Luzerne County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri concluded Thursday that County Council does not have to vote again on the confirmation of J. Allen Nesbitt as correctional services division head.
Councilman Edward Brominski this week asked for a new vote because Councilman Jim Bobeck had attended the confirmation meeting remotely but lost his telephone connection during part of the meeting.
Bobeck was among six council members who approved county Manager Robert Lawton’s nomination of Nesbitt to the $75,000-a-year position on Monday. At least six votes — a majority of the 11-member council — are required for division head confirmations, which means a cancellation of Bobeck’s vote would have put Nesbitt’s appointment in limbo.
The rules of procedure adopted by council say council members attending meetings by phone “must be engaged in the meeting from the roll call through the adjournment,” but the rules also grant allowances for “the potential of temporary disconnection.”
State law permits meeting attendance by phone, and council bylaws allow for disconnection, Pedri said. Requests to void votes must be “strictly reviewed in great detail” and “cannot be taken lightly” because council members were elected to make decisions on behalf of voters, he said.
Bobeck participated in several votes during Monday’s meeting before he was disconnected once. He then rejoined the meeting through adjournment, Pedri said.
“Councilman Bobeck’s one disconnection clearly does not warrant the grim and severe ‘null and void’ status,” Pedri wrote.
Nullifying the vote would violate public policy and be in “direct opposition to the spirit” of the county’s home rule charter, he said.
“Finally, any other decision could set dangerous precedent where council members would be precluded from leaving a council meeting for emergency purposes or for such a mundane purpose as a restroom break,” Pedri said.
Bobeck said he was confident his vote was valid. “This is just another non-issue that we move past on the road to progress,” he said.
Brominski sent Pedri an email Thursday challenging his decision, saying more information should be obtained on whether Bobeck actively attempted to regain telephone connection on his own. Describing the decision as “incomplete and slanted,” Brominski questioned whether another council member sought out Bobeck’s telephone reconnection to ensure enough votes for Nesbitt’s appointment. Bobeck said he sent text messages to a council member and the council clerk when he realized he was cut off so he could be reconnected.
Nobody has questioned the validity of Councilman Harry Haas’ vote against Nesbitt. Haas also attended the meeting by phone and was disconnected twice, once accidentally. Pedri said Haas’ votes also should be counted.
In a matter to related to Nesbitt’s hiring, Berks County Prison Warden George Wagner blasted council members who are questioning why he didn’t recuse himself from the selection committee for the correctional position.
Brominski said Nesbitt told council in a closed-door executive session that he considers two selection committee panelists — Wagner and Lehigh County Corrections Director Ed Sweeney — “social friends.”
Wagner said he knows Nesbitt, of Easton, in a professional capacity because of Nesbitt’s past employment in the corrections field but never had a personal friendship with him. Wagner knows most corrections professionals throughout the state because he’s been a prison warden for 32 years, he said.
Wagner questioned the “common sense” of council members who wouldn’t want someone with corrections experience on the selection panel, and he said wardens and prison officials statewide know each other because they attend the same statewide conferences.
Wagner opposes politics in prison hiring, he said. His brother worked at the Berks prison when he was hired as warden, and he fired his sibling so there would be no appearance of impropriety, he said.
“I am a professional,” said Wagner. “I always select the most capable person to do a job.”
Sweeney also has maintained he had “no close, personal relationship” with Nesbitt and based the selection on qualifications.
The committee recommended two finalists without ranking, and Lawton interviewed both and selected Nesbitt.
Informed of Sweeney and Wagner’s responses, Brominski said Nesbitt clearly left the impression he was “personal friends” with both men more than 20 years.
“If they’re not friends, Nesbitt lied,” Brominski said.