James Reino looked forward to serving on the volunteer board that oversees the Mohegan Sun Arena and believed his marketing experience could help the entertainment venue in Wilkes-Barre Township.
He planned to reach out to his network of regional business and education contacts for ideas to improve the public facility and is an arena regular himself.
“I’m a very big fan of the arena. I go to all Penguin (hockey) games and many entertainment events,” Reino said.
But this week he was informed he can’t serve — even though he was appointed last week by a majority of Luzerne County Council — because he works for UGI Energy Services, which has a contract with the county.
The county’s home rule charter says employees of businesses that have contracts with the county are prohibited from serving on the county’s outside boards and authorities.
Reino, who has worked as regional sales and operations director at UGI since 2000, said the county’s purchase of electricity and natural gas from the company would have no bearing on arena decisions.
“It never dawned on me that that would be a problem,” he said.
Reino can understand a ban on individually owned businesses, but said the exclusion of employees in large corporations shuts out a significant segment of the population with “vast knowledge and experience.” The county is a $260 million operation, and much of that budget is spent on hundreds of contracts with outside companies that provide goods and services.
“It’s basically saying the county doesn’t want the most qualified people to serve on boards,” said Reino, who also is a Kingston Township supervisor and member of the Back Mountain Chamber of Commerce and Back Mountain Community Partnership boards.
County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said he reviewed Reino’s eligibility to serve under home rule after an employee pointed out the charter prohibition. Pedri said Reino was the contact sales person on past county invoices from UGI but stressed Reino would still be precluded from serving on the 11-member arena authority regardless of his position at UGI.
“We are bound by the charter. This is no reflection on Mr. Reino’s qualifications to serve. He was extremely professional,” Pedri said, noting Reino indicated he would decline the nomination so council can select someone else.
Council’s previous appointee to the arena authority seat — Drew Mamary — also was disqualified before Pedri became chief solicitor because Mamary works as a contracted deputy coroner for the county. Mamary had joined the arena authority board in January, and council accepted his resignation and declared the seat vacant in May.
Charter drafters have said an all-encompassing ban was necessary to prevent potential conflicts of interest, but critics have maintained it is too restrictive and shrinking the pool of people able to serve on outside boards.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck, who chairs the council committee that publicly interviews all applicants for board and authority seats, said the ban may be revisited as part of future charter amendments.
“The idea was to have a fresh set of eyes by board and authority members who are not tied into the county in any way, but maybe this would be worthy of revision,” McClosky Houck said.
County Councilman Edward Brominski said he bumped into Reino on Wednesday and was surprised to learn about the notification he can’t serve. Potential charter conflicts should be identified and discussed by council before people are appointed, he said.
“We shouldn’t be in a predicament like this where after we make an appointment the appointees are told they can’t serve,” Brominski said.
McClosky Houck said she will recommend the council clerk start screening all board and authority applications to determine if the employers listed have contracts with the county. If a potential conflict is identified, the county can alert an applicant before a public interview is scheduled, she said.
Board applicants are asked about potential conflicts, and their resumes are available to council and discussed at public interviews, she said.
Reino said the county should assess eligibility in advance because the charter ban is unusually restrictive and unexpected.
“They knew where I worked and should have vetted my eligibility up front,” Reino said.
Pedri and McClosky Houck also said they are working on a proposed clarification because the charter wording does not expressly ban individual independent county contractors from serving, even though that appears to be the intent.
While Mamary agreed to resign, two other council appointees — Elaine Cook and Frank Bognet — gave up county compensation as independent contractors so they can continue serving on the Luzerne County Community College Board of Trustees.
As attorneys, Cook and Bognet had received $125 per hearing when they were requested by the prothonotary’s office to serve on civil court arbitration panels.
Acting Prothonotary/Clerk of Courts Director Art Bobbouine said both attorneys sent notice in June that they would no longer accept payment but would still serve on arbitration panels as volunteers if needed due to a shortage of attorneys willing to accept the assignment.