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Council approves no-confidence measure against Allentown mayor

Jason Addy
Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk speaks Oct. 16 in City Hall while presenting his 2024 budget proposal.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Allentown City Council on Wednesday night voted in favor of a no-confidence measure against Mayor Matt Tuerk.

Council members Ed Zucal and Ce-Ce Gerlach sponsored a resolution that called the mayor’s service “a detriment to the well-being of the city, its residents and city employees.”

Zucal had been pushing for the no-confidence vote after Tuerk fired Karen Ocasio last month.

Her termination came after she repeatedly called for an investigation into City Hall following the NAACP Allentown branch’s release of a letter detailing her and others’ allegations of workplace discrimination and racism.

Ocasio told council this fall she filed discrimination complaints against the city with Pennsylvania's equal-employment and human-relations commissions.

Zucal called Tuerk's termination “an act of revenge” against Ocasio for speaking out against the administration.

The no-confidence resolution says “Tuerk’s ineffective leadership has placed the government of the City of Allentown in a critically unfavorable light in the community.”

The mayor “has lacked leadership in key areas — handling personnel responsibilities and management; managing a budget within parameters established by a majority of council members, and failing community engagement that includes the entirety of community interests,” the resolution says.

Split decision

Council members Cynthia Mota and Natalie Santos joined Zucal and Gerlach to pass the no-confidence measure against Tuerk.

Council President Daryl Hendricks and members Candida Affa and Santo Napoli voted against the resolution.

The approval of the resolution “is a formal declaration of no confidence in the governance of Mayor Matthew Tuerk.”

Tuerk is the second Allentown mayor in less than 10 years to officially lose council's confidence.

Council approved a no-confidence measure against former Mayor Ed Pawlowski in January 2016 in the wake of an FBI investigation into pay-to-play contracting by city officials.

Zucal also sponsored a no-confidence resolution in 2020 against two fellow council members for joining protests against police brutality, but council did not vote on it.

Zucal opened discussions on the no-confidence resolution Wednesday by telling the dozens of residents in the room he didn't think it would pass.

Many “good directors” and deputy directors of city departments have left since Tuerk took office, Zucal said Wednesday.

He asked his colleagues how many city employees must be forced out or fired before they act.

“What's the magic number?” Zucal said.

Gerlach reminded council members that they still have a working relationship after she was once the target of a no-confidence measure.

“We still work with one another even though you publicly said you don't want me here,” she said.

But council member Santo Napoli urged his colleagues to wait to take any action until the investigation is completed.

“I just think tonight's a little too early,” he said.

Residents will "lose" if council cannot work with the mayor, Napoli said.

“If we create gridlock, it's going to be a tough two years,” Napoli said, alluding to the rest of Tuerk's term.

“I know the media likes it, but we don't want this to be a reality show,” he said.

Affa referred to the resolution as “a hatchet job” against Tuerk.

“Mr. Zucal, what do you think you're going to accomplish by that?” Affa said.

Council doesn't have the power to remove the mayor or any of his powers, she said.

“We have this mayor for 2 more years; let's try to work with him,” she said.

Affa snapped while speaking, telling residents in the room to “shut up.”

Eddie Aviles, who has been kicked out of several Allentown City Council meetings, immediately told Affa to “shut up” before he was kicked out again.

‘You've got my number’

Before the vote, Tuerk told council members he was “disappointed” about the no-confidence measure but said “it doesn't bother me.”

“I've got thick skin,” he said.

The mayor challenged Zucal for speaking “half-truths” and “not doing his research.”

He called out Zucal for not answering his calls or texts after the councilman spoke about a communication breakdown.

“You've got my number,” Tuerk said. “I’m always happy to talk to you.”

“I think the work you're doing up here is diminishing the respect of this body,” Tuerk told Zucal, pointing to residents speaking over elected members of council as evidence that “the integrity of the entire body” is being lowered.

Pending litigation

Former Allentown human resources director Nadeem Shahzad returned to City Hall on Wednesday to urge council members to approve the no-confidence measure against Tuerk.

Shahzad led the city’s HR department for less than two months this summer. He’s said that Tuerk forced him to resign for not firing Karen Ocasio.

In a letter to council last month, Shahzad said a successful no-confidence vote would “send a clear message that discrimination and unfair treatment will not be tolerated within our city government.”

But before Shahzad could speak Wednesday, assistant solicitor Adam Rosenthal warned him of his “continuing obligation to not disclose confidential employee information.”

Shahzad told council he worries about impending lawsuits against the city from employees who have left since Tuerk took office. He suggested payouts could force council to raise taxes one day.

“I think the city is going to suffer immensely through the lawsuits that will come,” he said. “You have no idea how many lawyers have called me from Allentown because they know this is a bonanza for them.”

Shahzad hit out at Tuerk, saying the mayor “rules through fear” and “lacks leadership.”

“He lacks passion; he has no compassion; he has no strength to be a good manager,” Shahzad said.

Shahzad has said he is pursuing state and federal litigation against the city for ending his employment without valid cause.

Like Ocasio, he has filed a complaint against the city with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He believes he and Ocasio have “a very strong case.”

Ocasio also pushed council Wednesday to declare they have no confidence in Tuerk as mayor.

She said Tuerk “kicked me while I was down” by firing her days after her father died.

Ocasio accused a council member of offering her money after her termination. She did not name the member but called them a “hypocrite” for not supporting the no-confidence vote Wednesday.

“I’m looking at you as a hypocrite, for you to stand here, not wanting to vote for this,” she said. “You could never understand my pain, that someone fired me without a cause after I buried my father.”