January 2, 2013
EDITOR‚??S NOTE: Last of a five-part series on issues that impacted Northeastern Pennsylvania in 2012.
Luzerne County‚??s council-manager home rule government is still a work in progress as it marks its one-year anniversary today.
Is it an improvement over the old structure so far?
One yardstick comes from the home rule charter itself, which was adopted by 55 percent of county voters in November 2010 in the wake of a public corruption scandal that ensnared county officials and judges.
The charter ‚?? which replaced three, full-time elected commissioners with 11 part-time elected council members and an appointed manager ‚?? listed eight promised corrections:
‚?Ę Separate politics from day-to-day decisions by putting that control in the hands of a professional manager and staff instead of elected officials.
Though some council members have requested more information from county Manager Robert Lawton on daily operations, Lawton said no council members have exerted political pressure to sway his actions.
He terminated county election director Leonard Piazza in April and recently hired Dallas resident Marisa Crispell-Barber to fill that position with input from the county‚??s citizen election board ‚?? decisions that would have been made by elected commissioners in the past.
Lawton also awarded dozens of contracts without council involvement.
He and other county managers point to the selection of a new financial software program as an example of the new approach.
The administration publicly sought qualifications from interested suppliers, and a team of workers evaluated options. Laboratories were set up for employees to test and critique.
County Chief Engineer Joe Gibbons said managers have more ownership in the budget process and other decisions.
‚??With the new form of the home rule charter, the professionals have a lot more freedom to use their talents to collaborate and get to the solution of a problem or issue,‚?Ě he said.
‚?Ę Create more opportunities for citizens to serve by expanding from three elected commissioners to 11 part-time council seats.
Forty-nine residents ran for the initial 11 council seats in the May 2011 primary. The 22 nominees were joined by six Independent and third-party candidates in the general election.
Voters picked six Democrats, four Republicans and Rick Williams, who became the county‚??s first Independent-registered elected county official.
The winners spent a collective $148,300 in their campaigns for the $8,000-a-year council positions, compared to a combined $700,000-plus spent by Todd Vonderheid and Greg Skrepenak in their successful 2003 race for commissioner seats that paid $42,000.
The next campaign for five county council seats this year also is expected to draw a crowd of contenders.
‚?Ę Establish ‚??real and meaningful‚?Ě checks and balances that don‚??t exist when commissioners handle both legislative and executive powers.
Lawton and his administrators must issue detailed reports and undergo scrutiny and sometimes criticism when they‚??re seeking needed council approval on union contracts and purchases that will cost more than $25,000.
The manager also will need council confirmation for the eight home rule division heads to be hired this year.
If prior commissioners did this type of extensive grilling in the past, little or none of it was aired in public. Voting matters rarely got on commissioner meeting agendas if two of the three weren‚??t already expected to approve them.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said he and his colleagues spend ‚??a lot of time‚?Ě publicly discussing options and solutions.
‚??I think the major accomplishment of the charter is that a lot more business that was conducted maybe in the past not at a public meeting is now conducted at public meetings,‚?Ě he said.
‚?Ę Eliminate nine independent elected row officers to streamline operations.
The two jury commissioner posts are gone. Register of Wills Dorothy Stankovic continues to oversee her office until her elected term expires at the end of this year. The other impacted offices -- treasurer, deeds, sheriff, coroner, civil and criminal court records ‚?? are managed by existing employees.
Prothonotary Carolee Medico Olenginski, who oversaw civil court records, is being paid through the end of this year, the remainder of her elected term, though Lawton instructed her to stay home.
The former row offices no longer have their own solicitors because the legal department was centralized under home rule.
The wills office is scheduled to move from the county‚??s Penn Place building into the courthouse annex with deeds early next year as part of a merger of those offices now permitted by home rule.
Lawton said the consolidation and restructuring of more offices, including civil and criminal records, will progress this year.
A reduction in the county‚??s roughly 70 to 100 bank accounts also was part of this home rule promise. Lawton said the administration is preparing a public request seeking one banking institution.
‚?Ę Get citizens more involved in county government with evening meetings, advance meeting agenda posting, a manager public forum, budgets with multiyear comparisons and other reforms.
The new government has attracted actively involved citizens, who attend all meetings and regularly speak out.
Council also invites citizens to apply for vacancies on boards, authorities and commissions and publicly interviews applicants.
The 2013 budget presented totals on spending and receipts in every category from 2007 through 2011 and a listing of all funded positions with salaries.
Council posts meeting agendas ‚?? with supporting information ‚?? days in advance.
Some citizens pore over this data and critique it.
Jackson Township resident Ed Chesnovitch, who is among the citizen watchers, said he continues to believe in home rule but doesn‚??t always agree with the decisions of the manager and all council members.
‚??I haven‚??t lost faith in home rule, but sometimes they‚??re interpreting the charter to their satisfaction and not doing things the right way,‚?Ě Chesnovitch said. ‚??If we the citizens weren‚??t there as watchdogs, I don‚??t know what would happen.‚?Ě
‚?Ę Create a s trong ethics code with a mechanism for enforcement of ethics rules and policies.
Council approved an Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Code. The charter put the elected controller and district attorney, county manager and two citizens on the commission that polices the code. Council appointed Margaret Hogan and Vito A. Forlenza to the citizen slots.
Commission members say the code has problems that merit revising by council.
Citizens also have criticized Lawton‚??s frequent abstentions from voting on matters involving council members and workers and characterized the commission‚??s rulings as too lenient.
‚?Ę End nepotism, cronyism and favoritism by requiring hirings based on public notice, merit, fitness and qualifications.
The personnel code adopted by council says all employees will be recruited, selected and promoted through ‚??open and competitive means‚?Ě based on merit.
This code established a process for selecting rank-and-file, or ‚??career service,‚?Ě employees but didn‚??t clearly state whether the procedure must be followed for 350 non-career service positions.
The procedure for career service requires public advertising of vacant positions, initial screening by the human resources department and the development of skills and experience standards used to rate and rank all applicants.
‚?Ę Prevent ‚??ruinous‚?Ě tax increases with an 8-percent cap on property tax revenue increases.
The cap hasn‚??t been tested yet. Council‚??s amended 2012 budget had a 2-percent tax hike, and the 2013 budget keeps taxes the same.