Sunday, July 27, 2014

County Council battles over its power

Members debate what board can and can’t do under home rule

March 19. 2014 11:20PM

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Luzerne County Council members still disagree over their power under the home rule government that took effect two years ago, with one saying the public perceives the elected 11-member body as a “joke.”

Three issues sparked the latest debate at Tuesday’s council committee meeting/work session: a council request for job applicant ratings, council’s future access to the financial software system and an upcoming council evaluation of county Manager Robert Lawton.

Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski put his request for applicant ratings on the agenda, saying he wants the information to evaluate the selection process for the sheriff and criminal/civil court records director positions. Brominski said applicants for these positions have approached him asking why they were not interviewed or chosen based on their qualifications.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said council members are “out of the loop of communication.”

“It would be nice to have more information, especially when you get inundated by the public after someone’s hired with questions,” she said.

But county Assistant Solicitor Vito DeLuca said providing the information to council would “clearly and absolutely” violate the home rule charter because council can’t interfere with day-to-day operations handled by the manager, including the selection of applicants hired for these positions.

Council’s only involvement in hiring is selecting the manager and a council clerk and confirming eight division heads nominated by the manager, DeLuca said. Applicant ratings, which could include identifying information, are not public record, he said.

“I don’t believe council would have any more right to see any information regarding that employee or prospective employees greater than that which the public would have the right to have,” DeLuca said.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban, a former county commissioner, questioned how council can determine if the manager is doing his job following the hiring process if it can’t review rating sheets.

DeLuca said the manager is not a “subordinate” of council.

“I think that may be a misconception by some, that somehow the County Council is the supervisor of the county manager because they approve the (manager’s) hiring,” DeLuca said.

Micromanage issue

Insisting he’s not trying to micromanage, Brominski said more disclosure about the selection is warranted “in the interest of transparency.” He said council publicly discloses all applicants for seats on boards and noted the court publicly listed and interviewed applicants for a vacant commissioner post several years ago.

Brominski said two attorneys told him they applied for the civil/criminal records director position, and he wants to know why someone without a bachelor’s degree was ranked “superior” and hired.

Councilman Jim Bobeck said some of his colleagues are “banging on a cement wall” repeatedly asking for information they’re not allowed to receive.

Bobeck also challenged the motive for the request, saying applicants are putting pressure on council to exert political influence to “strong arm” the manager in the hiring selection.

“Let’s take the veil off of what’s really happening here,” Bobeck said.

DeLuca said he was a home rule critic in the past but believes the hiring process is better now that selections are not made by elected commissioners and row officers. The administration publicly seeks applicants, ranks them and maintains those records, even though council can’t see them, he said. Lawton selects division heads but leaves it up to managers to screen and choose workers hired in their offices, he said.

“In the old days, if someone wanted a job, they would go and speak to politicians. There was no record of that. There was no paper trail of any sort of qualifications that were presented,” DeLuca said.

Brominski insisted politics is still involved in hiring under home rule.

Legal action

Urban encouraged applicants to pursue legal action or a state investigation if they believe they did not receive fair consideration due to age or other reasons.

Council’s access to the financial software was debated because the administration is trying to set up a process that will prevent council from viewing confidential information, such as the names of children in foster care or individuals on workers’ compensation.

“We’ve got more rules and regulations on us than anybody in this county,” Brominski said.

Dobash asked Urban if he had access to confidential information as a commissioner, and he said yes.

Councilman Harry Haas said he supports blocking of confidential information from council to protect the privacy of citizens.

Urban said council members are not treated as elected officials.

“I’ve been voted on by the people, but I’m just a member of the public. I get to come up here and talk in the mike, but what I say really doesn’t mean anything to most of you in this room. It doesn’t mean anything to the manager. You don’t take any advice that I pass on,” he said.

The manager’s evaluation process came up because Lawton recently marked his two-year anniversary. Lawton said he asked for an annual review so he can improve as a manager. Council members may repeat last year’s format of completing a questionnaire and/or meeting with him individually.

Council members can terminate the manager with seven of 11 votes — a super majority — though such an action does not appear to have the support of seven at this time.

Urban questioned why council members “waste” their time evaluating Lawton if they don’t supervise him.

Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck said evaluations allow council members to communicate their personal opinions about the manager’s performance, both positive and negative.

Viewed as ‘a joke’

Dobash said council’s lack of power has been observed by others.

“Basically, the council is viewed publicly and by other branches of government as a joke,” Dobash said.

Haas attributed that perception to the decorum of some council members, noting one recently described his comments as “idiotic” at a council meeting.

“May I remind my colleagues that the joke on the council really depends on their own demeanor in public, and there have been some woefully disrespectful things said by my colleagues here on council,” Haas said.

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