‘Hitting the ground running’
Returning to Whitehall Township is like a reunion for new Mayor Michael P. Harakal Jr.
According to Harakal, who served as the township’s executive from 1984 to 1991, in his first few weeks in office, he has been walking around the municipal building “smiling most of the day.”
Especially warm was the welcome from the township staff, more than 30 of whom he hired during his tenure as executive.
“I always loved what I did here and knew, if I had the opportunity, I would love to do it again,” he said.
Harakal got that opportunity earlier this month when he was appointed mayor by the township board of commissioners to fill the position left vacant when former Mayor Edward D. Hozza Jr. took a county position.
The longtime township resident says when he heard Hozza was leaving, he knew he wanted to apply for mayor.
“I had the time, the experience, the inclination and knew working with this staff would be a positive experience,” Harakal said.
He noted it was “the easy way out,” too.
“I didn’t have to campaign,” he said. “I was never much of a politician.”
Harakal will serve the remaining 19 months of Hozza’s four-year term.
He said he is excited to be working with longtime colleagues.
He hired Larissa Bruder, who is now his secretary, as well as John D. Meyers, deputy mayor; Susan Christoff, human resources officer; Mary Ann Miller, purchasing agent; Lee Rackus, bureau chief of planning, zoning and development; and John Rackus, public works bureau chief. The list goes on and on.
“They’ve served under four mayors,” Harakal said. “I’m impressed with their competence and look forward to having the opportunity to work with these people.”
For Harakal, the only hard part about applying for mayor was telling his wife, Judy.
“She felt like a widow when I was township executive,” he said. “I was gone early in the morning and got back late at night.”
However, she gave him her endorsement, and in return, he says he will make sure he has time to walk around their property with her during growing season to look at the flowers.
He said Judy will take over cooking responsibilities, something he has been doing for the past 20-plus years, and she also will be spending more time with their twin 12-year-old grandchildren, of whom they are very proud.
First on his mayoral agenda is moving forward on a new emergency services building in the township.
“That is the No. 1 priority,” Harakal said. “I am hitting the ground running.”
First proposed in 2014, the plan for a new facility would include the police department, a police training facility, a satellite base for Cetronia Ambulance Corps, a storage center for fire department equipment, a gym for police and public meeting rooms.
Harakal said they are aggressively looking at possible 4- to 5-acre sites in the township.
He also is navigating some discontent among the volunteer fire department. He said, as executive, he had a similar experience when he had to mediate a dispute among the ambulance corps.
“It’s part of the job,” he said. “Volunteers are crucial, and we want to keep them happy. All our firefighters are motivated, and we want to continue to support them.”
Harakal said other issues on the horizon, include maintaining planning as the township tackles proposed development by area hospital networks, as well as attracting new businesses and jobs.
He said transportation is always an issue since the township is in the middle of a major regional retail center.
He hopes to get a lot done and feels the current board of commissioners gets along well and will be willing to work cooperatively on issues.
After leaving public office in 1991, Harakal ran Sparhawk, an online company that built e-malls for large nonprofit corporations. Five years ago, he discontinued the company, and since then, he and his wife have been effectively retired.”
The one regret Harakal has is having to now reduce his involvement in volleyball.
“We love volleyball,” he said. “I’ve been playing for 43 years. I’ve always been involved in it. It’s a great sport.”
Judy, a retired Whitehall High School teacher, started the boys and girls volleyball programs at the school. The husband-and-wife team coached there for many years.
Harakal has served as regional coordinator for USA Volleyball, a board member of the college chapter of Professional Association of Volleyball Officials and president of the Lehigh Valley chapter of Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
He has had to give up officiating but said he hopes he can continue as PIAA chapter president.
But he accepts the township “is going to take my time now.”
“It’s satisfying but demanding,” he said, “and I’m just getting my feet wet.”