Walter Griffith will stop being Luzerne County’s controller at 10:59 a.m. today, and county officials plan to publicly seek someone to serve until his term expires the end of this year.
Controller’s office senior auditor Patricia Llewellyn will serve as acting controller until council selects Griffith’s replacement, council Chairman Tim McGinley said Tuesday.
Griffith’s abrupt resignation and withdrawal Tuesday from the November ballot in the controller’s race are believed by many to be part of a plea agreement for felony wiretapping charges filed against him, but Griffith said his lawyer has advised him against discussing the charges.
His resignation and election withdrawal paperwork were terse and did not specify any reasons for his decision.
Griffith expected county officials to keep Llewellyn in his post the rest of the year because the home rule charter requires the controller to designate an employee to exercise the controller’s powers and duties when the officeholder is unable to serve, and she was his choice.
But county Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said this charter section clearly states controller designees serve in a “temporary absence or incapacity.”
Pedri directed council to other charter provisions outlining the procedure that must be followed if the controller resigns after completing 18 months of a term.
Council must first declare the seat vacant, which will happen at Tuesday’s council meeting, McGinley said.
If council does not select a replacement within 60 days by majority vote, the nomination will be filled by county judges, the charter says.
Council’s replacement must be a registered Republican dating back to November 2009, when Griffith, a Republican, was elected to the post, the charter says. That would exclude Llewellyn from consideration because she changed from a Democrat to Republican registration in February 2010, county records show.
Here’s a synopsis of the tentative plan to fill the post, according to McGinley:
• A public advertisement describing the post and qualifications will be issued shortly. The position will pay a gross $703 per week based on the controller’s annual $36,562 salary.
• Interested county Republicans will have until Aug. 19 to apply.
• An Aug. 20 council budget session will be changed to a regular meeting to discuss the selection process.
• Council will interview applicants Aug. 21 and/or Aug. 22. The interviews will be conducted in public to comply with state Sunshine Act requirements for the filling of elected posts.
GOP to meet
County Republican Party Chairman Bill Urbanski said the party’s executive committee will meet soon to discuss a plan to choose someone else to run in Griffith’s ballot slot in the November general.
Wilkes-Barre tax accountant Karen Ceppa-Hirko, whom Griffith defeated in the May primary, said Tuesday she is considering offering to run. She declined to discuss Griffith’s decision to resign.
“That’s up to investigators. My main goal in seeking the post was to hold people accountable,” Ceppa-Hirko said.
Conyngham Township resident Michelle Bednar, the Democratic controller contender, issued a statement reiterating her commitment to fight for accountability and transparency. Bednar has cited her experience working as an office manager, financial/payroll supervisor, corporate trust supervisor and municipal tax collector.
“The resignation and departure of Controller Walter Griffith, while a disappointment to every Luzerne County resident who has grown weary of public scandals, presents us with an opportunity to clean the slate and start a new chapter in Luzerne County government,” Bednar said.
County Councilman Stephen A. Urban, who lost to Bednar in the primary, encouraged Republicans to apply for the upcoming council nomination and Griffith’s vacant ballot slot. Urban had publicly called for Griffith to resign before the primary due to the wiretap charges, but Griffith said he would fight to clear his name and keep the post.
“It’s good the Republican Party is going to get to appoint his replacement because we have a totally unqualified Democrat running with no relevant experience,” Urban said.
Councilman Rick Morelli had also called for Griffith to resign and supports his decision.
‘Black cloud’ lifted
“I think Walter did the right thing. We have this black cloud hanging over the county with the charges against him, and it’s certainly a distraction. His resignation is the best thing for the county and controller’s office,” Morelli said.
Morelli said Griffith often “did his job very well,” but he also believes Griffith occasionally “pulled the fire alarm” without sufficient research and discussion with parties involved in the subjects he was addressing.
“That was his downfall. He stepped outside the boundaries of his job,” Morelli said.
Griffith said Tuesday he’s proud of his record addressing an inherited audit backlog, successfully pushing for a policy to track county-supplied vehicle fuel and switching to an online vendor payment system that eliminated the mailing of checks and generated revenue for the county.
He said he also lobbied for a system to better track tax collector revenue, stopped numerous questionable payments and made office records more accessible to the public and media.
“I was in the office more than my staff. Everyone and everything was under the microscope because I didn’t rubber-stamp anything,” Griffith said. “I did what I promised to do.”
Griffith, who plans to revive his Nanticoke auto repair business, said he received many supportive messages and calls Tuesday as the news of his resignation spread.
“I’m getting a lot of thanks for the job I did. That’s very encouraging to me,” he said.