Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lower Macungie Township Commissioner Candidate Debate Report

I don't live in Lower Macungie Township, but I do represent it as a member of the East Penn School Board. LMT was key to my 2011 re election.

As a member of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, I have a vested interest in the outcome of the election there. LMT is the 3rd largest municipality in the Lehigh Valley (Allentown, Bethlehem, then Lower Macungie Township). It is larger than the city of Easton.

In order for Republicans to win county-wide, they need to win Lower Macungie by a comfortable margin. It is still a majority R town, but Barack Obama managed to carry a few precincts in 2008 and 2012.

Democrats/Progressives/Unions know they need to "crack the cul-de-sacs" of Lower Macungie (as Fmr. Emmaus Councilwoman Joyce Marin said to me in 2006) if they are going to take over this key swing county.

I believe that is why the East Penn Public Union front-group "Citizens for Strong Communities" led by twice-failed State House candidate Patrick Slattery has taken such an interest in Lower Macungie elections in the last two cycles. More on that some other day...for now, the event at hand.

The League of Women Voters held a lovely debate this evening at the Lower Macungie Township Community Centre/Library. The debate began at 7PM and yours truly was there and livetweeted the whole thing.

It was an interesting event. Patrick Slanderou...I mean, Slattery, sat right in front of me.

East Penn School Board candidates Chris Donatelli and Garrett Rhoads were also there (both gentlemen live in Lower Mac. Township).

Almost all of the Commissioner candidates had some gaffes. None deadly, but will be interesting to see how it played out. Here's a summary of the debate as I saw it:

Opening statements (2 minutes)

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "My last name means oak tree. I'm originally from the Pocanos. Any other coal crackers here tonight? Once a coal cracker always a coal cracker! No? How many grandparents are there here tonight? A lot more of...." -moderator interrupts as his time has run out then allows him to go on anyway- "I've been a Republican for 47 years which is 46 years more than some of the other candidates (referring to Beitler and Higgins...sort of)."

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): Ryan gave a very polished "thank you all for coming...husband...businessman...father" introduction. A little light on substance, but that's ok. He got to some meat later on. Ryan is going to be Congressman some day. He hides his not-from-around-here accent a little better than Higgins does. He has the looks, resume, and political acumen. He was briefly a candidate for State Representative in 2012 in district 134. I considered entering the race myself but eventually backed former East Penn School Board Vice President, Rob Hamill. Political operative Ryan Mackenzie eventually went on to win the nomination and the seat.

Brian Higgins (R): Brian touted his experience on the planning commission and with the Lower Macungie Township Youth Association. We ran against each other in 2011 and he came rather uncomfortably close to defeating me in the November election. I simply relied on the R by my name to carry me through November and didn't go door to door. If I run for another term on School Board, that's not a mistake I will make again. Big if. Anyway... Brian is originally from New Jersey where taxes are too damn high. He suffers from the delusion that many East Penn newcomers have and that's that East Penn taxes are low. A quote of his from 2011 that I will not let him run away from "Paying taxes is patriotic".

Ron Beitler (R): Ron gave another very likeable "Thank you all for coming" intro. I actually DO like Ron and have conversed with him on a number of issues over the last year or so. His association with Slattery, Citizens for Strong Communities, and Brian Higgins makes me very nervous. He also was a Democratic County Committeeman til last year.

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "Retired police captain, degree in public administration, lifelong Republican." I like Roger, and I've known him for a good many years. If I lived in LMT, I'd vote for him. That said, the one part of his background that I couldn't help but notice he left out was his role in former County Executive Jane Ervin's 70% tax increase when he was a Lehigh County Commissioner. Still, water under the bridge in my opinion. I supported him when he ran 4 years ago and supported him for Lehigh County Commissioner in 2007.

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Not present. Represented by empty chair. No chance in hell of winning anyway.

Does the Township need a police force?

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "This is a very complex issue. Too complex to cover in 2 minutes. Voters are split on this issue. I helped lead the way to have an independent survey. We need to take politics out of the equation and deal with data and facts."

Brian Higgins (R): "Police force is an interesting issue. It's a nice idea but at what cost? It might be cheaper in the long run to reimburse the state (police) than to have our own police force due to retirement and pension costs." There was some irony for me in Brian's answers. 2 years ago, he was backed by the Unions. Actually, he is this year too. "Citizens for Strong Communities" is nothing more than a Union front group.

Ron Beitler (R): "I support the study route. A survey (of citizens) is inherently emotional." Credit where it is due, Ron was the only one so far to take a stand on the issue. He ultimately came out against a township police force.

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "This is an issue that's very important to me. The first thing we need to do as a township is determine if we are happy with the current level of service. If the answer is no, there will be a tax hike. I have no interest in being the first police chief of Lower Macungie Township."

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "The study will be completed in June. After that, you, as residents are going to tell us Commissioners what to do."

 John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty chair

Share your vision for the Kratzer Farm Property

Brian Higgins (R): "As part of LMYA, I am intimately involved in this issue. This is open space and we need to preserve it. Let's make it a Central Park for Lower Macungie Township...make it a shining jewel."

Ron Beitler (R): "This is an issue near and dear to me since I grew up next to the Kratzer farm. We should get the township out of the landlord business."

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "We're not selling off the Kratzer farm. We're planning on selling 1.5 acres. We're trying to get the township out of the landlord business."

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.) "We're not selling off the Kratzer farm. There is no final decision yet about how the property is going to be used."       

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "This is the first issue where you're starting to see a differentiation between the candidates. I believe in private property rights. We have to get the township out of the landlord business." Seriously, who the hell poll tested that line?

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty chair

What are the three things you'd like to accomplish as a Commissioner?

Ron Beitler (R): "Smart growth...Transferable rights system in township. Land bank to make sure fair market value..." Stuff like this is kind of why he scares me. Agenda 21 much?

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "First thing I'd like to see through is police study. Mr. Beitler tries to take credit for the study but those of us on the board ran on this four years ago." He's right, they did. I was there. "I'd like to see the Hamilton Crossings project (TIF) completed." Great, another Republican supports special tax privileges for big business. Why can't those who are building there homes or small businesses receive TIF type tax incentives from Government? Oh, right, because we don't have that kind of political clout/money. Ron Beitler supports this project as well as does..well...keep reading.

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "More economic development to maintain quality of life. Like the Hamilton Crossings project. Currently only brings in only $7k but will bring in (hundreds of thousands of dollars) if the TIF project is approved." Actually, Mr. Eichenberg, the Hamilton Crossings property doesn't bring in any revenue to the township right now because you have no property tax!

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "Continue to respect taxpayers, green pathways project, smart growth -gag-, work with other townships on shared vision." Ugh, why are all these candidates buying into the Agenda 21 buzzword "Smart growth"? At least Ryan actually answered the question...and then some!

Brian Higgins (R): "Interesting question...(goes on to not answer question) Voters ask me what I stand for and I ask them what they want me to stand for (clearly the Mitt Romney campaign strategy). Does public works have enough people?"

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty chair

Why was Willow Lane school opened without the proper signage etc?

Roger Reis (R-Inc.) "The School District is largely to blame. We're now talking to the School District and parent groups and taking care of things." He speaks the truth.

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "The prior board is to blame. So are Parkland and the East Penn School District (he said it. I have no idea why Parkland is to blame #weird)."

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "Willow Lane was not originally built as a walking school." Sorry, Ryan, you're wrong on this one. I know that's the official LMT line, but that doesn't make it so.

Brian Higgins (R): "The School and Township need to work together better. Walking school or not, there were no signs for 2 years."

Ron Beitler (R): "I agree with Brian. Last year the East Penn Superintendent stepped in and prevented the district from ending busing..." No the hell he didn't. Willow Lane parents showed up, spoke up, and forced Dr. Seidenberger's hand. If they had not stepped up to the plate, the Administration along with their bobblehead majority on the board would have ended busing while including $70k+ in administrative raises.

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty chair

What would you do with the Daytimers site?

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "Right now the property is zoned suburban residential. The Township needs to rezone it."

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "I envision a mixed use centre for the township. It needs to be rezoned."

Brian Higgins (R): "I agree with Ryan...(goes on to attack Eichenberg over Allen Organ site)."   

Ron Beitler (R) "This issue is near and dear to my heart. I live next door. Many options..."

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "What goes at the Daytimers sight should not be the government's decision. Government needs to get out of the way of business." I nearly stood up and cheered.

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty chair

Do you think the Jaindl Development will be ultimately beneficial to LMT?

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "This is a complex issue that we did not ask for or want. Jaindl submitted a quarry plan to protect his interests. Some may call it a bluff but we'll never know. There was overwhelming opposition to a quarry. If I had my druthers, it would have remained farmland. We did what we could to find a better plan."

Brian Higgins (R): "I don't know if this will ultimately be beneficial or not. I agree with Ryan. This has been a very fractious issue for the township that has cost more than money."

Ron Beitler (R): "Beneficial or not, that ship has sailed. Plan B was better than Plan A. I would have supported a quarry over plan B." Agree with him or not, saying that took balls. Points to Ron for saying that.

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "This issue isn't as fractious as it is being portrayed (that's probably true). We ended up with a better plan than the original. Ron Beitler's lawsuit cost the taxpayers $135,000 and we won in every court."

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "May I have the question again? None of my fellow candidates answered the question. The issue is decided and in the past. Let's heal. Only time will tell if it's beneficial. I think it will be. It will bring jobs to the area."

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty Chair

Do you support LMT continuing to have a zero percent tax rate?      

Brian Higgins (R): "No one running for office who is worth their salt would oppose continuing to have a zero percent tax rate (but in 2011, you said paying taxes was patriotic!) the future taxes may need to go up."

Ron Beitler (R): "Short answer is yes. Keep taxes as they are for as long as possible. All candidates now support Smart Growth. Smart Growth encourages the kind of growth that WE want (seriously, doesn't that scare you? hearing a candidate for public office say that? Scares me.)"

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "I'd like to thank the previous two speakers for agreeing with our board's policy of maintaining a zero percent tax."

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "I've lived in Lower Macungie Township since 1984. In 1993, when the township reduced the tax rate from a half mil to zero, I spoke up against it. I asked if they were crazy. I'm all for lowering of taxes but I thought they should go to a quarter mil. Very hard to raise tax rates when they're set at zero. Will taxes go up? That depends on you, the residents. True, especially if they get this election wrong..."

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "I am committed to maintaining a zero percent tax rate for as long as I'm a commissioner." I clapped, albeit rather quietly.

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty Chair

Closing Statements    

Roger Reis (R-Inc.): "Thank you all...please vote to re elect Ryan Conrad, myself, and Ron Eichenberg. If you like it here, re elect this board."

Ron Beitler (R): "I want to start growing in a fiscally sustainable manner. How are we going to handle 10k new residents in at least 1k new units? How will we handle that runoff without smart growth? Will I vote for a tax increase if I don't have to? No."

Brian Higgins (R): "Thank you all. The process is for the people. I think all three incumbents are good men...public service is what I do. I changed my party affiliation the day after I lost my last election (to me). I believe in the Republican party values of low taxes and small government."

Ryan Conrad (R-Inc.): "Thank you all for coming. Thanks to the League of Women Voters for hosting the debate. Look at the record, look at the facts, and put aside the rhetoric. If you want a real Republican and someone who cares about the community, re elect me on May 21st."

Ron Eichenberg (R-Inc.): "The best vote each of you can make is to re elect the current board. We have a progressive community. -gag- I have experience and knowledge and the values of a Republican for 47 years. I am a pragmatic and moderate Conservative -double gag-"

John Yurasits (D/Union tool): Empty Chair

My Conclusions
This was a very well organized debate. There were lots of questions answered in a relatively short amount of time. The moderator and candidates were all professional and kept the debate going.

Ryan Conrad and Roger Reis were the clear winners. I think some of Beitler's comments (quarry and Willow Lane) are going to come back to bite him. 

Eichenberg had a rather bad debate (Parkland, "repeat the question" on Jaindl, botched opening). He seems like a genuinely nice man but just seemed out of touch.

Will Beitler or Higgins (or both) win in May? Difficult to say. Ron is likeable and Brian is a hell of a salesman. I think one MAY win, but not both. Incumbency is a powerful tool and it will work to Eichenberg and Reis' advantage. Higgins and Beitler both know Ryan Conrad has NO chance of losing.

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