Council rejected proposed change to number of votes to reopen budget

Last updated: July 24. 2014 11:55PM - 934 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

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Luzerne County Council has rejected a proposed home rule charter revision that would have been on the November ballot.

The change would have required at least six of 11 council votes to reopen and potentially amend the budget and tax rate before Feb. 15 in the years following council elections. Four votes are needed now.

Supporters said the suggested change was prompted by proposed budget amendments this year that held up the mailing of tax bills but did not ultimately pass. The new requirement would have stopped council from “wasting time” on amendments that don’t have majority support, Councilman Jim Bobeck has said.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash tried to get the charter change removed from Tuesday’s voting agenda, challenging its legality. State law prohibits tinkering with the government structure until the charter completes its five-year anniversary in January 2017, Dobash asserted.

County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said he has reviewed the law and concluded some minor charter changes are permitted with voter approval.

Dobash said she believes an alteration that makes it harder for council members to introduce budget amendments is a “major change.”

If such tweaking is allowed, council also should add a ballot question asking voters if they want to alter charter wording to reduce the number of council votes required to terminate the county manager from seven to six, Dobash said.

Pedri said Dobash is free to propose such a revision, but it must be written in ordinance form and be formally introduced. That process likely could not be completed in time to get the question on the November ballot, he said.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban concurred with yanking the charter amendment from the agenda, saying the proposal significantly alters the government structure by limiting the power of incoming council members to suggest budget options the year after they are elected. He agreed with adding the manager termination vote change if the budget ballot question was kept, saying council should “let the people decide if they are happy with the manager.”

Urban and Dobash have been highly critical of county Manager Robert Lawton.

Bobeck said he believes a manager termination vote change would constitute a major charter change that can’t be altered until 2017. Home rule charter drafters required a supermajority of seven council votes as a safeguard to insulate the manager from politics, but critics say the extra vote is an unwarranted cushion for the manager.

Councilman Harry Haas said he supports the budget charter amendment because this year’s proposed budget alterations delayed the county and municipalities from receiving property tax revenue.

Urban disputed that argument, saying council voted on budget amendments Feb. 15, and the tax bills were not ready to be mailed until the end of February.

The budget charter change remained on Tuesday’s agenda but did not receive majority support, with no votes from Dobash, Urban and Council members Stephen J. Urban, Eileen Sorokas and Edward Brominski. Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck was absent, and the remaining five council members voted in support of the change.

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