Luzerne County government and its Flood Protection Authority are at a standstill resolving a disagreement over the validity of four unpaid board seats.
With its county-supplied legal representation canceled, the authority unanimously voted Monday to hire Scranton attorney Christopher Cullen.
Cullen worked as county Retirement Board solicitor from 2003-06 when authority Chairman Stephen A. Urban served on the board as a commissioner. Cullen also was county controller's office solicitor under the late Steve Flood.
He will receive $900 per month and $95 per hour for litigation, a discount from his standard $200-per-hour rate. The authority didn't publicly seek proposals for the legal work because it declared the lack of a solicitor an emergency situation.
Cullen said he welcomes continued dialogue on the four seats but does not agree with county Solicitor Vito DeLuca's assertion that the four board members must obtain private legal counsel if the disagreement lands in court.
The conflict surfaced because the state never approved the prior county administration's article of incorporation amendments changing the authority board structure. Authority members said they only recently learned of a January letter to their former solicitor denying the amendment.
Two options to avoid court have failed to date.
The four authority members – Urban, now a county councilman, and citizens William Falls, Doug Ayers and Kevin O'Brien – haven't accepted council's request to vacate the seats so they could be filled according to the original state-approved plan.
Meanwhile, council has not embraced DeLuca's recommendation, which is supported by the authority, to allow the four to serve while the state amendments are resubmitted.
County council is scheduled to discuss the matter at tonight's meeting.
Linda McClosky Houck, one of several council members attending Monday's meeting, said the resignations were requested to fix procedural errors.
"I can tell you that I cannot support a change in the articles that comes from council as long as we have people who are appointed according to an invalid procedure," she said. "That's my conscience speaking."
Councilman Eugene Kelleher suggested meetings to attempt resolution, stressing that no council members have accused any authority board members of wrongdoing.
Controller Walter Griffith, who discovered the paperwork problem, challenged the board members' desire to continue voting and serving. He asked citizen members why they won't resign.
"I'll tell you why right now. Because something stinks here, and it does not emanate from this group of people at this table," Ayers said.
Ayers said he been subjected to a "kangaroo court," and he took issue with Griffith's statement at last week's council meeting that the paperwork issue was an attempt by the prior county administration to get people on the board to "do their bidding."
Ayers said he knew former Commissioner Thomas Cooney but never met Urban before he was appointed by prior commissioners in December.
"I want to know why you think we have something to gain from being in this position. What is it I'm gaining from this except losing money in my practice for not being there but sitting here and listening to this kind of ridiculousness?"
Urban said the court will determine what's proper. He said the reputations of the four board members were "tarnished" by the controversy and said they shouldn't "fold up our tents and go home."
The five-member authority oversees the Wyoming Valley Levee System and other flood control projects. County officials say county Planning/Zoning Director Adrian Merolli is the only member with no seat validity issues.
In other business, the authority:
• Was told by Flood Protection Authority Executive Director Jim Brozena the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has hired Tri-State Design Construction Company Inc., of Elkins Park, to repair boils and other damage to the Wyoming Valley Levee from record Susquehanna River flooding in September 2011.
The company plans to complete most of the work before the winter, he said.
The Army Corps is in negotiations with a company to improve the Market Street flood closure panels used on the Kingston and Wilkes-Barre sides. Water pressure blew out sections of gasket seals on the Market Street flood gates in September.
• Was questioned by Scott Spinucci, producer of a documentary film on the River Common recreation project, as to why the authority didn't put his payment on Monday's agenda as planned.
Brozena said he didn't have time to review the final video.
Spinucci said he submitted the video to the authority a year ago and delivered a final copy last month incorporating editing requested by the county. He said he's requested a meeting with authority members for more than three years to review his bills and the project.
Spinucci has been paid $65,333, and the authority was withholding a final payment of $3,667 until the final product was delivered. Spinucci maintains he is owed more because the scope of the project was changed.
The board recessed to allow another meeting on the video before the regular November meeting.
Luzerne County Council will meet at 6 p.m. tonight at the county Emergency Management Agency Building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre, starting with a work session followed by a voting meeting.