Stephen A. Urban believes problems with Luzerne County’s 2-year-old home rule government convinced many voters in neighboring Lackawanna County to keep their three-commissioner structure in Tuesday’s primary.
“There has been some reduction in staff here, but we’ve had two tax increases and not much progress,” said Urban, a county councilman and former commissioner.
Council Chairman Rick Morelli disagrees, saying he believes the change has resulted in successes here, but he “highly doubts” most Lackawanna voters paid attention to the structure in Luzerne County.
Morelli’s theory: People are inherently resistant to change unless they’re angry enough to take a chance on something new.
Luzerne County’s charter was adopted by 55 percent of county voters in November 2010 in the wake of a public corruption scandal involving county officials and judges and a county debt hovering around half a billion dollars.
“People did not vote for home rule in Luzerne County because of what we put in the charter. They voted for change because of the corruption and everything else taking place,” said Morelli, one of the charter drafters. “The timing was perfect.”
Advocates of a government change in Lackawanna held up the 2011 convictions of former Lackawanna County commissioners A.J. Munchak and Robert Cordaro as one of the main reasons voters should do away with the three-commissioner structure there, he said.
“Lackawanna also had problems with corruption, but time has passed, and I don’t think the need for change was as dominating with voters there,” Morelli said.
Councilman Tim McGinley also said there was no basis for Lackawanna voters to expect similar outcomes because Luzerne County’s structure is significantly different than the one proposed there.
Lackawanna’s proposal would have kept elected row offices, while Luzerne eliminated all but the elected controller and district attorney.
The three county commissioners would have been replaced by seven council members elected by district and an elected county executive in Lackawanna.
In comparison, 11 council members elected countywide and a manager appointed by council handle decisions previously made by three elected commissioners in Luzerne.
“There are quite a few significant differences, so I think it’s hard to actually compare one to another,” McGinley said.
Councilman Jim Bobeck believes Lackawanna voters rejected the plan because they saw the addition of more elected officials who are not required to have specific job qualifications.
According to unofficial results, 57.4 percent of voters opposed a new government structure in Lackawanna during Tuesday’s primary.
“I don’t think people saw significant change in the proposal. You choose the devil you know over the devil you don’t,” Bobeck said.
But Patricia Lawler, mayor of Clarks Summit in Lackawanna County, believes Luzerne County’s experience with its new structure played a role in Tuesday’s outcome.
“Luzerne County is so close to home, and being neighbors, we read and hear that many wish they didn’t make that change and had stayed with the three-commissioner system,” said Lawler, who opposed the Lackawanna change. “Our perception here is that many Luzerne County voters are anxious to have the opportunity to vote again to return to the commissioner system.”
Luzerne County voters can’t consider changing the structure until the current one hits its five-year anniversary in January 2017, officials say. Legislators instituted the moratorium so citizens would “permit a given type of government a fair chance to be successful before seeking a seemingly more attractive alternative,” a court ruling said.
Lawler attributes the Lackawanna proposal’s defeat primarily to the realization of many that every system has pros and cons.
“It’s not about the system. It’s about the people, and we just have to be astute in who we’re electing into government positions because there are individuals and groups that have an agenda different than wholesome government in any system,” she said.