Burns: Pasquerilla-affiliated consultant immersed in JHA-HUD public housing interactions, planning

Emails show Matt Ward playing key point man role

EBENSBURG, July 28 – The prominent role being played by a Washington, D.C., consultant with close ties to the Mark Pasquerilla-led Greater Johnstown Regional Partnership Inc. has state Rep. Frank Burns asking who is guiding the effort to redo public housing in Cambria County.

Burns, D-Cambria, said Matt Ward, CEO of Sustainable Strategies DC, is point man in a series of emails between Johnstown Housing Authority and U.S. Department of Urban and Development officials going back to February. Those 25 pages of communication, obtained by citizen-journalist John DeBartola in a Right-to-Know request, were forwarded to Burns and other local state elected officials.

Those emails show Ward taking the lead as far back as Feb. 22, when he wrote this to Matthew Heckles, HUD Region 3 regional administrator: “I write on behalf of Johnstown, PA to follow up our initial conversations about the challenges with public housing and other issues in that community. I copy the Johnstown City Manager Ethan Imhoff, Johnstown Housing Authority Director Mike Alberts, and Jeannine McMillan, who is both the Executive Director of the 1889 Center for Population Health, and the person who has agreed to take the lead in coordinating a multi-stakeholder “Johnstown Quality Housing Task Force” to address these community issues … Johnstown is prepared to move forward with that Task Force now, and would be very eager to coordinate with you and any other appropriate HUD colleagues about you coming to Johnstown for a community visit.”

Ward’s front-row involvement continued through March 9, when he wrote Heckels concerning the itinerary for the latter’s visit to Johnstown on April 26-27, and added: “This morning’s news – At one of the most functionally obsolete public housing complexes owned and operated by the Johnstown Housing Authority, called “Prospect Housing”, a ceiling collapsed on a resident, injuring them. Structural engineers have determined that all 101 residents (families with children, elderly, lots of mix of people) need to get out, and get relocated. It is a difficult situation. The press is all over it, we expect the anti-public-housing politicians in the region to demagogue it, etc. Johnstown is in contact with HUD Pittsburgh.”

A third – and lengthy – email authored by Ward on May 26 read, in part: Our idea for what kinds of work Johnstown could do to build on this, to re-imagine the Oakhurst and Coopersdale housing to be better integrated into the community’s assets, jobs, and revitalization efforts, is what the briefing sheet is about … We thought it would be useful for you to understand some key next steps that Johnstown plans to take to keep the positive momentum going.”

Burns said that with Pasquerilla also getting equal billing with Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic on a recent letter sent to Gov. Josh Shapiro seeking state support for city projects, he thinks the public deserves to know who commissioned and is paying for Ward’s services.

“In its own words, Johnstown is seeking a $500,000 U.S. HUD Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant to create a ‘Transformation Plan” for public housing, to get up to $50 million in HUD implementation grant funding,” Burns said. “John DeBartola has uncovered proof that Matt Ward has been a key player in interactions between the JHA, the city of Johnstown and HUD.

“Matt Ward’s been orchestrating things behind the scenes. But who is paying him – and whose interest is he representing? Is he city-approved? JHA-approved? Or Mark Pasquerilla-approved?”

Burns said it’s important for the public to know who is steering this effort, to ensure that any JHA transformation plan begins with reducing its number of units from the current and bloated 1,900, which is a source of poverty migration by out-of-towners and far exceeds true local need.

“We need to make sure that no lobbyist or consultant is working with government entities to increase public housing in Cambria County, and we need transparency on answering the questions of how many units we really need and where would any new units be built,” Burns said.

Burns added that he – as someone who was asked by JHA executive Mike Alberts to leave a meeting where the JHA was briefing Prospect residents on the forced evacuation of their community – finds it interesting that in HUD official Heckles, in a Feb. 22 email to Ward, wrote: “ I would like for you to consider including one additional component – public engagement.  I think it is in there in subtext but I think it should be elevated – the task force should pick up and continue the work started and engage in new activities but it ought to also bring in the citizens of Johnstown to educate them about the true situation and challenges but to gather their input for what the city needs, should advance and the vision it should strive to accomplish.”

“WJAC-TV wasn’t allowed in that Prospect meeting, either,” Burns said. “It’s very telling that they have to be told from above about the importance of public engagement. What they traditionally support is ‘selective public engagement’ – they prefer to exclude those who might ask probing questions or disagree with them.”