When Warren City Councilman John Lewis offered us his copy of the state's fiscal monitoring report on the ill-fated Allegheny Center for the Arts anchor grant, it was unlikely we would refuse.
We believe, as Mr. Lewis does, that how the public's money is spent should be the public's business.
After reading the report we were surprised at the insistence of the Department of Economic Development and the city government that it be kept out of public view.
The report is a very straight-forward accounting of income and expenditures tied to the $500,000 the DCED provided the city to loan GRO-Warren for the renovation of three adjoining addresses on Liberty Street for an arts center. Nowhere in the report is there any allusion to criminal activity. The money was to be repaid after the project was compete to create a revolving loan fund for future economic development projects.
It simply states where the money went, and in that itemization the best that can be said is that the project and its finances were horribly mismanaged.
There is something else missing in the report. There is no indication of who was calling the shots, who was making the ultimate decisions on how the $500,000 in state money was spent. In that respect one might infer there could be plenty of blame to spread around, the inference being that the city government, as the recipient of the money, failed to properly monitor how it was spent.
Is the report embarrassing for the City of Warren? You bet it is.
But that is pretty much where it stops.
It may not be where the matter ends, however. There are still a number of issues hanging.
1. The primary contractor on the project still hasn't been paid what it is owed, and since the city's "remedy" in response to the report is to simply pump money into a revolving loan fund and abandon the original project, it doesn't appear there is anything in the prescription to satisfy Eriez Construction.
2. There is as yet no indication from the DCED whether the agency will accept the city's remedy, since the report's recommendations include finishing the project.
3. Who, indeed, was calling the shots? It could have been one person; it could have been several, and any attempts to identify them would only be conjecture without some hard evidence.
4. The Times Observer has learned from a number of reliable sources that an investigative grand jury has been working on the ACA debacle for some time. However, grand jury investigations and deliberations are, by nature, secret. The information it compiles could result in indictments, or it could come to naught.
To be sure, the DCED's monitoring report is enlightening, but it begs as many questions as it answers. Even so, it is a start, and we commend Councilman Lewis for his decision to break ranks and take a stand for openness.
One of the problems with governmental or institutional secrecy is that it often results in exactly the opposite outcome that was intended. In the case of Penn State, that institution's attempt to cover for an ex-assistant football coach in an effort to protect its all-important football program and its own reputation has severely damaged the program and the university's reputation.
In the case of the ACA project, the unintended victim, but victim nonetheless, is the city's credibility.