Johnstown Redevelopment Authority must change if it is going to survive, two city council members say.
That’s fine with the authority’s new chief, who 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,” said Frank D’Ettorre, acting executive director. “First we’ll see if there is any redevelopment planning grant money out there, but we will still proceed with a plan.”
Authority Solicitor William G. Barbin admitted during last week’s meeting with city council that the redevelopment authority has not had a master plan since 1997.
Ousted Executive Director Ronald Repak said in December that the authority used the city’s master plan as guidance.
But council members Rose Howarth and Marie Mock stressed that a plan is crucial and warned that it will probably take more action to restore council’s support for the authority.
“There might be something structurally needing tweaked,” Mock said. “The goal is to make it work. A realignment – maybe that’s what is needed. What business doesn’t evolve in a way that gets realigned.”
Last month, the authority board gutted its core staff by firing Repak and accepting Administrative Assistant Deborah Walters’ resignation after evidence showed both were getting paid by Conemaugh Health System through a consulting business while also getting paid by the authority to work on Conemaugh’s tech park project.
Board leaders also confirmed an FBI investigation into Repak’s actions is continuing.
Board secretary Lisa Wirfel remains on paid leave as the investigation continues because information on her involvement was less conclusive, sources say.
Although it is unfortunate that it was required, the shakeup creates an opportunity to reexamine the authority’s mission, Howarth said.
Howarth asked last week if the the authority had outlived its usefulness.
“Do we need a redevelopment authority?” Howarth queried at Wednesday’s meeting. “Can we, as council, disband it? I think that’s been a question for a lot of people in the city of Johnstown.”
Participating by telephone, city Solicitor David Andrews said it would be possible, but added that he would not recommend its dissolution. The authority acts as an independent body and has different powers than council, he said.
Howarth said she still has questions, but does not believe council should rush its decision.
“I think the jury is out,” she said. “This is the ideal time to take a look at these hard questions. Can they get a plan that will work?”
Howarth said the authority should accept help offered at the Feb. 27 council meeting by business CEOs William Polacek of JWF Industries, Edward Sheehan of Concurrent Technologies Corp. and Glenn Wilson of AmeriServ Financial.
The three said they would help develop a plan.
D’Ettorre said he is ready to work with council.
“There is no problem at all,” he said. “I am looking forward to it. I am 70 years old; I just want to do the best thing for the taxpayers.
“The goal is to create jobs.”
Although there has been no discussion on a permanent replacement for Repak, Mock said everything should be on the table. It might even be time to restructure the authority’s five-member board.
Mock said she was disappointed only one board member, radio station manager Brian Vuletich, attended Wednesday’s council meeting. She expects better representation at quarterly workshops being scheduled by council and the authority.
“I’d like to see them all there,” she said. “We are all going to be there.”
Barbin said the board members asked him, D’Ettorre, engineer Steve Sewalk of the EADS Group and sewer plant manager Jeffrey A. Mulligan to represent the authority. Wednesday’s meeting was originally planned for November to answer questions about sewer bills and operations.
“The board members don’t do the day-to-day business,” Barbin said, adding the plan was to schedule a second meeting with board members, if requested.
But Mock said the no-shows represented one of council’s gripes.
“We need to continue with (improving) the transparency,” she said. “We need to know about nearly everything they do. They should keep us informed, as well as the public.”
Part of the problem is that the board agreed to allow Repak to continue working – albeit with greatly reduced responsibility – for more than two years that leaders were aware of the FBI investigation, Barbin said. Board members felt they should not discuss the issue publicly.
Repak was taken out of the loop on Johnstown Regional Sewage and the Aspen Fluids frack water treatment project. Administration of the city’s Community Development Block Grant money for housing blight work was farmed out to the Cambria County Redevelopment Authority.
“That created a vacuum in the communications structure,” Barbin said.
Although Barbin and D’Ettorre predict that the communication will improve, it is apparent the change is slow.
Mayor Thomas Trigona appointed all five members of the authority board, including himself. He had little to say at Wednesday’s meeting and could not be reached for input on this report.
Reached at St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church on Power Street, Msgr. Raymond Balta, board chairman, continued his refusal to speak publicly about the authority.
Here is a transcript of the brief telephone exchange:
“Hello Monsignor, it’s Randy Griffith from The Tribune-Democrat.”
“Why are you calling me? I have nothing to say to you.”
“Everybody wants to know why you weren’t at the meeting Wednesday.”
“I was getting tests at the hospital.”
“Will you be available for the quarterly meetings that council wants?”
The line went dead.
Although Johnstown Area Regional Industries and Cambria County Redevelopment Authority have been suggested to take over Johnstown Redevelopment Authority’s economic development and blight removal missions, leaders of both organizations say neither is currently structured to handle the jobs.
“I know their goal is to get rid of blight in the city and redevelop sites with infrastructure and make them better for economic use in the future,” said Linda Thomson, JARI president and CEO. “JARI is dealing more with the business sector. We are not government. We are not quasi-government.”
The county redevelopment authority works with municipalities to administer federal Community Development Block Grant funds that help low-income residents, Executive Director Larry R. Custer said.
“Our mission has not been economic development,” Custer said. “Our mission has been working with the municipalities to improve housing, water and sewage infrastructure and recreation.”
Even if the county authority accepted the Johnstown authority’s role, Mock wondered if it would be more accountable.
“We might not be on their front burner,” she said.
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