The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

February 18, 2013

Redevelopment authority refuses council's request for open-door meeting

JOHNSTOWN — Three city council members are pleased the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority agreed to answer some questions, but none is comfortable with the closed-door format the authority leadership demanded for Wednesday’s briefing.

Councilman Pete Vizza said he has been asking authority Chairman Raymond Balta since November to have council briefed on billing changes and other issues related to the authority-owned Johnstown Regional Sewage.

“I asked for whatever I could get,” Vizza said. “What I got was a closed meeting. They didn’t want any public in there jumping on everybody.”

On Wednesday, the authority’s acting director, Frank D’Ettorre, and a representative from the authority engineering contractor are scheduled to meet privately with council members, Vizza said.

Vizza has been acting as council’s liaison to the authority. He asked Balta for a meeting with council after the authority named Software  Systems Inc. of Gibsonia to handle sewer billing, replacing Johnstown’s RDM-Johnstown.

Problems with the changeover has led to inaccurate bills and public outcry.

Bills went up for some in Johnstown and four other municipalities where the authority was also handling what is called the rental fee. It can also be called the transportation fee, and is the cost of maintaining and upgrading municipal-owned sewer lines.

That money went back to the municipalities. The Johns-town Regional Sewage bill covers the cost of treatment, Balta explained in December.

The authority collected

4 percent of the municipality’s rental fees to handle the billing, but it did not cover its costs, Balta said. In one case, the 40 cents it got from each customer was not enough to cover postage.

While the billing issue was the primary concern in November, several other issues have cropped up since then, leaving council members frustrated over the authority’s silence.

In December, the authority allowed Software Systems to replace three city employees who staffed the Johnstown Regional Sewage office at

410 Main St. The workers were eventually moved into offices at the Public Safety Building to handle other clerical duties for the sewer operation.

Last week, longtime Executive Director Ron Repak and two others were placed on administrative leave with full pay and benefits pending the completion of an investigation. No other details were provided.

Council member Marie Mock said she still has questions about the sewer operation, but the issues have multiplied during the delay.

“It’s about everything,” Mock fumed. “This whole thing started because of the billing, and I still hear complaints on the billing. I want to find out about this company that’s in here.”

Mock is disappointed the authority has not been represented at a council meeting.

“I was hoping it would be public,” she said. “This is about the best we are going to get at this time. It is not the right thing to do, but we are at the mercy of them because they refuse to do what we wanted them to do.”

Council member Rose Howarth wonders if she and her colleagues will learn anything.

“I am glad we are going to have a chance to hear what they are going to say, but it should be public,” Howarth said. “How much information are we really going to get to know?”

Vizza said he understands the authority’s reluctance to discuss the administrative leaves in public, but noted that the subject hadn’t even come up when he first asked for a council-authority briefing.

“It’s frustrating,” Vizza said. “Open it up a little bit. You are so quiet on what you are doing.”

Authority member Brian Vuletich defended the decision to assign D’Ettorre and the engineer to answer the questions because the request focused on sewer operation.

“They probably know more about the operations,” Vuletich said.

“We’ll see what other questions come up. There could be a series of meetings.”

Council and the taxpayers of Johnstown deserve answers, Mock said.

“(The authority) was created by the city,” Mock said. “They should be answering to us – plain and simple.”

Mayor Thomas Trigona is responsible for appointing all authority members and appointed himself to the board in October. Trigona did not respond to a message asking if he would be at Wednesday’s briefing.

Balta also could not immediately be reached on Monday, but said in December he asked Vizza to act as the liaison in order to open communications. Trigona is also on council, he added.

“Pete Vizza has been to all our meetings,” Balta said. “He is council's representative. He got a packet for every meeting. It was our request for a member of city council to sit in on our meetings.”

 

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