Where Bob Donchez Comes Up Short as a Political Leader

One would think that with as much experience as Bob Donchez has he would have some big accomplishments to point to, but what was really remarkable about his announcement speech for Bethlehem Mayor was how little he has to show for all that time on City Council. Sure he’s voted for a lot of good (and bad) stuff during his 16 years in the seat, but what issues has he really lead on? What issues would not have gotten on the agenda, but for Bob Donchez?

I think the problem is that Donchez misunderstands the value of political experience. The practical reason political experience matters is for accumulating the power and influence to enact your policy vision. You accumulate a lot of political capital by taking popular positions, and then you spend it down on your policy agenda. But as Donchez made clear in his announcement speech, he doesn’t have anything resembling a policy agenda:

Donchez said he plans to put together a task force of community leaders to study how to best run the city’s government.

“All aspects of city government must be reviewed,” Donchez said. He said while Bethlehem is undergoing financial difficulties, he believes the city’s best days are ahead of it.

Donchez also said he wants to consult financial experts to find the best uses for the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. land, which he called a “golden opportunity” for new jobs and expansion of the city’s tax base.

Donchez has been on Council for over 16 years and he doesn’t have an opinion on how best to run city government? He doesn’t have an opinion about how best to use the former Steel land? These issues have been debated on City Council every year he’s served. Shouldn’t he have detailed opinions about whether the current strategies are working? Isn’t that the reason somebody would prefer the candidate of experience?

Don’t get me wrong – technocratic governance is the ideal. I’m all for bringing some experts in to review how services are delivered in Bethlehem, or how assets like city land are being used, and then make recommendations for improvements. It’s admirable when politicians consult experts on the best practices in these areas before making decisions.

Where Bob Donchez comes up short as a political leader is that he can’t be trusted to follow through on those recommendations. We just saw a test case of this recently with the single trash hauler debate.

Last year, nearby Palmer Township completed a study of best practices in designing trash collection markets. They set out to learn which trash collection model would save their residents the most money, and keep the Township the cleanest it could be, so they compared a few different approaches to see what works best.

What they found was that, hands down, the cheapest and best trash market design is a single trash hauler with automated pick-up. Every other local government in the Lehigh Valley knows that contracting with a single hauler is the best trash market design, and has known this for a long time.

So did Bob “Best Practices” Donchez vote for John Callahan’s proposal to switch to a single hauler, and end Bethlehem’s failed experiment with trash libertarianism?

No he did not. In the end, he did not really care what the best practices were. He made his voting decision based on a couple hundred people – a tiny and unrepresentative fraction of Bethlehem’s population – yelling at him.

On economic development and land use issues, Donchez has similarly been ignoring studies calling for more mixed uses in his city’s walkable neighborhoods. Just two years ago Bethlehem commissioned a walkability study by Jeff Speck that seems to be collecting dust now. But there are enough creative ideas for capital improvements and zoning changes in there to keep city politicians and planners busy for decades, but as far as I can tell Donchez hasn’t engaged with this stuff at all. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission has been beating the drum on walkability and pedestrian-focused land use planning for years.

The problem is not that we don’t know what the expert consensus is on some of these questions, or that we don’t have good information about the trade-offs involved. The problem is that the best practices are sometimes politically unpopular, and go-along-to-get-along politicians like Bob Donchez are not willing to vote for them.

You can do all the studies you want, but in the end there’s no substitute for political leadership. Some of the policies that will grow Bethlehem’s economy and improve quality of life for residents are controversial or downright unpopular. Real political leadership means being willing to vote for stuff like the single trash hauler plan, even when some people make a fuss about it.

(Thanks: Lynn Olanoff)


  1. Explains Callahan’s presence at Donchez’ announcement. Common wisdom says Callahan’s going to Northampton County to sit out a term then go back to Bethlehem city hall. What better incumbent for Callahan to run against than a do-nothing, place holder like Donchez promises to be. But what would be in Bethlehem’s best interest? Reynolds may lack a trail of unimpressive years on council, but if he has the type of vision that allowed Callahan to take Bethlehem where no one thought it could go, maybe the he’s the better candidate for what the city needs right now.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I haven’t seen anything too visionary from Willie on Council, but he wants to run as the visionary candidate so I’ll wait to see what he comes up with.

  2. Sorry Jon but I’ve met Bob. Most of the town knows Bob and his personality and experience is what kept the republicans out of the council seats. Reynolds basically got elected with party affiliation to Bob Donchez the first time. If John is backing Donchez to replace him even thou he voted against his single hauler proposal then my money is on Johns endorsement as he took the city where noone thought it could go. Also every time I see or hear Reynolds he just comes across sleazy and crooked. Maybe not but I get the I don’t believe a word your saying jive around him.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      John Callahan isn’t backing Donchez, he said so in the article.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      What kept the Republicans from getting elected was a huge registration disadvantage. There are not enough Republican voters in the city for them to win. The real general election in Bethlehem is the Democratic primary.

  3. Kelly you have no idea what you are talking about. You are right that most people know bob and know he cant make a decision. As for the rest,you are delusional. Bob never helped a one candidate get elected to city council. Callahan raised money for Dolan, Evans and Reschutti. Callahan kept republicans off council. Donchez only looks out for himself. He made deals with the republicans in 2011. Notice they never attacked him. Callahans appearance was not an endorsement, as he said in the paper. I am sure he will be at Reynolds events. He is running for office, and wants to be seen.
    Bob is so bad at making decisions that he would need form panels to make those decisions for him. The guy is a puppet a Morganelli.

  4. Donchez has received the most votes of anyone running for council every time he’s ran. He’s liked here and fairly well. You two are saying Donchez hasn’t led on a lot of big issues but the answer is to vote for the guy who by your own admission has never done anything at all ? I supported the single hauler but the majority of the people who showed up for the town hall meeting did not. Donchez voted the interest of the people who elected him to represent them there. I don’t agree with it but I guess I should have made time to show up for that meeting then. I’m sorry but right now
    I don’t have any confidence in a 31
    Year old kid who doesn’t have one thing to lay any claim to or any experience. Donchez to me will at least do no harm and keep us on Callahans steady track.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      The answer is to vote for the guy who wants to keep making changes, versus the guy who wants to stop trying to improve living standards and job growth. Willie’s only had one term, but already he’s more like Callahan in this regard.

      On single hauler, Donchez voted for the minority position. Just because opponents of single hauler were a majority in the room at the time of the vote doesn’t mean they represented a majority of residents. Bethlehem polled the question, and opponents were only 30% at most.

  5. I don’t know Willie Reynolds but I do agree with Kelly’s statement on kids with no experience or track record of accomplishing anything. They’re pretty much worthless in the real world.

  6. You write an article titled where Donchez comes short then in the same article tell me to vote for the other guy who by your own admission hasnt done 1/10 of anything Donchez has ? Donchez helped get Callahan elected btw. The majority in the room was the majority at the time of the vote then. i cant get mad cause people showed up to exercise thier rights to the council when i didnt. if we wanted the vote to go our way we should have showed up. cant say its the will of the people if the people dont show up to demonstrate it. As i actually live here i do try to find out more information about Reynolds from local towns people. so far the two most popular answers ive gotten are hes no Bob Donchez and the even more popular who the f*ck is Willie Reynolds? Everyone here likes and respects john every time we have a convo so Reynolds isnt to much like him if noone can even tell me who he is for the most part.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      What has Donchez done?? He’s voted for a ton of stuff, but pioneered nothing. There’s not one issue associated with his political brand. He’s done nothing significant. Willie is at least interested in talking about pushing the limits to get some more jobs and development in the city. Donchez won’t even do that.

  7. And Reynolds has pioneered nothing, voted for almost nothing, worked at nothing, done nothing in the community as far as I can find. We are comparing Donchez to Reynolds and at this moment in time it appears to me that Donchez is hands down the better qualified.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      First of all, that’s nuts, Reynolds has taken all the votes Donchez has and done just as much as Donchez has in the last 4 years. Second, you’re comparing a 4-year Councilman’s record to a 16-year Councilman’s and saying they’ve both gotten very little done. Do you realize how horrible that looks for your candidate? Come on, name a Donchez initiative. What law wouldn’t be on the books if not for Donchez’s leadership?

  8. Didn’t Willie vote with Bob to kill the single hauler? Why are you bashing Donchez when Reynolds couldn’t be innovative enough to disagree with Bob yet again?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Reynolds voted against including it in the budget. He’s left himself plenty of room to support it when the bids come in. Donchez has given no indication that he’s ready to support any changes.


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