Don’t discount Karen Dolan’s political, ecological contributions
by Evin Epstein
The political entanglements surrounding former Bethlehem City Councilwoman Karen Dolan have for some become a juicy, tempting story to follow. Following the recent release of a Northampton County grand jury report and ongoing caustic political commentary at City Council meetings and scrutiny in local blogs, Dolan officially resigned from her political position.The grand jury recommended that Dolan step down after investigating her dual and arguably conflicting roles as both a city councilwoman and executive director of the Gertrude B. Fox Environmental Center at Illick’s Mill in Bethlehem.
Central to the grand jury’s finding is $127,959 of the center’s debt owed to Bethlehem. Owed since 2010, the money was used for the restoration of Illick’s Mill, which was subleased by the city to the center for use as the organization’s home. Dolan’s critics assert that she utilized her city position to attain funding and influence decisions that favored the environmental center.
To further complicate this issue and empower her critics, Dolan began collecting a monthly salary for her work at the center beginning in October 2013.
While I acknowledge that she enmeshed herself in a messy conflict of interest, the incessant persecution by her critics is unfair and myopic. Dolan has been an effective political leader and environmental educator. But the character assassination going on wrongly diminished and devalued her contributions.
Dolan, as founder and executive director of the Illick’s Mill Partnership, was responsible for establishing the only nature center in Bethlehem. While a Liberty High School teacher, she integrated her students into the establishment and ongoing activities of the center. What other political official in our community is taking a leadership role in preparing a generation of people to understand the gravity of environmental problems humanity faces in the 21st century?
For the mill project, she received the national Environmental Excellence Award in 2003. She was a successful leader in the local effort to raise millions of dollars to protect open space, farmland and parks. Her commitment to environmental education and conservation is further evidenced by her board positions within the Monocacy Creek Watershed Association and the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society. She was often the only member of City Council to speak on behalf of environmental protection.
I am a young, college-educated woman finishing my graduate degree in environmental policy. Dolan inspired me through her diligence, as she constantly demonstrated a willingness to engage issues that other council members only superficially address.
For instance, last fall, when I and other students and community gardeners showed up to oppose selling the Maze Garden land in south Bethlehem to developer Dennis Benner, Dolan was the only council member willing to engage our concerns. She even proposed an amendment to the bill of sale for the land that would have promised to create a comparable garden elsewhere.
In this and other contexts, Dolan demonstrated more than any other elected member what it means to respond to constituents. Her willingness to listen to citizens and change her mind based on their views was sorely missing at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, when four council members ignored more than two hours of public comments about the historical inappropriateness of Benner’s proposed nine-story building. To this discussion she could have brought an acuity of thinking and articulate presentation of ideas that would inspire women, whose voices are noticeably absent in political bodies.
The way Dolan has been treated throughout this investigation is a disincentive for women to enter politics. Evident in the recounting of her missteps is thinly disguised misogyny. The gender bias dominating Bethlehem’s political discussion has been exposed through scathing public criticism and often-vitriolic political commentary about her. This bias was on display once again Wednesday night, when three councilmen passed over numerous qualified female candidates to vote to appoint yet another male to fill Dolan’s seat.
Bethlehem’s political system must be better at addressing gender inequalities and environmental sustainability, two critical issues that have been largely overlooked. Karen Dolan gave many who care about these issues faith that they would be taken seriously. She provided invaluable service to our community, and she will be especially missed by those of us who were inspired to see a woman of her strength and character participate so effectively in the local public and political debate.
Evin Epstein is a graduate student and presidential scholar at Lehigh University in the environmental policy design program.
Evin’s op-ed ran in the Morning Call on November 14 <www.mcall.com/opinion/yourview/mc-karen-dolan-illicks-mill-epstein-yv–20141107-story.html>