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Residents flood city council meeting over dissolution of water authority

By Ali Bechtel, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 28 2014 11:55:21 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 29 2014 12:01:28 PM CDT
AFSCME members at Reading City Council meeting

Ali Bechtel

READING, Pa. -

To the shock and dismay of residents, and without warning, Reading City Council introduced a bill to dissolve the Reading Area Water Authority (RAWA) at a special meeting held on March 31, 2014.

The bill was first introduced to the public at the regular council meeting of April 14, 2014, at which time council members moved to table the issue due to conflict among the council and city administration. 

Council members held an executive session on April 23 to discuss litigation to dissolve RAWA and potential litigation to compel the transfer of the authority’s assets to the city.

During Monday night's general council meeting, a resolution was introduced to retain Stevens & Lee as independent legal council to represent the City Council as a result of the conflict with Mayor Spencer and the city administration regarding matters with the termination of the water lease.

An ordinance was also introduced to notify RAWA and other parties about the termination of the water lease.

Residents packed City Council’s chambers during Monday night's meeting to loudly voice their opinions over the possible privatization of the public water authority.

A number of representatives from AFSCME , the Southeastern Pennsylvania Public Employees Council, were in attendance.

Members refused to accept the City Council’s commendation in recognition of AFSCME Week.

Felix Freytiz, vice president and steward to the Reading Parking Authority of AFSCME Local 2763 explained, "I have to respectfully decline this regulation award.

"This is due to multiple factors involving water issues, but mainly the point that the employees of RAWA, our brothers and sisters within the local, seem to be the least important in this whole situation.

"It is impossible for me to accept an award of recognition if our own employees are not recognized in an issue that affects them and their families."

Resident David Nosario accused the council of holding private meetings in violation of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, and intentionally withholding information about the dissolution from those citizens who will be affected by it.

He stated, "Unfair treatment and blatant disrespect like this is one of the reasons why citizens of Reading have begun speaking out, at times attending city council meetings and other times by simply sharing their thoughts and opinions through social media sites like Facebook.”

A parade of concerned citizens followed Nosario to the podium to express their concerns over the way the decision is being made.

Lack of communication from the City Council, concern for RAWA employees and despair over rising water costs dominated the discussions.

Each speaker was met with riotous applause and council eventually lost control of the floor.

Some of the residents’ comments turned to personal attacks on council members and abuse of the council in general.

The council was forced to recess following particularly pointed comments from Vincent Rosado, who questioned the council’s decision to hire outside legal counsel, addressing the crowd, “I would like to know what’s in the water they’re drinking!”

Councilman Jeffrey Waltman attempted to assure those in attendance that no decisions have been made yet.

“There is no RFP process in place right now. We aren’t looking for a lease, there is no consideration for a sale. That process has stopped. We are waiting for the Mayor to join us to discuss an RFP process.”

The council sent a letter on Friday to representatives from both RAWA and the city administration requesting a formal discussion of the issues.

RAWA has responded positively but no response has been received from city administrators.

Waltman went on to ask, “You have to trust us to do the right thing.”

This request was met with uproar and catcalls from the audience, resulting in a number of residents, including Rosado, being escorted out by police.

Their removal prompted the majority of the remaining citizens to walk out as well, though some first approached the podium shouting accusations and insults before being removed themselves.   

The council members thanked those who stayed for the remainder of the meeting.

Councilman Christopher Daubert, who indicated he would not vote for the dissolution ordinance, said, "I've always thought democracy has never been a spectator sport. I commend people for coming out and voicing their opinion on something that is so critical. But there is a process and we have to follow it."

Council President Francis Acosta closed the meeting by repeating that he stands behind the council’s decision and is dedicated to keeping the process “clean and transparent.”

He also wanted the residents to know that he only has the city’s best interests at heart.

“Please understand that we are not monsters sitting on council planning the night before on how to destroy this city!"

Both the resolution to obtain outside legal counsel and the ordinance notifying RAWA of the termination of the water lease will be made available online for the public with the next meeting agenda, in approximately two weeks.

A meeting among City Council, city administration and RAWA representatives is still pending.