Our Opinion: Voters, there’s more on Luzerne County ballot than you might realize

October 30th, 2016 9:22 am

Don’t be among the Luzerne County voters blindsided on Nov. 8 by a series of ballot questions about the county’s home rule charter.

The presidential race and other high-profile contests have commanded all the attention in recent weeks. Consequently, lots of people won’t be prepared to answer the five yes-or-no questions.

Yet these proposed amendments – posted on the Bureau of Elections’ page of the county website – represent the first opportunity to change the government’s guiding document since it was implemented about five years ago.

Granted, none of the changes, if approved, would result in a drastic shakeup to how home rule operates. That’ll come as a disappointment to people who dislike the setup, yet should be very reassuring to those who believe it has brought a refreshing transparency and professionalism to a government sorely in need of both.

After reviewing the five amendments, the Times Leader’s Opinion Board recommends that voters say no to four of them. Each pertains to restrictions placed on people who voluntarily serve on the county’s authorities, boards and commissions, and we believe it’s premature to relax those rules.

Our board recommends that voters say yes to one amendment; it pertains to the county budget.

The details of these ballot questions are the “inside baseball” kind of matters that typically don’t generate dinner table conversation. Keep in mind, however, that one of the big advantages of home rule is it affords people a better chance to shape their government as they see fit – a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

Here’s a synopsis of the amendments.

Board appointments. If approved, this related pair of amendments – one applying to county authorities, and one to county boards and commissions – would allow people to serve on those groups as long as they publicly disclosed any potential conflicts of interest.

As currently written, the charter bans a county resident from filling any of these posts if he or she is employed by a contractor or paid consultant of the county. Drafters of the charter understandably wanted to prevent people who derive money from the county from sitting on, for instance, the Housing Authority or Planning Commission, effectively compromising their independence.

Supporters of these amendments argue the ban is too restrictive, eliminating board service by many well-qualified people with only distant relationships to the county. That’s a valid concern. However, we think the potential for monkey business in the boardroom outweighs the inconvenience of having to beat the bushes for qualified – and unconnected – people to serve.

One-year prohibition. Another pair of amendments – one applying to county authorities, and one to county boards and commissions – would eliminate the rule requiring that members of those groups leave their posts at least one year before running for an elected county office (such as county council).

Due to this county’s prior troubles with pay-to-play politics and unsavory quid pro quo arrangements, we believe it wise to keep this prohibition in place.

Budget changes. This amendment would require that a majority of county council members, or six of the 11 elected officials, vote to introduce any ordinance amending a newly passed budget, rather than only four members.

This issue potentially could come into play after an election year in which newly chosen council members, who take office in January, want to revisit a budget or taxation rate before the Feb. 15 cutoff. We think it makes sense to require six votes, as any delay in finalizing the budget can postpone the mailing of tax bills and result in added expense for the county.

You are encouraged to vote on these county matters – as with the candidate choices – using your best judgment, not by blindly following ours. But please go to the polling place fully aware of the issues.

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