Committee of the Whole Summary 08/09/21
Council as a Whole
August 9, 2021
COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:
D. Reed, J. Waltman, M. Ventura, S. Marmarou, J. Cepeda-Freytiz, M. Goodman-Hinnershitz (in person)
L. Kelleher (in person), S. Smith, M. Rodriguez, M. Gombar, S. Rugis, F. Denbowski, J. Long, M. Oppenheimer, R. Tornielli, W. Stoudt, A. Acevedo, A. Amoros, F. Lachat, C. Jones, C. Crespo, N. Judge (all electronically)
The meeting was called to order at 5:08 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. Gombar stated that he has drafted a scope of services which was distributed to Council today. He stated that he used Bethlehem’s scope of services as a model that was further defined for Reading. He reviewed the document.
Mr. Gombar stated that Council needs to determine which meetings the Council Solicitor must attend. He recommended avoiding duplication since the City Solicitor already attends many meetings. He suggested that the Council Solicitor be available but only attend as requested by the Council President. He expressed the belief that it will be easier to block out the time and open it up when able than it is to have other clients booked and need to reschedule them at the last minute. He stated that he is unsure if both Solicitors need to attend all meetings.
Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the Council Solicitor would attend only as needed.
Mr. Marmarou questioned who would decide that the Council Solicitor needs to attend. Mr. Waltman stated that the Council President or the body of Council can decide.
Ms. Reed questioned how to handle an unexpected issue if the Council Solicitor is not in attendance during a meeting. Ms. Kelleher stated that she spoke with Mr. Gombar about this. She stated that the meetings are recorded and available on Facebook Live. The Council Solicitor can review the recording as needed.
Mr. Gombar stated that this is why it is best for the Council Solicitor to keep their calendar open on Council meeting dates. He stated that the Council Solicitor will then be available. He stated that blocking a large amount of time will play into the cost, however.
Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that Council is informed of large or controversial issues ahead of time and there are very few unknown issues.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how this will differ from the current situation. Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the Council Solicitor will be used for items where Council disagrees with the Administration and for second opinions or clarity on issues. He stated that the Council Solicitor will be consulted rather than outside counsel.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that this will be good for consistency since the Council Solicitor will already have much background knowledge of Council operations.
Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the City Solicitor will continue working with Council in most cases. He stated that this will be a learning process that will evolve over time.
Mr. Waltman questioned if it is necessary for the Council Solicitor to review all leases, ordinances, resolutions, etc. or only specific issues. Mr. Gombar stated that this portion of the scope of services can be adjusted for flexibility. He suggested that these items be reviewed at the request of the City Clerk, City Solicitor, or Council.
Mr. Waltman noted the need to have details finalized to prepare the 2022 budget. He questioned the next step. Ms. Kelleher noted the need to finalize the scope of services.
Mr. Waltman noted the need to understand the range of costs. He questioned the options of employment. Mr. Gombar suggested that there either be an hourly fee or an annual retainer. He stated that this is a unique opportunity and stated that the referendum question indicates that the Council Solicitor will be a City employee. He suggested that they be considered a part time position and stated that an RFP is not necessary since this is an employee and not an independent contractor.
Mr. Waltman stated that Council will interview the applicants for the Council Solicitor position after the position is advertised.
Mr. Waltman questioned other employment issues that may need to be addressed. Mr. Gombar stated that he currently sees two issues – the employment category (full time versus part time) and legal malpractice insurance. He noted the distinction of who the attorney will be working for (firm versus City).
Mr. Waltman suggested that Ms. Kelleher and Mr. Gombar complete the scope of services and assess the amount of time that will be necessary so that a cost can be determined.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the need for clarity about this position not being an independent contractor. Mr. Gombar stated that he will provide an opinion on this question. Mr. Waltman stated that this opinion will be reviewed with the body of Council.
Mr. Gombar expressed the belief that it will be a leap of faith for both the Council Solicitor and City Council as the process moves forward. He expressed the belief that the scope of services and the relationship will evolve and develop over time.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who will supervise the Council Solicitor. Mr. Waltman stated that City Council will supervise. Mr. Gombar agreed.
Ms. Kelleher stated that the 2019 RFP for Council outside counsel is still valid to choose the Council Solicitor. Mr. Waltman agreed and stated that he does not foresee issuing another RFP.
Evelyn Morrison arrived at the meeting in person.
Mr. Lachat expressed the belief that it will be time to issue an updated RFP in any case.
Mr. Waltman explained that Ms. Morrison may not attend meetings in person. He explained the ways to register to speak at regular meetings.
Rev. Morrison stated that the Office of Open Records guidance allows her to attend in person. She requested an opinion in writing and left the meeting.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with the need for a legal opinion in case there is a challenge to the way Council has been meeting.
Mr. Lachat stated that the current RFP is still valid and will work with Mr. Gombar on the new scope of services.
Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that an RFP is not needed if the Council Solicitor is a City employee. He noted the need to be prepared to discuss this at the next meeting.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned the policy for benefits for part time employees. Mr. Waltman stated that part time employees receive no benefits.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if all City employees are covered by liability insurance. Mr. Waltman requested this information for the next meeting.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the Council Solicitor will be in place for 2022. Mr. Waltman stated that this is the hope.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested that the Council Solicitor also assist the Law Office.
II. Open Meetings during COVID-19
Mr. Waltman questioned how Rev. Morrison gained entry to the building. He requested that Mr. Amoros determine how she announced herself and the reason she gave for entry.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if a public statement has been made about the public attending meetings in person. Mr. Waltman stated that this statement is at the beginning of all Council agendas.
Mr. Lachat stated that the pandemic situation continues. He noted the need for safety and stated that he will research the most recent guidance from the Office of Open Records. He expressed the belief that the number of people physically present can be limited.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if this was State law.
Mr. Waltman stated that people can challenge City operations. He noted the need for a clear statement and to adjust the guidelines as the COVID situation changes.
Mr. Waltman questioned how other municipalities are operating meetings. Ms. Kelleher stated that some are operating the same as Reading and some are allowing a limited number of members of the public in-person with masks. Ms. Reed stated that some are meeting outdoors.
Ms. Ventura questioned if Council must continue meeting in the 3rd floor conference room until the technology update to Council Chambers is complete. Mr. Waltman stated that this is correct.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that the Governor no longer has the power to declare an emergency and the PA General Assembly has not allowed it to remain in place.
Mr. Waltman reminded all that members of the public cannot speak at Committee meetings. He stated that Council recently acted to expand the public comment opportunities at regular meetings. He stated that no business is conducted behind closed doors.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that the public is getting in the building. She noted the need for a statement from the Administration about the use of City Hall and that the public does not have full access.
Mr. Waltman requested that Mr. Amoros follow up about how Rev. Morrison entered the building. Mr. Amoros stated that he will ensure that the Desk Sergeant understands that meetings are not yet open to the public in person. He stated that signage will also be added to the doors and a statement will be placed on the City’s website. He stated that he has recently spoken with the Fire Marshal and there is concern about the Delta variant. He expressed the belief that another lock down will take place in October. He suggested that at a minimum all should be masked when inside City Hall.
III. American Rescue Plan (ARPA) Funding
Mr. Waltman stated that he anticipated more requests for funds on non-City projects. He questioned the application process.
Mr. Amoros presented an updated power point. He stated that the final guidance from the US Treasury Dept will be issued in October but that FAQ documents are being issued in the meantime. He stated that the City is currently preparing its lost revenue report. He stated that the City does not need to hurry to spend the funding. A commitment on how to spend the funds must be made by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
Mr. Amoros stated that seven internal work group meetings have been held and consultants are being interviewed. He stated that four very qualified firms are interested. He stated that the rubric is being finalized to review projects. He noted the need to focus on infrastructure and to work to replace DID. He stated that this will be a very open and transparent process and that all reports will be prepared accurately.
Mr. Amoros stated that City projects will focus on streets and sidewalks, parks and playgrounds, the WWTP, fire apparatus and library services. He stated that the City has also heard requests from Santander Arena/SPAC, PA Americana Region (Visitor Center), Pagoda, Fightin’ Phils, Berks History Center, Fire Museum, and 18th Wonder. He noted the need for projects to be done right the first time. He stated that there are no backroom deals or “walking around money”.
Mr. Waltman stated that with a commitment deadline of December 2024 there is no need to rush but noted not to wait until the last minute. He requested the plan outline by the end of 2021 with continual updates. He stated that the Delta variant will guide how public meetings occur.
Mr. Waltman stated that he has heard from several people that the City should address the former East Reading Pool property.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that this would be a poor investment by the City. She stated that it has been neglected too long and would require a substantial amount of funds.
Mr. Waltman stated that using the site does not mean it continues as a pool.
Ms. Reed stated that Schlegel Pool is great but that there are no pools for residents on the other side of the Bingaman St Bridge.
Mr. Waltman noted the need to ensure that all project requests are channeled through the body of Council and the Administration. He stated that nothing is final at this time.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz clarified that the Pagoda project is not related to the Foundation. She stated that the City is responsible for maintenance.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz requested the presentation be emailed to Councilors. Mr. Amoros stated that he will email the presentation to Council.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who is preparing the August 31 lost revenue report. Mr. Amoros stated that the report is being prepared by the Finance Department.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the cost of the consultant can be paid from the ARPA funds. Mr. Amoros stated that the consultant will not be managing projects but will advise and guide Reading on the potential uses of the funds. He stated that ARPA funds can be used to pay the cost of the consultant.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if there will be an application process for requests. Mr. Amoros stated that there is an application and that the rubric will be used to evaluate requests.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned how the Administration will divide the funding. Mr. Amoros stated that this will be determined after applications have been reviewed. He stated that project viability will be a large part of the review process. He noted the need to avoid funding one organization at the expense of another if projects or organizations are not viable.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who will administer the funds. Mr. Amoros stated that the Administration will administer the funds but that no money will be spent without Council approval.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz requested clarity on community input. Mr. Amoros stated that the Administration wants the community’s input and buy-in. He noted the need for elected officials to understand what residents want. He stated that the rubric requires proof of need and noted the need not to duplicate funding – one organization getting funding from multiple sources for the same project. He stated that the rubric is very detailed and he is looking forward to providing the next update to Council.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if a survey could also be released to the public to get their input. Mr. Amoros stated that the final guidance is needed first.
Mr. Marmarou questioned how the town hall meetings would be held. Mr. Amoros stated that they would be held via Zoom as necessary due to COVID. He stated that residents can also email, write a letter, or call to provide input. He noted the need to ensure that all voices are heard and for collaborative projects.
Mr. Marmarou questioned if the City has a master plan for road work. Ms. Kelleher stated that it does not.
Mr. Marmarou noted the deplorable condition of the road where Berks Catholic is located. Ms. Reed stated that this is Hancock Blvd and is currently in the process of a complete redo.
Mr. Marmarou noted the need to inform the neighbors about the project. He stated that they are questioning him about it.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted her concern with determining how to spend the funding. She expressed the belief that everyone will want some and that there need to be clear guidelines on how the funding can be used. She noted the need for the guidelines to be public along with the City’s goals for the funding. Mr. Amoros stated that internal meetings are taking place at this time. He agreed that there needs to be clear and public guidelines so that no one is misled about the potential use of the funds. He stated that all municipal leaders that he’s spoken with are frustrated with the delay of the release of the final guidance from the Dept of Treasury.
Ms. Reed noted her concern that the consultant will not be managing the project spending. She questioned if the City had staff capacity to add this large task in this short timeline. She stated that the City has had problems with this in the past and may need an external manager. Mr. Amoros invited Ms. Reed to discuss her specific concerns with him. He stated that managing the projects can be added to the scope of work for the consultant. He noted the need to be clear that the Administration and Council are steering this ship.
Ms. Reed stated that her concern is not spending the funds down in a timely manner. She stated that this is the most funding the City has ever received at one time.
Mr. Waltman suggested that the consultant audit the City’s work as a way to find middle ground.
Ms. Reed questioned if PFM responded to assist Reading with ARPA. Mr. Amoros stated that they did not. He stated that PFM does not have enough staff capacity at this time. He stated that PML recommended several of the other firms.
Mr. Waltman noted the need to focus on public safety, infrastructure, and quality of life first. He stated that outside agencies that have not received separate assistance through other programs can then be considered.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested being strong internally and being clear to the public that City services will be funded before others. She expressed the belief that giving funding to others will dilute the intension and will force the City to continue to defer needed maintenance.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the topic will be on future agendas. Mr. Waltman stated that it will appear as new information is shared. He requested updates at least monthly.
Mr. Marmarou stated that there were no past guidelines when the City gave away funding and the money was lost.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz reminded all that when Reading exits Act 47 it loses the non-resident EIT for capital projects. She noted the need to keep this in mind.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz stated that the City is already working on many projects. She suggested using ARPA funds for façade grants, riverfront development and sidewalk improvements.
Mr. Waltman stated that the City reviews its ongoing projects. He agreed that the loss of the non-resident EIT will need to be made up elsewhere.
IV. Council Chambers Hybrid Project
Mr. Waltman stated that only the technology will be updated. He stated that he asked Ms. Kelleher to work with Mr. Cochran.
Ms. Kelleher stated that Option #1 including the technology only will move forward. She stated that to reduce the cost the sound issue will be handled separately. She stated that she and Mr. Cochran are also considering if the streaming service is necessary since Zoom recordings are on the City’s website and on Facebook. In addition they can be viewed live on Comcast Channel 99 and are then uploaded to YouTube. She stated that Mr. Cochran will be providing an updated quote on the cost.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if the work will be complete in 2021. Ms. Kelleher stated that it will be completed this year.
V. Agenda Review
Council reviewed this evening’s agenda including the following:
- Public Comment
Ms. Kelleher stated no one is registered to speak.
- Resolution authorizing the purchase of 25 laptop computers for the Information Technology Division from COSTARS vendor SCW in the amount of $42,253.75
Mr. Waltman stated that these are replacement laptops.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned what else is included in this high cost. Mr. Amoros stated that it includes software, licensing and protections.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested purchasing brands that have an extended life expectancy. She stated that this is approximately $1,700 for each machine.
Ms. Reed questioned the use of the Council ipads. Ms. Kelleher stated that they have been updated.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that she cannot access the agenda through the City’s website on the guest City Hall Wi-Fi.
Mr. Waltman stated that purchasing professional laptops is different from a consumer going to an electronics store. He stated that IT has gone through the proper process.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who the laptops are for. Mr. Amoros stated that they are earmarked for specific employees as assigned by department directors. He stated that they are assigned to employees who have the ability to work from home.
- Reports from boards, authorities and commissions
Ms. Kelleher stated that the Plumbing Inspector will be making a report on the Plumbing Board of Examiners.
- 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. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that she has spoken with Ms. Reed to amend the ordinance to include a member of Berks Arts to guide the review committee as needed. She noted the need to understand the viability of projects when they come forward.
Ms. Reed stated that this is not intended to be a fine arts board or commission. She stated that these are short term displays.
- 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 Charter by eliminating the requirement for the Public Works Director to be an engineer
Ms. Ventura questioned why this is coming forward. Mr. Waltman stated that applicants do not have the engineering degree and that it is no longer needed.
Ms. Reed stated that most times this work is contracted out by the City.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned why this amendment is necessary. Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz deferred to Mr. Amoros. Mr. Amoros stated that many other municipalities no longer require it. He agreed with Ms. Reed that many projects are contracted out and that this will allow for wider recruitment to fill the vacancy.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned who would perform this work if the requirement is removed. Mr. Amoros stated that there are other public engineers on staff. He stated that the City has the capacity to remove this requirement. (Note: Charter Section 606 requires a City Engineer which is a civil engineer.)
Ms. Reed stated that the Director can manage the department without being an engineer.
Ms. Ventura questioned if the current Public Works Director has a PE. Mr. Waltman stated that he does. He reminded all that enacting this ordinance places the issue before the voters.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz noted the need for clear and understandable language. Ms. Kelleher stated that it is part of the legislation which is attached to the agenda.
- Ordinance authorizing the transfer of $10,000 from Reading Beautification to the Sustainability and Solid Waste General Plant Supplies to provide funds for cleanup and graffiti supplies
Mr. Waltman questioned if Reading Beautification is now defunct. Mr. Rugis stated that the City’s association with them has ended. He stated that the City would like to use these funds internally. Mr. Amoros stated that discussions with Reading Beautification began in December 2020.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if Reading Beautification must be dissolved. Mr. Denbowski stated that Reading Beautification is a separate 501 C 3 organization. He stated that the group is inactive at this time. He stated that the partnership may come back in future years. He stated that the City has been planning the Great American Clean-Up and can use the funds.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned the transfer. Mr. Waltman stated that Reading Beautification is the name of the line item in the budget.
Mr. Denbowski stated that the MOU with Reading Beautification has ended with mutual agreement.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that it is important to note that the funds will be used for the same initiative.
VI. Other Matters
Mr. Waltman opened the floor to other matters requiring public discussion.
- Work from Home
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if there was a plan for those who worked from home during the pandemic. Mr. Amoros stated that those who may work at home are determined by the department directors based on their responsibilities. He stated that employees sign agreements when issued City equipment and there is a fee if the equipment is not returned. He stated that this is currently being reviewed in light of the Delta variant.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned if data was collected and analyzed on the effectiveness of working from home. She questioned if it needed to be better managed and / or change how the City does business moving forward. Mr. Amoros stated that he will discuss this with department directors and work with the Fire Marshal on whether it needs to be re-instituted.
The meeting adjourned at 6:43 pm.
Respectfully Submitted by
Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk