Allentown City Council has made good on a promise made to its residents more than a year ago.
When City Council voted 6-1 to approve a highly-debated 50-year water and sewer lease with Lehigh County Authority on April 25, 2013, its leaders promised they would work to develop an independent oversight committee to monitor the $220-million lease agreement.
On Wednesday night, council unanimously approved the creation of a “water and sewer (lease and operations) compliance review board.”
That compliance review board is charged with ensuring “that all applicable performance standards, water quality issues, customer service, capital programs and maintenance issues covered under the lease agreement are met.”
The five-member board will consist of two members of City Council-- the chairs of the public works and budget & finance committees.
Two others will be appointed to the board by the mayor -- one for a four-year-term, the other for a two-year term.
The fifth member will be a “non-governmental” person, appointed by City Council to a four-year-term.
Council vice president Ray O’Connell, who chairs the public works committee, was thanked by council member Peter Schweyer “for taking the lead on this. This was a promise that council collectively made during that whole conversation.”
During a council meeting several months after the lease was approved, O’Connell told his colleagues 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 city’s water and sanitary sewer system “and I’m going to stick to that commitment.”
The ordinance creating the board came out of O’Connell’s committee. Schweyer said creating it was complex and difficult, but O’Connell did an outstanding job.
City resident Julie Thomases also praised O’Connell for “championing” the creation of the compliance review board; and the rest of council for supporting it.
“I think you all know how much this meant to me and it’s really important for the citizens,” she said. Long before the lease was approved, Thomases advocated for city residents to have some oversight of it.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, she repeatedly expressed hope that the new compliance review board will be “strong and independent” and one that “has some teeth and has some traction.”
The compliance review board should make sure LCA adheres to maintenance of Allentown’s sewer lines with the care and frequency that the city did in the past, said Thomases.
“This compliance board should have the tools and information to be pro-active in identifying gaps and looking out, not for LCA, but for the citizens’ best interest.”
O’Connell said the compliance board may meet four times a year.
Meetings will be public “unless otherwise exempted under existing law.”
O’Connell said the board will meet with LCA and a lease compliance office, staffed by three city employees, that already is in operation.
The ordinance creating the compliance review board states that it will serve as an advisory body to the city’s compliance office, “whose mandate includes direct oversight of the water and sewer lease concession to LCA.”
The compliance board’s listed duties include reviewing compliance issues identified by the compliance office and reviewing reports issued by LCA.
That compliance office already has a dispute process in place, said Craig Messinger, the city’s public works director. He said an arbitrator can be brought in to resolve disputes and the office can even hire an engineer if necessary to help resolve issues.
Messinger recommended city resident with water or sanitary sewer complaints or problems should first contact LCA, then contact the compliance office if they don’t get satisfaction.
No one mentioned how long that office has been in operation, but it has handled about 35 complaints so far.
Compliance office staffers Brian Chamberlain, Angela DiBuo and Jennifer McKenna were introduced to council.
Schweyer recommended more be done to make city residents aware of the existence of that office, such as including information about it in future trash bills.