Republicans and Democrats each get to pick a nominee for Luzerne County Controller on May 21, and voters from both parties have two choices.
On the Republican ticket, incumbent Controller Walter Griffith, Kingston Township, is running against Wilkes-Barre resident Karen Ceppa-Hirko, a tax accountant at DeAngelo Brothers Inc. in Hazleton.
Conyngham Township tax collector and investment securities firm office manager Michelle Bednar is running against Luzerne County Councilman and former 12-year county commissioner Stephen A. Urban, Wilkes-Barre, in the Democratic race.
The two primary election victors will proceed to the November general, when all voters — not just Democrats and Republicans — will choose the next controller to serve for four years.
A county council majority voted to increase the controller’s salary from $36,562 to $64,999 for the controller elected in November.
All four candidates say their experience would be an asset.
Bednar pointed to her 25 years of private and public sector employment in finance and management, saying her credentials “qualify her to be the best candidate in the race.”
Urban said he has a record of being an honest and transparent elected official and is the most qualified candidate because his extensive knowledge of county operations provides the experience needed to monitor and examine finances and spending.
Ceppa-Hirko emphasized her master’s degree in business administration and 20 years of experience as a controller, township manager and in other accounting and finance positions, saying she will provide “solid stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”
Griffith said he has proven himself as an independent watchdog, exposing questionable spending and instituting policies that make county officials and employees more accountable.
The county controller oversees audits and reviews of county operations to provide a check and balance.
The role of the controller changed under home rule, which eliminated the controller’s power to accept or reject payment requests before money was released. That duty now falls on the appointed county manager and a centralized budget and financial services division.
However, the charter provides the controller with unrestricted access to the records of all county divisions, departments, bureaus, offices, agencies, authorities and boards. The controller also has the power to inspect all county property, equipment and facilities under the charter.
Home rule charter supporters said the controller has more monitoring power because of this access. The controller’s power to stop payments under the old system also was overstated because the controller ultimately had to release the money if an expense was legal and properly approved, even if the controller believed a payment was foolish, supporters say.
The charter also kept the controller’s subpoena power. Griffith has used subpoenas twice to obtain records from a tax collector and the sale of guns by the sheriff’s office.
Under home rule, the controller must stick to a schedule of audits and promptly notify county council and the manager of any detected “irregularities, abuse or illegal acts.” Potential criminal activity must be reported to law enforcement, the charter says.
The controller is required to follow up on audit findings to determine if deficiencies have been corrected and prepare an annual public report.
However, Griffith has complained the charter did not contain any provisions requiring council or the manager to take any action in response to his findings and recommendations.