service are just that in service to the public. Servant has a seriously bad connotation to me because no one is in servitude to anyone. Be that as it may, we can disagree on verbage, but you are absolutely correct in that people in public service are people who care about people and their community. We are fortunate to have so many individuals ready, willing and able to serve our residents as employees, elected officials, members of Authorities, Boards and Commissions, civic groups, neighborhood groups, etc.

As for the "elitist" comment you have heard me say time and time again that the best ideas come from the bottoms up. Our Administration has listened, changed policies, procedures and even public projects when a better plan or idea was brought forth.

Our goal will continue to be to open up the process to be more and more transparent. We have no reason to hide. And we may even agree on 90% of the issues, but when someone disagrees on that 10% it doesn't mean they are elitist - it means that they may be agreeing with other bottoms up residents.

You continue to make comments about me as a person -- like the toe to toe phrase, or I am not on the mayor's list of people he likes or something of the sort and of course my remarks at the MME event. It just goes to prove that you really don't know me. Frankly, I have spoken quite favorably about you, your passion, your commitment to making your neighborhood better to many people. So please don't judge me as a person. If and when you get to know me you will find that I am a good listener and will always seek citizen input.

However, there may also be information that I have as a result of my position that the public can't be aware of until after the fact. Classic case -- Riverwalk. I supported this project when I was a candidate. As I became Mayor and learned more about the financial arrangements, the role of the city, the city's responsibility of providing parking for all of the county's employees during construction, and much more I no longer supported the project but had to put on a public face of support. Why? Because if I pulled the city out of that project i am confident that the developer was eligible to sue the city because he too had spent a lot of money as our "partner." The city signed unbelievable documents that I was not privy to as a candidate. In the end the developer pulled out of the project and we immediately moved the grant money to the waterfront project. Yes, we originally also spoke about the north third street parking garage but the DRJTBC would not fund it as being too far from the river.

So, please continue to come to meetings, get involved on the front end and let us know what ytou think is good for the city. You may be surprised that we have the same goals.

P.S. I finally signed up.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Mayor Panto,

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you clarified the "public service" comment because, as I read it originally, I was afraid it was slightly misinterpreted.

Riverwalk was a long and unfortunately costly lesson for the city. I've written more on it than I care to admit but one thing I'm sure of...the city would be much worse off today if they had been allowed to start construction.

Today we would have a partially finished, empty garage shell; no prospects of new commercial or residential development; a whole lot of unsustainable debt service and a mis-thought transit center sitting in a potential FEMA swimming pool.

I am of the belief that any further parking structure expenditures in Easton by anyone other than a purely for-profit entity would be the biggest mistake we could make. I hope to lay out the scenario of why I believe this in future blogs.

I'd also like a chance to see those "unbelievable documents" you speak of sometime...I though I'd read all of them.


Easton Heights Blogger said...

welcome to bureaucracy. it is impossible to make everyone happy all of the time, but you can certainly make everyone unhappy all of the time. I wonder why anyone would want to serve in a public capacity; there is so much riding against success, and you are more than likely to fail. Optimism quickly turns to 'why haven't you done anything yet?' witness Obama as proof of that.
I think all the men who have served as Mayor of Easton have good intentions and have tried to accomplish all they set out to do, but in reality, you can only hope to get some of it done and not leave office in disgrace.
political involvement is a nice concept, but even the Founding Fathers realized it needed to be regulated, hence the Electoral College. the federal and local gov'ts are not a 'true' democracy, but more a republic.
As for riverwalk, I'd love to at least see SOMETHING built down there, and at the lot next to Frank & Dots. I know they are both in a flood plane, but empty lots right out in the open do nothing for the city. then again neither does a dollar store and pawn shops in centre square.
looking forward to see what Larry Holmes drive winds up looking like, should be a nice improvement.

noel jones said...

Mayor Panto,

I believe in credit where credit is due, and contrary to your claim, I am not making comments about you as a person, I am exercising the right and responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to criticize his/her government, when it is operating in a dysfunctional way.

I think it's great that you have balanced the budget this year--an impressive feat in this economy. And I appreciate your re-allocating money for the street sweeping program for the WW, which will take care of one part of our 3-part garbage problem in this neighborhood (see my earlier post for the 3-part break-down). I am also glad to hear that we have a new code officer that is a WW resident.

Major things we are still waiting for:

1. de-conversion incentives to encourage investors to convert old homes that have been broken into two or more units back into single family homes to reduce the density in our neighborhood (which will also alleviate the parking problem). our neighborhood is approaching 65% rental, and this trend has continued with the blessing of mayors, city councils and zoning boards for decades. this trend must be reversed ASAP. we also need incentives to return all the corner storefronts that were allowed to be converted into apartments back to commercial use so that we can have a sustainable neighborhood economy of entrepreneurs.

2. a comprehensive strategic plan for reducing open-air drug markets, that incorporates progressive methods of real community policing and community outreach, including rehab, job training, and positive youth programming. we do not want more arrests, we want less crime. more arrests just lead to more overcrowding at the ever-expanding jail in the middle of our neighborhood. it is not fair to the EPD expect them to handle everything themselves. we also need higher housing incentives for police officers who will buy in the WW, so that officers begin to get to know us as neighbors and people, rather than as either criminals or complainers.

3. code enforcement on slumlords. when the city tells us in meetings that code enforcement can't get any better and can't be done any other way because we are bound by state laws, and yet code enforcement somehow works fine in other cities governed by the same state laws, it sounds like an excuse, and suggests that we should just continue to swallow the status quo. it is very frustrating. somehow, good residents in the neighborhood, like tim & earl, who rehabbed their now beautiful home from its condemned state, get cited and threatened $1000/day over their weeds, but absentee landlords who own numerous blighted properties in this neighborhood, and who do not keep up the grounds or require their tenants to package garbage properly, are left alone. can you understand how residents might get upset about that? this is the third good rehabber that i have known in this neighborhood to get harassed by the code office, while the slumlords get off scott free. it wears on residents' patience.

I think that you and I are both people with a passion for seeing Easton get better, and at some point our ideas about how that will come about are bound to overlap. Until then, we engage in debate, and that is not only perfectly alright, but absolutely necessary in a functioning democracy.

Thank you for commenting on the blog and being accessible to residents in this forum. It's progressive and refreshing.

Easton Heights Blogger said...

thanks for hitting on the parking and slumlord issues. on my block (N7th) there are apartments w/ 3 drivers in them. with some properties only 20ft or so wide, it gets to be a problem. If I come home past 10pm, I'm parking maybe 8 or 10 houses away.
when I reconverted my home to single family 14 yrs ago, the city gladly approved it immediately (I did it mainly to avoid the double water/sewer charge!). they included the point that, it their thinking. a single family home will have only two cars, where 2 apartments will have 3 cars. that fuzzy logic doesn't seem to apply anymore.
I've mentioned it before, that there needs to be some sort of incentive (I don't know what) to encourage resident homeowners in the neighborhood. the last 4 home sales in my block went to landlords, and it seems they will rent to anybody; sure, what do they care? it's not in their neighborhood.
again on parking, I'm really not looking forward to this winter when all the lawn chairs and garbage cans become parking spot holders. my wife and I decided to simplify and go down to one car. if there comes a time this winter where I can't park my ONE CAR in front of or at least NEAR my house this winter, I'm not going to be a happy camper, just sayin'.

David Caines said...

Hi Mayor Panto, and all...just wanted to check with Jeanette before proceeding with thiss one, but our familly opinion is "Arrest,Arrest,Arrest...for the love of any and all gods Arrest"- just so we're clear. We do as all must know by now support a citizens based program. But well we don't see the two as mutually exclusive.
But just to clear up some issues I'm going to quickly go through the proccess.
As a growing trend here in the states, and probably Easton as wel Police officers rarely target and/or arrest drug usesers, it just kind of come to be considered non-cost effect among other things. In many citties, possibly this one simple possesion is a ticketing offense and rarely even involes arrest, prosecution or anything outside of a fine.
But let's play out a worst case here and say or poor addict just gets star crossed and ends up arrested and charged.
The charge is so far down on the list of criminal offenses that the will probably be ROR'd (Realsed on thier own recognisance), but barring that a low bail will be set and either met or in short order forwarded to a bail reduction hearing at which they will most likely either have their bail lowered or be ROR'd. Somewhere in this proccess or shortly after it they will either get a lawyer or most likely a PD (Public deffender). Even the dumbest PD on the planet will tell them to get into a rehab, or at the very least to get into a self help program and most likely the PD will even arrange it, he'll be fined and have to pay court costs assuming the case isn't just pled out-(and our poor user would be an idiot not to)-
But let's assume our user is somehow cursed from birth or has an IQ of 12 or so and ends up in the proccess he will go to court where assuming some act of an unholy origin he gets jail time.
In jail he will again be introduced to the proccess of rehabilitation and while I don't believe attendence is at this time possible to mandate the option will be made clearly available to him (as mandated by a handful of laws all jails/prisons must have self help groups and provide access to them- oddly the newer non-12th step groups at least in Pa are at this time soley availible through the penal system).
Carrying on in our fantasy let's assume that he does not avail himself of help within the jail setting and makes it onto parole or probation where attendence of either rehab or self help groups will be made mandatory . If at this point he still just doesn't get it well...he probably never will.
But the reality is that by and large the American legal proccess presents multiple options for recovery, and many if not most pleas involving drugs (particularly first offences) revolve around either voluntary or mandatory attendance in some recover institution or method, and I've never heard or read of a probation or parole agreement that didn't.
Saddly there seems to be a rather deep missunderstanding of the very nature of the American penal stystem (Let's blame Hollywood...they're a good scapegoat) like it is somehow the Russian gulag or some vile pit from hell. The realities are simpler and happier, many of America's recovery and reform movements have begun within our prison system and I can't count off the top of my head the people that I've met or worked with over the years who didn't either get introduced to recover in jail/prison, or learn to read or get their GED or get job training ( I have a friend who heads the construction fields training in one of NJ's prisons) or as Tim constantly refers to at least get cable, a gym, and 3 hots and a cot.
Is a better to employ all avenues of reaching out to these people than not to, of course it is...but in the end we have laws for a reason and without enforcement we cannot as a society even make a pretence at civilization, and ultimately American Prisons are/ can be rehabilatory by thier nature.
Still researching other stuff, but I will keep an eye on this.
Dave and Jeanette