Last updated: February 16. 2013 4:22AM - 217 Views

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In the past, Luzerne County commissioners had to publicly vote at least once a month on agendas packed with contracts awarded to businesses, employee hires and fires and purchases.

Much of that public disclosure has vanished under the new home rule government because the manager now privately handles most of these executive decisions – not the 11-member, elected part-time council.

County Manager Robert Lawton has only been on the job a month but said he's been thinking about the best way to keep people informed about the day-to-day operations under his control.

Home rule charter drafter Veronica Ciaruffoli raised the issue during last week's county council meeting, telling Lawton she understands he is swamped but believes there's an "information void."

Citizens and especially workers would like to know what's happening and on the horizon, she said, noting his link on the county web site contains only his name and email.

"Give them some information," Ciaruffoli said. "They've been waiting for you to come, and you're a big deal to them."

Lawton said he plans online posting of all the information commissioners have approved in the past, but it will take some time to work out the details with the information technology department.

No data previously released by commissioners will be kept from the public or council, he said.

"That would be entirely contrary to the intent of the home rule charter," Lawton said.

The online posting may start with spreadsheets on personnel changes and copies of contracts, but Lawton said he'd eventually like to present the information in a database searchable by the department, vendor and date.

Lawton said he spent much of his first month meeting with county employees and community leaders to discuss pending projects throughout the county. Interim budget chief Vic Mazziotti has often been at his side in recent days as they assess current county finances and start planning the 2013 budget.

Lawton said he will present a comprehensive mid-year budget analysis with detailed reports on spending and revenue in each department.

He's also considering exploring new financial software programs because the contract for the current system expires at the end of the year. A complicated conversion is required, regardless of whether the system is changed, because hundreds of spending categories must be converted to the new government structure.

Lawton said he hasn't selected permanent division heads or implemented major changes because he wants to make sure he's fully researched options.

"As carpenters say, measure twice, cut once," he said.

Mistaken impression

The manager appoints, promotes, disciplines, suspends and removes employees in departments that are not controlled by the court, controller or district attorney. Council approval is required only for his appointments to eight division head positions.

The manager also supervises and directs these county departments.

Approving purchases and contracts is another significant responsibility in the manager's hands.

Some of the 11 county council members were under the mistaken impression the manager must come to them for approval on all purchases over $25,000.

The home rule charter requires council approval if a contract or purchase would cost the county $25,000 in any future year or $75,000 in two or more future years.

In other words, the manager could authorize the spending of $1 million on additional supplies this year without council approval if he believes the expense is necessary and able to be covered within the 2012 budget adopted by council.

The manager would have to go to council if it's a multi-year commitment requiring more than $25,000 to be paid in 2013.

Charter drafters reasoned council should have a heads-up before the county is locked into a financial obligation that may impact future budgets, said charter drafter Jim Haggerty.

The check and balance on the manager is that he must adhere to council's budget and purchasing procedures, Haggerty said.

"Council appropriates the money, and it's up to the administration to spend that money wisely. Decisions on what to buy are executive," Haggerty said.

Haggerty said Lawton will decide the best way to inform council and the public about his work. Haggerty, who is the mayor in home rule Kingston, said the manager in his municipality provides monthly updates on key decisions.

The county's charter requires the manager to keep council informed about the county's financial condition, future county needs and activities and operations in all county departments that he supervises.

The manager also must present an annual "state of the county" report and hold at least one well-publicized evening forum annually to obtain comments and suggestions from the public.

Range of opinions

Council members offered a range of opinions on the level of information that should be provided by the manager.

• Linda McClosky Houck said she's requested regular financial reports so all council members can track adherence to the budget and potential problem areas involving overspending or revenue shortfalls.

"I'd like to see a manager's report that says more than, ‘We're doing OK.' I'd like to see some level of detail," she said.

• Elaine Maddon Curry said council members should discuss as a group what information they want from the manager, though she stressed the data, particularly on personnel, should come after the fact so there's no potential for council members to intervene in daily operations, which is a charter prohibition.

• Harry Haas said the purchasing, ethics and personnel policies that will be adopted by council should ensure executive branch decisions are "above board." He supports the manager's continued attendance at council meetings to provide updates on key issues.

• Jim Bobeck said council members have loaded the county website, www.luzernecounty.org, with information on the legislative branch -- meeting agendas, ordinances, resolutions, reports and meeting audio recordings. He expects the manager and his executive government branch will do the same.

"The website is your 21st Century gateway to government access," Bobeck said.

• Edward Brominski said he wants more information from the manager on county spending. Council's expectations on information disclosure should be discussed during upcoming meetings to develop a county manager evaluation system, he said.

• Stephen A. Urban, a former commissioner, said he wants the manager to provide public reports on all bids submitted for county purchases, similar to ones on past commissioner agendas. He said he's been submitting public information requests to obtain data because he doesn't want to be accused of meddling with the executive staff by personally contacting them.

"Personally I feel as a member of council there's very little information flowing out of the executive side. Government is supposed to be open and transparent," he said.

• Tim McGinley said he's optimistic Lawton will develop a format to update the public and employees about executive branch developments and spending.

"I think everybody's cognizant of the fact that we need to do a better job with communication for everybody's sake – council, employees and the public," he said.

• Rick Williams said Lawton has been forthcoming in all inquiries and will come up with an effective plan to communicate his decisions. Council members may discuss reports and updates they want from the manager but must be careful they don't unnecessarily "add a documentation burden that prevents the manager from doing his job," he said.

• Eugene Kelleher said he believes reports from the executive side will pick up after Lawton has completed his assessment of operations and staff.

"I have faith that he's going to do a very good job. I think in two or three more months you will see many new things in place and decisions made," he said.

• Stephen J. Urban said he'd like a monthly report on contracts and personnel actions, with the understanding that it's for informational purposes and not council approval.

"Council is going to be tasked with giving the manager a performance review, and we're not there everyday. I don't think we're getting enough information on day-to-day activity," he said.

• Rick Morelli, a charter drafter, said he will propose a monthly public council work session solely with the manager and division heads to discuss developments and budgets. The manager has a "lot of power" and should "put out as much information out there to the public as possible," he said.

"The reason this county got in trouble before was too many things happened behind the scenes. Not only does this first council have to set the bar high. So does this first manager of the county," he said.

The county's charter requires the manager to keep council informed about the county's financial condition, future county needs and activities and operations in all county departments that he supervises.

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