Background on Willie Reynolds on Development, Martin Towers and the Ethics Ordinance, and Why he is the WRONG choice for Mayor!
The letters below were written by Jim Fiorentino and Barbara Hood Diamond , and published recently in the Bethlehem Gadfly (https://thebethlehemgadfly.com/.) They are shared with their permission. They reflect the many concerns that Dana Grubb shares as a citizen advocate and candidate for Mayor of Bethlehem. They document his opponent, Willie Reynolds' actions related to Bethlehem development, taking money from the owner/developers of the Martin Tower site, his failure to recuse and his later rejection of a comprehensive ethics ordinance, while serving as president of Bethlehem City Council.
Jim Fiorentino is an Attorney and former Chair of the City of Bethlehem Planning Commission for ten years.
In my 10 years on the Bethlehem Planning Commission (2006-2016), I witnessed Willie Reynolds as a Council person and Bob Donchez as a Council person and then Mayor rubber-stamp anything a developer wanted from the City. The fact that they took money and/or jobs for family members from developers once would have mattered to progressives who usually decry the cozy relationship between money and politicians. I wish I knew what happened to those people whom I supported for Council and who now support a person for Mayor who has no qualms over the selling of Bethlehem to the highest bidders.
I voted and supported Willie Reynolds for both Council and then the Mayor’s office in the 2013 primary when he ran against Bob Donchez. However, in 2015 when the Donchez administration decided to engage in back-room ordinance drafting with lawyers working for developers and Willie Reynolds as Council President rushed approval of the ordinance in a lame duck session, I realized that the choice in 2013 had been about differences of age rather than integrity, as both men were willing to do the bidding of their financial contributors.
I was the Chair of the Planning Commission in 2015 when, during the reading of the proposed Martin Tower re-zoning ordinance, I became concerned about the way in which the ordinance was worded. There were many provisions in the proposed ordinance that were so unique in their details that it seemed as if it had been written with a specific purpose in mind. This was a problem as it gave the appearance that the ordinance was drafted to benefit a particular set of interests rather than for the purpose of using an even-handed approach to regulate all properties that fall within a general category of land use. Only thanks to a right to know request by a local blogger did we learn that my concerns were justified—the documents obtained by the blogger revealed that the developers’ attorneys and the lawyers in the City Solicitor’s Office were drafting the ordinance together and in secret.
2015 was a year in which the atmosphere regarding zoning changes was already heightened with suspicion. The Donchez Administration‘s willingness to draft an ordinance regulating the Market Street area produced public outcry because it seemed designed only to benefit a stockbroker whose attorneys were major contributors to the Mayor’s campaign. As a result, two new council members, Olga Negron and Michael Colón, were slated to take office in January 2016, promising to deliver an ethics ordinance that would disrupt the practices between wealthy donors and public officials which were degrading citizens’ trust in local government.
It became clear that the two new candidates running for Council were not as likely to vote for the Martin Tower ordinance as those who had been defeated in the 2015 election. I advocated for the tabling of the Martin Tower ordinance so that the new City Council could weigh in on it. I believed that bringing this ordinance before the new Council was something that the citizens expected and deserved. Instead, Council President Reynolds rushed the ordinance through, while aggressively belittling anyone who even raised the question of political favoritism at play due to the campaign contributors made to him and others on Council by the Martin Tower developers. At the time, Reynolds proclaimed that a speedy vote on the ordinance was necessary so that the developers could demolish Martin Tower. Reynolds promised to fix the problems with the ordinance after the fact.
With six years behind us, Reynolds’ proclamations still look like nothing more than a made up excuse to benefit developers who gave him large campaign contributions. We all know how long it actually took for those developers to demolish the Martin Tower and we all know that even that amount of time was, apparently, insufficient time for Willie Reynolds to follow through on his promise of fixing the ordinance.
So it’s not surprising that just this month those developers are back for another bite of the apple as they are well aware that they will be able to get whatever they want from this administration and Councilman Reynolds. Indeed the current issue regarding the developer’s request for even more ordinance changes to allow them to evade the normal processes for project approval was tabled last week on a motion by an ally of Councilman Reynolds. How convenient that the delay allows him to avoid making another embarrassing vote that favors his campaign donors just before next week’s primary. Indeed, in the Mayoral debate on Thursday night Reynolds said he is opposed to the change. One is left to wonder why this change of heart couldn’t have been communicated to the public in his official capacity at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Reynolds has developed a skill for performative politics. There are plans and task forces and commissions for every problem, but never a solution in the form of an ordinance to benefit the people of Bethlehem. People say he has changed. People say he no longer takes money from developers. People say he is now in favor of the ethics ordinance that would limit campaign contributions. Some people are buying this. I cannot. I prefer results and actions of conscience. He is in the middle of a term on City Council. I believe that the citizens of Bethlehem deserve to see action not promises before they turn over the most important job in the city to him. He should await seeking higher office until he’s learned to elevate the interests of the people of Bethlehem over those of the developers.
Barbara Diamond enjoys retirement as Lehigh University Director of Foundation Relations by engaging in various activities and organizations hopefully for the betterment of the community. Her particular interests at the moment are preventing gun violence, local government ethics reform, and Bethlehem Democratic Committee work.
Regarding Councilwoman Negron's post of April 26th on the status of the ethics ordinance, I would like to make the following points:
Ms. Negron more than anyone deserves credit for launching the effort to pass a comprehensive ethics ordinance. It was her impassioned remarks at the special meeting of December 8, 2015, on the Martin Tower rezoning ordinance in which she cited numerous instances of questionable behavior by the administration and council and declared her intention, when she was sworn in a month later, to pass an anti-pay-to=play law. I recommend that anyone who wants to understand why people question Mr. Reynolds’ commitment to ethics reform in Bethlehem go to the city council archives and read the minutes of that meeting, especially the public comments not only by Ms. Negron (pg.13) but also Bruce Haines (pg. 11 & 19), Breena Holland (pg.21), Bill Scheirer (pg. 13), and Dana Grubb (pg. 14).
Although there had been several previous council meetings on the rezoning, the meeting on December 8, 2015, was significant because of documents that had been obtained and published in November through a Right to Know request by Bernie O’Hare. The documents revealed extensive developer influence in drafting the ordinance that would effectively rezone the Martin Tower site to allow for massive commercial development. The documents verified significant misrepresentations by the Donchez administration and Councilman Reynolds, who was City Council President at that time. Mr. Reynolds repeatedly insisted to the public that the developers were not involved, that the ordinance was being brought forward by the administration, and, therefore, that no plan for the Martin Tower site was available for public review.
The public asked Mr. Reynolds and another council member who also received generous campaign donations from the developers multiple times to recuse themselves and questioned the propriety of their voting on a zoning ordinance that would so obviously benefit a developer who had given them significant campaign contributions. Instead of acknowledging the public's concerns, Mr. Reynolds responded that “the idea that there is a conflict here and that anyone can attack the integrity of the member of council is ridiculous. It is also insulting” (October 6, 2015 Minutes pg.27). The Right to Know documents revealed that at the very time Mr. Reynolds was scolding the public for challenging his integrity, the developer of the Martin Tower site, Lewis Ronca, was in the hallway texting to DCED director, Alicia Karner, that he needed to leave before reporters spotted him; his texts expressed his chagrin that the 2 hour 15 minute presentation by Planning Director, Darlene Heller, had not caused more people who patiently awaited their turn to speak to leave the meeting. In addition, the documents revealed that Ronca’s assistant, Duane Wagner, provided talking points to Ms. Heller to use when engaging the public, including the myth that the current ordinance allows up to 425,000 sq. ft for retail (Lehigh Valley Ramblings, November 24, 2015).
Many of the people who spoke in opposition not only to the rezoning but also to the revelations of public officials’ cozy relationship with the developers and the dishonest way those relationships were presented to the public went on to form the grassroots effort in 2016 to support Councilwoman Negron's aim to pass an ethics ordinance. I recently listened to the audio of Mr. Reynolds’ response to the ethics ordinance at the council meeting (May 17, 2017) in which he stated that he was angry about the ordinance, mischaracterized it in multiple ways, and described public comment on it as ridiculous and insulting. In fact, Councilwoman Van Wirt mentioned numerous times that it was the disrespect Mr. Reynolds displayed for Ms. Negron and the good faith effort of members of the community that inspired her to run for office. I will also note the maneuver by Mr. Reynolds in his effort to sabotage the ordinance of having DA Morganelli speak in opposition. Morganelli made over 20 false and misleading statements, which could not be rebutted because his remarks were allowed after Courtesy of the Floor.
Councilwoman Negron’s recent post to Gadfly asks us to have faith that Councilman/Mayoral candidate Reynolds is now in favor of an ethics ordinance. It is now 2021, Mr. Reynolds was president (2014-18) and a wielder of significant power on council for these past 6 years. If he was truly in favor of an effective ethics ordinance (not the ineffectual, piecemeal training and gift bans they passed, which were mere window dressing), he would have helped Ms. Negron try to fix the ordinance she proposed or wrote his own ordinance relevant to city contracts, which he expressed an interest in while chastising her efforts way back in 2015. I note also that Councilwoman Negron is speaking for Mr. Reynolds. Her effort to take blame for Reynolds’ bad behavior does not undo my own observation since 2015 of Mr. Reynolds’ bias toward special interests like developers.
In view of the above, I believe trust in Mr. Reynolds is misplaced.