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Don Cunningham: News
Morning Call
Posted on July 2, 2009

Let the water cooler debate begin

By Bill White
Sports fans love arguing about lists.

Who were the top five center fielders of all time? Who are the 10 best quarterbacks in NFL history? Sports talk shows and sports bars thrive on stuff like this.

You don't hear this kind of wrangling in politics, which I think is a shame. Elected officials have way more power over our lives and our money than, say, Ken Griffey Jr. So I decided to do my part to get people arguing at bars and water coolers about local politicians for a change.

The list I settled on was a ranking of the last three mayors for each of the Lehigh Valley's cities. Their exploits, good and bad, have received enough attention over the years that I figured there might be broad interest in this topic.

I encountered just one major problem. Ranking the best and worst mayors was easy, but I had trouble in the middle, where several leaders had commendable attributes and serious shortcomings. Did any of them really deserve to be second? Even more difficult was 3-5, where I knew any decision would be controversial.

In fact, I dithered so long that my first version of this column expired from our computer system, to my dismay. This is the reconstructed version.

Before that happens again, let's get to it. I'll take the easy part today.

Former Bethlehem Mayor Don Cunningham, now Lehigh County executive, was an easy choice for the top of my list.

He has demonstrated himself to be a prudent manager of public money, a very good ceremonial mayor and a tough adversary when confronted with opposition. He's a forward thinker who knows how to sell what he wants. Most significantly, he began the process of bringing Bethlehem back from the hole it faced with Bethlehem Steel's collapse.

Second place was more difficult, but I settled on Cunningham's successor, John Callahan. His transition into office was more heavy-handed than necessary, and I think his inexperience cost the city dearly in the John Hirko excessive force trial. He and the rest of the defense team mistakenly thought the deadlocked jury was split 10-2 in the city's favor and gambled by letting five-sixths of the jury render a decision. That backfired when those 10 jurors ruled against the city, leading to an $8 million settlement.

But I've agreed with most of his calls since then, and he has to get some credit for the continuing transition of south Bethlehem into an economic success story. He's been an effective salesman for Bethlehem, clearly the best-placed of the A-B-E cities for future prosperity. Right place, right time? There's some of that, certainly. But I mostly think he's done a good job.

Now let's jump to the bottom of my list, the easiest call of all. Hall of Famer Roy Afflerbach's one term as Allentown mayor was a genuine disaster that set the city's finances and reputation back years. His budgets were a joke, and the contract he negotiated with the city police union was so preposterously lopsided that his successor had to fight in court to ease the crushing burden on taxpayers. It's a measure of his judgment that he fought against the IronPigs and Coca-Cola Park, preferring the dinky Ambassadors and a far inferior stadium site.

As a former state senator, his tenure was an excellent test of how well the level of competence and efficiency in Harrisburg would translate to City Hall.

Badly, as it turned out.

No. 8 on my list is former Easton Mayor Phil Mitman. A crippling succession of floods made life more difficult for him, but his handling of the city's chronic police problems and the disastrous Riverwalk project were a pretty good gauge of his ineffectiveness. If Afflerbach represented the failure of the state legislative approach in city government, Mitman demonstrated that there's no reason to suppose a guy who served one shaky term as mayor will be much better years later.

Nonetheless, Easton gave that approach another try with Mitman's successor, Sal Panto. It's far too early to rate the performance of Panto II in this group, but his first term as mayor places him at No. 7. He did not leave the city in very good shape in any respect.

I placed former Bethlehem Mayor Ken Smith at No. 6. I don't think Smith was a bad mayor, but I really can't think of anything that distinguished his time in the office, except his philosophy of raising taxes a little bit every year except when he was engaged in an election.

That brings us to the part that has mired me in indecision: Mayors Bill Heydt, Ed Pawlowski and Tom Goldsmith.

I'll wrestle with them next time.

 
Don Cunningham
Lehigh County Executive
Government Center
17 S. 7th St.
AllentownPA 18101
610-782-3001
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