Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton unexpectedly launched into a detailed report on finances and administrative activities Tuesday in response to repeated complaints from some county council members that they’re in the dark.
County Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski, who presided over the meeting in chairman Rick Morelli’s absence, interrupted Lawton as he was in the middle of answering Councilwoman Kathy Dobash’s recent request for a status report on each expense running over-budget.
Brominski said the presentation should be made at a work session, not a voting meeting.
“I’m trying to be transparent,” Lawton said.
The manager continued clarifying issues that have been raised by critics. He said the county’s new financial software system is saving $200,000 over four years compared to the prior system and listed contracts funded by the $1.15 million consulting allocation to show the money is being spent for advanced technical expertise or work that can’t be handled in-house due to a conflict of interest.
“We’re not hiring a bunch of people to come in and do our jobs for us,” Lawton said.
Brominski interjected again. “I feel like I’m sitting in church and the priest is reading the bulletin to me,” he said.
Lawton returned to his seat, saying, “You know what, I’m done.”
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck objected to Brominski’s refusal to allow her to ask Lawton a follow-up question, but Brominski wouldn’t budge.
Kingston resident Brian Shiner scolded council members during public comment for allowing themselves to be “bullied” by the chair. He said council should take control and allow Lawton to finish his presentation.
After council’s voting session wrapped up in about an hour, Lawton told council and the audience he’s willing to pick up where he left off, prompting some audience members to applaud.
Brominski left, though the remaining members stayed for some or all of the briefing, which continued for about two hours and turned into a question-and-answer forum for council and the public to grill Lawton and his division heads on a multitude of subjects.
Lawton said he will post his report on the county’s website, www.luzernecounty.org, and provide similar updates once a month.
Prison overtime was among the topics discussed during the manager’s presentation because 74 percent of the $650,000 budgeted for the expense was spent through May 31.
Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt said overtime can’t be avoided because the prison is at maximum capacity and operating on minimum staffing levels, and he must honor personal and vacation leave guaranteed in the prison union contract.
Nesbitt said he will try to reduce spending in other areas so he ends the year within budget overall.
During the voting session, council voted to purchase the county’s main 911 tower on 0.14 acres in Mountain Top for an appraised $112,000 and hire Exeter resident Tina Mantione as the new courthouse cafeteria operator, which will generate new rental income and result in an estimated $70,000 in renovations funded by Mantione.
Only one of three proposed home rule charter revisions received four votes required to advance to the full council for ordinance adoption: a change that would require at least six — not four — of 11 council votes to reopen and potentially amend the budget and tax rate before Feb. 15 in the years following council elections. If a council majority approves the charter change, it must be adopted by voters in November to take effect.
The other revisions would have allowed council to relax restrictions for citizens serving on outside boards and authorities on a case-by-case basis and to appoint registered voters who are not Democratic or Republican to the county ethics commission and election board.
McClosky Houck also corrected Dobash during the meeting for a recent letter-to-the-editor in which Dobash said McClosky Houck used the word “irresponsible” to describe support for the proposed spending of $2 million of the county’s remaining $18 million capital funding for Moon Lake Park improvements. McClosky Houck said she never used that word and accused Dobash of writing an “outright lie.”