Johnstown City Council has voted to disband the City of Johnstown Ethics Commission.
Deputy Mayor Marie Mock, Ricky Britt, Michael Capriotti and Dave Vitovich approved eliminating the board during a regular monthly meeting on Wednesday. Mayor Frank Janakovic and Charles Arnone abstained – on advice of legal counsel – because they are possibly mentioned in ethics complaints. The Rev. Sylvia King was absent from the meeting.
Members cited redundancy and cost savings as the reasons.
The seven-member commission was created via a voter referendum and subsequent ordinance in 2017. Its objective was to investigate allegations of impropriety made against city officials.
But the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission already exists to perform those duties. The city’s ethics board also requested $315,000 in funding for 2021. Council members were hesitant to spend that much money, especially since the city is in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities.
“It’s my opinion, as council, that we’re being fiscally responsible to our residents with the elimination of this board, which is duplicate to what the state already provides,” Capriotti said. “Our taxpayers having to take on the burden of $300,000 for this board when we already, as state taxpayers, pay for a state ethics board, seems to me to be unnecessary.
“I further think that when we’re dealing with ethical concerns from residents – or anyone for that matter – regarding the city, in my opinion, a board that has no appointments made by City Council is certainly a more ethical way to go about a search of their ethical violations. The state would be able to do that. We don’t appoint anybody to the state. They’re not appointed by us. But council, when this (city) board was created, appointed those people to those positions.”
The city ethics commission consulted with the state about what was needed in order to carry out its duties, such as legal counsel, clerical staff, equipment, court reporters, rental space, a vehicle and other miscellaneous needs, according to Elizabeth Benjamin, the city’s solicitor.
State officials recommended keeping a clear line between the two entities, for example – not letting the commission use the city’s legal counsel or office space on city property, per Benjamin.
“I don’t think they just pulled it out of the air,” Mock said.
Benjamin said the city compared the amount of funding requested by its ethics board to costs incurred by the state commission. “If you were to evaluate the number of complaints they receive, as compared to the amount of staffing and resources that they have, you would find a ratio that when applied to the number of complaints that the city received would suggest that the ethics board should have actually asked for more staff than they even did,” Benjamin said.
The 2017 ordinance was championed by Charlene Stanton and Jack Williams, two members of council at the time.
Stanton spoke in opposition to eliminating the commission during courtesy of the floor, citing the support it received when more than three-quarters of voters supported the referendum. She also thinks a local ethics board could be kept in place for less than the $315,000 requested.
“It’s clear that this is what the voters of the City of Johnstown want,” Stanton said.
Before the vote, Stanton told council, “I urge you not to repeal the city’s ethics ordinance. Keeping the ethics ordinance can only help ensure transparency and the trustworthiness of elected officials.”
Council approved the ordinance to eliminate during a first read in November.
Shortly afterward, John DeBartola, a resident of the municipality, filed for an injunction to prevent the necessary second-read vote.
On Wednesday, Cambria County Senior Judge Timothy Creany denied the injunction, a few hours before council voted.
“I’m disappointed with the mayor and this city council that you, as individuals, do not wish to truly serve this city and this community,” DeBartola said in a statement sent to The Tribune-Democrat. “You continue to want to unravel any hint of dissension or disagreement with those of you who believe you are the power brokers and that you run this community the way they did in the past in a way that is only the benefit of a few. I ask that you relook at the aspect of this and if you take a stand as honest citizens and true servants of the people and realize that you are willing to commit to ending any corruption and any dishonesty that is within the community itself and you as leaders will not tolerate corruption in the political process or within the city and its government.”
DeBartola argued that the city does not have the power to eliminate a board under the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Act, unless a request is made by the organization itself.
In his opinion, getting rid of the commission goes against the will of the voters, who approved its creation. DeBartola also said he would be irreparably harmed if the board is disbanded because there is an ongoing investigation – based on his complaint – into Johnstown Redevelopment Authority board member Mark Pasquerilla that Creany order to be finished after the commission had not completed it within the required 180 days.
Benjamin countered by citing the city’s Home Rule Charter that states: “Council shall have the power to create or abolish all boards, commissions, committees, departments, offices or agencies and prescribe their functions.” She also pointed out that the city was only required to keep the referendum-created commission in place for two years.
Creany determined that the ethics commission has not complied with the incorporation requirements to be recognized as a municipal authority and therefore be covered by the act.
“The Court also finds that disbanding the Ethics Board will not suppress the voting rights of individuals in Johnstown, and that Pennsylvania law will not be violated by so doing, because the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission performs functions identical to those performed by the Ethics Board,” according to Creany’s ruling.
DeBartola said, “Justice was not served today.”
He has filed 10 complaints with the city’s ethics boards. The ordinance requires all of that information to now be forwarded to the state ethics commission.