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Elizabeth Township sanitary authority controversy continues

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 2:06 a.m.

Although the pending dissolution of the sanitary authority was not on the Elizabeth Township commissioners meeting agenda Tuesday evening, that didn't stop it from becoming the most-debated issue.

The bickering began during the citizens' comment session, when former authority board chairman Bob Similo confronted township Solicitor Pat McGrail about a petition filed by attorney Jack Cambest on Aug. 28 to stop the sanitary authority from conducting a public meeting later that day.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia ruled that the authority could have the meeting as long as its board members didn't conduct business outside of the restrictions detailed in a June court order.

“So you're telling me that you had the authority from this board to spend our taxpayers' money to try to suppress the First Amendment?” Similo asked. “The right to assemble and the right to free speech?”

“Certainly I don't have the authority from this board to do that,” McGrail responded. “That's kind of silly.”

She clarified that the petition was not thrown out because of any impropriety.

“What it says is, this petition is sustained,” she said. “That means the issues raised in the petition are valid. That is what the order said. The court permitted you to go ahead, but limited you to discuss at the meeting what is the ordinary course of business for the authority. I think it's fair to say that had that order not been entered, that discussion would've gone much further afield from what actually took place.”

Similo said he plans to verify to the American Civil Liberties Union that no civil rights were infringed upon.

Resident Emil Burak, another outspoken opponent of the dissolution plan, pleaded — with a copy of the Constitution in hand — for commissioners to finally offer an explanation as to why they are pursuing the authority's closure.

“Is it that you didn't hear an answer, commissioners president Gene Francesconi said, “or that you didn't hear the answer you want to hear?”

That opened the floodgates for raucous quibbling from audience members and commissioners alike, carping about a long-delayed state Department of Environmental Protection project that was supposed to connect customers served by the treatment plant in Buena Vista to a facility owned by the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport.

That project, which was the object of a 2008 consent order the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority and township have with the DEP and Allegheny County Health Department, was designed to eliminate illegal discharges of untreated sewage into the Youghiogheny River.

Similo assured commissioners that the authority had never missed a deadline. Commissioner Claire Bryce begged to differ.

“At a meeting (of commissioners) with the DEP and the health department, they said they weren't going to issue you a fine, but you hadn't met the deadline,” said Bryce, who referenced a Daily News story from 2003 in which Similo talked about the project. “That's how long you've been doing this, Bob, and it's still not done.”

Similo acknowledged that the authority had been forced in 2003 to pay a $20,000 fine as a result of a sewage spill, but denied any wrongdoing.

The arguing came to a close after about 30 minutes, but the meeting remained relatively contentious throughout.

The commissioners appointed township manager Richard Janus as open-records contact for the township.

The board approved replacement of storm sewer lines by the public works department on Wood, Veatch and Muse streets at an estimated cost of $7,000 and construction time of two to three weeks.

Commissioners rescinded an earlier motion to buy two police cars this year, and unanimously voted to purchase one.

Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or tkaran@tribweb.com.

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