Michelle Bednar beat a second well-known, outspoken competitor Tuesday to become Luzerne County’s next elected controller.
She had surprised many in May by securing the Democratic controller nomination over county Councilman Stephen A. Urban, a former 12-year county commissioner with strong name recognition. In Tuesday’s general election, Bednar faced Republican Carolee Medico Olenginski, who was recognizable from two terms as county prothonotary.
Bednar received 22,397 votes compared to Medico Olenginski’s 18,880, when unofficial results were reported from 189 of 189 precincts.
Celebrating her victory with supporters at Happy Pizza in Plymouth, Bednar said she believes voters wanted a newcomer to monitor county audits and finances.
“I think voters were looking for change, a new perspective,” said Bednar, who will be paid $64,999 annually in the four-year post when she takes office Jan. 6.
A 47-year-old Conyngham Township resident, Bednar now works as an office manager for Newbridge Securities Corp. in Wilkes-Barre and has been township tax collector since 2009.
She said she campaigned hard and stressed her 25 years of experience in finance and banking companies and willingness to work with county officials to correct and prevent problems. Bednar also had strong support from unions.
“I want to thank all the voters who supported me and look forward to being the new controller and working for the citizens of Luzerne County,” Bednar said.
Medico Olenginski entered the race late, filling a ballot slot vacated by former Controller Walter Griffith, who withdrew from the election as part of a plea agreement for wiretapping. County Republican Party leaders chose Medico Olenginski as their candidate Aug. 18, largely for her perceived electability.
A Wright Township resident, Medico Olenginski, 69, emphasized her record exposing questionable spending and experience as a management consultant making the county civil court records office more accountable and efficient. She promised to keep the public informed of problems, saying the “last voice in the county cannot be silenced.”
Medico Olenginski blamed her loss on low turnout and last-minute “negative dirty campaigning” by Bednar. She cited a copy of a recent mailing from Bednar’s camp describing Medico Olenginski as a “career politician” and other criticism about her.
“This is deja vu of the Jill Moran campaign,” she said, referring to the former attorney who unseated her as prothonotary in 2001 in a heated campaign in which Moran promised to end the “negativity.” Moran won a second term but resigned as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors, and Medico Olenginski has pointed to revenue losses after Moran took over the office.
Medico Olenginski said voters are “going to get it again” with Bednar.
“They chose somebody totally unqualified who wouldn’t know a problem if it hit her in the face or how to address it or fix it,” Medico Olenginski said of Bednar.
Bednar said she is confident she will prove herself in her new role and has already spent time with temporary council-appointed Controller Walter Mitchell reviewing pending issues. Bednar said she will continue researching county operations and finances through December so she can hit the ground running.
She also has said people shouldn’t misread her soft-spoken and amiable disposition as a sign she’d be a timid controller because she stands her ground and defends her position in her personal and professional life and would do the same as county controller.
The controller is the “independent watchdog over county fiscal and management activities,” according to the county’s home rule charter.
In addition to monitoring and examining county government operations, the controller has authority to conduct audits of any county department, authority, board or commission. The controller has latitude to conduct a wide range of reviews, including fiscal, performance, management, contract and compliance audits.