Casey unveils anti-bullying in schools bill

Posted by 69News:.

 U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) unveiled his bipartisan “anti-bullying in schools” bill Thursday in the nation’s capital.

The proposed Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is set for introduction in the Senate this week, would require schools districts across the country to develop and implement locally driven anti-bullying policies that protect vulnerable children.

“Bullying is a challenge that impacts far too many children and families across the country,” said Casey in a news release.

“With the advent of text-messaging, social media, and social networking, many children find they cannot escape the harassment when they go home at night. It follows them from the moment they wake until the moment they go to sleep.

“This legislation will ensure that schools districts across the country take proactive steps to combat bullying and protect children.”

Bullying and harassment of students is widespread and affects millions of students every year.

The goal of Casey’s legislation is to ensure that no child is afraid to go to school for fear of unchecked bullying and harassment.

The proposed act would require schools and school districts receiving federal funding to specifically prohibit bullying and harassment, including conduct based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.

It also would ensure that schools focus on effective prevention programs in order to better prevent and respond to incidents of bullying and harassment both in school and online.

And it requires that states report data on incidents of bullying and harassment to the Department of Education

A 2009 U.S. Department of Education study found that bullying and harassment affects nearly one in every three American students between the ages of 12 through 18. Another study estimates that 160,000 students in the U.S. do not attend school each day because they fear being bullied.

Research shows that bullying and harassment have adverse long-term consequences, including decreased concentration at school, increased school absenteeism, damage to the victim’s self-esteem, and increased social anxiety.

“While we do have federal laws to provide support to promote school safety, there is nothing currently in place to comprehensively and expressly address issues of bullying or harassment,” said the senator.

He said awareness of the problem is growing. According to a 2011 poll, 85 percent of Americans strongly support or somewhat support a federal law to require schools to enforce specific rules to prevent bullying.

Crooks steal cash, gift cards from church near Bernville

Posted by 69News:.

Police are searching for the heartless crooks who stole hundreds of dollars in cash and gift cards from a small church near Bernville.

“It’s just very discouraging to have somebody take those measures, especially from the church,” said Dan Billings, pastor at Christ Little Tulpehocken Church in Jefferson Township.

Billings told 69 News that burglars broke into the small, centuries-old sanctuary during the daytime hours on Tuesday and made off with roughly $60 in cash and $300 in grocery store gift cards. The funds had been kept in an office desk, meant for those in-need.

“That kind of put a crimp in our budget for giving right now,” he said.

According to police, the gift cards were used later that day at the Boyer’s Markets in Jefferson Township and Womelsdorf. Video surveillance captured the purchases.

Billings told 69 News that he reviewed the video and recognized the two customers as men who previously sought help from the church.

“I guess the most hurtful thing was that it was somebody that we knew and that they had been here before, and instead of coming back and asking for additional help, they chose to take that route,” he said. “We would have helped them again.”

Police, however, are not yet identifying those two men. The investigation is ongoing.

“We’re not gonna make an arrest ’til we know for sure that it’s these two people,” said Trooper David Beohm, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police Reading-based Troop L. “We have to know everything; did the people that used the gift cards, were they the ones that actually were in the church and took them?”

Meantime, Billings plans to increase security and likely won’t keep cash and gift cards readily available for those in need.

“It’s made us a little more aware that we need to be more careful about where we store things, and making sure they’re a little bit more locked up than before,” Billings said. “It’s something we don’t want to do, but I guess it’s the times we live in.”

Anyone with information about the theft is asked to call Crime Alert Berks County at 877-373-9913.

Bomb threat clears Montgomery County Courthouse

Posted by 69News:.

A bomb threat disrupted business in the Montgomery County Courthouse Thursday morning.

The courthouse was evacuated but no bomb was found.

The threat was phoned in to the Norristown police department around 8:30 a.m.

According to police, the caller said: “This is serious. There’s explosives and bombs in the courthouse.” 

The caller then hung up.

A similar call came into the 911 call center a short time later, officials said.

Police and K9 units swept the building and people were allowed back in shortly before 11 a.m.

County detectives investigating the incident have a few possible leads but no suspects, according to county sheriff Russell Bono.

Because of the evacuation and threat, the swearing-in ceremony for the newest Montgomery County commissioner changed locations.

The ceremony for Val Arkoosh was held in the commissioners’ boardroom at One Montgomery Plaza at 9 a.m.

McCord stepping down as Pennsylvania treasurer after 6 years

Posted by 69News:.

Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord is stepping down from the job after six years.

McCord’s office said Thursday his last day will be Feb. 12.

The 55-year-old Democrat was elected to two four-year terms in the office and ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, losing in the primary to Gov. Tom Wolf.

“It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve the citizens of Pennsylvania as their elected State Treasurer for the past six years,” McCord wrote in his resignation letter to Wolf. “But with my goals at Treasury now achieved – and with a new governor now in office to appoint my successor – it is time for me to return to the private sector.

The Montgomery County resident leaves with two years left in his final term.

It will be up to Wolf to nominate a successor to fill the job through the 2016 election.

Before being elected in November 2008 and re-elected to a second term in 2012, McCord was an entrepreneur and technology-oriented investor who helped create more than 2,000 Pennsylvania jobs, according to a release from his office.

McCord appointed Treasury Chief Counsel Christopher Craig to serve as acting Treasurer until Wolf nominates a successor. The candidate will have to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Wolf restores ban on new gas drilling leases

Posted by 69News:.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order that ends a short-lived effort by former Gov. Tom Corbett to expand the extraction of natural gas from rock buried deep beneath Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests.

The Democrat signed the order restoring a moratorium on new drilling leases involving public lands Thursday at Benjamin Rush State Park in northeast Philadelphia.

It supersedes an order that Republican Corbett signed in May and reinstates the ban former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, instituted in 2010.

“Natural gas development is vital to Pennsylvania’s economy, but so is the economic and environmental viability of our parks and forests,” said Wolf. “This is about striking the right balance. Our state parks and forests are unique assets that should be preserved, protected, and utilized by our residents for recreational purposes.”

Environmentalists are praising the move, saying it reflects Wolf’s support for strong environmental regulation, but the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, is sharply criticizing the governor, saying it’s a political move that unnecessarily bans the safe development of natural gas.

Hard Rock gets preliminary OK to enter Atlantic City casino market

Posted by 69News:.

The company that has populated the globe with Hard Rock casinos and restaurants has received preliminary approval to enter the Atlantic City casino market.

Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment received a statement of compliance Thursday. That is a preliminary step in becoming licensed to own a casino in New Jersey.

CEO James Allen did not reveal plans for any specific project. He said he has had conversations this month with Glenn Straub. The Florida developer is buying Revel out of bankruptcy.

No agreement has been reached for Hard Rock to partner with Straub on a purchase.

The company is owned by Florida’s Seminole Indian tribe and has long had an interest in Atlantic City. It proposed a small rock ‘n’ roll themed casino hotel in 2011, but dropped the plan shortly afterward.

Hard Rock has had a cafe on the Atlantic City boardwalk since 1996.

Dorney Park parent fights OSHA fines

Posted by 69News:.

The company that owns Dorney Park is challenging allegations that it put workers at risk.

In December, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration levied a fine against Dorney’s parent company Cedar Fair.

OSHA said seasonal workers were exposed to heat hazards during their employment as outdoor and food stand staff, including a teenager who was burned after collapsing near a deep fryer.

Cedar Fair has since filed a motion to contest the citation in its entirety.

The company says Dorney follows all recommended guidelines and all seasonal associates go through extensive training, which includes the Heat Illness Prevention Program.

Treasuerer Rob McCord Says So Long

Posted by Lehigh Valley Ramblings.

You can read his resignation here.

Liveblog: Hugo Selenski Murder Trial, Day 7

Posted by WNEP.com.

WILKES-BARRE — ¬†Get the latest updates from Newswatch 16 during day 7 of the Hugo Selenski murder trial.

County commissioners blast Executive Tom Muller for being uncooperative

Posted by 69News:.

Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller is being blasted for refusing to meet with the leaders of the nine county commissioners.

On Wednesday night, Commissioner Michael Schware said Muller has informed commissioners by email that he is unwilling to meet with their leadership on any matter affecting the county.

Muller, a Democrat, refuses to have so-called leadership meetings with commissioners chairman Brad Osborne and vice-chairman Vic Mazziotti, both Republicans unanimously elected to those positions by their fellow commissioners in early January.

Muller specifically does not want to meet in any leadership session with Mazziotti.

Schware and Mazziotti said Muller also refused to have leadership meetings last year, when Republican Lisa Scheller was chair and Democrat David Jones was vice chair.

“I thought it might be my aftershave,” joked Mazziotti. “I considered changing that. But then I realized Commissioner Scheller probably doesn’t use aftershave.”

Commissioners speaking out against Muller got support from Jones, one of only two Democratic commissioners, who said he understands “the concerns of my peers in relationship to the whole communication process.”

Commissioners taking over union negotiations

The commissioners’ unhappiness with Muller is spurring them to repeal a 31-year-old ordinance that designates the county executive to act as their agent in labor negotiations.

The commissioners want to take back that job.

It’s a safe bet the repeal of the 1984 ordinance will pass when brought up for a vote next month, because seven of the nine commissioners are co-sponsors.

All are Republicans.

Geoff Brace and Jones, the only two Democrats on the board, are not co-sponsors.

“There’s enough votes that this bill is going through,” said Jones, who does not intend to vote for it. “Arguing against it is moot.”

But Jones said the commissioners are on the verge of changing “years of learned institutional knowledge because we can’t get along.”

Schware said the 1984 ordinance has served the county well over the years, so people deserve to know why the commissioners want to change it.

The reason? “It’s not prudent to have the county executive act as our agent in labor negotiations,” said Schware.

He said commissioners were asked to approve a contract with some Cedarbrook employees last year, but had not been involved in those negotiations or kept informed about them.

But Muller, who was not at Wednesday’s commissioners meeting, later said his administration had more executive sessions with the commissioners on union negotiations last year than in the prior eight years combined.

Muller also said commissioners were asked to sit in on those union negotiations but only two of them did so, each attending only one session.

“It’s hard to dignify some of the nonsense that these guys want to spin,” said the executive.

Schware said having the executive serve as the commissioners’ agent in labor negotiations works, “as long as the county executive is willing to follow the direction of the board and communicates the progress of those negotiations along the way.”

He contended Muller has not been doing that, in direct violation of the existing ordinance.

But Muller said in union negotiations last year, “the administration only pursued the targets they gave us.”

During those negotiations, he said, the commissioners gave his administration direction “as to what our target should be. That was what was delivered and more.”

“We act as their agent,” said Muller. “No agreement is final until approved by the commissioners.”

Said Schware: “The executive has been unwilling to meet with the board leadership on many issues and has certainly failed to keep the board informed of the progress of county labor negotiations.”

Schware said Osborne recently “made a specific request to the administration to be informed of any meetings with bargaining units. That request was ignored.”

“It doesn’t pain me to agree with you,” Jones told Schware. “It pains me to admit publicly to the context of what you said.

“We’re throwing the baby out with the bath water because of a dynamic that exists with this board and this administration.”

Muller said commissioners are unhappy because they don’t have a puppet in the county executive’s office.

“They asked if they could sit in on negotiations and we said ‘you’re welcome to come to any one of them’,” said Muller. “It was an open door to them,” he said, adding most commissioners chose not to attend.

Muller said former Commissioner Scott Ott showed up at one session, Scheller showed up at another “and no other commissioner showed up to any other session.”

Schware acknowledged there were instances when commissioners sat in on negotiating sessions.

But he added: “I know there’s also been other times when we’ve asked to either sit in or to just be informed that there is going to be a negotiating session and we haven’t been. It hasn’t happened in all instances.”

When one resident asked how many times commissioners were denied those opportunities, Mazziotti demanded: “Are you here speaking for the administration? Why is that of interest to you?”

“I’m just trying to get honesty,” said the resident.

No love for Mazziotti

After Wednesday’s meeting, Muller said he did meet four times with Scheller and Jones last year, but stopped having those leadership meetings because Scheller did not come to them with any information to share.

And he refuses to meet with Mazziotti in a leadership session.

“I told Mazziotti to his face that I will not meet with him in a leadership meeting,” said Muller.

“That fact that he got the majority to vote him in as vice chairman doesn’t make him a leader.

“At no time in the past year has he shown any inclination to be collaborative with the administration.

“And he’s proven that he can’t be trusted to deliver on his end on any agreement. I said that to him with [county director of administration] Dan McCarthy present yesterday. And he didn’t deny it.”

“On the other hand, I have at no time turned down a meeting with any commissioner or a phone call from any commissioner in the past year.”

The executive said that included the meeting he had with Mazziotti on Tuesday, at the commissioner’s request, about why Muller won’t include him in leadership meetings.

Mazziotti confirmed he met with Muller Tuesday and asked him to reconsider his position, but Muller would not do so.

“He has a right not to,” said the commissioner. “I don’t deny him his right do that. But it’s not an ideal way to work.

“It is in the best interests of the residents that we meet and communicate.

“Every time we hear from the administration that we haven’t communicated, we’re going to have to remind them that the leadership is willing to meet with them.”

Why no leadership meetings

Muller said when Osborne was elected the new chairman of the nine commissioners at the beginning of January, he would have been willing to resume having leadership meetings if Jones had been re-elected vice chair

Mazziotti said Muller told him that he wanted a Democrat to be vice chair of the commissioners, even though Muller would not have leadership meetings when Jones was vice chair.

Muller said Mazziotti told him “the county executive doesn’t get to pick our officers.”

Mazziotti said the commissioners elect their own leaders.

Muller said historically the commissioners’ chair and vice chair usually were from both parties, despite the fact that Republicans usually held the majority. “Without both parties, you don’t really get an open discussion.”

Muller said county executives stopped having leadership meetings near the end of former Executive Don Cunningham’s six years in that position.

Muller said Jones pleaded with him to resume leadership meetings when he became county executive.

He said he had four of those meetings, but stopped having them because they were not productive. “There was no give-and-take. Nothing was coming from her [Scheller].”

He said although Scheller would have nothing to tell him at those meetings, later that same day the commissioners would meet “and jump all over me about something. I should have gotten a heads-up from her during the leadership meeting.

“I think her vision of a leadership meeting was let’s pretend I work for her and I would come to her with my to-do list.”

He also said Scheller could only meet at 3 p.m. on the same day as commissioners’ meetings, adding it would be more productive to have them a day or two earlier to review what issues would come up.

Commissioners will be negotiating

When Muller’s administration no longer is handling union negotiations, the commissioners intend to create a labor relations committee, on which three of them will serve.

Schware acknowledged that might not be ideal, but added Muller’s “unwillingness to communicate with the board on labor negotiations and other matters makes it necessary.”

Jones expressed concern about the ability of the commissioners to actually carry out union negotiations.

While Jones intends to vote against the repeal next month, he wants to be involved to ensure commissioners successfully taking over labor negotiations.

“It is a complicated, time-consuming process,” said Mazziotti.

Said Osborne: “You take the action, you take on the consequences.”

“I don’t think they have a clue what they’re getting into,” said Muller. “Union negotiations are extremely time-consuming.”

The executive also said having the commissioners involved in union negotiations “flies against the common practice of not having the ultimate decision-maker at the negotiation table.”

Scare tactics?

Muller predicted that, in an election year, the Republicans will try to fight for no collection of union dues through payroll.

He said the commissioners wanted the administration to fight for that last year.

“If they’re not going to be tougher, or try to be tougher, why would they want to take over?” asked the executive.

Muller said last year he asked the county’s legal department if the administration could resign as the agent for labor negotiations because the commissioners “were trying to put us in a position of battling for things we would never win.”

He was told the administration could not resign as agent.

Schware said Muller’s assertions that the commissioners plan to take a harder line toward unionized employees is not true.

“It’s the latest in an on-going, deliberate and false narrative by the county executive that attempts to pit the county employees against this board,” said Schware.

“It might be a cheap political strategy for the executive but it’s a poor way to govern.”

Schware said county employees don’t deserve to be the recipients of “wild speculation or scare tactics.”

Schware hopes that by removing Muller from negotiations, the commissioners will be better able to negotiate fair contracts with county employees, in a manner that reduces frustration for all parties.

Muller said his relationship with the unions “helps us settle contracts” because he sits down with union leaders and clearly tells them how far the county can go. The commissioners, he added, “won’t have that relationship.”

How they got to where they are

Commissioner Amanda Holt said the county’s home rule charter stipulates that setting wages and salaries is the responsibility of the county commissioners.

Jones agreed the county charter clearly intended for the commissioners “to have that broad scope of ownership.”

But in 1984, only six years after that county charter was adopted, commissioners passed the ordinance designating the county executive to act as its agent in negotiating with unions representing county employees.

Brace said he suggested repealing that ordinance five years ago, before he became a commissioner, because the commissioners had abdicated some of the authority they had been given in the county charter.

Brace said in most counties in Pennsylvania, county commissioners do the labor negotiations, because those counties don’t have executives.

Osborne said salaries, wages and benefits of all Lehigh County employees cost about $140 million a year — about 40 percent of the overall county budget.

“Working directly with a union in these negotiations will allow our board to listen face-to-face and understand the needs and concerns of the employees,” said Osborne.

“It’s the best way to communicate. And I think the employees will see it as a refreshing change in the relationship with the commissioners.”

Osborne said it is not ideal for the administration to represent the commissioners’ interests in labor negotiations.

He questioned whether the administration can reasonably represent commissioners on those interests, adding: “That’s probably not a realistic expectation.”

But Jones said the commissioners never have given up the responsibility to have the final vote on labor negotiations.

Calls for communication

Despite commissioners’ complaints about a lack of communication and cooperation from Muller, McCarthy asked them to give the administration an idea of financial progress on 2015 negotiations by June.

McCarthy said that will help the administration prepare a more accurate 2016 county budget.

Osborne said if the repeal bill passes next month, he expects the commissioners will remain in communication with the administration — not just in relation to preparing a new county budget, but also to be fair to the administration and county employees.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Osborne appealed to the administration to meet with commissioners “to talk about the people’s business, so we can continue to do our job as elected officials.”

Osborne said he does not intend to give up.