Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan drew fire Tuesday for asking members of City Council to meet with him individually to discuss the future of the city’s garbage collection.
Some of Bethlehem’s 18 licensed haulers are taking it as a sign that Callahan aims to hire a single garbage collector, doing away with years of tradition in which individual property owners hired their own garbage collectors.
Three Republican challengers for City Council seats, who held a news conference in front of Town Hall before Tuesday’s council meeting, were equally critical of the mayor’s approach to the discussion.
In an e-mail sent to the media and supporters, they called the private meetings “surreptitious and devious.”
“Private meetings avoid a quorum of the City Council, and thereby avoid the necessity of a public meeting, required by the Sunshine Law,” the e-mail said.
“You know it’s nonsense,” the mayor responded after Tuesday’s meeting. “For anyone to imagine that council doesn’t come to me as individuals with problems or questions or concerns about the city: It’s totally appropriate. There’s nothing secretive in any way about it.”
Callahan said he has brought the issue forward because he believes the city has a growing problem with trash and dumping.
The city’s Bureau of Health documented 1,279 complaints concerning garbage in 2010, said Joseph Kelly, the city’s director of community and economic development.
Michael Palos, the city’s chief housing inspector, said he responded to no less than 500 garbage complaints last year. Additionally, Callahan said, the city has five or six places that are “chronic illegal dumping locations.”
“I know the city is not as clean as it could be,” Callahan said during an interview. “I believe we can offer these services in a more effective and efficient way. And I’m trying to sit with individual council members to talk about the problem and then talk about what the potential solutions might be.”
The mayor said he had “no pre-conceived notion” about what the solution might entail, but he seemed to be making strong arguments for a single-hauler approach. For example, he said switching to a single-hauler would have a “significant impact” on illegal dumping and would make it easier to enforce city trash laws.
Conceivably, under the existing system, garbage can be collected on every city street on every day of the week by a diverse set of haulers, making it difficult for city officials to know whether trash has been sitting curbside for hours or days.
“Of the fifteen largest cities in the Commonwealth, there are only three that do not have private contract hauling, and we are by far the largest. The others are Altoona and Williamsport,” Callahan said.
The mayor said he also believes the city can negotiate lower garbage collection rates because it can negotiate on behalf of 75,000 residents.
The Republican council candidates, Tom Carroll, Al Bernotas and Tony Simeo, and one hauler said they believe Callahan is motivated by finances to change the city's trash hauling system. Moving to one contract hauler would allow the city to collect a fee that would generate new a stream of revenue to draw on, they theorized.
“We make a profit now, so why wouldn’t he like to take it over and make the profit?” said Andrew Prickler, owner of Andy’s Hauling and Waste Disposal.
After the council meeting, Prickler had some heated words for Callahan.
“Listen mayor, you’ve done nothing but lie to the public,” he said. “Own up to it.”
Callahan said he has no specific proposals on garbage collection. He said he is also willing to discuss a zoned hauling system, which would allow the private haulers to continue operating, but would limit collections to designated neighborhoods depending on the day of the week.
“I don’t have an opinion on it right now,” Callahan said. “I don’t know what the impacts would be to the city’s general fund. This is to me about delivering the services to the residents in a more effective and efficient way and likely for less. That’s my job as mayor.”