Government Study Commission unanimously supports new government for Lackawanna County

All seven members of the Lackawanna County Government Study Commission overwhelmingly support abolishing the commissioners’ form of government in favor of a strong executive form of government, an arrangement in which the county executive will be elected in a countywide at-large election. This stands in contrast to the home rule charter adopted by Luzerne County with its appointed county manager position. In addition the study commission by majority vote is recommending a seven member “part-time” council, elected by districts throughout the county.

Voting details:

• To abolish the three commissioner system: Yes (7–0)
• To adopt the elected executive form, with a part-time county council: Yes (7–0)
• For districting, seven districts and no at-large: 4 Yes (Robert Weber, Michael Gianetta, Chuck Volpe, Mary Jo Sheridan); 1 abstention (David Wenzel); 1 No (Jerry Notarianni); 1 absent (Lyn Ruane)

By majority vote the study commission voted in favor of setting the following term limits:

• The executive:  two (2) four-year terms,
• Part-time council member: three (3) four-year terms

By majority vote the study commission also voted in favor of setting the following compensation packages:

• The executive: $90,000 per year, plus benefits
• Part-time council member: $15,000 per year, with no benefits

Lackawanna Govt Study Commission - 1Study commission member Mary Jo Sheridan told the Independent Gazette that she initially opposed the districting plan, and would prefer an at-large election for the new council, but her decision to support the districting plan came as she took into account both the current and past political climates of Lackawanna County. Sheridan said, “My decision came down to maximizing the chance for a more broad county wide representation.” Sheridan also stated that elections shouldn’t come down to money, yet they always do. She believes that districting would afford smaller campaigns a smaller geographical area to cover, ultimately giving all candidates the same opportunity for success, regardless of their campaign budget. “I feel that by districting, a grassroots effort or door-to-door candidate can succeed. We have a lot of talented people in our county who don’t run because they simply don’t have the money,” said Sheridan.

Sheridan also noted that much of Lackawanna County is made up of rural areas where population is limited, and felt that the districting plan would ensure that those communities would also be represented. According to the United States Census Bureau in 2012 Lackawanna County possessed an estimated population of 214,477 people, with the City of Scranton alone accounting for just over 35% of the total county population.

Overcoming challenges

The study commission has received little to no support from the current Lackawanna County commissioners, according to the minutes of the January 8, 2014, study commission meeting held at the South Abington Township municipal building in South Abington Township. The commission solicitor, Attorney Frank Ruggiero, explained that despite making open records requests for documents, he has been consistently stonewalled. Ruggiero explained further that since the study commission does not enjoy subpoena power, a third-party investigator, James Seidell, with 26 years an FBI agent, has been retained to conduct a performance audit of county operations.The meeting minutes also reveal a payment of $10,000 to Seidell Investigations for the audit, personally made by commission chairman Chuck Volpe. Volpe has indicated he will not seek reimbursement for his out-of-pocket expense.

It was noted that the Scranton Times had refused by late December 2013 to print any more commission notices in its legal section, because none of the paper’s invoices had been paid by Lackawanna County since the commission started meeting in June 2013. Chairman Volpe satisfied the outstanding legal ad invoice of $1,442.75 and will be seeking reimbursement for that outlay, according to meeting minutes.

Under current state law a county is required to place notice of the place, date, and time of any and all meeting(s) in a newspaper of general circulation, as defined by 45 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes § 101. Some lawmakers in Harrisburg have been seeking to abolish this requirement in favor of reforming local government, bringing it into the 21st century and saving money. Their proposal: allow local governments to advertise meetings by posting notices on their websites. Last fiscal year in Monroe County, the Sheriff’s Department alone spent nearly $541,000 for advertising, and Monroe County as a whole spent about $1.1 million.

Phone messages left for all three current Lackawanna County Commissions, O’Brien, Wansacz, and O’Malley, seeking comment, input, or recommendations regarding the new form of government as Lackawanna County moves forward were not returned as of the time of publishing.

What’s next?

The Government Study Commission will hold additional public meetings in February, allowing residents the opportunity to voice concerns and provide input. Meetings are as follows:

  1. Thursday, February 6, 2014, Public Hearing, Dickson City Borough Building. (This public hearing will be for purposes of allowing the public an opportunity to comment on the draft Report and Recommendation before the study commission votes.)
  2. Thursday, February 13, 2014, Special Meeting, possibly at the University of Scranton (specific site to be determined). (This special meeting will be for purposes of voting on the commission’s Report and Recommendation document.)
  3. There may be one more meeting after the February 13 one, a final public hearing (specific site to be determined).

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