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March 6, 2013

VIDEO | Council, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority finally meet

JOHNSTOWN — After months of broken communication, Johnstown City Council and the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority finally had a sit-down meeting to discuss numerous issues pertaining to the JRA on Wednesday.

And, if things go according to plan, it won’t be the last get-together.

Council had been trying to arrange the conference since late last year. The requests never resulted in a meeting. This time, all six council members and City Manager Kristen Denne attended, as did JRA Acting Executive Director Francis D’Ettorre, solicitor William Barbin and board member Brian Vuletich. The authority’s chairman, Msgr. Raymond Balta, was absent.

Members of both bodies felt the dialogue, which occurred during a one-hour public meeting and half-hour executive session, was constructive.

“I think it went well,” Denne said. “I think that a lot of the council people got a lot of their issues aired out. There was a lot more disclosure than they’ve had in the past.”

The authority and council now plan to hold quarterly workshops.

“We can share ideas, so nobody thinks that we’re hiding anything,” D’Ettorre said.

D’Ettorre, a 31-year member of the authority, lamented the breakdown between JRA and council.

“We’ve always worked with the city, always,” he said. “Maybe the last year, year and a half, things have been in turmoil, but hopefully we’re over that.” Councilwoman Marie Mock concurred: “This probably should have happened 10 months ago, five months ago.”

The meeting was open to the public and included a broad range of subjects from the current purpose of the authority’s existence to difficulties reaching JRA workers on the telephone.

Councilwoman Rose Howarth asked, “Do we need (a redevelopment authority) in the city of Johnstown? I think that’s been a question with a lot of people in the city of Johnstown.”

Her inquiry sparked a discussion about the role of the authority and how it functions.

Barbin explained the authority has no formal master plan in place, but it works to improve the city in many ways.

“I think it is time to go back to the table, whether it’s JRA or JRA and the city, (and make a plan),” Councilman Frank Janakovic said.

Much of the conversation centered around Johnstown Regional Sewage, which the authority operates. JRA representatives addressed confusion some city customers have had when receiving two sewage bills in recent months.

“There’s a bill for the Johnstown Regional Sewage, which is primarily for us treating at the plant and the interceptors getting it to the plant,” D’Ettorre said. “Then there’s also the bill that the city sends out, which is for use of their collection system that they bill independently. I think there are a lot of people that basically don’t understand that.”

Mock asked Barbin why the authority did not use standard request-for-proposal procedures when looking for new billing software. Barbin agreed the process could have been handled better.

“Should (searches) be done open and publicly and transparently? Absolutely, they should be done open, publicly and transparently,” Barbin said.

Council asked about the plant’s environmental and health standards.

Barbin encouraged citizens to get the public reports for themselves, if they want, through rules put in place by the state’s Right To Know Law.

“It’s better to do it by the book,” he said when explaining why the authority prefers inquiries be made via right to know.

Toward the end of the meeting, council asked about Aspen Johnstown LLC’s plan to open an industrial wastewater treatment facility at the former Bethlehem Steel/Cambria Iron Works plant. Aspen’s pilot program was expected to be operational last summer, but almost no development has taken place. The company has received no public money, according to D’Ettorre.

“(The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t) even given us criteria to submit to them yet to get those permits,” said The EADS Group’s Steve Sewalk, an engineer for both the city and authority. “They’ve been waiting to get a look at other plants, etcetera. We’ve been trying to work back and forth with certain divisions of DEP to get that information and find out exactly what they want.”

No discussion about the recent firing of former JRA Executive Director Ron Repak; reported state and federal investigations into the authority; or a controversy involving the transfer of three workers from the Johns­town Regional Sewage office to the Dornick Point sewage treatment plant occurred during the public meeting.

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