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Over pizza, Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk talks priorities and leadership philosophy

Matt Tuerk LWV luncheon.jpg
Tom Shortell
Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk addresses members of the Lehigh County chapter of the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, during a luncheon at Madeline's in Upper Macungie Township.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - As a room full of mostly seniors dined on pizza and salad, Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk did what he's spent much of the past nine months doing — engaging directly with citizens.

On Monday, his audience was members of the Lehigh County chapter of the League of Women's Voters at a luncheon at Fogelsville. He spoke about his leadership philosophy, the city's economic challenges and efforts to reshape its reputation in the Lehigh Valley.

He also shared an insight he said he picked up during his first few months of elected office.

"It's that old trope that 90% of life is just showing up, but it seems that it's true. The city is crying for attention," Tuerk said.

  • Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk addressed members of the Lehigh County League of Women Voters Monday
  • Housing, traffic and public safety were just some of the topics he touched on during the event
  • League officials highlighted Tuerk's public outreach as an example for other politicians to follow

For too long, many city residents haven't been able to engage with their local government, he said.
The 2020 Census found 55% of the city is Latino, but most forms and documents were limited to English, cutting off an enormous portion of the population from the flow of information.

Tuerk, the city's first Latino mayor, said he and his staff have attempted to fill some of the gap by making an effort to connect directly to the community and delivering statements and city documents in English and Spanish. Communication with the public has improved, but he acknowledged there's still a tremendous amount of work to do.

Addressing rising rents is high on that list.

The housing market was already tight before the pandemic sent demand skyrocketing. Allentown has about 45,000 housing units for a population of 121,000, Tuerk said. While new high-end apartments in Center City is addressing demand for wealthy professionals, more needs to be done for those with lower incomes.

Public safety and the city's reputation needs improvement as well, Tuerk said. The city has seen eight homicides this year, including the shooting death of a 15-year-old Treshawn Tracey last month. Hours before Tracey's death, Tuerk said he had set a goal of eliminating juvenile homicides in Allentown during his tenure.

"I don't want to see that happen again in my administration. We're going to do work with our police department, work with non-profit organizations that interrupt the cycle of violence," he said.

Tuerk said he's working to hire more police and help them build stronger ties in the community. They're also working to better engage with people in surrounding communities to boost the local economy and create more economic opportunity. Tuerk recalled former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski becoming combative with people who said they didn't feel safe in the downtown. Instead, Tuerk said the city needs to acknowledge those concerns and work with people about solutions.

"If you feel uncomfortable coming to Downtown Allentown, let me know. I'll meet you at your car. We can walk around the whole city," he said, drawing laughs from the room.

"We see that as an example of what a good politician, regardless of their party, should be."
Lehigh County League of Women Voters Co-Chair Mary Erdman on Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk's civic engagement.

Mary Erdman, co-chair of the League of Women Voters Lehigh County chapter, said her organization has engaged with neighborhood and civic groups in the city in an effort to boost voter turnout. Promoting democracy is one of the League's missions, and Allentown has historically seen abysmal turnout numbers.

The League routinely fields complaints from voters around the region that politicians show up during campaign season but disappear once elected, she said, but during their outreach in Allentown, League members kept running into Tuerk addressing community groups.

While stopping short of endorsing him, Erdman said they invited him to showcase what civic engagement should look like.

"We see that as an example of what a good politician, regardless of their party, should be," Erdman said.