Veteran Trafford councilman Bruno is resigning
For most of the past decade, Frank Bruno was the face of Trafford politics.
Confrontational, confident and a consummate hands-on micromanager, he was involved in every aspect of borough government. He helped lead Trafford out of debt, celebrated when it became debt free and said he has no regrets as he leaves office with the borough once again in debt but with a new fire station and new borough building.
Although he never held the borough council presidency, he was the driving force behind wiping out nearly $1 million in borough debt, and as a result, he won financial recognition for the borough and himself. After weathering political attacks and engaging in spirited battles with other local officials, he resigned last week as a councilman whose political authority had been diminished over the past year by his colleagues.
The longtime finance chairman no longer sat on a council committee. The one-time power broker said he no longer felt he was accomplishing anything.
“To go from being the point man to not even leading a committee — what's the point?” he asked. “There is no point.”
In his resignation letter, he cited an “ever-growing conflict on Council” that was “not only unproductive, but bad for the community overall” for the reason of his departure.
“I enjoyed helping the town of Trafford, and I hold my head up high,” Bruno, 44, said. “I wouldn't change anything. If I were still on council, I would be running things the same way if I were still in charge.”
Bruno's legacy is that of helping pull the borough out of debt amid the construction of a new borough government building on Brinton Avenue and then being forced from the leadership last year when some council members complained about overspending on the new public-safety building beside it.
Until a council shakeup in March 2012, Bruno handled the borough finances without much second-guessing.
His track record included the management of a six-year austerity plan to purge a $967,500 debt by 2009, when the borough's annual budget was $1.2 million.
At meetings in a new, $1 million borough building that opened in 2007, Bruno set up a giant chart to illustrate the debt and how far the borough had to go to eliminate it. When council approved the final payment in May 2009, officials passed out glasses of champagne to celebrate with about 25 residents.
Council accomplished the task without a tax-rate increase, which led to the borough receiving the Governor's Award for Local Government Excellence in the category of fiscal accountability that year. The next year, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs gave Bruno the Distinguished Service Award.
With the debt cleared and two years of modest tax-rate decreases, council in 2010 embarked on a solution to the deteriorating century-old fire station on Duquesne Avenue. Officials raised the tax rate by 26 percent to pay for the debt service on construction of a new station after Trafford didn't receive a federal stimulus grant for the project.
The decaying fire station had clogged sewers and a mice problem, said Tom Dobrinick, the assistant fire chief and treasurer for the Trafford Fire Company.
Bruno headed the borough building committee in meetings that were closed to the public — which prompted the Penn-Trafford Star to object that the committee violated the state's open-meetings law — and pushed the project forward on the firefighters' behalf.
Dobrinick said some criticize Bruno and say he made decisions for personal gains. But he said Bruno “had the town at heart.”
“He wanted to do that to get us out of there, and he was very instrumental in getting the plans reactivated after a while,” said Dobrinick, who served on the building committee. “I definitely would give him credit for getting that ball rolling.”
After the shovels hit the ground in summer 2011, though, some officials reiterated their worries about the cost. Last February, John Daykon, Vicki Megon and Henry Schultz said they worried about the borough's ability to pay for construction.
At that point, the borough was committed to $2.4 million in contracts — $400,000 more than the loan for the project.
Bruno insisted he could keep the budget in order, but council voted 4-3 in March to eject him as vice president.
Voted in as the new president, Rich Laird then removed Bruno as finance chairman and put Daykon and Megon in charge of the committee. Laird said one of the problems with the project was the lack of transparency because the building meetings were closed until Mayor Rey Peduzzi took over the committee.
Council members later refinanced Trafford's new debts and estimated the building might cost $2.6 million when every bill is tallied up.
“Even today, the building is over-designed and over-priced for what we need in Trafford, but you can't keep hammering over spilt milk,” Laird said. “It's over. We have to make the best of it.”
Bruno said there's a big difference between the debt the borough had in the early 2000s and the debt it has now. He termed the debt when he came into office as “bad debt.” For example, he said, the borough still was paying for police cars that no longer were in service.
Bruno said people mistook him for a fiscal conservative because he was so focused on eliminating borough debt early on that. The Democrat said he didn't have a single-minded debt-reduction mindset when he joined Trafford Council; rather, he said, the situation dictated an aggressive approach to finances. Because of the reputation he built during his early days on council, he said, some supporters turned on him when he pushed for the new fire station.
“I think I disappointed some people who supported me because of the austerity plan,” he said. “I still stand by the decision that it had to be built. That's a 30-year debt on a 100-year building.”
Given his blunt and confrontation style, Bruno frequently was a lightning rod for controversy. He regularly was a target of anonymous political mailings leading up to local elections. He — as well as other members of council — had heated arguements with former Mayor Mary Dobos, and then he faced criticism from former ally Brett Lloyd after Lloyd left council.
Then, in May of 2010, Bruno bought a home in Hempfield.
Bruno said his political opponents made the new house a campaign issue a year later by showing pictures of it to voters outside the polls, but he was re-elected to a third term, anyway.
The Westinghouse engineer maintains Trafford as his primary residence, but his family calls Hempfield home. Bruno, who said he is in Trafford almost every day, remains a registered voter at his borough home.
Bruno said he never hid his ownership of the Hempfield home and even wrote a letter to the editor in June 2010 to describe the purchase but explain his intention to stay on council unless the borough solicitor determined he wasn't qualified. An opinion from Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck supported his position.
Records the Penn-Trafford Star obtained this month from the Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority show a significant decrease in water consumption at Bruno's Trafford home since mid-2010.
For the six meter readings from February 2009 to April 2010, the water consumption recorded averages 13,869 gallons per quarter. Usage fell to 2,057 gallons for a reading in August 2010 and then averaged 150 gallons for the following nine billing cycles.
To put that into perspective, the average American uses about 60 gallons of water a day at home, according to Save Water PA, a nonprofit organization focused on water conservation.
“I never denied I stay at both homes and continue to maintain my residency in Trafford,” he said. “It may have been a political point but certainly not a legal one. My wife and kids are at Hempfield all the time since 2010, so there would be a water drop-off.”
Laird, who has spent winter months in Arizona in past years, said he was aware of the decline in water usage at Bruno's home.
“That was one of the things we had in our docket for a challenge, but it's past tense now,” Laird said.
But challenges to legal residency aren't an open-and-shut cases, said Michael Witherel, an experienced municipal solicitor in Allegheny County. When someone has multiple properties, it's difficult to prove that they aren't living at more than one address, he said.
He pointed to the example someone he knows who works in the Pittsburgh area on Mondays through Thursdays and then returns to North Carolina to live with his wife.
“You don't want to disenfranchise voters if a person has a residence in each community,” Witherel said. “If he still owns a home and pays his taxes, it's going to be very difficult for a judge to say he doesn't live there.”
Tammi DeMarchi, an 18-year borough resident who served with Bruno on the borough recreation board, credited Bruno for doing a lot of little things behind the scenes to make sure community events ran smoothly. She said he is “unappreciated.”
“I think he's truly going to be missed in this community, and I think we're going to notice it without him,” DeMarchi said. “He's just a go-getter, and it's hard to find people like him with his dedication, and to lose people like him is just sad.”
In making the motion last week to accept Bruno's resignation, Councilman Casey Shoub thanked him for his assistance on various building and sewer projects.
“I really respected his help and really appreciated it in all of those times,” Shoub said.
But a neighbor, Tom Babeo, said Bruno was a divisive figure in town. Babeo, a former councilman, said his relationship with Bruno soured after what he called Bruno putting some of the blame for the past borough debt on his shoulders.
Babeo who lives near Bruno's home, said it was a “complete sham” that Bruno continued to say Trafford was his primary residence.
“He's doing the town a favor,” Babeo said. “We'll be a lot better off without him.”
Laird said that there were good and bad points to Bruno's time on Council, though he said he disagreed with much of the planning for the public-safety building.
“(Bruno's tenure is) kind of a chapter I'm putting behind me,” Laird said. “There's no sense in me really talking about it. We took control and straightened things out, and that was for the good of Trafford.”
Bruno, too, said he's putting his time as a local official behind him. Asked if he will ever seek office again, he quickly responded with a firm “No.”
Even though he was the most influential Trafford official of at least the past 10 years, he said he never considered himself a politician. Politicians aren't as blunt as he is, he said, and he wasn't good at telling people what they wanted to hear to win their support.
“I never was a politician,” he said. “I have no desire to be one.”
News editor Brian Estadt contributed to this report. Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.