Lehigh County Board of Elections shoots down Allentown referendum on mobile mental health team
- The Lehigh County Board of Elections unanimously voted Wednesday to reject an Allentown voter referendum question over a proposed Mobile Community Response Team
- The three members agreed with Allentown officials who said the bill had too many legal problems to present to voters
- Supporters collected more than 3,800 signatures in support of the program, which would have dispatched a mental health professional and EMT to non-violent crises such as family disputes and unhoused people
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The Lehigh County Board of Elections on Wednesday unanimously rejected a voter-led referendum question that would have asked Allentown residents if the city should create a $4 million team to respond to mental health crises.
While the referendum's organizers collected nearly double the number of signatures needed to get the question on the ballot, board members agreed with city solicitor Kevin Greenberg that the law would be unenforceable even if it passed.
"It wasn't our job to decide whether this was a good program or a bad one. It was the question of all those legal issues. We all liked the idea. We just can't do it with the legal questions."Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong
County Executive Phillips Armstrong, who sits on the board by virtue of his office, said the ordinance the referendum would have passed had 14 separate legal issues.
"It wasn't our job to decide whether this was a good program or a bad one," Armstrong said after the vote. "It was the question of all those legal issues. We all liked the idea. We just can't do it with the legal questions."
The decision quickly was denounced by supporters, saying they met the criteria set by the city's home rule charter to let voters make the final call. In a news release, Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach, said she was disappointed in the board's decision.
"People are disillusioned with the system because far too often institutions, politicians and the powerful continue to ignore them by maintaining the status quo," Gerlach said.
The city clerk's office verified they collected more than 3,800 signatures in support of a program, far more than the 2,000 mandated. The signatures showed vast support for a program that would have unarmed EMTs and mental health professionals respond to certain calls, such as non-violent disputes between neighbors or family members or an unhoused person.
The law would have prohibited dispatchers from sending other first responders unless there was clearly another emergency taking place in addition to the mental health or non-violent emergency.
"People are disillusioned with the system because far too often institutions, politicians and the powerful continue to ignore them by maintaining the status quo."Allentown Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach
"It is deeply disappointing the board of elections has not listened to the will of the people of Allentown and not allowed the citizens to answer this question on the ballot," said Jon Irons, a spokesman for the organizers and a Democratic candidate for Lehigh County commissioner. He did not rule out that backers would pursue a lawsuit to put the referendum onto the ballot.
In Allentown, voter initiated referendums first go to city council, which has the option to adopt the legislation. In this case, it went to the Board of Elections because council voted 4-2 to reject the measure, saying the proposed legislation was too flawed.
City open to negotiations
Greenberg outlined some of the issues during public comment and a 16-page letter presented to the board. For starters, he said, referendums must present a question that can sum up the proposed legislation briefly and in plain English. But this referendum's scope was too complex, he said. As an example, the law would would have permanently barred former police officers or firefighters from serving on the response team along with creating and funding it.
The city also lacked the ability to enforce the law, Greenberg said. Lehigh County provides 911 dispatch services to Allentown, and the city cannot dictate to the county how that occurs. The city also has at least two collectively bargained agreements with first responders that require them to be sent to specific emergency calls. Even a voter referendum wouldn't give the city the authority to break those contracts, which extend through 2025, according to the letter.
Greenberg said that Mayor Matthew Tuerk and city council was not opposed to creating the program, but this version of it was too problematic to pass into law. He encouraged the referendum's organizers to regroup with city officials and find ways to bring it into existence.
"The city's position is that we would like to do a better job and continue to make progress helping people," he told the board.
The offer seemed to resonate with Ashleigh Strange, who has advocated for a mental health response team in the city for years. After consulting with Lehigh County Director of General Services Rick Molchany, who oversees the 911 dispatch operation, she took the podium to ask if a version of the law that focused more on the creation and funding of the program and less on the specifics of dispatches and who may serve on it would be more acceptable to the city.
Greenberg agreed, though he acknowledged the process could delay progress by a few months. However, the end result would likely be something that would pass city council without needing a voter referendum, he said.
"Nobody wants adverse interactions. The question is what are adverse interactions and how do you do that?" he said.