Rep. Frank Burns 1

Pa. Representative Frank Burns (Pa.-71) fields questions from the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat editorial board on Thursday, Oct, 20, 2022.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The political tension between state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, and Vision Together 2025 has flared up again, this time regarding how the City of Johnstown allocated part of its American Rescue Plan funding for COVID-19 pandemic relief.

Earlier this year, Johnstown provided $3.8 million in ARP grants to nonprofit organizations that help address local food insecurity, child care, internet access and community projects.

A scoring system was used by city administrators to determine what groups got money.

At a recent Johnstown City Council meeting, John DeBartola, former Republican mayoral candidate and Revitalize Johnstown leader, pointed to 13 funded proposals in which Vision 2025 board members, supporters of the group, their relatives and/or current or past city officials were connected to the organizations. The majority of allocated money went to those applicants.

Bishop Joseph McGauley has also publicly questioned why his Jefferson Memorial Church did not receive funding for its Destiny’s Outreach after-school program, which officials said scored low due, in part, due to lacking sustainability. The church sought $250,000 grants in three categories, totaling a combined $750,000 in requests.

Burns, who represents the 72nd Legislative District that, beginning next year, will include Johnstown, responded by calling upon all elected officials and government employees on Vision’s board to step down from or be removed from their positions with the nonprofit.

Burns’ released statement referred to the “incestuous professional relationships between Vision 2025 board members, government officials and local organizations awarded millions of dollars of American Rescue Plan grant money.”

“Conflicts of interest can be either real or perceived, but any reasonable person who connects the dots on who got money and who did not would probably assume some of both is happening in our community,” Burns said in the released statement. “When the same names and business or family connections keep cropping up as to where these grant dollars were directed, it’s probably more than some amazing coincidence.”

He added: “While some of these entities received hundreds of thousands of dollars to offer services they have never before performed, Bishop Joseph McGauley, whose Jefferson Memorial Church has been feeding hungry children, is left asking why decision-makers didn’t give them a single slice of bread. Their answer is that their scoring system focused on ‘sustainability,’ but in the world of nonprofits, everyone knows that getting grant money in the first place is what helps ensure sustainability.”

He also said Robert Forcey, publisher of The Tribune-Democrat, should leave Vision’s board “in order to remove his own conflict of interest as a member of the Fourth Estate.”

When asked for an interview, Burns texted that, since Forcey is one of the individuals he called upon to resign, it is “prudent” to allow a press release sent by his office to speak for itself.

Targets respond

Interview requests were sent to Vision board members who serve in some sort of government role – Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic; Johnstown City Manager Ethan Imhoff; Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Amy Arcurio; Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky; Johnstown City Councilwoman the Rev. Sylvia King; Johnstown Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Melissa Komar; Johnstown Redevelopment Authority board member Mark Pasquerilla; and Michael Kerr, from RDM Corp., which manages the Greater Johnstown Water Authority.

Janakovic, Pasquerilla and Imhoff responded.

Pasquerilla wrote in an email that “to the best of my knowledge” the city “made thorough attempts to vet their ARPA grants.”

He said: “Vision 2025 was never responsible for awarding ARPA grants. If Representative Burns wants to take up the case of Reverend McGauley, then Burns obviously has access to the walking around funds of the Democratic Pennsylvania House.”

Pasquerilla added: “While Vision has its own priority goals for the community, we have no official say in awarding government funds.”

The list of grants included $156,436 going to Alternative Community Resource Program, a nonprofit led by Janakovic.

“The ARPA application and review process did not involve City Council,” Janakovic said in an emailed statement. “That was by design to avoid conflicts of interest. Council’s role was to allocate funds in the overall funding plan and categories. City administrative staff then implemented the application process and distribution of funds.

“I feel it is important for the Mayor and City Council members (to) serve on various boards. We as individuals that reside, support and do business daily in the city were elected to represent the city in decision-making and citizen interests for our town – not be excluded!”

Vision itself made a request for funding, which was rejected by the scoring system.

“The ARPA application and review process was very carefully and purposefully designed to exclude City Council,” Imhoff said. “Staff worked with legal counsel and auditors to create an application and review process that was fair for eligible organizations.

“The staff members who reviewed the ARPA applications completed conflict of interest forms that were reviewed and approved by the City’s attorney. Neither Vision, nor any other organization, had any role, participation, or influence in the review process.

“Vision’s application for funding was denied.”

Source of division

A divide between Burns and Vision arose in early 2022, when reports surfaced that the organization was developing a private plan to bring Afghanistan war refugees to the city in an attempt to increase the population and fill job vacancies.

Burns objected to elected officials and the community not being included in the process.

Nothing ever materialized from Vision’s plan.

Burns recently won reelection, defeating Republican Renae Billow, who received backing from some Vision members, including Pasquerilla.

“I have made several attempts to let Representative Burns understand that we are interested as a community in working with him,” Pasquerilla said.

“… This past fall, our community went through one of its most expensive and hard-hitting campaigns in Cambria’s political history. Healing should be the order of the day.”

Burns said that, instead of Vision having “self-appointed community leaders,” the organization should have leadership coming from the city’s different communities.

“Only then will Vision truly live up to its own billing as a community-driven organization,” Burns said. “It’s time for them to become what they claim to be.” 

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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