An incorrect narrative continues to be expressed by the Times-Tribune and by certain supporters of the current commissioners: that the Lackawanna County Government Study Commission has somehow moved beyond its authority by looking into complaints from citizens regarding the current operations of county government.
Speaking as a member of the Study Commission, and as a former Deputy Attorney General, I would point out that the grant of authority under which the Study Commission was formed and operates, the Home Rule and Optional Plans Law, specifically provides at 53 PS CSA Section 2918 that the job of a government study commission is to study the form of government, compare it with other forms available and determine whether the government can be strengthened or made more clearly responsible and accountable to the people or be made more economical or efficient. The PA Department of Community and Economic Development Center for Local Government Services 118-page publication Home Rule in Pennsylvania, prepared as a guide for use by study commissions, explains that the role of the study commission is to conduct a thorough review of not only the structure, but also the operations of the existing form of government. A study commission is not tasked to examine trivial matters relating only to a narrow scope of activity, but to comprehensively review, study, and analyze the governmental structures and operations.
The Study Commission is not simply conducting an academic exercise, comparing different forms of county government while in a total vacuum. The Commission’s responsibility is not only to compare the various optional forms, but also to explain to the citizens why a change in form is recommended and to show them all the evidence and arguments supporting that decision.
Supporters of the current three commissioner system, where all authority is centralized in the hands of two majority commissioners, argue that the era of corrupt commissioners Munchak and Cordaro was an aberration and that the system had nothing to do with the corrupt activities of two flawed individuals. This argument was dispelled by United States Attorney Peter J. Smith, who investigated and successfully prosecuted Munchak and Cordaro. He believes that our current commissioner form of county government is fatally flawed because two majority commissioners exercise substantial, unchecked legislative and executive authority and that this current system enabled corruption to thrive all too easily under Munchak and Cordaro.
Complaints have been made to the Study Commission that the sweetheart deals of the Munchak and Cordaro era are still going on in county government and that crooked businessmen who bribed Munchak and Cordaro continued to do business with the county after they left office and continued to make campaign contributions to county officials. The public has the right to know whether these complaints are true or not. If they are, then the era of Munchak and Cordaro was not an aberration but business as usual in Lackawanna County after their departure, with only the faces changed. If these complaints from citizens prove to be true, this would constitute additional evidence for the public to consider in deciding whether we need a change in the form of county government to one that is more clearly responsible and accountable to the people.
While the Study Commission is clearly not a criminal investigative body, we have an obligation not to ignore such complaints and sweep them under the rug. If criminal activity is uncovered, the evidence will be turned over to the appropriate law enforcement officials. If there is nothing to the complaints, then the air has been cleared and the rumors should stop. Mr. Volpe is paying out of his own pocket an experienced, retired FBI agent to look into the validity of these complaints. If nothing is found, then it was his money wasted, not the taxpayers’. The complaints will either be confirmed or found to have no merit and reported as such to the public.
The Study Commission has voted unanimously to recommend a change to an elected executive/council form of county government with more checks and balances and a separation of legislative and executive authority. Proponents of the present system argue that having only three commissioners is very efficient and that it enables things to get done quickly. If Munchak and Cordaro were allowed out of prison to speak before the Study Commission, they would probably agree with the argument and wholeheartedly endorse the present three commissioner system of centralized authority that enabled them to get a lot done . . . for themselves.
If we keep the present commissioner system, the question is not whether there will be another Munchak and Cordaro, but when. We will have the opportunity in May to make it much harder for corruption to occur far into the future under a decentralized system with more checks and balances and separation of powers under an elected executive and part-time county council with term limits. The choice will be in the hands of all the citizens of Lackawanna County and they need to know not only what the recommendation of the Study Commission is, but also all the facts that support our decision recommending the needed change.