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CITY COUNCIL



 

Committee of the Whole Summary 07/26/21



COMMITTEE of the WHOLE

CITY COUNCIL

 

SUMMARY

July 26, 2021

5:00 P.M.

Hybrid Meeting

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COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:

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

 

OTHERS PRESENT:

L. Kelleher and J. Long (in person), J. Kelly, F. Lachat, M. Rodriguez, M. Gombar, S. Rugis, F. Denbowski, N. Rivera, R. Tornielli, J. Stoudt, A. Acevedo, D. Farrar,  N. Matz, M. Felix Espada (all electronically)

 

The meeting was called to order at 5:04 pm by Mr. Waltman.  Due to COVID-19, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting.  The public can observe the meeting by using the meeting link on the agenda or by watching on Facebook Live, the BCTV MAC Channel 99 or on the City’s website.

 

I.         Charter Amendment requiring Council to employ its own Solicitor

Mr. Waltman asked Mr. Gombar to review the memo he provided on Saturday regarding the Charter Board Advisory Opinion #54.

 

Mr. Gombar stated that the opinion is advisory only. He stated that the opinion is not binding and it does not amend the Charter.  He stated that while the Charter Board’s opinion expresses the belief that the charter amendment to create the position of Council Solicitor also amends Charter Section 801 Qualifications and Responsibilities of the City Solicitor and eliminates the Solicitor as the City’s chief legal advisor, he disagrees. He noted that the plain language of the question proposed, the simple explanation and the amended language have no impact on Charter Section 801. He noted that the report of the Charter Review Commission specifically states that the Council Solicitor is advisory, as follows:

 

“The Commission proposed, by a vote of 5-4 at its November 21 meeting, amending the Charter by adding §226 to authorize City Council to hire a Council Solicitor to advise Council on matters of law, whose compensation would be fixed by Council and who would be a City employee in all other respects. The Council Solicitor would advise and not represent the City. The amendment would be in accordance with the doctrine of the Separation of Powers by allowing the interests of the Legislative Branch to be represented as a check on the Executive Branch by a Solicitor independent of the City Solicitor.”

 

Mr. Gombar expressed the belief that the opinion, if followed, would have unintended results that are not in the best interests of the City, as it would put the City, as an institution, in an compromising situation for governance purposes. It would promote a budgetary strain by creating an arguably duplicative position that would require compensation of a higher than necessary amount for the position. He recommended creating the position using the plain language used in the amendment approved by the electorate.

 

Ms. Sihelnik and Ms. Goodman thanked Mr. Gombar for advising Council on this issue.

 

Ms. Reed questioned the likelihood that a Charter Board complaint could be filed if Council does not follow the letter of the Charter Board Opinion.  Mr. Gombar stated that the issue is murky and someone could raise a complaint; however, he expressed the belief that as the amendment does not specifically move to amend Charter Section 801 or address the role of the City Solicitor as the chief legal advisor, City Council should create the position using the plain language proposed in the referendum.  He added that Charter Section 1204 lists the four (4) ways in which the Charter can be amended and a Charter Board Advisory Opinion is not one of the four.

 

Mr. Gombar explained that Council can define the scope of services to be provided by the Council Solicitor as long as they do not run afoul of the any Charter language.  He stated that while Council can choose to have the Council Solicitor attend City Council business and committee meetings, Council will need to use the services of the Council Solicitor when holding hearings, when acting in a quasi-judicial or adjudicative manner or matters that are not legislative in nature.  He again noted that Council is free to define the role of the Council Solicitor position and he suggested developing protocols.

 

Mr. Waltman asked Ms. Kelleher and Mr. Gombar to prepare a draft scope of services that Council can consider in a week or two.

 

Ms. Reed inquired about the confidentiality of the Council Solicitor.  Mr. Gombar stated that the Council Solicitor will be the employee of City Council, making City Council the client of the Council Solicitor and therefore, attorney/client would apply.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired if the position will be fulltime or part-time.  Mr. Gombar stated that the amendment does not provide that definition, so Council can make that determination when the scope of service is developed.  However, he expressed the belief that there will be enough work to make this a fulltime position and it would be best to have a negotiated hourly rate or flat retainer/stipend.

 

Mr. Gombar expressed the belief that the creation of the Council Solicitor will eliminate the need for Council to outsource for legal services about various issues. He stated that in his report he provides a starter list of for this position:

  • Advise City Council on matters of law (including its legislative functions) or other issues that are referred from time to time;
  • Attend meetings of City Council as directed;
  • Attend and advise City Council at conditional use and other adjudicative hearings;
  • Advise City Council on matters where a conflict exists with the Administration and/or the City Solicitor; and
  • Assist the City Solicitor on legal matters where assistance is requested by the City Solicitor and approved by City Council.

 

Mr. Waltman stated that Council can review the draft scope of services and develop the Council protocol within a week or two. He thanked Mr. Gombar for his assistance.

 

Due some internet connection problems, the meeting was recessed, Zoom was rebooted and the meeting was reconvened. Mr. Gombar disconnected from the meeting.

 

II. Parking Meters in the 200 & 300 blocks of North 9th Street

Mr. Waltman stated that Madellin Felix Espada was invited to participate in the discussion about the neighborhood issues created through the recent installation of parking meters in the 200 and 300 blocks of North 9th Street.

 

Ms. Espada stated that the parking meters were installed on June 1 of this year and immediately neighborhood issues began with arguments, etc.  She stated that instantly, residential parking became scarce and created the need for residents to park 3-4 blocks away.  The need to continually pay for the two-hour meters is difficult for residents to manage financially and often when a meter payment is delayed, tickets get issued, creating additional financial stress on residents. She stated that when approached, Parking Enforcement Officers (PEOs) are argumentative.

 

Mr. Matz apologized for the times PEOs had bad attitudes or acted inappropriately and he explained how to file a complaint.  He noted that parking is a city-wide problem.  He stated that the double parking is a huge problem in these blocks of North 9th Street, due to the mixed use properties.  Those residing in the upper floors of properties are taking the parking away from the 1st floor businesses, creating the need for business patrons to double park. He added that the need for meters was initially explored due to complaints from the 1st floor businesses about the lack of parking for their patrons, which creates the public safety issues caused by double parking.

 

Mr. Matz stated that other than Ms. Espada, the Parking Authority has only had one other person from the 300 block complain about the hardship created by the meters and that person decided to park at a garage for $39 a month, which is much less than the commercial day-rate.  He explained that others could also use this option. He added that the Authority is attempting to purchase a lot in the next block that will provide 40 residential parking spaces.  He noted that there is no silver bullet to fix all parking problems in a dense metropolitan environment.

 

Mr. Matz stated that he reviewed the tickets issued for double parking, parking overtime at meters and parking illegally in loading zones and found the following:

 

                                    Double Parking                          Parking Overtime at Meters                    

            200 block        5 tickets per month                         70 tickets (since June 1st)

            300 block       1.5 tickets per month                       62 tickets (since June 1st)

 

Mr. Matz stated that 40-65 tickets were issued in both blocks for vehicles parking illegally in loading zones since the spaces were changed to metered spaces. He noted that the Authority now employs 19 PEOs and that is still an insufficient number of employees to enforce parking consistently on a city-wide basis. 

 

Ms. Ventura inquired about how the public can be made aware of the availability of garage parking.  Mr. Matz stated that all Parking Authority garages and the rates are available on the Authority’s website. 

 

Mr. Matz noted that Ms. Espada could also circulate a petition in the neighborhood for a residential parking permit, noting that the meter enforcement would remain in place from 8 am to 6 pm. He stated that the petition can be obtained from the Authority office.

 

Ms. Sihelnik inquired about the capacity at the garages.  Mr. Matz stated that the Desman report distributed and discussed a week ago shows that the parking garages are currently operating at only 25% occupancy, creating a parking opportunity for 44,000 vehicles. He explained that the area surface lots are more in demand and there is generally a waiting list to get on these lots.

 

Council began a discussion on this issue and potential outcomes.  Mr. Matz suggested that Ms. Espada and others complete the survey being prepared by Desman so possible solutions can be identified. 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that most people look to find the closest, quickest parking space when arriving home and they are sometimes willing to take risks to avoid moving to a space further away.  She suggested holding neighborhood meetings, to encourage dialogue amongst neighbors about parking issues.

 

Ms. Reed expressed the belief that this is a lopsided issue, as the people residing in these blocks cannot afford the additional financial stress of plugging meters and paying parking fines.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired about the availability of rear parking and she also noted the problem created by having multiple people residing in units that have multiple vehicles.

 

Mr. Waltman asked Ms. Kelleher to send Ms. Espada the contact information for Mr. Matz so she can discuss options with him.

 

III.      Fire Escrow Audit

Ms. Rodriguez explained that an audit of these funds occurred for 2020.  There are two ordinances play:

  • Bill No. 6-95 - The Insurer shall transfer from the insurance Proceeds to the Municipal Office the aggregate of $2,000.00 for each $15,000.00 of a claim
  • Bill No.32,-2013 – allowing the City to fix reasonable fees to be charged for municipal activities and services provided pursuant to this part; including but not limited to, issuance of certificates and bills, performance of inspections and opening separate fund accounts.

Ms. Rodriguez stated that the audit showed funds held in escrow for approximately 72 properties.  There is one property from 1999 and several others are from 2004-13.  The majority are from 2014-20.  She stated that the City’s total liability is $766,883.44

 

 

Fire Escrow Liability Aging

 

Years of Receipts Aging

12/31/19 Balance

Current Year Receipts

Current Year Payments

12/31/20 Balance

 % as of 12/31/20

2010 & Prior

212,536.85

(42,594.83)

169,942.02

22.2%

2011-2015

192,931.93

0.00

192,931.93

25.1%

2016

87,153.00

0.00

87,153.00

11.4%

2017

60,707.77

(10,368.66)

50,339.11

6.6%

2018

65,452.08

(4,600.00)

60,852.08

7.9%

2019

111,125.38

(37,565.09)

73,560.29

9.6%

2020

0.00

142,388.83

(10,283.82)

132,105.01

17.2%

TOTALS

729,907.01

142,388.83

(105,412.40)

766,883.44

100.0%

 

Mr. Kelly explained that when a fire occurs at a property with fire insurance, $2,000 for each $15,000 of a claim is held in escrow by the City.  This amount can be returned to the property owner after the property is rehabbed or demolished and inspected by the Building Inspector.

 

Mr. Kelly explained the outreach that occurred to attempt to connect with the property owners but due to the age of the escrow payment contact information was unavailable.  He suggested applying an amnesty period where a property owner can claim the escrow funds and any remain funds would go into escheat and be sent to the PA Treasurer. He noted that the City can use any unclaimed funds to satisfy liens on the property.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz explained her understanding of the Fire Escrow Ordinance is to encourage the rehab of fire damaged properties and avoid having owners walk away from them.  Ms. Kelleher noted that the ordinance applies only to properties with property insurance.

 

Mr. Waltman asked Mr. Kelly to prepare an ordinance to authorize the amnesty plan and have it ready for introduction within the next two weeks.

 

III.    Agenda Review

Council reviewed this evening’s agenda including the following:

 

Public Comment

Ms. Kelleher stated that one person has registered and will call in on a non-agenda topic. 

 

            Consent Agenda

A. Resolution 71-2021 – authorizing the Managing Director to sign and submit the attached “Traffic signal Maintenance Agreement”, to submit future modifications to the attached Traffic Signal Maintenance Agreement, and to submit future Applications for Traffic Signal Approval to PennDOT    

B. Award of Contract for the Angelica Park ADA Improvements Project to Columbia Excavating, Berwick, PA in the amount of $162,986.21

 

Ms. Sihelnik noted the need to coordinate with the projects that are planned by Alvernia and Berks Nature in the park area.

 

C. Award of Contract for the Pagoda Access Modifications Project to close the Pagoda parking lot to vehicular traffic during nighttime hours and maintain two-way traffic on Skyline Drive to Barwis Construction, Birdsboro, PA in the amount of $160,344.00

Mr. Rugis explained that this project will assist in redirecting traffic out of the Pagoda parking lot during hours when the Pagoda area is closed.  He noted that the project came in under budget. He stated that to avoid conflicts with the hill climbs, construction is being delayed until after Labor Day. Construction is expected to take approximately 3-4 weeks. 

 

Mr. Rugis stated that the manual gates will be raised and lowered by the Police at dawn and dusk. He added that the security guards are still assisting with security issues at all the City parks, as assigned by the Police Department. He stated that this project and the purchase of the stakebody are funded through the CIP.

 

Mr. Waltman stated that while the City has tried many solutions to cure the partying at the Pagoda issue and restore tranquility to the area.  He expressed hope that this will be the final solution but noted if problems begin again a new solution will be identified.

 

D. Resolution 72-2021 appointing Donna Reed as the Council representative to the America250PA Berks County Commission

 

E. Resolution 73-2021 authorizing the purchase of a 1 stakebody with chassis for the Public Works Parks Division from Manderbach Ford in the amount of $85,034.84

 

            Ordinances for Final Passage

A. Ordinance 54-2021– 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 Introduced at the June 28 regular meeting; Advertised on July 5; Tabled at the July 12 regular meeting

 

Ms. Reed noted that the administration asked to have this ordinance tabled until the Stantec Downtown Plus report is provided. She suggested tabling the ordinance again. She stated that Ms. Kelleher did a great job researching this issue and developing the ordinance, policy and application that covers all bases and encourages community participation and getting input from the administration and external parties as the documents were being developed. 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested that as those on the review team have no art expertise two individuals experienced in the art field need to be added to ensure that the projects will last over time.  She noted the damage to some murals in the downtown area that were incorrectly applied.  Having the input of art professionals would ensure that the projects are properly executed.

 

Ms. Reed stated that while she understands the suggestion, it is unnecessary as these are not long-term installations.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested instead establishing an Arts Commission to oversee all types of projects.  Ms. Reed noted that this “place making” process is separate from Fine Arts installations, as those were sculptures and installations were meant to last forever.  Those installations were paid for by development projects located within Redevelopment Authority’s redevelopment areas (1% of the project cost). She stated that the Fine Arts board worked very well until it imploded during the McMahon administration.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested looking at other programs, like Philadelphia, to consider broader art installations.  She also suggested looking into why the Fine Arts board imploded.

 

Ms. Reed suggested not over complicating the issue, as this begins with short-term projects that are proposed by neighborhoods, organizations or individuals to brighten a specific area on a short-term basis.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that besides this ordinance, Council should consider evaluating the need for an Arts Commission similar to that used in Philadelphia moving forward.

 

Mr. Waltman questioned if the Youth Commission considered this ordinance.  He agreed that this ordinance encourages broad participation. 

 

Ms. Sihelnik stated that the Youth Commission reviewed this ordinance and the art in the downtown in June and they are interested in a project.  She agreed the need for a broader Arts Commission that could apply to a mural or a sculpture.  She also questioned the need for an ordinance as people are already doing art projects so why have something that interferes with something that is organically occurring.

 

Ms. Reed explained that the impetus for ordinance was the request for a rainbow crosswalk on Centre Avenue.  When the work group learned that decorative crosswalks were not permitted on streets within the State highway system, they began considering other applications and noted programs in other communities that encourage the creative crosswalks on locally owned roads, sidewalks, mural or banner projects initiated by individuals, neighborhoods or neighborhood organizations with assistance from an artist.  She explained that the policy includes various requirements to ensure that various regulations are followed, the project is maintained over a two year period of time, etc. The process is not punitive and it protects the City from costs related to the maintenance or removal of the project.

 

Mr. Waltman suggested moving forward with the ordinance and working on a longer term application separately.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz again noted the need for review committee members with an art point of view as various murals have been installed in the downtown that have not been properly maintained or installed so they last into the future.

 

Mr. Waltman stated that these projects are intended to last for two years only.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired how the City will ensure the project is maintained.  Applicants need to show they have the funding available to maintain and then remove the project.  The process works to protect the City from any expense.

 

Ms. Reed and Cepeda-Freytiz inquired if Stantec can provide an update on this within the next few weeks so the ordinance can be considered. Mr. Amoros stated that there is a meeting with Stantec this Thursday and he will inquire about their availability.

 

B. Bill 55-2021 – amending Administrative Code Section 5-208 Rules of Procedure by defining a quorum and remote participation at meetings Introduced at the July 12 regular meeting; Advertised July 19th

 

Ms. Kelleher stated that as drafted the amendment will allow each Councilor to join COW and other hearings/meetings remotely at any time and to participate remotely at regular meetings up to four times per year with the following exceptions:

(i) illness or disability of the member of council;

(ii) care for the ill or a child in the member's immediate family;

(iii) emergency or inclement weather; and

(iv) family or business travel; and

(v) schedule conflicts

 

C. Bill 56-2021 – amending Administrative Code Section 5-209 Public Participation by providing citizens with the ability to continue to submit written public comment Introduced at the July 12 regular meeting; Advertised July 19th

 

Ms. Kelleher explained that this amendment will allow the continuation of written public comment from the public during regular meetings.

 

D. Bill 57-2021 – establishing a No Parking Zone on the north side of the 200 block of Chestnut St to eliminate traffic concerns at the Remcon building Introduced at the July 12 regular meeting; Advertised July 19th

 

Mr. Rugis stated that this affects three parking 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 referendum will make a correction to the Charter.

 

E. Bill 58-2021 – 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 removal process for elected officials provided in the State Constitution Introduced at the July 12 regular meeting; Advertised July 19th

 

F. Bill 59-2021 – directing the County Board of Elections to place a referendum on the 2021 General Election Ballot to amend Charter Section 1204 Amendments by making the correct citation to State Statute Title 53, Subchapter C Amendment of Existing Charter or Optional Plan through the County Board of Elections Introduced at the July 12 regular meeting; Advertised July 19th

 

Mr. Waltman explained that this referendum will provide a correction by making the required citation to the Elections Code.

 

            Ordinances for Introduction

A. Ordinance – amending City Code Chapter 23 Boards and Commissions, Part 1201 Downtown Revitalization Public Private Partnership, Section 23-201 authorization by replacing the DID Chair with the City of Reading Designated Downtown Coordinator

 

Ms. Sihelnik requested an update on the status of the downtown maintenance and the P3.  Mr. Waltman stated that the update is scheduled for early August. He suggested that Ms. Sihelnik and Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz attend.

 

B. Ordinance – directing the Berks County Board of Elections to place a referendum question before city voters on the 2021 General Election Ballot which would amend the City of Reading Home Rule Charter by eliminating the requirement for the City’s Public Works Director to be an engineer

 

Mr. Waltman inquired if a discussion with the administration occurred.  Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested an open discussion between Council members and the administration.  Mr. Amoros stated that he is open to having that conversation.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz inquired about the timeline to have the referendum included on the General Election ballot.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the Director of Elections stated that having the ordinance to him by early September is sufficient.

 

Mr. Waltman requested a discussion on this issue at the August 2nd COW

 

            Resolutions

A. Resolution 74-2021 – making a $3M contribution to the Convention Center to assist with the capital needs for the Convention Center and the SPAC

 

Ms. Ventura questioned why the City is investing $3M in this project and in the First Energy Stadium when improvements to the parks and playgrounds are needed.  Mr. Waltman explained that both the Convention Center and Fightin Phils were negatively impacted by the pandemic creating their need for financial assistance for capital improvements.  He stated that both facilities are regional in nature and the County is also contributing $3M to each facility.  He noted that the City improves parks and playgrounds on an annual basis.  He asked the administration to provide a 3 year look back on playgrounds/parks improved and a 3 year look ahead for improvements planned.

 

There was a discussion on the need to develop a process and funding limits that will apply to requests from outside agencies.  Mr. Amoros stated that the administration has refined the rubric.
 

B. Resolution 75-2021 – appointing Michael McDevitt to HARB

 

C.  Resolution 76-2021 – appointing Pamela Gockley to the Shade Tree Commission

 

IV.    Other

Mr. Waltman stated that Mr. Amoros contacted Council about holding a Priorities Retreat on Saturday August 7th from 10 am to noon.  He inquired about who will define the agenda.  He suggested that Council members send suggestions to Ms. Kelleher so he and Mr. Amoros can define the agenda topics.

 

Ms. Reed stated that last year she and Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz were meeting with Mr. Abodalo to review applications for sidewalk repair/replacement for owner occupied properties and suddenly the meetings stopped and did not restart.  She noted that Council set aside approximately $400,000 to assist owner occupied properties with sidewalk repair/replacement and she questioned the status of those funds and why the review of applications ceased.  Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz agreed.  They both requested an update on this issue at a COW meeting.

 

The meeting adjourned at 7:19pm.

 

Respectfully Submitted by

Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk