Water talk behind closed door

STEUBENVILLE – City Council met for nearly an hour Tuesday night in a closed-door executive session to discuss the city’s delinquent water bills and the call by four council members for an independent audit of the water fund.

Three sources familiar with the Tuesday night executive session who wished to remain anonymous discussed the details of the executive session meeting.

The scheduled half-hour executive session was called by 3rd Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf for 6 p.m. Tuesday but the discussion continued until 6:55 p.m.

Metcalf declined to discuss details of the meeting saying, “The meeting was called to discuss personnel in an executive session. The details of the meeting will remain in the executive session.

“We will meet in executive session Tuesday as the council as a whole at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the issues again. We will make the public aware during the regular council meeting Tuesday what we have decided,” said Metcalf.

“We discussed personnel during our executive session so I do not believe we violated Ohio’s Sunshine Law governing closed meetings,” added Metcalf.

Mayor Domenick Mucci and Law Director S. Gary Repella were not invited to the executive session Tuesday night.

“I was not invited to the meeting. I asked what it was about and was told it was for water issues. There are only certain criteria under the Sunshine Law that a council can meet in executive session. Those reasons are personnel, the sale or acquisition of property, contract negotiations or possible litigation. I wish I had been allowed into the meeting. The council and other public bodies must follow the Ohio Revised Code or the city charter when holding an executive session,” Mucci said Wednesday.

Four City Council members called for an independent audit of the city’s water fund at last week’s regular council meeting, but City Manager Tim Boland urged patience as city auditors prepare to conduct an annual review of the city’s financial status.

“We can meet with the auditors from Rea and Co. for an entrance conference before they start their annual audit. I already had a productive meeting with the auditors and I told them to pay close attention to the delinquent water accounts. They will look at that issue as they conduct their audit for the next several weeks. It is a good starting point. If it makes sense at that point we can look at an independent audit,” Boland said.

Council will meet in executive session at 5 p.m. today with the auditors to review several issues.

Fifth Ward Councilman Willie Paul and 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna joined ranks last week with 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto and 2nd Ward Councilman Mike Johnson to call for an independent audit after a letter from Craig Klein, president and chief executive officer of Capital Recovery Systems Inc., was read into the council minutes.

The letter was provided to council members and administration officials at the start of last week’s council meeting.

In his letter, Klein said he told the city, “it would be in their best interests to find another (collection) agency. I made this decision based on the fact that there was very little commitment on the city’s part to make this project successful. Debt collection agencies are required by federal law to provide proof of the debt within 30 days of request from a debtor. Our managers did not feel like this was a priority on the city’s part to get us that proof. Cases had to be closed due to not providing proof in a timely manner.”

“I have specific concerns. I would like to see an audit on this issue. Even after the city audit is completed there will still be doubts,” said Villamagna.

“I want an independent audit. I am tired of people pointing the fingers at us,” added Paul.

“I want an independent audit of all of the delinquent accounts. If we collected the money it should be easy to prove. The best way to defend ourselves is with an independent audit,” Johnson said.

“I would suggest the administration have the opportunity to review this letter we received tonight. It is imperative to move forward. We can review this letter and have a follow-up at the next utility committee meeting,” Boland said last week.

“We owe it to Tim to let him do his due diligence and get his footing on this issue. After we meet with Rea and Co. we can determine if we need an independent audit,” responded Metcalf at last week’s meeting.

“We will need a response from the administration on the Capital Recovery Systems letter, we need a definite number on the level of delinquent accounts, we need to look at the idea of holding landlords responsible for their tenants’ delinquent water bills and we need to look at publishing the names of delinquent water accounts in the newspaper and on the city website. I would also like to shrink the timeframe of collecting our water bills. That might help us with the number of delinquent accounts. It may allow us to be more aggressive,” Metcalf said.

The delinquent water account issue also was the focus of the public forum part of the council meeting with city resident Jim Mavromatis calling the city auditors reviewing the accounts, “like having the fox looking at the hen house.”

“When you have an outside auditor they issue their findings. You have to show your customers that you have done everything within your power. There was $3 million in collected delinquent water accounts and that is too much. You need an independent audit,” said Mavromatis.