What Is Gracedale's Future?
County Council has 23,000 petition signatures, four potential buyers, one big debate
Earlier this week, Mario Martinez walked into the Northampton County elections office and delivered a set of petitions containing more than 23,000 signatures, all people who oppose the sale of Gracedale, the county-owned nursing home.
On Thursday night, Martinez -- who represents a group called the Coalition For Alzheimer's Families -- stepped to the podium before Northampton County Council and argued that those signatures are proof that the sale is a bad idea.
"If my car gets a flat tire, I don’t sell it becuase it has a flat tire," he told council. "Gracedale should not be thrown out."
But it may not be as simple as fixing a flat. Even though opponents of the sale say they collected far more signatures than they actually needed, it's going to take some time for the county to verify all the names.
(There have been allegations that the group collected the signatures improperly, charges Martinez has denied.)
Normally, when someone runs for office, they need a few hundred signatures, county Administration Director John Conklin told council Thursday.
"That’s easy," he said. "Here we’re dealing with 23,000. Nobody’s ever dealt with anything like this."
It's possible the matter would be pushed off to the November election rather than the May primary. It could wind up in court, depending on what the elections commission decides. The commission meets again on Tuesday.
A large section of Thursday's meeting was devoted to this issue, as Councilmen Ron Angle (who supports the sale) and Lamont McClure (who opposes it) debated whether council will have the right to go to court to appeal the election commission decision.
Angle suggested at one point that McClure -- an attorney -- represent the citizens opposing the sale. "And we'll kick your butt," he added, earning an objection from council President John Cusick, who used his gavel several times during the meeting to try to quiet the crowd.
(Angle, in turn, objected to the use of the gavel, claiming Cusick was acting like he was in "the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.")
Supporters of the sale say Gracedale is losing money for the county, and could be better managed by a private company. Councilman Bruce Gilbert called it "an albatross on the neck's of our children," even as he praised the staff. McClure maintained the county had a moral obligation to keep the home.
Meanwhile, the county has four possible buyers lined up, including one company that runs 80 other nursing homes. There was a fifth company interested, but it has since dropped out. County Executive John Stoffa declined to say Thursday why, but said it wasn't because of the petition drive.