Should Luzerne County Council allow management to customize its recruitment and selection process as certain job openings arise?
County council members are pondering the question because county Manager Robert Lawton has requested that power as part of his proposed personnel code amendments.
Lawton wants more latitude for the manager and other department heads when they must fill roughly 350 mostly non-union positions classified as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act. These positions include attorneys, management staff and executive assistants in most departments.
The amendments keep the code's blanket promise that all employees will be recruited, selected and promoted through "open and competitive means" based on merit.
However, the proposed changes don't mandate public advertising or a defined selection process for the eight division heads and council clerk.
Other exempt positions must be posted for at least two weeks at county buildings and on the county's website, but advertising in a newspaper is only required if a job isn't filled in-house by a current employee, the proposal says.
The human resources department, with the approval of the administrative services head and county manager, will determine the recruitment and selection process used to fill these positions.
In comparison, all rank-and-file, or "career service," job openings must be publicly advertised unless there's already an eligibility list from a previous search within the prior year. The county human resources department handles the initial screening, and "knowledge, skills and abilities," or KSAs, must be developed for the rating and ranking of all applicants.
Applicable job openings in human services divisions will still be filled through the state civil service system.
Councilman Jim Bobeck supports providing management flexibility.
"That's a smart thing," he said. "It lets the people most involved in the hiring process have the ability to tailor the process accordingly."
All positions, including division heads and the council clerk, must be filled in the spirit of the merit clause requiring an open and competitive search, he said.
He compared the manager's selection of division heads to the president or governor choosing cabinet members.
"The manager will want the best available, and if council deems a choice less than worthy, the pick won't get confirmed, which creates the necessary check and balance," Bobeck said.
Councilman Rick Morelli said he has serious concerns if the code fails to set specific hiring parameters for exempt positions.
"I think this council has been too flexible and open with the manager. We must respect his ability to do his job, but it's our job to set the government in the right direction," Morelli said.
Without clear guidelines, the manager and other department heads "could easily go back to the cronyism and picking of friends we've seen before," he said.
Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry said Lawton's proposal to keep the merit clause is key, and she said Lawton and other managers making decisions on hiring have no incentive to choose inferior applicants.
"I see nothing wrong in allowing flexibility in the recruitment and selection process for those positions," she said.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he's still reviewing the proposed changes but would allow discretionary hiring approaches with a caveat.
"If they're going to change the procedure depending on the department and the position, let's make sure each procedure is made public before each hiring process begins," Kelleher said. "Let's be open so the public and council know what's going on."
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck agreed, noting council publicly approved a selection process for the council clerk position before a search was initiated.
"I think each process needs to be clearly stated in advance. There can't be secret hiring procedures," she said.
Council members must discuss the proposed changes with the manager and each other before voting, said McClosky Houck and Councilman Rick Williams. It's unclear if council will vote on the amendments at Tuesday's meeting.
"In principle the idea of providing the administration with flexibility is a good idea, but at the same time it needs to be standardized so it's known ahead of time how each office will handle hiring," Williams said.
Luzerne County Council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the county's Emergency Management Agency Building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre. A work session will be followed by a voting meeting.
The amendments keep the code's blanket promise.