Proposal to put Luzerne County government change question on ballot advances

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | January 26th, 2016 10:26 pm

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

A proposal to ask Luzerne County voters if they want to study a possible change in the county’s home rule structure received enough support from county council members to advance Tuesday.

Four council members provided the necessary votes to introduce an ordinance placing the study question on the November ballot: Edward Brominski, Kathy Dobash, Eileen Sorokas and Stephen A. Urban.

At least six of the 11 council members must approve the ordinance at a future meeting for it to take effect. County officials were researching whether a public hearing also is required.

If the ordinance passes, an elected study commission would have up to 18 months to assess the current structure and, if warranted, recommend voters approve home rule changes or a return to the county’s old set-up in which three elected full-time commissioners handled most decisions.

The county’s customized home rule structure, implemented in January 2012, replaced a system in effect more than 150 years, putting 11 elected council members and an appointed manager in charge of decisions previously made by the three commissioners and several elected row officers.

Suggested home rule alterations have included reducing the council’s size, switching the manager to an elected post and restoring more power to the elected controller.

The citizen committee searching for the next top manager urged the council to reject the ordinance, saying the timing may discourage some from applying.

Dobash said she proposed the ordinance because both she and outside citizens have concerns about the current structure, and the council shouldn’t require people to obtain signatures to get a study question on the ballot.

She said she does not believe arguments that home rule has reduced nepotism and cronyism and asked her colleagues to “take the lead.” Manager applicants must be informed of the possibility the charter will be changed after its fifth anniversary even if the ballot move fails, she said.

“I just want an open public review,” she said.

Urban said he supported a citizen request to place the government study question on the ballot when he was a county commissioner in 2009, which led to the current charter.

“It’s the people’s government. It’s not our government. We’re just here to serve,” Urban said.

The county’s growing deficit, which was $16.9 million at the end of 2014, could have been detected sooner if the controller received and signed off on all payment requests as required under the previous government system, Urban said.

He agreed the council is “too big” but questioned if the county should have fewer council members but require they be full-time. The county has 900 square miles with more than 320,000 residents, he said.

Councilman Harry Haas, who was among the seven declining to introduce the ordinance, said the home rule structure is “still in its infancy.”

The county paid down 25 percent of its debt and reduced staff 15 percent under home rule, Haas said.

Describing the proposal as “ill conceived” and “ill timed,” Haas said proceeding with a study question now would cause “confusion” in the manager search.

Keeping 11 council members is the “best way to prevent political entrenchment,” Haas also argued.

“There are an awful lot of people — I’d say the majority — who believe the county is moving in the right direction,” Haas said.

In other business, the manager search committee postponed plans to start advertising the manager position Feb. 1 due to changes in the job description and vacancy announcement approved by the council Tuesday.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.