Council members discuss tenures

Two City Council members — Bill Neugebauer and Erik Cagle — whose terms are ending in January did not run for re-election this year. Here, they explain why, and talk about their tenures on council. Republican primary candidates Joseph Carper and Jesse Ickes will be on the ballot in November. Carper and Samantha Paule had been the only Republican primary candidates, with no Democrats running, but Paule withdrew in June because of controversy surrounding anti-American comments she’d made years ago on Facebook. The Altoona members of the Blair County Republican Committee named Ickes to replace her. Mike Leonard is planning a write-in campaign as a Democrat.

Cagle deciding to focus on family

When Erik Cagle began his first term on City Council in 2008, he shied away from asserting himself in favor of learning the issues.

That continued until 2011, when he disappointed himself by not speaking up as forcefully as he might have in favor of the city’s funding a spray park to replace Juniata Memorial Pool, which the Central Blair Recreation & Park Commission had closed, because of a failed filtration system.

Council allocated the money anyway, but the self-disappointment led Cagle to confide his feelings to fellow Councilman Bruce Kelley, who urged him to have the confidence of his convictions whenever he was passionate about an issue — advice that Cagle wants to pass on to newly elected officials, as he contemplates the end of his own service, having decided not to run for re-election.

“(Kelley) helped me realize I had good ideas,” and that he shouldn’t hesitate to share them, said Cagle, one of two council incumbents — Bill Neugebauer is the other — who didn’t run in the primary.

While wishing he’d been more assertive early in his 12-year council career, Cagle confessed to ambivalence in the ending of that tenure.

In 2016, he’d begun his third term with the intention of that being the last — “a self-imposed term limit,” he said.

Yet, when the time came this year for candidates to pick up petitions to circulate for the primary, supporters urged him to reconsider.

And he was receptive.

He liked being on the rec commission, liked being chairman of the Intermunicipal Relations Committee, which handles recycling for three of the county’s biggest municipalities, liked being legislative co-chair for the Pennsylvania Municipal League and liked being part of city leadership during a time when the city seems once again to be thriving.

So he pulled a petition and acquired the necessary 100 signatures.

But then, a few days before the completed petitions were due at the county election office, he spoke with his wife and started thinking about his children, one of whom is ready to enter college, another of whom is ready to enter high school and another of whom is ready to enter sixth grade, and thought of how he wanted to pay closer attention to their lives “before they’re grown and gone.”

He thought also of additional responsibilities recently placed on him in his job as manager of custodial operations and the labor crew at Penn State University Park and about there being two Republican candidates already planning to run for his and Neugebauer’s seats.

He changed his mind and didn’t file that petition.

He didn’t file, but unlike Neugebauer, who doesn’t foresee running again, Cagle thinks he might give it another try in 15 years or so, after his retirement from Penn State, he said.

He first ran after several people approached him with the idea that he could bring a Christian perspective to council.

“I never felt called on to be a pastor or in the ministry, but the Bible says that “governmental leaders are (also) ministers of God,” he said.

He found that for him, that ministry took the form not of “fancy speeches” or convenient “soundbites,” but rather ideas on managerial problem-solving, the kind of work he does for Penn State, he said.

He shared those ideas often “in the background” — at planning meetings or in executive sessions, he said.

Of all the contributions he’s made, he’s most pleased with his advocacy for the spray park.

He believed in it early, when few others shared the enthusiasm, he said.

That belief has proved to be justified, as the park has been a success, especially in its offering of pleasant summer relief for people with disabilities who might have difficulty with pools, he said.

He’s also pleased at having been part of the city’s leadership during its time in the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program, which has been a major factor in Altoona’s recovery from near insolvency.

There were doubters about that too, Cagle said.

“A lot thought we would use it as a crutch,” he said. “But we were bound and determined to get in and get out and make a mark.”

Cagle has been “very thoughtful” about the decisions he made on council, Kelley said.

He’s been “a great fit” on recreational issues, having been involved in those kinds of issues as a kid and as the father of kids now, said former Councilman Michael Haire.

Cagle was also helpful in vetting candidates for manager, crafting questions that revealed candidates’ character, Haire said.

He took his council duties seriously, Cagle said.

That shows in his having kept a “memento box” for agendas, groundbreaking ceremony programs and newspaper clippings on council’s doings.

“So I can tell my grandkids,” Cagle said. “I want to let them know I was willing to put myself out there to make a difference.”

Neugebauer: Time for someone else

Bill Neugebauer, a retired Altoona Area School District teacher, used to tell his students they should “get involved” if they felt they could do some good for the city.

Neugebauer, 73, a city councilman, followed his own advice and ran initially for a two-year term nine years ago.

He didn’t run in this year’s primary because he was following another of his beliefs in the wisdom of political term limits.

“I think we need to get new ideas,” Neugebauer said. “It’s somebody else’s turn.”

Neugebauer won’t consider running for council again, because of his age and because he was planning an effort to become president-elect of the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees, an organization with 23,000 members.

Neugebauer first ran for council upon the encouragement of friends, including Bruce Kelley, a fellow councilman.

The availability of a two-year term, to complete the term of a councilman who’d resigned, was ideal, he said.

“If it wasn’t what I thought it would be, I would only have invested two years,” he said.

He was pleased at how it went, and ran again, and won again, twice, for the standard four-year terms.

It will all end in early January.

He’s most pleased about his participation in council’s decision to enter the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program.

The city entered Act 47 about two years before it would otherwise have faced bankruptcy, he said.

It has worked so well, stabilizing city finances, allowing Altoona to become the first city to exit the program successfully, largely because of the “dedication and hard work” of city employees as well as the foresight of city leadership, Neugebauer said.

“The employees gave up a lot,” he said. “They worked for no raises (for several years) to help the city get back on its feet.”

Doing so required them to trust the leaders — just as it helped increase the leaders’ trust in them, he said.

“We had to work together as a team,” Neugebauer said. “it was no longer management vs. labor, but everybody on the side of getting the city repaired.”

All organizations work best when there’s mutual trust between leadership and the rank-and-file, he said.

He knows that by personal experience, as a member of the teachers union for 35 years, he said.

There were times when trust was lacking during that career, he said.

But when it existed, when trust was mutual; both sides worked together for one goal — the good of the students, he said.

Neugebauer is also pleased at his work on the Altoona Water Authority, to which he was appointed several years ago, before the city took over the water systems, which it allows the authority to continue to operate, in return for a rental fee that goes into the city’s general fund.

That too required trust by authority employees, a trust that earned by the city after initial skepticism, inspired by early threats of privatization.

“I think they feel comfortable now,” Neugebauer said of the authority employees.

Asked what he wishes he’d done differently during his time on council, Neugebauer said he couldn’t think of anything.

Neugebauer was funny, “a joker,” well-known in the community because of all his years as a teacher and also well-liked, said former Councilman Michael Haire.

Being retired, he had time to represent council at ceremonial functions, which was especially useful in the years before home rule established a full-time mayoral position, Haire said.

He was “a great voice of reason,” Kelley said. “He was someone (of whom) you always wanted to seek their opinion.”

“It’s been a good ride,” Neugebauer said.