Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton has blocked his receipt of emails from all County Council members except the chair — prompting Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski to threaten to publicly call for Lawton’s resignation due to insubordination.
The controversy is part of a broader ongoing debate about the powers and duties of council and the manager under the 2-year-old home rule government.
Lawton said a Jan. 31 email exchange drove him to instruct the IT department to reject non-chair council emails to his account, including emails from the private accounts of council members. The 10 remaining council members must send emails to the manager through Chairman Rick Morelli.
The Jan. 31 email thread started with a communication to all council members about the county’s tax collection payment to Kingston. Councilman Rick Williams forwarded the email to Lawton and asked him to reply to the municipality.
“I thought all communication was to be done through the chair and then to the manager,” Brominski replied by email.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash followed up with her own observation emailed to the group: “Apparently, the rules change daily and we are not given all information. Again I have lost faith in all in charge.”
Lawton said the replies from Brominski and Dobash implied some council members are treated differently than others.
“I don’t want council members to think things are happening that are not happening, and the only way to ensure that is to turn off the flow,” Lawton said.
He said he won’t ignore phone calls or in-person inquiries from council but prefers council members ask questions or provide comment to him during the at least four public meetings he now attends each month — a voting meeting, two nights of council committee meetings and a combined committee of the whole meeting and work session.
“Any business needs to be transacted in the sunlight,” Lawton said.
Morelli said he scheduled a Feb. 18 council discussion on the matter because Brominski and some others have questioned Lawton’s email blocking. Morelli said Brominski indicated he would ask Lawton to leave if he doesn’t reverse his decision.
Brominski said last week he questions the email block because Lawton had allowed some past and present council members to “have an open door policy to him.”
Lawton said the idea to filter all communication through the chair came from a published letter Brominski wrote in August 2011 when he and Dobash were running for the initial County Council. Brominski wrote that Dobash would have the “right to address the different departments and their operations through the council chair” if she got elected.
Brominski wrote the letter to criticize Dobash for asking employees questions about their jobs while she was campaigning, saying she was “politicking and taking up the time of the county employees with her drivel.” In her response, Dobash had said she scheduled appointments and had a right to educate herself.
“I am addressing the Brominski doctrine that council can address the manager through the chair,” said Lawton, who has been heavily criticized by Brominski at public meetings.
Morelli said he does not agree with Lawton’s decision to block council emails but said he will serve as the go-between until council and the manager develop communication protocol.
Emails aside, council members have more opportunities to publicly question and provide feedback to the manager under the creation of additional council committees that took effect this month, Morelli said.
“I put in a system to force the executive branch to give council information that’s needed. Everyone was blaming Bob before for not providing enough information, but I blamed council for not challenging him more,” Morelli said.
Lawton said he did not block council emails to division heads and other employees, though concerns have been raised about extensive information requests from some council members.
Councilman Jim Bobeck said council needs to set parameters because time-consuming requests have distracted some employees from completing their primary job duties.
Morelli said he supports an informed council but said some council members are “bombarding Bob and his staff with requests that are taking them away from doing day-to-day work.”
A home rule charter drafter, Morelli said council is supposed to monitor the manager but is forbidden from interfering with decisions under his control. Seven of 11 council members can fire the manager if they don’t believe he’s performing effectively, he said.
“It’s really starting to get annoying to me that after two years some people still can’t understand how this government is supposed to work,” Morelli said. “I’m starting to see more council members wanting to get into day-to-day operations, and that’s not what the charter was meant to be.”