Two citizens are calling for Rick Morelli to relinquish his role as Luzerne County Council chairman in light of a pending protection-from-abuse filing against him by his ex-girlfriend.
The chair often serves as council spokesperson, presides over meetings and prepares meeting agendas.
“Do we really want to have someone with a pending PFA in that position?” said former county controller Walter Griffith.
Griffith said Morelli recently complained people were ridiculing council for focusing on backyard chicken zoning instead of more important issues.
“Now that he’s embarrassing the county, shouldn’t we move on as well?” Griffith said.
Kingston resident Brian Shiner, who regularly attends meetings, said he already had urged several council members to remove Morelli as chair, describing him as a “bully.”
Morelli, 43, said he’s “absolutely not” stepping down from the leadership post.
“These are just allegations made against me, and nobody’s heard my side of the story yet. I’m looking forward to telling my side,” Morelli said.
Dallas Township resident Deana Pickett obtained the temporary PFA against Morelli on Wednesday, alleging he stalked her numerous times and has refused to leave her alone. A hearing date was scheduled for Aug. 7 but postponed until Aug. 21 because Pickett’s attorney will be on vacation.
Morelli, of Sugarloaf Township, who is in the process of a divorce, said he “understands and respects” that he’s subject to public scrutiny as an elected official but said he won’t allow the non-criminal filing to compromise his work on council.
“I’m staying focused on county business, and that’s what I plan to continue doing. The question is whether the people who are politically against me will use this to halt progress,” Morelli said.
Council has a work session two days before the Aug. 21 PFA hearing, but council’s next voting meeting isn’t until Aug. 26. County judges almost always issue rulings on PFAs the day of the hearing. Both sides have the right to appeal.
Griffith, of Kingston Township, said council should call a special meeting to address the chairmanship if Morelli won’t step down on his own.
Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski said he doesn’t plan to call for a chairmanship change and said no other council members have asked him to call a meeting on the topic.
Brominski said he won’t discuss his personal opinion on Morelli’s chairmanship, saying council members should discuss the matter as a group if it becomes an issue.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck declined comment on whether Morelli should remain chairman but said she believes council’s bylaws would require one of the council members who supported Morelli’s chairmanship in January to make a motion to remove him from the post.
The bylaws suggest a member of the majority that supported an action must make a motion for reconsideration, she said.
Council members Eileen Sorokas, Kathy Dobash, Brominski, Morelli, Stephen A. Urban and Stephen J. Urban voted for Morelli to replace Tim McGinley as chair. The same six voted for Brominski as vice chair over McClosky Houck.
Wilkes-Barre-based Democratic strategist Ed Mitchell doesn’t believe the PFA filing will impact council’s productivity because “constant bickering” and delays reaching decisions already have convinced him and many others that the new home rule government “just doesn’t work.”
“I don’t really think it matters because, to me, county council and the home rule government are dysfunctional. They don’t get anything done, whether they’re distracted or not,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell believes the government structure in effect before January 2012 “worked fine” when the right elected officials were in office. He said voters had the option to select others if they were dissatisfied.
“We ran into a bad stretch with one administration, and voters threw out the baby with the bathwater,” Mitchell said.
Councilman Bobeck said he has been working on proposed council meeting structure changes that he says will drastically reduce the number of committees and keep council members more focused on matters under their control. Bobeck declined comment on the PFA, saying it is a “personal, legal matter.”
Morelli pushed for the creation of eight council committees when he became chair, saying it would force council members to become more knowledgeable about county matters and force more discussion about requests before they come up for a vote.
Critics say the structure has added unneeded layers of bureaucracy.
A former Hazleton Area School Board member, Morelli was the top vote-getter in the race for the first 11-member county council under home rule in 2011. He developed countywide name recognition when he was elected to the county’s Home Rule Study Commission in 2009 and later served on the home rule transition committee.
Morelli has emphasized his willingness to speak out and vote his conscience on council and often provides the tie-breaking vote.
But Griffith, who resigned from the controller’s post last year before pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of obstructing the administration of justice, said he believes Morelli has “anger-management issues.”
“He has a history of becoming unglued at meetings, and when he doesn’t get his way, he pushes buttons,” Griffith said.