Harakal returns to lead township
A former Whitehall Township executive, who served the township for eight years, was unanimously voted mayor by the township board of commissioners at its April 9 meeting.
Michael P. Harakal Jr., who was township executive from 1984 to 1991, was tapped to fill the position left vacant when longtime Mayor Edward D. Hozza Jr. left for a county position. Harakal was one of six candidates who applied for the position.
“Every one of them would have done a fantastic job,” board President Dennis Hower said. “It came down to experience, and Harakal has a boatload of experience.”
Hower thanked Deputy Mayor John D. Meyers, who has been serving as acting mayor since February, when Hozza became director of administration for Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong. The board gave Meyers a round of applause.
Harakal said he decided to apply for mayor because he had “the time and the experience.” He defeated Edward Galgon in the 1983 executive race and was defeated by Betty Buchmiller in 1991.
“I know I can be helpful to the township,” he said. “They’re doing good things, and I want to be a part of it.”
Harakal was officially sworn in as mayor April 10 and will serve the remaining 19 months of Hozza’s four-year term.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Hozza said, “I wish Mayor Harakal success and offer to him any assistance he may need.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, board members heard about problems between volunteer firefighters and township Fire Chief David Nelson. Two longtime volunteers who had both left the Whitehall Fire Department over the issue addressed commissioners.
Dan Dreisbach, former assistant chief for Station 37, said Nelson does not like to have his authority questioned, and when it is, he said, Nelson gets “irritated and confrontational.”
Former volunteer Barry Kibler agreed, saying the situation made him decide to leave the department after 34 years of service.
Dreisbach said if volunteers can’t attend 80 hours of training a year, they receive a letter from Nelson saying they will be dismissed from service. Dreisbach acknowledged “training is important” but said volunteers have jobs and families, and stations can log more than 400 calls a year, which puts a lot of demands on volunteers’ already-limited time.
He said morale is “at an all-time low,” and the department has lost numerous firefighters, some with more than 30 years of service, as well as line officers, assistant chiefs, three fire investigators and three flashover training instructors.
“The guys are fed up,” Kibler said.
Hower also read a portion of a letter from another concerned volunteer, and board member Joseph Marx Jr. said he had spoken to several firefighters.
“It is very troubling to see veteran volunteers walking away,” Hower said. “We will get to the bottom of what’s going on.”
Marx suggested all parties meet and try to solve the problems in “a civil businesslike manner.”
“It is impossible to replace volunteers,” he said.
Several of the commissioners said this was the first time they were hearing there were problems and agreed to discuss the issue in an executive session.
Nelson became Whitehall Township fire chief in September 2016 after serving as Emmaus’ fire chief and emergency services director.
In a statement to The Press, Nelson said he was unable to attend the board meeting due to an all-day training session in Doylestown.
“From the beginning of my tenure, I have endeavored to expand upon the professionalism of the Whitehall Township Fire Bureau,” he said. “There are several things that have been my focus. First and foremost among them was firefighter safety. In the past, it was feasible for a member to join, receive gear and a pager and be able to enter a burning building without any training. This presents a liability for our firefighters and our department, as well as the public.
“We have since mandated that our new firefighters comply with national standards in obtaining a Firefighter 1 certification. This is a basic firefighter training course, but it has been offered to our veteran firefighters as well,” Nelson continued.
“Together, the assistant chiefs and I have established (and voted on) an hourly training requirement of 80 hours a year,” he said. “Our training is scheduled Monday nights for approximately two hours each time. If the member makes all of these training nights, they will exceed the 80-hour requirement.”
According to Nelson, the implemented changes have caused eight members out of 114 to become “disgruntled” and leave their positions in the fire department. He added that the department has also gained 10 members.
“Firefighting is a difficult job and takes significant dedication. The majority of the department is on board with the changes,” Nelson said, adding that he believed the firefighters’ “spirits are high.”