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September 24, 2013

Former housing chief sues agency, city

JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown Housing Authority’s former chairman has sued that organization and the city of Johnstown.

Brian Vuletich claims City Council violated rules when it appointed Joseph Taranto to the housing authority during a meeting on Aug. 21.

Paperwork was filed with the Cambria County Court of Common Pleas on Monday. The authority discussed the matter during its regular monthly meeting Tuesday night.

Both the city and authority intend to fight the lawsuit, according to their respective solicitors.

“I was encouraged by so many residents that emailed me, called me, stopped me on the street and encouraged me to keep fighting for this,” Vuletich said.

Vuletich served on the authority from August 2008 until his position became open a few weeks ago, as part of a normal five-year cycle for all members. He applied, as did Taranto.

Mayor Thomas Trigona, along with Councilmen William Gentile Jr. and Pete Vizza, voted to reappoint Vuletich. However, Taranto was named to the position thanks to receiving four votes from himself, Frank Janakovic, Rose Howarth and Marie Mock.

Vuletich is challenging the eligibility of Taranto and Howarth to vote on the matter.

He feels Howarth had a conflict of interest because she works for Johnstown Lease

Housing, which was created by the Johnstown Housing Authority. Dan Kanuch serves as executive director for both organizations. The groups operate out of the same building at 501 Chestnut St. But, according to JHA Solicitor Timothy Leventry, the entities are separate.

“(Johnstown Lease Housing) is not funded by the housing authority,” said Leventry. “There are no board members on this board that are on that board.”

The lawsuit claims Taranto cannot serve on the authority because he is on council, which would violate the state’s Third Class City Code.

Leventry does not feel that is the appropriate law, since Johns-town has its own home rule charter.

“A city has the right to adopt its own rules that it follows for government,” said Leventry, who explained that JHA plans to request being released from the lawsuit. “The city of Johns-town did this many, many years ago where they have a set of rules and regulations called the home charter rules for the city of Johnstown. Whenever a town or city adopts a home charter set of rules, that’s what controls various things, including, in this case, the appointment of council members to other positions.”

Taranto did not discuss the lawsuit in detail, saying, “I don’t know if I’m really allowed to talk about anything that has to do with legal (issues).”

Dave Andrews, the city’s solicitor, said he told Taranto and Howarth somebody might challenge the results if they voted, although he thought possible ethics complaints would be more likely than a lawsuit.

“I did not, in any way, prohibit them,” said Andrews. “That’s an individual decision.”

With Vuletich gone, the authority needed to pick a new chairperson. Jean Tanaka was named to the position by a 4-1 vote. She supported her own candidacy, as did Angela Reed, John Slezak and Taranto. Mike Vukovich voted in opposition after he nominated himself for the position.

The board then changed the way its meetings are presented to the public.

Recent meetings were held in city council chambers at 5 p.m. They also were televised live. The goal of both was to make the authority’s discussions more accessible to the public.

“I think the idea behind it was a good one, but it certainly didn’t develop the way we thought it would,” said Tanaka.

So, the board decided to return its meetings to noon and hold them inside the JHA headquarters. They also plan to look into the possibility of recording the gatherings and then broadcasting them on a delay. Reed, Slezak, Taranto and Tanaka voted in favor of all the changes.

Vukovich opposed making the switches. “I thought what we currently had seemed to be working out,” said Vukovich. “I thought we wanted to keep this open to let the public know what’s going on.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.

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