Five Democrats and seven or eight Republicans are expected to file nomination petitions by today’s deadline in the race for five Luzerne County Council seats — a number that falls below the expectations of many.
In the race for county controller, Stephen A. Urban filed his nomination petition in the election office Monday afternoon to run for the Democratic nomination on May 21. A county councilman and former county commissioner from Wilkes-Barre, Urban likely will compete against Michelle Bednar, a Conyngham Township tax collector and financial securities company office manager.
Bednar and the two announced Republican controller contenders — incumbent Controller Walter Griffith and tax accountant Karen Ceppa-Hirko, Wilkes-Barre — must file nomination petitions by 4:30 p.m. today to get on the ballot.
Four Democratic council candidates filed their nomination petitions before the election office closed Monday: Renee Ciaruffoli-Taffera, Larksville; Eileen Sorokas, Wilkes-Barre; Richard “Kick” Heffron, Dallas; and Michael Giamber, Fairmount Township.
Incumbent Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck, Kingston, also announced she will run.
County Democratic Chairman Bob Boyer said he does not expect more than five county council candidates, which means all five would be guaranteed to advance to the November general.
Newport Township tax collector Kenneth E. Angradi, a Democrat, said he wants to run but an injury might prevent him from obtaining the 250 signatures needed to get on the ballot. Former county clerk of courts and commissioner Tom Pizano also was named by many as a contender, but Pizano said Monday he is still “undecided” and has not collected his own signatures.
On the Republican side, incumbent Councilman Harry Haas, Kingston, and Hazleton resident Kathy Dobash were the only candidates who filed nomination petitions by the close of business Monday.
Republican Paul DeFabo, Wilkes-Barre, a Realtor at Classic Properties, confirmed Monday he will run for county council. Four other Republicans have announced their candidacy for council: incumbent Councilman Eugene Kelleher, Dallas Township; Joyce Dombroski-Gebhardt, Kingston; Sue Rossi, Butler Township; and Alex Milanes, Wilkes-Barre Township.
County Republican Party Chairman Bill Urbanski said he also was told Dallas resident Michael Lacey also might run for a party nomination. Lacey, who unsuccessfully ran for council in 2011, has a county-council campaign announcement online but could not be reached for comment Monday.
Independent and third-party candidates may enter the race after the May primary if they collect at least 633 signatures to get on the November ballot.
Incumbent Councilman Rick Williams, an Independent, said he is considering seeking another term.
Boyer said he is “surprised” more citizens are not running for council. When the initial 11 council seats were on the ballot in the May 2011 primary, 49 Democrats and Republicans competed for nominations.
He partially blames a home-rule charter restriction that says county council members can’t be employed or compensated by any person or business that has a contract with the county or any county authority, board or commission.
Boyer said he knows viable prospective candidates who can’t run because their employers sell products or services to county government. He does not believe the ban is necessary because council members must abstain from voting when there’s a conflict.
“I think the charter went overboard with that restriction. You have a lot of good people with values and integrity beyond reproach who are excluded from running,” he said.
He also believes some citizens are still “reluctant” to get involved in county government because of the past corruption scandal. Lengthy evening council meetings also are a deterrent, he said.
“Who wants to work an eight-hour job and then sit through a council meeting that’s five hours?”
County Councilman Rick Morelli, a home-rule charter drafter, said the home-rule government has been “relatively quiet.”
“Usually more people tend to run for office when things are not going well,” Morelli said.
He also believes some people who would be interested now realize council members are not actively involved in most hiring or contract awards because the appointed manager handles day-to-day operating decisions.
“Some people want to run where they will have more control,” he said.
Morelli said he also spoke with one potential contender who was daunted by the time and travel required to campaign countywide. He believes a switch to district council seats is a charter amendment worth exploring in the future.
Williams said citizens must view council seats as community service because extensive discussion and debate will continue to be necessary establishing home rule.
“The reality of really implementing a charter is it takes a lot of work and a lot of time. That may be offputting to some,” Williams said, urging other Independents and third-party voters to consider running.
Urbanski said he’s “very glad” Republicans have a full slate of council contenders.
Kingston Mayor Jim Haggerty, a home-rule charter drafter, described the roster of at least 12 candidates plus Independent and third-party competitors as a “significant number of people.” Council members are paid $8,000 per year, compared with past row-officer or commissioner seats that provided salaries and health care benefits.
“I’m delighted with the level of interest,” he said.
Comparisons to the first council primary in 2011 aren’t fair, he said, because the vote to fill 11 initial council seats was a one-time occurrence he calls the “high-water mark.”
“I think now that the government and professional manager are in place, the urgency that was there in 2011 to run is not there in 2013,” Haggerty said.
Haggerty doesn’t support eliminating the council ban on employment with a county contractor, saying voters adopted home rule because they wanted such “protections.” He also opposes council elections by district.
“District elections will lead to entrenchment of incumbents like we have had in state legislative races. Forcing everyone to run countywide prevents that to a large degree,” Haggerty said.