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CITY COUNCIL

 

Committee of the Whole Summary 07/12/21

 

 

COMMITTEE of the WHOLE

CITY COUNCIL

SUMMARY

July 12, 2021

5:00 P.M.

Hybrid Meeting

 

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C
OUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:

D. Reed, J. Waltman, M. Ventura, S. Marmarou, L. Sihelnik (in person), J. Cepeda-Freytiz (electronically)
 

OTHERS PRESENT:

L. Kelleher (in person), S. Smith, J. Kelly, A. LaMano, M. Rodriguez, M. Gombar, S. Rugis, F. Denbowski, J. Abodalo, J. Long, M. Oppenheimer, R. Tornielli, J. Stoudt, A. Acevedo, N. Rivera (all electronically)
 

The meeting was called to order at 5:09 pm by Mr. Waltman.  Due to COVID-19, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting. 
 

I. Charter Amendment requiring Council to employ its own Solicitor
 

Mr. Waltman stated that he disagrees with the Charter Board advisory opinion that the City will now have two chief advisors.  He noted the need for Mr. Gombar to provide his interpretation of the advisory opinion.  He stated that Council will then meet with Mr. Gombar to assist Council with the onboarding process.  He noted the need to fully understand the amendment to prepare the 2022 Council / City Clerk budget.
 

Mr. Gombar thanked Council for the opportunity to work with them.  He questioned his role. 

Mr. Waltman stated that he is unsure until Mr. Gombar reviews the advisory opinion.He stated that once the process is finalized, Mr. Gombar is welcome to apply for the position. He stated that at this time, Mr. Gombar’s legal opinion and guidance are needed.
 

Mr. Gombar stated that he reviewed the information provided by Ms. Kelleher.  He expressed the belief that the Charter amendment is unclear.  He stated that he has not yet reviewed the advisory opinion.
 

Mr. Waltman noted the need to understand the role of the Council Solicitor.
 

Ms. Reed stated that a clear chain of command is needed.
 

Mr. Waltman explained that there is currently one City Solicitor.  The Charter Board’s advisory opinion indicates that the City would now have two Solicitors.  He stated that he will also share his questions via email to Mr. Gombar.
 

Ms. Sihelnik expressed the belief that the Council Solicitor should be the chief advisor to Council and not create a second City Solicitor.  She stated that there are differing interpretations of the referendum question and clarity is needed.
 

Mr. Gombar stated that he will review the advisory opinion and the Charter.  He stated that before reading the advisory opinion he believes that the referendum question does not change the role of City Solicitor being the one chief legal advisor.  He expressed the belief that the Council Solicitor would address legislative issues, issues where there is conflict and assist the City Solicitor as directed by Council.  He agreed that the referendum question is vague and expressed the belief that this provides Council with much discretion.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that there will be deeper questions once Mr. Gombar has reviewed the advisory opinion and provides his opinion on the referendum question. 
 

Ms. Sihelnik stated that Council also needs advice on the framework of the position.  She noted the need for a model and a process for onboarding.  She stated that Ms. Kelleher has provided Council with information about Bethlehem Council’s Solicitor and questioned if there may be others.
 

Ms. Reed expressed the belief that the advisory opinion states that the City Solicitor no longer represents Council and is not Council’s legal representative.  She questioned who Councilors would approach with questions.  She also questioned if it would be a Charter violation if a Councilor worked with the City Solicitor rather than the Council Solicitor.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that there is one Reading and there should be one overall Solicitor.
 

Ms. Reed expressed the belief that there will be problems either way.  She stated that there will also be confidentiality issues.  She also noted the need to understand where the position fits in the governmental structure and how the person will be paid.
 

Mr. Marmarou also noted the need to understand how the person will be paid.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that he sent the Council / City Clerk budget worksheet to Council staff today.  He noted the need to include this expense when the worksheet is returned.
 

Mr. Marmarou stated that he disagrees with the advisory opinion.  Mr. Gombar requested time to review the advisory opinion before providing additional information.  He expressed the belief that having two Solicitors is duplicative.
 

Ms. Sihelnik agreed with the need to avoid duplication.  She suggested that the Council Solicitor provide the Law Office with additional support as needed to fill gaps in personnel and expertise.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that Council has used its own Solicitor during times of conflict and when special knowledge was required.  He stated that this is how he perceived the referendum question until the advisory opinion was received.  He expressed the belief that there is one City with one liability and there should be one City Solicitor.
 

Mr. Gombar stated that the Charter allowed Council to have its own Solicitor during times of conflict.  He stated that the amendment now adds a new distinction and it must be determined how to move forward.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that Council was handcuffed by former Administrations when trying to obtain its own Solicitor for conflict situations.  He noted his understanding that the amendment would remove those roadblocks.
 

Ms. Sihelnik expressed the belief that discussing the funding of this position during the budget process would add transparency.
 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz insisted that Council explore creating a policy that the City Solicitor must be neutral and do what is best for the City overall.  She stated that the Mayor and Council should be equally informed about issues and that the opinions of all branches of government matter.  She expressed the belief that the City Solicitor does not only work for the Mayor but represents the entire City, including all elected officials.  She noted the need for equal treatment and information to all parties.  She stated that the past conflicts were created when officials disagreed.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that the referendum does not change the role of the City Solicitor.  He again expressed the belief that there is one City and there should be one legal advisor with one voice.  He expressed the belief that 90% of the work will continue to be done by the City Solicitor.  He noted the need for a starting point and re-evaluation after the Council Solicitor is on board.
 

Ms. Reed questioned if an RFP would be done to fill the position.  Ms. Kelleher stated that an RFP was done in 2019 and those who responded have already been approved.
 

Ms. Reed suggested a new RFP with more specifics and updated information.
 

Mr. Waltman noted the need to discuss this after Council’s initial questions are answered.
 

Ms. Rodriguez questioned if there was any way that the Auditor could assist in the process and whether or not the Council Solicitor would also assist the Auditor.  Mr. Waltman stated that it is not yet known if the Council Solicitor could also assist the Auditor.  He suggested that Ms. Rodriguez continue working with the City Solicitor at this time.
 

Mr. Gombar stated that he understands what Council needs at this time.  He stated he will get to work and get an opinion to Council as soon as possible.  He questioned if he is needed for this evening’s executive session. 

Mr. Waltman stated that Mr. Gombar is not needed for the executive session.
 

II.      Policy on Use and Approval of American Rescue Plan (ARP) Funding

Mr. Denbowski stated that he sent additional information to Council this afternoon via email.  He reviewed a brief power point presentation.  He explained that the City may need to hire a consultant to assist with the monitoring requirements.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the funding has limited uses due to the eligibility requirements. He stated that some entities have already been funded by other government programs and he was unsure how much of the funding the City will be able to use.  He stated that he will review the guidelines and questioned if a preliminary plan is being drafted.  Mr. Denbowski and Mr. Kelly stated that a preliminary plan is being drafted.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that ARP funds can be used as a revenue replacement.  He stated that the City will be receiving advice from PFM later this week.  He stated that the census tract where the new 9th & Marion fire station will be built is considered distressed and the construction expenses are eligible.  He stated that the City can be creative.  He stated that the ARP budget will be managed similarly but separately from the traditional budget and that Herbein and PFM agree with this approach.  He stated that this will also assist with the reporting requirements.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the City will be subletting some of the funding.  He noted the need for Council approval of every dollar spent.  He noted the need for the City to spend the funds carefully.
 

Ms. Reed agreed with Mr. Waltman.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that there will be more firm guidelines released in September. 
Mr. Kelly agreed.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that the funding is set up so that the City can be a conduit to the needs of the community.
 

Mr. Denbowski stated that the Administration will choose projects that have a large impact.  He expressed the belief that all project costs will be above the $35,000 threshold needing Council approval.  He stressed that ARP funds are not part of the separate infrastructure funding currently being discussed by Congress.  He expressed the belief that there is a large amount of cross messaging.
 

Ms. Sihelnik questioned how the public will participate in the process. 

Mr. Denbowski agreed that community input is critical.  He stated that Reading will use a survey and will also be holding town hall meetings.  He expressed the belief that it will be similar to the CDBG process but that has not yet been finalized.
 

Mr. Rugis stated that the City just had a large email issue and the broadband funding is very important.  He stated that funding should be used to expand broadband capacity to more residents.  He noted the need to work with the School District and the County to improve the overall community.
 

Mr. Denbowski agreed with the need for coordinated community initiatives.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that community input will be gathered at the town hall meetings.  He stated that projects will be thoroughly vetted.  He expressed the belief that broadband alone will cost millions of dollars.  He stated that this RFP will include the need for public access.
 

Mr. Rugis agreed with Mr. Kelly and stated that there are also several water and sewer needs that could use the entire amount.  He noted the need to be strategic and work as a team.
 

Mr. Waltman encouraged all Councilors to become familiar with the funding guidelines.
 

Mr. Rugis stated that other Mayors are also discussing how to use their funding.  He expressed the belief that Reading’s plan is becoming focused and that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
 

Ms. Sihelnik agreed with the need for PFM’s opinion on spending.  She questioned if the Administration had an internal baseline since the guidelines are ambiguous.  She questioned if the Comprehensive Plan, Downtown Plan, etc would be used to guide projects forward.
 

Mr. Denbowski stated that he provided the rubric that is being finalized to guide priority projects to Council.
 

Mr. Kelly expressed the belief that the City plan will be well thought through.  He stated that ARP funding will allow the implementation of the Downtown Plan and ways to address blight.  He noted the need to address the disparities created by the pandemic.  He suggested that a program could be set up with Community First Fund to revitalize businesses.
 

Mr. Rivera stated that the Mayor is excited about the Downtown Plan but he is committed to using ARP funding throughout all Reading neighborhoods.  He stated that the town hall meetings will begin in August.  He noted the need to address current concerns and how to prevent another pandemic situation in the future. 
 

Mr. Waltman stated that he likes what he is hearing.
 

Ms. Reed noted the need for legislation requiring Council approval of all ARP spending. 

Mr. Waltman stated that Mr. Amoros has committed to not spending funding without Council approval.  He stated that this can be revisited after the update to the guidelines in September.  He noted the need to protect all officials. He expressed the belief that this process will be similar to CDBG funding and Council approval will be necessary.  He stated that gaps can be addressed in the near future.
 

Ms. Sihelnik requested a legal opinion on the need for Council approval of the use of ARP funds.  Ms. Reed agreed and stated that ARP funds are different from general fund spending.
 

Mr. Rugis noted the need for group buy-in of projects in other municipalities that benefit the entire community.  He suggested that special legislation does not need to be created around this spending.  He expressed the belief that Reading already has strict spending limits and that Council will see how every dollar will be spent.  He again noted the need for group consensus on projects.
 

Mr. Marmarou cautioned the use of the funds.  He stated that many loans that the City made in the past were never repaid.  He noted the need to be sure that the City gets this money back.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that if the final guidelines have spending requirements similar to CDBG the processes are already in place.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that spending will be reviewed by PFM and he is unsure why Council feels the need for additional legislation.  He stressed that this will not be used as walking around money and the City will not be giving the funding away without deep vetting.
 

Mr. Waltman reviewed the CDBG process including the need to apply for funding, the public hearing and the Administrative reviews.  He stated that Council approval is needed for CDBG programming.  He expressed the belief that some organizations may have more capacity to move projects forward than the City does.  He noted the need for checks and balances and to avoid the perception of walking around money.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that any sub-recipient must follow the same federal guidelines. 
 

Mr. Marmarou again noted that the City did not receive payment of loans in the past.  Mr. Waltman stated that those were HUD loans and do not apply in this situation.
 

Ms. Rodriguez questioned when she and Council would receive the preliminary plan for review.  She expressed the belief that seeing the plan would answer many questions.
 

Mr. Kelly stated that the budget process has begun and draft worksheets must be submitted by August 6.  He stated that the Mayor will review the budget and make adjustments in September and it will be presented to Council on October 1.
 

Mr. Rugis explained that Ms. Rodriguez has been included in some meetings with third parties.  He stated that there is transparency and that the 2022 general fund budget will not include ARP funding but will be two separate spending plans.  He expressed the belief that Public Works could spend all the ARP funds and still have unfinished projects. 
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the Administration is moving in the right direction.  He requested the draft ARP spending plan for Council input.  He noted that spending controls are in place for check and balance issues. 
 

Mr. Waltman questioned if the guidelines for State and County funding are the same as the municipal guidelines.  Ms. Kelleher stated that they are the same.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that he will speak with the Mayor about how to request additional funds, as needed, from the State and County on shared projects.  He suggested that this topic be discussed again in two weeks.
 

III.    Agenda Review

Council reviewed this evening’s agenda including the following:

  • Public Comment

Ms. Kelleher stated that two people have submitted written comment on the Stadium issue.  Ms. Reed stated that she will read the comments.

  • Resolution authorizing the purchase of Class 8 Lifting Equipment for Public Works from Hyde Villa Auto Parts in the amount of $54,300

Mr. Rugis stated that this equipment is for normal operational needs. 

  • Resolution authorizing the submission of a PA DCED Commonwealth Financing Authority Multimodal Transportation Fund Program grant application for the 18W Bicycle Pedestrian Safety Trail Project Layer 2

Ms. Sihelnik stated that she is grateful that this project is moving forward.  She stated that ground breaking has begun and questioned the amount of the grant.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the grant request is $1.4 million.

Mr. Rugis thanked Mr. Krall and Ms. DeGroote for their work on this project.

  • Award of Contract for the purchase of 6 Police Patrol vehicles and 1 K-9 vehicle from New Holland Auto Group, a CoStars vendor, at the cost of $348,765 from the CIP Fund

Police Chief Tornielli stated that this is the annual purchase.  He stated that these vehicles have a 3-4 year life cycle.

Ms. Ventura questioned if these are replacement vehicles or additional vehicles being added to the fleet.  Chief Tornielli stated that they are replacement vehicles.  He stated that vehicles are rotated off the front line and replaced by new vehicles.  He stated that the 2nd line vehicles are used at the Academy for training or are taken out of service due to the vehicle’s condition.

  • Award of Contract for the purchase of 1 Police Evidence vehicle from Whitmoyer Ford Inc, a CoStars vendor, at the cost of $46,750 from the CIP Fund

Mr. Waltman questioned the age of the current evidence vehicle.  Chief Tornielli stated that the current vehicle is at least ten years old.
 

Ms. Kelleher corrected her statement about public comment and stated that one person is scheduled to read their written comment live.

  • Ordinance amending the City Code by adding a new Chapter 433 Public Art and to establish a process for the City to consider public art projects that will effectively enliven neighborhoods and create outcomes such as safety, livability, walkability, health, and economic development in City neighborhoods

Ms. Reed noted the need to table this ordinance for additional discussion and modifications.
 

Mr. Stock joined the meeting at this time.
 

Mr. Waltman suggested that the work group get comment from Mr. Denbowski and Mr. Abodalo.

  • Ordinance amending Administrative Code Section 5-208 Rules of Procedure by defining a quorum and remote participation at meetings

Mr. Waltman stated that this would formalize additional procedures. 
 

Ms. Ventura questioned if this would allow Councilors to join remotely at any time.  Ms. Kelleher stated that as drafted it would allow each Councilor to join remotely at any time for Committee of the Whole meetings and up to four times per year for regular business meetings.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that exceptions can be made as needed for specific circumstances. 
 

Ms. Sihelnik suggested additional discussions to vet the process. 
 

Mr. Waltman stated that COVID-19 is surging again.  He stated that this process would be outside any health or safety issue.

  • Ordinance amending Administrative Code Section 5-209 Public Participation by providing citizens with the ability to continue to submit written public comment

Mr. Waltman stated that Council supports this amendment.

  • Ordinance establishing a No Parking Zone in the 200 block of Chestnut St to eliminate traffic concerns at the Remcon building

Mr. Waltman questioned who brought this forward.  Ms. Kelleher stated that it was brought forward by Public Works.
 

Mr. Waltman questioned the number of lost spaces. 

Mr. Rugis stated that it is three spaces.  He stated that the large trucks currently have problems maneuvering the loading zone when vehicles are parked in these spaces. 

  • Ordinance directing the County Board of Elections to place a referendum on the 2021 General Election Ballot to eliminate Charter Section 1110 Recall of Elected Officials as the State Supreme Court has determined that local recall provisions are unconstitutional due to the impeachment process provided in the State Constitution

Mr. Waltman stated that this is a clean-up item.

  • Ordinance directing the County Board of Elections to place a referendum on the 2021 General Election Ballot to amend Charter Section 1204 with the correct citation to State Statute Title 53, Subchapter C Amendment of Existing Charter or Optional Plan 9 through the County Board of Elections and with the current citation to the existing Home Rule Charter requirements

Ms. Kelleher stated that this corrects the Charter amendment process.  She stated that both residents and the Charter Review Commission must use the Board of Elections process and this will remove confusion about which process to follow.
 

Mr. Waltman agreed that this will help clarify the process.
 

Ms. Reed questioned why the Charter amendment to remove the need for the Public Works Director to be an engineer is not included on the agenda. 

Ms. Kelleher stated that Mr. Amoros requested additional conversation with Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz before it moves forward.
 

Ms. Reed stated that the general election ballot deadline will be missed if this is not introduced this evening.
 

Mr. Waltman suggested that it be added to this evening’s agenda. 

Ms. Kelleher reminded all of the new State law prohibiting items being added to an agenda without public knowledge unless the item is de minimus. 
 

Mr. Waltman stated that if the deadline is missed for the general election the question can be placed on the primary ballot.
 

Ms. Sihelnik agreed with Mr. Waltman and noted the need for Administrative support of any Charter amendment.
 

Mr. Waltman suggested it be introduced when Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz returns from vacation.

Ms. Reed stated that is too late to meet the August deadline for the general election ballot.
 

Mr. Waltman questioned the deadline date.  Ms. Kelleher stated that she will confirm the exact date.
 

Mr. Denbowski stated that he has messaged Mr. Amoros but has not had a response.  He stated that he has no knowledge of a conversation and ill not speculate.
 

Ms. Reed suggested holding a special meeting next week to introduce this Charter amendment.  She stated that she will prepare the legislation if Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz or Mr. Amoros have not done so.
 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who made this request.  
 

Ms. Reed stated that Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz brought this forward.  She stated that the Administration requested additional review but expressed the belief that this should move forward.
 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that the first time she heard of this need was last week when it was approached by Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz.  She questioned the background and the reason it is needed.
 

Ms. Reed stated that Public Works Director candidates have not been attracted due to the engineering requirement.  She stated that there are other employees who are engineers and that they should be handling the engineering work.  She expressed the belief that the Director should have managerial skills instead and this will help attract candidates for this vacant position.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that this had been discussed in the past.  He noted the need for Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz and Mr. Amoros to speak.  He stated that a special meeting will be held if necessary. 

  • Resolution making a $3 million commitment to the First Energy Stadium project, contingent on the approval of funding from Berks County, State of PA, and Fightin Phils

Mr. Waltman stated that this has been extensively discussed.
 

Ms. Ventura questioned how the project would be funded. 
 

Mr. Waltman stated that there are several options including ARP funds, capital funds and general funds.  He stated that this is a commitment now and the funding will be worked out.
 

Mr. Kelly agreed with Mr. Waltman.  He stated that the City has flexibility.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the players need better facilities.  He stated that many cities are actively trying to get teams.
 

Mr. Marmarou stated that there may be other funding available for the stadium project in the future.
 

Mr. Waltman stated that there have been operational losses due to COVID. 
 

Mr. Marmarou stated that additional federal funding may be available.
 

Mr. Waltman noted the need for the City to continue to support the Phils and improve the facility.
 

Ms. Sihelnik questioned if the City could set new parameters via a task force including additional community organizational uses of the facilities.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the Phils already go beyond what is required of them.
 

Ms. Reed expressed the belief that after the improvements are complete the venue can be used during all four seasons.
 

Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that this project will be a catalyst for the Phils to do more for the community.  

Ms. Reed agreed.
 

IV.    Executive Session

The six members of Council, Ms. Kelleher, Ms. Smith, Mr. Stock, Mr. Lachat, Ms. Rodriguez, Mr. Kelly, Ms. LaMano, Mr. Rugis, Mr. Denbowski, Mr. Rivera, and Chief Tornielli remained in the meeting.
 

Council entered into executive session at 6:38 pm to discuss the recycling litigation and Schlegel Park Pool. 
 

Council exited executive session and the meeting adjourned at 7:06 pm.
 

Respectfully Submitted by

Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk