A Luzerne County Council majority voted Tuesday to ask four county Flood Protection Authority members to voluntarily resign from their unpaid seats to avoid a court battle over the validity of their appointments.
Authority members Stephen A. Urban, a county councilman, and citizens William Falls, Doug Ayers and Kevin O'Brien will be asked to submit their resignations by noon Friday, the majority agreed.
Eight of 11 council members supported the move because county Controller Walter Griffith discovered the state never approved an authority article of incorporation change initiated by the prior county administration.
Without the change allowing a new authority structure, planning/zoning Director Adrian Merolli is the only member in a valid seat, said county Solicitor Vito DeLuca.
If the authority members resign, an assistant county engineer would return to the authority, and three seats previously held by commissioners would be filled by the county manager with council confirmation.
DeLuca advised council against declaring four vacancies as it originally planned. The law says the state attorney general, county district attorney or someone with an interest in the matter would have to file legal action asking a judge to vacate the positions, he said.
The county manager and assistant engineer are the only interested parties with standing to challenge the vacancies because they could argue they're entitled to hold or fill the seats of invalid members, DeLuca said.
He suggested council permit the existing members to continue as is while seeking the proper state approval for the article of incorporation change. Members in the invalid seats could then be properly seated until their terms expire after state approval is granted, he said, stressing the authority votes they made as invalid members are still binding.
However, a majority of council disagreed, saying they can't justify ignoring invalid appointments.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck said she finds it "hard to believe" citizens with "integrity" would try to keep a post for which they're not eligible.
The three citizens could submit an application to the manager seeking appointment after they resign, she said.
Councilman Harry Haas said he supports seeking resignations because the four seats are invalid and the measure seeks a "middle ground."
Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry said the appointments are invalid through no fault of the board members holding the seats, and the public "expects us to now straighten it out."
Councilman Eugene Kelleher said the resignations will "resolve everything" without forcing taxpayers to fund a court challenge. The authority has indicated it will sue council if it votes to vacate the positions, he said.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said his colleagues are treating the matter "very seriously" and will continue to take steps to resolve it.
If the authority members refuse to resign, council will discuss the matter on Tuesday, possibly voting to ask the district attorney, attorney general or Manager Robert Lawton to file court action seeking a vacancy declaration.
Council members Urban, Stephen J. Urban and Jim Bobeck opposed requesting the resignations.
Stephen J. Urban and Stephen A. Urban said they believe council should follow DeLuca's recommendation to seek the article of incorporation change and allow "due process" to the four members. Urban told council members he won't resign and has asked for an independent legal opinion.
Bobeck said he wanted council to immediately declare the four seats vacant, saying he's concerned council is allowing the authority to continue to function with invalid members.
The authority's next meeting is Oct. 16.
Griffith told council he believes the former county administration's handling of the matter was an "underhanded effort to get the right people on this board to do their bidding" – a claim former Commissioner Stephen A. Urban vehemently denied.
The prior commissioners appointed Falls and Ayers at their last meeting in December before the switch to home rule, while O'Brien was appointed by council in March after a public application and interview process.
Griffith told Urban to "get out of the way" and resign if he doesn't want to support the new home rule government.
Kingston resident Brian Shiner said the four authority members should be immediately removed, and Ed Gustitus, also of Kingston, urged council to abolish the authority and absorb its responsibility overseeing the Wyoming Valley Levee System and other flood control projects.
Lawton agreed to Councilman Rick Williams' request to analyze possible elimination of the authority, though the manager said he may not have a report until he completes the 2013 budget.
Luzerne County Councilman Rick Morelli said he gave county Manager Robert Lawton criticism he received about a prospective county human services division head appointee.
Hazleton resident Kathy Dobash said she gave Morelli and others the information, which came from a blog originating in another Pennsylvania county, where the man works as human services director.
Morelli said he hasn't researched the possible appointee but wanted Lawton to check out the information in case he decides to recommend the man for the appointment. Council must confirm all division head appointments.
Lawton briefed council on some possible division head appointments during a recent executive session, but council won't publicly release the names unless they are formally recommended by Lawton.
"I am not saying anything good or bad about this person, but the last thing I want is Lawton to come back and say nobody told him about possible concerns," Morelli said.