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Reform effort keeping highly qualified off boards, some say

Last updated: March 26. 2014 11:14PM - 3000 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com



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Local engineer Tom Lawson is a busy man but offered to volunteer his expertise on the Luzerne County authority that oversees the Wyoming Valley Levee.


Some urged him to apply for the unpaid seat on the Flood Protection Authority. His four decades of engineering experience includes work rebuilding and raising the levee.


He also went three days without sleep providing free engineering assistance during the record Susquehanna River flood in 2011.


But an often criticized home rule charter ban may remove Lawson and another engineer board applicant — Eric J. Speicher — from consideration, officials say.


The charter says members of county boards and authorities can’t be employed or compensated by any individual or business serving as a contractor to the county or its boards and authorities.


Lawson is executive vice president of Borton-Lawson in Wilkes-Barre, which was has been paid by the county to handle various architectural and engineering assignments as recently as last December.


Speicher, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, works for CECO Associates Inc., a Scranton-based engineering and architectural company that received a $21,682 payment from the county in December for a bridge project.


Both companies would have to forego any work for the county and its boards and authorities during the time their employees serve.


Lawson was unaware of the restriction and said he can’t expect Borton-Lawson to give up contracts so he can fill a volunteer seat. The 65-year-old has sold his ownership interest in the company he co-founded in 1988 and is now paid as a consultant.


If appointed, he would have disclosed his affiliation with the company and removed himself from any authority involvement in hiring the company if future contracts came up.


“I just wanted to serve to help the community. Maintaining this levee system is an enormous responsibility. This valley can’t afford to have another devastating flood,” Lawson said, referring to the 1972 Agnes Flood.


Others also banned


The ban has forced at least two other local professionals to give up board seats.


James Reino withdrew his appointment to the authority overseeing the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township in August because he works for UGI Energy Services, which has a county utility contract.


George Hayden, who has a family-owned electrical and communications company in Hazleton, recently resigned from his seat on the Luzerne County Community College Board of Trustees because of the charter ban. Hayden owns a Hazleton property that leases some office space to a county department, which is considered a contract.


Hayden said his experience in economic development and handling budgets and projects was an asset on the community college board and said he sacrificed his time and paid his own travel to “better the county.”


“The county is losing great business leaders and eliminating good professional experience on its boards with this restriction,” Hayden said Wednesday.


Council Chairman Rick Morelli said he and other charter drafters intended to prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest when they added the ban but said he now believes they “went too far.” Council members have been forced to reject their top choices for some boards after learning they were disqualified due to the restriction, he said.


“We’re losing good people because they can’t serve,” Morelli said.


Councilman Rick Williams said the charter intended to correct past abuses, but he believes the provision is “too restrictive” and “unnecessarily burdensome.” He and several other council members are interested in altering the ban as a charter amendment.


Hayden’s lease, for example, had nothing to do with the community college, Williams said.


Williams sold his ownership interest in Williams, Kinsman & Lewis Architecture to serve on council because of a similar restriction applying to council members. The business had a small contract with the county Housing Authority that had to be honored, he said.


“I sold ownership to my partners. I was prepared to do that, but it was a significant financial cross to me. Others may not be willing to make that sacrifice,” Williams said.


Seasoned engineers


Lawson, of Hanover Township, said he would have asked “tough questions” as an authority board member and is “very outspoken.”


He has been recognized as “engineer of the year” four times by his peers in the county and started his employment in the 1970s working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He has served on many boards and committees locally and statewide.


Lawson said he will still volunteer his services during river flooding if he’s not appointed.


Speicher, West Pittston, has 14 years of experience in civil engineering design, including work on waterways and floodways, his resume says. He has worked at CECO since 2000 as a project coordinator and currently a structural coordinator.


There is at least one vacancy that must be filled on the five-member authority board.


 
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