Rick Morelli offered some parting advice Monday night to his former Luzerne County Council colleagues and county watchers: remember what it was like before home rule and be wary of a push to go back to the old government system.
“Although it was only four years ago, people forget where we were,” said Morelli, who officially ended his four-year council term Monday.
Morelli also helped to draft the customized home rule charter implemented in January 2012 and reminded the council and audience of some problems that drove 55 percent of county voters to adopt the government change in November 2010.
He cited the public corruption scandal that led to prison time for three county judges, a county commissioner, the county human resources director, clerk of courts deputy, court administrator and others.
“If you remember back then what was taking place, the question on the street was, ‘Who’s next?’” Morelli said.
The county debt had ballooned to around $450 million with principal and interest, and the county was “pretty much a dumping ground for political hires,” he said.
“The list could go on. It was a bad time,” Morelli said from the podium during Monday’s council meeting.
He argued there have been no “scandals” or accusations of political hiring under home rule and said the council has reduced the outstanding debt to around $321.4 million and worked to “cut the fat.”
The main criticism he hears is there are now “11 people arguing versus three,” he said.
The charter replaced three, full-time elected commissioners with 11 part-time elected council members and an appointed manager.
Morelli agreed the council should engage less in grandstanding and focus more on major issues but stressed the 11 council members are more visible because the three commissioners met during the day, while the council meets at night, with most council meetings broadcast on television or streamed online.
Heated public discussion should be expected as the council goes through “changes and growing pains” and makes “tough” decisions about providing services with limited allocations, he said.
“Government is about debating,” he said.
Morelli said he has heard a “group from the old guard” is planning a campaign in 2017 to “go back to the old ways” by urging voters to return to the three-commissioner system. He said he will continue to speak out as a home rule advocate if he learns these plans are cementing.
“Can you blame them? They are the forgotten few,” Morelli wrote in a letter sent to the media Monday morning. “There are no jobs to hand out or unfair contracts to be given under home rule, and they want them back. It’s obviously easier to control two commissioners with a wink and a nod than a majority of council members out in a public meeting.”
Voters will be free to change the county government structure after home rule’s fifth anniversary in January 2017. Instead of returning to the commissioner system, some have suggested reducing the number of council members, making the manager an elected position and restoring the elected controller’s power to stop questionable payments.
Councilman Edward Brominski said Tuesday he spoke to many citizens who believe the home rule charter should be tweaked but hasn’t heard of a push to revert to the old structure.