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Luzerne County House Rules Study Issue May Not Move Forward

A proposal to reconsider Luzerne County’s self-government structure failed to pass collectively by the county council during its business session this week.

Another idea to eliminate one of the three public comment periods drew mixed responses.

The review of the bylaws stems from a suggested order asking voters in the November general election if they want to form a government study commission.

Council Chair Kendra Radle said it may be time to re-evaluate the Home Rule Charter as it has been in effect for a decade and questions have arisen about discrepancies between the wording of the charter and the state law.

“While the charter is a great document, I think it has its flaws,” Radle said.

But acting chief counsel Shannon Crake Lapsansky made it clear that the council cannot seek to form a task force focused solely on improving the current charter.

Instead, the review board should have the freedom under state law to independently decide whether it wishes to retain and modify the current structure of the rule of origin, draft an entirely new charter or revert to the old structure, Crake Lapsansky said.

“With full transparency, the government study committee could decide to do whatever they want,” she said.

If the council proceeds to place the question on the November ballot, voters would also simultaneously elect citizens to serve on the study committee. These commission members would have up to 18 months to complete their work.

Any recommended commission changes would need to be approved by future voters to take effect, which happened prior to the county’s January 2012 transition to self-government. The current structure replaced a system that had been in place for more than 150 years and put 11 elected council members and an appointed director in charge of decisions previously made by three commissioners and several elected non-commissioned officers.

Councilor Chris Perry said he would be “totally opposed” to the proposal to ask for a review committee because council would have no way of setting parameters to ensure the internal regime remained in place.

Councilman Stephen J. Urban said he’s never been a charter supporter, but thinks there are other ways to deliver specific improvements to voters. The charter has “good sides and bad sides,” he said, noting that it was always meant to be a “living, breathing document.”

“You may not be sitting here in the future,” he told his colleagues, referring to a potential commission recommendation to get rid of autonomy.

Councilman Robert Schnee repeated his past description of home rule as the “purest form of government” and said he would vehemently oppose a decision that could result in a return to the commissioner system.

Schnee said the county has made “great progress” in reducing inherited debt and getting a credit score under the domestic scheme, and he also believes the charter flaws can be fixed by forming a board committee.

“To go back – that can never happen,” Schnee said, referring to the commissioner system.

Councilwoman LeeAnn McDermott said she believes in fixing the charter but is not going back to the old system.

Also agreeing with this position, Councilman Gregory Wolovich Jr.

He said the board should identify issues and seek targeted corrective changes.

“We don’t have to reform the whole government,” he said.

Public Comment

Citizens have three opportunities to comment — before vote meetings on agenda items only and after vote meetings and business sessions on any county issue. Each allotment is three minutes per person, allowing each individual up to nine minutes in total.

The Council discussed a rule change removing one of its public comment periods, with a future vote required for the reduction to take effect.

Wolovich said the proposal goes against the charter’s mission to increase public participation in county government.

“We are here to represent them. Their voices need to be heard,” Wolovich said.

However, only two other board colleagues — Urban and Kevin Lescavage — seconded his motion to remove the item from the business meeting agenda so that it would not be discussed.

Crake Lapsansky said public comments must be accepted before council votes, but a third subsequent comment period is not legally required.

Council Vice Chairman John Lombardo said the suggestion was intended to streamline council meetings and eliminate redundancy, an issue he and other candidates raised on the campaign trail last year. Most government entities only accept comments before and after they vote, he said.

Lombardo pointed out that he also receives many emails from residents sharing their views on county issues and reviews all public statements before voting, noting that he changed some of his votes based on those comments.

“It’s not to stifle free speech,” he said.

Thornton said eliminating public comments after business sessions will not exclude the public because board members cannot vote on such matters until a subsequent meeting at which comments must be accepted.

Urban said he would only support a reduction in public comment time if the council agrees to deal with the “bigger and meatier issues” first at the council committee level, which would allow for greater public participation. outside of regular board meetings.

Several citizens who regularly attend meetings have urged council to maintain the three public comment periods.

Contact Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera