By Andrew Waite
JOHNSTOWN — Both mayoral candidates in the City of Johnstown are pledging to prioritize financial openness.
Republican Amy Praught and Democrat Michael Rose both expressed disappointment in past financial transparency dating to City Treasurer Michael Gifford’s tenure, which began in the late 1990s and ended recently after he announced that he would not seek re-election this year. Thomas Herr, the interim treasurer who has been on the job since the beginning of this month, is running unopposed in the upcoming general election.
“In the past, there wasn’t always that transparency with the treasurer’s office. I think there will be more transparency,” Praught said.
Rose said, if elected, he would initiate a financial audit by a certified public accounting firm shortly after taking office.
“We need to get back to where we have a baseline between what our budget is and what we’re spending,” he said. “No matter what, we’ve got to get a CPA firm to come in and audit the books. I want to scope this out correctly.”
While the candidates do agree on the need for more financial transparency, they differ in other big ways. Praught, 52, is very much a political insider in the city, having served for a year and a half as a 3rd Ward council member until leaving her post in May because she moved to a house outside her ward, she said. Meanwhile Rose, 48, embraces the role as an outsider.
“The nepotism will end. Goodbye, done,” Rose said.
Rose and Praught are both interested in having the treasurer position be appointed, rather than elected.
“One of my goals, possibly, is also to make that position an appointed position and not an elected position,” Praught said.
Rose said the model of an appointed treasurer would lead to more qualified candidates. He said he wished Herr well, but he questioned Herr’s credentials. The Leader-Herald has previously reported that Herr’s Facebook profile indicates he “studied Accountancy at State University of New York at Cobleskill” in 2010 and “Studied Bachelors of Science in Accounting and Business Administration at SUNY Plattsburgh” in 2012.
Herr confirmed his credentials Wednesday night. He also confirmed that he is not a certified public accountant.
The Johnstown city treasurer’s office has no formal education requirements and is open to any citizen over the age of 18 living in the city.
Praught said she wants to meet with Fulton County officials to explore the possibility of including the city of Johnstown in the Hornell Plan, which she said would put duties like tax collection into Fulton County’s hands.
“The past treasurer never wanted to be involved with that,” she said. “He always wanted Johnstown to be responsible for collecting its own taxes.”
The candidates said part of the motivation for financial openness has to do with the pending bond issue. As The Leader-Herald reported this summer, the city is seeking a roughly $12 million bond to pay for capital projects and equipment acquisitions. More than $7 million of the total request came from the city’s elected Water Board, The Leader-Herald reported.
Rose questioned the motivation behind the bond.
“Six months before an election we’re going to request $13 million? It’s not looking good,” he said.
Praught said the upgrades to the water system were necessary.
“What’s in the bond is a necessity as far as the Water Department goes,” Praught said. “The infrastructure in the water system is outdated.”
Praught pointed to the High Daddy dam, which she said is uninsurable because it is “beyond repair.”
Praught and Rose also want to reconsider the amount of money spent on emergency response services in the city.
However, Rose’s approach is much more blunt, saying, “I’m firing people on day one.” He vows to remove all emergency department heads, notably Fire Chief/Code Enforcement head Bruce Heberer and Chief of Police David Gilbo.
Part of Rose’s issues with the emergency response department leaders stems from an ongoing legal issue, in which Rose says he is being sued by the City of Johnstown for building a new deck on his home in 2013 without a permit. He says he did not obtain a permit, but he believes the crackdown is politically motivated. Rose is an unapologetic critic of former President Donald Trump and of town leadership.
But the other part of Rose’s issue with the city’s police and fire departments comes down to conduct and demeanor, he said. He believes officers display too much force.
“This has turned into Baghdad,” he said of Johnstown’s streets, describing sirens blaring too often. “I don’t know what the hell they are doing, and it’s getting weird.”
Rose said he would replace the current police chief with a woman.
“I’m going to hire a woman. I think they are better at de-escalation procedures, better at communications,” he said.
Praught said she planned to evaluate whether the city is paying too much for ambulance services and whether some of the costs could be offset by shifting some emergency response duties to Fulton County. She said the council has never been presented with sufficient financial reporting on the city’s ambulance services.
“We need an evaluation of how much it’s really costing us,” she said. “I want to keep the ambulance service, I do. But let’s find out from the get-go how much we’re spending.”
Praught said she also wants to address blight and plans to establish a landlord registry requiring that all landlords officially list a point of contact within the city who is responsible for caring for a property.
The two candidates, both Johnstown residents who have raised children in town, differ in their style. Praught, who wore black-framed glasses that matched her top, chooses her words carefully. Rose, who unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a T-shirt declaring, in salty language, that Trump lost, lets profanity and off-color language fly. He has a life-size leg lamp from the movie “A Christmas Story” in his living room window and a sign in his house saying “it’s all sh–s and giggles until someone giggles and sh–s.” He admits that his offbeat personality may be off-putting to some voters in town.
But, he says, if it gets people talking about the city and interested in what’s going on, he’s happy.
“This will be a show. But it’s going to get people thinking, and it’s going to get people changing,” Rose said. “I’ll take the bullets.”