Members of Warren City Council had mixed reactions following the state Department of Community and Economic Development's fiscal monitoring report that was provided to the Times Observer on Monday by Councilman John Lewis.
Mayor Mark Phillips said he's glad the public will see the document. Council isn't surprised, he said, as members have had copies of the report in their possession.
The DCED had said not to release it, Phillips said, so he didn't want to do so in fear of repercussions. However, Lewis decided to share his copy.
"I'm glad it's out there," Phillips said. "It helps clear the air."
From what he's been told, Phillips said the city will continue to work with hired legal counsel to determine how best to proceed with the lawsuit against GRO-Warren. He predicted the situation will be brought to an end sometime in the future.
The document speaks for itself, Phillips said, and answers the question of where the money was spent. People often ask how that amount of money could be spent, he said, but with a $1 million to $2 million project there's a lot of upfront design work.
Maurice Cashman, council vice president, also said the report speaks for itself. So, too, does the city's response.
"I knew this a long time ago," Cashman said. "I went down to GRO-Warren in May 2011 where I discovered most of this stuff and reported back to council."
According to Cashman, council had to wait for the results of the audit, DCED's response, and the consequences. He said he thought it was the responsibility of DCED to release the report as officials in the department said they were still studying it under the state's Right To Know law.
It was an ongoing investigation, Cashman said, but Lewis made the decision he wanted to release it and did so. As far as Cashman knows, he said Lewis did so without consulting anyone.
Right now, Cashman said council is waiting for DCED to respond to council's response to the report. The lawsuit will proceed, he said, and the repayment program will start Jan. 1.
Lewis said to him, it's a public document. Council responded in public, he said, and to not give the document the same airing as the response is inconsistent.
"That's the only reason I released it," Lewis said.
Lewis said it would have been difficult to understand the city's response without knowing the specifics of what was in the report. He contended that DCED's rationale for turning down the Times Observer's Right-To-Know requests weren't valid.
"This is not Harrisburg. This is Warren," Lewis said. "People here know some of the specifics. Without the document, they can't see how Warren is involved."
Lewis said he is also of the opinion Warren needs to be more open. Right-To-Know requests are a public method for obtaining documents, he said, and the public should have access.
Nothing in the report accuses anyone of wrongdoing, Lewis said, but only determines if funds were spent within guidelines. Neither the city nor DCED had monitoring frameworks to account for each penny of taxpayer money.
"To keep that from taxpayers, I find it unnerving," Lewis said. "Government spending should be out in the public."
Members of council voted on the project in public, Lewis said, and he apologizes if releasing the document embarrassed city officials. However, he said, it was needed to heal the wound caused by the situation.
Everyone will have to wait and see what repercussions come, Lewis said, but he thinks it would be immature for the state to get angry over the document being released. In his mind, it should never have been hidden in the first place.
"I take full responsibility," Lewis said. "It's out there. The people will determine the next step."
DCED has to approve or turn down the city's plan, Lewis said, and he doesn't think that decision should hinge on his release of the document. That state agency waited 30 days and then turned down a Right-To-Know request for the document, he said, but the city leadership promised in January to release the report when it was received. It took five months just to get the report to the city.
Councilman Christopher Park said he doesn't know what will happen next, but thinks council has to wait until it hears back from DCED.
Councilman Sam Harvey said the bottom line is the money was misspent. There was no indication it was stolen, he said, and council's response to DCED lays out what's going to happen in the future.
GRO-Warren misspent the money, Harvey said, and council will try to recover it. Legal counsel will work up a strategy, he said, and move forward with a lawsuit which will result in a settlement or court case.
Releasing the document was a good idea, Harvey said, and the reason it wasn't done earlier was because DCED as the author asked council not to do so. Council was in a position of negotiating the terms of how to make things right with DCED and didn't want to release it against the state agency's will.
"I was going to bring it up at the next public meeting after the July meeting," Harvey said. "DCED refused the information request. We assumed after we sent our response they would release it. I have no problem with John (Lewis) doing it."
Everyone on council is trying to be financially responsible at this point, Harvey said, and make sure taxpayers are not left holding the bag. The situation shows the dangers of public-private partnerships, he said, and what happens when the government strays from what it should be doing into complicated, multi-level deals.
"It's dangerous territory," Harvey said.