The naysayers warned not so many years ago that if Luzerne County voters abandoned the three-commissioner form of government and embraced home rule, democracy as we know it would die.
Only Democrats would ever get elected to the new, 11-person county council, they said. Perhaps worse, only candidates from big, bad Wilkes-Barre could possibly rally enough support to win seats and call the shots, to the exclusion of people aiming to represent the county’s many other communities, they predicted.
Home rule, they strongly implied, will put the county on the path to ruin — as if the corruption-riddled, debt-laden government in place here prior to 2010 wasn’t headed that way.
Well, after Tuesday’s election, Luzerne County voters have twice installed people on the fledgling county council. And none of the ominous opinions voiced by home rule’s opponents has become reality.
The council that convenes in 2014 will include, as it does today, a mix of Republican, Democratic and Independent voices. Its members, each paid $8,000 per year for his or her part-time service to the county, hail from the Hazleton area, Swoyersville, Kingston and the county seat, Wilkes-Barre.
Rather than continue to quibble over home rule’s merits and deficiencies, area residents, most especially elected county officials, would be wise to concentrate on the long, arduous and ugly process of repairing Luzerne County’s financial mess. County Manager Robert Lawton has proposed an unpopular 8 percent property tax increase for the coming year. Even if his $127 million spending plan gets adopted as is, many non-union county workers will lose their jobs. Invariably, that means services will suffer, too.
Councilwomen-elect Kathy Dobash and Eileen Sorokas — a Republican and Democrat, respectively — can do themselves and their constituents a favor by swiftly getting to know the issues and fully understanding the options. Each pledged not to support future tax increases. But at candidate forums prior to Election Day, neither woman offered a realistic alternative or solid plan. (Sadly, that’s not unusual among office-seekers in Luzerne County.)
Outgoing Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry, who opted not to seek re-election to instead focus on a community-building initiative in Hazleton, deserves thanks for her contributions over the past two years to the inaugural county council. Ditto for Eugene Kelleher, whom voters last week did not support for a second term. People not directly involved in home rule’s early days tend to underestimate how much time and energy were expended to effectively transition from the traditional government setup to one built virtually from the ground up.
Hats off also to election victors Harry Haas, Linda McClosky Houck and Rick Williams, incumbents who secured four-year terms to council. After two years of helping to lay the groundwork for Luzerne County’s new government, hopefully they can focus on longer-term priorities: chipping away at its multimillion-dollar debt, restoring its credit rating and reviving its communities.
McClosky Houck, in particular, deserves praise for her intensive preparation and attention to detail, according to those most familiar with her work habits. As vice chair of the council, she’s been instrumental in its initial success.
The dedication she and her 10 council colleagues exhibit as unsung, part-time public servants is probably much what the majority of county voters had in mind years ago when they ignored all those dire prophesies and wisely voted yes for home rule.
This government will work, as long as thoughtful, ethical residents remain committed to it.