Luzerne County Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck wants council to use its home rule subpoena and investigative powers for the first time to examine county transportation authority operations.
McClosky Houck said she is making the request largely because of authority bus ridership declines and new information about the case of an authority employee with a pending sexual harassment suit.
A Times Leader article published Saturday said the Forty Fort woman who filed the suit was sexually assaulted and physically attacked in January by a man who entered her home claiming he worked for a gas utility company investigating a gas leak. She said the man told her, “You have a big mouth, keep it shut and stop the lawsuit,” according to a search warrant affidavit.
Police and the District Attorney’s Office are investigating the assault and seeking the suspect.
The woman filed a civil suit, which is pending in federal court, against the authority, authority Supervisor Robb Henderson and Executive Director Stanley Strelish in October alleging she was sexually harassed on the job.
McClosky Houck said the information in the recent article was “disturbing,” and she is also concerned about a “significant drop” in bus riders. While council may not be privy to details about the police investigation and the pending litigation, she wants authority board members to explain what they know and how they manage the staff.
The county budgeted $572,000 in funding to the authority this year, and council appoints authority board members as their terms expire.
“I think we have a right to talk to them about what they know and do not know and how they discipline employees. The board is responsible for how this authority operates,” McClosky Houck said.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said he did not put the matter on today’s council agenda, but council members are free to introduce and vote on non-agenda matters. Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri must weigh in because of the “legal implications,” he said.
Councilman Edward Brominski said he supports McClosky Houck’s request and wants to take it a step further by removing the authority members and appointing new ones. Brominski has asked Pedri to research the steps to reconstitute the board.
Brominski, who initially questioned the bus ridership statistics, said the loss in riders and alleged sexual harassment are evidence “someone is not paying attention to business.”
Authority Board Chairman Salvatore Licata said he does not believe council has legal authority to remove active board members before their terms expire. He and other authority members met with council in executive session last year to answer questions, he said.
“We’re willing to work hand in hand with council,” Licata said.
He said he was aware of the home assault of the worker but didn’t know about an alleged connection to the sexual harassment suit until he read the recent article. However, he said the board must await the results of the police investigation of the assault and for court resolution of the litigation.
The board closely monitors operations, he said.
“The staff keeps us well aware of everything,” Licata said.
Strelish said he has “nothing to hide” and will provide any requested public information to council.
Strelish said he can’t comment on the worker who filed the sexual harassment suit because of the pending litigation but said he hopes the police investigation of the assault in her home results in an arrest.
“I just hope they find the person who has done that to this woman,” Strelish said.
Bus ridership in April was 106,770 — a decline of about 30,000 compared to April 2012, he said.
Brominski issued an email saying saying senior citizen ridership, which is included in the total, declined from 55,677 in April 2012 to 22,101 this April.
Brominski made an issue of senior ridership last July, saying he was informed bus drivers were ordered to pad senior ridership numbers by hitting a counter button extra times to up state reimbursement.
Strelish has vehemently denied the allegations of “ghost riders.” The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation investigated and found no wrongdoing, but the state Office of Inspector General is still conducting its investigation.
Strelish noted the state has increased its funding for the authority, despite the ridership decline. The state will provide $5.27 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year, compared to $5.05 million this year, he said.
The county’s home rule charter allows council the authority to study, audit and investigate matters “it determines are in the best interests of the county.” Council has the power to administer oaths and issue subpoenas and can “compel” witnesses to attend meetings and produce documents and other evidence.