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Committee of the Whole Summary 04/19/21





April 19, 2021
5:00 P.M.
Virtual Meeting


J. Cepeda-Freytiz, M. Goodman-Hinnershitz, D. Reed, L. Sihelnik, (all electronically), M. Ventura, S. Marmarou (via dial-in)

L. Kelleher, W. Stoudt, F. Lachat, R. Tornielli, M. Fegely, S. Smith, M. Rodriguez, F. Denbowski, S. Rugis, C. Jones, J. Abodalo, J. Kelly, J. Long, C. Crespo, A. Amoros, A. Acevedo

The meeting was called to order at approximately 5:05 pm by Ms. Sihelnik. She noted that Mr. Waltman will be joining the meeting late due to a work schedule conflict. Due to the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting. The meeting is convened via virtual app.

  1. Downtown Coordinator Update

    Ms. Castner stated that she has been in this new position for three (3) weeks and while much has been accomplished, there is a lot left to do. She stated that an MOU was negotiated with the Hope Rescue Mission to assist the City’s team with the appearance of the downtown with trained and supervised personnel from the Mission who will be paid $15 per hour. The Public Works Department will be hiring four (4) part-time employees who will work flex hours depending on the need and an additional two (2) full-time employees.

    The City is consulting with Alvernia’s landscaper to develop a coordinated plan for the medians and flower pots on Penn Street from 2nd to 11th Street. Planting is scheduled for the 3rd week of May.

    A letter was drafted to business owners explaining the City’s replacement of the DID-type services and suggesting that the owners reinvest the money formerly paid annually to the DID assessment into the façade of the business. In addition, a grant was submitted to the DCED for the redesign of the 8th and Penn courtyard. The Berks County Community Foundation (BCCF) and the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance (GRCA) have been supportive of the City’s effort to replicate the DID-type services.

    Mr. Waltman arrived at this time.

    Ms. Castner reported that the Parking Authority is willing to perform escort services during downtown events. The DoubleTree offered meeting space for meetings with downtown business owners. She noted that she has been included in meetings to develop the Downtown Plus plan. She explained what was done with the vast amount of DID equipment that was transferred to the City. Several vehicles are being stored at the Public Works facility until the titles are transferred.

    Ms. Castner stated that while she is the point person for downtown efforts, various other City divisions and departments are providing support. For example, Property Maintenance is providing outreach to business owners. Plans to reopen the Farmers Market at the 7th and Penn parking lot this summer are underway. She explained that while the City is working to rebuild Post-DID balance in the downtown, she is unsure if these efforts can be sustained long-term. She noted the value of having an authority and authority board to provide direct services to downtown businesses and visitors.

    In response to a question, Ms. Castner stated that Public Works is preparing an ordinance to require the screening of dumpsters and toters. She stated that right now services are being focused only on Penn Street and other areas may be considered.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested holding two (2) meetings on the same day at different times to accommodate the schedules of multiple business owners and starting a block captain program to help with the coordination of various issues.

    Ms. Reed agreed with the coordination of landscaping with Alvernia but stressed the need to maintain the landscaping through weeding and other maintenance. She inquired about the reuse of the DID website.

    Ms. Castner stated that IT dismantled the former DID website and the GRCA has taken over the Destination Downtown handle.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that it is good to see City work groups coming together to coordinate services for the downtown. She inquired if there will be a uniformed presence as the Ambassadors provided.

    Ms. Castner stated that in place of uniforms those performing downtown DID services will wear RHS Basketball State Champs shirts.

    Ms. Sihelnik stated that this discussion has gone past the suggested time allotment and she asked Council to submit their remaining questions and comments in writing. She noted that the number of City employees working together to replicate the DID services greatly exceeds the number of DID employees. She inquired how the dissolution of DID will impact the City’s exit from Act 47 and if the administration is considering a public-private partnership in place of the DID Authority.

    Mr. Waltman thanked Ms. Castner for her report.

  2. Police Promotion Requirements

    Chief Tornielli explained that the Department is seeking an amendment to the current civil service process for the eligibility requirements for the rank of Captain as follows:

    A. An applicant desiring to take the test for the position of captain shall be a sergeant lieutenant who has held that position for at least five years prior to the closing date fixed by the Civil Service Board for the receipt of applications or a lieutenant who has a combination of at least five years of experience between the rank of sergeant and lieutenant with at least two years in patrol as a sergeant or lieutenant at least five years in the position of sergeant and/or lieutenant prior to the closing date fixed by the Civil Service Board for the receipt of applications.

    Chief Tornielli stated that the Department would also like to eliminate the civil service bonus credits applied to those with college credits for all promotional ranks (Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain). He explained that awarding additional points for college credits can allow those with substandard test scores to inappropriately jump ahead of more qualified candidates who scored better on the written and oral tests geared around Department policy and practice across a broad spectrum. He stated that college credit points are not used in other municipalities or the State Police. The Chief explained that applying college credits can be somewhat discriminatory as not all individuals have the financial ability to attend college.

    Chief Tornielli explained that the Department would also like to amend the experience required for a Captain. Currently any Sergeant can apply for a promotion to Captain without the need to have any supervisory experience. Requiring an applicant to have five (5) years of experience as a Lieutenant with at least two (2) years in the Patrol Division as either a Sergeant or Lieutenant ensures that the candidate will have supervisory experience and be a more seasoned professional.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz expressed the belief that the college credit points should remain in place. She questioned the percentage of current officers who have college credits and the percentage of those who do not. Chief Tornielli stated that he is collecting that data for next Monday’s COW. He stated that after reviewing the procedures used by other municipalities the amendments introduced represent best practices to obtain the best qualified candidates. He explained that use of the civil service process ensures a fair process to attract and retain the best talent.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that she can see both sides of this issue. She noted her personal and professional growth when she earned her Master’s Degree. She suggested replacing the college credits points with an incentive program that can encourage officers to seek a college degree. T

    he Chief stated that while he agrees with the concept, the Act 47 process will prevent this initiative for a few years.

    Ms. Reed stated that she also sees both sides of this issue. She noted that a Journalism career works in the same way; an applicant can have a degree; however, experience is more highly valued.

    Chief Tornielli explained that the civil service process is overseen by the Civil Service Board to ensure that it is fair. The Human Resources Department has no role in the firing or promotional process for fire or police and in any part of the civil service process.

    Ms. Sihelnik questioned the Department’s recruitment and leadership development process. The Chief explained that the Department’s hiring recruitment is very broad and includes higher educational institutions that offer criminal justice and other related degrees. He also explained the vast opportunities for officers to serve the Department in various capacities, including leadership coursework at Penn State and the State Police, to increase their experience levels.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested allowing points for continuing education coursework, rather than for college credits.

    The Chief explained that it would be difficult for the Civil Service Board to quantify the value of the various levels of course work and assign points accordingly.

    Mr. Waltman noted that the function of an officer is constantly changing and that there is much learned from on the job experience and from encountering various situations, from applying the proper resolution to an encountered situation to community service.

    Mr. Marmarou expressed the belief that the value of experience outweighs college attendance.

  3. Panhandling and Loitering Ordinance Revision

    Ms. Reed thanked those who helped move this issue forward. She noted her frustration that this issue took such a long arduous path.

    Chief Tornielli reported that the ordinance is now a diversionary program with Hope Rescue Mission assisting with the psychological assessments and administering the community service component. He noted the need to have a monetary fine component in place if the charged individual does not wish to use the community service opportunity.

    Sergeant Fegely explained how the Hope Rescue Mission will coordinate the community service component, noting that it is an expansion of their current programs. He explained the need to define what will take place if the person assigned to community service fails to follow through.

    Mr. Marmarou noted the need for this ordinance to be applied throughout the City, and not only in the downtown.

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that she attended the virtual meeting with the DA about this ordinance and she agreed with the need for a penalty to be applied if the community service component is not completed. She explained that the DA liked the diversionary approach used in the ordinance.

    Ms. Sihelnik noted her appreciation for the due diligence taken with this ordinance and she questioned if the language is duplicative of other laws.

    Chief Tornielli explained that this ordinance provides officers with a tool when none of the other existing laws can address the issue at hand. He noted that this ordinance is a tool the officers can use under specific conditions.

    Ms. Kelleher explained that this is not a new ordinance, but an amendment to City Code Chapter 353 Loitering; Obstructing Public Places and applyies language similar to that used in Lancaster and Harrisburg. She noted that the current Loitering law has been deemed unconstitutional and the new language has been proven through use in Lancaster and Harrisburg. She noted that in February, Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested having the ordinance reviewed by the CJAB, which opened the door for review by the DA. At the meeting with the DA, Mr. Adams said several times that the police need this tool and that he liked that the ordinance used a diversionary approach. He suggested eliminating the possibility of a prison sentence from the 3rd violation. That language was stricken as the DA suggested.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested organizing and obtaining MOUs with multiple social service providers to expand the availability of services.

    Ms. Reed recalled a prior discussion where the Chief conveyed how difficult it is to connect with the majority of social service providers in the middle of the night.

    The Chief agreed, noting that this diversionary approach is very different from other types of point of contact handoffs. He asked Mr. Lachat if MOUs with other agencies are required for the diversion program.

    Mr. Lachat expressed the belief that an MOU is unnecessary, as this arrangement is required by the draft ordinance.

    The Chief noted that the officers are required to issue citations on the behavior they encounter. The panhandling and loitering diversionary program is specific to an individual situation that does not fit into another box. He added that if enacted, the officers will be trained on the ordinance and the diversionary approach.

  4. Other

    Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the need to change the various signage at the Pagoda to include the legal citations to the applicable ordinances.

    Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz congratulated the administration for the installation of the new double-sided electronic sign on the Penn Street Bridge. She also noted the gun buyback program scheduled for this Saturday.

    Ms. Sihelnik encouraged everyone to participate in the Earth Week activities.

    Ms. Reed noted the planned April 30th Arbor Day activities. She noted that she learned at the Shade Tree Commission meeting that the recent increase in the cost of the no parking signs caused problems for the companies who need no parking signs to assist the City with tree planting, trimming etc. She suggested taking a new look at this issue.

    Council went into executive session about litigation, as per PA Sunshine Act Title 65 § 708. Executive Sessions (a) 4 at 6:33 pm. The seven (7) members of Council present, Mr. McLaughlin, Mr. Patchen, Mr. Lachat, Mr. Denbowski, Chief Stoudt, Ms. Kelleher and Ms. Smith attended. The session concluded at approximately 7:20 pm and the meeting adjourned.

Respectfully Submitted by
Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk