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Decoding county‚??s ethics law debatable


March 16. 2013 6:24PM

By - jandes@civitasmedia.com - (570) 991-6388




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Retired Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority executive director Jim Brozena's recent hiring as authority consultant is raising questions about a county ethics code ban on contracts with former employees within a year of their departure.


Kingston resident Brian Shiner said it appears the ban was violated.


The home rule charter said the council-adopted ethics code is supposed to cover county authority board members and employees.


The ethics code says no former covered person shall represent a person, corporation or business promised or receiving compensation on any governmental matter before county government or any of its agencies with which he or she has been associated for one year after leaving that body.


But authority solicitor Chris Cullen and authority board Chairman Stephen A. Urban said the authority is an independent entity governed by the state Municipal Authorities Act – not an ethics code drafted by county council.


Cullen said state law and other provisions allow the authority to enter into such service agreements. Council's only power over the authority, which oversees the Wyoming Valley levee system and other flood-control projects, is the appointment of its members, Urban said.


County Councilman Jim Bobeck, an attorney who was involved in the drafting of the ethics code, said he ultimately agrees with Urban that council can't enforce such a ban.


While the charter says the ethics code applies to authorities, it includes the following key disclaimer: except as may otherwise be provided for in this charter or applicable law.


Bobeck: Embrace code

Bobeck said all county authorities should willingly adopt and follow the ethics code because they're viewed as part of county government by the general public.


The one-year bans expressly required by the charter involve elected officials and the appointed manager.


The charter says the elected county council members, controller and district attorney can't serve as paid consultants for the county or any county board, authority or commission within one year of their departure from county government.


The county manager cannot accept a job or compensation from any person or business that had a contract with the county or any county authority, board or commission during the manager's county employment, the charter says.


Bobeck said council members were trying to expand these charter bans to cover all employees when they drafted the ethics code.


Council's strategic initiatives committee is starting to tackle proposed revisions to the ethics, personnel and administrative codes. Bobeck, who is on that committee, said he believes the county must research laws that might supersede the charter to clearly establish who must abide by codes.


Spirit of new charter

Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck, also on the strategic committee, expressed the need for more clarity during Tuesday's council meeting, saying the other-law disclaimer continuously appears in charter provisions.


As well intended as the charter was, there are laws that supersede the charter, McClosky Houck said. Instead of looking for technical loopholes, we would hope that everybody on all authorities would live up to the spirit of the charter, whether it's something we can enforce or not.


The charter offers this guidance: The provisions of this charter shall supersede any state law which is inconsistent to the extent of the inconsistency, except where applicable law prevents a home rule charter from superseding state law.


Brozena, who has started his own consulting business since his Jan. 11 retirement, will be paid $125 per hour for up to $10,000 as a consultant over the next six months.


Urban stressed Brozena did not seek this work. The authority asked Brozena to provide the service to ensure levee operations continue – particularly if there's a flood – until a new director is hired, Urban said. He said Brozena has been paid nothing to date, and he does not expect him to reach the $10,000 cap.


Shiner said he supports expertise as a resident in a levee-protected area, but said he's raising the issue to ensure officials pay attention to charter provisions. He also took issue with Cullen's tone when he asked if there's a violation during Tuesday's authority meeting.


Cullen told Shiner the home rule charter does not extend into the authority, which was created under state law and is not part of county government.


When Shiner pointed out charter prohibitions, Cullen said, I don't really care what the charter says, later adding, as it relates to this issue.




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