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County‚??s watchdog has lost his teeth


February 20. 2013 1:21AM
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Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith said he's still the county's watchdog, but barking is all he has left under home rule.


The controller is now a dog with no teeth, Griffith said Tuesday. He is starting his fourth year in the elected post.


The bite, as he sees it, was the controller's ability to stop payments – a power put in the hands of the budget and finance office under home rule.


Though he can no longer hold up checks, Griffith said he was able to continue eyeballing payment requests since home rule took effect a year ago because the staffers who process them were still housed in his office – along with thousands of checks and supporting invoices.


On Monday, those four employees and the records were moved from the controller's office in the Penn Place building in downtown Wilkes-Barre to the county courthouse to be near budget and finance, he said. I still have access, but now I have to go over to the courthouse to look at the requests and checks, he said.


Home rule enhanced the controller's power to obtain information. All county offices and outside boards must provide unrestricted access to employees, information, files and records upon reasonable notice.


But Griffith said the home-rule charter did not contain any provisions requiring council or the manager to take any action in response to his findings and recommendations.


That's the shortcoming of the charter, he said. Nothing says there has to be a reaction when the controller does something or finds something. Basically my only power is to identify problems.


No action on audits

He pointed to his recent audit recommendation to move the county's tourist promotion agency from privately owned leased space into county-owned property to save money, and his finding that Internal Revenue Service guidelines are not followed for uniform allowances.


The response is always, ‘We'll take a look at it,' said Griffith, who has a staff of three auditors and is in the process of hiring a deputy with accounting or auditing experience. Even my staff is questioning the point. We come up with findings, and they don't even answer us.


The charter says the controller may request periodic status reports from audited entities on what they've done to address deficiencies and recommendations.


The controller also must notify council promptly and the manager – or an investigative authority, if warranted – of any irregularities, abuse or illegal acts it has identified, the charter says.


Griffith said he's limited to the public-comment portion of council meetings and is reminded when he exceeds the comment time limit. He said council Chairman Tim McGinley was receptive to his recent suggestion to add comment from the elected controller to the formal council-meeting agenda.


The charter also requires the controller to present an annual report during the first quarter of the year.


Griffith is sometimes portrayed as a media hound for seeking out coverage from reporters. The only option I have is to go to the press, and I'm being chastised, he said.


Griffith also noted one of his predictions about his access to a lawyer has come true. The charter created a central legal department that provides counsel to all county offices, eliminating staff solicitors in multiple departments, including the controller's. The charter says the controller can hire temporary legal counsel on a case-by-case basis – within budget limitations – if there's a dispute with council, the manager or any other county official, authority, board or commission.


Legal budget axed

When he campaigned in 2010 against home rule's adoption, Griffith said he expected his legal-services budget to be cut. After receiving an allotment of $11,133 for legal services last year, he sought $10,000 for this year but ended up with nothing.


County Manager Robert Lawton has said the controller is free to submit a request to the county solicitor's office if he believes he needs special counsel.


The controller's seat is on the ballot this year, and Griffith has announced plans to run for another term. No opponents have declared candidacy.


I'm still trying to make the new government the best I can without taxpayers being put in jeopardy, he said.


A majority of council voted to increase the controller's salary from $36,562 to $64,999 for the controller elected in November.




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