The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 12, 2013

Rein in authority

Redevelopment board rife with malfeasance

The Tribune-Democrat

— Not good enough.

Johnstown Redevelopment Authority’s reputation has been badly soiled, its effectiveness seriously crippled. Disbandment or at least major changes must occur.

After months of skirting a face-to-face public session with city council, a handful of JRA representatives met with a full council last week.

While minor issues were hashed out – including future meetings – a public clamoring for solid answers was denied the information it sought.

By the time Wednesday’s meeting was over, the public still:

* Was in the dark on the status of a reported FBI investigation involving JRA officials.

* Was confused about sewage billing changes and costs.

* Was unaware of the working relationship between JRA and city council.

What was learned at the meeting was disturbing, too:

* That the redevelopment authority has not had a master plan in place since 1997.

* That citizens wanting public reports for themselves were being encouraged to obtain them through rules put in place by the state’s Right To Know Law.  

* That the authority didn’t use standard request-for-proposal procedures when looking for new sewage billing software. “Should (searches) be done open and publicly and transparently?” JRA Solicitor William Barbin asked. Then he answered his own question: “Absolutely, they should be done openly, publicly and transparently.”

Why then weren’t they? And what else is being done in this manner?

Distressing was the fact three JRA board members failed to attend the meeting, including Msgr. Raymond Balta, its chairman. In a brief telephone conversation two days later, he told reporter Randy Griffith that he had been at a hospital undergoing tests.

Asked whether he would attend planned future quarterly meetings, he hung up.

Despite being head of the authority board and apparently a primary spokesman, Balta consistently has been unapproachable, uncooperative and obviously a distraction. He should resign or be replaced.

He has become ineffective at a controversial time in the authority’s history, with its top manager having been fired and reportedly under investigation, and its second in charge having resigned after being under suspension.

At Wednesday’s meeting, other important questions were not discussed in public, but apparently later were topics of an executive session.

No discussion was held on the firing of JRA Executive Director Ron Repak; or on a controversy involving the transfer of three workers from the Johns­town Regional Sewage office to the Dornick Point sewage treatment plant.

Particularly vocal at Wednesday’s public session were council members Frank Janakovic, Marie Mock and Rose Howarth. We commend them. It was obvious, however, that council had and still has many questions about JRA and its board.

It was also obvious that more needs to be shared with council by Mayor Thomas Trigona, who also is a member of JRA’s board, and Councilman Pete Vizza, council’s liaison to JRA meetings. Is council not requiring routine reports from the two men?

Frank D’Ettorre, JRA’s acting executive director, says his first order of business is to map out a new course for the 68-year-old organization.

“I’ll sit down with council so we are on the same page.”

That would be a great first step moving forward. More oversight is needed.

The secrecy and uncooperative attitude must end. JRA and its board have too much freedom and power.

Are they doing what’s best for the city? Are they doing enough?

Apparently, only they know.

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