Bethlehem City Council met on Dec. 1 and discussed the issue of police funding in the proposed budget for 2021. The council also passed the wage equity ordinance.
At the start of the meeting, Councilman Adam Waldron clarified that there will be no changes or amendments to the proposed budget in response to concern among residents regarding police funding.
A collection of Bethlehem residents called in to the virtual meeting to express support for the Bethlehem Police Department and concerns about defunding the police.
Lucy Lennon, a Bethlehem resident, expressed her “heartfelt support for the police department.”
“If you don’t support your own Bethlehem Police Department as a city council person, you really should be ashamed of yourselves,” Lennon said.
A number of these pro-police callers indicated a relationship to the Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance, a “community of civic-minded individuals who raise awareness about important local issues and coordinate effective community action.”
The Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance created a petition to “defend the Bethlehem Police Department” with over 7,000 signatures.
The group posted on Facebook urging residents to call in and support the police department.
One Bethlehem resident said “the loud minority does not outweigh the silent majority.”
Others called in to express their concerns about some of the rhetoric of their fellow residents and demonstrate their support for defunding the police department.
Allison Mickel, a Bethlehem resident and Lehigh University assistant professor of anthropology, said she was concerned about remarks from local residents reminiscing about the “old Bethlehem.”
Mickel also questioned the repeated claims by fellow residents that Bethlehem has some of the finest police in the country. Following months of social unrest over the killing of several unarmed Blacks across the country, Bethlehem council members had pushed for greater transparency and reform within the city’s police force. Both council and then-Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio supported the “8 can’t wait” campaign over the summer.
The Bethlehem Police Department is the only municipal department in the Lehigh Valley to be nationally accredited, which it has maintained since 2007.
Mickel, though, said she was disheartened that the council, in her mind, was backing down from its original momentum to call for police reform.
Members of the community organization Lehigh Valley Stands Up urged the council to reexamine its budget and oppose a budget that would increase police funding.
Bethlehem City Council responds
At the end of the meeting, council members took time to respond to comments and concerns surrounding the police.
“No one has ever proposed eliminating the police,” said Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith.
Smith said she comes from a family of police officers and was upset over many comments accusing her and other members of council as “anti-police.”
“I can do both. I can sympathize with people of color and the hurt and pain they’re feeling, and I can also support police. They are not mutually exclusive,” Smith said.
She also addressed the Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance head on.
“The biggest concern I have with this whole situation is the falsehoods that have been circulated by individuals and groups like the Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance, who have instilled fear needlessly in our community,” Smith said.
Councilman Bryan Callahan called out fellow council members Paige Van Wirt and J. William Reynolds for past comments at a July 7 council meeting as the “genesis” for this controversy.
That didn’t sit well with Waldron.
“I think you are picking and choosing different quotes and taking things out of context … and inciting a lot of the rhetoric going around,” Waldron said in response to Callahan’s comments.
He also criticized Callahan for attempting to separate himself from the rest of his fellow council members, as if he is the only one supporting the police department.
Wage equity ordinance passes
The wage equity ordinance was sponsored by Callahan and Van Wirt.
Callahan had proposed this ordinance for the first time over a year ago, where it sat in the Human Relations Committee without much progress.
Recently, Van Wirt added an amendment to the ordinance that makes it an unlawful practice for employers to prohibit sharing wage information. This amendment is designed to help those already working for a company and gives them a mechanism to fight against this kind of wage suppression.
Van Wirt wanted “to make it clear there are two parts of the ordinance.”
The ordinance passed 6-1, with Waldron as the lone dissenter.
Stormwater Collection and Management User Fee ordinance
The City of Bethlehem is obligated to develop, implement and enforce a stormwater management program.
This ordinance will establish a “Stormwater User Fee” to generate revenue for stormwater management and allocates program costs to property owners based on impervious areas contributing greater amounts of stormwater and pollutants.
The council discussed the ordinance at a 5:30 meeting prior to the council meeting.
Councilwoman Olga Negron said she wanted to take a closer look at how to set the fees that homeowners have to pay to ensure families with different incomes are accommodated.
Van Wirt suggested designating a certain percentage of cash reserves left over at the end of the year for low-income homeowners to provide some relief from this burden. Councilman Micheal Colon agreed the council could look at a different pay structure.
The council will have a second reading of this ordinance in two weeks and gather more information on the feasibility of the fee.
The final Bethlehem Climate Action Plan public meeting will be held on Dec. 9 at 12:00 pm and again at 5:30 pm.