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Allentown officials talk about promises kept in regard to LCA lease

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 13 2013 11:33:46 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 16 2013 07:33:27 AM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

The talk was of promises kept during a meeting in Allentown City Hall the other night. 

Mayor Ed Pawlowski has kept his promise that no city employees will lose jobs when Lehigh County Authority begins its 50-year-lease of the city’s water and sewer systems in August, said city managing director Francis Dougherty.

“The mayor looked like a prophet in the wilderness when he first said this and he was borne out,” said Dougherty. “No one lost their jobs. And we can go to the old lay-off list and bring some more laid-off people back to work in open positions. A great story.”

City Council vice president Ray O’Connell said he made a promise to the public that he would strongly support creating a citizens advisory committee to provide independent oversight of LCA’s operation of the water and sanitary sewer system “and I’m going to stick to that commitment.”

O’Connell said he made that promise on April 25, when he joined his colleagues on City Council in voting 6-1 for the $220 million lease agreement.

He said he has fulfilled his promise by already creating that citizens advisory committee. It will serve as an ad hoc committee to City Council’s public works committee, which O’Connell currently chairs.  He said he got approval from council president Julio Guridy to establish the citizens committee.

The fulfillment of both promises came up earlier this week when council’s public works committee, which O’Connell chairs, reviewed a proposed “drinking and storm water protection act” that will be presented to full council for approval at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The proposal creates a storm sewer office and what the administration initially called an ombudsman office in the city’s public works department.

But council member Jeanette Eichenwald does not want that title used for the latter office, because ombudsmen should be totally independent, not city employees.

 O’Connell agreed, saying: “When I saw the office of ombudsman, I thought ‘that’s a dumb term’. Don’t call it the office of ombudsman, call it the compliance office.” Eichenwald agreed the name should be changed to compliance office.

Dougherty said the new offices are intended to ensure LCA complies with the lease agreement and that the city has a top-notch storm sewer operation. While the sanitary sewer system is being leased to LCA, the city will continue to directly operate the storm sewer system.

The two offices will employ a total of 24 people.  If council approves the proposed act, it also will approve those positions. But the full cost of funding those positions, including benefits, and creating the two offices is not in the proposal. “I can’t vote on a position unless I know how much it’s going to cost,” said Eichenwald.

In response to her objection, city administrators quickly came up with an estimate that the two new offices will cost Allentown at least $2.3 million a year – not including the cost of leasing equipment needed by the storm sewer office.

 That apparently still did not satisfy Eichenwald, because she was the only one of the three committee members to vote against recommending the “drinking and storm water protection act” to full council.

The proposed compliance office will have a supervisor and two compliance auditors, who would review reports that LCA must provide to the city under the lease agreement, explained public works director Richard Young.

Compliance board

Young said if any issues arise, that staff would attempt to resolve them with LCA, but it also could recommend damages be assessed against LCA. He said such recommendations would go to a five-member review & approval board, which in turn would recommend any action that might be required to City Council.

“I would like to see that called the five-member review & compliance board,” suggested O’Connell.

 O’Connell also “strongly suggested” that the city’s finance and public works directors not be on that review board. Both are listed on it in a “conceptual overview” prepared by the city administration.

O’Connell suggested the proposed board include two members of City Council, not just one. He recommended those two members be the chairmen of council’s public works and budget and finance committees. That board also will include two members appointed by the mayor.

 O’Connell wants the fifth member of that board to be “a non-governmental individual” – meaning someone with no ties to City Council or the mayor – with science, engineering and/or environmental expertise. He said all five appointees would have to be approved by City Council.

Citizens advisory committee

In addition to the review & compliance board, O’Connell is establishing the citizens advisory committee. He said the committee already met once in June. Its initial members are Julie Thomases, Michael Siegel, Joe McMahon, Richard Niesenbaum and O’Connell. He may add at least one more member with a science, engineering or environmental background.

O’Connell recommended that the new compliance office work “in coordination and consultation” with the citizens advisory committee.

And he suggested that any complaints about LCA that go to the compliance office – no matter how minor -- also should go to the chair of council’s public works committee and to City Clerk Michael Hanlon.

City administrators at the Wednesday night committee meeting expressed no immediate objections to the changes suggested by O’Connell.

“We have to contemplate these changes and we’ll get back with a more formal response,” said Dougherty.

“I agree with your suggestions,” Eichenwald told O’Connell. “I’m interested in giving this voluntary committee as much power as possible. They need to be consulted.”

Eichenwald wants the city “to codify in some way that the advisory committee is an integral part of the process. I’m concerned they are going to be pushed aside when there’s a disagreement. Or they won’t even be asked.

She does not want the citizens advisory committee to become like the city’s Environmental Advisory Council, which she charged has not been consulted on environmental issues by the city.

O’Connell told city administrators: “You’re going to meet with us. You’re not going to push me away.”

But Eichenwald said something must be done to ensure the committee will exist for the entire 50 years of the LCA lease, so it does not disappear “and the citizens will have no voice.”

Eichenwald also said: “I want the committee that we’re creating to function as the ombudsman.”

Job protection

Council member Joe Davis, the third member of the public works committee, said protection of jobs was one of the administration’s top goals throughout the sewer/water lease negotiations.

“The bottom line is there is no one without a job,” said Amy Trapp, the city’s new human resources director. She said no one has been displaced or put on a lay-off list, adding people laid off in the past will be invited to take new jobs that have opened in the city.

Trapp said the city’s water department had 76 union employees and 25 non-union employees. She said all 25 non-union employees were offered jobs by LCA. “LCA saw value in every single person and spoke highly of the quality of the people who worked for us in the water department.” She said all but one of those 25 people accepted the new jobs.

Of the 76 union employees, she said 61 took jobs with LCA, 10 bid into other city jobs and five chose “to bump.”  She said only one of those five bumped another person out of a job and that bumped person took in another position in the city. “That was a huge win for us,” said Trapp.

Dougherty said laid-off people will be put back to work in the city’s parks, streets, building codes and building maintenance departments.

“Thank you again,” said Davis. “Great job.”