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CITY COUNCIL



Committee of the Whole Summary 08/16/21

 


Committee Of the Whole
City Council

SUMMARY

August 16, 2021

5:00 P.M.

Hybrid Meeting

DOWNLOAD PDF HERE

COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:

D. Reed, M. Goodman-Hinnershitz, M. Ventura (all electronically), S. Marmarou (in person)

 

OTHERS PRESENT:

L. Kelleher (in person), M. Rodriguez, F. Lachat, S. Smith, F. Denbowski, S. Rugis, J. Long, C. Crespo, A. Amoros, W. Stoudt, J. Abodalo, J. Kelly, E. Moran, R. Tornielli, W. Rehr, N Rivera, A. Acevedo (all electronically)

 

The meeting was called to order at approximately 5:05 pm by Ms. Reed.  She announced that Mr. Waltman and Ms. Sihelnik are excused from the meeting. Due to COVID-19, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting.  The meeting is convened via virtual app with the meeting link and dial-in phone number available on the published meeting agenda.

 

I.       Fire Museum

Mr. Denbowski gave a PowerPoint presentation on the Fire Museum.  He explained the mission of the museum is:

The Reading Area Firefighters Museum is committed to the preservation of the Liberty Fire Co. No 5 building. The building's contents consist of firefighting memorabilia and antique furnishings. The museum serves as a permanent facility
for the public exhibition and the safe storage of items related to the history of firefighting in the Reading & Berks County.

 

Mr. Denbowski stated that the fire station was built at 501 S 5th Street in 1854 where it operated as the Liberty Fire Company.  The building was sold to the City in 2010 and currently the City leases the building to the Fire Museum and a MOU is in place.   He stated that there is a long-range plan in place.  A display area in the former scuba bay was recently added.

 

The City has contributed $34,327 in capital expenses between 2018-20, contributed $50K towards a façade project in 2021 and covers the utility expenses for the building ($101K total 2010-20).  The City also has City tradesmen perform various maintenance projects and the City has set aside $1M for a matching Capital grant.

 

Mr. Denbowski stated immediate capital needs are electrical, HVAC, ADA accessibility, an elevator and a sprinkler system. The Museum Board is in the process of creating a new five year plan and working to achieve self-sufficiency so the deed can be transferred to the Museum Board.

 

Former Fire Chief Rehr stated that the building has been registered as a historic building with the State and the Federal governments. The Board is working with the Berks County Community Foundation (BCCF) to fund operational costs.  BCCF also provided grant funding to allow the board to retain a consultant to assist with developing the new five year plan. He described some of the significant pieces of apparatus currently in the Museum’s collection.  

 

Chief Rehr described the need for repairs to the buildings steam-heat system prior to the next heating season.  Mr. Denbowski stated that the City’s plumber will be making the required system repairs, noting that there is no need to replace the current heating system at this time.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the value and benefit of having museums within the community and the educational opportunities they provide for residents and visitors.

 

In response to a question from Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz, Chief Rehr stated that the museum is currently open Thursdays from 9 am to 12 noon and Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm.   Adults 16+ are charged $5 and there is no charge for visitors below 16 years of age. He noted that all museum operations are conducted by volunteers.  The museum does not have paid employees. He noted that the board is unsure how much additional revenue could be realized by being open more days or more hours, as sometimes that are a large number of visitors and other times there are no visitors.

 

Chief Rehr noted that prior to the pandemic shut-down in March 2020 the museum was visited by 500 Reading School District students and noted that students are not charged the admissions fee.  He described the changes in regulations for school trips.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that the building is eligible for ARPA funding and he looks forward to his visit to the museum.

 

Chief Stoudt stated that the museum is outstanding and he thanked all the volunteers for their work to preserve the history of firefighting.

 

Chief Rehr noted that local firefighting started in 1775 when Reading was still a British colony. He described the transition firefighting took over the last 250 years – from bucket brigades to sophisticated apparatus.

 

 

II.      Council Solicitor

Ms. Kelleher stated that the revised position description is attached to the agenda and Mr. Gombar believes that the revision accurately reflects the changes discussed at the August 2nd COW. 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz, when no one made any comments, questioned the next steps.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the next step would be for Council to decide on the appointment process.  She read from the email drafted by Mr. Gombar

 

I reviewed the hiring process with Fred Lachat as Council requested.  Because the referendum uses the language “shall be an employee”, we agreed that the hiring of the Council Solicitor is outside the scope of the required RFP process.  It would fall into the category of a temporary employee.  So, Council has the flexibility to hire/appoint a person to fill that position using whatever process that it sees fit and whatever salary/benefits that it selects.

In response to a question from Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz about the pay and time commitment, Ms. Kelleher stated that those issues are again a Council decision.  Council could select billing on an hourly rate, using a retainer which would probably average out to around $2,500 per month or a hybrid with a lower retainer for general matters such as ordinance review, meeting attendance legal opinions, etc. and an hourly rate for special assignments such as quasi-judicial hearings, litigation, etc. She noted that Mr. Gombar estimates that the work hours covered by the retainer would probably average out at 10-20 hours a month. She noted that Council would need to negotiate the payment type and rate with the attorney selected.  She stated that Mr. Gombar’s firm usually uses the hybrid arrangement – a retainer and hourly rate for additional services.

 

Mr. Kelly stated that if the attorney starts in 2021, a budget amendment will be required and the position and salary will be included under Council’s 2022 budget and position ordinance. Ms. Kelleher noted that Mr. Lachat offered to fund the position for the remainder of 2021, as they currently have an unfilled attorney position. 

 

Mr. Marmarou suggested paying an hourly rate on an as needed basis.  He questioned if an attorney would be interested in a part-time position.  Ms. Kelleher stated that this is a temporary not fulltime position and the attorney can retain his other clients. 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned if Ms. Kelleher has enough information to propose a budget.  Ms. Kelleher stated that she included a salary of $45K for the attorney and $5K for other legal matters in the draft 2022 budget. She stated that $45K should work for either the full retainer or hybrid arrangement. 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned the next steps.  Mr. Kelleher stated that Mr. Gombar predicts a workload of between 10-20 hours a month and utilizing either the full retainer or the hybrid which is a reduced retainer payment for regular legislative-related duties and an hourly rate for additional assignments such as quasi-judicial hearings, litigation, etc. This would need to be negotiated with the individual selected.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the position description has been completed so the next step would be to decide how Council wishes to seek applicants.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned which services are covered through the retainer.  Ms. Kelleher stated that the services covered through the hybrid retainer would be legal research/opinions, attendance at legislative meetings when requested, consulting with Council or the administration.  Other services such as quasi-judicial hearings, litigation, etc. would be billed on an hourly basis.  Any type of payment schedule will need to be negotiated with the attorney selected.

 

Mr. Kelly noted that the exact amount will be difficult to accurately predict as this is a new position.  He noted that an accurate prediction will be easier to define after 2022.  He suggested budgeting $15K to cover legal services through the end of 2021. 

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired why the Council Solicitor would review the decisions drafted by the City Clerk, if law already does that.  Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz replied that when the Council Solicitor is retained, the staff attorneys will be replaced by the Council Solicitor at quasi-judicial hearings like Conditional Use and HARB hearings.  Therefore it is not a duplication of services.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned how Council should select an attorney to fill this role.  Ms. Kelleher stated that Mr. Gombar and Mr. Lachat agree that as Council is filling a position it would be more appropriate to use an advertisement rather than an RFP.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz asked Council if anyone has any concerns about advertising for the position.  No concerns or comments were expressed.  Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz asked Ms. Kelleher to draft the ad.

 

III.    Sidewalk Repair/Replacement Program Update

Mr. Amoros stated that Council set aside $400K for a sidewalk/repair replacement program in 2018.  He recognized that the need for façade and sidewalk improvements have been recommended since mobility studies that were completed in 2010-11. He stated prior to COVID Mr. Abodalo and staff toured various areas of the City to determine the need for sidewalk improvements.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that the administration is awaiting the completion of the Desman, Stantec and Walk Work studies to assist in determining the sidewalks that require attention. He stated that the draft plan from Stantec is expected in mid-August for review and presentation to Council will occur in September.  He noted that COVID increased construction costs by 30-40% and created supply chain problems nationwide. He also noted that sidewalk improvements could require the replacement of handicapped ramps, creating the need for Public Works involvement. In addition any issues with trees require mitigation. He stated that the administration is interested in focusing on sidewalk improvements in heavily used pedestrian areas like the downtown and North 9th Street to maximize our resources.  He added that this program could be included and expanded with ARPA funding.

 

Ms. Reed stated that the program was designed for owner-occupied properties, not businesses.  She stated that she and Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz were part of an application review team with Mr. Abodalo last year.  Two review sessions were held, then for some unknown reason the meetings were discontinued. 

 

Mr. Amoros agreed that owner-occupied properties are at the top of the list. 

Ms. Reed stated that the $400K allocated for this program is only for owner-occupied properties.  The following are excluded from program funding: Not Proprietor Owned Commercial Rental Units, Not Proprietor Owned; Commercial Properties and Partnership or Corporate Owned Industrial Properties.

Mr. Amoros noted that if ARPA or American Infrastructure funds are added commercial properties could be added. 

Mr. Moran stated that work to explore additional funding sources could assist commercial properties to create walkable streets.  He noted the need for the City to find a contractor to preform sidewalk improvements and to create a program that allows the property owner to repay the City for the project over a period of time, a program used in other cities.  (Note:  the City has this ability already via City Code Chapter 508, Part 1 Levying Special Assessments for Public Works Projects Chapter 508 STREETS AND SIDEWALKS (amlegal.com))

 

Mr. Moran noted that the Administration is also working on an Equal Business Opportunity Board.  Mr. Denbowski stated that this board could help ensure fairness to diverse contractors.

 

Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired how this program delay was communicated to those property owners who submitted applications.  She noted that the review team also reached out to Abilities in Motion, as ADA needs must be considered. She inquired if a new application period will be opened and how that will be communicated.  She asked the administration to develop a new timeline for the use of these funds allocated to the program in 2018.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that there were a number of applicants however, there is no documentation on which were approved.  He inquired if either Ms. Reed or Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz have the list of properties approved.  He stated that the earliest this program could restart is Spring 2022, due to increased concrete costs and problems with the supply chain.

 

Ms. Reed agreed that many applications were submitted and reviewed using the program rubric to determine which were eligible.  Mr. Abodalo or his staff should have that list. She expressed the belief that those that applied previously should not have to reapply.

 

Mr. Abodalo stated that approximately 54 applications were submitted in 2019 and CD has those applications. He agreed that he reviewed approximately half of the applications submitted with Ms. Reed and Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz. He stated that applicants were called about the delay and they will be notified when the project can restart.

 

Mr. Marmarou stated that curbing was damaged in several areas during winter plowing by Public Works.  He stated that those reporting the damage were told that they are responsible for curb repairs.  Ms. Reed noted that curb repair was excluded from the program (tree removal, curb repair/replacement and ADA improvements are excluded). 

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested that Mr. Marmarou reach out to Mr. Amoros separately to address this issue. 

 

IV.    Technical Upgrade to Council Chambers

Ms. Kelleher stated that a new estimate was obtained from HSI LLC that separates the sound system repairs from the tech project. This reduced the overall cost by approximately $4K to $73K for the IT Manager’s original recommendation for the project with four monitors and no new furniture.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz expressed the belief that this project is much needed as it improves the technical abilities in the room.  She noted the need to make sure this project is completed in the right way.

 

Mr. Kelly noted that as everything is more technology driven, Council will need to consider in human capital within the IT Division. Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed.

 

Mr. Marmarou left the meeting.

 

V.      Other

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted the need for clarity on how next Monday’s meeting will proceed. She noted that various Council members have different ideas about how meetings

should occur.

 

Ms. Reed agreed, noting the surge in the COVID Delta variant may force meetings to remain in the virtual environment.  She inquired if the administration has considered a shutdown.

 

Mr. Amoros stated that he has had several meetings with the Emergency Management Coordinator who is concerned about the surge in Delta variant cases sweeping across the Country, including Berks County.  He stressed the need for people to obtain both doses of the vaccination.  He noted that the science is showing that some form of a shutdown may be required in October.  He stated that the mask requirement is again in place in City Hall unless social distancing can occur.

 

Ms. Reed agreed with the dangers associated with the new variant and children who are not yet eligible for vaccinations.

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz inquired about the use of $400K grant for health literacy funding.
 

Mr. Moran stated that a partnership formed for the use of this grant funding. He added that an incentive to encourage vaccinations is planned in the upcoming days at local clinics.

 

Ms. Reed inquired if a vaccination mandate or weekly testing has been considered for City employees.  Mr. Moran stated that all options are being considered.

 

Ms. Kelleher called Council’s attention to the memo by Mr. Gombar re in-person publicparticipation.  In summary:

 

With the elimination of Act 15 of 2020, the Office of Open Records issued guidance stating that public agencies should (not shall) return to in-person meetings. This allows some leeway for public agencies to uniquely address their own respective situation in developing the framework for meetings and public attendance and participation.

 

Clearly, City Council was acting in good faith in previously conducting its meetings in the most efficient manner while respecting the health, safety and well-being of all Council members, employees and the public but still allowing for many options for the public to view and attend virtually. By doing so, I submit that City Council has acted in good faith to follow the spirit and intent of the law. The statistics support this as the number of virtual public attendees significantly exceeded the pre-COVID-19 in-person attendants at meetings.

 

I recommend that City Council implement some form of allowance for in-person public attendance at meetings moving forward and not rely on the virtual attendance platforms only. With that being said, you do not need to allow for full attendance and return to in-person meetings only. The PA Sunshine Act does permit public agencies to implement its own rules with respect to public participation and comment.

 

So, given the current circumstances regarding the increase in daily cases resulting from the DELTA variant and the lower vaccine rates, your hybrid option is still valid as long as some form of public attendance (albeit limited) is allowed. The importance here is that the “spirit” of the PA Sunshine Act is followed in making a best effort to allow for some limited form of in-person attendance. This will ensure that all have the ability to “attend” including those that may not have internet or television capabilities for Zoom, Facebook live, YOUTUBE and/or City website for viewing.

 

City Council can still implement its own rules to govern meetings and indoor gatherings as long as some form of in-person attendance is permitted. Accordingly, any requirements for mask wearing, room capacity limitations and/or social distancing are permitted as long as they are (i) reasonable in nature, (ii) have a direct correlation to protecting the health, safety and well-being of all, and (iii) are legally implemented through the City Charter/Admin Code, etc.

 

Council should (1) have those attending complete a self-certification form that they currently have no symptoms and have not been exposed to a positive case within the prior week, (2) have masks available for those that attend without one, and (3) provide hand sanitizer in the Council chambers and at the meeting room for those entering on a 1x1 basis to provide comment, among other things.

 

Ms. Kelleher stated that Mr. Gombar and Mr. Lachat agree that Council can continue to meet virtually in the 3rd floor conference room as long as the public is permitted to observe the meeting in the Penn Room or Council Chambers.  She suggested having the public use the Penn Room. As the Penn Room is also a Zoom room public comment can occur from this area.

She noted that if people do not have internet access, they also have the ability to use a telephone to dial-in using phone number listed on each published agenda

 

Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz inquired if Council can continue to have in-person meetings due to the surge in the Delta variant.  She asked the administration to provide a response by the endof the business day on Friday. 

Mr. Amoros agreed.

 

The COW concluded at approximately 7:00pm.

 

Respectfully Submitted by

Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk