Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Open Positions on City Commissions: The Mayor Wants YOU

Posted by: Noel Jones

In a recent post regarding Mayor Panto and Citiy Council's appointment of the mayor's wife, Pam Panto to the Zoning Board in breach of Home Rule Charter, the Mayor fired back that he couldn't find anyone else who was interested in the job. This, of course, was met with criticism from residents that a genuine effort was not made in advertising the opening. To that, the Mayor answered with the following positions on commissions for which the City is looking for good applicants from the community.  Please take a look at this list, and give some thought as to whether you might be able to do some good for the West Ward by serving on one of these commissions. The more progressive residents we have on these commissions, the more progress can be made. Here is the list:

Easton Parking Authority
Zoning Board
Civil Service Board, Health
Civil Service Board, Technical
Easton City Board of Health
Easton Human Relations Commission
Easton Redevelopment Authority

For more information about these positions and anyone interested in applying should send a request to Mayor Panto at spanto@easton-pa.gov or call 610.250.6610.

All candidates must be current on all finances with the city prior to approval by Easton City Council.

Now, you may think you're not an expert, and therefore not qualified to sit on these commissions, but as the Mayor mentioned, I have been invited to sit on a commission, and if a poet is qualified, you're all qualified!

What has kept me from applying so far is that I know well over 100 people in this neighborhood, and many of them are experienced architects, urban planners, preservationists, designers, real estate agents, hospital workers, former police officers, social workers and those experienced in outreach, attorneys, teachers, computer technology specialists of all sorts, administrators and successful business people. So I would really like to see City Hall flooded with phone calls to apply for these positions--here's a chance to do some good for the neighborhood (and Easton at large) with a commitment, I believe, of only a couple of meetings per month.

Please post and questions, thoughts or concerns here!


Anonymous said...

I don't see where the appointment is a breach of the charter as you say. The assistant solicitor ruled in favor of this appointment so what's the big deal? I was at a zoning meeting several years ago and Mrs. Panto stood firm against another conversion in my neighborood and was influential in getting other members to see her side. Thanks to her there is one less conversion in our block. Plain and simple she is qualified and the small stipend isn't a problem.

Let's see how many people apply since the author wh cast the stone blames her denial on lack of qualifications but points a finger against someone who is qualfied and experienced. Besides, we want real people and regular people to be involved in determining our decisions. Why does it have to be lawyers, architects, etc. as she says.

noel jones said...

Anon 1:26am

Here is the full charter, for all to read:

A breach is a breach, and just because the Asst. Solicitor who is part of the same croneyistic body that pushed this through says it's not a breach does not make it true. A stipend is a compensation. Here is the quote from Home Rule Charter, Article II, Section C-2.05, Paragraph B:

"No former Council Member shall hold any compensated appointive City office or City employment until one (1) year after his or her resignation or one (1) year after the expiration of the term for which the member was elected or appointed to the Council."

As Dennis mentioned before, this has nothing to do with whether or not Pam Panto is qualified. It is about the blatant disregard for how the public might view this as nepotism, and attempt for one family to continue to expand their control in the City, the lack of genuine attempt to advertise the open position so that citizens could apply, and above all the BREACH OF HOME RULE CHARTER that voters passed recently.

In the same post you defend Pam Panto's breach of charter by saying how qualified she is, and then you assert that "we want real people and regular people." And, as usual for those chiming in on this blog for the City, you do so Anonymously. At least the Mayor has the guts to post his name.

This is not about who we want on the Zoning Board. It is about not wanting nepotism and croneyism dictating who is on any local body of government.

A breach is a breach, in other words: illegal.

Dennis R. Lieb said...


I have to agree with Noel on this one. To reiterate my position clearly and concisely:

This is not about making a subjective determination whether the person selected is qualified or not. This is not about determining how much "compensation" rises to the level of a perk or not. This is about whether the langauage of the charter was abided by in the decision to make the choice.

The charter is not written in legalese and it was written that way for a reason. This is a document that was created to clearly define what amounts to a local constitution for the City of Easton. As seen in Noel's post, the language is clear and unambiguous. I see no wiggle room here...it states no former member shall hold a compensated, appointed position for one year after resignation.

Game, set and match.

I would feel better if the candidate followed the letter of the law on the one year guideline and applied for this (or any another) position at that time. If we don't complain about it now, how do we justify enforcing this the next time it happens?

For me it's about doing things the right way and setting an example so that the city can act forthrightly and with clear conscience against those in violation of other areas of city ordinances when they occur. I WANT my city to enforce those ordinances for our protection. They should be able to do it without fear of legal reprisal.

Maybe this doesn't seem like a big deal now. I've seen this kind of stuff come back to haunt us later.


MrsTMiller said...

Wow, Noel, that "a breach is a breach" post is quite something. Good for you! Stick to those guns!

noel jones said...

Well, as it turns out after consulting an attorney friend of mine and supplying a copy of the charter, a breach may not be a breach after all, rather a breach may be up for interpretation, due to extremely loosely defined terminology written into the charter:

"Let’s visit Article II, C-2.05(C) again:
No former Council Member shall hold any compensated appointive City office or City employment until one (1) year after his or her resignation . . .
The question: is a City Council position considered a "compensated appointive City office" pursuant to Article II, C-2.05(C)?

The City Council position is compensated.
The City Council position is appointive here, where Pam Panto was appointed to fill a vacancy.

The question, then, is whether the position is a “City Office.” The answer, however, is not altogether clear, for several reasons, not least of which is that “City Office” is not defined in the Charter. The only relevant definition in the Charter is “City and municipality," defined in Article II 1-15 as “the City of Easton, Pennsylvania.” That’s as broad as it gets.

One could argue that membership on the City Council is a “City Office.” Looking to Article II, C-2.02(A), the Charter refers to the City Council as an “office”:

Only those who are and have been for at least one (1) year registered voters of the City shall be eligible to hold the office of Council Member or Mayor. The Mayor and all other Council Members must retain residence in the City during their terms of office. If during a term of office a Council Member moves out of the City, he or she forfeits that position on City Council.

On the other hand, “city officers” are referred to in Article, II, C-2.05 as executive branch officers, not legislative branch:

Except for the purpose of inquiries to obtain information needed by them in the discharge of their duties, including response to constituent requests and investigations under § C-2.09, the Council or its members shall deal with City officers, directors, and employees who are subject to the direction of the City Administrator through the Mayor or City Administrator.

[Note that “Who are subject to the direction of the . . . Mayor” is code for the executive branch.]
Thus, one can hold “the office of Council Member” in the legislative branch, or can be a “City officer” in the executive branch. Consequently, in the absence of a clear definition in the Charter, when Article II, C-2.05(C) bars former Council Members from holding any “compensated appointive City office . . . until one (1) year after his or her resignation,” it is unclear whether that includes both the executive and legislative branches.
While the answer may require further (lengthy) investigation in the state statues, my gut opinion is that if a court were to address this issue, it would interpret “City Office” as a part of the executive branch, i.e. the following departments pursuant to Article III, Chapter 24:

Department of Administration.
Department of Planning and Development.
Department of Public Works.
Department of Public Property.
Department of Police.
Department of Fire.

My conclusion is based on the fact that Article II, C-2.05(C) states that “no former Council Member shall hold any compensated appointive City office.“ The term “appointive” suggests an executive branch appointment, to one of the departments listed above. True, vacancies to the City council may be filled “by appointment,” but generally speaking, these positions are filled by the electoral process, and thus, generally, are not “appointive City offices.”

I am hereby demoting my assessment of this appointment from "Illegal" to "Extremely Bad Taste and Flagrant Disregard for the Voting Public" or maybe just "Exploiting Loophole that Needs Badly to be Corrected via Referendum by Its Citizenry."

Anonymous said...

I am truthfully confused by all of this.

I agree with DRL that the charter should not be interpreted beyond what is black and white. When you try to determine what intent was, you are stepping in dangerous territory. Our courts generally don't speculate on intent.

On the other hand, the office that is discussed here is different. If you are a member of council, I would assume that you could immediately serve as an authority member or commission member and receive what is jokingly referred to as "compensation" I don't think any board seat in the city pays more than $50 per meeting. I think that the intent of the charter was to remove politics from city employment. I would think that it would be wrong to take a full or part time job. But city commissions and authorities are political boards and not part time jobs. To go from a politically elected position to a politically appointed position makes sense.

YOu are right. A board or commission member would be subject to public scrutiny and not the control of the mayor or administrator. On that key point the zoning board position fails as one of employment and the charter provisions for appointment are not applicable.

There are other issues at work here as you note. I favored Pam's appointment to city council and don't have objections to her service on the zoning board. She is the wife of the mayor and that will always beg the question of conflicts of interest. But when you understand what are legal conflicts of interest, these are not really legal conflicts but political conflicts.

Anonymous said...

Not political conflicts but role conflicts-Where a person has multiple statuses in a social situation. In this case the role of spouse and zoning board member when the City of Easton, through the office of mayor challenges the Zoning Hearing Board or appears as an "interested party" in a zoning hearing. Role conflicts are most commonly seen in Little League Baseball where fathers serve as coaches and umpires. Those conflicts are frowned upon but are generally accepted, understood and are legal. In a small community you never can really avoid strong relationships between two people and have to accept them as a distinguishing characteristic of living in a small town.

noel jones said...

My apologies for the confusion--I posted the answer to the natural follow-up question: Was it legal to re-appoint Pam Panto in the first place?

Here's the attorney's answer on the Zoning Board position, which is similar:

The zoning board is an "independent tribunal" that is not the equivalent of an appointed city office.

Home Rule Charter, Article II, Section C-2.05, Paragraph C states as follows:

"No former Council Member shall hold any compensated appointive City office or City employment until one (1) year after his or her resignation or one (1) year after the expiration of the term for which the member was elected or appointed to the Council."

To determine if Pam Panto has violated this provision, one must not look to whether or not she is compensated, but rather to whether the Zoning Hearing Board is a “City office.”

It is not. Zoning Hearing Boards are quasi-judicial administrative bodies, separate from the executive branch. The term “quasi-judicial” is used because the Board’s power is above that of (executive branch) planning and code enforcement officers, but below that of the (judicial branch) courts.

Compensation is allowed, but any financial interest in the outcome of a hearing or personal bias generally disqualifies a member from a zoning board position.

My research did reveal one interesting fact -- Zoning Board’s deliberations are exempt from the Sunshine Act. See http://www.rcfp.org/newsitems/index.php?i=3712

I think the important thing to realize here is that laws are ultimately written by people in power, and those people are in power because people either elect them, or do nothing and allow them to get elected. There is a saying that "history is written by the winners" and it could just as well be said that "laws are written by the winners" too. It is our job to decide who the winners are. This is why political will in a community is so important. This is why it is so critical not to throw up our hands and say, "it's all rigged anyway, what's the point of participating?" If we don't want a City Council that perpetuates croneyism, it is our job to get out the vote--to wake up, wake our neighbors up, get people registered, hold candidate forums, and drive people to the polls if necessary. The people have the power to change the political scene in Easton any time they decide to wake up all at once and take it back. But that means pulling ourselves out of America's two favorite addictions: consumption and escapism, to make taking our roles as active citizens in the democracy a PRIORITY. Change will only come if we do.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Here is my emailed response to the same person who provided the legal explanation that Noel cited in her comments:

I really should have picked up on this earlier. I think the reason I didn't is because of my general avoidance of the zoning review process...I usually "zone out" when I have to go there and not too many people in Easton like the process or want to participate at meetings unless absolutely necessary. But I've been to enough of them that I should have remembered this. You are correct in your description of them as being quasi-judicial in nature in that their decisions can be appealed, I believe to the county court. They also turn away from the mics when deliberating (as you said-Sunshine Act exempt) so the public can't question their decision making process.

Maybe its just me being a bit of moron, but whether it was a bad case of newspaper reporting or just a less-than-stellar explanation of the details by Sheer, it seems that no one clearly and simply articulated the legal differences between the appointed positions of "city office" and "city officer"(as you clearly have). This led people (including me) to form the wrong conclusions. In any case, I feel like I must retract my earlier comments on this blog questioning the legality to maintain it's (and my own) integrity.

The appointment of Pam Panto to the unexpired term on council is certainly a different issue and one that may merit discussion only in retrospect. There is no distinction about previous service or time limits mentioned in the charter language concerning former council persons being selected to complete partial terms.

Also there is this passage under charter construction: "The powers of the City under this Charter shall be construed liberally in favor of the City." I think this pertains more to how the city's powers are construed by the state and county, but they could probably invoke it in this case as well.

I know that at the time she was appointed to the partial term a lot of people assumed a deal was made whereby she wouldn't run for the SS seat against Vulcano in exchange for the appointment. City hall insiders said as much to me. Again, we have rumours flying when perceived wrongs are committed.

All legal wrangling aside, I know a lot of people aren't happy about the appointment. How do I know this? They call or email me about it. A perception of inequity is still the problem. I don't really know what they expect me to do about it.

My two cents,


Cathy said...

I do want to defend a person's option to be anonymous on the blog with one exception and that is if they are attacking someone personally or using non rational mean statements to rebut something someone said thus embarrassing them or anyone else. In this exception people should have the guts put their name on it. Otherwise, it being a small city and persons having various interests sometimes crossing paths, there is a value in being able to make a point anonymously on a blog and not worry about being "punished" for it elsewhere, in my opinion.