Candidates forum held

Rick Truscello, from the Roxbury Civic Group, introduces participants in a forum for Johnstown City Council, Johnstown mayor and Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education candidates at Roxbury Church of the Brethren on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – How the city of Johnstown spends the more than $30 million it will receive in American Rescue Plan funds and whether the city manager should be required to live within the city are two of the most important issues facing voters and candidates in this year’s municipal election.

Mayor Frank Janakovic, a Democrat, and Republican challenger John DeBartola addressed both subjects at length during a candidates’ forum hosted Monday by the Roxbury Civic Group at Roxbury Church of the Brethren.

Money allocated through the rescue plan can be used in a wide variety of ways, provided the expenditure is shown to provide COVID-19 pandemic relief.

DeBartola said it would be “fiscally responsible” for the city to cover any of its unbudgeted expenses incurred due to the pandemic. He wants to see assistance given to small businesses, food banks and shelters.

“The city should next provide rental and mortgage assistance to its residents,” DeBartola said. “The (American Rescue Plan) guidelines specifically allow for this. The city already is known as one of the poorest in the state. Providing a one-time payment for all city residents would do wonders for the bottom line.”

Janakovic said, if reelected, he would want to create a plan that would help the city use the federal dollars to acquire other funding for projects, including repair and beautification work that is being considered for the Main Street corridor.

“(The money) is going to be allocated in a number of different ways to nonprofits, to businesses, to individuals, to the city,” Janakovic said. “A portion of it will go toward Main Street, other projects, et cetera. But by doing projects like that, if we put $10 million in one project, we’re able to leverage it and get another $5 million. So we’re doing everything we can to make $30 million (into) $40 million, $45 million, increase those projects, but also make sure we’re taking care of our constituents, meaning the neighbors, the neighborhoods, those sort of things that we have going on out there.”

Also on the ballot, voters will decide on a referendum that, if successful, would allow City Council to change the Home Rule Charter to do away with the residency requirement for city managers.

Janakovic said, in his opinion, the rule has negatively affected council’s ability to attract and retain qualified city managers, with nine people having held the position on a full-time or acting basis since 2014.

“Just so we’re clear, I am in favor of the city manager living in the city,” Janakovic said. “I’m just showing you for the last seven years what has happened because people have not wanted to live in the city. I am pro that the city manager should live in the city. Finding that right person has been the difficult task.”

DeBartola pointed out that Janakovic voted in favor of putting the question on the ballot.

“The city manager, I feel, should live in the city,” DeBartola said. “I’m against the referendum the council’s pushing.

“It’s been a revolving door for all these years. We really have to go back to a strong form of mayor. That’s going to take time and a government study. and I wish I could give you an answer. If you look at our history in the last 10 years, the city managers we’ve had have been scapegoats for the current regime.”

All seven City Council candidates were invited to the forum.

Four attended.

• Councilwoman Marie Mock, a Democrat, pointed to what she feels have been the successes of council in recent years, including the existence of a unified effort to address the city’s issues.

“The past couple years, we’ve seen a level of cooperation with other agencies – local, county, state and federal,” Mock said. “I have never seen this much activity, partnership and participation – all positive, all wanting to help. The private sector’s moving along as well.”

• Councilwoman the Rev. Sylvia King, a Democrat, called for people taking ownership of their own communities to make them better.

“Stabilizing our government and stabilizing our neighborhoods are very important,” King said. “I’m a neighborhood person. I believe that every place rises and falls within the neighborhood because this is where our citizens are, and without you there would be no city.

“I think it is very important that we have neighborhood associations and that we invest in our neighborhoods.”

• Laura Huchel, a Democrat seeking a council seat for the first time, emphasized the need to get a quality full-time city manager in place.

“I live in a world of metrics,” Huchel said. “I like to see results where I can track, measure, evaluate how we’re doing. I think the city needs to be better at that. I think we need to be more accountable as a city government. I think it starts with having a city manager in place who is capable and stable.”

• Councilman Ricky Britt, a Democrat, said he wants an “opportunity to complete what we’ve started,” referring to positive developments he feels council has been a part of during his first four-tear term in office.

“We are trying very hard to make Johnstown somewhat of what it used to be. … Johnstown will never be like we knew it when we came up. But we can make it better than what it is,” Britt said.

Charlene Stanton and James Stanton, both Republicans, did not attend. Republican Joseph Taranto accepted an offer to participate, but needed to decline at the last minute due to personal reasons, according to organizers.

Two Greater Johnstown School District Board of Education candidates, Missy Spaugy and Leland Wood, attended. They were asked about the teaching of critical race theory during the question-and-answer period.

“I do think that we need to be teaching students what has happened,” Spaugy, a Democrat, said. “Yes, some of it is sensitive and some of it really hurts, and I get that. But we want it to. We want it to resonate. We want them to learn what was history, so it doesn’t repeat itself, and we don’t want them to become complacent and just let this stuff happen.

“We want to nip it in the bud and educate them fully, even if it is a sensitive subject.”

Wood, a Republican and longtime educator, stated: “You would want a student to understand multiple explanations so that they could say ‘OK, it’s probably part this, and part that, and part this,’ and that’s education. When somebody understands at least two perspectives, that’s the beginning of truth. Now you would see two sides. The more perspectives, the brighter the truth, the more obvious the truth. And so, I, as a teacher, my goal was to offer all sorts of explanations for things and allow the students to tell me what they think.”

Three other school board candidates – Edwin Mikesic, Michael Allen and Tony Belskey, all cross-filed Democrats/Republicans – did not attend.

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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