JOHNSTOWN, Pa .– The City of Johnstown used taxpayer dollars to send residents copies of a flyer endorsing positions on the seven referendum questions on this year’s general election ballot.
Johnstown’s official municipal website also contained a message encouraging voters to vote a certain way.
City council earlier this year approved the questions.
Many lawyers and state officials experienced in elections were contacted by The Tribune-Democrat, and none immediately recalled having encountered such a problem before.
The city’s charter of autonomy does not provide any specific law indicating whether public money can be spent on electoral declarations. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Department said the answer likely lies in local law on how the funds can be used, more than anything at the Commonwealth level. The individual suggested contacting the county attorney.
Cambria County attorney William Barbin said, “I do not consider this a violation.”
Barbin added: “Honestly, I’m not prepared to say that I think it’s inappropriate because they’re really saying, ‘Here’s what the board passed this summer, and it’s going to be on the ballot for. that you make a decision on. And, of course, they highly recommend it.
The city of Johnstown recently published legal opinions with the questions and explanations in plain English – but no recommendations on how to vote – in The Tribune-Democrat.
“A flyer like the newspaper would have been absolutely no problem, and I don’t think anyone would have questioned it,” Barbin said. “It’s that aspect of approval. But the approval really just repeats that when they passed it, they approved it. “
“Influencing the voters of the city”
Republican mayoral candidate John DeBartola considers the city’s use of taxpayer money to send out a leaflet endorsing a position on referendums “outrageous.”
“I am shocked and appalled (that) taxpayer money has been used to influence voters in the city to vote in a certain way,” DeBartola said. “While it may be legal, it is appalling to me that Mayor (Frank) Janakovic and the city council have sat down and allowed this to happen.”
DeBartola supports maintaining the residency requirement for the City Manager.
He also wants to keep the use of ordinances, as they require the passage of two readings in separate meetings, unlike resolutions, which only require one vote.
“The mayor and council appear determined to make their way in removing the residency requirement from the city charter and removing double voting to ensure tax transparency,” DeBartola said.
Janakovic, a Democrat, supports referendums which he believes will improve what he called an “obsolete” charter nearly three decades old.
“The referendum questions are the result of an exit plan initiative (law 47) that the council has put in place to review the charter. … The initiative is neither political nor partisan, ”said Janakovic. “We are looking at good government initiatives based on the committee review process. “
He described voter awareness and education as an “eligible municipal expense”, but also stressed that “this leaflet was not sent by the city council”.
“It was sent through a combination of the town hall administration and part of the Act 47 group who sent it and then tied it up so people would be educated and understand exactly what they are voting for. . So it wasn’t meant to be biased, ”Janakovic said. “It was supposed to relay the facts.”
The Act 47 team did not comment when asked about it.
Voters said: “Vote YES”
A question put to the ballot asks: “Should section 601 (a) of the charter of autonomy of the city of Johnstown be amended to allow the city council to determine by ordinance whether to require the city manager to he becomes a resident of the city? If approved, the measure would give city council the option of eliminating the residency requirement for the post of city manager.
Four referendums relate to modifying procedures to allow certain cases to be dealt with with resolutions instead of orders.
Two others concern the budget and contracts.
The message on the leaflet is unequivocal: “Vote YES to the changes to the Charter!
There are opinions that the proposed changes will make city council more efficient and remove bureaucracy. “Save your taxes! Is added.
A similar message – “Vote YES to the changes to the Charter! – is on the website: https://cityofjohnstownpa.net/vote-yes-to-charter-amendments/.
“On Tuesday, November 2, residents of the city will have the opportunity to vote on the proposed amendments to the city’s charter of autonomy,” according to the message. “These proposed changes will allow your municipal administration to work faster and more efficiently to provide you with quality public service. These changes will streamline governance to make your city a better place. These changes also open up city council to reconsider the residency requirement for a manager, create a better candidate pool and find an expert candidate to oversee the city.
Referendums are supported by the city’s administration and Bill 47 recovery team, as Johnstown prepares to exit the state’s troubled municipalities program by April 28, 2023.
“Formal action of the city”
Acting City Manager Dan Penatzer said he made the decision to send 9,544 letters at a cost of $ 2,600 for printing and postage. The flyers included the note: “Paid for by the Town of Johnstown. “
“They (the city council members) didn’t officially approve it,” Penatzer said. “I approved it. The Council is aware of this. It will be approved as a normal and routine matter, that is when it comes to expenses. “
Penatzer said he consulted with city lawyer Elizabeth Benjamin, who did not respond to a request for an interview. He did not see the leaflet as making a political statement, but rather provided information about a plan supported by the council.
“We did not see it as supporting a political decision in this way,” said Penatzer. “It was actually an ordinance that was passed by city council, and what they’re doing is promoting or supporting the terms of that ordinance. It is an action of the city, an action of the Municipal Council, which is sought. It is not like an unrelated foreign policy position. This stems from a formal action by the city. I think that’s the difference.
Some flyers have also been sent to out-of-town residents, who cannot vote on referendums.
“We have tried to limit that,” said Penatzer. “They are delivered by road, by post. … Postal routes are not along the city line. They cross the city limit. So if the route was basically Johnstown then we included that route. And, in such a case, they’ll be delivered to everyone on that route, and that could be a Conemaugh, or a Ferndale, or a township address.
” Political campaign “
Former city councilor Charlene Stanton, a candidate for this year’s election, sharply criticized the city for sending the flyer and posting approval of a position on the website. She supports “no” votes on ballot issues.
“The city budget authorizes the spending of all funds,” Stanton said. “Where in the current budget is it allocated to spend money on political campaigns? Nowhere. The Council is the city’s legislative body. When did the council authorize the spending of taxpayer money on this? They didn’t, because it should have happened at a council meeting – at a public meeting.
“The city’s website is funded by taxpayer dollars. The City’s website contains a link that says “vote yes to referendums”. Again, this is a political campaign to move the agenda of the current board members forward, as they are the ones who put these referendums on the ballot. “
Stanton added, “There are provisions in election laws, in addition to the required campaign finance reports.”
Deputy Mayor Marie Mock said she was okay with the city using public funds to send out the flyers and compared the spending with the money the city had to spend on defending itself in numerous lawsuits brought by Stanton and former city councilor Jack Williams.
“Tax money is used to do a lot of things,” Mock said. “All the advertising, everything that needs to be done in the city, is done with taxpayer dollars. Whether everyone agrees one way or the other, that’s how it is. We don’t scrutinize every penny for everything.
“All the advertising, everything that is done, is thanks to taxpayer dollars. We watch it. Why wasn’t everyone angry when we spent (big money) on legal fees when they turned out to be nothing? “
She compared the leaflet and website posts to as Penatzer includes recommendations for voting items on the council’s agenda, although those documents are not bound by election law.
“This is no different from a recommendation on the agenda on an item that needs to be voted on,” Mock said. “The Director General presents the item on the agenda, his recommendation is to approve it or not to approve it. This is his recommendation. We don’t have to comply.