Last updated: February 17. 2013 6:10AM - 189 Views

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As Luzerne County's new home rule government begins its tenth month, county council members are still debating the extent county Manager Robert Lawton should keep them informed.

Council members Stephen A. Urban, Stephen J. Urban and Rick Morelli have repeatedly complained at public meetings about a lack of timely information.

Under home rule, the manager handles day-to-day operations while council approves the budget, larger multiple-year contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

The three councilmen voted against a financial software switch at last Tuesday's meeting, saying Lawton didn't provide details until the preceding Friday night.

The eight other council members said they supported the proposal for New World Systems Corp. software because it will save money, improve financial tracking and was unanimously endorsed by a team of county administrators who evaluated all options. Lawton said he didn't release the proposed contract earlier because final negotiations wrapped up Friday.

Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck said the administration answered several questions she had about the software and selection process, with the reply copied to all council members before the meeting.

Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry said council also should honor the recommendation because the evaluation team of "end users" knows what type of system will improve job performance.

"I trust you," Maddon Curry said to administrators in the audience.

But Morelli said it's "not our job to be rubber stamps."

Stephen J. Urban said four days wasn't enough time to "digest" a $1.28 million software contract. He told his colleagues he would seek their vote forcing Lawton to provide weekly project updates if he's "not kept in the loop" again.

"You have to remember, he does work for this board too. We have the right to replace him if we need to. We also have the right to review him within a year," he said of Lawton.

Stephen A. Urban, a former commissioner, said during the meeting that he works at his private sector job Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and wasn't granted enough time to read and process the contract, but a majority was prepared to proceed.

"I'm not happy with this form of government if this is how it's going to operate," he said.

Stephen A. Urban also complained in a published report that Lawton should have informed council about acting election director Tom Pizano's retirement Thursday.

Councilman Jim Bobeck said the manager -- not council -- handles personnel decisions about election office staffing. Pizano's departure was sudden, and the manager sent council an email Friday saying the retirement "came as a surprise" and briefing them on plans he formulated to get through the Nov. 6 election.

"Bob Lawton's first immediate instinct can't be that he has to let council know. It has to be for him to understand the situation and deal with it and then inform council," Bobeck said. "Council has no authority to change his decision in any way."

Councilman Eugene Kelleher agreed, saying Lawton must be certain before he announces a personnel action to council. Some people were trying to talk Pizano out of retiring, Kelleher said. "Even if we're told sooner, what difference would that make to us?" Kelleher said.

Councilman Harry Haas said he doesn't need or want to "know every detail of daily operations."

"That's not council's role," he said. "Council members are the casters of the vision. The manager is the executor of that vision."

Councilman Rick Williams said he was "not in the least bit offended" to receive information on Friday for a Tuesday vote. It's reasonable to expect council members to digest material on an upcoming contract in a few days, he said.

Williams said Lawton communicates pertinent information in a "timely fashion," and he does not fault Lawton for developing a plan to cover the election before briefing council.

"I think Mr. Lawton's doing an outstanding job given the situation he's in and the condition and past patterns of our county government," Williams said.

McClosky Houck said Lawton sent notice to county council Thursday when he appointed Joan Hoggarth interim judicial services and records division head and said she's never had any problem obtaining data or explanations she needs before a meeting to make an informed decision.

"We have the opportunity to ask questions. It's not like anyone ever walks into a meeting and is handed a paper to vote on. It depends on how much time you put in," she said. She expects Lawton will continue increasing the information supplied to council and would support a periodic update on major staffing changes.

"I am not aware of every single thing occurring in daily operations, but I don't think I need to be," she said. "I think we're all trying to figure out the comfortable level of information that should be supplied."

Councilman Edward Brominski said he wants Lawton to increase updates to council.

"I'm not as involved as I thought I was going to be. We do get information, but there are still too many things that I think we should be informed on," he said.

Kelleher said there were a "very few occasions" where he thought the administration didn't allow council "proper time to think things over," but he attributes that to delays appointing division heads.

"I think the guy has been overwhelmed," Kelleher said of Lawton. "At this point, he's doing many jobs and wearing many hats, and that's part of the problem."

Lawton is reviewing options to hire the eight permanent division heads, which require council confirmation. Lawton presented several potential appointees to council in executive session, though he hasn't made a firm decision or completed background checks.

"If the division heads are appointed, and the manager still gets things to us late, then we have a reason to be critical," Kelleher said.

Council Chairman Tim McGinley said improving council-manager communication is among his personal goals.

Lawton recently informed department heads they must submit more detailed information sooner for council agendas, McGinley said.

"This is all part of that growing period we continue to go through. I think we are making some strides and will continue to make strides," McGinley said.

Council now receives thorough reports from the administration for each agenda item describing the matter up for a vote, the recommended action, how it will be financed, the background and how a recommendation was reached.

These reports, which are posted on the county website ( before meetings, also require the administration to discuss alternatives and whether other agencies are involved.

Lawton's agenda submission on the financial software, for example, was several pages.

"I think a lot of workers in the county are still learning the process because they didn't have to submit something like this before," McGinley said. "These reports are very helpful."

Lawton said he welcomes inquiries from council members who need more information about agenda items before meetings.

The manager also is exploring ways to inform the public about his actions. He now requires a summary sheet with all contracts he approves highlighting the terms and conditions, how the service or product will be funded and the approval process.

Lawton has been posting all contracts under his section of the website.

"This will greatly simplify the public's ability to understand what it is they're looking at," Lawton said.

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