Lawton trying to leave on positive note

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | December 28th, 2015 4:10 pm

Don’t expect a flowery farewell speech or candid postmortem from Robert Lawton in his final days as Luzerne County’s top manager.

Lawton, who wraps up his nearly four-year county employment Thursday, has declined several media requests for a parting interview in recent weeks.

He had been seeking employment elsewhere but resigned Nov. 25 before securing another position when it became clear the number of county council members who believed it was time for someone new had increased to seven out of 11 — enough to terminate him under the home rule government.

Lawton, who has since obtained an undisclosed position in another state, has been trying to bow out quietly on a positive note.

He skipped the Dec. 15 county council meeting and doesn’t plan to attend Tuesday’s council meeting.

Lawton is holding an annual public forum Wednesday because it’s required by the home rule charter, but said he won’t use it as a platform to defend his decisions or attack the decisions of others. If any citizens show up at the forum, Lawton said he will essentially stick to the script of a letter he emailed to employees announcing his departure.

This letter outlines progress reducing staff, implementing a more competitive purchasing process, obtaining an investment-grade credit rating that allowed millions of dollars in debt restructuring savings, posting more information on the county website and undergoing more thorough auditing.

Lawton’s email also said the county has been meeting the goal of home rule supporters to “free their government of political influence and personal preference” since the new government structure was implemented in January 2012.

“We have worked together for nearly four years, with much to be proud of, despite occasional setbacks,” he wrote, thanking employees, the council members and citizens for the “richly rewarding experience for which I am truly grateful.”

Critics of Lawton have pointed largely to his failure to foresee and communicate problems, including a deficit that grew to $16.9 million during his tenure.

Mixed views

The council unanimously accepted Lawton’s resignation Dec. 15, although Harry Haas and Rick Williams did so “with regret.”

Williams said during that meeting he believes Lawton has done an “admirable job” as manager.

“I recognize that he’s a human being and that it hasn’t worked out exactly as we hoped. But I think that he’s an honorable man, and he’s worked hard and has moved the county forward in terms of fiscal responsibility and putting our finances more in order than they were,” Williams said.

Haas said Lawton transitioned the county into a new government and reduced long-term debt.

“While I didn’t always agree with the management style of Mr. Lawton or some of his choices, his legacy for us in Luzerne County is enormous,” Haas said, stressing the continued need for a nonpolitical manager.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said she has the “opposite view” of Lawton, citing his “overspending.”

Stephen A. Urban agreed with his colleague Dobash, saying Lawton did not exercise all options to prevent the deficit from increasing.

“Bob came in here in difficult times, but he had a free hand to run this county,” Urban said. “The manager has a lot of power, and council needs to wake up and hold the manager accountable.”

Councilman Rick Morelli, a drafter of the home rule charter, said the council’s ability to change the manager as needed illustrates the wisdom of making the manager position appointed instead of elected.

“It’s a sad time to be in this position, but that’s what this government is about. For years to come, we’re going to have more of these situations — hopefully far and few between — but it’s going to happen,” Morelli said. “The key here is making things better.”

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By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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