By David Skolnick
In a somewhat heated and confrontational environment, city council approved legislation by a 5-2 vote to allow the city to solicit offers from companies to lease city-owned land for gas and oil drilling.
But drilling isn’t going to come for some time.
The city needs to resolve a number of issues — including title searches and determining if there are land restrictions — before starting the process of finding a company interested in the leasing rights, said city Finance Director David Bozanich.
Though a precise time line isn’t known, Bozanich said it could take six to eight months.
That also fits with a request from some council members — and originally suggested by state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngs-town, D-60th — to first wait until a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency progress report on fracking is done.
The first progress report is planned for later this year.
But if the study is delayed significantly, the city will move ahead without that information, Bozanich said.
A final draft report is expected for public commentin 2014, according to the EPA. The report, conducted at the request of Congress, will examine any potential impacts fracking has on water.
If the progress report says fracking is bad, the city can halt the process of finding a company willing to lease its land for drilling, Bozanich said. “If it says it’s benign, we’ll proceed,” he said.
Also, council has the right to rescind the legislation it passed Wednesday, Bozanich said.
The time line did next to nothing to change the positions of the nearly 50 people at council’s meeting opposing the drilling.
Some said they plan to get signatures on petitions to overturn council’s vote for either the May 2013 election or a special election before that date.
Councilmen Mike Ray, D-4th, and Paul Drennen, D-5th, voted against the proposal because they want council’s final approval on any drilling contract.
The others disagreed, saying that isn’t done with other contracts.
“We have experienced professionals on staff who can handle this,” said Councilwoman Janet Tarpley, D-6th, during the finance committee meeting before council met in chambers.
Mayor Charles Sammarone recommends using money from the leases toward residential demolition and neighborhood improvements.
Sammarone wasn’t at Wednesday’s council meeting because of a previously scheduled vacation.
During the finance committee meeting, Drennen said council doesn’t always agree on everything, and brought up the 4-3 vote from two weeks ago on a resolution asking state officials to fill a vacant municipal court judicial seat.
That led to a heated exchange between Tarpley, who wants the seat filled, and Drennen, who wants the position eliminated to reduce the city’s budget.
Toward the end of council’s meeting, Drennen apologized “for my outburst.”
Ray Beiersdorfer, a Youngs-town State University professor in its geological and environmental sciences department, told council that approving the ordinance would lead to polluted air, water and soil.
Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, said Beiersdorfer hadn’t said anything against fracking until earthquakes near an injection well occurred last year.
The professor said that wasn’t true.
Another speaker, Tiffany Gregory, criticized council for not putting a proposed charter amendment, proposed by a charter-review committee, that would reduce their annual salaries on the ballot to let voters decide.
If that proposal is not put on the May 2013 ballot, Gregory said she will collect signatures on a petition to put that measure in front of voters.
“We’ll fire your [behinds],” she said.
Gillam said the comment was “very disrespectful.”
Her husband, Artis Gillam Sr., a former councilman, said that serving on council is a full-time position and the $27,817 annual salary is earned.
The charter-review committee recommended reducing council members’ salaries to about $20,722 a year, 80 percent of the average annual income of a city resident.
“It’s a shame that some people are envious of council members that they want to drop councils’ salaries,” Artis Gillam Sr. said.