Luzerne County recreational grant award process criticized

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | February 22nd, 2016 7:16 pm

The Luzerne County Council adopted a process last year to make its recreational grant awards more accessible to outside entities, but some are blasting the new process.

The new process invited outside entities to apply for the grants, which are funded with a portion of the county’s annual natural-gas recreation funding, to address concerns only some were aware of the opportunity.

A five-person review committee of two council members, an employee (currently the council clerk) and two county Recreational Facilities Advisory Board members evaluated the applications and recommended projects to the full council, which has final approval.

But Councilwoman Kathy Dobash and several others questioned the fairness of the new approach when the committee’s recommendations were presented earlier this month.

Dobash pointed out that Recreational Advisory members Carol Hussa and Michele Schasberger served on the committee and were actively involved in a few entities recommended for funding. Hussa also had served as campaign treasurer for Councilman Rick Williams, who also served on the committee, Dobash said.

Committee members said they abstained from recommendations if they had a conflict of interest. Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said a county assistant solicitor reviewed the committee’s actions and concluded there was no wrongdoing.

McClosky Houck also stressed Williams and Councilman Harry Haas did not seek appointment to the committee.

The council chairwoman said she asked Williams and Haas to serve because she received no response to several requests urging all 11 council members to volunteer. The committee spent hours vetting the applications, she said.

Haas has said he thoughtfully evaluated the applications and pointed out that he and some council members are completing an “inordinate amount” of the work while others “run their mouths.”

McClosky Houck said she supports the new process because more entities are applying and receiving funding than in prior years, but she noted her colleagues are free to propose amendments if they have suggested improvements.

The matter is not set for discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting.

The council had $65,000 available and received 19 requests seeking a combined $125,000. The committee recommended funding for seven nonprofits and three municipalities.

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.

Citizen Brian Shiner, who regularly attends county meetings, said he does not sense the committee acted in a self-serving manner but believes the recommendation process should be revamped, possibly requiring all council members to participate if necessary.

“You have to go out of your way in our county to make sure you don’t show any appearance of impropriety, and it’s worth any extra trip around the block if that’s what’s necessary,” Shiner said.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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