Allentown officials were told 13 years ago to rewrite ambiguous language in its home rule charter addressing whether the head of the public works department must be a professional engineer.
Their failure to do so compelled a spirited debate Wednesday over the confirmation of the man who has already led the department for 5? years.
City Council ultimately voted 7-0 to appoint Craig Messinger, a 30-year veteran of the department, to the permanent public works director position at a salary of $121,500. But the unanimous vote wasn’t indicative of the 70-minute hearing that preceded it.
Messinger has served as acting director of the department since April 2014 and is a favorite of council. But he’s not a licensed engineer, and Councilman Ed Zucal contended that disqualifies him from attaining the permanent role.
Some of his colleagues disagreed, citing legal opinions from both the city’s current solicitor and a former solicitor finding the city charter “does not unequivocally establish” that the public works director must be an engineer.
In August, amid a push to oust interim police Chief Tony Alsleben, City Council unanimously passed a ordinance mandating the mayor to schedule a confirmation hearing for cabinet picks within 90 days of naming an interim leader. While a 2006 law restricted the length of temporary appointments, some department leaders have retained “interim” status for years.
O’Connell initially insisted the rule didn’t apply to Messinger because he has led the department since April 2014 as an “acting director” rather than as an interim director. But such a distinction essentially posed another loophole to the confirmation process, and O’Connell on Sept. 26 nominated Messinger for the permanent position.
Up until 2006, Allentown had typically appointed professional engineers to lead the department. That year, Pawlowski nominated Peter Wernsdorfer, who lacked engineering credentials.
The charter states that the mayor “shall appoint and fix the compensation of the head of the Department of Public Works/City Engineer. He or she shall perform the duties required through the Administrative Code or other action, or as may be required of a City Engineer by general law." It also states that all department heads should be selected on the basis of education, training and experience, as well as “professional, executive and administrative abilities.”
Henry Perkin, city solicitor at the time, issued an opinion determining the charter and administrative code do not spell out any qualifications for the public works department head position. But he recommended council revise the charter to clarify the required qualifications for the position. Council appointed Wernsdorfer by a 4-3 vote.
In the years since, council never got around to making clarifications as Perkin suggested. That forced Solicitor Matt Kloiber to revisit Perkin’s opinion and issue his own.
On Wednesday, Kloiber reiterated Perkin’s conclusion that the charter does not unequivocally establish that the public works director must be a professional engineer. In a painstaking memo, Kloiber also took issue with the charter’s ambiguous language, particularly the use of a slash between “head of the Department of Public Works" and “city engineer." That slash, also known as a virgule, could mean “and” or “along with being.”
“Although the [charter] might intend that the City Engineer and Department Director are one in the same, it does not expressly provide for that,” Kloiber wrote. “Applying the various meanings attached to the virgule does not add clarity. In the end there are several reasonable interpretations that may also be possible intents.”
As did his predecessor, Kloiber recommended “in the strongest terms” that council and the O’Connell administration amend the city charter to clarify whether the public works director and city engineer are one in the same, whether the city engineer position should be an appointed office and whether the city may hire an engineering firm to serve as city engineer.
Messinger has most recently been paid $110,000 annually. Despite his relative popularity with council, some members took issue with the magnitude of the raise partially because Messinger lacks an engineering degree. O’Connell reduced the proposed salary to $121,500 from $125,000 last week.
Vice President Julio Guridy made a motion to reduce the salary further, to $115,000. He argued that council, in setting manager salaries, needed to keep in mind the 27% property tax hike it subjected residents to this year.
No one seconded his motion, but Councilwoman Cynthia Mota also wondered if the raise was excessive.
Messinger’s pay has been a sticking point before. Former Mayor Ed Pawlowski nominated him for the permanent position in 2016, but Messinger withdrew his name after council voted 6-1 against a $120,000 salary, up from about $94,000.
Messinger, a Allen High graduate, has worked for the public works department since January 1989. He served as the city’s streets superintendent from 2006 to 2012, and deputy director of public works from 2012 to 2014.
O’Connell praised Messinger for developing a downtown traffic mobility and event management plan ahead of the PPL Center opening. He also touted Messinger’s administrative experience and effectiveness collaborating with the police department, parking authority and business community on numerous initiatives.
Messinger noted that he negotiated a garbage contract that has saved the city $1.5 million per year over a nine-year contract. And he recounted how he stood up to Pawlowski when the mayor handed him bid specifications for a streetlight contract that were tailor-made for the mayor’s preferred bidder. The public works department ended up handling the project in-house and has saved the city millions, Messinger said.
Not a lot of people in similar positions had the integrity to resist Pawlowski’s corruption, Councilman Courtney Robinson said.
“The example he set for all of our employees by standing up to this corruption, no matter at what cost to himself, should always be applauded and supported,” Robinson said.
At least two-dozen public works employees attended the meeting to support Messinger’s appointment. But Ryan Hunsicker, head of the local SEIU chapter, handed out a job listing for the position and questioned whether Messinger met the minimum qualifications for the job, including a bachelor’s degree.
Robinson noted that the job listing goes on to state that “any equivalent combination of related education and meaningful experience may be substituted.”
Messinger lives in North Whitehall Township. In order to serve as the permanent department head, he must establish residency in the city within the next year. Messinger has said that won’t be a problem.
Council on Wednesday also voted unanimously to confirm Glenn Granitz for the permanent police chief position at a salary of $131,300. He’s the fifth police chief in four years.
O’Connell had previously nominated Alsleben, but he resigned first, saying the contentiousness over his nomination has “become an unneeded and divisive distraction" for the city.
Thirty people were shot in the city in June and July, and both O’Connell and Alsleben faced considerable criticism over their response to the spate of gun violence.
O’Connell had set Granitz’s salary at $127,760 entering the meeting, but Zucal said paying Granitz less than Alsleben was “a slap in the face” and called for an increase to $135,000.
Mota and Guridy backed the raise, provoking a number of their colleagues to accuse them of cognitive dissonance given their calls for fiscal responsibility less than an hour before during Messinger’s hearing.
“I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” Council President Roger MacLean said.
Council settled on paying Granitz an equivalent salary to Alsleben’s: $131,300.