Luzerne Council won’t place home rule study question on ballot

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | February 9th, 2016 10:57 pm

A Luzerne County Council majority rejected a proposal asking voters if they want to study a possible change in the home rule government structure.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash had proposed placing the question on the November ballot, saying changes are warranted and should be developed by an elected government study commission.

Only three other council members agreed with her stance at Tuesday’s meeting: Edward Brominski, Eileen Sorokas and Stephen A. Urban.

The remaining seven raised concerns about the timing and instead supported a plan for council’s strategic initiatives committee to consider home rule revisions that eventually could be put before voters.

Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he wants to discuss home rule “refinements” but believes the main focus should be on filling the manager position vacated by Robert Lawton’s departure at the end of 2015.

The citizen committee searching for the next top manager had urged the council to reject the ordinance, saying the timing may discourage some from applying.

Councilman Harry Haas said it takes time to undo problems created over decades.

The county’s customized home rule structure, implemented in January 2012, replaced a system in effect more than 150 years, putting 11 elected council members and an appointed manager in charge of decisions previously made by the three commissioners and several elected row officers.

Brominski said he is not trying to get rid of home rule but believes the current structure must be “polished up.” Dobash stressed she is not advocating a return to the old system.

However, assistant Solicitor Shannon Crake advised the council that an elected government study commission would have free rein to recommend returning to the prior government system, keeping home rule as is or altering the home rule structure.

Urban, a prior county commissioner, challenged claims that home rule is better and rattled off reasons, including the council’s inability to review job applications to verify the administration is hiring “the best” workers with no politics or favoritism.

He predicted people who want changes will end up obtaining signatures to get a question on the ballot.

In other business, county Correctional Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt made a surprise announcement around 10:30 p.m. that he has submitted his resignation, effective March 4, to accept another position outside the county.

Nesbitt was hired in May 2013 and is among eight division heads under home rule. The operational services division head also has been vacant since Tanis Manseau abruptly left the position in October.

The council also voted Tuesday to appoint Hazleton area attorney Christopher B. Slusser to fill a vacancy on the five-person manager search committee.

The council members also spent more than an hour heavily debating a proposed list of entities to receive a combined $65,000 of the county’s natural-gas recreation funding for 2016.

The council had invited municipalities and nonprofits to submit applications in November and received 19 requests seeking a combined $125,000.

A five-person review committee of two council members, the council clerk and two county Recreational Facilities Advisory Board members evaluated the applications in December and recommended funding for seven nonprofits and three municipalities.

Dobash, Urban, Sorokas and Brominski criticized the selection process, saying the two Recreational Facilities Advisory Board members were affiliated with some of the organizations recommended to receive funding. A board representative said members abstained from recommendations if they had a conflict of interest.

Haas said he invested time thoughtfully evaluating the application reviews and pointed out that he and some council members are completing an “inordinate amount” of the work while others “run their mouths.”

A council majority ended up reducing some allocations by $9,000, which means other unsuccessful applicants may be awarded money at a future council meeting.

The final list of approved payments and the projects they will help fund:

• Anthracite Scenic Trails Association, $ 2,500 to complete survey and title work for a proposed new trail connecting the Back Mountain Trail in Luzerne to the Wyoming Valley Levee trail system along the Susquehanna River in Edwardsville.

• Butler Township, $10,000 to add a new access road, parking area, trails and two softball fields at Freedom Park.

• Courtdale, $2,579 to replace old spring animal rides at the Courtdale Playground.

• Earth Conservancy, $4,646 to construct a public trail and educational kiosks at the site of a large holding pond of orange water that is part of the Askam Borehole Acid Mine Drainage Treatment System off Route 29, which keeps pollutants from underground mine drainage out of Nanticoke Creek.

• Eckley Miners’ Village/Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation, $2,725 to add interpretive signs at the former coal mining patch town in Foster Township.

• Greater Hazleton Rails to Trails, $8,330 to add piping to prevent trail washouts in the area of Dreck Creek during periods of heavy rain.

• Luzerne County Transportation Authority, $4,000 to advertise and promote its summer bus route to Frances Slocum State Park in Kingston Township.

• Riverfront Parks Committee, $9,000 to help the volunteer committee continue to provide free, family-friendly community activities along the Susquehanna River.

• White Haven, $ 7,500 to replace outdated, unsafe playground equipment at Hemlock Park.

• Wilkes-Barre Family YMCA-Live Well Luzerne, $4,500 to create a new map highlighting 2016 Keystone Active Zone Passport program stops and other free outdoor recreation sites throughout the county to encourage exercise and exploration.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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