As Luzerne County’s customized home rule government structure wraps up its sixth year, the question of whether it’s time to consider a change is once again before county council.
Council is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on the matter Tuesday, according to officials.
Four council members — Edward Brominski, Kathy Dobash, Eileen Sorokas and Stephen A. Urban — provided the necessary votes Nov. 28 to introduce an ordinance that would place a question on the May 15 primary ballot asking county voters if they want to convene an elected, seven-member commission to assess the current structure.
The committee would recommend whether to keep the current system, alter it or return to the old one, with voter approval required for a change.
That’s how home rule took effect in January 2012, putting 11 elected council members and an appointed manager in charge of decisions previously made by three elected commissioners and several elected row officers. The prior system had been in effect more than 150 years.
The new proposed ordinance is not expected to pass.
Seven sitting council members had rejected the ballot question in February 2016 and also voted against the latest ordinance introduction: Harry Haas, Eugene Kelleher, Linda McClosky Houck, Tim McGinley, Robert Schnee, Jane Walsh Waitkus and Rick Williams.
The four council members introducing the ordinance proceeded against the advice of the county solicitor’s office.
Under council by-laws, the matter can’t be brought up again unless one of the seven reconsiders, Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo told council Nov. 14.
County assistant Solicitor Shannon Crake also informed council Nov. 28 her extensive legal research concluded a ballot question should not be decided when the legislative body is in lame duck status following the November general election. Case law indicates lame duck bodies must focus on decisions that keep government functioning and leave policy decisions to successors, she said.
“Should somebody challenge it, we’d be pretty hard-pressed to defend it in court,” Crake said, referencing the ballot question.
Both attorneys said there would be no legal concerns if council votes on the matter after newly elected members are seated in January.
There will be less support for a ballot question in January, when Dobash and Sorokas are out of office. Williams also chose not to seek re-election.
Their incoming replacements — Chris Perry, Sheila Saidman and Matthew Vough — all said Thursday they would not support a ballot question.
Perry said he emphasized his strong support for the current home rule structure and its progress throughout his campaign. An analysis after six years is premature, he said.
“We are still young in the process.”
Saidman concurred, saying the home rule charter “has not been given a significant amount of time to work.”
“In the six years it’s been in place, it has been working and correcting so many problems left to citizens from the commissioner system,” Saidman said.
Vough said it is “too early” to fully evaluate home rule’s success. He has expressed support for potential alterations at some point, but he said a study commission could end up recommending drastic changes or a return to the old system.
“I honestly think home rule is working,” Vough said.
Griffith plans petition
If council does not approve the ordinance Tuesday, citizen Walter Griffith said he will round up a team of volunteers to obtain 5,000 signatures to get the question on the ballot.
Waiting for the new council to be seated is not a viable option because the law only allows several weeks to obtain the signatures, starting Jan. 2, Griffith said. He said he is acting based on feedback from many who want to explore a change.
“It doesn’t hurt anybody to study this,” Griffith said.
Brominski told his colleagues he believes some aspects of the charter warrant review.
“We’re afraid to take a look at it and say there is something wrong with that charter,” Brominski said. “All I’m asking for is an impartial panel of the public at large to look at it.”
Past suggested home rule alterations have included reducing the council’s size, switching the manager to an elected post and restoring more power to the elected controller.
Study commissions have up to 18 months to decide if change is warranted and, if so, what new government option should be presented to voters for their consideration, the law states. Citizens interested in serving on study commissions must be on the ballot the same time as a study question in case it passes.