Voters may decide if Allentown employees need to resign before running for office

Written by on December 4, 2020

Voters may decide if Allentown employees need to resign before running for office

By Genesis Ortega and Ben Stemrich

December 4, 2020

“Vote!” by kgroovy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The 2021 Allentown mayoral primary is six months away and it’s expected to be a crowded race with a wide field of Democratic candidates. But a new measure before City Council takes aim at city employees planning to run, which might force them to resign. 

Listen to the story.

Under the current Allentown ethics code any city employee or elected official can run for office. 

However, several council members have introduced a new bill that could change that. They say they want to enhance public trust in government – following the indictment of former Mayor Ed Pawlowski and the pay-to-play scandal that rocked his administration. 

One of the bill’s original sponsors, Julio Guridy, said before that happened, even Pawlowski quit his city job to run for office. 

“When Ed Pawlowski wanted to run for mayor and he was the director of community and economic development.” Guridy said at an October Rules Committee meeting.  “He resigned before running and I think that’s the ethical thing to do. I don’t know if those two words go together. ” 

Former Mayor Pawlowski is now in federal prison for political corruption. 

City Council president Daryl Hendricks also helped craft the bill. 

“We’ve only recently been released from a cloud of suspicion regarding a previously indicted public official,” Hendricks said. “Our ethics board is very vague on this, so I do believe that we have a duty and a responsibility to give them guidance and have some type of legislation drafted.”

Hendricks was a city employee on the police force when he ran for council in 2013. 

The measure as it’s currently written, doesn’t include everyone on Allentown’s payroll. It excludes elected officials. 

“The bill was primarily for appointed and city employees,” Guridy said. “An appointed person would be like the managing director obviously. It wasn’t including elected officials.”

The suggestion that it might apply to elected officials, like city council members, has prompted a lot of backlash. Guridy pulled his support for the measure.  

This year’s mayoral race looks like it will be full of elected officials. So far, two city council members have announced they are running. And Guridy and Hendricks, who introduced the legislation, have also hinted at considering bids. 

One person the bill would exclude is the city’s current Community and Economic Development Department director, Leonard Lightner, who has said he’s also considering a run.

“If it’s going to affect one particular person, then we’re making legislation for one person,” Lightner told WLVR News. “That makes you want to raise your eyebrow and question that.”

Lighnter is also the deputy mayor. He oversees many departments, and has been in charge of guiding the offices through the pandemic. He said the bill is forcing him to question his run. 

“That’s another thing I would really have to sit down and spend time and think about,” Lightner said. “If I were to consider that, ‘’Do I resign, do I stay?’ But putting my own selfish reasons aside, I’m really focused on how we keep the city operational right now in this time.”

City council members appear divided on the issue. Speaking at a October Rules Committee meeting, Candida Affa, a supporter of the measure, said she’s worried about possible conflicts of interest.

“If you have a director, let’s say that is running, any director, if there are people there that vote against him and are politically against him there could be some repercussions,” Affa said.

Council member Cynthia Mota disagreed.

“It looks bad.” Mota said. “It looks like we are preventing other people from the city to be elected. Another thing, not everyone is privileged. I really believe that there’s a lot of people who are employees and they are also living paycheck to paycheck.” 

The city’s top lawyer Matt Kloiber said legally restricting who can run is complicated and suggested a voter referendum. 

“The strongest path for that might be through some charter amendment,” Kloiber said. “But if you want to put a limitation on elected officials running, the safest bet, I’m not going to say it’s the only bet, but the safest bet would be that — that would likely if you do this, and it would pass– all but certain it would withstand scrutiny if it was challenged in the courts.”

A charter amendment asks the public to decide, which is what Council appears poised to do.  This would mean putting it up for vote in May on the same ballot as the mayoral ticket, creating some confusion about what that would mean for a city employee, should they win the primary. 

Allentown City Council isn’t expected to vote on the issue until it finalizes the city budget next week.

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