Larksville resident Renee Taffera said she plans to appeal a recent Luzerne County ethics commission ruling on a complaint she filed over wording in the county‚??s new administrative code.
Her complaint said the council-adopted code was discriminatory because it recognized employees‚?? same-sex partners under the nepotism definition but not heterosexual partners who reside with employees. The code also required affidavits disclosing same-sex partnerships but not heterosexual ones.
The commission decided the violation was remedied when county council amended the code, eliminating the affidavit and expanding the definition of domestic partners to include the opposite sex.
Taffera said council shouldn‚??t be off the hook due to a corrective action and said the dismissal will set a bad precedent for elected officials and employees who want to reverse their actions in response to an ethics complaint. She gave the example of someone who steals but returns the stolen goods; they‚??ve still committed a crime.
‚??For the ethics commission to dismiss this complaint because council fixed its error after the fact should not negate the validity of the complaint. Council members were told about the error and did it anyway,‚?Ě said Taffera, one of several citizens who closely monitor the county‚??s home rule government.
The ethics code says ‚??any aggrieved party‚?Ě may appeal a commission ruling to the county Court of Common Pleas.
Council members Stephen A. Urban and Stephen J. Urban voted against the administrative code.
The commission, formally known as the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission, or ACE, also voted last week to dismiss an ethics complaint against county Council Chairman Jim Bobeck.
A citizen argued Bobeck should have abstained from voting on the county‚??s 2012 amended budget because his father, James, oversees the nonprofit Step By Step Inc., which receives county funding.
Bobeck has said his vote was permissible because the budget contained a bulk allotment for mental health services that didn‚??t require council members to decide which providers were funded. The Step By Step contract also was locked in by the prior administration for the 2011-12 fiscal year, he has said.
Commission members Margaret Hogan, Vito Forlenza and Stefanie Salavantis, the district attorney, voted to dismiss the complaint. County Controller Walter Griffith voted against dismissal. The fifth commission member, county Manager Robert Lawton, abstained.
The commission‚??s ruling said Bobeck‚??s vote didn‚??t determine how funds were distributed to a particular mental health provider. Dismissal also was warranted, the ruling said, because the county ethics code wasn‚??t in effect at the time of the budget vote.
Though Bobeck was cleared, the ruling ‚??admonishes‚?Ě Bobeck and warns council members to avoid a conflict or appearance of one when they vote on the county budget.
‚??To that end the ACE formally requests, for the sake of the transparency that is necessary for good government, that council members disclose any information that might reasonably suggest a possible conflict of interest,‚?Ě the ruling said.
Bobeck, an attorney, said Friday he had researched the matter with a solicitor before he voted on the budget and believes his father‚??s position was common knowledge. He said the admonishment was unwarranted.
‚??If council members avoided even the appearance of certain issues, they‚??d stop doing their job, which is a bigger sin than anything because they‚??d violate the oath they took to do their job,‚?Ě Bobeck said.
Luzerne County administrators say they are still reviewing the number of county employees who signed a form agreeing to follow the new ethics code by Friday‚??s deadline.
Some employees expressed concern the code may contradict union contracts or the court‚??s separation of powers.
County Controller Walter Griffith has threatened to file ethics complaints against employees who don‚??t sign.