5 vying for 4 seats on Cheswick Council
Three Cheswick Council members are hoping voters will agree they’ve done a good enough job to keep their seats on the borough’s governing body.
Council President Paul Jack and members Kathy Gillard and Frank Meledandri Jr. are seeking re-election Nov. 7. They are among five candidates vying for four seats.
Councilwoman Chris Schramm is not seeking re-election.
Lewis Accorsi, a former mayor and councilman, is seeking to return to office. The fifth candidate on the ballot is political newcomer Cathy Crail.
Cheswick was embroiled in controversy this year after a 2016 state auditor general report faulted the borough for not making required contributions to its pension funds in 2014 and 2015; the borough said it didn’t make them in 2016, either.
The borough was served with federal grand jury subpoenas for its financial records in June, the purpose of which remains unclear.
Facing a $505,000 debt to its pension funds, the borough took out a $350,000 loan that went to making them whole. The borough will be paying about $5,300 a month on the loan until June 2023.
Accorsi, who served one term as mayor and two on council, said the pension issue is one of the reasons he’s running again.
“If I was on council while this occurred, it never would have occurred,” he said. “They were all asleep. They weren’t paying attention to what was going on.”
Accorsi said he doesn’t think anybody stole any money, but that it was mismanaged and not kept track of.
“To be truthful, I think they all should have resigned or they all should be thrown out of office right now,” he said.
“I’m an outspoken person. I am not afraid to sit and ask questions,” Accorsi said. “In plain words, we have council people who sit there like a bump on a log and refuse to ask questions and go along with whatever is dictated to them. I’m not that type of person.”
Meledandri, who has been on council for 36 years, said he was embarrassed by the pension troubles.
“As a member of council, I accept some responsibility,” he said. “I wasn’t aware this was going on. If people feel that’s incompetence, maybe they want to (vote) for somebody else.”
Meledandri said Jack has done a “wonderful job” and credited him with putting new systems, checks and balances into place.
“Paul Jack inherited this. He inherited a pretty … poor accounting system,” Meledandri said. “The current council shouldn’t get blamed for this. If anything, they found out about it and reacted to it as soon as they could react to it.”
Gillard said council has reduced how much the borough will have to pay into its pension funds by controlling overtime, having fewer employees and using part-time workers instead of full-timers.
While Gillard said the pension problem has been “fully corrected,” when it comes to why the contributions were not made, “We do not have that answer.”
Gillard is finishing her first four-year term on council, the first elected office she has held.
“I think you need to be on council more than one term to continue to improve that which you have started,” she said. “It takes a while to get used to everything on council. It’s like a job.”
Jack said the borough wasn’t collecting on its water bills, so at the end of the year, there was no money to go into the pension plans.
“It started before I was on council,” he said. “The accounting system was not transparent. It was a very cumbersome accounting system. There really wasn’t any way of noticing that.”
Not all of council received the auditor general’s report, Jack said, and therefore didn’t know the extent of the problem.
Taking out the loan was the “most cost-effective, most expedient” way to take care of it, Jack said.
“Everything’s paid up,” he said. “Once we found out about it, we jumped on it pretty quick.”
Crail, who grew up in the Highland Park area of Pittsburgh and has been in Cheswick for eight years, said all she knew about the pension issue is what she’s read in news reports. “It’s just disappointing to me,” she said. “I hope we can get things turned around to a positive.”
Crail said her main reason for running for council is about seeing Cheswick move in a “positive direction.”
“That’s what residents are wanting as well,” she said. “Cheswick is an older town; there’s a lot of elderly residents living there. They want to see it turned around, too. I want to do everything I can to help that.”